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Albert the Great

Albert the Great Essay - Critical Essays

Albert the Great


Albert the Great c. 1193/1206-1280

German scientist, theologian, and philosopher.

Albert the Great (also known as Albertus Magnus and St. Albert) is considered among the most prominent of the Scholastics (a group of Medieval thinkers whose interest in theology, philosophy, science, and logic was awakened by the reemergence of classical Greek, Hebrew, and Islamic learning in the Christian West). A prolific writer, he was the first Christian thinker to undertake an analysis of the entire canon of Aristotelian writings and to record his observations in vast commentaries on each of the Stagirite's works. Known as Doctor universalis (universal doctor) for the versatility of his knowledge Albert also wrote treatises on nearly every mode of scientific thought available in the Middle Ages, including works on naturalism, biology, astronomy, and alchemy; all his works emphasize the importance of experimentation and critical evaluation instead of an appeal to authority. Although primarily remembered for these copious and original writings on science, Albert, like his famous student Thomas Aquinas, placed the study of theology at the top of the hierarchy of learning. Among his works in this field are many commentares on the Bible, theological speculations about Pseudo-Dionysis, and books on ethics, morality, and divine epistemology.

Biographical Information

While the facts of Albert's birth and childhood are somewhat sketchy, he appears to have been born sometime between the years of 1193 and 1206 near the small town of Lauingen on the Danube river. He was sent by his father, a wealthy German knight, to the University of Padua, but abandoned his study of the liberal arts in 1223 and, against the wishes of his family, sought admission to the Dominican order of mendicant friars. Albert studied, and later taught, theology for the next two decades at universities in Italy and Germany, eventually completing his education at the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques, located in the University of Paris. He graduated as a master of theology in 1245, and while in Paris came into contact with Latin translations of Aristotle's works brought to western Europe through the commentaries of the great Arabic scholars Averroës, Avicenna, and others. Albert's scholarly pursuits of the next twenty years were devoted to the study of ancient Greek, Arabic, and Christian knowledge, and culminated in his commentaries on the Bible, Peter Lombard's Sentences, and the works of Aristotle. It is primarily because of the latter that he became esteemed among European intellectuals, prompting his renowned contemporary, Roger Bacon, to declare him "the most noted of Christian scholars." In 1248 Albert was sent to head a new studium general (general house of studies) in Cologne, which became his home for the rest of his life. Named prior of Teutonia (a province that stretched from eastern France in the west, to what are the modern nations of Switzerland and Austria in the south and the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania in the east) in 1254, Albert spent the next three years attending to administrative duties, while continuing to work on his scholarly projects. In 1256 Pope Alexander IV sent him back to the University of Paris to defend the rights of the Franciscan and the Dominican orders to teach. Successful in this endeavor, he was appointed Bishop of Regensburg in 1259, though he returned to teaching in Cologne after less than two years. He subsequently served as a papal legate in Germany and Bohemia from 1263 to 1264, but soon withdrew from active ecclesiastical life in order to teach. Beatified by Gregory XV in 1622, nearly three and a half decades after his death (the delay was likely due to charges of sorcery that can be traced to his dabbling in the alchemical sciences throughout his career), and canonized in 1931, Albert was named patron saint of natural scientists in 1941 by Pope Pius XII.

