Albert the Great Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.