Albert Schweitzer 'the noblest figure of the 20th century'


Before year's end it seems appropriate to remember a man of extraordinary energy, ability and versatility, who won the Nobel Peace Prize 50 years ago, writes Brian Maye

'He wouldn't hurt a fly." There are not too many people of whom that is literally true, but Albert Schweitzer (1875-1964), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in November 1952 for his efforts on behalf of "the brotherhood of nations", is surely one of them. He was a man of extraordinary energy, ability and versatility. It has been said of him that "in terms of intellectual achievement and practical morality" he was "the noblest figure of the 20th century".

His intellectual achievement was outstanding. He was a well-known organist and an authority on organ-design and on the music of Bach. He was a theologian and philosopher and it is on this facet of his personality that I wish to concentrate, particularly as it led him to become a medical missionary.

The eldest son of a Lutheran pastor, he studied philosophy and theology at Strasbourg, Paris and Berlin, taking a doctorate in 1899 on Kant's philosophy of religion.

The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) established him as a world-figure in theological studies and marked a revolution in New Testament criticism. But The Mystery of God's Kingdom (1914) is a clearer exposition of his own theological views. In both books Schweitzer put forward the view, unconventional for its time, that Jesus's message was essentially eschatological, i.e., that it was about the forthcoming end of the world.

The kingdom of God, which Jesus expected early in his ministry, was not an ethical revolution to come after his death, but a true end of the world followed by the final judgment of all. In fact, Jesus expected it to happen at any moment. When he told his apostles to go about the country and preach, the message was to be the kingdom, repentance and judgment. He actually expected the end to come before they returned. When it didn't, he realised he had to atone for Israel's sins before the kingdom arrived. He understood his own death was required and so not only did nothing to prevent it, but went out of his way to meet it. During his passion, he expected the kingdom - the literal end of the world - to come about immediately after his death.

Schweitzer's interpretation was and is controversial, but many theologians still view the Gospels as mainly eschatological and trace their understanding back to him. In 1896 he made his famous decision that he would live for science and art until he was 30 and then devote the rest of his life to serving mankind. Despite his international reputation as a musician and theologian, he began to study medicine in 1905.

He duly qualified in 1913 and set out with his wife, who had trained as a nurse to assist him, to establish a hospital at Lambaréné, a deserted mission station in the heart of French Equatorial Africa.

He equipped and maintained the hospital from his own income, later supplemented by gifts and foundations in many countries. He devoted himself to service to the Africans in a spirit "not of benevolence but of atonement". The First World War, during which he was held as a prisoner of war in France, caused him to ponder on the problems of the world and led to his Philosophy of Civilisation (1923), which advances his wonderful principle of "reverence for life".

Based on the will to live of all living things, it is an ethic which accepts that for each creature its own life is important to it, and so we must not treat others carelessly or thoughtlessly. We should revere each life. This is not a philosophy of withdrawal from the world, but a call to be alert, considerate and helpful to others. We are all called to at least make a conscious decision about every one of our actions. His ethics demanded one never thoughtlessly harm another, whether human or animal.

He returned to Africa in 1924 to rebuild his derelict hospital. A leper colony was added later and by 1963, the year before his death, there were 350 patients with their relatives at the hospital and 150 patients in the leper colony.

His address upon receiving the Nobel prize, The Problem of Peace in the World Today, had a worldwide circulation. An exceptional man with such a commendable world-view, a strong case can be made for Albert Schweitzer as the most outstanding figure of the last century, if not the last millennium.

Brian Maye is a journalist and regular contributor to The Irish Times