Albert Schweitzer and the Hippos
4 and 6th Form
Albert Schweitzer and the Hippos
Albert Schweitzer, who lived from 1875-1965, has been said by some to be one of the greatest Christians of all times. His work was characterised by a profound respect for nature and he both explored his beliefs theoretically and put them to practical use. They continue to be deeply relevant in view of a growing need for environmental and humanitarian awareness.
If possible, prepare an OHT with a portrait of Albert Schweitzer. There is a variety of
photos available on the many web sites devoted to him. Good examples of sites which provide
pictures and concise biographies include:
Albert Schweitzer's autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought is difficult to get hold of today, but extracts can be found on web sites such as those mentioned above.
Albert Schweitzer is not a name we hear very much these days, but at one time he was as famous and popular as Bob Geldorf. This great man gave up a potentially brilliant career to found and run a hospital at Lambarene in equitorial Africa. Throughout the many years of his work there he, his wife and his staff, worked - often in desperately difficult conditions - to help anyone who was suffering, and particularly those with leprosy.
As well as this practical response to suffering, Albert Schweitzer thought about what was going on around him. After a hard day's work he would continue (usually late at night) to write books on philosophy, theology and the music of Bach.
In his biography, he tells us that he had been grappling for a long time with questions concerning the fundamental nature of civilisation and ethics. He had been struggling to find some universal basis for an understanding of these things that would meet the needs and questions of the modern world - which in his case was the war-torn world of 1915. He had many, many thoughts, but could not break through to that crucial principle that would make them fit together. He said that he felt as though he was 'leaning with all his might against an iron door which would not yield.'
Then one day, out of the blue, the answer came to him. It was the dry season and he was sitting on the deck of a barge. As the barge searched for its way amongst the sandbanks, Albert Schweitzer was searching for what he called 'the elementary and universal concept of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy'. He had covered sheet after sheet writing disconnected sentences, trying to make himself concentrate. Then, suddenly, everything slotted into place. As he puts it in his autobiography (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 13):
"Later on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase 'Reverence for Life'. The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea [that I was looking for]."
Once more, our friends the hippos are there: part of the scene that triggered an insight in Albert Schweitzer that was to be at the heart of much of his later thinking. An insight whose implications we are still working out today in our thinking about the environment. Nearly a hundred years on we are still only beginning to see what we have to do to take seriously what Schweitzer glimpsed there among the hippos:
"A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as much as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help."
Now it is, admittedly, unlikely that you and I are going to come across many hippos to inspire us, challenge us or put us in perspective. But it doesn't have to be hippos, as long as we are alert to the fact that there is more to be know, more to be understood, more to stop us in our tracks and make us see. A spider's web, the night sky, music, a smile, a view from a mountain, or the ruins of an ancient temple. The world can be full of things that might be appreciated more than we usually realise or admit.
And once we are aware of this, it becomes more difficult to ignore the things which we are already aware of but don't always respect - as shown in thoughtless destruction of, for example, animals, birds and the wider environment.
Albert Schweitzer, and the hippos, lead us to a situation where we can understand more than we have ever understood before. They challenge us: can we respond to that understanding?
This prayer for animals was written by Albert Schweitzer himself:
'Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that will be put to death.
We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity, and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.'
Albert Schweitzer was a fine musician who played the organ and was an authority on the music of J.S. Bach. The Bach Prelude and Fugue in E minor for organ is an accessible piece and could be played here.