SCHWEITZER, ALBERT (1875–1965), was philosopher, theologian, musicologist, and humanitarian physician. Schweitzer was born in a Lutheran parsonage in Kaysersberg, Upper Alsace, which was then in Germany. This locale, which included his childhood hometown of Günsbach, and his university city, Strassburg, later became part of France.
In 1899 Schweitzer received a doctorate in philosophy and in 1900 a doctorate in theology from Strassburg. Yet philosophy and theology could not contain all his energies, some of which he directed to music. Between 1905 and 1911 he began making intensive studies and contributions to the literature on Johann Sebastian Bach, whose organ music he also edited. Regarded by his teachers and critics as a man with sufficient talent to be world-renowned as an organ performer, he chose instead to write on the almost mystical spirituality of Bach. Schweitzer later took a zinc-lined organ with him to the damp climate of equatorial Africa and occasionally returned to his Günsbach bench and performed elsewhere in Europe to raise funds for his African ventures.
It was these African endeavors that made a world citizen out of Schweitzer and that led to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. After having shown his ability to excel in philosophy, theology, and music, Schweitzer felt a call to become a physician so that he could address human suffering. He recognized a vocation to this role after having been moved by a Strassburg statue of an African, and he chose for his work a site called Lambaréné in Gabon, in French Equatorial Africa. There he went with his wife, physician and researcher Hélène Bresslau, after he received the M.D. degree in 1913, and there he spent most of his remaining fifty years.
Schweitzer became one of the best-known figures in the world, a pioneer in a form of humanitarianism that was to know no boundaries of ideology, nation, or religion. Although the administration of his hospital clinic was often arbitrary, patriarchal, and paternalistic, and although his attitude toward African blacks was so condescending as to be regarded as racist by critics, Schweitzer gained and held credentials because of his ability to serve suffering natives. He attracted volunteers from all over the world, and for decades Lambaréné was a goal for pilgrimages. Visitors ordinarily brought back enthusiastic, almost unrestrained, reports of Schweitzer's motivation and a humane spirituality that emanated from his work and life. Lambaréné was an easy image to grasp, one that left a much bigger stamp on the religious world than did anything Schweitzer was to write or say.
Yet the physician also had much to say in philosophy and religion, and some of his writings on the New Testament found a permanent place in the canons of biblical criticism. It is clear that Schweitzer wanted to make his mark through a multivolume Kulturphilosophie (1923), which was translated as Philosophy of Civilization. He worked on its third volume for many years between surgical operations in Africa. Its first volume, with its survey of history, has had little impact and would be little read were it not for curiosity about the author.
The second volume, however, includes Schweitzer's personal religious philosophy, identified by his famous phrase "reverence for life." One day in 1915 on a boat on the Ogooué River, Schweitzer had an almost mystical revelatory experience. This led him to concentrate his disparate energies on the notion and ethos of reverence for all life. It was this passion that made the doctor well known, sometimes notorious, because he did not want to kill mosquitoes or bees or any other living things, even though they add to misery by spreading diseases. He felt that reverence for life, for which he presented little philosophical justification but toward which he assembled all his religious energies, made its own claims on humans, whose future depended upon how they regarded all life.
Schweitzer's more vivid theological work concentrated on radical studies of Jesus. Gradually his Lutheranism was transformed into a reverent attention to the "spirit of Christ," and some thought of him as a Unitarian. His Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (1930) elaborated on some of these themes, but Von Reimarus zu Wrede (1906), translated as The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910), had epochal significance. The book traces the history of biblical criticism, chiefly in Germany, through a century of liberal efforts to establish a revitalized Christianity around the figure of "the historical Jesus."
