Catholic Churchmen in Science: Albertus Magnus

Albert the Great, Scientist
Philosopher, Theologian, Scientist.

There are very few men, probably not more than can be counted easily on the fingers of the two hands, with whose names in history are associated the epithet “Great.” As a rule, those who have it as even a more or less constant attribute are supposed to have merited it because of prowess in war. It probably will be a surprise to most people to have it called to their attention that there is one scholar in history to whom by universal consent the epithet has been so constantly attributed that most readers when they meet the word do not think of it as an adjective, but consider it to be a portion of his proper name. Albert von Bollstadt has Magnus or Great so intimately associated with his name that, as in the case of Charlemagne, it has become quite identified with him and probably most readers of history never think of either of them except with the epithet in mind. When we find that Albert was born in the heart of the Middle Ages, at the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century, the surprise is likely to be emphasized that at this portion of human history should have come the one scholar whose name is forever ” the Great.” Even more interesting than the fact that Albert should have been proclaimed ” the Great” for scholarship in the Middle Ages is the circumstance that, because of the breadth of his genius and interests, he probably deserves the title more than any other scholar who has ever lived. He more nearly reached universality of knowledge in his time than perhaps it has ever been given to any man alive. I say this deliberately, knowing how much Aristotle succeeded in exhausting human knowledge in his time, but appreciating the fact that Albert’s contemporaries who knew their Aristotle very well called him a new Aristotle, appreciating that he had in addition depths of knowledge in many developments of Christian revelation as well as in the evolution of modern scientific ideas, that were far in advance of the old Greek philosopher. Of course it may be thought that at this time, in the thirteenth century, it would not be much for a man to exhaust human knowledge, because men did not know very much. Those who think that, however, know nothing of the curricula of the Universities of the thirteenth century, and especially ignore the fact that men’s minds were just as inquisitive and succeeded in finding quite as satisfactory answers to the more important questions that concern man and his destiny as any that are accepted at the present time.

It is indeed amusing to note how confidently men who know nothing at all about the Middle Ages – and are indeed quite willing to confess that they know nothing – assume that there cannot have been any education or any interest in science in those times worth while talking about. For, just as soon as men investigate for themselves the subject of education and scientific knowledge at that period, their ideas change and they begin not only to respect but to admire the great work done by thinkers and educators in those misunderstood ages. Literally men come to scoff and remain to pray. The more one knows about the Middle Ages the less does one say in depreciation of them. Just as soon as one studies faithfully any special feature of the work they did, at once lack of comprehension changes to respect and then to reverence for their industrious, misjudged and calumniated scholars.

This is as true for men of science as for those who are interested in art and literature. A typical example is Professor Huxley. Surely if there was anyone who might be expected to consider what had been done in the Middle Ages as unworthy the attention of a modern scientific educator it would be the great Darwinian controversialist. He had studied the educational situation in the Universities of the Middle Ages, however, for himself, and had not assumed that he possessed a knowledge of them a priori. Accordingly in his inaugural address as Rector of the University of Aberdeen, some thirty years ago, he said: “The scholars seem to have studied Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric; Arithmetic and Geometry; Astronomy; Theology; and Music. Thus, their work, however imperfect and faulty, judged by modern lights, it may have been, brought them face to face with all the leading aspects of the many-sided mind of man. For these studies did really contain, at any rate, in embryo – sometimes it may be in caricature – what we now call Philosophy, Mathematical and Physical Science and Art. And I doubt if the curriculum of any modern University shows so clear and generous a comprehension of what is meant by culture, as this old Trivium and Quadrivium docs.”

Huxley has no illusions with regard to the backwardness of the Middle Ages in education or in science. He has not assumed to know all about the period of which he really knows nothing and then talks as if he knew all about it. He had gone into the investigation of the details of the subject before making his declarations and as a consequence he differs completely from those who have only a pretence of knowledge in the matter. His opinion thus frankly expressed always recalls to me the expression of a famous American humorist, Josh Billings, which I like to repeat because it sums up so thoroughly the significance of many opinions held by educators who ought to know better with regard to the history of education. Josh Billings, writing as Uncle Esek in the Century twenty-five years ago, said: “It is not so much the ignorance of mankind that makes them ridiculous as the knowing so many things that ain’t so.”

As a matter of fact, as I think I have shown in my book The Thirteenth – Greatest of Centuries, there probably never was a hundred years in human history that produced such great men, gave rise to so many important movements, accomplished so much that was to have enduring influence in art, in literature, in education, and in democracy, as this century with which Albert’s long life is so nearly coincident. The surprise with regard to the epithet Great is rather increased than diminished by this consideration, however, because he received this name which has clung so tenaciously to him from these generations of the thirteenth century, themselves so fruitful in supremely accomplished scholars, men with wonderful power to express in every department of human endeavor the thoughts that were in them. If they called him Great, then it is no wonder that succeeding centuries have adopted this title, until now it has become a part of Albert’s name and constitutes the ready way by which we differentiate him most easily from many other Alberts in history.

