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Thirteenth-century Pathfinder at the Crossroads of Faith and Science

Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great; c 1200 - 1280) was one of the most universal thinkers to appear during the Middle Ages. He wrote on botany, astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology, and geography, and made original contributions to logic, psychology, metaphysics, meteorology, mineralogy and zoology. He made maps and charts, experimented with plants, studied chemical reactions, designed instruments for navigation, and made detailed studies of birds and animals.

Albert's prolific writings included commentaries on the works of Aristotle and other classical thinkers, as well as the Arab philosophers whose texts were being reintroduced into European universities during the 13th century. In addition to scientific and philosophical writings, Albert wrote numerous biblical commentaries and other theological works. His understanding of diverse philosophical texts allowed him to construct in his Summa Theologica, one of the most remarkable syntheses in medieval culture. His premise, that faith and reason are not incompatible sources of knowledge, provided inspiration for the major work of his most famous pupil, Dominican colleague and friend, Thomas Aquinas.

German Origins

Albert was born in the Bavarian town of Lauingen. His father, a member of the lesser nobility, was able to send his son to study in Padua, Italy, where he showed an intense interest in natural phenomena and in theology. In 1223 he was received into the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and was sent to the priory of Cologne, which remained his home during a long career of scholarship, writing, travel and teaching.

As a student at the University of Paris, then as professor, Albert found the “new learning,” based upon Greek and Arab philosophy and science, arousing controversy unknown in the German centers of learning. He undertook a number of writing projects showing the relationship of these ancient works to Christian teaching. During this period Albert was known as Albertus Teutonicus (Albert the German), until Roger Bacon dubbed him “Magnus.”

European Influence

Albert served four years as provincial of German-speaking Dominicans, which entailed visits to the more than 56 priories and convents in an area which included a mission as far away as Riga (now the capital of Latvia). He always traveled on foot, often stopping to examine natural phenomena, and spent long hours in the libraries of the houses he visited, copying any books that were new to him. As his fame grew, Albert was called upon to mediate theological disputes, create new curricula, conduct conferences and defend the new scientific learning. His skill as arbiter and peacemaker brought papal assignments to a number of ecclesiastical and diplomatic tasks including his appointment as bishop of Regensburg in 1260, a diocese in spiritual and financial crisis. After three years of reform and encouragement Albert asked to be relieved of the position, and he returned to teaching.

The death of Thomas Aquinas in 1274, was a great sadness to Albert, who declared that “the light of the Church” had been extinguished. It is said that in the following years he could not restrain his tears whenever Thomas was mentioned.

Universal Significance

Albertus Magnus died on November 15, 1280, and was buried in Cologne. In 1931 he was declared both a saint and a doctor of the Church, and in 1941 was named patron saint of the natural sciences. Albert's greatness lies not just in his fidelity to the Christian and Dominican vision, nor in the brilliance of his scholarly work, nor in the breadth of his intellect, although these qualities were truly remarkable. But, with insight unusual in his era, Albert directed his scientific study and teaching in the belief 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.” (De mineral.11, tr.2, c 1)