Saturday, January 14, 2017

Great Thinkers, Great Thoughts: Albert Schweitzer

Born on January 14, 1875 in a country village in Alsace (then part of Germany; later part of France), Albert Schweitzer was the son of a Lutheran pastor. A little-known fact is that Jean Paul Sartre was Schweitzer's cousin. Because of the difference in their ages, Sartre referred to him always as "Uncle Al."
Albert Schweitzer

From an early age he showed a passion and talent for playing the organ, and was accepted as a pupil by some of Europe's finest professionals. He later went on to become the world's leading expert on organ building. In 1893, Albert Schweitzer began his studies at the University of Strasbourg, receiving a Doctorate in Philosophy in 1899; his studies also took him to the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin. Later that year he was appointed to the pastoral staff of St. Nicholai's Church in Strasbourg. In 1900, he obtained an advanced degree in theology, and within the next two years was appointed principal of St. Thomas College in Strasbourg, Curate at St. Nicholai, and to the faculty in both theology and philosophy at University of Strasbourg. Along the way, Dr. Schweitzer published several books on theology, including the most famous, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, as well as books on Kant, perhaps the definitive biography of Bach, books on organ building, and others. 
Helene Bresslau Schweitzer

Schweitzer had always felt a strong yearning towards direct service to humanity. In 1904, he came by chance upon an article in the Paris Missionary Society's publication indicating their urgent need for physicians in the French colony of Gabon. Despite all the resistance and protestations he encountered, in January 1905, at the age of 30, Albert Schweitzer began his studies in medicine, receiving his degree with a specialization in tropical medicine and surgery at the age of 38. What he had not anticipated was that, even though Dr. Schweitzer had rearranged his life to meet the most urgent need expressed by The Paris Missionary Society, they turned him down! On the basis of his theological views, Albert Schweitzer, minister and now physician, was rejected by the Society on the grounds that "it would only intensify their problem by encouraging intellectuals and freethinkers who could only disrupt the mission enterprise and confuse the natives with their theological improvisations... They were not about to sponsor Schweitzer and open the floodgates to other liberals and radicals." Today, we would characterize the Paris Missionary's view of Albert Schweitzer as a person who was "politically incorrect!" 

Yet, as Marshall and Poling have characterized it, he was learning that controversy could not destroy him. Delay him, yes, but not defeat him... He would return to the Paris Missionary Society not as a beggar soliciting support but as a self-sufficient doctor offering his professional services. They, not he, as he saw it, would have a chance to redeem themselves; there would be another confrontation with the Society. Helene Bresslau, by now Dr. Schweitzer's wife and a trained nurse, "eagerly joined her husband in a program of fund-raising to supply a hospital and underwrite the expenses for its first two years. They compiled lists of friends who might help... And if they could successfully raise the money, they could tell the Society that it would cost them nothing... Their list of names expanded... For eight years he had studied and prepared for his journey. He had resigned from his academic posts, canceled long-term concert and lecture contracts and was totally dependent on a small band of friends for help. Only their love, support and encouragement made it possible for him to go forward... 'Thus,' he later wrote, 'on the understanding that I would avoid everything that could cause offense to the missionaries and their converts in their belief, my offer was accepted with the result that one member of the Committee sent his resignation.'"

In March 1913, Dr. and Mrs. Schweitzer left for Africa to build the hospital at Lambaréné in the French Congo, now Gabon. They began their health care delivery in a chicken coop, and gradually added new buildings, so the hospital now treats thousands of patients.

The rest of Schweitzer's life experiences and history have literally filled many volumes. One year after their arrival at Lambaréné, World War I broke out. Because of their German citizenship, the Schweitzers were enemy aliens in the French colony. From the first prisoner of war camp in the Pyrenees, they were taken to a camp in St. Remy. Here, Schweitzer had odd feelings of déjà vu, feeling as though he knew the room from some past experience. He could not lay his finger upon his strange sense of acquaintance and intimacy with the room, and began to wonder if he was losing his mind... Then awoke one night, the mystery solved: a Van Gogh picture glowed in his mind's eye... he remembered the Van Gogh drawing of which he had vaguely been thinking and recalled that the tortured artist had once been confined for a mental breakdown in the south of France. Upon inquiry in the morning, he learned that the building had previously served as a mental institution and was indeed the very same building where Van Gogh had spent four miserable, hopeless months before his suicide.

