Blessed are the Peacemakers: Albert Schweitzer as Exemplar

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 9, 2008 - Pages 119-142

What is a peace-maker? What is a peace-builder? What does a “peacemaker” look like? Whatever these concepts might mean to an array of individual thinkers and theologians, we can probably all agree that peace-building and peace-making are saintly activities.

For nearly two thousand years, in the Western Church tradition, the Roman Catholic Church has lifted up certain individuals and memorialized their lives with the title “Saint.” In the Roman Catholic Church there are currently more than ten thousand saints and beatified people,[1] including St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226),[2] St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582),[3] St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430),[4] and St. Bernadette of Lourdes (1844-1879).[5]

Periodically, even for non-Roman Catholics, it is spiritually edifying and fruitful to study and to reflect on the lives of these great saints.[6] Not that they intercede for us, but that they might provide an incarnational example, and a witness, for what serving God looks like in our time, in our place, and in our world.

As the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) states, “it is also taught among us that saints should be kept in remembrance so that our faith may be strengthened when we see the grace that they received and how they were sustained by faith. Moreover, their good works are to be an example for us, each of us in our own calling.”[7] Thus, saints can provide us with a concrete example—not just a vague abstract and ethereal ideal—of what serving God and humankind would look like in the real world.


An Exemplar for Our Time

Albert Schweitzer
(Photo: Nobel Peace
Prize Committee)

Such an exemplar, such a “saint,” that “should be kept in remembrance” among us is Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875–September 4, 1965). In 1947 Life magazine called Albert Schweitzer, “the greatest man in the world.”[8] Two years later TIME magazine wrote that he was “one of the most extraordinary men of modern times.”[9] TIME added, Albert Schweitzer was “one of the world's great humanitarians,” and he leaves “a life of achievement behind him which few contemporary men can equal.”[10] Winston Churchill (1874-1965) called him, “a genius of humanity.”[11] John Gunther (1901-1970) wrote that Schweitzer was, “a universal man in the sense that Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)[12] were universal men.”[13] 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) wrote of him, “nowhere have I ever found such an ideal union of goodness and passion for beauty as in Albert Schweitzer.” Einstein added, “He is the only Westerner who has had a moral effect on his generation comparable to Gandhi. As in the case of Gandhi, the extent of this effect is overwhelmingly due to the example he gave by his own life's work.”[14] Schweitzer biographers George Marshall and David Poling wrote, “He is one of the personalities of this century who has almost become a myth.”[15]

Albert Schweitzer was also held in high esteem by the academic community. From 1920 to 1959, he was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the universities of Zurich (1920); Prague (1927); Edinburgh (1929); Oxford (1932); St. Andrew (1932); Chicago (1949); Marburg (1952); Kapstadt (1953); Cambridge (1955); Münster (1959), and Tübingen (1959).[16] In addition to these, Schweitzer declined a host of additional honorary degrees.

Albert Schweitzer,” drawing by Arthur
William Heintzelman(Library of Congress) 

Despite his repeated efforts to disavow hero-worship status and to reject the saint label, during his own lifetime, many regarded Albert Schweitzer as a living saint. Sadly, today, despite being an international celebrity during his own lifetime, outside of a small loyal circle of specialists and admirers,[17] Albert Schweitzer is largely forgotten. This is unfortunate. In this postmodern era of narcissistic pop-culture,[18] the self-destructive anti-hero, and relentlessly critical and negative news,[19] there are very few genuine moral exemplars and heroes to inspire and provide role models for faith and praxis.

What is a peace-maker? What is a peace-builder? Albert Schweitzer is a man—a true saint—who provides a clear and concrete example of the meaning of these ideals.


The End of the World

In his summa as a scholar, historian, and cultural critic, Jacques Barzun wrote From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000). In this book Barzun discerns a brilliant period of creativity around the turn of the twentieth century. This was the period in which Albert Schweitzer came of age. Then came the catalyst that accelerated and intensified the tendencies leading to decadence: “The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-1918. When its sequel broke out in 1939, the earlier conflict was renamed the First World War in deference to the Second.”[20]

In the wake of the senseless slaughter in the trenches of France, and on the beaches of Gallipoli, a deep sense of absurdity, nihilism, and futility swallowed up culture in the West. According the Barzun the Zeitgeist of the age and “the root principle is ‘Expect nothing.’” In the West during this time, constructivism became destructivism. There was a cataclysmic collapse of authority and manners. There was a return to primitive elements of sensation. Anti-heroes and anti-art became the norm and standard. And, there was a rise in indifference to clear meaning accompanied by violence to the human form.[21]

Tragically, the First World War was merely the prelude to a greater slaughter. During the twentieth century, governments and rogue regimes killed an estimated 174 to as many as 430 million people.[22] In stark contrast, the same generation that produced the anti-human demonic mass murderers of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924); Joseph Stalin (1878-1953); Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976); and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) also produced Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). A man of peace and non-violence, Albert Schweitzer is the total antithesis of those who sought to remake the world via war, violent revolution, genocide, terrorism, and the killing fields.


