Albertus Magnus, Saint

views updated May 29 2018

Albertus Magnus, Saint

also known as Albert the Great and Universal Doctor

(b. Lauingen, Bavaria, ca. 1200; d. Cologne, Prussia, 15 November 1280). Proficient in all branches of science, he was one of the most famous precursors of modern science in the High Middle Ages.

Albert was born in the family castle and probably spent his childhood at the family manor in nearby Bollstädt—whence he is variously referred to as Albert of Lauingen and Albert of Bollstädt. His birth date could have been as early as 1193 or as late as 1206 or 1207. His family was wealthy and powerful, of the military nobility, and he received a good education.

He studied liberal arts at Padua, where, over strong opposition from his family, he was recruited into the Dominican Order by its master general, Jordan of Saxony—identified by some (but probably falsely) as Jordanus de Nemore, the mechanician. He likely studied theology and was ordained a priest in Germany, where he also taught in various priories before being sent to the University of Paris ca. 1241. In Paris he was the first German Dominican to become a master of theology and to lecture in the chair “for foreigners” (1245–1248). In the summer of 1248 he went to Cologne to establish a studium generale: among his students were Thomas Aquinas, Ulrich of Strassburg, and Giles (Aegidius) of Lessines.

He began the administrative phase of his career as provincial of the German Dominicans (1253–1256). Subsequently he became bishop of Regensburg (1260), a post he resigned in 1226. in 1262. The latter part of his life was spent in preaching and teaching, mainly at Cologne. He took part in the Council of Lyons (1274) and journeyed to Paris in an unsuccessful attempt to block the famous condemnation of 1277, where some of Aquinas’ teachings were called into question. His health was good and he had great powers of physical endurance, even to old age, although his eyesight failed during the last decade of his life. Albert was canonized by Pope Pius XI on 16 December 1931 and was declared the patron of all who cultivate the natural sciences by Pope Pius XII on 16 December 1941.

Albert’s principal importance for the history of modern science derives from the role he played in rediscovering Aristotle and introducing Greek and Arab science into the universities of the Middle Ages. Before his time, what was to become the subject matter of modern science was usually treated in encyclopedias, which assembled a curious mélange of fact and fable about nature, or in theological treatises, which described the cosmos in terms of the six days of creation, as recounted in Genesis and variously analyzed by the church fathers. Aristotle, of course, had already made his entry into the Latin West through the translations of Gerard of Cremona and James of Venice, among others; but Christendom was generally hostile to the teachings of this pagan philosopher, particularly as contained in his libri naturales (“books on natural science”). In 1210, the ecclesiastical authorities at Paris had condemned Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy and had prohibited their being taught publicly or privately under pain of excommunication. Although this condemnation was revoked by 1234, it had a general inhibiting effect on the diffusion of Greek science in the schools of the Middle Ages.

Albert seems to have become acquainted with the Aristotelian corpus while at the Paris priory of St. Jacques in the 1240’s. Here too he probably began his monumental paraphrase of all the known works of Aristotle and Pseudo-Aristotle, to which are allotted seventeen of the forty volumes in the Cologne critical edition of Albert’s works (see Bibliography). The project was undertaken by Albert, then studying and teaching theology, at the insistence of his Dominican brethren, who wished him to explain, in Latin, the principal physical doctrines of the Stagirite so that they could read his works intelligently. Albert went far beyond their demands, explaining not only the natural sciences but also logic, mathematics, ethics, politics, and metaphysics, and adding to Aristotle’s exposition the discoveries of the Arabs and of whole sciences that were not available to him. The gigantic literary production that this entailed was recognized as one of the marvels of his age and contributed in no small measure to Albert’s outstanding reputation. Roger Bacon, a contemporary who was not particularly enamored of the German Dominican, complained of Master Albert’s being accepted as an authority in the schools on an equal footing with Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroës—an honor, he protested, “never accorded to any man in his own lifetime.”

Like all medieval Aristotelians, Albert incorporated considerable Platonic thought into his synthesis, and even commented on a number of Neoplatonic treatises. In several places he represents himself as merely reporting the teachings of the Peripatetics and not as proposing anything new; some historians charge him, on this basis, with being a compiler who was not too judicious in his selection of source materials. Those who have studied his works, however, detect there a consistent fidelity to Aristotle’s basic theses, a clear indication of his own views when he thought Aristotle in error, a repudiation of erroneous interpretations of Aristotle’s teaching, and an explicit rejection of Platonic and Pythagorean physical doctrines—all of which would seem to confirm his Aristotelianism. J. A. Weisheipl, in particular, has stressed the differences between thirteenth-century Oxford masters such as Robert Grosseteste, Robert Kilwardby, and Roger Bacon (all of whom were more pronouncedly Platonist in their scientific views) and Paris masters such as Albert and Aquinas (who were more purely Aristotelian). Whereas the former held that there is a successive subalternation between physics, mathematics, and metaphysics (so that the principles of natural science are essentially mathematical, and the principle of mathematics is the unity that is identical with Being), the latter held for the autonomy of these sciences, maintaining that each has its won proper principles, underived from any other discipline.