In 1918, Albert and Helen returned to Alsace, where their daughter Rhena was born on January 14, 1919. In 1920, he was invited to give a lecture in Sweden and there he described how, while being rowed up the Ogowe River from Lambaréné, his search for an expression of his philosophy was answered: There flashed upon my mind the phrase Reverence for Life." "Man's ethics must not end with man, but should extend to the universe. He must regain the consciousness of the great chain of life from which he cannot be separated. He must understand that all creation has its value... Life should only be negated when it is for a higher value and purpose -  not merely in selfish or thoughtless actions. What then results for man is not only a deepening of relationships, but a widening of relationships. 
But when he returned to Africa in 1924, Helene Bresslau Schweitzer and Rhena stayed behind in Europe. Helene, to her sorrow, was not well enough to accompany her husband. However, they corresponded frequently. Rhena saw little of her father during her childhood, but when her own children were grown, Rhena acquired technical lab skills and left for Africa to serve with her father. Dr. Schweitzer asked her to take over the role of Administrator of the hospital after his death, and when he passed away at the age of 90, Rhena did fill that role for many years. Subsequently she married an American doctor volunteering at the hospital, Dr. David Miller, and lived with him in rural Georgia until his death in 1997. She remains active in and devoted to the interests of her father, and, among other projects, prepared for publication the numerous letters exchanged by her parents during the ten years prior to their marriage in 1912.

Dr. Schweitzer's fame became increasingly widespread over the years, and many journalists and other curious people flocked to Lambaréné to see him in action. But even -- perhaps especially -- here his ingenious individuality asserted itself. Dr. Schweitzer was frequently known to say that "everyone must find his own Lambaréné." He formulated what he lived in the words, "My life is my argument." In 1953, at the age of 78, Dr. Schweitzer was honored for his humanitarian work with the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 1952. After he received the prize, although all his life he had avoided becoming engaged in politics, Dr. Schweitzer was profoundly disturbed by the development of nuclear weapons following the bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. Thus, with the urging of many friends, he studied the issue and in 1957 he issued a worldwide public appeal, A Declaration of Conscience. Schweitzer published this with two subsequent appeals in 1958 in his book, Peace or Atomic War?, which remains as relevant and compelling today as it was 34 years ago, given the proliferation of nuclear weapons since that time. 

One perhaps little-known aspect of Dr. Schweitzer's personality was his sense of humor. To cite just two examples of many: Once, in the middle of a banquet in his honor, Dr. Schweitzer was being pestered to the point of harassment by a journalist who simply did not understand the philosophy of Reverence for Life and repeatedly demanded that Dr. Schweitzer elaborate it for him. Finally he said, 'Reverence for Life means all life. I am a life. I am hungry. You should respect my right to eat.' With that, he excused himself and returned to the banquet. The second example deals with a very common faux pas which it may surprise you to learn that Dr. Schweitzer was well aware of. He reported... that once he was traveling on a train in America when two girls came up to him and asked: 'Dr. Einstein, will you give us your autograph?' 'I did not want to disappoint them,' he said, 'so I signed their autograph book: Albert Einstein, by his friend Albert Schweitzer.

Physician, lover of animals, minister, scholarly theologian, environmentalist (Rachel Carson dedicated her seminal work Silent Spring to him), musician and musical scholar, anti-nuclear activist, philosopher, husband, father, friend -- these are the many facets of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Today, although in some quarters history is already painting him as a controversial figure, and several different ism's" are being attributed to him, one fact remains immutable: In the words of his friend Albert Einstein, Schweitzer "did not preach and did not warn and did not dream that his example would be an ideal and comfort to innumerable people. He simply acted out of inner necessity.

Albert Schweitzer died in Lambaréné several months after his 90th birthday the September 4. 1965.

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Quotes by Albert Schweitzer
Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.

Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory. 

The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.

Example is leadership.

Do something wonderful, people may imitate it. 

Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain and further life it is bad to damage and destroy life.

There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats. 

The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it; and so in great calamities, it sometimes happens that light and frivolous spirits recover their elasticity and presence of mind sooner than those of a loftier character. 

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.

We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness. 

Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.

Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth. 

Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly, even if they roll a few stones upon it. 

Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now - always.

Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.

Do something for somebody everyday for which you do not get paid.

Man is a clever animal who behaves like an imbecile. 

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