The Remarkable Life of Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer was a complex, astonishing, and multifaceted man. Indeed, he was a true polymath. He was a provocative theologian and New Testament scholar; a gifted organist, musicologist, and a Bach scholar;[23] a philosopher; a tireless peace activist, a humanitarian; and above all, a missionary-physician who served for more than fifty years in the African jungle. Jacques Barzun called Schweitzer, “a Renaissance man of our century.”[24]

Schweitzer, born in Kaysersberg, Alsace, [then Imperial Germany, now Haut-Rhin département, France] was reared in the atmosphere of the bi-national Alsatian culture which offered the best of Franco-German civilization. Perhaps because of his background, he never allowed himself to become submerged in narrow and shallow nationalism. Kurt Bergel reminds us that “aggressive nationalism is possible only when a person possesses a national will-to-live, and has not yet become ethically aware of others.”[25]

As a theologian, armed with a Th.D., from the University of Strasbourg,[26] Schweitzer composed revolutionary books on Jesus Christ and St. Paul, including The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1901, 1913);[27] Paul and His Interpreters (1911); The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1912); and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931).[28] His encyclopedic Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, 1913) is considered by scholars to be one of the most influential works on the challenge of the historic Jesus.[29] Indeed, because Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus contains an elaborate and exhaustive survey of the findings of past historic Jesus scholars, his book has been the literal starting point for generations of serious Jesus’ quest scholars. In addition, the theologian Dr. Schweitzer was also a called and ordained Lutheran minister and a seminary professor. In this function he preached sermons and functioned effectively as pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Strasbourg[30] while also serving as principal of the Theological College of St. Thomas in Strasbourg.[31]

Fig. 1: Cruciform Life and Thought of Albert Schweitzer 



As a philosopher, in 1899, Schweitzer earned his Ph.D. at the University of Tübingen, when he published The Religious Philosophia of Kant, a scholarly treatise on the ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He went on to develop his own philosophy of ethics in The Philosophy of Civilization (1923).[32] The Philosophy of Civilization is a comprehensive historical review of ethical thought leading to Schweitzer’s own original contribution of “Reverence for Life.”  As he did with The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906, 1913),[33] his Philosophy of Civilization Schweitzer presents a comprehensive survey of ethical thinking from Socrates (c.470-333 B.C.) to Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941). With this survey, Schweitzer then argues that no thinker of the past has offered a workable system of ethics. For Schweitzer, classical Western systems of ethics are either too formal or too narrowly utilitarian. For example, with his criticism of Immanuel Kant, he states that his system of ethics is based on the narrow relationship between man and man instead of working out a broader ethical system between man and the entire creation. With this argument, we see the central position in which life has in his thinking.[34] He argued that only an ethical system founded on the universal concept of Reverence for Life could provide an effective ethical basis for the world.

A Shocking Decision

At age thirty, at the height of his fame as a scholar, musician, theologian, and philosopher, Schweitzer stunned his family and friends by announcing he would attend the University of Strasbourg to become a medical doctor with the intention of going on to serve as a medical-missionary in Africa.[35] His decision to go to Africa was the product of at least two major inspirations. First, as a young boy, Schweitzer was deeply moved by a statue of a proud and noble young African man in nearby Colmar, Alsace. The great statue, by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1914),[36] was located on the Champs de Mars. It was destroyed during the Second World War. Only the noble head remains.[37] Brabazon explains that because the Bartholdi statue “touched strong romantic cords in the boy’s nature,”[38] he visited the statue again and again.

This Bartholdi statue in Colmar fascinated the
young Albert Schweitzer.

Second, his decision was the product of religious meditation. Schweitzer had pondered the meaning of the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and its application to his times. He concluded that Dives represented opulent Europe, while Lazarus, with his open sores and suffering represented the poor and sick people of Africa. He later explained, “I wanted to be a doctor so that I might be able to work without having to talk. For years [as a pastor, preacher, and scholar] I had been giving myself [to the world] in words… this new form of activity would consist not in preaching the religion on love, but in practicing it.”[39]

Indeed, as a true son of high Classical German Liberal Protestantism,[40] he sought to live out his life of faith in an ethical and moral manner in service to others. Hence, in 1913, after his graduation, Schweitzer traveled to French Equatorial Africa with his new wife, Hélène Bresslau,[41] to build a hospital and practice medicine. There at Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa [now the Republic of Gabon], he became the hospital’s architect, builder, director, and chief medical doctor.[42] Schweitzer published his memories of his life and activities in Africa in several fascinating books, including On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1920), More from the Primeval Forest (1931), From My African Notebook (1938), and The Story of My Pelican (1952).

In 1953, for his selfless humanitarian efforts, and for his writings and teachings on Reverence for Life, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[43] In a typical Schwetizerian act, he used the $33,000 Nobel Prize cash award to build a leper colony at his hospital in Lambaréné.[44]

At this point, while he might have chosen the quiet life of retirement, Schweitzer explained, “They gave me the Peace Prize—I don’t know why. Now I feel I should do something to earn it!”[45] Thus, after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he became an advocate for world peace. Working with Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) he was an outspoken and effective opponent of nuclear testing.[46]

While serving in Africa, Schweitzer continued to write books and letters. Through his letters he maintained a network of influential friends and supporters in Europe and America. For example, over the years, he maintained an extensive correspondence with Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and many other influential leaders and intellectuals. Occasionally Schweitzer returned to Europe to perform organ concerts to raise money for his hospital. He faithfully served the people in Lambaréné for more than fifty years, until his death in 1965.


“Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben:” His Philosophy of Peace

Despite a litany of astonishing personal and professional accomplishments in four major disciplines (theology, philosophy, musicology, and medicine), Schweitzer believed that his single greatest contribution to humankind was his precept of Reverence for Life (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben).[47] The wars, systematic mass murders, and wholesale slaughter of civilians during the twentieth century are an expression of total contempt for the dignity and life of mankind as well as rebellion against God. Albert Schweitzer, far from being naïve or idealistic, challenges—indeed he demands—that we readjust our thinking to a higher and more noble way, i.e., world peace based on Reverence for Life.

In 1946, in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War, Kurt Bergel, a disciple of Albert Schweitzer, wrote, “The very things they have been taught to do in wartime will now again be considered crimes. In war life is no longer a value in itself. The soldier has been conditioned to desire the death of his enemy as much as the preservation of the life of his compatriot and ally. When the categories of friend and foe alone determine the value of life, a cynicism toward it will often become the permanent attitude of many people after the war.”[48] One of the psychic costs of war and mass murder is that it devalues human life. It not only ends the life of the victim, but it debases the soul of the victor. In the wake of the horrors of the twentieth century, what the world needs is more than a psychological readjustment, but “a general re-evaluation and reaffirmation… of basic human attitudes and philosophies.”[49]

On Total War

At this point we need what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift,”[50] away from the old Statist model of total war to a new truly humane world-view that promotes life, love, respect, and harmony among all people. Austrian Economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) wrote that while, “Statolatry owes much to the doctrines of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)[51] … one may pass over many of Hegel's inexcusable faults, for Hegel also coined the phrase ‘the futility of victory.’”[52] Indeed, as Jesus taught, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul (Matthew 16:26a)?” Ludwig von Mises explains that most historians fail to recognize the factors which replaced the “limited” war of the ancien regime,[53] which died as a result of the French Revolution (1789-1799), by the concept of total war in our age. Total war features such atrocities as the V-2 attacks on London, the fire bombing of Dresden,[54] and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[55]

Mises adds, that what “we call aggressive nationalism is that collectivist ideology which makes for modern total war. Aggressive nationalism is the necessary derivative of the policies of interventionism and national planning. While laissez faire eliminates the causes of international conflict [i.e., the principle of ‘when goods don’t cross borders, armies will’], government interference with business [regulation and Mercantilism (i.e., special privileges granted by the State to certain enterprises)] and socialism creates [injustices and] conflicts for which no peaceful solution can be found.”[56] Mises states, “Modern total war is merciless, it does not spare pregnant women or infants; it is indiscriminate killing and destroying. It does not respect the rights of neutrals. Millions are killed, enslaved, or expelled from the dwelling places in which their ancestors have lived for centuries.”[57] He concludes, “It is futile to place confidence in treaties, conferences, and such bureaucratic outfits as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Plenipotentiaries, office clerks, and experts make a poor show in fighting toxic ideologies. The spirit of conquest cannot be smothered by red tape. What is needed is a radical change in ideologies and economic policies.”[58] Indeed, “to defeat the aggressors is not enough to make peace durable. The main thing is to discard the ideology that generates war.”[59]

Enter Schweitzer

Indeed, at this point in history, Albert Schweitzer can become our teacher and guide. He can assist in helping us discard toxic ideologies, and lead us in a profound reexamination of essential ethical and spiritual fundamentals. When Albert Schweitzer was a boy of only eight, while attempting to shoot song birds with a sling shot he realized that “Thou shalt not kill/murder” (Exodus 20:13)[60] also applies to birds.[61] The rest of his full and active life, Schweitzer wrestled with ethical principles as he sought a precept that would express the essential question of life and death, and war and peace.

On Oswald Spengler

In the wake of the First World War, Oswald Spengler’s ideas were an intellectual fad in student circles. Spengler (1880-1936), an independent scholar from Munich, is best known for his book The Decline of the West: Perspectives of World History (1918). In this tome he put forth a neo-Hegelian inspired cyclical theory of the rise and decline of civilizations.[62] Spengler, anticipating National Socialist ideology, produced his Prussianism and Socialism in 1920, in which he argued for an organic version of socialism and authoritarianism.[63] He wrote extensively throughout the First World War and during the interwar period. He supported German hegemony in Europe. After reading and reflecting on Spengler’s works, Schweitzer felt that Spengler’s pessimism was “without substance.”[64] Schweitzer, like Spengler, was troubled by Europe’s apparent sickness and potential decline. Indeed, the sensitive Schweitzer had “felt it in the air” in the years prior to the First World War.[65] Partially in answer to Spengler, Schweitzer decided to someday write his own book about the problem. The result was The Philosophy of Civilization (1923). In this book Schweitzer argued that the decay of Western civilization was due to the gradual abandonment of its ethical foundation, i.e., the affirmation of life expressed in the phrase “Reverence for Life.”[66]

