I recently picked up a book by Albert Schweitzer. Fascinated anew, I began getting into his life a little more… Wow! What an accomplished, determined, compassionate person. A sort of late Renaissance Man in breadth of his learning and skills. He sought to be and, for many, in deed (as well as word) became a model for a universal ethic… something which could guide the building of civilization (a key concept in his time and in his scholarly work). This took something of a Christian form for him but was intended as universal.
If you are over 45 or 50, I’m confident you at least know something of him (speaking to Americans here); if 20-some or 30-some, maybe not…. The near-loss of his work and legacy in American culture is unfortunate. I presume he may be better known, even by younger people, in Europe or Africa — he lived in Europe when not in Africa. (Non-American readers, please help inform us.)
Then I got thinking about some parallels, and then checking for more, between him and the even better known Albert of the same era, Albert Einstein. Uncanny, in a way:
You might say they taught themselves to become masters. Masters of how to free the mind, how to free the spirit. They had passion to impact the world. Since I’ve just finished the book by Schweitzer, I’m going to focus mostly on him here (to be followed shortly by a review of this later-life book of his). Before I leave comparisons, I’ll highlight two of particular significance:
First, both sought ways to influence the world for peace. Einstein is reported by biographer, Ronald Clark, to have told his friend, Linus Pauling, a year before his death, that his greatest mistake was to have co-signed a letter of warning to President Roosevelt about the Nazi’s being at work on an atomic bomb, perhaps the key factor leading to our own Manhattan Project and the use of the first bomb.
Second, both Albert’s sought a grand theory. Einstein, a “theory of everything” or the “unified field theory” of physics; Schweitzer the common, most basic ethic for all cultures and humanity. He felt he had discovered it while pondering and traveling (at the key point of insight, on a river amid a herd of hippopotamuses at sunset. One is again reminded of Einstein’s insights sometimes coming amid his imaginary “thought experiments”). The by-then double-doctor (PhD, MD), Schweitzer, reports he had been pondering and writing notes, “….struggling to find the elementary and universal concept of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy…” Then, quite suddenly, “… there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase : “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben” [“Reverence for Life”]. The iron door had yielded. The path in the thicket had become visible.” (As quoted in Wikipedia, “Reverence for Life”).
The rather loosely translated phrase “Reverence for Life” became the title for his ethic and the focus of much of his later writing. Through various efforts, perhaps most noted comprising his medical work and hospital in what is now Gabon, Africa, he sought to spread this building point for civilization. For the philosophy and its concrete application he received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 77.
Among those who do know something about Schweitzer, many do not know that he only studied to become a medical doctor in his thirties after high achievements in two other fields, theology and music. He was an accomplished organist who studied and wrote about the music of Bach as well as performed it masterfully. This intertwined with his love of biblical studies and theology, the area of his first doctorate and his classic book, still frequently read and applauded, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906 in German, 1910 in English translation). His passion to be a religiously oriented philosopher-scientist continued during his medical studies, and in 1911 he completed his medical dissertation as The Psychiatric Study of Jesus. The following year, at age 37, he married Helene Bresslau, daughter of Jewish historian and professor, Harry Bresslau, who had advocated for German Nationhood which would include full assimilation of German Jews.
To understand some of Schweitzer’s priorities, we should note that his early life was spent in a disputed region (Alsace-Lorraine) that was part of the German Empire (annexed, 1871) when he was born in 1875, but it remained heavily French and was granted relative independence in 1911; returned to France in 1918. He lived also in the midst of religious conflicts of theological nature as well as “denominational”, particularly Catholic-Protestant. In addition were the ethnic and religious differences and conflicts between Gentiles and Jews.
Was it perhaps this background of early life, diversity of teachers and colleagues, along with his astounding range of talents and high intelligence which drove him to seek the most foundational common ground for humans to pursue life in peace, with mutual respect for one another?
Regardless of his source of motivation, he was driven, as described briefly above, to distill his broad learning down to statements like this, “The most immediate fact of man’s consciousness is the assertion ‘I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live’” (Out of My Life and Thought, autobiography.) One is reminded of an earlier philosopher-scientist’s most basic statement of conscious existence: “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes). I’m sure Schweitzer was quite conversant with Descartes as he was, in-depth, with the slightly later Immanuel Kant.
So there is something for almost anyone in the fascinating figure of Albert Schweitzer. (I will, next post, summarize his religious and historical contributions via a powerful, insightful sequel of sorts to his earlier “historical Jesus” work… The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity.) Several factors of his life are in near-parallel with his fellow German-born, initially German-speaking genius, Albert Einstein…. Both contributed greatly to the development of civilization and are still able to provide us much-needed guidance toward “reverence for life”!
What inspirations, motivations, questions do you have to share here?