views updated


Dominican bishop, Doctor of the Church, patron of scientists, and philosopher; b. Lauingen on the Danube, near Ulm, Germany, c. 1200; d. Cologne, Nov. 15, 1280; variously referred to as Albertus Magnus, Albert of Lauingen, Albert of Cologne, and Albert the German; honored under the scholastic titles of Doctor universalis and Doctor expertus. Although in his own right Albert was an outstanding figure of the Middle Ages, he is best known as the teacher of St. thomas aquinas and as a proponent of aristotelianism at the University of Paris. He combined interest and skill in natural science with proficiency in all branches of philosophy and theology.


Early Life. Albert was the eldest son of a powerful and wealthy German lord of military rank. After his elementary training, he studied the liberal arts at Padua while his father fought in the service of Frederick II in Lombardy. Early in the summer of 1223, jordan of saxony, the successor to dominic as master general of the Order of Preachers, came to Padua in the hope of bringing young men into the order by his preaching. At first he found "the students of Padua extremely cold," but ten of them soon sought admission, "among them two sons of two great German lords; one was a provost-marshall, loaded with many honors and possessed of great riches; the other has resigned rich benefices and is truly noble in mind and body" (Jordan, Epistolae 20). The latter has always been identified as Albert of Lauingen.

After overcoming fierce opposition from his family, he entered the novitiate and later was sent to Germany to study theology. Shortly after 1233 he was appointed lecturer of theology in the new priory at Hildesheim, then, successively, at Freiburg im Breisgau, at Regensburg for two years, and at Strassburg. During these years he wrote his treatise De natura boni, influenced largely by hugh of saint-victor and william of auxerre.

Teaching at Paris. Around 1241 he was sent to the University of Paris to prepare for the mastership in theology. The intellectual climate of Paris, "the city of philosophers," was vastly different from his native Germany, for here he encountered the "new Aristotle," recently translated from Greek and Arabic, and the wealth of Arabic learning introduced from Spain. Albert arrived in Paris just as the commentaries of Averroës on Aristotle were becoming available. At the Dominican convent of St. Jacques, he fulfilled the university requirements for bachelors in theology, lecturing cursorily on the Bible for two years, responding in disputations, and then expounding the Sentences of peter lombard for two years (c. 124345), but Albert was more interested in acquiring the new learning than in lecturing on the Sentences. In 1245 he incepted as a master in theology under Guéric of St. Quentin, and continued to lecture as master in the Dominican chair "for foreigners" until the end of the academic year 1248. Albert was, in fact, the first German Dominican to become a master.

Most probably it was at Paris that he began his monumental presentation of the whole of human knowledge to the Latin West, paraphrasing and explaining all the known works of Aristotle and pseudo-Aristotle, adding contributions from the Arabs, and even entirely "new sciences" (Phys. 1.1.1). Apparently asked by his younger confreres to explain Aristotle's Physics in writing, he undertook to explain systematically all the branches of natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics, and metaphysics. "Our intention," he said, "is to make all the aforesaid parts of knowledge intelligible to the Latins" (ibid. ). This vast project took about 20 years to complete and is one of the marvels of medieval scholarship. While working on it, he probably had among his disciples the young Aquinas, who arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1245.

Years in Germany and Italy. In the summer of 1248 Albert was sent to Cologne to organize and preside over the first studium generale in Germany, which had been authorized by the Dominican general chapter in June. At Cologne he devoted his full energies to teaching, preaching, studying, and writing until 1254. Among his disciples at this time were Thomas Aquinas, who studied under Albert (124552), and ulric of strassburg. In 1253 Albert was elected provincial of the German Dominicans, a position he faithfully filled for three years. Despite the administrative burdens, the yearly visitation of each priory and nunnery, and lengthy journeys on foot, he continued his prolific writing and scientific research in libraries, fields, ore mines, and industrial localities.

In 1256 he was in the papal curia at Anagni with Aquinas and bonaventure to defend the cause of mendicant orders against the attacks of william of saintamour and other secular masters. Here also he held a disputation against Averroist doctrine on the intellect (see intellect, unity of). He lectured to the curia on the whole of St. John's Gospel and on some of the Epistles; for this reason he is listed among the "Masters of the Sacred Palace." Resigning the office of provincial, he resumed teaching in Cologne (125760). In 1259 the general chapter requested him and four other masters in theology to draw up a plan of study to be followed throughout the order.