Origin of the Idea

In his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought (1933), Schweitzer explained how the phrase “Reverence for Life” came to him. In September 1915, on a three day journey to visit a patient on a slow moving barge on the Ogowe River, Schweitzer passed the time reflecting and searching for “an elementary and universal concept of the ethical.”[67] Prior to this, he had not yet discovered a satisfactory basic universal concept from his readings in any theology or philosophy—Eastern or Western. At sunset, as they slowly cruised past a free herd of hippopotamuses, suddenly, captivated by the splendor, joy, and wonder of the spectacle, a flash of insight entered his mind like a lightening bolt. This phrase, this powerful insight, “unforeseen and unsought,” was Reverence for Life.[68] In his obituary, The New York Times commented, “It is conceivably the only formal philosophical concept ever to spring to life amid a herd of hippopotamuses.”[69]

What then is Reverence for Life? In The Philosophy of Civilization, 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.’”[70] Similar to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “the exaltation of life,” Schweitzer argued that respect for life is the highest moral principle. Schweitzer explained that Reverence for Life, “is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live thoughtlessly and begins to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to give it true value. To affirm life is to deepen, to make more inward, and to exalt the will-to-live.”[71] He adds, “The ethic of Reverence for Life… comprehends within itself everything that can be described as life, devotion, and compassion in suffering, the sharing of joy and common endeavors."[72]

James Brabazon wrote that for Schweitzer, “everything led to life itself, everything stemmed from it. Good is what promotes and preserves life. Evil is what destroys and injures life. This is enough.”[73] Thus, Schweitzer’s cornerstone, his first principle, and his initial premise for his proposal is “the universal will-to-live which manifests itself in the world.” Man is conscious of himself as “will-to-live in the midst of will-to-live.” Hence, Reverence for Life, the foundation for all sound moral thought and action, becomes the greatest demand of ethics. Or, “ethics is in its unqualified form extended responsibility with regard to everything that has life.”[74]

Theistic Language

For Schweitzer, the ethic of Reverence for Life is identical to Jesus’ ethic communicated in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40).[75] For Schweitzer this is a perfect expression of “the ethic of love widened into universality.”[76] In experiencing the universal will-to-live he recognizes God’s creative will in the world. “Reverence for life means to be in the grasp of the infinite, inexplicable, forward-urging Will in which all Being is grounded.”[77] Thus, Schweitzer’s ethic is essentially religious.  At the same time, while Schweitzer’s thinking and language tends to be theistic and mystical, his emphasis is humanistic and concerned with the preservation and fulfillment of life here and now. As a result, his concept of the Reverence for Life is practical and firmly based in the reality of this world.[78]

The Universal and Inclusive Scope of Reverence for Life

In stark contrast to the limited role plants and animals play in René Descartes’ (1596-1650) and Immanuel Kant’s philosophies [traditional Western philosophy], Schweitzer’s sweeping concept of Reverence for Life is truly radical. According to traditional Western anthropocentric ethics, only humans have inherent worth and value. Typically, our scale of values places animal life above plant life, and human life above both. In practice this ethic, based on a hierarchy of subjective “value scales,” tends to cheapen all life and ultimately threatens humanity. Other natural objects in nature—flora and fauna—have value only because humans value them, whether intrinsically or instrumentally.

Objects have intrinsic value when they are pleasing to humans because of their aesthetic or symbolic properties. For example, we tend to value national parks, game preserves, and wilderness areas because of their beauty or entertainment value.[79] Objects have instrumental value when they are useful to humans. For example: breathable air; natural medicines found in tropical jungles; drinkable water; and rain forests because they produce oxygen. These have instrumental value because they may contribute to human health and well-being.[80]

Indeed, it is one of Schweitzer’s great achievements that his system of ethics based on Reverence for Life is the ethical treatment of plants and animals. In The Philosophy of Civilization, he teaches that “life as such is sacred.” He adds, “The ethics of Reverence for Life know nothing of a relative ethic. They make only the maintenance and promotion of life rank as good. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances they take place, they condemn as evil.”[81]

Schweitzer taught that all of life is equally sacred. No life, including plants and animals, are to be regarded as second or third class forms. Hence all life is equally valuable. This includes the majestic eagles as well as the lowly worms, the slugs and the bugs, and so-called primitive mosses and algae. Thus, Reverence for Life includes reverence for all life, not just human life! All life is an integral part of God’s wonderful creation. “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for He has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers (Psalm 24:1-2).”

