Albert Schweitzer

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Albert Schweitzer
Albert Schweitzer
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Albert Schweitzer, Etching by Arthur William Heintzelman

Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875 - September 4, 1965) was a German theologian, musician, philosopher, and physician. He was born in Kaysersberg, Upper-Alsace, Germany (now Haut-Rhin dpartement, 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 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 same reverence as one does to one's own. The circumstance that we apparently fail in satisfying this compulsion is not to lead 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 Will to live. He points out to the prevailing philosophy in the European middle ages, and the Indian Brahminic philosophy. Nevertheless, this kind of attitude lacks in genuiness.

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 is not escaping the puzzling and horrible circumstance that he must live at the cost of other life. But as an ethical being he 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 his/her powers.

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 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 hopes 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 act on basis of passing spurs or by following the 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 one's own conscious will to live, leads the person live in service of other people and every living creature.

Schweitzer was very much respected for putting his theory in practice himself.


Albert Schweitzer spent most of his life in Lambarn 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 Lambarn, for which he had already emptied his own pockets.

In 1924 he returned to Lambarn, 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 Lambarn, 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 in Lambarn, 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


  • 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
  • 1913 - Physician in Lambarn, 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
  • 1924 - Return to Lambarn as physician; frequent visits to Europe for speaking engagements
  • 1939-1948 Lambarn
  • 1949 - Visit to the USA
  • 1948-1965 - Lambarn 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

Template:Wikiquote Template:Commons

Readings on Reverence for Life (

Bruderhof Peacemakers Guide profile on Albert Schweitzer (

de:Albert Schweitzer es:Albert Schweitzer eo:Albert SCHWEITZER fr:Albert Schweitzer it:Albert Schweitzer hu:Albert Schweitzer he:אלברט שוויצר nl:Albert Schweitzer ja:アルベルト・シュバイツァー nn:Albert Schweitzer pl:Albert Schweitzer pt:Albert Schweitzer ru:Швейцер, Альберт sk:Albert Schweitzer


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