The Arts and “Reverence for Life”

“It is indeed in…the belief in the beneficent progress of civilisation, that I venture to face you and to entreat you to strive to enter into the real meaning of the arts, which are surely the expression of reverence for nature, and the crown of nature, the life of man upon the earth.” —William Morris

The idea of “reverence for life”, famously credited to Albert Schweitzer, reverberates through the twentieth century, inspiring ethicists, philanthropists and environmentalists (Rachel Carson dedicated Silent Spring to Schweitzer). The concept came to Schweitzer as the culmination of a deep personal moral struggle in 1915, and would inform and infuse his great humanitarian career as doctor and pastor over the next 50 years—a career acknowledged in 1952 by a Nobel Peace Prize.

Albert Schweitzer

But it’s never been fully appreciated that well before Schweitzer’s epiphany—in 1880, when Schweitzer was just 5 years old—William Morris articulated the ideal in the words above (in his lecture “The Prospects Of Architecture In Civilisation”).

For our purposes here, Morris’s association of reverence for life with a right understanding of the arts is well worth our consideration. Those who question whether Morris regarded the idea in the same ethical light as did Schweitzer lack familiarity with Morris’s deeply ethical understanding of art, derived in large part from Ruskin’s abiding concern for ethics especially in relation to the arts. Schweitzer’s framing of the idea is entirely abstract, in his statement, for example, that “The only possible way out of chaos is for us to adopt a concept of the world based on the ideal [reverence for life] of true civilization,” while Morris’s framing is grounded in our daily work, our material collaboration with each other, and in our engagement with nature through reverential use and sympathy with her beauty and materials. For Morris, the matter is framed in terms of our moral duty “to help in the work of creation.” Thus his understanding of civilization reconciles man-made creation and natural creation; Schweitzer’s abstract understanding, on the other hand, fails to even approach the material aspect of civilization, except perhaps in terms of its negative environmental impact.

Those unfamiliar with Morris as an ethicist, early and passionate environmentalist, or who misunderstand and even dismiss him as an artist for being essentially driven by a derivative and nostalgic medievalism, might revel in this stirring conclusion to the same lecture quoted above (and reinforcing the “reverence for life” message):

..[I]n all I have been saying, what I have been really urging on you is this–Reverence for the life of Man upon the Earth: let the past be past, every whit of it that is not still living in us: let the dead bury their dead, but let us turn to the living, and with boundless courage and what hope we may, refuse to let the Earth be joyless in the days to come.

While Albert Schweitzer’s contribution deserves every bit of recognition and praise it’s gotten, William Morris’s framing of the ideal of “reverence for life” pre-dates Schweitzer’s, helps us understand the positive engagement we may have with nature through our work—and certainly deserves greater recognition and appreciation than it’s received.

Read more on re-framing the place of art, here.