Perhaps the most interesting phase of the history of Albert’s right to the title, so far as the modern world is concerned, would be the fact that it was largely due to his knowledge of science.

The assumption that there was no study of nature in the early times of the Universities is one of those curious unfounded traditions which exist in people’s minds and which the critical student of history finds it hard to account for. Anyone who wants to realize how much nature study there was in the thirteenth century should read his Dante with attention. In a chapter on the University Man and Science in my book The Popes and Science, I call attention to a few of the details of Dante’s knowledge of natural science and his interest in everything in nature. There is scarcely a poet in the modern time, no matter how recent or how much he has been trained in modern scientific nature study, who exhibits as much familiarity as Dante with all the round of sciences as they were known in his time. He does not parade his erudition. He uses his knowledge merely incidentally in order to bring out his meaning more clearly by figures drawn from science. There is no doubt that what we have from his pen in this matter represents only a little of what he actually knew, yet even that little shows a man familiar with phases of science utterly foreign to most of our modern poets.

It will not be too much, then, to say that Albertus Magnus received his title of Great to a considerable degree because of his knowledge of the physical sciences and the wonderful evolution in what we now call science that his suggestive original work effected. Science was a very inchoate department of knowledge at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Three-quarters of a century later, when Albert came to die, the deep and firm foundations of modern physical science had been laid, and at least one other great scientific investigator, who had probably been for a time a student with Albert, had done work in the physical sciences that was to make his name famous as one of the great scientists of all time and deserve for him the title unfortunately usurped by a namesake, who came three centuries later, of the founder of the experimental method. Roger Bacon and Albert accomplished the great initial work which means so much for science; they stepped across the boundaries of the unknown and blazed paths along which it was comparatively easy for subsequent generations to follow them in the mazes of scientific discovery. This is the aspect of Albert’s life which is likely to appeal to a generation interested mainly in physical science.

Quite apart from this controversial standpoint, however, the most interesting feature of Albert the Great’s life is his profound interest in physical science. We have come to limit the meaning of the word science to those branches of knowledge which are concerned with natural objects and which may be developed by the observation and the study of nature. Ordinarily we assume that nature study is a modern habit of mind. We are indeed inclined to criticize the founders of the Universities and the faculties of them for several centuries for not having devoted more time to the study of nature around them. They are supposed to have occupied themselves only with books and with book-learning. One reason for this is usually declared to have been that the Church, which was a very prominent factor in the Universities, feared the development of science lest it should disturb men’s minds and take them away from their simple faith in religious truth. The very attitude of mind of the scientist, that of an inquirer, is supposed to be entirely opposed to that calm acceptance of dogmas on authority which the Church considered the ideal attitude of the human mind all during the Middle Ages.

It is quite unnecessary to say that it is impossible to give anything like a full account of Albert’s life in the brief space at our command here. Besides his scientific career there is another phase of his life that deserves to be called especially to attention. This is the fact that while his own generation called him Great and subsequent generations adopted their opinion, the Church of which he was so devout a member all during life, always looked up to him as an ideal churchman, and nearly five centuries after his death raised him to her altars and gave him the title of Blessed. There is no doubt that before many years have passed this will be replaced by the title of Saint, which he will share with his great pupil and fellow-worker, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Already the cause of his canonization has been, at the suggestion of the Bishops of Germany, formally begun. The title will add nothing to his glory or merit, but will proclaim him one of those men whom the Christian Church considers to have lived their lives more for others than for themselves, for that is, I suppose, the simplest definition of a saint. When we reflect, then, that this ideal churchman was a great scientist, and that indeed most of his intellectual merit consists of his discoveries in science, it makes a curious contradiction of the old tradition of Church opposition to science during the Middle Ages.

Albert’s life contradicts many other false impressions held with regard to the Middle Ages besides its supposed neglect of science, and makes it very clear that about the same condition of affairs obtained with regard to education in the thirteenth century as in our own time. It is sometimes said that the nobility paid very little attention to education at this time. Some of them are even declared to have been proud of the fact that they did not know indeed how to read and write. It is evident that this meant no more than the declarations of successful business men in the modern time who, not having had the advantage of university education themselves, sometimes assert that such an education is a detriment rather than a benefit. The two greatest scholars of the thirteenth century, Albert and Aquinas, were both descended from noble families, and not noble families of the lower order, but, on the contrary, of very high rank. While Aquinas was a younger son of the Count of Aquino, and what we know of his elder brothers would seem to indicate that they cared very little for the things of the mind, it would be entirely wrong to conclude from this example that such intellectual interests were relegated to younger sons, for Albert was the eldest son of the Count of Bollstadt.