Albert’s early identification as a precursor of modern science undoubtedly stemmed from his empiricist methodology, which he learned from Aristotle but which he practiced with a skill unsurpassed by any other Schoolman. From boyhood he was an assiduous observer of nature, and his works abound in descriptions of the phenomena he noted, usually in great detail. Considering that his observations were made without instruments, they were remarkably accurate. Some of the “facts” he reported were obviously based on hearsay evidence, although he was usually at pains to distinguish what he had himself seen from what he had read or been told by others. Fui et midi experiri (“I was there and saw it happen”) was his frequent certification for observations. Sometimes, as Lynn Thorndike has well illustrated in his A History of Magic and Experimental Science, even these certifications test the reader’s credulity; what is significant in them, however, is Albert’s commitment to an empiricist program. He stated that evidence based on sense perception is the most secure and is superior to reasoning without experimentation. Similarly, he noted that a conclusion that is inconsistent with the evidence cannot be believed and that a principle that does not agree with sense experience is really no principle at all. He was aware, however, that the observation of nature could be difficult: much time, he remarked, is required to conduct an experiment that will yield foolproof results, and he suggested that it be repeated under a variety of circumstances so as to assure its general validity.

On the subject of authority, he pointed out that science consists not in simply believing what one is told but in inquiring into the causes of natural things. He had great respect for Aristotle, but disagreed with the Averroists of his day on the Stagirite’s infallibility. “Whoever believes that Aristotle was a god, must also believe that he never erred. But if one believes that he was a man, then doubtless he was liable to error just as we are.” His Summa theologica, for example, contains a section listing the errors of Aristotle, and in his Meteorology he observes that “Aristotle must have spoken from the opinions of his predecessors and not from the truth of demonstration or experiment,”

Albert recognized the importance of mathematics for the physical sciences and composed treatises (unfortunately lost) on its pure and applied branches. Yet he would not insist that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, as Galileo was later to do, and as Roger Bacon intimated in his own lifetime. Rather, for Albert, mathematics had only a subsidiary role to play in scientific activity, insofar as it assisted in the discovery of physical causes. Mathematics is itself an abstract science, prescinding from motion and sensible matter, and thus its applications must be evaluated by the science that studies nature as it really exists, in motu et inabstracta (“in motion and in concrete detail”).

The mechanics of Albert was basically that of Aristotle, with little innovation in either its kinematical or its dynamical aspects. One part of Albert’s teaching on motion, however, did assume prominence in the late medieval period and influenced the emerging new science of mechanics. This was his use of the expressions fluxus formae and forma fhtens to characterize the scholastic dispute over the entitative status of local motion. Arab thinkers such as Avicenna and Averroës had pursued the question whether this motion, or any other, could be located in the Aristotelian categories; the question quickly led to an argument whether motion is something really distinct from the terminus it attains. Local motion, in this perspective, could be seen in one of two ways: either it was a fluxus formae (the “flowing” of successive forms, or locations) or a forma fluens (a form, or absolute entity, that is itself a process). Although Albert made no clear dichotomy between these two views and allowed that each described a different aspect of motion, later writers came to be sharply divided over them. Nominalists, such as William of Ockham, defended the first view: this equivalently denied the reality of local motion, equating it simply with the distance traversed and rejecting any special causality in its production or continuance—a view that stimulated purely kinematical analyses of motion. Realists, such as Walter Burley and Paul of Venice, on the other hand, defended the second view: for them, local motion was an entity really distinct from the object moved and from its position, and thus had its own proper causes and effects—a view that stimulated studies of its more dynamical aspects.

Albert mentioned the term impetus when discussing projectile motion, but spoke of it as being in the medium rather than in the projectile, thus defending the original Aristotelian teaching; certainly he had no treatment of the concept to match that found in the work of fourteenth-century thinkers. His analysis of gravitational motion was also Aristotelian: he regarded the basic mover as the generator of the heavy object, giving it not only its substantial form but also its gravity and the motion consequent on this. He knew that bodies accelerate as they fall, and attributed this to their increasing propinquity to their natural place.

