Albertus Magnus

Albertus Magnus - 1193-1280 - was also known as Saint Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, was a Dominican friar who became famous for his comprehensive knowledge and advocacy for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion. He is considered to be the greatest German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages. He was the first medieval scholar to apply Aristotle's philosophy to Christian thought at the time. Catholicism honors him as a Doctor of the Church, one of only 33 men and women with that honor.

In the Dominican Order he rose to the position of Bishop of Ratisbourg. Later he was canonized as Saint Albert the Great. He was both student and teacher of alchemy and chemistry, and an alleged magician. He firmly believed in the benefits of botany claiming various plants, rocks, and amethysts improved clairvoyance.

Like Aristotle, he thought nature and men's lives were controlled by the stars and plants. Notably he taught Saint Thomas Acquinas and made several significant contributions to chemistry. Legend has it he turned based metal into gold, but there is no evidence of this in his notes on alchemy. Legend also has it that when a dinner guest of William II, the Count of Holland, on New Year's Day, 1242, Magnus suggested the guests dine outdoors. Wanting a piece of land for a monastery he graciously changed the freezing day into a warm spring afternoon with blooming flowers and singing birds.


He was born of the noble family of Bollstadt in Lauingen, Bavaria, Germany on the Danube, sometime between 1193 and 1206. The term "magnus" is not descriptive; it is the Latin equivalent of his family name, de Groot.

Albertus was educated principally at Padua, where he received instruction in Aristotle's writings.

After an alleged encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary, he entered holy orders.

In 1223 he became a member of the Dominican Order, and studied theology under its rules at Bologna and elsewhere.

Selected to fill the position of lecturer at Cologne, where the order had a house, he taught for several years there, at Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg and Hildesheim.

In 1245 he went to Paris, received his doctorate and taught for some time, in accordance with the regulations, with great success.

In 1254 he was made provincial of the Dominican Order, and fulfilled the arduous duties of the office with great care and efficiency. During the time he held this office he publicly defended the Dominicans against the attacks by the secular and regular faculty of the University of Paris, commented on St John, and answered the errors of the Arabian philosopher, Averroes.

In 1260 Pope Alexander IV made him bishop of Regensburg, which office he resigned after three years. The remainder of his life he spent partly in preaching throughout Bavaria and the adjoining districts, partly in retirement in the various houses of his order.

In 1270 he preached the eighth Crusade in Austria. Among the last of his labors was the defence of the orthodoxy of his former pupil, Thomas Aquinas, whose death in 1274 grieved Albertus.

After suffering collapse of health in 1278, he died on November 15, 1280, in Cologne, Germany. His tomb is in the crypt of the Dominican church of St. Andreas in Cologne.

Albertus is frequently mentioned by Dante, who made his doctrine of free will the basis of his ethical system. In his Divine Comedy, Dante places Albertus with his pupil Thomas Aquinas among the great lovers of wisdom (Spiriti Sapienti) in the Heaven of the Sun.Albertus was beatified in 1622.

He was canonized and also officially named a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. His feast day is celebrated on November 15th.


Albertus is known for his enlightening commentary on musical practice of the time. Most of his musical observations are given in his commentary on Aristotle's Poetics.

Among other things, he rejects the idea of "music of the spheres" as ridiculous: movement of astronomical bodies, he supposes, is incapable of generating sound.

He also wrote extensively on proportions in music, and on the three different subjective levels on which plainchant could work on the human soul: purging of the impure; illumination leading to contemplation; and nourishing perfection through contemplation.

Of particular interest to 20th century music theorists is the attention he paid to silence as an integral part of music.


Albertus' writings collected in 1899 went to 38 volumes, displaying his prolific habits and literally encyclopedic knowledge of topics including, but not limited to, logic, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, chemistry, zo÷logy, physiology, and phrenology, all of it the result of logic and observation. He was the most widely read author of his time.

The whole of Aristotle's works, presented in the Latin translations and notes of the Arabian commentators, were by him digested, interpreted and systematized in accordance with church doctrine. He came to be so associated with Aristotle that he was referred to as "Aristotle's ape".