Albert was born at Lauingen in Suabia about the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century. There is a considerable difference of opinion as to the exact date. Some historians place it as early as 1193; others set it down as late as 1205 or 1206. The evidence for the later date is more convincing. It is enough for us to know that Albert’s life, like that of Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth century, ran almost coincident with his century. We know practically nothing of his early years or of the education which he received. It is very probable that whatever preparatory education he received was obtained from tutors under the parental roof. When scarcely more than a boy, certainly not more than sixteen or seventeen years of age, he was sent to pursue his studies at the University of Padua. At this time there were two famous Universities in Italy, one at Bologna, the specialty of which was the study of law, and the other at Padua, distinguished for the opportunities afforded for education in the liberal arts. There is a tradition that Albert had a special predilection for these and a taste for languages which was to serve him in good stead later in life.

The exact date of Albert’s entrance to the University of Padua is unknown and the length of his stay there is uncertain. The first definite evidence that we have with regard to him as a young man is his entrance into the Order of Saint Dominic. He was attracted to the Order by being brought in contact with Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the second Master-General of the Order. The date of his entrance is definitely known to have been about 1222. Whether he continued his studies in Italy after he became a Dominican is not known. When next we hear of him he has completed his studies and is teaching theology in various places in what we now know as South Germany. There are records of his having occupied the chair of Professor of Theology at Hildesheim, at Freiburg in Breisgau, at Ratisbon, at Strasburg, and at Cologne. It was while he was teaching at Cologne, basing his lectures on the well-known Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard, that in 1245 he was selected to represent the Dominican Order in the great University of Paris.

There had been considerable jealousy of the religious orders at Paris. The Franciscans and Dominicans shortly after their foundations both established houses in the French capital, in order that their young men might have the advantage of the University life. Very probably also, besides the opportunity to hear various professors which was there afforded so abundantly, the orders wished their young men to have the advantage of the libraries and of various educational opportunities provided in Paris at this time. Both the Franciscans and Dominicans had tried to secure certain special privileges for the members of their orders. They wished to have the University recognize at full value certain courses taken in the religious houses of the orders and for this asked to have their professors given University rights. For a time the University authorities refused any such special privileges. The Pope, as the ultimate authority in all University matters throughout the world, had to be appealed to, and it was only after considerable delay and after the subject had been much discussed and the whole question of the rights of religious orders established by many of their learned men, that special privileges were accorded to the orders. We owe Saint Thomas Aquinas’s great work on the religious orders to this controversy. In the meantime both the Franciscans and Dominicans made it a point to send some of their most distinguished teachers and pupils to Paris in order that they might be well represented and that the prestige of their work might obtain the privileges demanded.

Albert had been teaching at Cologne in the year 1245 when he received the direction to go to Paris. With him at Cologne at the time was Thomas Aquinas, whose genius only his great teacher as yet really suspected. Thomas accompanied his master to Paris and they seem to have studied there together. Albert received the degree of doctor in the University of Paris, and in 1248 returned, Thomas once more with him, to Cologne, where the University had been reorganized. Albert now became the Rector of the University of Cologne, and the prestige of his success at Paris and the fact that he brought back with him the traditions of that great University did much to make this studium generate, as Universities were then called, a popular place, for German students at least. Thomas became the second professor and the magister studentium – master of students – a term about equivalent to that of Dean at the present time. His duties were to care for the students in all that related to the direction of their studies, though doubtless whatever of discipline was required also fell into his hands.

It was during the next six years, while Albert was the Rector of the University of Cologne, that he somehow found the time to write his great works on Physical Science. These are on nearly every subject connected with what we now call science. He has a treatise on Physics, on Meteors, on Minerals, on The Heavens and The Earth, on The Nature of Places, and on The Passions of the Air, the curious symbolic expression which he used for storms or atmospheric disturbances or what we would now call meteorology. In the biological sciences he has treatises on Plants, on Animals, on Animal Locomotion and Nutrition and Nutritives, on Generation and Corruption, on Age, on Death and Life, and on Respiration. In psychology he has treatises on The Soul, on Sense and Sensation, on Memory, on Sleep and Waking, on the Intellect, and on the Nature and Origin of the Soul. When we consider that there are all sorts of treatises on philosophic and metaphysical subjects besides these, is it any wonder that his contemporaries called him the universal doctor or that Engelbert, a writer of the time, calls him the wonder and the miracle of his age? Of course the ordinary impression of people of the modern time who read these titles will be that this medieval schoolman could have known very little about these subjects and that what he wrote must be mainly a tissue of absurdities. Absurd things there are in Albert’s writings, but almost without exception he states these on the authority of someone else and nearly always adds his own disbelief in them. Scholars who have studied Albert’s works most faithfully have thought the most of them. Among these must be included not only those whose sympathies, because of religious motives, would naturally go out to Albert, but those who would on that same ground judge him most severely. We have the testimony of some very distinguished modern scientists to the depth and breadth of Albert’s knowledge, while the testimonies which make little of him come from men who confess that they did not take the trouble to read him and who gather their opinions from others equally negligent or lacking the industry for this task.

