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David Fisher, MD, MPH: Who Was Albert Schweitzer?

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Who Was Albert Schweitzer?

This weekend, Chicago celebrates the 60 year anniversary of Albert Schweitzer's only visit to the United States. Most of us know just a little about him. Maybe you know that he was a doctor who opened a hospital in Africa in 1913, during a time when Africa's desperate medical needs were largely ignored by the world. Perhaps you knew that he was friends with Albert Einstein. You may know that he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in and Africa and for his efforts to abolish nuclear weapons. This remarkable man has inspired me throughout my career.


Dr. Schweitzer is known for his philosophy of "Reverence for Life." He recognized that we each carry within us the innate "will-to-live." We naturally treat our own life with great care and respect. Schweitzer argues that ethical living is to apply that same care and respect to all life. In his own words:

"that is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil. Affirmation of the world, which means affirmation of the will-to-live that manifests itself around me, is only possible if I devote myself to other life."
- The Philosophy of Civilization, p.79

Schweitzer's philosophy echoes the famous commandment from the Book of Leviticus, often quoted by Jesus, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Leviticus 19:18. This quotation has been increasingly used to justify the cultivation of self-love as the pathway to caring for others. The argument goes, "If you fully love and respect yourself, that will free you to show that type of love to others." I think that argument misses the point. Schweitzer, Jesus, and the author of Leviticus seem to agree- we are born with an deep instinct toward self-preservation. Self-love does not need to be cultivated; it is innate. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Your desire to care for yourself and acquire what you need to survive is part of what makes you human and alive. This instinct is only selfish if it ends there. What Schweitzer, and Jesus, seem to be saying is that our deep desire for self-preservation, what Schweitzer would call the "will to live" and what Jesus would call your "love for yourself," this desire is a gift. It should be used as the standard by which you measure your care for others. We are called to care as much about the needs of others as we automatically care about our own needs. Consider how Albert Schweitzer applies this principle to the problem of pain and suffering:

"Those who have learned by experience what physical pain and bodily anguish mean, belong together all the world over; they are united by a secret bond. One and all they know the horrors of suffering to which man can be exposed, and one and all they know the longing to be free from pain. He who has been delivered from pain must not think he is now free again, and at liberty to take life up just as it was before, entirely forgetful of the past. He is now a 'man whose eyes are open' with regard to pain and anguish, and he must help to overcome those two enemies (so far as human power can control them) and to bring to others the deliverance which he has himself enjoyed. The man who, with a doctor’s help, has been pulled through a severe illness, must aid in providing a helper such as he had himself, for those who otherwise could not have one. He who has been saved by an operation from death or torturing pain, must do his part to make it possible for the kindly anesthetic and the helpful knife to begin their work, where death and torturing pain still rule unhindered. The mother who owes it to medical aid that her child still belongs to her, and not to the cold earth, must help, so that the poor mother who has never seen a doctor may be spared what she has been spared. Where a man’s death agony might have been terrible, but could fortunately be made tolerable by a doctor’s skill, those who stood around his deathbed must help, that others, too, may enjoy that same consolation when they lose their dear ones. Such is the Fellowship of those who bear the Mark of Pain."
- On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, pp. 173 f.

To love others is to seek to bless them with the same blessings you yourself have received. This is an active love. Schweitzer's most famous quote is perhaps this one:

"My life is my argument."

May this be true of all of us, starting with me.

Recommended reading:
Out of My Life and Thought
- Schweitzer's autobiography, an excellent overview of his life. Though I do not agree with everything he wrote, particularly his theological conclusions about the person of Jesus, his life story is incredible.

2 comments:

Stephanie said...

Thanks for posting! I inherited an interest in Dr. Schweitzer from my dad, and Ernie and I were able to visit his birthplace in France a few years ago. Such an inspiring life.

Patrice said...

What a terrific post! Thanks, Dr. Fisher. I've linked to your post on The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship's official blog: http://schweitzerfellowship.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/a-ffl-reflects-on-schweitzers-prescription-for-ethical-living/

Hope you enjoyed last weekend's events!