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.
Young Albert's awareness of his irresistible impulse to assert power over his pet dog also caused him to suffer, and later prevented him from enjoying trained animal acts in the circus because of the necessary suffering the training entailed. Once when he and a friend were hunting and preparing to shoot at a flock of birds, Albert responded to a sudden urge and frightened the birds away so that they would be spared any suffering. This incident was important not only because he awakened to the understanding that hunting and fishing for sport were cruel and unnecessary, but because he realized the need to be free of the fear of others, to be unafraid of being laughed at by friends. He worked to overcome his desire to please others and follow their opinions. Instead, he transcended his shyness and became in fact rather argumentative, searching passionately for truth by thinking things through clearly and logically.
His independent approach to truth led him into conflicts. He had difficulties in his confirmation class because he was troubled by the literal truth of the Bible. Having his own spiritual ideas, he was unable to accept many of the dogmatic interpretations that he was taught. Schweitzer's calling was to eventually leave the realm of discussion and persuasion and to make his life his argument. His work for humanity was to become the fullest expression of his inner yearnings.
This calling came to him one beautiful spring morning as he awoke. He was 21 years old and at home with his family on vacation from the university. Reflecting on his life, he realized how ideal it was. Living in an atmosphere of love and material comfort, he had wonderful opportunities to develop himself in every way. His life was one of peace and happiness. But, as a boy he had always been bothered by the fact that his life had been blessed by such goodness while many others suffered. It upset him to know that he had better food at home than his classmates did. On one occasion, he even refused to wear a new coat that had been given to him because his friends could not afford such a fine one. By not wanting to appear privileged in front of his friends, he participated in their poverty in a quiet and humble way. Schweitzer knew that he could not accept his happiness as a matter of course. He owed something in return.
He decided that fine spring morning to continue on in his academic and musical interests until he reached the age of thirty, at which time he would dedicate his life to some form of direct service to humanity. He later explained that "whoever is spared personal pain must feel himself called to help in diminishing the pain of others."
Schweitzer began his search for the way in which he could best serve humanity by becoming involved with various organizations and social projects, including work with abandoned and neglected children, tramps and discharged prisoners, and poor families living in slums. After each of these efforts, the feeling persisted that he needed to find a way to do his work of service in a more direct, personal, and independent way, outside of organizations. He benefitted from working with these groups, however, in that he was forced to appeal for donations by going door to door. At first, he had great difficulties in doing this because of his shyness. But, he persevered and eventually overcame his fears. This experience later proved valuable when he sought support for his own humanitarian projects.
Just before his thirtieth birthday, Schweitzer read in a magazine published by the Paris Missionary Society an appeal for doctors to serve in a Congo mission. This immediately attracted him, and he soon decided to study for the degree of Doctor of Medicine so as to offer services to the Africans. He felt Africa was a particularly significant place to work because of the need to make atonement for European colonialism and the exploitation of Africa and its people.
After completing several years of strenuous and difficult studies, Schweitzer offered himself as a medical doctor to the Paris Missionary Society. But because his previous writings, especially his study of Jesus from a psychological and historical perspective, were perceived by the Society as unorthodox and heretical, his offer was rejected. He persisted, though, by convincing the members that he was offering himself only as a physician and by pledging not to preach heresy. He also agreed to be financially responsible for the maintenance of his own mission. This he was to do for many years by using the proceeds from organ recitals which he gave throughout Europe.
Many of his friends and relatives felt that he was foolish to give up his many fine possibilities as professor, minister, writer, and musician. They argued that he could actually do more for the Africans by staying in Europe, speaking about their plight and soliciting donations for their aid. But his decision to go to the African jungle was based on much deeper reasons.
Schweitzer actually had serious doubts about Christian theology, especially its historical inconsistencies. He also felt that Christianity had become too complicated and abstract. Because of these doubts, he felt that he could no longer continue in his role of minister and theologian. Instead, he needed to live the spiritual ideas about which he had been teaching and writing, to translate them into a life of renouncement. He yearned to express his life in a simple way that was consistent with what he believed to be the essential teaching of Jesus: to love.
As he was completing his studies and making plans for the African venture, Albert married Helene Bresslau, the daughter of one of his professors and herself a distinguished scholar. She went with him to found the hospital at Lambarene and worked with him as a nurse. Ill health, however, prevented Helene from staying in Africa. In spite of long periods of separation, she remained his beloved and faithful companion throughout the African work. She accompanied him by raising their daughter, Rhena, in Europe and by traveling and speaking throughout Europe and America to raise funds and gather volunteers for the hospital. Schweitzer dedicated the rest of his life to working as a doctor in Africa, although he too battled illness: bouts with malaria, yellow fever and leprosy. Except for a period during and after World War I, the hospital at Lambarene operated continuously. It was relocated once and eventually developed into a village with several buildings, some containing medical wards, including ones for patients suffering from leprosy and mental illness. Other buildings were devoted to housing the hospital staff and families and friends of the patients. The healthy members of this community were expected to work for the benefit of those who were sick.