Schweitzer devastated the reputation of many predecessors by showing that their search for the historical Jesus was not sufficiently historical. There was no "historical Jesus" to be found, he said, since the biblical records left such figures irretrievable, and he showed that German scholars had usually stopped their quest short, at the point where they found a Jesus who projected their own liberal ideals. The evidence, Schweitzer said, reached instead to a Jesus who turned out to be virtually useless for such purposes. Jesus was an apocalyptic zealot who had thought that God would break into world history and usher in his Kingdom after Jesus began his ministry. When God failed to do this, Jesus by his own sufferings tried to bring on that divine action. There was no way such an eschatologically minded figure could be anything but alien to moderns.
Paradoxically, this did not mean the end of following the spirit of Christ. Schweitzer often wrote in almost mystical terms about following Jesus. In the eyes of many he successfully promoted a search for the divine will in the path of this remote and mysterious Jesus. While Schweitzer's positive theology held limited appeal, serious biblical scholarship has subsequently had to build its New Testament historical research on new foundations.
Taken together, two biographies—Schweitzer (New York, 1971), by George N. Marshall and David Poling, and Albert Schweitzer (New York, 1975), by James Brabazon—provide a comprehensive portrait of Schweitzer's eclectic talents and undertakings. Jackson Lee Ice restricts himself to a study of a single aspect of Schweitzer's career, namely, his impact on theological and historical studies of Christianity, in Schweitzer: Prophet of Radical Theology (Philadelphia, 1971), and Henry Clark probes The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Schweitzer's Philosophy of Civilization (Boston, 1962). Concise presentations of the highlights of Schweitzer's life and work abound in Albert Schweitzer: An Anthology, edited by Charles R. Joy (Boston, 1965), which reprints excerpts, organized by topic, from Schweitzer's prolific writing career, on issues ranging from "Bach's World-View" to "The Cause of the World War," and in In Albert Schweitzer's Realms, edited by A. A. Roback (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), a collection of addresses and essays presented at a symposium in his honor. The latter includes articles by Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, and Tom Dooley. Many of the themes in these works are discussed in George Seaver's substantial study, Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind, 6th ed. (New York, 1969).
Bentley, James. Albert Schweitzer: The Enigma. New York, 1992.
Berman, Edgar. In Africa with Schweitzer. Far Hills, N.J., 1986.
Meyer, Marvin W., and Kurt Bergel. Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century. Syracuse, N.Y., 2002.
Schweitzer, Albert. Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Rev. ed. New York, 1990.
Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. (1910) Baltimore, Md., 1998.
Starobeltsev, A. "Life Is Indivisible: Albert Schweitzer's Ethic of Love." Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate no. 10 (1989): 37–41.
Martin E. Marty (1987)
Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) was born in Kaysersberg, Germany (now part of France) on January 14, and became a theologian, physician, musician, and philosopher whose ethical theory argued the centrality of reverence for life. After a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Strasbourg (1899), Schweitzer received his licentiate in theology (1900), and from 1901 to 1912 held administrative posts in the Theological College of St. Thomas. In 1913, having earned an M.D. degree, he founded a hospital at Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon). As a German citizen, he became a French prisoner during World War I, but returned to Lambaréné in 1924, where he spent the remainder of his life expanding, administering, and improving the hospital. Recipient of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, Schweitzer worked during his later years in the struggle to end the proliferation and testing of nuclear weapons. He died on September 4 and was buried at Lambaréné.
From Music to Philosophy
In 1905 Schweitzer, an accomplished organist, wrote a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), and in 1906 The Quest of the Historical Jesus established him as a theological scholar. As a Christian, his faith guided his life as a physician at Lambaréné, where he unselfishly treated thousands of patients, including lepers. Although successful in diverse fields, Schweitzer considered his contributions to philosophy to be his most important achievements.
Schweitzer's philosophy of culture and ethics sought to reorient material progress toward humanity as a normative ideal. In his The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization (1923) and Civilization and Ethics (1923)—brought together in The Philosophy of Civilization (1949)—Schweitzer interpreted World War I as the sign of a deep-rooted crisis of European culture. The Enlightenment ideals of progress and rationality had decayed and lost their ability to control the trajectory of science and technology. Philosophy and religion no longer provided intellectual and spiritual guidance. Human powers had outstripped human capacities for reason.