Major Works

The breadth of Albert's learning embraced the full spectrum of natural science, philosophy, and theology, and his ideas are said to encapsulate the state of human knowledge as it existed in thirteenth-century Europe. Among his earliest works are a group of biblical commentaries and other theological works such as his Super sententiarum (c. 1246-49), an exegesis of Peter Lombard's Sentences, and several books devoted to the Neoplatonic thought of Pseudo-Dionysius. De bono (c. 1246-48), another of Albert's early writings, focuses on ethics and is a synthesis of his thoughts on natural moral doctrine. At the request of his fellow Dominican friars he sought to render the thought of Aristotle in a form "intelligible to all Latins." His Physica (c. 1251), the first of these works undertaken, is, like the rest of his Aristotelian commentaries, a sustained reading of the text coupled with personal and critical reflections on the work and on the thoughts of past commentators, as well as digressions (often of considerable length) designed to bridge any gaps in the original and to elucidate particularly difficult passages. Albert also wrote several completely original works, the most well-known being his Mineralia (c. 1252-62; Book of Minerals), intended to alleviate the lack of information on geological matters in the Aristotelian corpus. Typical of Albert's many scientific writings (including works on physics, alchemy, botany, zoology, psychology, meterology, geography, astronomy, and astrology), Mineralia attests to his wide but personal experience of nature and his skepticism regarding knowledge that is derived solely from logic or past authority. Albert's scientific writings evince along with his forward-looking belief in experimentation, his deeply Christian worldview—a quality that is infused in all of his works. For him God is the prime mover and first cause of nature whose will is observable in all natural phenomena. Albert's goal, in keeping with his role as a Scholastic, was to create a synthesis of learning within the context of theology, which he saw as the highest form of human knowledge. Thus, Albert's writings, consistently address the metaphysical questions of being, unity, and the good and maintain that no contradiction exists between knowledge gained by faith or by reason, since both spring from the divine.

Critical Reception

Albert received the epithet "the Great" in his own lifetime, and his writings continued to have a powerful effect on the intellectual life of Europe for centuries after his death. In science his stated goal was to provide "a complete account of all nature," and critics have since noted his influence on later scientists in terms of the acquisition of knowledge through experimentation and observation. In addition, Albert's name has long been associated with the medieval science of alchemy. The authorship of several alchemical texts of questionable authenticity has often been ascribed to him: these include De secretis naturae, Speculum astronomia, and Libellus de alchimia, all of which were included in the Borgnet editions of his works (1890-99) and correspond with the rise in his popular reputation as a magician soon after his death. In terms of philosophy, critics have observed that Albert's renown was quickly superseded by the insights of his former pupil and disciple, Thomas Aquinas. Most commentators, however, have acknowledged that Albert paved the way for the theological synthesis of Aquinas and the growth of the scientific method in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Recent critical assessments of Albert have emphasized several flaws in his thought, and some scholars have cited multiple examples of inconsistency and imprecision in his writings, but further evaluations await the completion of the modern Cologne editions (1951-) of his works. Likewise, future appraisals require the translation of Albert's corpus into English—only a small portion of which has been undertaken, primarily by Lynn Thorndike, Dorothy Wyckoff, and Simon Tugwell—for the present leaving many of the Albert's writings unexplored.

Principal Works

De natura boni (treatise) c. 1243-44

Principium biblicum (treatise) 1245

Super Isaiam (treatise) c. 1245-50

De homine (treatise) c. 1246

De incarnatione (treatise) c. 1246

De quatuor coaequaevis (treatise) c. 1246

De resurrectione (treatise) c. 1246

De sacramentis (treatise) c. 1246

De bono (treatise) c. 1246-48

Super sententiarum (treatise) c. 1246-49

Super Dionysium de caelesti hierarchia (treatise) c. 1247

Quaestiones theologiae (treatise) c. 1247-48

Sermones parisiensis (treatise) c. 1247-48

De forma resultante in speculo (treatise) c. 1248

Super Dionysium de ecclesiastica hierarchia (treatise) c. 1249

Super Dionysium de divinis nominibus (treatise) c. 1250

Super Dionysium de mystica theologia (treatise) c. 1250

Super epistulas Dionysii (treatise) c. 1250

Super ethica, commentum et quaestiones (treatise) c. 1250-52

De caelo et mundo (treatise) c. 1251

Physica (treatise) c. 1251

De lineis indivisibilibus (treatise) c. 1251-52...

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Principal English Translations

Book of Minerals (translated by Dorothy Wyckoff) 1967 Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings (translated by Simon Tugwell) 1988

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Joachim Sighart (essay date 1876)

SOURCE: "Philosophical and Theological Works Written by Albert at This Period," in Albert the Great, of the Order of Friar-Preachers: His Life and Scholastic Labours, translated by T. A. Dixon, 1876. Reprint by Wm G. Brown Reprint Library, pp. 101-19.