Schweitzer designed the hospital to reflect the cultural habits of the Africans and to provide medical services in a comfortable and familiar environment. A sterile modern hospital would not have been appropriate. He became an expert in architecture, designing buildings that could withstand the harsh weather of the tropics, and he made important research contributions in tropical medicine.
In spite of his decision to devote his life to the work in Africa, Schweitzer maintained strong ties to Europe and the rest of the world. He left Africa periodically to visit his wife and daughter and to give speeches and organ recitals. He carried on an enormous correspondence with his friends and admirers from around the world, attempting to write personally whenever possible. Also, he continued to write prolifically on many subjects, including comparisons of the thinking and philosophies of Eastern and Western cultures, often expressing his grave concern for humanity's destiny.
As his work in Africa progressed, Schweitzer painfully observed the disintegration of Western culture in Europe. It was difficult for him to explain to the Africans, whose culture valued community stability and personal worth, the reasons for so much bloodshed and destruction in such an advanced civilization as Europe. He felt that spiritual decadence came about because of the destruction of the individual in an ever-increasing mass society. Western culture was no longer truly life affirming. Schweitzer's response came in his ethic Reverence for Life. In his book by this title, he writes that this philosophy is based on observation that the universe is amoral, neutral.
All thinking must renounce the attempt to explain the universe. What is glorious in it is united with what is full of horror. What is full of meaning is united with what is senseless. The spirit of the universe is at once creative and destructive—it creates while it destroys, and destroys while it creates, and therefore it remains to us a riddle. And we must inevitably resign ourselves to this.
What is significant about Schweitzer's philosophy is that it is the human being's purpose to give life meaning, to bring ethics into existence. By recognizing and understanding the universal will to live and by having an attitude of reverence for all life, humanity will have transcendent meaning to live by.
Reverence for Life is not an absolute ethic because one recognizes that some life must be sacrificed in order to preserve other life, "but never without the realization that there is a great chain of life from which we are not separate, and that in the death of any life we too suffer a loss." This attitude towards the world eliminates the separativity between ourselves and others and emphasizes the interdependence that we all share. We realize our part in humanity and how our lives are integrated into the lives of those around us and beyond.
Schweitzer understood that ethics must ultimately be practiced on a personal level. An ethical person needs to ask herself how much of her life, her possessions, her rights, her happiness, her time and her rest may she keep for herself and how much she must devote to others. Schweitzer recognized that his life was not his own to do with as he pleased. He felt obliged to offer his life in service to humanity, taking for himself only that which was absolutely necessary and nothing more.
On the material level, Schweitzer was aware of the illusion of private property. Since we really own nothing, we have the responsibility of stewards or trustees, not of possessors or owners. Our freedom lies in how we administer these trusts. And on the social level, he believed that we do not actually possess social rights in the context of ethical living. We see ourselves as debtors repaying what we owe to humanity. The happier I am, the better my life has been, the more I owe in return. Also, I do not have the right to compete against my fellows if I succeed or advance at the cost of others. There should always be an inward concern for all human destinies.
Humility is an important aspect of Schweitzer's ethics. As an example of our lack of humility, he spoke of how we often use forgiveness for self-gratification. Ordinarily, when we forgive someone, we imply a subtle humiliation of him while expecting to be commended for our supposed righteous behavior. But an attitude of humility does not allow us to forgive in that fashion because we are aware of our own imperfections—the falsehoods, hatred, and arrogance—hidden in our hearts. Pardoning others is really an illusion, according to Schweitzer, because we cannot set ourselves apart from others to pass such a judgement. He saw the struggle against evil in the world to be, to a great extent, a struggle within our own being. Instead of judging others, we need to judge and transform ourselves. Schweitzer's life was a life of renouncement. When he gave up his successful and satisfying life in Europe to work as a jungle doctor, he demonstrated the importance of transcending the desire for personal benefits and rewards. Schweitzer knew that he had a calling to serve humanity. He felt very fortunate to have found such an ideal opportunity to express in a direct and concrete way his love for the world and his compassion for those who suffer. He was deeply thankful for his vigor and health and for the kindness and care that had been given to him. He returned these blessings through a humble offering of his life.
His humble work as a doctor in the African jungle symbolizes our need to participate, to expand our love, to renounce personal benefits, and to transform and offer our lives to humanity. His deep respect for all living creatures represents the need to respond to our highest aspirations and to recognize the world and our existence as expressions of the Divine.
Albert Schweitzer's life was an expression of divine love in the world. His inner devotion was expressed in a life dedicated to serving humanity and the world. He touched those near him by his kindness and his respect for everyone and everything. He touched the rest of the world as an eternal symbol, representing our deepest yearnings and highest aspirations.
Opening quotation from Albert Schweitzer, Reverence for Life.
References and recommended readings
On the Edge of the Primeval Forest.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936.
Out of My Life and Thought.
New York: H. Holt and Company, 1949.
The Philosophy of Civilization.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.
Pilgrimage to Humanity.
New York Philosophical Library, 1961.
Reverence for Life.
New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Reprinted from Walking With Contemplation