Out of My Life and Thought is Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography. He is best known for his humanitarian work in Africa, but this autobiography was written closer to the middle than the end of his life, and thus covers only through the early years of his time in Africa.
I think people who aren’t well acquainted with Schweitzer’s life and maybe have only heard the name and a little about his work have the vague impression of him as a maximally compassionate, saintly, maybe even Christlike figure who devoted his life to the poor—similar to the reputation in more recent years of (the wildly overrated) Mother Teresa.
Having now read his autobiography, and having read a bit about him here and there beyond that, yes I’m certainly impressed by his humanitarianism and compassionate nature, but what blows me away more is how extraordinarily productive and accomplished he was. It’s hard to fathom that someone could do as much in their life as he did. He seems like someone who never wasted any time, someone who used all of his abilities and all of his resources to the maximum.
So, as he’s actively and successfully pursuing a career that requires much time and concentration, you then find out he somehow found the time to write a long and meticulously researched scholarly book in some other field. Oh and by the way, he was simultaneously going to medical school. How are there enough hours in the day?
Schweitzer was from Alsace, a region that has gone back and forth between being part of France and part of Germany in recent European history. It was German when he was growing up.
As I say, he more than made his mark in multiple fields. He would have been a significant historical figure based on his accomplishments in any one of several areas.
As a Christian theologian, he wrote about Paul and numerous subjects, with his most influential work being a historical treatment of Jesus.
Schweitzer argued that looking at all the evidence as objectively as possible, the most justified conclusion is that Jesus did indeed believe that he was the Messiah, and that history would draw to a close very soon with the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
He was writing in part in reaction to a growing liberal Christian consensus that Jesus was a teacher of ethics, that the Kingdom of God he preached was a metaphorical ethical one, and that supernatural elements were not essential to his message.
I’m certainly familiar with that line of thought from the nonfiction writings of Tolstoy (titling one of his main theological works The Kingdom of God is Within You pretty much tells you what side of that debate he falls on), but Schweitzer was responding more to recognized mainstream scholars rather than to the maverick Tolstoy.
What I respect about Schweitzer’s approach is that he really didn’t reach the conclusion one might have expected someone of his background and beliefs as a devout Christian to reach, but intellectual honesty was more important to him than spinning things to fit his preferences. The liberal view of Jesus as an ethical teacher whose ideas have been distorted by organized religion into a supernatural messianic message is one that fit the increasingly rational and anti-superstition times Schweitzer lived in, fit the values of the bulk of the scholars working in the field, and almost certainly fit Schweitzer himself’s values better than where his research led him.
Schweitzer came to believe that Jesus had certain supernatural beliefs about himself and the world that were proven wrong, but he also believed that Jesus’ ethical teachings were largely sound. And since that’s where the evidence led, he felt obligated to say so: “Truth is under all circumstances more valuable than nontruth, and this must apply to truth in the realm of history as well as to other kinds of truth. Even if it comes in a guise that piety finds strange and which at first creates difficulties, the final result can never be harmful. It can only mean a deeper piety. Religion has, therefore, nothing to fear from a confrontation with historical truth.”
Not only did he not believe he was obligated to deviate from the truth in order to safeguard his religious beliefs, he also contended that Jesus himself would have wanted him to do as he did: “Nowhere does He demand of his hearers that they sacrifice thinking to believing. Quite the contrary! He bids them to reflect upon religion.”
He was also one of the world’s leading experts on organs. He was at an elite level both as a scholar writing about organs—their history, proper construction, acoustics, etc.—and as an organist. He also, in connection with this interest in music and organ music in particular, wrote scholarly works on Bach.
Again, it’s not that he potentially could have been an important figure in areas like theology and music had he been able to fully devote himself to them; he was an important figure in these fields even though he could devote only a fraction of his time to them.
While he was pursuing these interests, as mentioned he obtained a medical education. His intention all along was to use his medical degree to enable him to do humanitarian work of some kind.
