Albertus Magnus

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ALBERTUS MAGNUS (c. 12001280), also known as Albert the Great; German Dominican theologian and philosopher, doctor of the church, patron of natural scientists, and Christian saint. Today he is best known as the teacher of Thomas Aquinas.

Born in Lauingen on the Danube in Bavaria, Albert belonged to a distinguished military family in the service of the Hohenstaufens. While a student at Padua, he entered the mendicant Order of Preachers (Dominicans) in spring 1223, receiving the religious habit from Jordan of Saxony, successor to Dominic. Assigned to Cologne, he completed his early theological studies in 1228, then taught at Cologne, Hildesheim, Freiburg, Regensburg, and Strassburg. Around 1241 he was sent by the master general to the University of Paris for his degree in theology, which he obtained in the summer of 1245, having lectured on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and begun writing his Summa parisiensis in six parts: the sacraments, the incarnation, the resurrection, the four coevals, man, and good. In 1248 Albert returned to Cologne with Thomas Aquinas and a group of Dominican students to open a center of studies for Germany.

Toward the end of 1249, Albert acceded to the pleas of his students to explain Aristotle's philosophy. His intention was, first, to present the whole of natural science, even parts that Aristotle did not write about or that had been lost, and, second, to make all the books of Aristotle "intelligible to the Latins" by rephrasing arguments, adding new ones from his own experience, and resolving new difficulties encountered by other schools of philosophy, notably the Platonist and Epicurean schools.

From 1252 until 1279 Albert was frequently called upon to arbitrate difficult litigations on behalf of the pope or emperor. In June 1254 he was elected prior provincial of the German province of the Dominican order for three years. The most important event during Albert's term of office was the struggle for survival between the mendicant orders and the secular clergy from the University of Paris. With Bonaventure and Humbert of Romans in 1256, he represented the mendicant orders at the papal curia at Anagni against William of Saint-Amour and his colleagues from Paris. The controversy was resolved in favor of the mendicants and the condemnation of William's book on October 5, 1256. Also during Albert's term as provincial he wrote his paraphrases of Aristotle's On the Soul (Albert considered this paraphrase one of his most important), On Natural Phenomena, and On Plants.

Resigning as provincial in June 1257, Albert returned to teaching in Cologne, but he was appointed bishop of Regensburg by Pope Alexander IV on January 5, 1260, much against his inclinations. He was at the episcopal castle on the Danube when he wrote his commentary on book 7 of On Animals, but in December he set out for the papal curia at Viterbo to submit his resignation. The new pope, Urban IV, accepted his resignation around November 1261, and a successor was confirmed in May 1262. From February 1263 to October 1264 he was the official papal preacher throughout German-speaking lands for a crusade to the Holy Land. With the death of Urban IV, Albert's commission ended, and he retired to Würzburg, where he worked on paraphrases of Aristotle's Metaphysics and other works until 1269, when Master General John of Vercelli asked him to reside at the studium in Cologne as lector emeritus. From then until his death, Albert lived at Cologne, writing, performing para-episcopal duties, arbitrating difficult cases, and serving as an example of religious piety to all. His last will, dated January 1279, testified that he was "of sound mind and body," but from August on he seems to have become progressively senile until his death on November 15, 1280, at the age of "eighty and some."

Doctrine and Influence

In recent centuries Albert has been presented as a magician or an eclectic encyclopedist with Platonic and mystical tendencies. His writings are said to defy analysis, not only because of their gigantic bulk but also because of their nature in most cases as paraphrases of mainly Aristotle's writings. Although Albert was a bishop who wrote many theological works and biblical commentaries, he was known in his own day principally as a philosopher, and his authority ranked with that of Aristotle, Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroës). Roger Bacon, a younger Franciscan contemporary, complained that such pretensions were unbecoming to anyone who was still living and in fact self-taught. But it was precisely to obviate such suspicions that Albert disavowed originality in his writings by referring readers back to original sources by name, to experience, and to human reason.

Albert was the only Scholastic to be called "the Great," a title that was used even before his death. His prestige continued to be recognized not only among Albertists in France and Germany in the fifteenth century, but also among philosophers of the Italian Renaissance in the sixteenth century. Among his immediate students, apart from Thomas and Ulrich, were Hugh of Strassburg, John of Freiburg, John of Lichtenburg, and Giles of Lessines. Other German Dominicans, more favorably disposed toward Platonism, developed the mystical elements in Albert's thought. These were transmitted through Theodoric of Freiberg and Berthold of Mossburg to Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Süse, and Jan van Ruusbroec. In the early fifteenth century a distinctive school of Albertists (who opposed the Thomists) developed in Paris under Jean de Maisonneuve and was promoted by Heymerich van den Velde in Paris and Cologne. It quickly spread throughout German, Bohemian, and Polish universities; in Italian universities, however, it was the philosophical opinions of Albert himself that were kept alive.

