Albert Schweitzer was a great human being whose life of offering and service to humanity has had a profound effect on the world. Throughout his lifetime, he developed his extraordinary intellectual and artistic gifts, making important contributions in philosophy, Christian theology, and music. But at the same time he was always sensitive to the suffering in the world and came to realize that his vocation was to renounce his gratifying scholarly and creative pursuits in order to more directly serve humanity.
Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Alsace, a historically disputed region between France and Germany. The son of a minister and the grandson of an organist, he showed musical talent at an early age and soon became the substitute organist at his father's church. He enjoyed his father's services very much and yearned to become a minister himself. As a boy, Albert was exposed to a unique form of cooperation where Catholics and Protestants shared the same church buildings. This instilled in him an openness and respect for all people and an understanding that all religion and philosophies share a common essence.
At the age of ten, he moved in with his godparents and entered the Gymnasium. At first he was a poor student, but he soon learned self-discipline and proper study habits and developed more confidence. He had difficulties in mathematics and languages but gave special effort to the subjects in which he had no apparent talent. His favorite subjects were the natural sciences, history, Latin, Greek, and music-especially the organ. While at the Gymnasium, Dr. Wehman, one of Albert's professors, became his model for the fulfillment of duty. Each lesson that the teacher gave was carefully and completely prepared, and Schweitzer was to carry on this example of perfection in all of his own work.
After graduation from the Gymnasium, his uncle arranged music lessons for Albert in Paris with the famous organist, Charles-Marie Widor. Schweitzer excelled under his teacher and the two cultivated a deep and long-lasting friendship.
"Much talk is heard in our times about building a new human race. How are we to build a new humanity? Only by leading men toward a true, inalienable ethic of our own. . . Reverence for life. Reverence for life comprises the whole ethic of life in its deepest and highest sense. It is the source of constant renewal for the individual and for mankind"
At the age of 18, Schweitzer became a student at Strasbourg University where he studied philosophy, theology, and music. During the next twelve years, Schweitzer lived as student, teacher, minister, and musician in Strasbourg, Paris, and Berlin. He earned doctorates in his three areas of study; the first he finished at the age of 24, writing about the religious philosophy of Kant. The second, completed when he was 26, was a study of the Synoptic Gospels. And at 30, he finished his third doctorate, writing about the music of Bach.
Along with studying and playing Bach's music, Schweitzer became an expert on organ building and restoration. One of his lifelong pursuits was to encourage the restoration of fine old church organs instead of replacing them with new organs of lower quality.
Schweitzer's variety and depth of knowledge were extraordinary as well as the intensity and devotion he had for learning. The ideas that he shared from his many fields of study were unique and of the highest quality. But, in spite of his propensity for the academic and artistic life, he was called to renounce all this in order to offer his life more directly to help alleviate the suffering in the world. This calling began at a very early age, and Schweitzer only found the way to fully respond to it after years of search.
It is clear that Schweitzer was sensitive to suffering at an early age. Several events occurred in his youth which, because of his disposition for inner reflection, his wise understanding of his own nature, and his dedication to carrying out decisions, became points of self-transformation. For example, he once saw an old horse struggling to pull a very heavy cart while being beaten mercilessly by its owners. The pain that he felt in seeing such cruelty made him realize how insensitive we are to other life forms. From then on he prayed for the protection of "everything that breathes." Later, in the development of his ethic of Reverence for Life, he understood that any ethical philosophy must include respect and love for all life.