Albert Schweitzer was born in Alsace in 1875, a few years after this province had become part of the German Empire. He has seen Alsace reincorporated with France, overrun by the Germans during the Second World War, and then once again reunited with France. Having grown up in this border country, Schweitzer has from an early age known three languages: the dialect of Alsace, High German, and French. His upbringing has also given him a deep insight into both French and German cultures.
But Albert Schweitzer will never belong to any one nation. His whole life and all of his work are a message addressed to all men regardless of nationality or race. This is not to say that Schweitzer does not, like most of us, bear the stamp of the home and the country of his childhood and youth.
The son of a pastor, Albert Schweitzer grew up in the presbytery of the little village of Günsbach in a happy and harmonious home. He attended the village school along with the sons of the peasants. These childhood years, which he has himself described, saw the development within the boy of those attributes which were later to characterize the man. He speaks of little incidents which suddenly opened his eyes to traits which had previously lain dormant within him. He tells us, for example, of how an old Jew who occasionally passed through the village became a target for ridicule from the boys and of how he responded to their goading with only a gentle smile. That smile overpowered Albert Schweitzer, who subsequently took care to greet the old man with respect. Elsewhere he says that one day he threw one of his schoolmates at wrestling and that afterwards the boy said to him, «If I could eat broth every day the way you do, I could be strong too». Those words made a deep impression on the young Albert; from that moment he not only lost his taste for broth but also began to insist upon dressing like the peasant boys. A final instance: a boy once persuaded him to go bird hunting, but Schweitzer scared off the birds before the other had a chance to shoot.
We all no doubt have such experiences during childhood, but we often forget them in later years or merely smile when we recall them in the «wisdom of maturity». But to Albert Schweitzer they became something more. The feelings evoked by these incidents, far from fading, persisted in him and became the very basis of his later life despite all the experience and knowledge which he subsequently acquired.
After finishing at the village school, he continued his education in Münster and later in Mülhausen where he lived with his uncle and aunt. He admits that he was not a particularly promising pupil. «I was probably too much of a dreamer», he says. Only the teachers with whom he established a personal contact were able to record above-average performance. History and natural science were his favorite subjects. It was during those formative years between childhood and adolescence that he opened his eyes to the world about him and began to ask Why? He says himself: «Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen I had a compelling desire to discuss everything. The joy of seeking the truth and the purpose of things became almost an obsession with me»1 Some may say that it was the scientist in him that had awakened. Or was the urge to solve the enigma of existence perhaps already asserting itself subconsciously? During this period he also found time to cultivate and develop the great talent for music which he had shown since childhood, and to make a start on his masterly work on Johann Sebastian Bach.
The qualities dimly discernible in Albert Schweitzer as a boy stood out more clearly in early youth, qualities which were to distinguish his entire life and work: deep compassion for every living thing, and the belief that people who live happy lives owe much to those less fortunate and thus have an obligation to help them. «As far back as I can remember», he says, «the thought of all the misery in the world has been a source of pain to me.»2
Without doubt, the young man’s feeling of oneness with unhappy and destitute fellow beings, as well as his compulsion to inquire into the meaning and purpose of existence, was largely the result of innate qualities of his own. But it is no less certain that the environment in which the boy was brought up helped to strengthen them. His home, his father’s sermons, the tolerance he found in the Günsbach church, where both Catholic and Protestant services were held under the same roof, must all have influenced the sensitive, religious mind of the young boy. And the family traditions, reaching back to the time of the Enlightenment – his maternal grandfather was a well – known rationalist pastor-also left their mark. This view seems to coincide with Schweitzer’s own, for, after telling us of his insatiable curiosity, he concludes: «The spirit of the Enlightenment, inherited from my grandfather Schillinger, was rekindled in me.»3