He found an opportunity that appealed to him in Africa, with a French mission in what eventually became the country of Gabon. It may seem strange or funny to us now, thinking of him as a saintlike figure, but the religious authorities in charge of the mission were divided over whether he was pious enough for them. His theological beliefs did not match theirs in their entirety, and they were quite concerned he would use the position to spread his false teachings. In order to be accepted for the position of doctor at the mission, he had to assure them that he had zero intention of pursuing theology while he was there and would work solely as a physician. Even then there were strong protests and resignations over his hiring.
He recounts that the vast majority of the people in his life responded negatively to his decision to practice medicine amongst the poorest of the poor in Africa. One wonders how much of that was a matter of people psychologically wanting to find fault with someone willing to sacrifice and try to do good in the world so as to excuse their own failure to do so. It can be uncomfortable being around a saint, so folks like to assure each other that he’s really not so purely motivated as all that, or that what he’s doing isn’t likely to be effective anyway.
Many just were put off by the fact that he made a major life decision like this without consulting them. Some insisted that it’s nuts for someone with his intellectual and artistic abilities to waste himself by being a foot soldier in the causes he believed in rather than working for them as an academic, advocate, fundraiser, etc. He was accused of being conceited for thinking of himself as suited to a self-sacrificing heroic life. Some insisted he must be motivated not altruistically but by the fact that he’d had his heart broken, felt his career was going downhill, or had some other reason he wanted or needed to escape from his present life, and that if so this crazy scheme was certainly an overreaction.
When he arrived in Africa, the locals gave him various pieces of practical advice in dealing with the Africans, some of which he took and some of which he did not. One piece of advice he rejected was to emulate the local witch doctors by refusing to take on patients with terminal diseases. The witch doctors sought the highest possible reputation as healers, so the last thing they needed was incurable patients to lower their batting average.
Because he was a German working in French territory at the outbreak of World War I, he was held as a prisoner of war and prevented from practicing medicine. His captors, though, kept making exceptions for special requests, and eventually just gave up and let him resume his practice. Years later, in 1917, policies changed and he was again held as a prisoner of war, this time being transported to France and placed in a prison camp.
In a classic case of making lemonade out of lemons, he writes about his time in captivity almost wholly favorably. He found it to be a very welcome educational experience, as people of all levels of society, all academic disciplines, all occupations, etc. were thrown together in one place, with lots of idle time to talk and get to know each other. He learned a great deal, from intellectual and academic things, to crafts and other practical things.
Granted, a French prisoner of war camp for civilians in World War I isn’t exactly a Nazi death camp, but it’s still quite impressive that he can turn an awful experience like incarceration into something positive.
There’s not much about politics or current events in the book, at least in terms of specifics, though there’s a certain pessimism about the state of the world in the abstract:
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.
But in terms of specifics, there’s nothing about the merits of World War I, for instance. Nor is there anything about Hitler. Granted, the book came out in 1933, at the very beginning of Hitler’s reign, but by then Hitler had been a significant public figure for many years, and Germany had descended into something approaching civil war with Nazis and Communists killing each other and others. But if you’re curious to know Schweitzer’s take on any of that, you won’t find it here.
There is an odd passage about Georges Clemenceau, though, odd in the sense that otherwise the book has virtually no mention of public figures and current events, and odd in the sense of being so hostile. (I know little of Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France from 1906-1909 and 1917-1920. I believe he was a figure of the democratic, non-communist Left in France, not someone I would have thought of as unusually controversial or evil as a politician. Apparently he was one of the people who pushed hardest for the punitive Treaty of Versailles after World War I that led to such suffering and anger in Germany, so maybe as a German that’s what makes Schweitzer react to him the way he does. But from how Schweitzer describes him, you’d think the guy is indeed Hitler, if not Satan. Here Schweitzer recounts encountering Clemenceau on the street many years earlier:
I fell under the spell of the uncanny something, which was the very reverse of spiritual, that characterized the face. Such indications of untamed primitive human nature, features expressing reckless and remorseless willpower, I had never seen before in any human being. While I was staring, it suddenly dawned on me that it was Clemenceau.