Albert's activity, however, was more philosophical than theological. The philosophical works, occupying the first six and the last of the twenty-one volumes, are generally divided according to the Aristotelian scheme of the sciences, and consist of interpretations and condensations of Aristotle's relative works, with supplementary discussions depending on the questions then agitated, and occasionally divergences from the opinions of the master.

His principal theological works are a commentary in three volumes on the Books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Magister Sententiarum), and the Summa Theologiae in two volumes. This last is in substance a repetition of the first in a more didactic form.


The influence exerted by Albert on the scholars of his own day and on those of subsequent ages was naturally great.

His fame is due in part to the fact that he was the forerunner, the guide and master of St. Thomas Aquinas, but he was great in his own name, his claim to distinction being recognized by his contemporaries and by posterity.

It is remarkable that this friar of the Middle Ages, in the midst of his many duties as a religious, as provincial of his order, as bishop and papal legate, as preacher of a crusade, and while making many laborious journeys from Cologne to Paris and Rome, and frequent excursions into different parts of Germany, should have been able to compose a veritable encyclopedia, containing scientific treatises on almost every subject, and displaying an insight into nature and a knowledge of theology which surprised his contemporaries and still excites the admiration of learned men in our own times.

He was, in truth, a Doctor Universalis. Of him it in justly be said: Nil tetigit quod non ornavit; and there is no exaggeration in the praises of the modern critic who wrote: "Whether we consider him as a theologian or as a philosopher, Albert was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary men of his age; I might say, one of the most wonderful men of genius who appeared in past times" (Jourdain, Recherches Critiques).

Philosophy, in the days of Albert, was a general science embracing everything that could be known by the natural powers of the mind; physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. In his writings we do not, it is true, find the distinction between the sciences and philosophy which recent usage makes. It will, however, be convenient to consider his skill in the experimental sciences, his influence on scholastic philosophy, his theology.


Albertus' knowledge of physical science was considerable and for the age accurate. His industry in every department was great, and though we find in his system many of those gaps which are characteristic of scholastic philosophy, yet the protracted study of Aristotle gave him a great power of systematic thought and exposition, and the results of that study, as left to us, by no means warrant the contemptuous title sometimes given him of the "Ape of Aristotle."

They rather lead us to appreciate the motives which caused his contemporaries to bestow on him the honorable surnames "The Great" and Doctor Universalis.

It must, however, be admitted that much of his knowledge was ill digested; it even appears that he regarded Plato and Speusippus as Stoics.

Albertus was both a student and a teacher of alchemy and chemistry.

He isolated arsenic in 1250, the first element to be isolated since antiquity and the first with a known discoverer.

He was alleged to be a magician, since he was repeatedly charged by some of his unfriendly contemporaries with communing with the devil, practicing the craft of magic, and with the making of a demonic automata able to speak.

He was also one of the alchemists reputed to have succeeded in discovering the Philosopher's Stone.


More important than Albert's development of the physical sciences was his influence on the study of philosophy and theology. He, more than any one of the great scholastics preceding St. Thomas, gave to Christian philosophy and theology the form and method which, substantially, they retain to this day.

In this respect he was the forerunner and master of St. Thomas, who excelled him, however, in many qualities required in a perfect Christian Doctor. In marking out the course which other followed, Albert shared the glory of being a pioneer with Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), whose "Summa Theologiae" was the first written after all the works of Aristotle had become generally known at Paris.

Their application of Aristotelean methods and principles to the study of revealed doctrine gave to the world the scholastic system which embodies the reconciliation of reason and Orthodox faith.

After the unorthodox Averroes, Albert was the chief commentator on the works of, Aristotle, whose writings he studied most assiduously, and whose principles he adopted, in order to systematize theology, by which was meant a scientific exposition and defence of Christian doctrine.