Late that same year irregularities in the Diocese of Regensburg led to the appointment of Albert to succeed the removed bishop. His own reluctance and the pleadings of Humbert of Romans, general of the order, were of no avail. On Jan. 5, 1260, Alexander IV ordered his installation as bishop of Regensburg. With the settling of conditions in this diocese and the election of a new pope, he was able to resign in 1262; he then chose the house of studies at Cologne for his residence. Albert voluntarily resumed teaching, but in the following year he was ordered by Urban IV to preach the crusade throughout Germany and Bohemia (126364). From 1264 to 1266 he lived in the Dominican house in Würzburg. In 1268 he was in Strassburg, and from 1269 until his death he resided in Cologne, writing new works and revising earlier ones.

Only two more times, as far as is known, did he undertake long journeys from Cologne. He took part in the Council of Lyons in 1274, and in 1277 he traveled to Paris, at the height of the Averroist controversy, to fore-stall the hasty condemnation of certain Aristotelian doctrines that both he and Thomas (d. 1274) held to be true (see averroism, latin; forms, unicity and plurality of). This last journey was apparently a failure. Some time after he drew up his last will and testament in January 1279, his health and memory began to fail him. Weakened by manifold labors, austerities, and vigils, he died at the age of "eighty years or more," to quote bartholomew of lucca and bernard gui. His body was laid to rest in the Dominican church at Cologne where it remains today.

Cult and Canonization. Not only was Albert the only man of the High Middle Ages to be called "the Great," but this title was used even before his death (Annal. Basil., Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores 17:202). Long before the canonization of Thomas in 1323, Albert's prestige was well established. siger of brabant, a contemporary, considered Albert and Thomas "the principal men in philosophy" (De anim. intel. 3). In the words of Ulric of Strassburg, Albert was "a man so superior in every science, that he can fittingly be called the wonder and the miracle of our time" (Sum. de bono 4.3.9).

In Germany there has always existed a deep devotion to the venerable bishop. He was beatified by Gregory XV in 1622. By the decree In Thesauris Sapientiae (Dec. 16, 1931) Pius XI declared him a saint of the universal Church with the additional title of doctor. In the solemn decree Ad Deum (Dec. 16, 1941) Pius XII constituted him the heavenly patron of all who cultivate the natural sciences.


Aristotelianism. The Christian centuries preceding Albert were fundamentally Augustinian in philosophy and theology, transmitting the Christian Platonism of the Fathers through the monasteries and the schools (see platonism). The 12th-century Latin translations of avicenna, Avicebron, costa ben luca, isaac israeli, and the liber de causis, together with the paraphrases of dominic gundisalvi, could easily be accommodated to Christian philosophy, since Platonic thought was a common element. When the new Aristotle reached the schools, the obscure Latin versions of the Stagirite from Arabic and Greek were studied and taught with every aid at hand, including john scotus erigena, Avicenna, Avicebron and augustine. The earliest teachers of the Aristotelian books at Paris, amalric of bÈne and david of dinant, made a pantheist of Aristotle, and incurred a deserved censure until the new Aristotle could be examined more carefully. Later masters in the faculty of arts, such as robert grosseteste, john blund, adam of buckfield, Geoffrey of Aspall, robert kilwardby and rogerbacon, were more orthodox, although they interpreted Aristotle through the teaching of Avicenna and in Platonist fashion.

However, there is a fundamental divergence between Platonic and Aristotelian views, particularly concerning scientific thought and the nature of man. For plato, the study of nature is not strictly scientific, but only problematic, a "likely story"; for certainty one must go to mathematics, and thence to the contemplation of pure forms in metaphysics. Further, Plato conceived man as a soul imprisoned in a body, rather than a unique composite of body and soul. Aristotle, on the other hand, considered the study of nature to be autonomous in its own domain, independent of mathematics and metaphysics, worthy of pursuit in its own right, and truly "scientific" in the technical sense employed by the Greeks. Moreover, Aristotle was the first to elaborate fully the doctrine of potency and act, using this to explain how the body and soul of man constitute an absolute unity in nature. The arrival of Averroës's commentaries in the schools after 1230 helped to bring out the difference between the two Greeks, for Averroës was the most Aristotelian of the Arabic commentators.