The cause of sound, for Albert, is the impact of two hard bodies, and the resulting vibration is propagated in the form of a sphere whose center is the point of percussion. He speculated also on the cause of heat, studying in detail how light from the sun produces thermal effects; here his use of simple experiments revealed a knowledge of the method of agreement and difference later to be formulated by J.S. Mill. He knew of the refraction of solar rays and also of the laws of refraction of light, although he employed the term reflexio for both refraction and reflection, as, for example, when discussing the burning lens and the burning mirror. His analysis of the rainbow was diffuse in its historical introduction, but it made an advance over the theory of Robert Grosseteste in assigning individual raindrops a role in the bow’s formation, and undoubtedly prepared for the first correct theory of the rainbow proposed by another German Dominican, Dietrich von Freiberg, who was possibly Albert’s student. In passing, he corrected Aristotle’s assertion that the lunar rainbow occurs only twice in fifty years: “I myself have observed two in a single year.”

Although he had no telescope, he speculated that the Milky Way is composed of stars and attributed the dark spots on the moon to configurations on its surface, not to the earth’s shadow. His treatise on comets is notable for its use of simple observation to verify or falsify theories that had been proposed to explain them. He followed Grosseteste in correlating the occurrence of tides with the motion of the moon around its deferent. He favored the mathematical aspects of the Ptolemaic theory of the structure of the solar system, contrasting it with that of al-Bịtrūjī, although he acknowledged the superiority of the latter’s theory in its physical aspects. Albert accepted the order of the celestial spheres commonly taught by Arabian astronomers; he knew of the precession of the equinoxes, attributing knowledge of this (falsely) to Aristotle also. Like most medieval thinkers, Albert held that heavenly bodies are moved by separated substances, but he denied that such substances are to be identified with the angels of Christian revelation, disagreeing on this point with his celebrated disciple Thomas Aquinas.

On the structure of matter, when discussing the presence of elements in compounds, Albert attempted to steer a middle course between the opposed positions of Avicenna and Averroës, thereby preparing for Aquinas’ more acceptable theory of “virtual” presence. In a similar vein, he benignly viewed Democritus’ atoms as equivalent to the minima naturalia of the Aristotelians. He seems to have experimented with alchemy and is said to have been the first to isolate the element arsenic. He compiled a list of some hundred manerals, giving the properties of each. During his many travels, he made frequent sidetrips to mines and excavations in search of specimens. He was acquainted with fossils, and made accurate observations of “animal impressions” and improved on Avicenna’s account of their formation. Albert suggested the possibility of the transmutation of metals, but he did not feel that alchemists had yet found the method to bring this about.

Extensive as was Albert’s work in the physical sciences, it did not compare with his contributions to the biological sciences, where his powers of observation and his skill at classification earned for him an unparalleled reputation. Some aspects of his work have been singled out by A.C. Crombie as “unsurpassed form Aristotle and Theophrastus to Cesalpino and Jung,” His De vegetabilibus et plantis, in particular, is a masterpiece for its independence of treatment, its accuracy and range of detailed description, its freedom from myth, and its innovation in systematic classification. His comparative study of plants extended to all their, parts and his digressions show a remarkable sense of morphology and ecology. He drew a distinction between thorns and prickles on the basis of their formation and structure, classified flowers into the celebrated three types (bird-form, bell-form, and star-form), and made an extensive comparative study of fruits. His general classification of the vegetable kingdom followed that proposed by Theophrastus: he ranged plants on a scale reaching from the fungi to the flowering types, although, among the latter, he did not explicitly distinguish the monocotyledons from the dicotyledons. He seems to have been the first to mention spinach in Western literature, the first to note the influence of light and heat on the growth of trees, and the first to establish that sap (which he knew was carried in veins—like blood vessels, he said, but without a pulse) is tasteless in the root and becomes flavored as it ascends.

On plant evolution, Albert proposed that existing types were sometimes mutable and described five ways of transforming one plant into another; he believed, for example, that new species could be produced by grafting. Here he registered an advance over most medieval thinkers, who accounted for the succession of new species not by modification but by generation from a common source such as earth.

Albert’s De animalibus includes descriptions of some fabulous creatures, but it also rejects many popular medieval myths (e.g., the pelican opening its breast to feed its young) and is especially noteworthy for its sections on reproduction and embryology. Following Aristotle. Albert distinguished four types of reproduction; in sexual reproduction among the higher animals he taught that the material produced by the female was like a seed (a humor seminalis), differentiating it from the catamenia (menstruum) in mammals and the yolk of the egg in birds, but incorrectly identifying it with the white of the egg. The cause of the differentiation of the sexes, in his view, was that the male “vital heat” could “concoct” semen out of surplus blood, whereas the female was too cold to effect the change.