[In the following excerpt, Sighart surveys the writings Albert produced while he resided and taught in Paris and Cologne.]

Contemplation, prayer, and preaching were to [Albert] but the accessories of the greatest activity, the adornment, the joy of his life, a sweet recreation and an interior refreshment amid his more serious studies. The principal work to which he felt himself called was, besides teaching, his labours as...

(The entire section is 3398 words.)

Lynn Thorndike (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "Albertus Magnus," in A History of Magic and Experimental Science during the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, Vol. II, The Macmillan Company, 1929, pp. 517-92.

[In the following excerpt, Thorndike examines Albert's representative thoughts on magic and natural science, his influence on his students, and his reputation among various critics and biographers.]

It may be well at the start to indicate the scope and character of Albert's works in the field of science. In general they follow the plan of the natural philosophy of Aristotle and parallel the titles of the works then attributed, in some cases incorrectly, to Aristotle. We have eight books of physics,...

(The entire section is 10100 words.)

Thomas Greenwood (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "Albertus Magnus: His Scientific Views," in Nature, Vol. 129, No. 3251, February 20, 1932, pp. 266-68.

[In the following essay, Greenwood comments on Albert's scientific writings "as they represent the state of scientific knowledge in the Middle Ages."]

"Everything there was to be known, he knew." Thus is the genius of Albert the Great characterised by the Pope in the remarkable Bull "In Thesauris Sapientiæ" declaring the blessed Bishop of Regensburg a saint and a doctor of the Church. In this "Decretal Letter", dated Dec. 16, 1931, but published on Jan. 14, 1932, Pope Pius XI. points out that Albert the Great (1206-1280) was not only a lover of God, a pastor...

(The entire section is 1950 words.)

Thomas M. Schwertner (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "All-Seeing Naturalist" and "Theologian," in St. Albert the Great, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1932, pp. 210-29, 270-95.

[In the following excerpt, Schwertner describes the breadth and depth of Albert's erudition both as a scientist and a theologian.]


One of the inevitable results of the assiduous cultivation of the history of the various natural sciences, so characteristic of all scientific research today, is the rehabilitation of Albert's good name as a scientist. Scholars in goodly numbers are again thinking it worth their while to seek to evaluate his original contributions to the various sciences and to...

(The entire section is 13785 words.)

S. M. Albert (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Doctor Universalis," in Albert the Great, Blackfriars Publications, 1948, pp. 59-88.

[In the following essay, Albert discusses the accomplishments of Albert the Great as a scientist, philosopher, and theologian, stressing "the universality of his genius" and his vocation as a teacher.]

In one of his books Ulrich von Strassburg, who is usually described as St Albert's favourite pupil, says of his master that "he was the wonder and miracle of his age"; and Pius II in his dogmatic letter to the Turks 1464, hails him as one "who was ignorant of nothing, and knew all that was knowable." In his preface—in verse after the fashion of the times—to the first printed...

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Stanley B. Cunningham (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Albertus Magnus on Natural Law," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, October-December, 1967, pp. 479-502.

[In the following essay, Cunningham maintains that Albert's writings in his De bono constitute a significant development in the Medieval conception of natural law.]

In the history of the concept of natural law and its development in the Middle Ages, a privileged authority is commanded by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. By comparison, only scant attention has been paid to speculations in the area of law and morals carried out by Thomas' teacher, Albert the Great (1206-1280), and still less to the extent of Thomas' dependency...

(The entire section is 10095 words.)

Dorothy Wyckoff (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: An introduction to Book of Minerals, by Albertus Magnus, translated by Dorothy Wyckoff, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1967, pp. xiii-xlii.

[In the following excerpt, Wyckoff presents an overview of Albert's life and discusses the nature of his scientific writings, specifically of his Book of Minerals.]


Albert was a famous man even in his own time but, as so often with famous men of the Middle Ages, contemporary biographers omitted much that we should like to know about him. Modern scholars have had to piece together the sometimes contradictory statements in medieval chronicles and histories of the Dominican Order, local...

