Albert Schweitzer

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Albert Schweitzer
File:Albert Schweitzer, Etching by Arthur William Heintzelman.jpg
Albert Schweitzer, Etching by Arthur William Heintzelman

Albert Schweitzer, OM, (January 14, 1875September 4, 1965) was a German theologian, musician, philosopher, and physician. He was born in Kaysersberg, Upper-Alsace, Germany (now Haut-Rhin département, France). He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.


As a young theologian his first major work, by which he gained a great reputation, was The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), in which he interpreted the life of Jesus Christ in the light of Jesus' own eschatological convictions. He established his reputation further as a New Testament scholar by other theological studies, like The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930). In these studies he examined the eschatological beliefs of Paul and through this the message of the New Testament.


Albert Schweitzer was a famous organist in his day, and was highly interested in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He developed a simple style of performance, which he thought to be closer to what Bach had meant it to be. He based his interpretation mainly on his reassessment of Bach's religious intentions. Through the book "Johann Sebastian Bach", the final version of which he completed in 1908, he advocated this new style, which has had great influence in the way Bach's music is now being treated. Albert Schweitzer was also a famous organ constructor. Recordings of Schweitzer playing the music of Bach are available on CDs.


Schweitzer's worldview was based on his idea of Reverence for Life, which he believed to be his greatest single contribution to humankind. His view was that Western civilization was in decay because of gradually abandoning its ethical foundations - those of affirmation of life.

It was his firm conviction that the respect for life is the highest principle. In a similar kind of exaltation of life to that of Friedrich Nietzsche, a recently influential philosopher of the time, Schweitzer admittedly followed the same line as that of the Russian Leo Tolstoy. Some people in his days compared his philosophy with that of Francis of Assisi, a comparison he did not object to. In his Philosophy of Civilisation (all quotes in this section from Chapter 26 of the same book), he wrote:

True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: 'I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live'.

Life and love in his view are based on, and follow out of the same principle: respect for every manifestation of Life, and a personal, spiritual relationship towards the universe. Ethics, according to Schweitzer, consists in the compulsion to show to the will-to-live of each and every being the same reverence as one does to one's own. In circumstances where we apparently fail to satisfy this compulsion should not lead us to defeatism, since the will-to-live renews itself again and again, as an outcome of an evolutionary necessity and a phenomenon with a spiritual dimension.

However, as Schweitzer himself pointed out, it is neither impossible nor difficult to spend a life of not following it: the history of world philosophies and religions clearly shows many instances of denial of the principle of reverence for life. He points to the prevailing philosophy in the European middle ages, and the Indian Brahminic philosophy. Nevertheless, this kind of attitude lacks in genuineness.

Since we enter the world, it offers us a horrible drama: it consists in the fact that the will to live, looked as a sum of all the individual wills, is divided against itself. One existence is antagonised against another, one destroys another. Only in the thinking being has the will to live become conscious of other will to live, and desirious of solidarity with it. This solidarity, however, cannot be brought about, because human life does not escape the puzzling and horrible circumstance that it must live at the cost of other life. But as an ethical being one strives to escape whenever possible from this necessity, and to put a stop to this disunion of the Will to live, so far as it is within one's power.

Schweitzer advocated the concept of reverence for life widely throughout his entire life. The historical Enlightenment waned and corrupted itself, Schweitzer held, because it has not been well enough grounded in thought, but compulsively followed the ethical will-to live. Hence, he looked forward to a renewed and more profound Rennaisance and Enlightenment of humanity (a view he expressed in the Epilogue of his Out of My Life and Thought). Albert Schweitzer nourished hope in a humankind that is more profoundly aware of its position in the Universe. His optimism was based in "belief in truth". "The spirit generated by [conceiving of] truth is greater than the force of circumstances." He persistently emphasized the necessity to think, rather than merely acting on basis of passing impulses or by following the most widespread opinions.

Never for a moment do we lay aside our mistrust of the ideals established by society, and of the convictions which are kept by it in circulation. We always know that society is full of folly and will deceive us in the matter of humanity. [...] humanity meaning consideration for the existence and the happiness of individual human beings.

Respect for life, resulting from contemplation on one's own conscious will to live, leads the individual to live in the service of other people and of every living creature.

Schweitzer was very much respected for putting his theory into practice in his own life.