Indeed for most of what we have just said with regard to Albert’s wide knowledge in the sciences we can have ample confirmation without looking farther afield than to so well-known an authority as Humboldt, the distinguished German physical scientist of the first half of the nineteenth century, who in his Kosmos has this to say of Albert:

Albertus Magnus was equally active and influential in promoting the study of natural science and of the Aristotelian philosophy. His works contain some exceedingly acute remarks on the organic structure and physiology of plants. One of his works bearing the title of Liber Cosmographicus de Natura Locorum is a species of physical geography. I have found in it considerations of the dependence of temperature concurrently on latitude and elevation, and on the effect of different angles of incidence of the sun’s rays in heating the ground, which have excited my surprise.

In the chapter of my book, The Thirteenth – Greatest of Centuries, on What They Studied at the Universities, I have discussed some additional evidence that we have with regard to each of these sciences for which Humboldt gives words of praise to his medieval predecessor in the knowledge of most of what was known in their respective days. Here I may only call attention to the fact that Humboldt evidently considers that Albert had made distinct contributions to botany and especially to the physiology of this science, to physical geography, to meteorology, and to astronomy. For some of these subjects we have further evidence that is of very great interest. M. Meyer, in his History of Botany, says that ” No botanist who lived before Albert can be compared to him, unless Theophrastus, with whom he was not acquainted; and after him none has painted nature in such living colors or studied it so profoundly until the time of Conrad Gessner and Cesalpino.” We may say that, according to his biographer, Sighart:

He was acquainted with the sleep of plants, with the periodical opening and closing of blossoms, with the diminution of sap through evaporation from the cuticle of the leaves, and with the influence of the distribution of the bundles of vessels on the folial indentations. His minute observations on the forms and variety of plants intimate an exquisite sense of floral beauty. He distinguished the star from the bell-floral, tells us that a red rose will turn white when submitted to the vapor of sulphur, and makes some very sagacious observations on the subject of germination.

Indeed, Albert’s contributions to botany seem so valuable to Meyer, the modern German historian of that subject, that he republished the great schoolman’s treatise in six books on Vegetables and Plants. This republication did more than anything else to disabuse modern scholars of the idea that the writings on natural science of the Middle Ages were either ridiculous or trivial in importance. Since this republication some thirty years ago, Albert’s other contributions to science have become much better known, and with him to know is always to admire. As a consequence, frequent tributes have been paid to the universal doctor, and men have come to realize how wise the generation was in which he lived. Pagel, the German historian of medicine, whom we have already quoted with regard to Albert, does not hesitate to say that his style, far from being uninteresting, is full of information, and that when he accepts curious stories on the authority of others, he does not fail to mention that fact and usually gives some hint that he did not credit the story himself. In a word, his was no merely encyclopedic knowledge, but it had been garnered in a proper critical spirit.

With regard to other phases of Albert’s scientific work, we have the same good modern authority as to its thorough-going significance. Pagel, who has written the chapters on Medieval Medicine and Science in Puschmann’s three-volume History of Medicine, says that the treatise on the nature of places which Humboldt praises, contains many very interesting suggestions with regard to ethnography and physiology. Pagel also finds words of commendation for various portions of Albert’s work on Physics. This discussed the principles of what used to be called Natural Philosophy, and its eight books, while forming a commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, go far beyond the Greek Philosopher in their treatment of the underlying principles of physical nature.

With regard to chemistry, there are many interesting contributions from Albert’s pen. He was, as we shall see, the first to make it very clear that the substances which were called spirits in the olden times because they often exploded and did serious damage, were only manifestations of natural forces and not of occult or other-worldly powers. One of Albert’s treatises on chemistry bears the name “The Causes and the Properties of the Elements.” His treatise on minerals contains, according to Pagel, besides an extended description of the ordinary peculiarities of minerals, which shows his own acuteness and that of his generation in observing even minute differences, a detailed description of nearly one hundred different kinds of precious stones. This book contains also a mine of information with regard to the metals, of which Albert describes seven, and the other familiar mineral substances of the time, salt, vitriol, alum, arsenic, amber, niter, and marcasite.

Albert was particularly interested in all such questions as relate to man and the higher animals. He gathered into a series of treatises all the knowledge of his own time and all that he could glean from the writings of those who had lived before him with regard to every phase of animal and human life. The result is that a list of his writings is a catalogue of works in science that can scarcely fail to astonish the modern mind, unaccustomed to the idea of interest in science, especially in the biological sciences, during the thirteenth century. Albert has two treatises on Generation and Corruption (De Generatione et Corruptione). He has a treatise on Respiration; another on The Motion of Animals (De Animalium Locomotione) which takes up the question both of the voluntary and involuntary motions performed by them. Then there is a treatise on The Senses (De Sensibus), another on Sleeping and Waking (De Somno et Vigilantia), and a third on Life and Death (De Vita et Morte). His studies in the psychology of animals and in human beings are especially interesting in the light of the fact that this subject has come to occupy so much attention in recent years. Besides his treatise on the Senses, Albert has a monograph on The Memory and The Imagination (De Memoria et Imaginatione); another, in two books, on the Intellect (De Intellecty,} ; and a third, in three books, on The Soul (De Anima), in which, of course following the scholastic philosophy of the time, the soul is considered the vital principle of the body as well as the underlying principle of the intellect, and in which of course a vitalism that would be more popular just at the present time than at any other period for the last half century, is emphatically taught. Along this same line, Albert has a treatise on Youth and Old Age (De Juventute et Senectute), in which he discusses many of the important problems of human life and its relation above all to the development of the will and the character. There is scarcely a phase of the modern biological sciences, even that of the higher psychology, which is not touched upon by Albert, and in many passages he presents what are really marvelous anticipations of some supposedly very modern thought.

