Albertus Magnus

By Theodore Sabo - Pullman, Washington, USA - 12 February 2016




Monks and friars of the later Middle Ages concentrated less on asceticism than scholarship.  The apostolic life, the simple lifestyle of the medieval friar, came to embrace a thorough knowledge of philosophers like Aristotle and Boethius.  The second greatest Dominican thinker of his age, Albertus Magnus, went so far as to engage in scientific experiments to the point where it was rumored that he was the creator of a sentient and speaking robot which his pupil Thomas Aquinas, thinking it the work of black magic, destroyed.  There are many legends about Albert to which his great interest in science may have given impetus.  A German king paid him a visit in winter, but when he entered the convent grounds a June breeze, sweet with the smell of wildflowers, blew; the trees stood clothed in their midsummer glory; in their branches the birds sang and the butterflies flitted, but only for a moment.  For this same king Albert built a resplendent palace in which the king lived for three years when ingratitude got the better of him and the palace disappeared.  In another tale a spiteful princess, who killed nine innocent men, had Albert bound and cast into the river, but his bonds miraculously burst and the arrows which the princess had shot at him turned into birds.  The princess herself became a penitent, nine angels, representing the nine innocent men she had killed, bearing her into heaven when her time to die had come.  It is said of Albert that he was of short stature, the pope on first seeing him and thinking that he was kneeling bidding him arise, but this too is only a myth.

Albert, who is known to have been a gentle spirit, was accused of magic and necromancy in his lifetime by jealous colleagues, and due in part to these accusations he resigned his position as bishop of Ratisbon, a position he had held for two years, casting it from him “as a hot coal which burns the hand.”  He traveled throughout Europe preaching the Crusade and then returned to the monastic life.  In his cell he wrote a book on the Apocalypse which he maintained, following orthodox tradition, was the work of the apostle John and not his Gnostic enemy Cerinthus.  He thought the letters to the seven churches which open the Apocalypse a reference to the seven works of mercy which the church performs and also to the seven eras of church history: those of the apostles, the martyrs, the heretics, the confessors, the popes, the libertines, and the Antichrist, the part-panther, part-bear, part-lion final persecutor of Christians.  In his last years Albert went to Paris to defend the recently dead Aquinas who was a subject of calumny for his favorable attitude toward Aristotle.  Not long afterwards, while delivering a lecture in the convent of Cologne, his memory forsook him.  Soon he was unable to remember anything of Scripture and philosophy alike.  This sudden loss, it is thought, was the stipulation of the Virgin Mary who had revealed to him in his youth many facts about natural science, a subject which had never ceased to arouse his curiosity.

As a philosopher Albert believed that universals existed before particulars in the mind of God, in particulars themselves, and after them in human understanding.  He had a high opinion of Aristotle and the power of the human intellect but opposed the hypothesis of the philosopher Averroes that matter is eternal.  His student Aquinas engaged in a lifelong dialogue with Averroes whose works he consulted in order to better refute them and their Christian followers.  Averroes was a commentator on Aristotle and understood him to deny the concepts of creation, the afterlife, and providence.  Aquinas reinterpreted Aristotle so that he denied only the first.  In the Summa Theologica, whose structure has been likened to a Gothic cathedral, Aquinas strove to synthesize Aristotelianism with Augustinianism by beginning his philosophical investigation with reason and supplementing it with faith.  He employed cosmological and teleological arguments to prove the existence of God and tried to correct the Augustinian view of total predestination by teaching that God gives men the habit of grace by which to approach Him.  In his view of the atonement Aquinas sided with Anselm, who thought of the atonement as a satisfaction for sin, against Abelard who viewed it as merely an example of the love of God.  At the end of his life, having seen a vision of translunary grandeur, Aquinas fell silent.  He was followed by John Duns Scotus and William of Occam who rejected his synthesis of faith and reason.