I have dwelt so long on Albert Schweitzer’s youth because I believe that it explains all of his later life and work. Already at that time a flame burned within him, a flame which he has kept alight throughout his entire life and which has become the inspirational source for all his activity. Here is what he himself has to say: «The conviction that we must, throughout life, struggle to continue to think and to feel as we did in our youth has accompanied me as a faithful adviser. I have instinctively taken care not to become what most of us understand by the term “a man of experience”. The knowledge of life which we adults should pass on to the younger generation is: “Grow into your ideals so that life cannot rob you of them.” »4
His schooldays over, Albert Schweitzer entered upon his academic career, with its years of study and hard work. The curiosity which he had revealed so early in life had by this time swelled into an insatiable desire to seek an answer to all the questions that crowded in upon him. And if we are to know Albert Schweitzer, we must understand the profound respect and reverence in which he held truth acquired through thought and reason. He had shown this respect at an early age, and we have his own word for it that it has in no way faded over the years: «If I were to renounce any of the enthusiasm I feel for seeking truth, I should be renouncing myself.»5
His years of study were rich in work and achievement. In addition to pursuing his theological and philosophical studies, he began his work on the life of Christ and on the Gospels, and started rough outlines for his works on philosophy, culture, and ethics. At the same time, he was playing Bach, was engrossing himself in Bach’s works, and was becoming the foremost authority of his time on the composer as well as the outstanding interpreter of his music. In spite of all this activity he found time to take an interest in the construction of organs, and it is largely thanks to him that so many old organs have been saved from so-called modernization6.
But all this time, preoccupied as he was by creative work, he heard a voice within him which gave him no peace: Did he who had enjoyed such a happy childhood and youth have the right to accept all this happiness as a matter of course? The natural right to happiness, and all the suffering prevailing in the world merged into one in his mind and gave decisive direction to his future life and work. It became steadily clearer to him that anyone who enjoys many of the good things of life should in his turn repay to others no less than he has received, and that we should all share the burden of life’s suffering. These thoughts did not always return with the same intensity, but gathered slowly and inexorably. At last «they covered the whole sky», as he puts it, and led him at the age of twenty-one to the decision to devote himself to the ministry, to scholarship, and to music until he was thirty and then, after having realized his aspirations in the fields of art and learning, to help his fellowmen in a more direct manner.
We gather from what Albert Schweitzer has written about this period of his life that he had not yet formulated any precise plans. But one day in 1904, when he was twenty-nine years old, he read an appeal from the French Protestant Missionary Society in Paris asking for help for the Negroes in French Equatorial Africa. This appeal provided him with a direct answer to his question: «How can I help best?» He wanted to contribute his share to the payment of the debt which the white man owed the black, and he resolved to prepare himself for this task. To do so he had to become a doctor.
We must try to grasp the full implications of this decision: to be thirty years old, to be a well-known scholar in both theology and philosophy, to have written a book on Bach and to have become a world-renowned interpreter of Bach’s music, and then-to cut all this short! He himself explains why he wanted to go through the arduous toil of medical study first before setting to work: «I wanted to become a doctor in order to be able to work without words. For years I had used the word. My new occupation would be not to talk about the gospel of love, but to put it into practice.»7
The study of medicine claimed seven years of Schweitzer’s life, from 1905 to 1913. Of it he says:
«The pursuit of natural sciences gave me more than just the knowledge I sought. It was for me a spiritual experience. I had always felt that the so called humanities with which I had been concerned present a psychic danger because they rarely reveal self-evident truths, but often present value judgments which masquerade as truth because of the way in which they are clothed…
Now, suddenly, I stood in another world. I was now working with truths based on realities, and I was among men who took it for granted that every statement had to be supported by fact.»8
The study of medicine gave him great satisfaction; indeed it was as if he had been initiated into an entirely new world. Nevertheless, while pursuing his intensive medical studies (and paying for them by lecturing and giving organ recitals), he continued his work in philosophy and theology and during this period completed the German edition of his work on Bach, as well as his study on Bach’s preludes and fugues.
