Brief Vita Areas of Expertise Opening Page
excerpt from: Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)
by Dan McBrayer
Albert Schweitzer was a young intellectual teaching at the University of Strassburg and pastoring a church when he read, by chance, an article about the need for medical missionaries in Africa. The article would change his life. Although Schweitzer already had earned advanced degrees in philosophy, theology, and music, the article motivated him to enroll in medical school. Upon completion of his medical degree, at age thirty-eight, he embarked on a fifty-year career of service to the poor in Africa. The life and work of Schweitzer have become universal symbols of altruism, self-sacrifice, and dedication. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, Dr. Schweitzer was one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century.
“It is not out of goodness towards others that I am gentle, peace loving, long suffering and friendly, but because by being so I ultimately sustain my deepest self.”
Key Themes in Schweitzer’s Life
A risk taker with a big heart, an exceptional intellect, and diverse interests, Albert Schweitzer spent his life in service to others, in pursuit of truth, and attempting to make the world a better place. Schweitzer’s life was characterized by four broad themes:
1) A struggle with the morality of wealth
2) Leadership by example
3) A mystical, accepting reverence for life
4) A fierce belief in remaining loyal to one’s true self in the face of mounting pressure to conform.
Early Life Influences
Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Germany. His father was a pastor and a teacher and his mother was the daughter of a pastor. Schweitzer did not have an atypical childhood, though he credited several events as “critical” in shaping who he would become. As a small boy, and the parson’s son, he never felt totally accepted by the other village boys because they saw him as “better off.” He struggled with his aristocratic image and even rejected nicer clothing so he would better fit in with the other school boys.
Schweitzer refused to hunt and fish. Although he was often heckled for his sensitivity, he prayed daily that God would protect all creatures,. He never could escape the idea that the level of wealth enjoyed by his privileged peers in Europe was at the expense of the suffering of the disenfranchised in other parts of the world.
By the time he was eleven, Schweitzer’s lifelong passion for reading had been ignited. Schweitzer’s boundless love of books was evident in his reading binges, times when he would stay up all night reading and re-reading books. In addition to reading, he played the piano daily. He began playing the organ in church at age nine, and by age sixteen he was playing the organ for concert recitals. As a pianist, Schweitzer was highly regarded, renowned for his interpretations and arrangements of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Schweitzer’s father was the pastor of a Protestant church that also served as the Catholic church. As a child he thought it was “beautiful” that in his village Protestants and Catholics shared the same building and he developed an interest, understanding, and tolerance for a variety of religious beliefs. In his life, Schweitzer took vows as a pastor, became a professor of religion, and blossomed into a prolific, often controversial writer. One of Schweitzer’s more controversial beliefs was with regard to religious unity, the idea that true Christianity does not abhor diverse religious beliefs, but that individuals of different faiths should work together for the common good.
If Schweitzer were alive today, he would probably be quite concerned about the financial “waste” endemic to much organized religion and would comment on the ways that money can subvert good works if put towards improper ends. Schweitzer would likely advocate that several religious groups share the same facilities, thereby freeing up “brick-and-mortar” money for more essential, humanitarian work in the community.
The Good Life
Schweitzer was moved to action when he witnessed suffering. He felt, as Jesus did, that we should not live our lives for ourselves. At age twenty-one, Schweitzer vowed to devote his life towards “direct service to humankind” beginning at age 30. During the interim nine-year period, he immersed himself in reading, working, and reflecting on the role he would play in life. Eventually, he developed the point of view that it was morally imperative to atone for the wrongs that white Christians had done to the inhabitants of underdeveloped countries. As a medical doctor, Schweitzer felt that he could better serve the underprivileged of Africa by putting the “religion of love” in practice, literally, with his own hands.
Schweitzer was influenced by the German writer, Goethe. One of his favorite phrases of Goethe’s implored, “Strive for true humanity! Become yourself a man who is true to his inner nature, a man whose deed is in tune with his character” (1965, 18). He also was inspired by “the most Christian Hindu of the century” Mohandas Gandhi whose works he read and whose career he closely followed. For Schweitzer, the “good life” meant remaining true to yourself, but also giving up worldly goods in the service of mankind.
References and Resources:
Cousins, Norman (1985). Albert Schweitzer’s Mission: Healing and Peace. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Negri, Maxine (1993, March/April). The Humanism of Albert Schweitzer. Humanist: Vol 53, Issue 2, p26.
Schweitzer, Albert (1997). Memoirs of Childhood and Youth. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Schweitzer, Albert (1933). Out of My Life and Thought: An
Autobiography. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Schweitzer, Albert (1955). The Philosophy of Civilization. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Schweitzer, Albert (1965). Reverence for Life. New York: Philosophical Library.
Schweitzer, Albert (1947). The Spiritual Life. Boston: The