Schweitzer, while holding a reverent view of all life, is also realistic. In The Philosophy of Civilization, he suggests when it may be necessary to kill nonhuman life. These are:

1) In self defense against wild animal attack,

2) As an inevitable part of legitimate activities, such as when we crush microorganisms by going for a walk, and

3) In order to save other human life, as when a physician kills dangerous microorganisms.[82]

Schweitzer was “Green,” a true environmentalist in favor of the humane and ethical treatment of animals decades before it became fashionable. In The Philosophy of Civilization, Schweitzer wrote, “Those who experiment with operations or the use of drugs upon animals, or inoculate them with diseases, so as to be able to bring help to mankind with the results gained, must never quiet any misgivings that feel with the general reflection that their cruel proceedings aim at a valuable result... [Rather than inflicting pain and suffering on helpless animals] they must take the most anxious care to mitigate as much as possible the pain inflicted.”[83]

During his lifetime Schweitzer was admired and respected for putting his theory into practice in his daily life. He became a strict vegetarian in his late eighties.[84] In addition, he was a well-known cat lover. Although left-handed, he would write with his right hand rather than disturb the cat that would often sleep on his left arm.

Bergel writes, “When life in all its forms is respected, all nations must have an equal right to live their lives.”[85] Indeed, if we start from the premise of Reverence for Life, i.e., reverence for all life, not only do we respect animals, nature, and the environment, but we must also be active participants in peacemaking and peace building, not only among nations but as individuals. Hence, “Schweitzer’s concept of Reverence for Life is absolute and limitless”[86] in its potential application in making the world a better place. Reverence for Life is an ethic that demands high moral action on all levels of human relations, endeavors, and activities.

Interfaith Foundation

One of the virtues of Albert Schweitzer’s concept of Reverence for Life is that it is truly universal, i.e., it is not based only on Western Christianity or on Deist-Enlightenment principles and assumptions. Schweitzer had a high regard for Eastern religions. He felt that his own ideas had a high degree of affinity with certain aspects of Indian and Chinese thought. This enlightened view brought Schweitzer “into frequent conflict with more orthodox Christians.”[87]

Thus, in his quest to gain a deeper understanding of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer became a student of world religions. Schweitzer examined, reflected upon, and evaluated, ancient Mediterranean religions and Asian religions. He searched the religions of the world to find an appropriate ethic that would allow for an active affirmation of life. He appreciated features of many of them, particularly ancient Stoicism, Chinese religions, and aspects of Indian religions. The result of his personal and academic search was Christianity and the Religions of the World (1923), Indian Thought and Its Development (1935),[88] and the still unpublished Chinese Thought and Its Development.[89]

Schweitzer was particularly fascinated by the Indian and Jain commitment to ahimsa, i.e., radical nonviolence or noninjury. According to ahimsa, all of God's creatures are sacred and must not be killed. Later, he would state that the concept of Reverence for Life came to him not from Goethe, or from Christianity, but when he was thinking of the Buddha. Thus, Brabazon states that “the antecedents of his great idea were worldwide.”[90]

Mike W. Martin, professor of philosophy at Chapman University, wrote, “Schweitzer’s metaphysics… shares a kinship with the world views of Spinoza, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American religions. Perhaps its greatest value lies in bridging Christian orthodoxy and naturalistic world views.”[91]

Oddly and ironically, although he lived and worked for more than fifty years in Africa, Schweitzer did not study African folk religions. Marvin Meyer writes, “I find it unfortunate that he did not pay any particular attention to the African religions around him, just as he did not learn an African language or study African music.”[92]


Other Intellectual Influences

Schweitzer’s conviction that Reverence for Life is the highest principle is similar to the kind of exaltation of life as advocated by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)[93] and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). While Tolstoy said “yes to an ethical system that included love and compassion,”[94] Nietzsche’s affirmation of life, coupled with his concept of “the transvaluation of values” helped work as a catalyst for Schweitzer’s ethical quest.  In a comparison that he did not dispute, many compared Schweitzer’s philosophy with that of Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).[95]

In the epilogue to Out of My Life and Thought Schweitzer stated that Reverence for Life is the ethic of Jesus, “the ethic of love widened into universality.” Schweitzer confesses that he himself is a philosopher caught by Jesus, “the most divine of all philosophers.” Thus, Jesus and Christian social ethics are a chief influence in Schweitzer’s weltanschauung.

When asked which modern thinkers influenced his life and philosophy, Albert Schweitzer “invariably named two thinkers, i.e., the great German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), and the selfless Hindu saint and non-violent activist Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948).”[96] 

On Goethe

Like Max Weber (1864-1920), Albert Schweitzer was steeped in the writings and thought of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.[97] Goethe has rightly been called “the universal man.”[98] Goethe was a leading figure in the Romantic Movement in Germany. He was a great Classical Liberal,[99] a cosmopolitan pan-European, a poet, a dramatist [author of Faust], a novelist, a lyricist, an artist, a critic of art, architecture, the arts and music, and a natural scientist that studied anatomy, botany, morphology, and optics.[100]

Among other accomplishments, in the 1830’s, Goethe—along with Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)—“rediscovered” the long dormant and nearly forgotten music of J.S. Bach (1685-1750).[101] Goethe, the embodiment of high European and German culture, was a champion of Weltliteratur, “World Literature.”[102] In Schweitzer’s time Goethe’s home in Weimar became the object of pilgrimages by admiring members of the German Bildungsbuergertum (educated bourgeoisie). The Weimar Republic was the popular name of the German republic established at the end of the First World War. Its constitution was adopted on July 30, 1919.[103] It was drawn up in the city of Weimar because at the time Berlin was considered to be too dangerous. Berlin was in a state of political upheaval and chaos with left wing, monarchist, and right wing revolutionary violence. The Weimar Republic gave Germany its first national experience of democracy. In 1933 Hitler and the National Socialists overthrew the Weimar Republic and repudiated the Treaty of Versailles.