He studied embryology by such simple methods as opening eggs at various intervals of time and tracing the development of the embryo from the appearance of the pulsating red speck of the heart to hatching. He was acquainted, too, with the development of fish and mammals, and understood some aspects of fetal nutrition. His studies on insects were especially good for their descriptions of insect mating, and he correctly identified the insect egg. He showed that ants lose their sense of direction when their antennae are removed, but concluded (wrongly) that the antennae carry eyes.

Among the larger animals, he described many northern types unknown to Aristotle, noting changes of coloration in the colder climates, and speculating that if any animals inhabited the poles they would have thick skins and be of a white color. His knowledge of internal anatomy was meager, but he did dissect crickets and observed the ovarian follicles and tracheae. His system of classification for the animal kingdom was basically Aristotelian; occasionally he repeated or aggravated the Stagirite’s mistakes, but usually he modified and advanced Aristotle’s taxonomy, as in his treatment of the ten genera of water animals. His anthropology was more philosophical than empirical in intent, but some have detected in it the adumbration of methods used in experimental psychology.

Apart from these more speculative concerns, Albert made significant contributions also to veterinary and medical science, dentistry included. In anatomy, for example, he took the vertebral column as the basis for structure, whereas in his day and for long afterward most anatomists began with the skull. He was reported to have cures for all manner of disease, and despite his own repudiation of magic and astrology came to be regarded as something of a magician. Many spurious works, some utterly fantastic, were attributed to him or published under his name to assure a wide diffusion—among these are to be included the very popular De secretis mulierum (“On the Secrets of Women”) and other occult treatises.

Albert’s productivity in science was matched by a similar output in philosophy and theology. In these areas his teachings have been overshadowed by those of his most illustrious disciple, Thomas Aquinas. The latter’s debt to Albert is, of course, considerable, for Aquinas could well attribute the extent of his own vision to the fact that he stood on the shoulders of a giant.


I. Major Works and Writings. Standard editions include Omnia opera, B. Geyer, ed. (Cologne, 1951), a critical edition, in progress, 40 vols.; Vol, XII (1955) is the only work of direct scientific interest to appear thus far; it contains the Quaestiones super de animalibus and other treatises related to Alberdt’s work in zoology; Omnia opera. A. Borgnet, ed. (Paris, 1890–1899), 38 quarto vols.; Omnia opera, P. Jammy, ed. (Lyons, 1651), 21 folio vols., available on microfilm positives from the Vatican Library; his Book of Minerals is translated from the Latin by Dorothy Wychoff (Oxford, 1967). Special texts include H. Stadler, ed., “Albertus Magnus De animalibus libri XXVI,” in Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, 15–16 (Münster, 1916; 1921); L. Thorndike, Latin Treatises on Comets Between 1238 and 1368 A.D. (Chicago, 1950), pp. 62–76; J.A. Weisheipl, “The Problema Determinata XLIII ascribed to Albertus Magnus (1271),” in Mediaeval Studies, 22 (1960), 303–354.

II.Secondary Literature. For a compact summary of Albert’s life and works, with bibliography, see J.A. Weisheipl, “Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus), St.,” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1967). Biographies include S.M. Albert, Albert the Great (Oxford, 1948) and T. M. Schwertner, St. Albert the Great (Milwaukee. 1932), a fuller biography with indication of sources. Works concerned with scientific teachings include H. Balss, Albertus Magnus als Biologe (Stuttgart, 1947); M. Barbado, Introduction á la psychologie expérimentale, P. Mazoyer, trans. (Paris, 1931), pp. 114–189; C.B. Boyer, The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics (New York, 1959), esp. pp.94–99; A.C. Crombie, Medieval and Early Modern Science, I (New York, 1959), esp. 147–157; A.C. Crombie. Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science (Oxford, 1953), esp. pp. 189–200; E.J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture, C., Dikshoorn, trans, (Oxford, 1961); P. Duhem, Le systéme du monde, III (Paris, 1914; reprinted, 1958), 327–345; A. Maier, Die Vorlaüfer Galileis im 14. Jahrhundert, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 22 (Rome, 1949), 11–16, 183–184; L. Thorndike, A History of Magicand Experimental Science II (New York, 1923), esp. pp. 517–592 J.A. Weisheipl, The Development of Physical Theory in the Middle Ages (London, 1959); J.A. Weisheipl “Celestial Movers in Medival Physics” in The Thomist, 24 (1961), 286–326 See also Serta Albertina, a special issue of the Roman periodical Angelicum, 21 (1944), 1–336, devoted to all branches of Albert’s science: includes a bibliography classified by field.