Among the Latin schoolmen, Albert was the first to make the Aristotelian approach to the physical world his own and to defend its autonomy against "the error of Plato" (Meta. 1.1.1, et passim ) maintained by his contemporaries. Strictly speaking, Albert's expositions of Aristotle are neither commentaries nor paraphrases; they are really original works in which "the true view of Peripatetic philosophers" is rewritten, erroneous views refuted, new solutions proposed, and personal observations (experimenta ) incorporated. This, at least, was the opinion of Roger Bacon's contemporaries at Paris, who thought that "now a complete philosophy has been given to the Latins, and composed in the Latin tongue" (Opus tertium 9). For this reason, as Bacon tells us, Albert's views had as much authority in the schools as those of Aristotle, Avicenna, or Averroës, "and he is still alive and he has had in his own lifetime authority, which man has never had in doctrine" (ibid. ).

Scientific Method. Yet Albert did not blindly follow the authority of Aristotle. In his philosophical as well as theological works, he does not hesitate to reject certain views, such as the eternity of the world and the animation of the spheres, and observational errors. "Whoever believes that Aristotle was a god, must also believe that he never erred; but if one believes that Aristotle was a man, then doubtless he was liable to error just as we are" (Phys. 8.1.14). In matters of experimental science, he frequently rejects a supposed observation of the Stagirite, saying that it is contrary to his own observations (Meteor. 3.4.11, Animal. 23.1.1. 104, etc.). In his treatise on plants he insists, "Experiment is the only safe guide in such investigations" (Veg. 6.2.1). In practice as well as in theory, he realized that "the aim of natural science is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature" (Mineral. 2.2.1).

Albert was an indefatigable student of nature, and applied himself so sedulously that he was accused of neglecting the sacred sciences (henry of ghent, De script. eccles. 2.10). Even in his own lifetime incredible legends were circulated, attributing to him the power of a magician or sorcerer. In later generations such legends were multiplied and spurious treatises were circulated under his name. The real influence of Albert, felt throughout the Renaissance, comes from his establishing the study of nature as a legitimate science in the Christian tradition. see science (in the middle ages).

Sacred Theology. In theology he was not as successful as his illustrious disciple in presenting a new synthesis. Aquinas's famous Summa is a perfect application of Aristotle's Posterior Analytics to the deposit of faith, employing from the very beginning the profound implications of Aristotelian metaphysical principles. This cannot be said of Albert's theological works. Nonetheless these are outstanding in medieval literature for their sound scholarship, breadth of inquiry, and clarity of presentation. Considering the milieu in which he wrote, it is most significant that he strongly defended the distinction between the realm of revelation and that of human reason (see faith and reason).

Unlike many of his contemporaries, he defended the autonomy of philosophical investigation, insisting that no truth of reason could contradict revelation. At the same time, he maintained the superiority of revelation and the right of theologians to use all of human knowledge to search the divine mysteries. This view was continued by Aquinas and others so that today it is an integral part of Catholic theology.

Albertists. Among the immediate students of Albert, apart from Aquinas and Ulrich of Strassburg, should also be enumerated Hugh of Strassburg, john of freiburg, john of lichtenberg, and giles of lessines. Other German Dominicans favorably disposed toward Neoplatonic thought developed mystical elements in Albert's teaching. These were transmitted through theodoric of freiberg and Berthold of Mosburg to Meister eckhart and other 14th-century mystics, namely, Johannes tauler, henry suso, and Jan van ruysbroeck. In the 15th century, small groups of thinkers at Paris and Cologne, identifying themselves as "Albertists," set up a philosophical school in opposition to Thomism. Founded by Heymericus de Campo (Van de Velde), they opposed the traditional Thomistic teaching on the real distinction between essence and existence, as well as that on universals. In so doing they actually returned to the teaching of Avicenna, and made extensive use of Albert's commentaries on the Liber de Causis and the works of pseudodionysius.