The most effective way to understand Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is that he is the absolute antithesis of National Socialist ideology. As a direct repudiation and insult to the memory of Goethe and the hated Weimar Republic, the Nazis chose a hill with a grand old tree [“the Goethe oak”], a favorite picnic site of Goethe’s located eight miles north of Weimar, as the location for Buchenwald.[104] Buchenwald, translated, “beechwood forest,” was established in July 1937 and became one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious concentration camps.

Like Goethe, Albert Schweitzer’s weltanschauung was the antithesis of National Socialist ideology. Schweitzer was a humanitarian, with a Jewish wife, and a passionate advocate of freedom for all people and a champion of Reverence of Life.[105] Thus, after January 1933, Schweitzer became persona non grata to the Nazi government.[106]

In 1949, Schweitzer visited the United States for the first time. He was in America to raise funds for the hospital and to deliver the Bicentennial Goethe Oration in Aspen, Colorado.[107] In this speech Schweitzer explained, “What attracts me to [Goethe] is that he is a man of action at the same time he is a poet, a thinker, and in a certain domain a savant, and a man of research. What binds us together in the deepest depths of our being is his philosophy of nature.”[108]

In 1953, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Peace, Schweitzer said, “Humanism, in all its simplicity, is the only genuine spirituality.” With the phrase, Schweitzer was reflecting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s earlier message to humanity: “To strive for true humanity! And to become a man who is true to his inner nature, a man whose deed is in tune with his character.”[109]

On Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1949) was a major spiritual and political leader of the Indian independence movement. Although they never met, over the years Schweitzer [a prolific letter writer] corresponded with both Nehru and Gandhi. Brabazon writes, “It is pleasant to think that Gandhi and Schweitzer, who from such totally different backgrounds had reached such similar conclusions.”[110]

Gandhi was the pioneer of Satyagraha—a philosophy that is largely concerned with truth and resistance to evil through active, non-violent resistance—which led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. For example, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) often spoke of his admiration for Gandhi and his tactic of using peaceful non-violence as a catalyst for social change. Gandhi, who was “the most Christian Hindu of the century,” once stated that he found the idea of ahimsa, or nonviolence, within the Commandments of Jesus, i.e., “But I say unto you that ye resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39), and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27b-28). In both Schweitzer and Gandhi, the ethic of nonviolence and respect for life is rooted in the principle of love.


The Implications of Reverence for Life

To live one’s life with in the bounds of Albert Schweitzer’s concept of Reverence for Life means that we must be builders rather than destroyers. It means that we are to hold all life sacred to the point that we live for peace and harmony. It means being a champion of conflict resolution. It means taking the higher road, taking the narrow road, and taking the hard road. With modern weapons of mass destruction and with advanced technology it is easy to crush your enemy [“Shock and Awe”]. It is a simple thing to incinerate your foes. It takes a spiritually mature person to “turn the other cheek,” to forgive and forget, and to be a true peacemaker. Indeed, it is a hard thing to live one’s life with Reverence for Life as a foundational premise of all that we do on this earth, yet this is what God would have us do! This is the meaning of Jesus’ word that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

As we blindly stumble into the future, postmodern human beings need to reflect deeply on our recent past history of genocides, world wars, and state sponsored and ideology driven violence. Modern war is worse than just a horrible moral outrage, as Schweitzer stated in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Lecture, because of nuclear weapons, “War today means annihilation, a fact that Immanuel Kant [and other Western philosophers] did not foresee. Decisive steps must be taken to ensure peace, and decisive results obtained without delay. Only through the spirit can all this be done.”[111] For this reason, after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, Schweitzer became an outspoken advocate for a total ban on nuclear testing. He reasoned, “If a ban on nuclear testing can be put into effect, than perhaps the stage can be set for other and broader measures related to peace.”[112]

These dangerous times demand that we must sit at the feet of humanity’s great moral and ethical teachers. Albert Schweitzer is one of these teachers who call us to the higher aspects of our nature. Indeed, he is a saint for our time. His concept of the Reverence for Life is a universal concept—a trans-religious and a post-religious concept—in which all cultures and faiths can unite and accept.

Schweitzer’s philosophy of the Reverence for Life is a practical means of achieving a dynamic unity between idealism and realism. With this concept and hope we can build a world of peace and harmony. The great missionary-physician who selflessly served the people of French Equatorial Africa for more than fifty years can serve as a guide in achieving this unity.


Selected Works by Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer. The Quest of the Historical Jesus; a Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1906, 1913, 2001.

———. J. S. Bach. Translated by Ernest Newman. New York: Dover, 1966, 2 volumes, reprint of Macmillan, 1950, 1955, 1962.

———. The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1911, 1948.

———. The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus' Messiahship and Passion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1914, 1985.

———. The Philosophy of Civilization, “Part One: The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization” and “Part Two: Civilization and Ethics.” Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1923, 1987.