William A. Wallace, O.P.

Albertus Magnus, Saint

views updated Jun 11 2018


(also known as Albert the Great, A. de Lauging, A. Teutonicus,A.Coloniensis, Doctor Universalis)

(b. Lauingen, Bavaria,c. 1200; d. Cologne, Prussia, 15 November 1280), theology, moral philosophy, natural philosophy.

For some time now, historical research has underestimated Albertus Magnus’s originality and significance in terms of intellectual history. He has not been considered an independent thinker, but rather has been viewed as a precursor of his disciple, Thomas Aquinas. More recent research challenges this antiquated stereotype, proving that he was a rigorously systematic thinker and the originator of a theologically based system of scientific explication that covers the entire scope of reality as conceived conceptually and experienced empirically. His outstanding contribution to the history of science was the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy into scientific reflection throughout the Latin West, as well as the delimitation of secular science from theology. He was one of the first medieval thinkers to justify both philosophy and the nontheological scientific disciplines on the one hand, and theology on the other hand, with a view to the conception of science contained in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. In doing so, he treated each of them with respect to their subjects, principles, methods, as well as objectives and identified them as autonomous sciences in the strict sense of the word.

Life. Albertus Magnus was born around 1200 in the Swabian town of Lauingen on the Danube, the son of a family of knights or ministeriales. His childhood remains obscure, with the exception of a few reminiscences in his works dating from this time. From about 1222 onward, he was studying in North Italy, probably Padua, where he acquired his initial basic knowledge of Aristotle’s writings on the philosophy of nature. There he met Jordan of Saxony in 1223, the master-general of the Dominican order, who recruited him to join the Order of Preachers. Following the novitiate and the basic studies in theology at Cologne, in the late 1220s or early 1230s, he was entrusted with teaching duties at houses of study run by the Teutonia, the Dominicans’ German province, in Hildesheim, Freiburg in Breisgau, Regensburg, and Strasbourg. In the early 1240s, the order’s master-general, Johannes of Wildeshausen, sent him to Paris to obtain a doctorate in theology. From 1245 until the summer of 1248, he held one of the Dominican chairs at the University of Paris. Commissioned in 1248 with the establishment and operation of the Dominicans’ studium generale(general house of studies) in Cologne by the order’s general chapter, he traveled there together with his student, Thomas Aquinas. From 1254 to 1257, he was provincial of the order’s province of Teutonia. In 1256 he spent time at the Papal Curia in Anagni, where he defended the mendicant orders against the attacks of the secular clergy and took a position on the heterodox teachings of monopsychism and astral determinism.

The years 1257 to 1260 saw him once again teaching at the studium generale in Cologne. On 5 January 1260, Pope Alexander IV installed him as bishop of Regensburg. Despite the objection raised by the Dominican master-general, Humbert of Roman, Albert obeyed the pope’s will and assumed the bishopric, though resigning the episcopal see one year later—after the death of Alexander IV in 1261. From 1261 to 1263, he was working as a private tutor at the papal curia in Viterbo and Orvieto. Pope Urban IV appointed him papal legate, preaching the crusade in Germany, Bohemia, and throughout the German-

speaking area. Supported by the Franciscan preacher Berthold of Regensburg, he carried this assignment out only until Urban IV’s death on 2 October 1264. From 1264 to 1269, he lectured at the Dominican houses of study in Würzburg and Strasbourg.

Following the wish of the master-general, Johannes of Vercelli, he proceeded to Cologne, arbitrating between the archbishop, Engelbert of Falkenburg (1261–1274), and the citizenry of Cologne. He remained loyal to the city until his death. Despite diminishing strength and progressively deteriorating eyesight, he continued to be active in a variety of fields, among other things on behalf of the pope and King Rudolf of Habsburg. His alleged participation in the Council of Lyons in 1274 and a journey to Paris for the purpose of defending the teachings of his student, Thomas Aquinas, against condemnation are not historically documented and are rather doubtful, not least of all due to his advanced age. He passed away on 15 November 1280 at the Dominican convent in Cologne and was interred in the convent church. Because of the abolition of the monastery under Napoléon Bonaparte and the closure of the church in 1802, his grave was relocated to St. Andreas Church where it remains to this day. In 1931 Albert was canonized and made doctor ecclesiae (teacher of the church) by Pope Pius XI. In 1941 Pope Pius XII declared him the patron saint of those pursuing the natural sciences.