Schweitzer died in Gabon, Africa after years of serving others as a physician in Africa.

Stance on racial relations

Schweitzer considered his work as a medical missionary in Africa to be his response to Jesus' call to become "fishers of men" but also as a small recompense for the historic guilt of European colonizers: "Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they [the coloured peoples] have suffered at the hands of Europeans? . . . If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible." [On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, p. 115].

Schweitzer was sometimes accused of being paternalistic or colonialist in his attitude towards Africans. For instance, he thought Gabonese independence came too early, without adequate education or accommodation to local circumstances. Edgar Berman quotes Schweitzer speaking these lines in 1960: "No society can go from the primeval directly to an industrial state without losing the leavening that time and an agricultural period allow." [In Africa With Schweitzer, p. 139].

There is a blatantly racist quote sometimes attributed to Schweitzer to the effect that Africans are an "inferior race" and must not be treated as the equal of Whites. This quote is a fabrication; it does not appear in Schweitzer's writings and does not reflect his respect for the African people he spent sixty years working for and with.


Albert Schweitzer spent most of his life in Lambaréné in what is now Gabon, Africa. After his medical studies in 1913, he went there with his wife to establish a hospital near an already existing mission post. He treated and operated on literally thousands of people. He took care of hundreds of lepers and treated many victims of the African sleeping sickness.

In 1914 World War I began and because he was a German on French territory, Schweitzer and his wife were taken captive and temporarily confined to their house. In 1917 they were interned in Garaison, France, and in 1918 in Saint Remy de Provence. There he studied and wrote as much as possible in preparation for among others his famous book Culture and Ethics (published in 1923). In July 1918 he was a free man again, and while working as a medical assistant and assistant-pastor in Strasbourg, he was able to finish the book. In the meantime he began to speak and lecture about his ideas wherever he was invited. Not only did he want his philosophy on culture and ethics to become widely known, it also served as a means to raise money for the hospital in Lambaréné, for which he had already emptied his own pockets.

In 1924 he returned to Lambaréné, where he managed to rebuild the decayed hospital, after which he resumed his medical practices. Soon he was no longer the only medical doctor in the hospital, and whenever possible he went to Europe to lecture at universities. Gradually his opinions and concepts became acknowledged, not only in Europe, but worldwide.

Later life

From 1939-1948 he stayed in Lambaréné, unable to go back to a Europe in war. Three years after the end of World War II, in 1948, he returned for the first time to Europe and kept travelling back and forth (and once to the USA) as long as he could until his death in 1965.

From 1952 until his death he fought together with Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell against nuclear tests and bombs. In 1957 and 1958 he held four speeches over Radio Oslo which were published in Peace or Atomic War.

He died on the 4th of September, 1965 in Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).

Selected bibliography

  • The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization (1923)
  • Civilization and Ethics (1923)
  • Indian Thought and Its Development (1935)
  • The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity (publ.1967)
  • My Life and Thought (1931) (autobiography. according to the preface of the reviewed edition: Henry Holt and Company, 1991, Schweitzer personally considered to be his most important book)
  • Peace or Atomic War 1958
  • Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography by Albert Schweitzer ISBN 0801860970
  • The Quest Of The Historical Jesus; A Critical Study Of Its Progress From Reimarus To Wrede


  • 1893 - Studied Philosophy and Theology at the Universities of Strassburg, Berlin and Paris
  • 1900 - Curate of the Church of St. Nicolas in Strassburg
  • 1901 - Principal of the Theological Seminary in Strassburg
  • 1905-1913 Studied medicine and surgery
  • 1912 - Married Helene Bresslau
  • 1913 - Physician in Lambaréné, Africa
  • 1915 - Developed his ethic Reverence for life
  • 1917 - Interned in France
  • 1918 - Medical assistant and assistant-pastor in Strassburg
  • 1919 - First major speech about Reverence for life at the University of Uppsala, Sweden
  • 1919 - Birth of daughter, Rhena
  • 1924 - Return to Lambaréné as physician; frequent visits to Europe for speaking engagements
  • 1939-1948 Lambaréné
  • 1949 - Visit to the USA
  • 1948-1965 - Lambaréné and Europe.
  • 1953 - Nobel Peace Prize for the year 1952
  • 1957 - 1958 - Four speeches against nuclear armament and tests

See also

References and external links


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