The Struggle to Find Life's Meaning

What would you do in the midst of a herd of hippopotami? If you're Albert Schweitzer, you suddenly realize what it all means

Albert Schweitzer was a French musician, composer, theologian andmedical missionary. His medical work in Africa made a profounddifference in thousands of lives; in 1952, he was awarded the NobelPeace Prize. One week before his death, Schweitzer wrote this essaydetailing his personal quest for life's purpose.

It was the dry season in usually wet equatorial Africa and slowly we crept upstream, laboriously feeling for the channels between the sandbanks of the OgooneRiver.

Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy.Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem.

Late 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: ethics is nothing else than reverence for life. Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principal of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.

I live my life in God, in the mysterious ethical divine personality which I cannot discover in the world, but only experience in myself as a mysterious impulse.

The idea that men should ever be favored by being free from the responsibilities of self-sacrifice as men for men is foreign to the ethic of reverence for life. It requires that we should all live as men for men. Therefore, search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.


As long ago as my student days, it struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to live such a happy life while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering.

Out of the depths of my feeling of happiness, there gradually grew up within me and understanding of the saying of Jesus that we must not treat our lives as being for ourselves alone.

While at the University of Strasburg and enjoying the happiness of being able to study, and even to produce some results in science and art, I could not help thinking of others who were denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health. Then, one brilliant summer morning during the Whitsuntide holidays, I awoke with the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it.

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Dr. Albert Schweitzer
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