When I learned later that after three sittings Cézanne had given up the task of painting Clemenceau because he “couldn’t make a portrait of a thing like that,” I thoroughly understood what he meant.
Though at the time of writing this book Schweitzer didn’t perhaps have quite the saintlike status he would achieve later, he was aware of his growing reputation. His response is a humble one, to me more admirably humble than false humble.
He points out that people who do good anonymously are far more numerous and more meritorious than the comparative handful like himself who become famous for their good works. Though I am very impressed by his extraordinary will and strength of character to use his time productively and achieve so much, he doesn’t see himself as being special in that way, at least not that he’s willing to admit. He sees the difference between him and the majority of people being much more a matter of opportunity.
“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.” That certainly rings true to me, but I always think that as real as those impediments are, if only I could be a little more resourceful, a little more willing to sacrifice, a little less lazy, etc., I could still do considerably more good in the world. So I appreciate his understanding, and I agree that just making it through each day can require so much time and attention as to render humanitarian work on any kind of a large scale extremely difficult, but I think he’s maybe letting us off a little too easy.
As I think about this book and about Schweitzer, I feel like there’s so much to like and admire about him that he should strike me as more of a heroic and inspirational figure than he does. But somehow I admire him more with my intellect than with my gut.
I really don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s that there’s a vaguely conservative, patrician feeling about him. Maybe it’s the little bit of supplemental reading about him that I did online after reading this book, where I discovered that among Africans his reputation is mixed at best. (Apparently, he could have a quite condescending attitude toward Africans, and saw them more as objects of charity than as people who were capable of running their own lives, solving their own problems, and sustaining democratic institutions. Allegedly conditions at his clinic were actually more dubious and primitive than they could have been, but the press covered that up because he was such a popular and revered figure—shades of Mother Teresa’s appallingly squalid clinics for the poor.)
I just don’t connect with him in a way comparable to how I do with Gandhi, for instance. As I’ve learned more about Gandhi’s life and thought over the years, I’ve been struck by how human and down-to-earth he can seem, without losing one iota of his impressiveness as a great moral leader and teacher. He’s somehow larger than life and someone no better than me at the same time. He has a certain humility and also occasional humor and playfulness about him that makes him feel approachable and likable to me, whereas Schweitzer has a kind of stern formality to him even when he’s doing and saying the kindest, most humble things.
Part of it too is that I don’t feel as in tune with Schweitzer’s philosophy as I might have expected as a pacifist.
In moral philosophy, there are certain formal and academic theorists and ideas that have considerable appeal to me, most notably Immanuel Kant and his philosophy. Many people find that sort of thing dense if not incomprehensible, but I have the kind of background and the kind of mind that it happens to fit fairly well. On the other hand, I also can find very inspiring the more common sense non-technical moral messages of, say, Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
Somehow, though, I experience Schweitzer’s philosophy as being in some unappealing middle ground. He calls it Reverence for Life, and it’s something he worked out in considerable detail and presents in Out of My Life and Thought. But it seems to come from a whole intellectual and philosophical tradition that I’m just not as familiar with and not as comfortable with. The references, the terminology, etc. render it not readily understandable to me. I feel like I’d have to spend a great deal more time with it, and study extensively the background and the context, for it to make sense to me to the same degree as something like Kant’s moral philosophy.
So Reverence for Life is neither a formal, technical philosophy that I’m used to and have the background to fully grasp, nor an informal, non-technical philosophy that I can appreciate on a layman’s level. It’s the kind of obscure (to me) verbiage that might be largely bullshit or might be true and insightful and just be going over my head.
There’s no question I regard Schweitzer quite favorably; it’s just that he’s not as important and inspirational figure to me as I might have expected, which I admit may indicate more failings in me than in him.