Albert the great

"Albertus" redirects here. For others with the same given name, see Albertus (given name). For the typeface, see Albertus (typeface).
St. Albertus Magnus, O.P.
Doctor of the Church
Born ca. 1193/1206
Lauingen, Duchy of Bavaria
Died November 15, 1280
Cologne, Holy Roman Empire
Honored in Catholic Church
Beatified 1622, Rome, Papal States, by Pope Gregory XV
Canonized 1931, Vatican City, by Pope Pius XI
Major shrine St. Andrew's Church, Cologne, Germany
Feast November 15
Patronage Cincinnati, Ohio; medical technicians; natural sciences; philosophers; scientists; students; World Youth Day
Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great)
Other names "Albert of Cologne"
Born Unknown, year between 1193–1206
Lauingen, Bavaria
Died 1280
Era Medieval philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Scholasticism

Albertus Magnus, O.P. (1193/1206 – November 15, 1280), also known as Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, is a Catholic saint. He was a German Dominican friar and a Catholic bishop. Those such as James A. Weisheipl and Joachim R. Söder have referred to him as the greatest German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages, an opinion supported by contemporaries such as Roger Bacon.[1] The Catholic Church honours him as a Doctor of the Church, one of only 35 persons with that honour.


Albertus was born sometime before 1200 in Lauingen in Bavaria.[2] Contemporaries such as Roger Bacon applied the term "Magnus" to Albertus during his own lifetime, referring to his immense reputation as a scholar and philosopher.

Albertus was educated principally at Padua, where he received instruction in Aristotle's writings. A late account by Rudolph de Novamagia refers to Albertus' encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary, who convinced him to enter Holy Orders. In 1223 (or 1229)[3] he became a member of the Dominican Order, against the wishes of his family, and studied theology at Bologna and elsewhere. Selected to fill the position of lecturer at Cologne, Germany, where the Dominicans had a house, he taught for several years there, at Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg and Hildesheim. During his first tenure as lecturer at Cologne, Albert wrote his Summa de bono, after discussing the transcendental properites of being with Philip the Chancellor.[4] In 1245 he went to Paris, received his doctorate and taught for some time as a master of theology with great success. During this time Thomas Aquinas began to study under Albertus. While teaching Thomas Aquinas, Albertus still held true to this teachings and influences from other ancient philosophers. Although he was friar, he understood many natural aspects of the world such as metaphysics, physics, and mathematics.[5]

Albertus was the first to comment on virtually all of the writings of Aristotle, thus making them accessible to wider academic debate. The study of Aristotle brought him to study and comment on the teachings of Muslim academics, notably Avicenna and Averroes, and this would bring him into the heart of academic debate. He was ahead of his time in his attitude towards science. Two aspects of this attitude deserve to be mentioned: 1) he did not only study science from books, as other academics did in his day, but actually observed and experimented with nature (the rumours started by those who did not understand this are probably at the source of Albert's supposed connections with alchemy and witchcraft), 2) he took from Aristotle the view that scientific method had to be appropriate to the objects of the scientific discipline at hand.

In 1245, Albert became master of theology under Gueric of Saint-Quentin, the first German Dominican to achieve this distinction. Following this huge turn of events, Albert was able to teach theology at the University of Paris as a full time professor.[4] It was during this time, that Thomas Aquinas began his three year studying under Albert.

In 1254 Albertus was made provincial of the Dominican Order,[6] and fulfilled the arduous duties of the office with great care and efficiency. During his tenure he publicly defended the Dominicans against attacks by the secular and regular faculty of the University of Paris, commented on St John, and answered what he perceived as errors of the Islamic philosopher Averroes.

In 1259 Albert took part in the General Chapter of the Dominican Order at Valenciennes together with Thomas Aquinas, masters Bonushomo Britto,[7] Florentius,[8] and Peter establishing a ratio studiorum or program of studies for the Dominican Order[9] that featured the study of philosophy as an innovation for those not sufficiently trained to study theology. This innovation initiated the tradition of Dominican scholastic philosophy put into practice, for example, in 1265 at the Order's studium provinciale at the convent of Santa Sabina in Rome, out of which would develop the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum[10]

In 1260 Pope Alexander IV made him Bishop of Regensburg, an office from which he resigned after three years. During the exercise of his duties he enhanced his reputation for humility by refusing to ride a horse—in accord with the dictates of the Dominican order—instead walking back and forth across his huge diocese. This earned him the affectionate sobriquet, "boots the bishop," from his parishioners. After his stint as bishop, he spent the remainder of his life partly in retirement in the various houses of his order, yet often preaching throughout southern Germany. In 1270 he preached the eighth Crusade in Austria. After this, he was especially known for acting as a mediator between conflicting parties (In Cologne he is not only known for being the founder of Germany's oldest university there, but also for "the big verdict" (der Große Schied) of 1258, which brought an end to the conflict between the citizens of Cologne and the archbishop. Among the last of his labors was the defense of the orthodoxy of his former pupil, Thomas Aquinas, whose death in 1274 grieved Albertus (the story that he travelled to Paris in person to defend the teachings of Aquinas can not be confirmed).