This asymmetry between human powers and the ability to wisely constrain and channel those powers for compassionate action underpinned Schweitzer's ethics. In Civilization and Ethics, he writes:
The disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually. ... Through the discoveries which now place the forces of Nature at our disposal in such an unprecedented way, the relations to each other of individuals, of social groups, and of States have undergone a revolutionary change. ... Advances in knowledge and power work out their effects on us almost as if they were natural occurrences. ... Paradoxical as it may seem, our progress in knowledge and power makes true civilization not easier but more difficult. (pp. 86–87)
He did not conceive of his own ethical theory as completely novel, but rather as the revitalization and reformation of the ethical legacy of humanity in the twentieth century. His goal was to restore the binding character of humanity and humanitarianism as the common assets of world civilizations. Schweitzer drew not only from the Christian commandment of love but also from Asian philosophies. He held that his main principle of "devotion toward life born from reverence for life" was a plausible ethical guideline for any individual regardless of his or her culture or religion.
In contrast to the rational a priori approach of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Schweitzer grounded his ethics in the experience of life as an empirical hypothesis, and is in this sense closely related to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Reflecting upon life in this way, Schweitzer believed, would lead to the perspectives of reverence and responsibility. An experience of one's own "will to life," and the effort to avoid pain and seek pleasure, rationally compels an individual, under the auspices of a quasi-Kantian truthfulness, to acknowledge the same volition in others (see Meyer and Bergel 2002). This consciousness of being connected with other lives demands that people respect the moral rights of others, including plants and animals.
Schweitzer's ethics is contextual and situation-oriented and leads to a practical law that serves "concrete" humanity. He does not require an unbounded ethical responsibility beyond one's capability, but rather insists that it is most important to practice reverence for life within one's scope of action. He believed "abstraction is the demise of ethics" and that concrete humanity should always be promoted.
Ethics and Technology
Schweitzer was aware that life presented conflicting demands and that technological and scientific developments in modern civilization posed difficult challenges for practical responsibility. Yet he did not believe that this warranted the construction of dubious hierarchies and theoretical rankings of values that only solve problems in the abstract. His ethics does not promise a methodical and self-evident solution to difficult problems. Instead, the principle of reverence for life should be used as a general guideline for the process of critical thinking.
Schweitzer's ethics serves as a compass in the complex geography of modern problems to orient practical action toward responsibility and reverence for life. In his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought (1990), Schweitzer describes the moment when the concept of reverence for life dawned upon him as he traveled through an African jungle in September 1915. He remembers, "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, the phrase 'reverence for life.' ... Now I had found my way to the principle in which affirmation of the world and ethics are joined together!" (p. 155).
Although he did not develop a special ethics for science and technology, Schweitzer's humanitarianism and reverence for life can be easily transferred to the moral problems in this field. For instance, he argued that because nuclear technology could not be controlled, it could by the same token not be responsibly used—a position that would, of course, have to be qualified by specific situations and contexts (Schweitzer 1958). In general, Schweitzer's advice for solving ethical problems, including those presented by science and technology, was to rely on and use practical reasoning, individual responsibility, and the ideal of concrete humanity.
CLAUS GÜNZLER HANS LENK
Groos, H. (1974). Albert Schweitzer—Größe und Grenzen [Albert Schweitzer: greatness and limits]. Munich, Basel: E. Reinhardt.
Günzler, Claus. (1996). Albert Schweitzer: Einführung in sein Denken [Albert Schweitzer: introduction to his thought]. Munich: C. H. Beck.
Lenk, Hans. (2000). Albert Schweitzer: Ethik als konkrete Humanität [Albert Schweitzer: ethics as concrete humanity]. Münster, Germany: LIT.
Meyer, Marvin, and Kurt Bergel, eds. (2002). Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. Includes excerpts from Schweitzer on the concept of reverence for life, contributions from others assessing the concept, and a concluding section on its import for education.