In 1913 Schweitzer finished his studies and qualified as a doctor of medicine. To obtain the money he needed to purchase equipment for his projected hospital in Africa, he pleaded with his friends and acquaintances to the point of begging. Meanwhile, the Protestant Missionary Society had expressed doubts as to his «orthodoxy», and it was only after Schweitzer had given a formal promise to confine himself to his medical work and not try to influence the faith of the Christian Negroes that the Society accepted him.
And so at long last, on Good Friday in the spring of 1913, Albert Schweitzer set out upon his journey to Lambaréné in West Africa. Lambaréné is a small village on the banks of the River Ogowé close to the equator, some 125 miles from the coast. It was here that Schweitzer began his new life, a life totally different from that of the academic world in which he had moved hitherto and one which demanded very different qualities. There, deep in the primeval forest, he began his work among backward natives who had met the white man and who had become acquainted with what European civilization brings in its wake whenever it breaks new ground: alcohol, disease, disintegration of the existing social systems; in short, all the evils which the white man first brings with him. It soon became evident that Schweitzer not only possessed great organizing ability, but also was adept in practical skills such as the building of the houses – or perhaps we should say huts – which were needed for the treatment and care of the sick.
More important still, Schweitzer understood the mentality of these primitive people. He did not appraise them with the eyes of a European and made no attempt to judge them according to our social customs and moral codes. For instance, he recognized polygamy as a natural consequence of their society and he believed that he would only make the bad worse by trying to abolish it. Nor did he adhere to the view that emphasized the educating of the Negroes in order to produce officials and scholars. He had no desire to destroy their existing social organizations and conventions unless he could replace them with something better. He understood that help had to be given in such a way that it could take effect gradually and without any sudden disruption of existing social systems. He realized that the task ahead would be a long and difficult one and that, if he was to make any headway at all, he would have to use simple methods which the natives could understand.
And so he helps them, heals them, and tries with untiring patience, day after day, year after year, to release them gradually from the powerful and pernicious grasp of superstition; all this in the hope that he will in the end perhaps succeed, after innumerable and bitter disappointments, in sowing a seed which may bring to life faith in the gospel of love. If we choose to judge his achievement in terms of success in fighting sickness and disease, then we should of course give pride of place to his work as a doctor. But let us never lose sight of the fact that the very impact of his personality and the propagation of his gospel of love will in the final instance achieve more, and will, in addition, stimulate the growth of brotherhood among races. If we read Schweitzer’s own accounts of his life in Africa, the impression we get is not at all one of a sermonizing missionary, but of a realistic man well-acquainted with every aspect of life in the jungle, and of one whose work is dictated by the need to help and to do so where the suffering is greatest.
Albert Schweitzer’s initial stay in Africa was, however, short-lived. When the First World War broke out in 1914, he was placed under surveillance as a German citizen, and in 1917 he and his wife were brought back to an internment camp in France. The leisure he enjoyed there enabled him to continue with his religious, philosophical, and cultural studies which he had in any case never entirely laid aside, even in Africa where he devoted part of his nights to them.
When Schweitzer was released from internment in 1918, he was ill, and he stayed on in Europe until 1924. Since that date he has been living in Africa, leaving only to take an occasional trip to Europe; and during the years between 1939 and 1948 he never left at all. Indeed, he is there now.
His visits to Europe have always been marked by intense activity. It seems that he has no need of rest. He has given recitals, both to offer pleasure to others and to obtain funds for the hospital at Lambaréné, which he has steadily enlarged. He has given talks on religious and cultural topics, all the while still searching for a simple definition of his philosophy, some expression of it able to give others a meaning and direction to their lives. We should never forget that Schweitzer is a man with the deepest respect for thought, and that it is through thought that he seeks to answer the questions he asks himself «If we renounce thought, we become spiritually bankrupt,» he says, «for anyone who loses faith in man’s ability to discover truth through thought drifts into skepticism.»9
Schweitzer’s faith in the power of reason and his craving for truth are unshaken and unaltered. But he has come to the conclusion that systematic, logical thought can take us to a certain point, and no further. He says: «The only progress that knowledge allows is in enabling us to describe more and more in detail the world we see and its evolution. What matters in a world-view is to grasp the meaning and purpose of everything, and that we cannot do.»10 He believes that he is the first Western thinker who has dared to admit this shattering conclusion without at the same time renouncing a philosophy and a world-view that enshrine life.