Work. Albert was involved in almost all areas of contemporary science and left to posterity an extensive literary work. This oeuvre may be classified in three groups: (1) the theological works, (2) the philosophical treatises, and (3) occasional writings.

The writings included in first category cover the entire sphere of systematic, biblical, and practical theology. Among them—apart from the moral-theological first work, De natura boni, the first three-part draft of the commentary on the sentences (De sacramentis, De incarnatione, and De resurrectione), the two-part Summa de creaturis, and the Summa de bono— are, above all, the commentary on the sentences itself and the commentary on the Corpus Dionysiacum, that is, on the mystical theology of the Christian Neoplatonist, Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita. The last-mentioned theological work, characterized by Neoplatonic thought, stands out by virtue of its richness in content and originality, as well as the systematic significance it occupies within Albert’s complete works and the thinking of the Doctor Universalis. In addition, close to thirty theological treatises (Quaestiones) have come down, written in Paris and Cologne. From his creative period in Paris, four university sermons are extant. A major part of Albertus Magnus’s theological writings is composed of the commentaries on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. His late writings include two works on theological systematics and one exegetic commentary, the Summa theologiae sive de mirabili scientia dei I–II, a two-part explanation of the mass liturgy and the sacrament of the Eucharist, Super missam and De corpore domini, as well as the Commentary on Job.

The second class of writings encompasses the philosophical works, whose core elements are considered the commentaries on the Corpus Aristotelicum, that is, on all of Aristotle’s writings available in Latin translation at the time, in addition to other works attributed to Aristotle. Apart from the commentaries, this category also encompasses original works of Albert himself that close any gaps in Aristotle’s scientific edifice. Even prior to introducing at Cologne’s studium generale, his philosophical project of commentating all of Aristotle’s writings and subsequently putting it into practice, he was holding lectures there on the Nicomachean Ethics from 1250 to 1252. These lectures comprise the first of Albert’s two Ethics commentaries and the first commentary ever composed in the Latin West on the entirety of this Aristotelian work. In this work, Albert presents his interpretation of Aristotle’s philosophical ethics in the form of a literal exposition with questions. Making a strict methodical distinction between philosophical ethics and theological moral doctrine and between the philosophical and theological order of science and understanding, the tract appeared in print for the first time in the years 1968 to 1972 (Books I–V) and 1987 (Books VI–X).

After interpreting the Nicomachean Ethics, Albert set about working on his large-scale philosophical project of commentating (and supplementing) the Aristotelian body of writings, including some pseudepigraphic works that were attributed to Aristotle. He introduced his program at the beginning of the commentary on the Physics, justifying it on the one hand with the demands of a solid study of the natural sciences based on a secure foundation, and on the other hand with the request on this score made repeatedly over many years to him by his cobrethren. As a guiding principle for the planning and realization of his project, he used the Platonic-Aristotelian division of philosophy that he had adapted, which distinguishes philosophia realis (natural philosophy, mathematics, and metaphysics) from philosophia moralis(moral philosophy) and philosophia rationalis (logic).

Achievements. In carrying out his Aristotle project, Albert on the one hand rendered the philosophical and scientific teachings in the Stagirite’s works intelligible to Latin speakers, demonstrating that they did not pose a threat to the Christian-oriented worldview and way of thinking but instead offered great benefits. On the other hand, he considerably extended the Aristotelian system of science and the knowledge potential it freed. He accomplished this by critical examination, constructive combination, and the assimilation of previous insights in the field of the philosophical and exact sciences as derived from various sources, namely from the Greek, Islamic-Arabian, Jewish, and Latin cultural regions, and as characterized by different philosophical systematics. Particularly noteworthy are the field of anthropology—especially the theory of intellect, in which he expounds his doctrine of the possibility of an intellectual and moral perfection of human beings— and the disciplines relating to the philosophy of nature and natural sciences such as mineralogy, botany, and zoology; the mathematical area including geometrical perspective and geometry; and, not least, metaphysics as the philosophy of being and first philosophy, in other words, the philosophical fundamental science par excellence. In all of the fields mentioned, Albert critically consolidated the previous knowledge he encountered and used it for the benefit of both contemporaries and subsequent generations.

The last section of Albert’s works is composed of occasional writings, by means of which he expressed his opinion on urgent topical issues relating to the doctrine as well as questions of legal practice and everyday life. He authored them by order or request of superiors or friends, revealing Albert virtually in the role of a consultant. Among these tracts are the short works “On the Unity of the Intellect” (De unitate intellectus) and “On Fate” (De fato), representing the written reports of Albert’s public statements at the Papal Curia in Anagni about the heterodox teachings of the Arabic philosophers on monopsychism and determinism.