That Albert's teaching is not to be completely identified with that of his famous student is clear from his response to the 43 questions of john of vercelli (43 Problemata determinata ), one of his last writings. Some have even held that an occasional quidam in the works of Albert is a disparaging reference to Thomas, but on the whole there is broad doctrinal agreement between master and student. This has led to a gradual assimilation of the Albertist tradition within the Dominican Order into the mainstream of Thomism, with the result that Albertism and Thomism have become practically indistinguishable.


The reputation of Albert was so widespread that not only were his authentic works frequently copied in manuscript and abundantly reproduced in print, but an incredible number of spurious works, some even fantastic, have been attributed to him. On the other hand many works known to have been written by him have not yet been discovered. Two editions of "complete works" have been published: one at Lyons in 1651, in 21 folio volumes edited by Peter Jammy, OP; the other at Paris (Vivès), 189099, in 38 quarto volumes edited by the Abbé Auguste Borgnet, of the Diocese of Reims. The first volume of a new and critical edition that will comprise 40 volumes, under the direction of Bernhard Geyer, President of the Albertus Magnus Institute of Cologne, appeared in 1951. The following list gives the volume of the Borgnet edition (B), and the actual or projected volume of the Cologne edition (C). The dates in brackets are the certain or probable dates of composition.

Logic. Super Porphyrium de 5 universalibus, B.1, C.1; De praedicamentis, B.1, C.1; De sex principiis, B.1, C.1; De divisione, C.1; Peri hermeneias, B.1, C.1; Analytica priora, B.1, C.2; Analytica posteriora, B.2, C.2; Topica, B.2, C.3; De sophisticis elenchis, B.2, C.3 [all between 12481264].

Natural Science. Physica, B.3, C.4 [between 124548]; De caelo et mundo, B.4, C.5 [between 124860]; De natura locorum, B.9, C.5 [before 1259]; De causis proprietatum elementorum, B.9, C.5 [between 124859]; De generatione et corruptione, B.4, C.5 [before 1260]; Meteora, B.4, C.6 [before 1259]; Mineralia, B.5, C.6 [before 1263]; De anima, B.5, C.7 [c. 1256]; De nutrimento, B.9, C.7 [before 1263]; De intellectu et intelligibili, B.9, C.7 [before 1259]; De sensu et sensato, B.9, C.7 [before 1260]; De memoria, B.9, C.7 [before 1263]; De somno et vigilia, B.9, C.7 [before 1259]; De spiritu et respiratione, B.9, C.7 [before 1259]; De motibus animalium, B.9, C.7 [before 1259]; De aetate, B.9, C.7 [before 1259]; De morte et vita, B.9, C.7 [before 1259]; De vegetabilibus et plantis, B.10, C.8 [before 1259]; De animalibus, B.1112, C.91 [125862]; De natura et origine animae, B.9, C.12 [c. 1263]; De principiis motus processivi, B.10, C.12 [ c. 1261]; QQ. super de animalibus, C.12 [c. 1258]

Moral Sciences. Ethica, B.7, C.13 [before 1261]; Super Ethica commentum et quaestiones, C.14 [between 124852]; Politica, B.8, C.15 [between 126575].

Metaphysics. Metaphysica, B.6, C.16 [between 126166]; De causis, B.10, C.17 [between 126671]; De unitate intellectus, B.9, C.17 [c. 1270]; De 15 problematibus, C.17 [c. 1270]; 43 Problemata determinata, C.17 [April 1271].

Sacred Scripture. Super Iob, C.18 [1272 or 1274]; Super Isaiam, C.19; Super Ieremiam (frag.), C.20; Super Threnos, B.18, C.20; Super Baruch, B.18, C.20; Super Ezechielem (frag.), C.20; Super Danielem, B.18, C.20; Super Prophetas minores, B.19, C.20; Super Mattheum, B.2021, C.21 [definitive version after 1270]; Super Marcum, B.21, C.22 [definitive version between 12725]; Super Lucam, B.2223, C.23 [126162; rev. 127075]; Super Ioannem, B.24, C.24 [1256; rev. 127275]. Albert's commentaries on St. Paul and on Apocalypse have not yet been found; the printed Apocalypse is spurious.