Miller, David C., and James Pouilliard, eds. (1992). The Relevance of Albert Schweitzer at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Especially relevant to science, technology, and ethics, with chapters on nuclear arms reduction, medicine, human rights, and the environment.
Schweitzer, Albert. (1949). The Philosophy of Civilization, trans. C. T. Campion. New York: Macmillan. His major philosophical treatise, composed of The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization and Civilization and Ethics, both originally published in 1923 as Verfall und Wiederaufbau der Kultur and Kultur and Ethik.
Schweitzer, Albert. (1958). Peace or Atomic War? New York: Henry Holt. An essay divided into three parts—nuclear tests, atomic war, and negotiations—originally delivered as three broadcasts from Oslo, Norway.
Schweitzer, Albert. (1965). The Teaching of Reverence for Life, trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Begins with a basic treatment of ethics and develops Schweitzer's ethic concerning personal relations, culture, and atomic weapons.
Schweitzer, Albert. (1971–1974). Gesammelte Werke [Collected works], ed. R. Grabs. 5 vols. Munich: C.H. Beck.
Schweitzer, Albert. (1990). Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography, trans. Antje Bultmann Lemke. Rev. edition. New York: Henry Holt. Originally published in 1931.
Schweitzer, Albert. (1995–2005). Werke aus dem Nachlass [Posthumous works], ed. Richard Brüllmann, Erich Gräßer, Claus Günzler, et al. 9 vols. Munich: C.H. Beck. Includes the main philosophical work "Die Weltanschauung der Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben."
Schweitzer, Albert. (1999–2000). Kulturphilosophie III, ed. Claus Günzler and Johann Zürcher. Munich: C. H. Beck.
Steffahn, Harald. (1979). Albert Schweitzer. Reinbek, Hamburg: Rowohlt.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was an Alsatian-German religious philosopher, musicologist, and medical missionary in Africa. He was known especially for founding the Schweitzer Hospital, which provided unprecedented medical care for the natives of Lambaréné in Gabon.
Albert Schweitzer, the son of an Evangelical Lutheran minister, was born on Jan. 14, 1875, in Kaysersberg, Alsace, which was then under German rule. Albert's early life was both comfortable and happy. One Sunday morning, when he was about 8, he had an experience that helped to shape his life. At the strong urging of another lad, he reluctantly aimed his slingshot at several birds which, as he later wrote, "sang sweetly into the morning sunshine." Moved, he "made a silent vow to miss. At that moment, the sound of church bells began to mingle with the sunshine and the singing of the birds…. For me, it was a voice from heaven. I threw aside my slingshot, shooed the birds away to protect them from my friend's slingshot, and fled home."
When Albert was 10 years old, he went to live with his granduncle and grandaunt in Mulhouse so that he could attend the excellent local school. He graduated from secondary school at the age of 18. During these 8 years he learned directly from his elderly relatives the demanding ethical code and rigorous scholarly outlook of their early-1800s generation.
In 1893 Schweitzer enrolled at the University of Strasbourg, where, until 1913, he enjoyed a brilliant career as student, teacher, and administrator. His main field was theology and philosophy, and in 1899 he won a doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on Immanuel Kant.
Schweitzer also made a profound study of Nietzsche and Tolstoy, recoiling from Nietzsche's adulation of the all-conquering "superman" and being greatly attracted to Tolstoy's doctrine of love and compassion. The definitive influence, however, on Schweitzer was the life of Jesus, to whose message and messiahship he devoted years of research and reflection. His classic work The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) deals with major scholarly writings on Jesus from the 17th century onward; the volume was well received and quickly became a standard source book.
Renunciation and Dedication
Meanwhile, Schweitzer's biography of J. S. Bach, written in 1905, had also proved an immediate success. At 30 years of age Schweitzer was tall, broad-shouldered, darkly handsome, and a witty, charismatic writer, preacher, and lecturer: clearly, a bright future lay before him. However, one spring morning in 1905, he experienced a stunning religious revelation: it came to him that at some point in the years just ahead he must renounce facile success and devote himself unsparingly to the betterment of mankind's condition.