The peculiarity of Albert’s thinking stems from its ontotheological foundation and holistic approach. His work and thinking, founded on theology, are univeralist in character and limited neither to one particular aspect of reality nor to one specific mode of its examination and explanation. Their significance cannot be attributed merely to their relevance in terms of the history of philosophy, as most researchers still assume, for they exceed the field of philosophy and theoretical sciences by far and display a more comprehensive, theologically based dimension of intellectual history. Any acknowledgment of Albert’s life’s work has to take into consideration this specific way of thinking and his way of life as well, with the latter indeed helping to explain this way of thinking. The theological foundation and structure of his thinking prove to be the hermeneutic key to the Albertan system of a holistic interpretation that confronts the demands of scientific investigation in its fullest form and consequence and lives up to these demands; it constitutes an interpretation of the whole of reality, both as it is understood conceptually and as it is experienced. If one were to reduce this system to its philosophical content, it would be, in terms of philosophical systematics, eclectic, inconsistent, and in the final analysis incomprehensible.



Alberti Magni Opera Omnia. Edited by Albertus-Magnus-Institut. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff Verlag, 1951–. Many recent volumes.

Die Werke des Albertus in ihrer handschriftlichen Überlieferung. Teil I: Die echten Werke. Edited by Winfried Fauser. Alberti Magni Opera Omnia. Tomus subsidiarius, vol. 1. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1982. Works transmitted in manuscript form.

“Albertus-Magnus-Handschriften. 1.(–4.) Fortsetzung.” Edited by Winfried Fauser. Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale 24 (1982): 115–129; 25 (1983): 100–120; 26 (1984): 127–151; 27 (1985): 110–151. Works transmitted in manuscript form.

De animalibus, XXII–XXVI. Translated by James J. Scanlan. Albert the Great. Man and the Beasts.(De animalibus, Books 22–26). Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, vol. 47. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1987.

Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology. Translated, edited, and introduced by Simon Tugwell. Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1988. 1–129 (Preface); 131–198 (Transl.).

De animalibus. Translated and annotated by Kenneth F. Kitchell and Irven M. Resnick. On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Super Euclidem, Lib. I, translated by Anthony Lo Bello. The Commentary of Albertus Magnus on Book 1 of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry.Ancient Mediterranean and Medieval Texts and Contexts. Medieval Philosophy, Mathematics, and Science, vol. 3. Boston and Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.


Anzulewicz, Henryk. “Neuere Forschung zu Albertus Magnus. Bestandsaufnahme und Problemstellungen.” Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie médiévales 66 (1999): 163–206. An overview of research.

——. “Die Denkstruktur des Albertus Magnus. Ihre Dekodierung und ihre Relevanz für die Begrifflichkeit und Terminologie.” In L’élaboration du vocabulaire philosophique au Moyen Âge, edited by Jacqueline Hamesse and Carlos Steel, 369–396. Rencontres de Philosophie Médiévale, vol. 8.Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000.

——. “Zur kritischen Ausgabe der Werke des Albertus Magnus.” Anuario de Historia de la Iglesia 11 (2002): 417–422. A report on the editorial project.

——. “Albertus Magnus (um 1200–1280) im Licht der neueren Forschung.” Archiv für mittelalterliche Philosophie und Kultur10 (2004): 52–96.

Craemer-Ruegenberg, Ingrid. Albertus Magnus. Dominikanische Quellen und Zeugnisse, vol. 7, edited by Henryk Anzulewicz, Leipzig, Germany: Benno Verlag, 2005. Bibliography, pp. 188–215.

Honnefelder, Ludger, and Mechthild Dreyer, eds. AlbertusMagnus und die Editio Coloniensis. Lectio Albertina, vol. 1.Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1999.

——, et al., eds. Albertus Magnus und die Anfänge derAristoteles-Rezeption im lateinischen Mittelalter[Albertus Magnus and the beginnings of the medieval reception of Aristotle in the Latin West]. Subsidia Albertina, vol. 1.Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 2005.

Hossfed, Paul. “Albertus Magnus.” In Klassiker derNaturphilosophie. Von den Vorsokratikern bis zur Kopenhagener Schule, edited by Gernot Böhme, 74–85. Munich, Germany: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1989.

Libera, Alain de. Métaphysique et noétique: Albert le Grand. Paris: J. Vrin, 2005.

Meyer, Gerbert, Albert Zimmermann, and Paul-BerndLütringhausen, eds. Albertus Magnus Doctor universalis 1280/1980. Walberberger Studien. Philosophische Reihe, vol.6. Mainz, Germany: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1980.