———. The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1931, 1998.

———. Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933, 1998.

———. Indian Thought and Its Development. Boston: Beacon Press, 1935.

———. Peace or Atomic War? New York: Henry Holt, 1958.

———. Goethe: Five Studies. Translated by Charles R. Joy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.



[1] Richard P. McBrien, editor, “Saints,” The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), pp. 1155-1156.

[2] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

[3] Rev. Hugo Hoever, Lives of the Saints (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1955, 1993).

[4] Ibid., pp. 358-359.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sean Kelly and Rosemarie Rogers, Saints Preserve Us: Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need ( New York: Random House, 1993), or, Rev. Hugo Hoever, Lives of the Saints ( New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company 1955, 1993).

[7] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, editors, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, “The Augsburg Confession, Article XXI,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 59.

[8] Life, October 6, 1947, and James Brabazon, editor, Albert Schweitzer: Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), p. 18.

[9] TIME, July 11, 1949.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Henry Clark, The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Schweitzer’s Philosophy of Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), p. 1.

[12] On August 28, 1928 Albert Schweitzer received the Goethe Prize from the City of Frankfort.

[13] John Gunther, Inside Africa (New York: Harper, 1955), p. 712.

[14] Alice Calaprice, The New Quotable Einstein (Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[15] George Marshall and David Poling, Schweitzer: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971, 2000), p. ix.

[16] Rasoul Sorkhabi, “Albert Schweitzer of Lambaréné,” World & I  (November 2005).

[17] Perhaps this is due to the shallow, secular, ahistorical, “no deposit, no return,” instant gratification driven cult of youth and our consumerist postmodernist culture.

[18] Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Free Press, 2006).

[19] Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994).

[20] Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 683.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rudolph J. Rummell, Death by Government (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1994).

[23] See Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, translated by Ernest Newman (New York : Dover, 1911, 1966). The English version, J. S. Bach, is a two-volume translation of the German text, itself an entire reworking of the first version written in French. It approaches Bach as a musician-poet and concentrates on his chorales, cantatas and Passion music. Schweitzer presents Bach as a religious mystic, as cosmic as the forces of nature. Bach, he said, was chiefly a church composer. As such, and as a Lutheran, “it is precisely to the chorale that the work of Bach owes its greatness.”

[24] Barzun, p. 388.

[25] Kurt Bergel, “Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, Marvin Meyer and Kurt Bergel, editors (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002), p. 144.

[26] Later in life Schweitzer wrote, “Strasbourg University [at the time he attended] was at the height of its reputation. Unhampered by tradition, teachers and students alike strove to realize the ideal of a modern university. There were hardly any professors of advanced age on the teaching staff. A fresh breeze of youthfulness penetrated everywhere.” [quoted by James Bentley, Albert Schweitzer: The Enigma (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 63.].”

[27] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of The Historical Jesus; A Critical Study Of Its Progress From Reimarus To Wrede (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1906, 1913, 2001).

[28] Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1931, 1998).

[29] James Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons), pp. 110-138.

[30] On July 13, 2007, I visited Kaysersberg, Alsace, France [his birthplace], the University of Strasbourg, and St. Nicholas Church in Strasbourg. The Silbermann organ played and rebuilt by Albert Schweitzer can still been seen.

[31] Marshal and Poling, p. 49.

[32] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, pp. 268-287.

[33] The original 1906 edition of The Quest for the Historical Jesus was translated into English by William Montgomery and published in 1910. A expanded second German edition was published in 1913. It contains theologically significant revisions and expansions. This revised edition, with a new English translation, did not appear until 2003.

[34] Kurt Bergel, “Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, p. 142.

[35] Marshal and Poling, p. 59, and Bentley, pp. 110-111.

[36] Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, from Colmar, is best remembered as the creator and sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.

[37] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, p. 21.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1931, 1998), p. 92.

[40] See the writings of Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), and Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), especially The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, translated by Olive Wyon (Louisville, KT: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1912, 1992).

[41] For an intimate look at their relationship see Albert Schweitzer, Héléne Bresslau, and Rhena Schweitzer Miller, Gustav Woytt and Rhena Schweitzer Miller (Editor), The Albert Schweitzer-Helene Bresslau Letters, 1902-1912, translation by Antje Bultmann Lemke and Nancy Stewart (Syracuse University Press, 2003).

[42] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, pp. 239-244.

[43] His reception speech, given in Oslo, Norway in 1953, is considered to be one the finest Nobel Prize speeches ever delivered (Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, p. 447).

[44] Marshal and Poling, p. 247.

[45] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, p. 495.

[46] Ibid., pp. 443-444.

[47] For the most comprehensive presentation of Schweitzer’s concept of the Reverence for Life see Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1923, 1987), Chapter 26, pp. 307-329.

[48] Kurt Bergel, “Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, p. 141.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[51] E.g., “The State is God,” “the Prussian State is the highest manifestation of God’s rule on earth,” and all rights come from the State, not from the Creator.

[52] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Scholar’s Edition (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1949, 1998), p. 828.

[53] In past European wars, professional soldiers, led by aristocrats, generally spared civilian populations.

