Albert Schweitzer

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Schweitzer, Albert

(äl`bĕrt shvī`tsər), 1875–1965, Alsatian theologian, musician, and medical missionary. Determined to become a medical missionary, he obtained a doctorate in medicine at the Univ. of Strasbourg and in 1913 established a hospital at Lambaréné, Gabon (then in French Equatorial Africa). Except for frequent trips to Europe to raise money and a visit to the United States in 1949 to address the Goethe Festival in Colorado, he remained in Gabon, establishing extensive medical facilities that received financial support throughout the world. Schweitzer was honored in many countries for his work as a scientist and humanitarian, his artistry as an organist, and his contributions as a theologian; he was awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. His biography of Bach (1905), considered one of the best studies of the master, along with his edition (with C. M. Widor, 1912–14) of Bach's organ music, made him an outstanding authority on Bach. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1920, tr. 1922) is an account of his early years at Lambaréné, supplemented later by More from the Primeval Forest (1925, tr.1931) and From My African Notebook (1936, tr. 1938). Schweitzer's philosophy is developed in Philosophy of Civilization (The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, 1923, tr. 1923; Civilization and Ethics, 1923, tr. 1923; and Reverence for Life, tr. 1969). "Reverence for life" is the term Schweitzer used for a universal concept of ethics. He believed that such an ethics would reconcile the drives of altruism and egoism by requiring a respect for the lives of all other beings and by demanding the highest development of the individual's resources. A profound Christian, Schweitzer was unorthodox in that he rejected the historical infallibility of Jesus while following him spiritually. His theological works include The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, tr. 1910) and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930, tr. 1930).


See his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thoughts (1932, tr. 1933) and Albert Schweitzer: An Anthology (ed. by C. R. Joy, 1947); biographies by J. Berrill (1965), I. L. Ice (1971), G. N. Marshall and D. Poling (1971), and N. Cousins (1960, repr. 1973); study by H. Clark (1962).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Schweitzer, Albert


Born Jan. 14, 1875, in Kayserberg, Alsace; died Sept. 4, 1965, in Lambaréné, Gabon. German-French thinker influenced by the “philosophy of life” movement; theologian, physician, musicologist, and organist. World-famous for his antiwar statements.

Schweitzer was educated at the universities of Strassburg, Berlin, and Paris. He earned the degree of doctor of philosophy in 1899 with a dissertation entitled Kant’s Philosophy of Religion. He received a doctorate in theology in 1900 and a doctorate in medicine in 1913.

In the early 20th century Schweitzer gained prominence as a concert organist. As a musicologist, his main importance is his work on J. S. Bach. Schweitzer influenced contemporary styles of performance of Bach’s music and promoted a rebirth of interest in the composer’s works.

In 1913, Schweitzer and his wife, the nurse Hélène Bresslau, established a hospital in Lambaréné with their own resources. The hospital became Schweitzer’s main preoccupation and the platform from which he propounded his ideas. In 1928, Schweitzer was awarded the Goethe Prize of the city of Frankfurt am Main. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, he used the prize money to build a leprosarium in Lambaréné.

Schweitzer’s world view is founded on the concept of “life,” which he opposed to the concept of “thought”; he regarded thought as derivative. In contrast to Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am,” Schweitzer offered the formula “I am life, which wants to live among life.” From this formula he developed his basic ethical principle of reverence for life, which demands that life be preserved and improved. Morality, according to Schweitzer, is not just a law but a fundamental condition for the existence and development of life. Schweitzer believed that reverence for life should be the foundation of an ethical renewal of the human race and the development of precepts of a universal, cosmic ethical system.

Schweitzer defended the idea of the free and moral individual and opposed domination of the “concretely personal” by the “general.” In an existential spirit he contrasted two vital principles: (1) the will as an expression of the free and moral essence of the human being and (2) knowledge (or understanding) as an attitude toward life based on a desire to submit to external necessity. In Schweitzer’s thought, an “understanding” attitude toward the world leads to skepticism, which is an expression of the spiritual bankruptcy of civilization. Schweitzer opposed culture to civilization and criticized the age of technology and “external progress.” According to Schweitzer, ethics must merge with culture organically to ensure human progress and the spiritual improvement of the individual. He considered the level of humanism reached by a particular society to be the criterion of its cultural development.

Schweitzer set as his goal the formulation of a philosophically sound optimistic world view that would have practical application; such a world view would strengthen the human personality in difficult times and restore its creative energy. From this humanist standpoint he criticized the moral state of modern bourgeois society, which is undergoing a profound spiritual crisis.

Monuments to Schweitzer were built in 1969 in Weimar and Gunsbach; there is a memorial museum in Kaysersberg.


Die psychiatrische Beurteilung Jesu. Tübingen, 1913.
Kulturphilosophie, vols. 1–2. Munich, 1923.
Das Christentum und die Weltreligionen. Munich, 1924.
Le Problème de I’éthique dans I’éthique de la pensée humaine. Paris, 1952.
Friede oder Atomkrieg. Bern, 1958.
Die Lehre der Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, 2nd ed. Berlin, 1963.
In Russian translation:
I. S. Bakh. Moscow, 1964.
Kul’tura i etika. Moscow, 1973.
Pis’ma iz Lambarene. Leningrad, 1978.


Druskin, M. “A. Shveitser i voprosy bakhovedeniia.” Sovetskaia muzyka, 1960, no. 3.
Levada, Iu. A. “A. Shveitser—myslitel’ i chelovek.” Voprosy filosofii, 1965, no. 12.
Götting, G. Vstrechi s Al’bertom Shveitserom. Moscow, 1967. (Translated from German.)
Al’bert Shveitser—velikii gumanist XX v. Moscow, 1970.
Petritskii, V. A. Eticheskoe uchenie A. Shveitsera. Leningrad, 1971.
Nosik, B. M. Shveitser. Moscow, 1971.
Langfeldt, G. A. Schweitzer: A Study of His Philosophy of Life. New York, 1960.
Bähr, H. W. [ed.]. A. Schweitzer: Sein Denken und sein Weg. Tübingen, 1962.
Müller, R. “50 Jahre Albert Schweitzer—Spital in Lambarene.” Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift, vol. 105, no. 51, pp. 2521–30.
Clark, H. The Philosophy of A. Schweitzer. London, 1964.
Marshall, G. N. An Understanding of A. Schweitzer. [London, 1966.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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