Resnick, Irven M., and Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. Albert the Great:A Selectively Annotated Bibliography (1900–2000). Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 269. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004.

Senner, Walter, et al., eds. Albertus Magnus. Zum Gedenken nach 800 Jahren: Neue Zugänge, Aspekte und Perspektiven. Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Dominikanerordens, NF vol. 10. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2001.

Weisheipl, James A., ed. Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1980. Studies and Texts, vol. 49. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980.

Henryk Anzulewicz

Albertus Magnus (Albert of Cologne) (ca. 1206-1280)

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Albertus Magnus (Albert of Cologne) (ca. 1206-1280)

Scholar, philosopher, and scientist traditionally believed to have been an alchemist. No fewer than 21 folio volumes are attributed to him, though it is highly improbable that all of them are really his. In several cases the ascription rests on slender evidence, but those that are incontestably written by him are numerous enough to label him a prolific writer. Tradition holds that he was the inventor of the pistol and the cannon, though the truth of this claim cannot be proven. This does indicate, however, that his scientific skill was recognized by a few of the men of his own time.

Born in Swabia, Germany, he entered the Dominican order in 1223, taught in Paris and Cologne, and became the teacher of Thomas Aquinas. The term Magnus, which is usually applied to him, is not the result of his reputation but is the Latin equivalent of his family name, de Groot. As with many other men destined to become famous, he was distinctly stupid as a boy, but from the outset he showed a predilection for religion. One night the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, which caused his intellect to metamorphose, acquiring extraordinary vitality. Albertus therefore decided that he must show his gratitude to the Madonna by entering the priesthood, and eventually he won eminence in the clerical profession. In 1260 he became bishop of Ratisbon. His books include Summa de Creaturis and Summa Theologiae.

Albertus was repeatedly charged by some of his contemporaries with holding communications with the devil and practicing the craft of magic. He was said to have invited some friends to his house at Cologne, among them William, count of Holland, and when the guests arrived they were amazed to find that, although the season was midwinter and the ground was covered with snow, they were expected to have a meal outside in the garden. Their host urged them to be seated, assuring them that all would be well. Though doubtful, they took their places, and had only begun to eat and drink when their annoyance vanished, for the snow around them melted away and the sun shone brightly.

The alchemist Michael Maier (author of Museum Chimicum ), declared that Albertus had succeeded in evolving the philosophers' stone and passed it to his pupil Thomas Aquinas, who subsequently destroyed it, believing it to be diabolical. The alleged discoverer himself says nothing on this subject, but, in his De Rebus Metallicis et Mineralibus, he tells how he had personally tested some gold that had been manufactured by an alchemist, and it resisted many searching fusions. Whether this story is true or not, Albertus was certainly an able scientist, and it is clear that his learning ultimately gained wide recognition, for a collected edition of his vast writings was issued at Leyden as late as 1653.

Albertus died in 1280, was beatified in 1622, and canonized by Pius XI in 1932. There is no firm evidence that Albertus was author of the ever popular occult work ascribed to him under the title Albertus Magnus Egyptian Secrets; or, White and Black Art for Man and Beast.


Albertus Magnus. The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus: Also, A Book of the Marvels of the World. Edited by M. R. Best and F. H. Brightman. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. Federmann, Reinhard. The Royal Art of Alchemy. New York: Chilton, 1969.

Kovech, F. J., and R. W. Shahan, eds. Albert the Great: Commemorative Essays. Norman Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Sighart, J. Albert the Great. London: Washbourne, 1876.

Albertus Magnus, St

views updated May 23 2018

Albertus Magnus, St (c.1205–80). Christian philosopher and theologian. He was born in Bavaria, studied at Padua and Bologna, and became a Dominican in 1222/3. He held one of the Dominican chairs of theology at the University of Paris, where Thomas Aquinas was one of his pupils, and later (1260–2) he became bishop of Ratisbon. Allowed to resign, he resumed teaching at Cologne. He preached a crusade in Germany, 1263–4. As well as Magnus, he was called Doctor Universalis. He was canonized and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1931. He wrote commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and on Pseudo-Dionysius, and a Summa de Creaturis. He left incomplete a Summa Theologica.

Albertus Magnus, St

views updated May 23 2018

Albertus Magnus, St (c.1200–80), Dominican theologian, philosopher, and scientist; known as Doctor Universalis. A teacher of St Thomas Aquinas, he was a pioneer in the study of Aristotle and contributed significantly to the comparison of Christian theology and pagan philosophy. His feast day is 15 November.

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