But it was many years before he was enable to crystallize this philosophy into the simple formula: Reverence for life. One day in 1915 – he was forty years old at the time – while traveling on a river in Africa, he saw the rays of the sun shimmering on the water, the tropical forest all around, and a herd of hippopotamuses basking on the banks of the river. At that moment there came to him, as if by revelation, the phrase which precisely expressed his thought: Reverence for life11. Once again, as before in youth and childhood, a simple incident opened the door for him.
«But», he says, «one cannot come to this by systematic logical reasoning and knowledge, for neither can furnish an explanation of the world and of the purpose of life». The explanation is found through what he calls elemental thought. This leads to a reverence for that ineffable thing which is life, to an affirmation of life which is more than the will to live. Schweitzer puts it this way: «I am life that wills to live in the midst of other life that wills to live.»12 There is an affirmation of life in this which leads one beyond self to a reverence for all will to live, so that everything which maintains, nourishes, and ennobles life is good and positive, and all else is evil and negative. On this thought Schweitzer builds his universal ethic, and through it he believes mankind comes into spiritual communion with the eternal. He calls this philosophy of life «ethical mysticism».
Albert Schweitzer has been called an agnostic. If an agnostic is understood to be a man who admits that we cannot find the answer to essential questions through rational thinking, then the term can justifiably be applied to him. But he takes his reasoning a step further and states that if rational thinking is carried far enough it leads to irrational mysticism.
I would prefer to put it like this: Where thought reaches its limits, there faith begins, and we are then close to religion. Schweitzer himself has expressed it in these words: «The world-view based on reverence for life is, through the religious character of its ethic of active love and through its fervor, essentially akin to that of Christianity… What Christianity needs is to be filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ, to become living, intense, a religion of love which it was meant to be. Since I myself am deeply devoted to Christianity, I seek to serve it with fidelity and truth. I hope that the thought which has resulted in this simple, ethical-religious idea – reverence for life – may help to bring Christianity and thought closer to each other.»13
This then is what Albert Schweitzer has to say to us about reverence for life, about the religion of love, and about the concept of brotherhood. Great is the number of those who have in the course of time talked to mankind about this, a greater number in the past than in the present when the concept of brotherhood is being eclipsed by so many of today’s slogans.
But even in these troubled and uncertain times men are searching for something which will allow them to believe that mankind will one day enjoy the reign of peace and goodwill.
If altruism, reverence for life, and the idea of brotherhood can become living realities in the hearts of men, we will have laid the very foundations of a lasting peace between individuals, nations, and races.
We all realize that we are still far away from this goal. It is the youth of today who will follow the path indicated by Albert Schweitzer. All through his long life he has been true to his own youth and he has shown us that a man’s life and his dream can become one. His work has made the concept of brotherhood a living one, and his words have reached and taken root in the minds of countless men.
* Mr. Jahn delivered this speech on December 10, 1953, at the award ceremony in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo . The translation is based on the Norwegian text in Les Prix Nobel en 1953, which also carries a French text. Dr. Schweitzer was unable to leave his work in Africa to attend the ceremony at which his prize (the Peace Prize for 1952, which had been reserved in that year) was given. The award was accepted on his behalf by the French ambassador, Mr. de Monicault, who read a message from Dr. Schweitzer expressing his gratitude for being thus honored, his regret at having to be absent, and his intention of visiting Oslo the following year.
4. Ibid., pp. 73, 77.
Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.