After suffering a collapse of health in 1278, he died on November 15, 1280, in Cologne, Germany. Since November 15, 1954, his relics are in a Roman sarcophagus in the crypt of the Dominican St. Andreas church in Cologne.[11]

Albertus is frequently mentioned by Dante, who made his doctrine of free will the basis of his ethical system. In his Divine Comedy, Dante places Albertus with his pupil Thomas Aquinas among the great lovers of wisdom (Spiriti Sapienti) in the Heaven of the Sun. Albertus is also mentioned, along with Agrippa and Paracelsus, in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which his writings influence a young Victor Frankenstein.

Albertus was beatified in 1622. He was canonized and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church on December 16, 1931 by Pope Pius XI and patron saint of natural scientists in 1941. St Albert's feast day is celebrated on November 15. According to Joan Carroll Cruz, his body is incorrupt.[12]


Albertus' writings collected in 1899 went to thirty-eight volumes. These displayed his prolific habits and literally encyclopedic knowledge of topics such as logic, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, alchemy, zoology, physiology, phrenology, justice, law, friendship and love as well. 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 Albertus.

Albertus' activity, however, was more philosophical than theological (see Scholasticism). The philosophical works, occupying the first six and the last of the twenty-one volumes, are generally divided according to the Aristotelian scheme of the sciences, and consist of interpretations and condensations of Aristotle's relative works, with supplementary discussions upon contemporary topics, and occasional divergences from the opinions of the master.

His principal theological works are a commentary in three volumes on the Books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Magister Sententiarum), and the Summa Theologiae in two volumes. The latter is in substance a more didactic repetition of the former.

Natural philosopher

Albertus's knowledge of physical science was considerable and for the age remarkably accurate. His industry in every department was great, and though we find in his system many gaps which are characteristic of scholastic philosophy, his protracted study of Aristotle gave him a great power of systematic thought and exposition. An exception to this general tendency is his Latin treatise "De falconibus" (later inserted in the larger work, De Animalibus, as book 23, chapter 40), in which he displays impressive actual knowledge of a) the differences between the birds of prey and the other kinds of birds; b) the different kinds of falcons; c) the way of preparing them for the hunt; and d) the cures for sick and wounded falcons.[13] His scholarly legacy justifies his contemporaries' bestowing upon him the honourable surname Doctor Universalis.

Alchemy and Astrology

In the centuries since his death, many stories arose about Albertus as an alchemist and magician. On the subject of alchemy and chemistry, many treatises relating to Alchemy have been attributed to him, though in his authentic writings he had little to say on the subject, and then mostly through commentary on Aristotle. For example, in his commentary, De mineralibus, he refers to the power of stones, but does not elaborate on what these powers might be.[14] A wide range of Pseudo-Albertine works dealing with alchemy exist, though, showing the belief developed in the generations following Albert's death that he had mastered alchemy, one of the fundamental sciences of the Middle Ages. These include Metals and Materials; the Secrets of Chemistry; the Origin of Metals; the Origins of Compounds, and a Concordance which is a collection of Observations on the philosopher's stone; and other alchemy-chemistry topics, collected under the name of Theatrum Chemicum.[15] He is credited with the discovery of the element arsenic[16] and experimented with photosensitive chemicals, including silver nitrate.[17][18] He did believe that stones had occult properties, as he related in his work De mineralibus. However, there is scant evidence that he personally performed alchemical experiments.

According to legend, Albertus Magnus is said to have discovered the philosopher's stone and passed it to his pupil Thomas Aquinas, shortly before his death. Albertus does not confirm he discovered the stone in his writings, but he did record that he witnessed the creation of gold by "transmutation."[19] Given that Thomas Aquinas died six years before Albertus Magnus' death, this legend as stated is unlikely.