Accordingly, several years later, Schweitzer threw over his several careers as author, lecturer, and organ recitalist and plunged into the study of medicine—his aim being to go to Africa as a medical missionary. He won his medical degree in 1912. The year before, he had married Helene Bresslau, a professor's daughter who had studied nursing in order to work at his side in Africa; in 1919 the couple had a daughter, Rhena.
Establishment in Africa
In 1913 the Schweitzers journeyed to what was then French Equatorial Africa. There, after various setbacks, they founded the Albert Schweitzer Hospital at Lambaréné, on the Ogooué River, "at the edge of the primeval forest." This area now lies within the independent West African republic of Gabon. Funds were scarce and equipment primitive, but native Africans thronged to the site, and in the decades that followed, many thousands were treated.
Reverence for Life
One hot afternoon in 1915, as he sat on the deck of an ancient steamboat chugging its way up the Ogooué, Schweitzer noticed on a sandbank nearby four hippopotamuses with their young. Instantly, "the phrase Reverence for Life struck me like a flash." He had anticipated this phrase more than 3 decades earlier in his refusal to shoot his slingshot at the sweetly singing birds; now, it became the coping stone of his philosophical system and of his everyday life at the hospital.
Somewhat to Schweitzer's chagrin, the news of his lonely, heroic witness at Lambaréné spread abroad, and he became a world-famous exemplary figure. An American named Larimer Mellon, a member of the wealthy Mellon family, was one of the many whose lives were affected by Schweitzer. Inspired by Schweitzer's example, Mellon, then in his late 30s, returned to college, obtained his medical degree, and with his wife, Gwen, set up the Albert Schweitzer Hospital deep in a primitive rural area of Haiti. Many hundreds of lives were similarly changed by Schweitzer's charismatic witness.
Despite his demanding schedule at Lambaréné, Schweitzer found time to lecture in the United States in 1949, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, and published in 1957 and 1958 notable appeals to the superpowers in the name of humanity, urging them to renounce nuclear-weapons testing. He died at Lambaréné on Sept. 4, 1965; at the time, he was still working vigorously on the third volume of his monumental Philosophy of Civilization. On his death his medical associates and his daughter, Mrs. Rhena Eckert-Schweitzer, took over direction of the hospital with the aim of carrying out Schweitzer's wish that its facilities be drastically modernized.
The best introduction to Schweitzer's thought and personality is through his own engagingly written autobiographical works: At the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1922), Memoirs of Childhood and Youth (1925), and Out of My Life and Thought (1933). One of the best studies of Schweitzer is George Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind (1947). Also valuable are Norman Cousins, Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné (1960), and Henry Clark, The Philosophy of Albert Schweitzer (1964).