Systematic Theology. De natura boni, C.25 [before 1240]; Super 4 sententiarum, B.2530, C.2932 [rev. version completed in 1249]; QQ. theologicae, C.25 [124548]; De sacramentis, De incarnatione, De resurrectione, C.26 [124550]; De 4 coaequaevis, B.34, C.26 [124550]; De homine, B.35, C.27 [124448]; De bono, C.28 [124448]; In corpus Dionysium, B.14, C.3637 [124860]; Summa theologiae, B.3133, C.3435 [after 1270]; De mysterio missae, B.38, C.38 [after 1270]; De corpore domini, B.38, C.38 [after 1270].

Sermons and Letters. C.39 (see J. P. Schneyer).

Spurious and Dubious Works. C.40. It is certain that Albert wrote on mathematics, astronomy, and rhetoric, but these writings have not yet been found. Among the definitely spurious works, the best known are the Compendium theologiae veritatis, B.34, which is by Hugh of Strassburg; De laudibus B. Mariae Virginis, B.36; Mariale, B.37; Biblia Mariana, B.37; the De secretis naturae, De secretis mulierum, and other occult works. The authenticity of many other works is still disputed among scholars, principally that of the Speculum astronomiae.

Feast: Nov. 15.

See Also: thomism; scholasticism; neoplatonism.

Bibliography: m. albert, Albert the Great (Oxford 1948). m. j. dorcy, Master Albert; the Story of Saint Albert the Great (New York 1955). t. m. schwertner, Saint Albert the Great (Milwaukee 1932). f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946) 2:293301. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 30. f. ueberweg, Grundriss der Geshichte der Philosophie, ed. k. praechter et al. (Berlin 192328) 2:400416. Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 1:121127. w. kÜbel, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 1:285287; see 284 under "Albertismus." p. mandonnet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 1.1:666675. Institutum Alberti Magni Coloniense, b. geyer, president, Opera omnia ad fidem codicum manuscriptorum edenda, apparatu critico , ed. w. kÜbel, 37 v. (Aschendorff, Germany 19511993). p. g. meersseman, Introductio in opera omnia Beati Alberti Magni (Bruges 1931). "De vita et scriptis B. Alberti Magni," ed. p. de loË, Analecta Bollandiana 19 (Brussels 1900) 257284; 20 (1901) 273316; 21 (1902) 361371. j. quÉtif and j. Échard, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum (Paris 171923) 1:162183. Albert der Grosse in Köln: gehalten auf der Feierstunde zur 750sten Wiederkehr , ed. j. a. aertsen (Cologne 1999). Albertus Magnus, Doctor universalis, ed. g. meyer and a. zimmermann (Mainz 1980). t. m. bonin, Creation as Emanation: The Origin of Diversity in Albert the Great's On the Causes and the Procession of the Universe (Notre Dame, Ind. 2000). g. emery, La Trinité créatrice: Trinité et création dans les commentaires aux Sentences de Thomas d'Aquin et de ses précurseurs Albert le Grand et Bonaventure (Paris 1995). k. illing, Alberts des Grossen "Super Missam"Traktat in mittelhochdeutschen Übertragungen: Untersuchungen und Texte (Munich 1975). a. de libera, Albert le Grand et la philosophie (Paris 1990). f.-j. nocke, Sakrament und personaler Vollzug bei Albertus Magnus (Münster 1967). a. piolanti, Il corpo mistico: e le sue relazioni con l'eucaristia in S. Alberto Magno (Rome 1969). h. c. scheeben, "Albertus der Grosse: Zur Chronologie seines Lebens," Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Dominikanerordens in Deutschland 27 (Vechta 1931). "Le Bienheureux Albert le Grand," Revue thomiste 36 (1931), esp. m. h. laurent and y. congar, "Essai de bibliographie albertinienne," 422468. m. schooyans, "Bibliographie philosophique de saint Albert le Grand (193160)," Revista da Universidade Católica de São Paulo 21 (1961) 3688. j. p. schneyer, "Predigten Alberts des Grossen in der Hs. Leipzig, Univ. Bibl. 683," Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 34 (1964) 45106. j. p. tilmann, An Appraisal of the Geographical Works of Albertus Magnus and His Contributions to Geographical Thought (Ann Arbor 1971). p. zambelli, The Speculum Astronomiae and Its Enigma (Dordrecht 1992). Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings, tr. s. tugwell, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York 1988).

[j. a. weisheipl]

About this article

Albert the Great, St.

Updated About content Print Article Share Article