But Albert’s devotion to the biological sciences did not keep him from paying serious attention to what we now call, in contradistinction to them, the physical sciences, the classified knowledge of inanimate things. Some of his work in physics and chemistry deserves to be better known because it constitutes special chapters in the history of these sciences.

One of the most interesting things that Albert did in these subjects was his investigation of the origin of gases. It had often been noticed that when men descended into certain caves or into mines, or into old wells, they lost their lives. This was usualy attributed to the devils who were supposed to inhabit such dark places, and who resented the coming-in of men. Sometimes when lights were carried into such places, instead of being merely extinguished, they proved to be the origin of serious explosions. This was, of course, attributed to the powers of darkness, who doubly resented the presence of light in their domain. Albert, however, did not accept any such explanation. He suggested that there were certain substances which emanated from the rocks or from the soil in these places which led to the deaths of men or of animals who wandered into them, or which caused the explosions when naked lights were carried into them. It was in his time, and it is usually considered to be the result of his initiative that the word spirit came to be applied very generally to such volatile substances as readily produced gas when heated and which thus give rise to explosions. The word spiritus had originally been employed for these substances, because they were supposed to contain within them certain evil spirits which resented the application of heat; but this idea was completely overturned by Albert’s investigations. In the light of all that we know about Albert’s devotion to the physical sciences the attitude of many historians and scholars toward the question of the Church’s relation to science at this time is amusing and somewhat amazing. President White, for instance, acknowledges Albert’s wonderful contributions to science in every form, but attributes the fact that he should have paid so much attention to Philosophy and Theology to the opposition which he encountered as regards his scientific studies and publications.

Surely any such view as this utterly ignores the extraordinary vogue of Albert’s books on sciences. They existed in many manuscript copies and were constantly reproduced by the slow labor of writing by hand. This must have required the unfailing devotion of his disciples and his Dominican brethren. His works were carefully preserved, written again and again, although they contain several million words, by successive generations of Dominicans, and they were looked upon not as suspicious books but as precious contributions to human knowledge. There is no account anywhere in Albert’s life of any opposition aroused by his devotion to science.

So far indeed from the fact is President White’s declaration with regard to Albert’s deliberate neglect of physical science, in order that he might devote himself more to philosophy and theology, that Albert’s books and writings on physical science loomed so large in the minds of his contemporaries and of the immediately succeeding generations, that one of the objections sometimes urged against Albert is that his interest in scientific subjects did not permit him to pay as much attention as he ought to the sacred sciences. This opinion was expressed rather emphatically by Henry of Ghent in his Ecclesiastical Writers. The list of Albert’s published works on Philosophy, Theology, and Scripture forms, as is well remarked by his biographer in The Catholic Encyclopedia, an all-sufficient vindication from the charge that he neglected Theology and Sacred Sciences. With this side of Albert’s activity as a writer we have nothing to do here, because we are interested only in his scientific work.

Those who think that science as we know the term at the present day is a modern invention or a modern development of human intellectual accomplishment, need only to read Albert’s original works, and if they will take the trouble there will be no doubt of the existence of not only the most enthusiastic interest in natural science during the thirteenth century, but also the most successful elucidation of many of its problems. The great foundations of most of the modern sciences were then laid. We are prone to think that at most a few paths were broken in the unknown land of natural science and that at best the advances were few, the horizons distant, the views shadowy. We are apt to imagine that only a science or two, a little physics and chemistry were touched upon, and that these were followed with such curious mistaken notions as to make any real advance impossible. We have been accustomed to make fun of the search for the philosopher’s stone by which base metals would be transmuted into the precious metals, but ten years ago, apparently, we found the long-sought-for philosopher’s stone in the metal radium, for by means of its emanations we can apparently transform metals into one another. Radium itself changes into helium, though both were thought to be elementary substances. And at the last meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Sir William Ramsey announced the transmutation of copper and lithium by means of radium emanations. Our greatest of living chemists in the English-speaking world may not have solved the problem of metallic transmutation, as he thinks he has; but he frankly places himself beside the old alchemists in his work. Already a modern professor of chemistry had suggested that he would like to examine a mass of lead-ore carefully, and having extracted all the silver that occurs in lead ore, would like to lay it aside for twenty years and see whether, at the end of that time he would not find more silver in the mass. His idea is evidently that lead in nature probably constantly changes into silver by slow degrees, so that the old alchemists were not so foolish, but, on the contrary, anticipated what is most modern in chemistry.