[54] The fire bombing of Dresden by the Royal Air Force and by the United States Air Force between February 13 and February 15, 1945, remains one of the more controversial Allied actions of the Western European theatre of war. The raids saw 1,300 heavy bombers drop over 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices in four raids, destroying 13 square miles of the city. An estimated 24,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed in the firestorm.

[55] August 6 and 9, 1945

[56] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, pp. 819-820.

[57] Ibid., p. 828.

[58] Ibid., p. 821.

[59] Ibid., p. 828.

[60] Martin Luther, in The Small Catechism (1529) [which Albert Schweitzer, the son of a Lutheran pastor, would have memorized as a young man] writes, “This means that we should fear and live God so that we do our neighbor no bodily harm nor cause any suffering, but help and befriend our neighbor in every bodily need.”

[61] Albert Schweitzer, Memories of Childhood and Youth, trans. C.T. Campion (New York: Macmillan, 1924, 1931), pp. 40-41.

[62] I.e., “Spengler rejected linear progress,” Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West: Perspectives of World History, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918, 1962), p. vii.

[63] After 1933, due to his book, The Hour of Decision: Germany & World-Historical Evolution (1934), Spengler was ostracized by the Nazis for his pessimism about Germany and Europe’s future, and for his refusal to support Nazi ideas of racial superiority.

[64] Marshall and Poling, p. 140.

[65] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: Essential Writings, p. 121.

[66] Ibid., p. 122.

[67] Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, p. 155.

[68] Ibid.

[69] “Albert Schweitzer, 90, Dies at His Hospital,” The New York Times, September 6, 1965.

[70] Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization, p. 309.

[71] Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, p. 157.

[72] Ibid., p. 158.

[73] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: Essential Writings, p. 116.

[74] Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, p. 158.

[75] “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?  Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’   This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

[76] Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, p. 235.

[77] Bergel, “Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, p. 142.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Mike W. Martin, “Rethinking Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, p. 167.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization, p. 317.

[82] Ibid., p.316.

[83] Ibid., p.318.

[84] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, p. 463.

[85] Bergel, “Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, p. 144.

[86] Ibid., Marvin Meyer, “Introduction, “ p. xiii.

[87] Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, p. 315.

[88] Albert Schweitzer, Indian Thought and its Development, trans. Mrs. Charles E. B. Russell (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1977).

[89] Rasoul Sorkhabi, “Albert Schweitzer of Lambaréné,” World & I (November 2005).

[90] Ibid., p. 267.

[91] Mike W. Martin, “Rethinking Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, p. 168.

[92] Marvin Meyer, “Affirming Reverence for Life,” in Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century, p. 29.

[93] While he deplored his message, Schweitzer considered Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil second in the brilliance of its style only to Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible (Bentley, p. 83).

[94] Ibid.

[95] Many stories surround the life of St. Francis deal with his love for animals. One of the most famous illustrates St. Francis’ humility towards nature is recounted in The Little Flowers, a collection of legends and folk-lore that sprang up after his death. It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they hap-pened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. He ordered his companions to "wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds." Drawn by the power of his voice, the birds surrounded him, and not one of them flew away.

[96] “Schweitzer’s Struggle to Find Life’s Meaning” is an article attributed to Albert Schweitzer. According to the Editor's Note, it was written by Schweitzer with the assistance of religion writer Roland Gammon during the week before Schweitzer’s death in September, 1965. Pieces of it are familiar from Schweitzer’s other writings; it is a summary of his search for an ethical way of life. The article byline is from Lambaréné, Gabon, and is dated September 4, 1965, although it apparently was printed on September 7, 1965 in the Midland (Michigan) Daily News. <> (March 13, 2008).

[97] Mark D. Isaacs, Centennial Rumination on Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Boca Raton, FL.:, 2005), p. 48.

[98] Robin Carr, “Goethe: The Universal Man,” The Philathes Society XL/5 (October 1987): 4.

[99] Hans Hermann Hoppe, “The Politics of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,” The Ludwig von Mises Institute, December 31, 1999. <>

[100] Arnulf Zweig, “Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 3 & 4, pp. 362-364.

[101] Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, vol. I., pp. 240-241.

[102] Goethe is the originator of the concept of Weltliteratur (i.e., "world literature"), having taken great interest in the literatures of England, France, Italy, classical Greece, Persia, Arabic literature, amongst others.

[103] Stephen Turner, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Max Weber (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 133.

[104] Sabine and Harry Stein, Buchenwald: A Tour of the Memorial Site (Weimar: Weimaerdruck GmbH, 1993), p. 5. In December 2004 I toured Buchenwald and stood in silence at the stump—all that now remains—of the famous Goethe oak.

[105] See Albert Schweitzer, trans. Charles R. Joy, Goethe: Five Studies (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).

[106] Marshall and Poling, p. 196.

[107] Clark, p. 64.

[108] Albert Schweitzer, Goethe: Five Studies.

[109] Marshall and Poling, p. 195.

[110] Brabazon, p. 383.

[111] Albert Schweitzer, “The 1952 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture” (February 28, 2007). <>

[112] Brabazon, p. 457.