In 1947, Time magazine dubbed him “the greatest man in the world.” He was one of the world’s most famous organists, whose scholarly studies of Bach remain definitive today. As a theologian, he produced groundbreaking studies of the historical Jesus and the mysticism of the apostle Paul. And as a physician, he founded perhaps the most influential medical mission hospital in the world. In 1952, his philosophy of reverence for life was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize. September 4 marks the 50th anniversary of his death at age 90.
We are referring, of course, to Albert Schweitzer, the person Winston Churchill called “a genius of humanity.” And though Schweitzer’s contributions are fading fast from living memory, some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today call us to revisit his life and legacy. In an age when wealth so often seems to be worshiped, the pursuit of power seems virtually unbridled and war continues to be regarded as an inescapable fact of human life, it is more important than ever that we pause to ponder Schweitzer’s views on the purpose of life.
We are a father-son duo of a medical school faculty member and student who have used works by Schweitzer in our own studies and teaching on callings, and these experiences have shown us the transformative effect they can have on the outlooks of students, helping them gain a clearer sense of their own calling in life.
Born in 1875 in the Alsace region of what is now France, Schweitzer was the son of a Lutheran pastor. As a student, he earned doctorates in four fields, including philosophy, theology and medicine. His decision to pursue a career in medicine came relatively late, at age 30, in answer to a call for missionaries. After seven years of medical study, he and his wife Helene, who trained as a nurse in order to assist him, traveled 4,000 miles to Gabon in west-central Africa, where he founded a hospital for local people in Lambaréné. There Schweitzer lived and worked for most of the next 50 years.
Schweitzer collected huge amounts of money over his lifetime, but he did so with the intent of giving it away. When he and his wife left to found his mission hospital, their efforts were funded not by a government or philanthropic foundation, but by Schweitzer himself. The funds he generated from his many concerts and lectures over the years likewise went toward his mission. And Schweitzer donated the entirety of his Nobel Prize stipend to building a leprosarium next to his hospital. Clearly, he thought about money differently from most people.
Schweitzer did not see wealth primarily as a means to acquire more things for himself – especially not the sort of luxury goods with which some people try to prove that they are better than others. Instead, Schweitzer regarded money as a means to serve, and he devoted both the money he earned and the work that produced it to the service of others. True wealth, he believed, cannot be measured in dollars. “Those who thank God greatly are the truly wealthy,” he wrote. “Our inner happiness depends not on what we experience but on the degree of our gratitude to God, whatever the experience.”
Schweitzer also harbored deep misgivings about power, at least the kind of power that enables one person to coerce another. From his point of view, the history of European involvement in Africa had been largely one of exploitation, from the pillaging of natural resources to the capture and sale of native peoples into slavery. Far from spreading enlightenment and prosperity, Schweitzer believed Europe’s superior economic and military power had been used to sow the seeds of disease, dependency and discord. By today’s standards, even Schweitzer is not immune to criticism on these counts, having been accused of adopting an excessively paternalistic approach and failing to do more to cultivate the abilities of the people he served. He characterized his own missionary efforts not as benevolence but atonement.
Instead of pursuing power over one another, Schweitzer argued that people should strive for understanding and mutual confidence. “The only way out of today’s misery,” he wrote, “is for people to become worthy of one another’s trust.” He promoted a different kind of power, one with which people would seek not to control but to empower one another, working together to “to establish a spiritual and humane relationship with all people and living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we go to the aid of others wherever they need us.”
Schweitzer was especially alarmed by the view that hostility is an inescapable fact of life. He lived through two world wars and witnessed firsthand instances of the heartless conduct to which such conflicts give rise. Schweitzer argued that acts of cruelty are not the product of some base or evil instinct in the heart of human beings, but a reflection of deeply ingrained habits of thoughtlessness. To overcome such prejudices, he believed, it is necessary to appeal to the minds and hearts of people, who can learn new habits of thoughtfulness and love.
Schweitzer espoused a philosophy he called “reverence for life.” In one of the greatest Nobel Prize addresses ever composed, entitled “The Problem of Peace,” he argues that the technology of war has advanced far beyond the wisdom needed to restrain its use. He appeals to the consciences of all human beings to follow the words of the apostle Paul: “If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men.” To do otherwise, he holds, is a transgression not so much against the laws of men or nations as against life itself.
On each of these topics – wealth, power and war – Schweitzer aimed his appeals not at political or economic institutions but at the minds and hearts of human beings. He believed that placing faith in such organizations is a mistake, because they can express only what is in the minds of people. In his Nobel lecture he wrote:
Only when an ideal of peace is born in the minds of the peoples will the institutions set up to maintain this peace effectively fulfill the function expected of them.
Schweitzer was not entrepreneur, statesman or military commander. He was a prophet, calling people to listen to their hearts.
The hope for humanity, Schweitzer believed, lies not in laws or institutions, but in love – a profound love that must be deeply rooted in thought. In recognizing that we are offspring of one God, he argued, we can rediscover the threads that bind together all life. “Out of this,” he wrote, “develops reverence for the mystery of life. It brings us close to all beings, to the poorest and smallest as well as all the others.”
When we feel this kinship with all life, we cease to worry so much about getting and spending, commanding and controlling, and conquering and ruling, and instead devote ourselves to lives of service through love. Even now, a full 50 years after Schweitzer’s death, his words of wisdom continue to ring out in classrooms around the world.