Numerous miracles were attributed to Albert, and many spurious worksdevotional, necromantic, and Scholasticwere ascribed to him. Late in the fifteenth century his cause for canonization was well advanced until charges of sorcery and magic were raised; to refute these, Peter of Prussia wrote the first really critical biography of Albert (about 1487). The Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century temporarily diverted interest in Albert. He was quietly beatified by Gregory XV in 1622.

His extensive writings, occupying more than forty volumes in the critical edition (Cologne, 1951ff.), touch the whole of theology and scripture, as well as almost every branch of human knowledge in the Middle Ages, such as logic, natural science, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, and metaphysics. Ulrich of Strassburg, a Dominican disciple, described him as "a man so superior in every science that he can fittingly be called the wonder and miracle of our time." Siger of Brabant, a young contemporary of Thomas Aquinas at Paris, considered Albert and Thomas to be "the principal men in philosophy."

Albert is best known for his belief in (1) the importance of philosophy for theology and (2) the autonomy of each science in its own field by reason of proper principles and method. He paraphrased the whole of Aristotle's philosophy for beginners in theology (12491270); he taught and promoted philosophy in his own school of theology (12481260); and he chaired the Dominican commission of five masters established to draw up the first program of study in the order that made the study of philosophy mandatory (1259). He never tired of promoting secular learning for the clergy and denouncing lazy friars who did no more than criticize others. As for his view of the sciences, he defended the ability of human reason to know natural truths distinct from revelation and divine faith; he promoted and cultivated the study of the natural sciences distinct from metaphysics; and he considered mathematics an autonomous field that was simply a tool for natural science, not its organizing principle, as it was for the Platonists. In philosophy Albert was a moderate realist and fundamentally an Aristotelian, but he did not hesitate to reject certain statements when he thought Aristotle was in error, nor was he averse to incorporating into his Aristotelianism compatible truths expounded by others.

By the decree In thesauris sapientiae (December 15, 1931), Pius XI declared Albert a saint with the additional title of doctor. By the decree Ad Deum (December 16, 1941), Pius XII constituted him the heavenly patron of all who cultivate the natural sciences. His body is buried in Cologne, and his feast is observed on November 15.


Apart from numerous early printed editions of both authentic and spurious writings ascribed to Albert, two editions of his "complete works" have been published: one in twenty-one folio volumes edited by Pierre Jammy, O.P. (Lyons, 1651), the other in thirty-eight quarto volumes edited by Auguste Borgnet (Paris, 18901899). A third, critical edition, under the auspices of the Albertus-Magnus-Institut of Cologne, is now being issued (Münster, 1951) and is projected at forty volumes. The only authentic work of Albert available in English is his Book of Minerals, translated by Dorothy Wyckoff (Oxford, 1967).

Consecutive bibliographies are provided by three complementary works: "Essai de bibliographie albertinienne," by M.-H. Laurent and Yves Congar, Revue thomiste 36 (1931): 422462, covering works published up to 1930; "Bibliographie philosophique de saint Albert le Grand," by M. Schooyans, Revista da Universidade Católica de São Paulo 21 (1961): 3688, covering the years from 1931 to 1960; and "Bibliographie," in Albertus Magnus: Doctor Universalis 1280/1980, edited by G. Meyer and A. Zimmerman (Mainz, 1980), covering the years from 1960 to 1980.

Among the basic modern studies that should be noted are Paulus von Loë's "De vita et scriptis B. Alberti Magni," Analecta Bollandiana 19 (1900), 20 (1901), and 21 (1902); Gilles Meersseman's Introductio in opera omnia B. Alberti Magni (Bruges, 1931); Franz Pelster's Kritische Studien zum Leben und zu den Schriften Alberts des Grossen (Freiburg, 1920); and H. C. Scheeben's Albert der Grosse: Zur Chronologie seines Lebens (Vechta, 1931).

English biographies and studies that can be consulted with profit are Hieronymus Wilms's Albert the Great, Saint and Doctor of the Church (London, 1933), Thomas M. Schwertner's Saint Albert the Great (New York, 1932), and Lynn Thorndike's A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 2 (Baltimore, 1923), pp. 517592, 692750. Noteworthy too is Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, 1980, a collection of writings edited by me (Toronto, 1980).

James A. Weisheipl (1987)

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Albertus Magnus

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