(The entire section is 9519 words.)

Stanley B. Cunningham (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Albertus Magnus and the Problem of Moral Virtue," in Vivarium, Vol. VII, 1969, pp. 81-119.

[In the following essay, Cunningham examines Albert's treatise on ethics, Do bono, arguing that the work displays an innovative concern with "the purely natural and human elements of morality."]


Within the intellectual upheaval that attended the appearance of Greek philosophical literature in the Latin West in the early thirteenth century, a special problem was put for Christian moralists when they were confronted by the theory of natural virtue contained in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Not...

(The entire section is 14946 words.)

James R. Shaw (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Albertus Magnus and the Rise of an Empirical Approach in Medieval Philosophy and Science," in By Things Seen: Reference and Recognition in Medieval Thought, edited by David L. Jeffrey, University of Ottawa Press, 1979, pp. 175-85.

[In the following excerpt, Shaw argues that Albert's works were among the first to emphasize experimentation in the biological sciences.]


Insofar as it is possible to generalize meaningfully about such things, it is true that at the beginning of the thirteenth century Plato was the establishment philosopher, but at the end of the same century he was not so firmly established. At the end of the century,...

(The entire section is 4547 words.)

Léonard Ducharme (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Individual Human Being in Saint Albert's Earlier Writings," in Albert the Great: Commemorative Essays, edited by Francis J. Kovach and Robert W. Shahan, University of Oklahoma Press, 1980, pp. 131-60.

[In the following essay, Ducharme analyzes Albert's "ambiguous and puzzling" metaphysics of individual being and dicusses in detail his borrowings from Christian faith, Aristotle, the Doctors of the Church, and Neoplatonism..]

The self-standing value of individual beings often appears as holding little interest for philosophers and metaphysicians. Since they are mainly preoccupied with the universal and the necessary, they grant scant recognition to the...

(The entire section is 11266 words.)

Pearl Kibre (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Albertus Magnus on Alchemy," in Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1980, edited by James A. Weisheipl, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980, pp. 187-202.

[In the following essay, Kibre focuses on Albert's association with the Medieval science of alchemy and on several apocryphal alchemical texts sometimes attributed to him.]

Albert's interest in alchemy, the art, in his words, that best imitates nature, is revealed in the references to the subject in his authentic writings, particularly the Book of Minerals (Liber mineralium), his Commentary on Aristotle's Meteorology, and other tracts....

(The entire section is 5053 words.)

Nicholas H. Steneck (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Albert on the Psychology of Sense Perception," in Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1980, edited by James A. Weisheipl, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980, pp. 263-90.

[In the following essay, Steneck explores Albert's theory of sense perception, arguing that it typifies the general level of scientific understanding in the field at the time.]

By the mid-fourteenth century, when the anonymous Tractatus ad libros Aristotelis … was copied, most Latin writers in the scholastic tradition held in common a conceptualization of sense perception that served well the needs of natural philosophers, theologians, and physicians...

(The entire section is 8962 words.)

Katharine Park (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Albert's Influence on Late Medieval Psychology," in Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1980, edited by James A. Weisheipl, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980, pp. 501-35.

[In the following excerpt, Park discusses Albert's theory of the soul and its importance to Medieval psychological theory, including that of his student Thomas Aquinas.]

Albert wrote four major works on the soul: a commentary on De anima; Summa de homine (Book II of his Summa de creaturis); De natura et origine animae; and De intellectu et intelligibili. The first two were the most important for...

(The entire section is 2287 words.)

Simon Tugwell (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction in Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings, edited and translated by Simon Tugwell, Paulist Press, 1988, pp. 3-129.

[In the following excerpt, Tugwell investigates Albert's theological writings on epistemology, especially those that concern human knowledge of God.]

In 1241 William of Auvergne, by now bishop of Paris, together with the Masters of the University, issued a formal condemnation of several propositions, of which the first is that "the divine essence will not be seen in itself either by any human being or by any angel." The ninth proposition is that "whoever has better natural endowments will of necessity have more grace and glory," which...

(The entire section is 16008 words.)