Written By: Norman Cousins
Reviewed Edition: W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1985
Hardcover, 319 pages
Table of Contents
The first half of Albert Schweitzer's Mission is a reprise of Cousin's earlier book Dr. Schweitzer of Lambarene , in which he describes the hospital at Lambarene and his conversations with Schweitzer. Their conversations ranged from the need to safeguard his manuscripts to theology, to the peril of atomic weapons testing and nuclear war. Cousins also reports an interesting conversation with Mrs. Schweitzer, a few months before her death, in which she showed great interest in America and world events.
The second half of this book contains a series of letters between Cousins and Schweitzer as well as Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Soviet Premier Khrushchev, and Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. These letters trace the development of the anti-testing movement that culminated in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. At Cousin's urging, Schweitzer became very active and influential in this movement (see my review of Peace or Atomic War? for an example of his work). As someone who grew up after the Treaty was in place, one of the most interesting points of this section are that it took Schweitzer's worldwide moral standing and position as an outsider to legitimate the dangers of radioactive fallout that some scientists had been describing, and that the the American Atomic Energy Commission had been denying. In the current world, where radiation is universally feared, it is sobering to realize that there was a time when its dangers were not appreciated by most people, and that it took more than scientific information to convince people of the problems.
The other interesting point of the second half of the book is Schweitzer's view that nuclear testing and war must be stopped not by direct appeals to governments or leaders, but by establishing a groundswell of opposition among the common people of the world, especially within the nuclear powers. This was to be accomplished by dissemination of the moral, legal, and scientific problems of nuclear arms. The governmental leaders will then be in a position to respond to the people and to follow their own moral reasoning, rather than being stuck in a helpless cycle of conflict and an arms race. This is fundamental to Schweitzer's firm belief in the power of moral reasoning when adopted by a mass of individuals. I would suggest that that power was further demonstrated by freedom-seeking people throughout the world in the past couple decades, with the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia as a prime example.
[A conversation between Cousins and Dr. Margaret van der Kreek, a volunteer doctor at Lambarene.]
"Do you like Lambarene?" she asked. "It has all the things that are difficult to find outside. A chance to concentrate on your work; quiet when you need it; and, most of all, freedom from all the non-essential things that fill one's life."
She looked at me sternly.
"Surely you must know," she said. "The non-essentials of life in Europe or America. The endless running around in circles to do things that seem a matter of life and death at the time but that you can't remember two days later. The business of struggling with a checking account at the end of the month to make sure there's enough to cover all the things we bought but that we don't even know where to put. And the desperate way we try to entertain ourselves."
"The Doctor would bark out his orders to the Africans and scold them when they were doing something wrong. The impression he gave was that he was dealing with children. There did not seem to be sufficient respect in his manner toward the Africans. But this was not the complete story. To get the full picture, one must realize that Schweitzer also treated most whites as his 'small brothers' and one had to find out how the Africans themselves interpreted his manner.
I watched the Africans closely as they worked under Dr. Schweitzer's orders, pushing back the jungle or gathering up stray pieces of lumbar or moving crates of medicines. When he appeared to be arbitrary or gruff in what he told them to do they would smile broadly and carry out his instructions. Sometimes when he called out sharply, he would have a glint in his eye which they would catch and it would amuse them.
In talking to one of the African leper workers at some length, I learned that those who had been with the Doctor for any length of time had no trouble understanding him. They knew he was somewhat short-tempered when things did not go just right; but they knew something, too, about the pressures under which he worked. And what was most important to them was that they knew the stern manner did not reflect any displeasure by Dr. Schweitzer."
[On finding out that Schweitzer wrote his manuscripts on the back of letter, calendars, and other scraps of paper.] "In any other man, this would have seemed quixotic and inexplicable. In Schweitzer, however, it represented a complete consistency with everything else in his life. There was the crude piano in the dining room he wouldn't replace or repair because the money could be better used elsewhere. There was the fact that he shaved without soap or lather because he considered it a luxury. There was the fact that he traveled third class only because 'there was no fourth class.' He could no more think of buying paper for his own literary use than he could buy an easy chair."
[From a discussion with Schweitzer.] "He [Schweitzer] said that after the last great war [WWII] ... he did not see how it was possible to hold to the concept of a God who would intervene on the side of justice.
This, he felt, is not how God manifests himself. God manifests himself through the spiritual evolution of man and through the struggle of man to become aware of the spiritual nature of his being and then to nurture it and give it scope. The existence of evil--or the occasional triumph of the evil over the good, as in the case of persecution and concentration camps--did not mean that God was oblivious of evil or indifferent to it. It means that man has the responsibility to deal with the evil and should not sit back and expect divine intervention."
[Albert Schweitzer, in a letter to Cousins dated 11/11/57, regarding nuclear testing and disarmament.] "That Americans come out against the opinion of American politics is the beginning of the beginning. And a general movement in Europe could grow out of that example. Once things are that far I could then help in the creation of a general movement, if I judge that my intervention could serve a purpose. The fire must be lighted in the U.S.A., and I will then be able to help other men of other lands to bring the wood to throw onto the fire and to give it the importance it should have to enable it to create a different atmosphere."
[Albert Schweitzer, in a letter to Cousins dated 5/17/58.] "Our purpose in expressing the argument that atomic weapons contradict international law is to arm the hands of the opponents of atomic weapons, or their mouths, in order that they may shout it all over the world. It is evident that atomic weapons are contrary to international law. People will believe it because of its evidence and because it is based on human and moral reflections. We don't need the lawyer's blessings. History shows how it is their role to pour water into the neat wine of the law of humanity and to construct compromises."
Table of Contents of Albert Schweitzer's MissionAcknowledgments Editor's Note I. A Visit to Lambarene II. The Correspondence Introduction Letters: 1957-1963 Epilogue Index
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