The choice of Aristotle as a master excited strong opposition. Jewish and Arabic commentaries on the works of the Stagirite had given rise to so many errors in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries that for several years (1210-25) the study of Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics was forbidden at Paris.

Albert, however, knew that Averroes, Abelard, Amalric, and others had drawn false doctrines from the writings of the Philosopher; he knew, moreover, that it would have been impossible to stem the tide of enthusiasm in favour of philosophical studies; and so he resolved to purify the works of Aristotle from Rationalism, Averroism, Pantheism, and other errors, and thus compel pagan philosophy to do service in the cause of revealed truth. In this he followed the canon laid down by St. Augustine (II De Doct. Christ., xl), who declared that truths found in the writings of pagan philosophers were to be adopted by the defenders of the true faith, while their erroneous opinions were to be abandoned, or explained in a Christian sense. All inferior (natural) sciences should be the servants (ancillae) of Theology, which is the superior and the mistress

Against the rationalism of Abelard and his followers Albert pointed out the distinction between truths naturally knowable and mysteries (e.g. the Trinity and the Incarnation) which cannot known without revelation

We have seen that he wrote two treatises against Averroism, which destroyed individual immortality and individual responsibility, by teaching that there is but one rational soul for all men.

Pantheism was refuted along with Averroism when the true doctrine on Universals, the system known as moderate Realism, was accepted by the scholastic philosophers.

This doctrine Albert based upon the Distinction of the universal ante rem (an idea or archetype in the mind of God), in re (existing or capable of existing in many individuals), and post rem (as a concept abstracted by the mind, and compared with the individuals of which it can be predicated).

"Universale duobus constituitur, natura, scilicet cui accidit universalitas, et respectu ad multa. qui complet illam in natura universalis" (Met., lib. V, tr. vi, cc. v, vi). A.T. Drane (Mother Raphael, O.S.D.) gives a remarkable explanation of these doctrines (op. cit. 344-429). Though follower of Aristotle, Albert did not neglect Plato.

"Scias quod non perficitur homo in philosophia, nisi scientia duarum philosophiarum, Aristotelis et Platonis (Met., lib. I, tr. v, c. xv). It is erroneous to say that he was merely the "Ape" (simius) of Aristotle. In the knowledge of Divine things faith precedes the understanding of Divine truth, authority precedes reason (I Sent., dist. II, a. 10); but in matters that can be naturally known a philosopher should not hold an opinion which he is not prepared to defend by reason ibid., XII; Periherm., 1, I, tr. l, c. i).

Logic, according to Albert, was a preparation for philosophy teaching how we should use reason in order to pass from the known to the unknown: "Docens qualiter et per quae devenitur per notum ad ignoti notitiam" (De praedicabilibus, tr. I, c. iv).

Philosophy is either contemplative or practical. Contemplative philosophy embraces physics, mathematics, and metaphysics; practical (moral) plilosophy is monastic (for the individual), domestic (for the family), or political (for the state, or society).

Excluding physics, now a special study, authors in our times still retain the old scholastic division of philosophy into logic, metaphysics (general and special), and ethics.


In theology Albert occupies a place between Peter Lombard, the Master of the Sentences, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

In systematic order, in accuracy and clearness he surpasses the former, but is inferior to his own illustrious disciple.

His "Summa Theologiae" marks an advance beyond the custom of his time in the scientific order observed, in the elimination of useless questions, in the limitation of arguments and objections; there still remain, however, many of the impedimenta, hindrances, or stumbling blocks, which St. Thomas considered serious enough to call for a new manual of theology for the use of beginners - ad eruditionem incipientium, as the Angelic Doctor modestly remarks in the prologue of his immortal "Summa".

The mind of the Doctor Universalis was so filled with the knowledge of many things that he could not always adapt his expositions of the truth to the capacity of novices in the science of theology.

He trained and directed a pupil who gave the world a concise, clear, and perfect scientific exposition and defence of Christian Doctrine; under God, therefore, we owe to Albertus Magnus the "Summa Theologica" of St. Thomas.

He died at Cologne, November 15, 1280.

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