St Albert the Great (d. 1280)

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

Philosopher, theologian and scientist, Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus), also known as Albert of Cologne and Universal Doctor because of the extraordinary depth of his knowledge, was a German Dominican who decisively influenced the Church’s stance toward Aristotelian philosophy brought to Europe by the spread of Islam. Students of philosophy know him as the teacher of Thomas Aquinas. Albert’s attempt to understand Aristotle’s writings established the climate in which Thomas Aquinas developed his synthesis of Greek wisdom and Christian theology. But Albert deserves recognition on his own merits as a diligent scholar. His writings collected in 1899 went to thirty-eight volumes which shows his encyclopaedic knowledge in such diverse subjects as natural science, logic, philosophy, theology, psychology, metaphysics, meteorology, mineralogy, zoology, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, justice, law, friendship, etc.. He digested, interpreted, and systematized the whole of Aristotle’s works, gleaned from the Latin translations and notes of the Arabian commentators, in accordance with Church doctrine. Most modern knowledge of Aristotle was preserved and presented by Albert.

The precise date of Albert’s birth is not known. He was born at Lauingen on the Danube near Ulm as the eldest son of a powerful and wealthy German lord of military rank. He was educated in the liberal arts and while studying in Padua, despite fierce family opposition, entered the Dominican order, probably in 1229. He continued his studies at Cologne and began teaching at various Dominican houses. From his earliest years he was keenly interested in natural science and went out of his way to observe curious natural phenomena. Between 1240 and 1244 he was sent to the University of Paris and from 1245 to 1248 he held one of the Dominican chairs in theology there. From 1246 he had St Thomas Aquinas among his pupils. In 1248 he was sent back to Cologne to take charge of the new international Dominican house of studies. There he composed a commentary on the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard, called Summa de Creaturis. Then, at the request of his students he undertook the huge project of making the complete writings of Aristotle “intelligible to the Latins” which occupied much of the rest of his life. In addition to his teaching and writing, he was often employed as arbitrator in ecclesiastical disputes. In 1260 at the Pope’s insistence he became bishop of Regensburg but after a year he went to the papal court to render his resignation which was accepted. Then he was sent back to Germany as papal emissary to preach the crusade. In 1274 he participated in the second council of Lyons and in 1277 he intervened to prevent the condemnation of Thomas Aquinas in Paris.

Albert taught at a time when theologians were reacting against the various influences coming from the East, especially, the writings of Aristotle mediated by Arab and Jewish commentators. Albert insisted that philosophical problems must be faced honestly and dealt with philosophically. He commented on almost the whole writings of Aristotle and his various philosophical writings won him considerable acclaim. He also wrote several biblical commentaries and towards the end of his life embarked on a summa theologiae. Albert’s influence on the development of Scholastic philosophy in the thirteenth century was enormous. He, along with his most famous student, Thomas of Aquinas, succeeded in incorporating the philosophy of Aristotle into the Christian West and had a profound influence on a series of German Dominican theologians in subsequent centuries. Some of his ideas took on a mystical flavour as represented by Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and Heinrich Suso, and were taken up later by Nicholas of Cusa. Without doubt he was one of the most universal thinkers to appear during the Middle Ages. He was deeply involved in an attempt to understand the import of the thought of Aristotle in some orderly fashion. His thirst for knowledge and superior intellect allowed him to construct one of the most remarkable philosophical syntheses in medieval culture. Albert’s labours resulted in the formation of what might be called a Christian reception of Aristotle in Western Europe. Albert was beatified in 1622 and canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931. Pius XII proclaimed him patron of natural scientists.

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