Rethinking one of the century's great minds: Albert Schweitzer Hopkins Press reissuing the works of the saintly, scholarly and controversial figure.

Ideas: The Academy

May 31, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Albert Schweitzer had a kind of humanitarian glamour when he received the Nobel Prize in 1952.

He was something like the Mother Teresa of his time. Much as she had served the poor in the slums of Calcutta, Schweitzer had established a missionary hospital in the equatorial jungle of Africa in 1913. He lived and worked there until his death at 90 in 1965.

During his lifetime he was perhaps even more revered and respected than Mother Teresa is now. Life magazine once called him "the greatest man alive." And he was not only saintly, he was a genius.

He was, among other things, an authoritative and original theologian and philosopher, a medical doctor and surgeon, a brilliant organist who was among this century's great interpreters and biographers of Bach, and a foremost authority on Goethe.

He visited America in 1949 to speak on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Goethe. Current Biography reported he was greeted by "a tide of admiration that engulfed him in hero worship."

Schweitzer's phrase "reverence for life," which he said came to him on the River Ogowe in what is now Gabon, became a watchword for the generation that came of age during World War II and the postwar years. "He was identified by that phrase," says Willis G. Regier, director of the Johns Hopkins University Press. "And it is a phrase that reflects ecology before ecology, bio-diversity before bio-diversity."

More than 30 years after his death, Schweitzer remains a man for the millennium. The Hopkins Press certainly thinks so. It has just begun publication of a new series, "The Albert Schweitzer Library," with Schweitzer's 1906 study "The Quest of the Historical Jesus."

Schweitzer argued the view that Jesus knew he was the Messiah and believed that the apocalypse would occur during or shortly after his lifetime.

"His survey of the life of Jesus has never been surpassed," says Delbert Hilliers, a Biblical scholar who wrote the preface to the new edition. Even with renewed interest and challenges in the last couple of decades, Hilliers says, nothing has appeared that overshadows Schweitzer's work.

The journal Bible Review noted recently that "Schweitzer's sense of Jesus' essential apocalypticism is making a resurgence."

Hopkins' Regier observes that even though Schweitzer was an extraordinary scholar and valued scholarship, "he recognized scholars were human beings and sometimes dealt with them playfully.

"He enjoys scholarship and his scholarship can easily be read with joy," he says.

Regier would like it just fine if the Hopkins series would spark a new generation of interest in Schweitzer. "There's a great deal of concern in people who knew Schweitzer that he is insufficiently appreciated," he says.

The Hopkins Press will publish at least four of Schweitzer's books and perhaps as many as 20. Many of his lectures and essays remain unpublished. The project has the blessing of the Schweitzer Institute for the Humanities and Rhena Schweitzer Miller, his daughter, who holds rights to the books.

"He is a remarkable story,"

Regier says. "He was born in 1875 [in Alsace; then in Germany, now France]. At 21 he decided that until the age of 30 he would live for himself, do what he wanted, and that after 30 he would live for others.

"And what he did for himself was to get a doctorate in philosophy in 1899, a doctorate in theology in 1900 and then go to medical school and graduate as a doctor in 1913. Then he immediately went to Lambarene to establish his clinic."

At the same time, almost incidentally, this protean intellectual became an organist of the first rank and a top Bach scholar and interpreter. He supported his hospital in part through his concerts.

At Lambarene, then in French Equatorial Africa, his hospital had the atmosphere of an African village, where patients could bring their families to help nurse them and cook their meals. He long resisted electrification and his medical practice was eventually criticized as out-of-date.

Schweitzer countered that he met his patients on their own terms, that he had built "an African hospital for Africans." And he treated thousands and thousands of patients, including many hundreds of victims of leprosy, malaria and sleeping sickness. A modern hospital occupies the site today.

As African nations won their independence from colonial powers, Schweitzer came to be seen by some as patriarchal. And his view of his African patients was certainly paternal. "He called them his children," Regier says. "He talks about caring for them as a parent cares for children. And certainly this can be interpreted as a condescending attitude. But how bad is it for a parent to care for children?"

Regier remains an ardent admirer. "I think he was a great man, a great man," he says. "I just admire the whole package. The scholarship is wonderful. And it is made more wonderful by his knowledge of music. And those are made more wonderful by what he did at Lambarene.

"For him it wasn't enough to be smart," Regier says. "He wanted to be good."

Pub date: 5/31/98

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