As a matter of fact, what strikes one after a while when he has become familiar with what was accomplished in science in the Middle Ages is that they should have anticipated so much of what is considered to be modern in science, and that, considering how far they went, it is amazing that in nearly seven centuries we have gone so little farther than they did. This is true, however, not only in chemistry and in physics, but in practically every department of natural science, for all of these were opened up and, as we have seen, Albert himself was a pioneer and great thinker in nearly every one of them, as good authorities in modern science familiar with his writings have declared.

Albert’s attitude toward what we have come to recognize as the true method of science, the experimental method, is the best possible evidence for his great accomplishments in science. There are many who still believe that it was Francis Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century who laid the foundation of the inductive sciences. Any such opinion is founded entirely on ignorance of what was accomplished during the medieval centuries, and it has its only reason for being in that curious blindness which has led so many people during the last three or four centuries to be unable to see anything good in the Nazareth of the times before the so-called Reformation. All the real historians of science in the last twenty-five years have been rejecting the notion of the leadership of Francis Bacon in this matter and have been engaged in pointing out that he was only a publicist who had the good fortune to write a book on the subject that became popular, but that the real father of the inductive sciences was his great namesake Roger Bacon, nearly four centuries before. While this title of the great Franciscan of the thirteenth century is indisputable, there is no doubt that his sometime teacher Albert had anticipated most of the principles of experimental science and method even before Roger Bacon.

In the epigraphs at the beginning of this sketch I have quoted some sentences from Albert’s writings that make it very clear how much of dependence he placed on experiment in science and how thoroughly he realized that this was the only possible method of obtaining exact knowledge with regard to natural objects. In bringing those epigraphs together it seemed worth while to place beside them a great expression from Saint Augustine conveying the same truth in different language, for from Augustine to Albert there is 800 years and the work of these two has dominated Christianity for 1500 years, so that their spirit represents the real policy of the scholars and the genuine attitude of mind of the great theologians. Unfortunately it is the custom of writers of history only too often to take the expressions of obscure writers, or chance remarks of such men as Augustine and Albert, apart from their context, as indicative of the attitude of the Church and of ecclesiastics during this period to science. The unfairness of this is easy to understand, but it has represented one of the ways in which history has been, if not deliberately falsified, at least made to lean toward the opinions of the writer rather than to express the true significance of events.

There is no doubt at all of Albert’s devotion to theological science or of the magnificent results that he achieved therein. In spite of all that his great disciple Saint Thomas Aquinas accomplished in this department, Albert still continued and continues to be looked upon as one of the living authorities on this subject. It was this great theologian, however, who declared in his book on Minerals, “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.” The rule that he thus laid down for the sciences relating to inanimate things, he applied also to the biological sciences when he wrote about plants. In his treatise On Plants he says, in an expression that has often been quoted since, “experiment is the only sure method in such investigations.” The wording of the original Latin is worth remembering because of the deep significance of the expression: Experimentum solum certificat in talibus.

When we have all this before us from this great physical scientist and theologian we are not so surprised as we might otherwise be by his famous declaration: “In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His Creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power: we have rather to inquire what nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.” It is this sentence occurring in his treatise on the Heavens and the Earth that makes it very clear how little of opposition there was in Albert’s mind between his faith and his science. One is not surprised to find after this declaration that, although Albert’s favorite author was Saint Augustine, he preferred Aristotle to Saint Augustine in matters of science. At the same time he did not hesitate to point out many errors in Aristotle; in fact, in his famous Summa of theology he devotes a lengthy chapter to the errors of the Greek philosopher and Albert thus shows that he still maintained the opinion which he had expressed in his Book of Sentences: “Whoever believes that Aristotle is a god must also believe that he never erred, but if one believes that Aristotle is a man, then beyond all doubt he was liable to err just as we are.”

It is no wonder that we find that Roger Bacon, a greater physical scientist than Albert, thought much of his great predecessor, and, although he was rather inclined to be critical of his contemporaries and forerunners in science, had only praise for Albert. He said of him: ” Albert was most serious, had a broad outlook on the world of knowledge and an immense capacity for work. He could therefore collect much information in the vast scene of writings.” Albert was much more conservative than Roger Bacon, had much more of sympathy for the failure of others to follow him in his scientific work, a failure which constitutes one of the sources of that trouble that great original scientists nearly always prepare for themselves, and as a consequence, as Turner in his History of Philosophy has so well pointed out, he ” contributed far more than Bacon did to the advancement of science in the thirteenth century.” Roger Bacon has insisted on how much of information Albert obtained from books, but he knew that Albert must have done much personal investigation. His use of books, as has already been illustrated by his attitude toward the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, of whom he thought so much, was eminently critical and much more like that which has become common in our own time than is to be noted in any of his contemporaries.

