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Out of My Life and Thought

(The Autobiography of) Albert Schweitzer

ISBN: 0801860970


This is a fascinating account of the early years of one of the most interesting and heroic human beings of the 20th century.  I found the book so absorbing that I nearly read it in one sitting.  How can I possibly do justice in this brief review to a man, to a life worthy of great celebration, indeed due immense respect ?  Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Alsace, a province that during the 20th century was in upheaval as either part of France or Germany. 


Schweitzer during his high school years (Gymnasium) came under the tutelage of Wilhelm Deecke who introduced his pupil to the classics, ancient philosophy, and most importantly to the works of Schopenhauer who greatly influenced Schweitzer.


In 1893, Albert Schweitzer entered Strasbourg University and came to complete a degree in theology. During these early years he was occupied with research and writing connected to theology as well as musicology--he was also an accomplished church organist.  He published several works on Bach, and also performed at various locations in France, Germany, Spain and Holland.


Once he obtained his degree from Strasbourg he secured a position as Pastor but only held the position for a brief period.  Schweitzer's conscience was preoccupied.  A few years earlier he had come across a pamphlet published by a missionary order of French Protestants.  In the pamphlet was an article that described the misery of the Africans of the Congo.  The account he had read deeply affected Schweitzer, one of extreme poverty and of a great unmet need described in the article--non existent health care.  


As an established Pastor with a congregation, he regularly delivered sermons, but Schweitzer was a man troubled and haunted by his thoughts about Africa. In the Autobiography he confesses that within days of having read the article he had made up his mind to obtain a medical degree and go to the Congo, but only after completing his theological studies.  These years later, as a Pastor he finally formulated a plan and contacted the French order of missionaries, regarding his intent on becoming a doctor and going to the Congo, would they accept a German Protestant Pastor as their doctor there ?  The French Protestants scoffed at the idea--Schweitzer was not a doctor, nor even a medical student, in fact he hadn't even been accepted into a medical school, his offer was ludicrous they said.  But Schweitzer insisted, he would be accepted into medical school, he would become a doctor, and he would go to the Congo--and so he did ! In this way, Schweitzer not only becomes a doctor, but travels throughout Germany and France gathering the funds and supplies to build a hospital in the Congo.  The man was unstoppable. What had started as a simple idea, became reality.

     "Long ago in my student days I had thought about it.  It struck me as inconceivable that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life while I saw so many people around me struggling with sorrow and suffering. Even at school I had felt stirred whenever I caught a glimpse of the miserable home surroundings of some of my classmates and compared them with the ideal conditions in which we children of the parsonage of Gunsbach had lived.  At the University, enjoying the good fortune of studying and even getting some results in scholarship and the arts, I could not help but think continually of others who were denied that good fortune by their material circumstances or their health.

     One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays--it was in 1896--as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but must give something in return.

     While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion... that I would devote myself directly to serving humanity." (p. 82)

Albert Schweitzer left for Africa in 1913, worked selflessly to build a hospital, which he did, and thereafter served the natives of the Congo until his death in 1965. His work was briefly interrupted during the first world war, when the Schweitzers were interned as prisoners of war at Bordeaux and later at St. Remy de Provence. Albert Schweitzer was attributed the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. He used the proceeds of the stipend of the Nobel Prize for the benefit of the hospital which he had founded in the Congo.

     "The hidden forces of goodness are alive in those who serve humanity as a secondary pursuit, those who cannot devote their full life to it.  The lot of most people is to have a job, to earn their living, and to assume for themselves a place in society through some kind of nonfulfilling labor. They can give little or nothing of their human qualities.  The problems arising from progressive specialization and mechanization of labor can only be partly resolved through the concessions society is willing to make in its economic planning.  It is always essential that the individuals themselves not suffer their fate passively, but expend all their energies in affirming their own humanity through some spiritual engagement, even if the conditions are unfavorable.

     One can save one's life as a human being along with one's professional existence, if one seizes every opportunity, however unassuming, to act humanely toward those who need another human being.  In this way we serve both the spiritual and the good.  Nothing can keep us from this second job of direct human service. So many opportunities are missed because we let them pass by.

     Everyone in his own environment must strive to practice true humanity toward others.  The future of the world depends on it." (p. 90-1)

     "Since my first years at the university I had grown to doubt increasingly the idea that mankind is steadily moving toward improvement.  My impression was that the fire of its ideals was burning out without anyone noticing or worrying about it.  On a number of occasions I had seen public opinion failing to reject officially proclaimed theses that were barbaric; on the contrary, it approved inhumane conduct whether by governments or individuals.  What was just and equitable seemed to be pursued with only lukewarm zeal.  I noticed a number of symptoms of intellectual and spiritual fatigue in this generation that is so proud of its achievements.  It seemed as if I were hearing its members trying to convince one another that their previous hopes for the future of mankind had been placed too high, and that it was becoming necessary to limit oneself to striving for what was attainable.  The slogan of the day, "REALPOLITIK," meant approval of a shortsighted nationalism and a pact with the forces and tendencies that had hitherto been resisted as enemies of progress.  One of the most visible signs of decline seemed to be the return of superstition, long banished from the educated circles of society." (p. 145)


     "But what is the nature of that concept of the world in which the will to general progress and the will to ethical progress join and are linked together ? It consists in an ethical affirmation of the world and of life." (p. 145)


     "Fundamentally I remained convinced that ethics and the affirmation of life are interdependent and the precondition for all true civilization." (p. 154)


     "...the man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will to live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own... he considers as evil destroying life that is capable of development.  This is the absolute, fundamental principle of ethics, and it is a fundamental postulate of thought... A man is ethical only when life as such is sacred to him--the life of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow men--and when he devotes himself to helping all life that is in need of help." (p. 157-8)


     "Injustice cannot produce a moral result...

Whoever among us has learned through personal experience what pain and anxiety really are must help to ensure that those out there who are in physical need obtain the same help that once came to him.  He no longer belongs to himself alone; he has become the brother of all who suffer." (p. 194-5)


Reviewed by

V. Saraiva



Posted  August 19, 2005

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