Lively personal and pictorial introductions to Schweitzer are Erica Anderson, Albert Schweitzer's Gift of Friendship (1964) and The Schweitzer Album: A Portrait in Words and Pictures (1965). Two general, readable studies of Schweitzer are Dr. Joseph F. Montague, The Why of Albert Schweitzer (1965), which includes a bibliography of Schweitzer's writings, and Magnus Ratter, Schweitzer—Ninety Years Wise (1964). Also consult Hermann Hagedorn, The Prophet in the Wilderness (1947; rev. ed. 1962); Erica Anderson, The World of Albert Schweitzer (1955); Robert Payne, The Three Worlds of Albert Schweitzer (1957); and Werner Picht, The Life and Thought of Albert Schweitzer (trans. 1964). □
Schweitzer, Albert, famous Alsatian theologian, philosopher, medical missionary, organist, and music scholar; b. Kaysersberg, Jan. 14, 1875; d. Lambaréné, Gabon, Sept. 4, 1965. He studied piano as a child with his father, a Lutheran pastor, then began organ studies at 8, his principal mentors being Eugen Munch in Mulhouse, Ernst Munch in Strasbourg, and Widor in Paris. He pursued training in philosophy (Ph.D., 1899) and theology (Ph.D., 1900) at the Univ. of Strasbourg; also received instruction in theory from Jacobsthal in Strasbourg and in piano from Philipp and M. Jäell in Paris. In 1896 he became organist of the Bach Concerts in Strasbourg; also joined the faculty of the Univ. there in 1902, where he also completed his full medical course (M.D., 1912); concurrently was organist of the Bach Soc. in Paris (1905–13). In 1913 he went to Lambaréné in the Gabon province of French Equatorial Africa, and set up a jungle hospital, which subsequently occupied most of his time and energy. However, he continued to pursue his interest in music, theology, and philosophy, making occasional concert tours as an organist in Europe to raise funds for his hospital work among the African natives. In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the only professional musician to hold this prestigious award. His philosophical and theological wtitings had established his reputation as one of the foremost thinkers of his time. In the field of music he distinguished himself as the author of one of the most important books on Bach, greatly influencing the interpretation of Bach’s music, and contributing to the understanding of Bach’s symbolic treatment of various musical devices. He ed. J.S. Bach: Complete Organ Works: A Critico-practical Edition (N.Y.; vols. I-V, 1912–14, with C. Widor; vols. VI–VIII, 1954–67, with E. Nies-Berger).
Eugène Munch, 1857–1898 (Mulhouse, 1898); J.S. Bach, le musicien-poète (Paris, 1905; aug. Ger. eds., 1908, 1915; Eng. tr. by E. Newman, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1911); Deutsche und französische Orgelbaukunst und Orgelkunst (Leipzig, 1906; second ed., 1927); Aus meiner Kindheit und Jugendzeit (Bern and Munich, 1924; Eng. tr., 1924, as Memoirs of Childhood and Youth); Aus meinem Leben und Denken (Leipzig, 1931; Eng. tr., 1933); also various theological and philosophical books. A complete German ed. of his writings was ed. by R. Grabs (5 vols., Munich, 1974).
C. Campion, A. S.: Philosopher, Theologian, Musician, Doctor (N.Y., 1928); J. Regester, A. S.: The Man and His Work (N.Y., 1931); M. Ratter, A. S. (London, 1935; rev. ed., 1950); A. Roback, ed., The A. S. Jubilee Book (Cambridge, Mass., 1946); H. Hagedorn, Prophet in the Wilderness: The Story of A. S. (N.Y., 1947); O. Kraus, A. S.: His Work and His Philosophy (N.Y., 1947); G. Seaver, A. S.: The Man and His Mind (London, 1947); R. Grabs, A. S.: Weg und Werk eines Menschenfreundes (Berlin, 1953); R. Sonner, S. und die Orgelbewegung (Colmar, 1955); W. Picht, The Life and Thought of A. S. (N.Y., 1965); E. Jacobi, A. S. und die Musik (Wiesbaden, 1975); S. Hanheide, Johann Sebastian Bach im Verständis A. S.s (Munich, 1990); K. and A. Bergel, eds., A. S. and Alice Ehlers: A Friendship in Letters (Lanham, Md., 1991); H. Schützeichel, Die Konzerttätigkeit A. S.s (Bern, 1991); idem, Die Orgel im Leben und Denken A. S.s (Kleinblittersdorf, 1991); M. Murray, A. S., Musician (Aldershot, 1994).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
Schweitzer developed this perspective further in Von Reimarus zu Wrede … (1906; The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 1910), and in Geschichte der Paulinischen Forschung … (1911; Paul and his Interpreters, 1912). These works set an inescapable agenda for subsequent work on the New Testament; yet his most enduring work was Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (1930; The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle). Meanwhile a profound experience of the unity of all life, evoking reverence for life, led him to establish a mission hospital at Lambaréné in Gabon, where he based himself for the rest of his life. Although criticized for his stern paternalism, his commitment and his work for reconciliation were recognized with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.