Perhaps the most interesting phase of Albert’s knowledge for the modern times is his refusal to accept some of the beliefs which were very commonly credited in his time and which our generation usually sets down as having been accepted by even the deepest scholars of the Middle Ages. For instance, though many of his contemporaries believed in the possibility of the transmutation of metals Albert did not, but on the contrary, rather emphatically disapproved of the notion and considered that any such change was absolutely impossible. He thought that substances as we know them were essentially different, and proclaimed that “art alone cannot produce a substantial form.” With regard to magic and its supposed marvelous power, so commonly believed in even by the wisest in the earlier Middle Ages, and which Albert found so completely accepted by many of his great predecessors and teachers, the great Dominican scholar was very emphatic in his rejection of all belief in it. He said, ” I do not approve what Avicenna and Algazel have said with regard to fascination (of magic) because I believe that magic can do no harm, that magical arts have no power for evil, and they do not accomplish any of the things that are feared from them.”

With regard to other curious beliefs of his time Albert maintained the same sceptical attitude. Even a cursory reading of his works shows that he refused to accept many of the fairy tales of science and of popular tradition which were so commonly received in his time. It is only great original minds of supreme depth and force that are thus able to get away from the delusions common in their time; and every age, despite its self-complacent reproach of previous ages for their credulousness, may well consider itself as subject to them. We have them in our time, and only the great scholars rise superior to them, as did Albert in the thirteenth century. His biographer, Sighart, has collected a series of the fables and pseudo-scientific stories which were rejected by Albert. His paragraph helps to give us a better idea of what the great scholar thus accomplished than perhaps could be obtained in any other way. He says:

He treats as fabulous the commonly received idea, in which Bede has acquiesced, that the region of the earth south of the equator was uninhabitable, and considers that from the equator to the South Pole, the earth was not only habitable, but in all probability actually inhabited except directly at the poles, where he imagines the cold to be excessive. If there be any animals there, he says, they must have very thick skins to defend them from the rigor of the climate, and they are probably of a white color. The intensity of cold is, however, tempered by the action of the sea. He describes the antipodes and the countries they comprise, and divides the climate of the earth into seven zones. He smiles with a scholar’s freedom at the simplicity of those who suppose that persons living at the opposite region of the earth must fall off, an opinion that can only rise out of the grossest ignorance, “for when we speak of the lower hemisphere, this must be understood merely as relative to ourselves.” It is as a geographer that Albert’s superiority to the writers of his own time chiefly appears. Bearing in mind the astonishing ignorance which then prevailed on this subject, it is truly admirable to find him correctly tracing the chief mountain chains of Europe with the rivers which take their source in each; remarking on portions of coast which have in later times been submerged by the ocean, and islands which have been raised by volcanic action above the level of the sea; noticing the modification of climate caused by mountains, seas, and forests, and the division of the human race, whose differences he ascribes to the effect upon them of the countries they inhabit! In speaking of the British Isles he alludes to the commonly received idea that another distant Island called Tile or Thule existed far in the Western Ocean, uninhabitable by reason of its frightful climate, but which, he says, has perhaps not yet been visited by man.

Nothing will so seriously disturb the complacency of modern minds as to the wonderful advances that have been made in the last century in all branches of physical science as to read Albert’s writings. Nothing can be more wholesomely chastening of present-day conceit than to get a proper appreciation of the extent of the knowledge of the schoolmen. Nowhere can one get a better notion of the immense amount of even scientific information possessed by those whom so many educated (!) people now call in derision the scholastics than from Albert’s writings, consulted at first-hand and not in the garbled extracts of modern unsympathetic commentators.

But to turn to Albert’s career. For six years after his return from Paris he remained as what we would now call the Rector of the University of Cologne. His success in this responsible position naturally suggested other and higher posts for his administrative ability. Accordingly in 1254 he was elected the Provincial of the Order in Germany. This took him away from immediate touch with teaching and investigation, but gave him abundant opportunities for the encouragement of learning in every department in all the houses of his Order in Germany. His influence was felt everywhere. Two years after his election as Provincial he went to Rome, in order to defend the Mendicant Orders against the attacks which had been made upon them, particularly by William of Saint Amour. The condemnation of William’s book, “On the Latest Dangers of the Time,” was secured from Pope Alexander IV on 5 October 1256. It is rather interesting to realize how thoroughly appreciated Albert must have been. He had been chosen to go to Paris as the representative of what was best in the intellectuality of his Order. He was delegated to go to Rome to defend it against the attacks of those who did not appreciate all the spirituality there was in the religious orders of the time. Evidently Albert was looked upon as a representative of all that was best in his Order.

How much Albert was thought of in Rome, though he was now at least fifty years of age and a large part of his life-work in the natural sciences and in the application of the experimental method had already been accomplished, may be appreciated from the fact that during his stay in the Papal capital he was appointed to fill the office of Master of the Papal Palace. This office had been instituted in the time of Saint Dominic and was generally considered to be one of the highest honors that could come to a man. It was honorary rather than administrative, and was usually conferred on men who were chosen as the recipients of a signal expression of the approbation of the ecclesiastical authorities. That his selection for this office was no idle compliment paid to the man or the prestige of his name as a great scholar may be realized from the fact that he was asked at the same time to preach in Rome on the Gospel of Saint John and on the Canonical Epistles. Then as now, only those were chosen to be public preachers in Rome of whose thoroughgoing orthodoxy and absolute concordance with the spirit and tradition of the Church there was not the slightest doubt.

The cares of office, however, apparently hung heavy on Albert’s shoulders and he was not one of those for whom honors and dignities would make up for the time that he had to devote to administrative details. He was anxious to get back to his studies and investigations, his teaching, and his writings. He resigned the office of Provincial in 1257. His departure from Rome had relieved him of the cares of the office of Master of the Papal Palace. At once he devoted himself not only to his own studies, but to making the studies of the members of his Order more effective. Within a few years we can find him a prominent factor in the reorganization of the Dominican studies, which had been discussed for some time and finally taken up for formal action at the general chapter of the Order held at Valenciennes in 1259. This chapter laid down rules for the direction of the studies of the younger Dominicans and suggested methods of teaching by which their education would be made more efficient. The system of graduation was also modified in such a way as to make it sure that the graduates from Dominican schools would be in every way the equals of the graduates from the Universities.

It might be thought that the ideas of these men of the thirteenth century with regard to the methods of teaching and requirements of graduation would be very vague and indefinite. The members of the committee responsible for the new order of things then determined on were Albert, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Peter of Tarenpasia, who afterwards reached the distinction of being made Pope under the name of Pope Innocent V. Though his name is not so familiar to modern scholars as those of the other two members of this perhaps the most distinguished committee for the revision of studies that ever held sessions, he was the author of a series of works on philosophy, theology, and canon law, and of commentaries on the Epistles of Saint Paul and the Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard, which are well known to scholars. For these contributions to the philosophic and theological literature of an especially copious century he is sometimes spoken of as Famosissimus Doctor – the most famous doctor. It is very evident that the question of the organization of studies was taken very much to heart by the Dominicans, since they selected three such men as these for the work, and since three such men were willing to take the time from their own occupations and were ready to devote their learning and experience to the subject.

Albert had become so much appreciated at Rome that in spite of his own anxiety to remain a simple Dominican and devote himself to his studies he could not succeed in escaping promotion to the hierarchy. In the year 1260 he was selected as the Bishop of Ratisbon. As soon as he heard of the proposed elevation to the episcopacy, Albert tried to secure the cancellation of the appointment and appealed for this purpose to the Master General of the Dominicans. The latter endeavored as far as was possible to prevent the appointment of Albert, but the Roman authorities were confident that Albert’s genius and administrative ability would serve the best purposes of the Church as a bishop. Albert bowed his head in submission then, and accepted the post. After two years he had succeeded in reorganizing the affairs of the bishopric, and then at his earnest request he was allowed to resign and he once more took up the duties of a professor in the University of Cologne. Here he seems to have spent the next eight years in peace in the midst of his favorite occupations of investigating, writing, and teaching. He was too great a man, however, to be allowed to continue his work so peacefully, and in 1270 we find him aiding Saint Thomas in combating certain of the philosophical heretics of the time.

The great distinction of his life was yet to come. In 1274 he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to attend the Council of Lyons, in the deliberations of which he took a most important part as the direct representative of the Pope. His colleague in this office of honor and responsibility was his old pupil and life-long friend, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Albert received the news of Saint Thomas’s death as he himself was on the way to the Council. It proved a very serious blow to him. He declared that the light of the Church had been extinguished. Something of the beautifully sympathetic relationship that had existed between the two men can be appreciated from the fact that ever afterwards the master could not restrain his tears whenever the name of Saint Thomas was mentioned. Many lives of these two great men have been written, and yet this special chapter of their beautiful friendship remains to have such treatment as it deserves. They were the two greatest geniuses of their age, probably also two of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. In spite of their occupation with the same questions, involving not a few differences of opinion on minor points, there seems never to have been anything to disturb the wondrous harmony of their friendship.

Albert was now past seventy years of age and might be expected to begin to lose something of the vigor of his intellectuality. When he was nearly seventy-five, however, there is a flash of all his old mental brilliancy because of a movement on the part of certain writers and thinkers of the time to bring about the condemnation of the writings of Saint Thomas, on the plea that Saint Thomas had made too much and held in too high estimation the old Pagan philosopher, Aristotle. Albert’s physical strength even seemed renewed at this and he journeyed to Paris in order to defend the memory of his pupil. For a year more he continued to be the great scholar of his time and the light of his period. Then, in 1278, his memory began to go and his strong mind gave way. For a time he seems to have been without the use of his intellectual faculty in the rapidly advancing senile decay that came over him. He had been a man of immense labors and this must have been another trial, in as far as he was conscious of it, but, until the end, he retained his placidity and peaceful acceptance of the will of God. With his passing who can doubt that there departed from the scene of his earthly labors one of the most wonderful geniuses that the world has ever known and one of the most original thinkers in the history of the race. The more we know of him, the more we admire the critical judgment of an age that attached to his name for all time the epithet Great, and the more we learn to appreciate the wisdom of the immediately succeeding generations, who gave him the title of the Universal Doctor.

from Catholic Churchmen in Science by James Joseph Walsh, 1909