However, it is true that Albertus was deeply interested in astrology, as has been articulated by scholars such as Paola Zambelli.[20] In the high Middle Ages — and well into the early modern period — few intellectuals, if any, questioned the basic assumptions of astrology: humans live within a web of celestial influences that affect our bodies, and thereby motivate us to behave in certain ways. Within this worldview, it was reasonable to believe that astrology could be used to predict the probable future of a human being. Albertus made this a central component of his philosophical system, arguing that an understanding of the celestial influences affecting us could help us to live our lives more in accord with Christian precepts. The most comprehensive statement of his astrological beliefs is to be found in a work he authored around 1260, now known as the Speculum astronomiae. However, details of these beliefs can be found in almost everything he wrote, from his early Summa de bono to his last work, the Summa theologiae.

Experimental Sciences

Albert drew upon the information he had at his disposal for experimental science from the writings of Aristotle. In De Miner Albert claims, "The aim of natural philosophy (science) is not to simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature". The Aristotelianism greatly influences Albert's view on nature and philosophy.[21] Another example of his reason to formally search for the causes is in his treaties on plants, he begins with the principle, experiment is the only safe guide in such investigations. His studies of Aristotle and theology show their colors in nearly all of his works and volumes. Albert never stopped learning about experimental sciences, throughout his research and experimentation Albert became proficient in countless areas of physical science, such as; physics, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, alchemy and even phrenology. Albert showed the world that the Catholic Church wasn't totally opposed to the studying of nature and other similar areas.[21] Albert placed emphasis on experiment as well as investigation. But, Albert respected authority and tradition so many of his investigations or experiments were unpublished. Albert would often keep silent about many issues such as astronomy, physics and such because he felt that his theories were too advanced for the time he was living in.[21]

Matter and Form

Albert believed that natural things were composed of composition of matter and form, he referred to it as quod est and quo est. Albert also believed that God alone is absolute ruling entity. Albert's vrson of hylemorphism is very standard to Aristotelianism but he also took a some concepts from Avicenna.[22]


Albertus is known for his enlightening commentary on the musical practice of his times. Most of his written musical observations are found in his commentary on Aristotle's Poetics. He rejected the idea of "music of the spheres" as ridiculous: movement of astronomical bodies, he supposed, is incapable of generating sound. He wrote extensively on proportions in music, and on the three different subjective levels on which plainchant could work on the human soul: purging of the impure; illumination leading to contemplation; and nourishing perfection through contemplation. Of particular interest to 20th-century music theorists is the attention he paid to silence as an integral part of music.

Metaphysics of Morals

Both of his early treaties, De natura boni and De bono, start with a metaphysical investigation into the concepts of the good in general and the physical good. Albert refers to the physical good as bonum naturae. Albert does this before directly dealing with the moral concepts of metaphysics. In Albert's later works, he says in order to understand human or moral goodness, the individual must first recognize what it means to be good and do good deeds. This procedure reflects Albert's preoccupations with neo-Platonic theories of good as well as the doctrines of Pseudo-Dionysius.[23] Albert's view was highly valued by the Catholic Church and his peers.

Natural Law

The last tractatus of De Bono devoted to Albert's theory of justice. Albert's natural-law theory comes from the last tractatus of De Bono. The concept mimics the historical evolution of law in the Middle Ages. Albert places God as the pinnacle of justice and natural law. Albert also mentions that God makes up the laws and his authority is above everyone else's. Up until this time, the only other works specifically devoted to natural law written by a theologian or philosophers. In the law section in William of Auxerre's Summa aurea, William proceed his analysis of the cardinal virtues and lastly, Philip the Chancellor's Summa de bono, the book makes some mention of natural law but doesn't go into detail.[24]


Albertus mentions friendship in his work, De bono, as well as presenting his ideals and morals of friendship in the very beginning of Tractatus II. Later in his life he publishes Super Ethica.[25] With his development of friendship throughout his work this is evident that friendship ideals and morals took relevance as his life went on. Albert comments on Aristotle's view of friendship with a quote from Cicero, who writes, "friendship is nothing other than the harmony between things divine and human , with goodwill and love. Albert agrees with this commentary but he also adds in harmony or agreement.[26] Albert calls this harmony, consensiom is itself a certain kind of movement within the human spirit. Albert fully agrees with Aristotle in the sense that friendship is a virtue. Albert relates the inherent metaphysical contentedness between friendship and moral goodness. Albert describes several levels of goodness; the useful (utile), the pleasurable (delectabile) and the authentic or unqualified good (honestum). Then in turn there are three levels of friendship based on each of those levels. Friendship based on usefulness (amicitia utilis), friendship based on pleasure (amicitia delectabilis), and friendship rooted in unqualified goodness (amicitia honesti; amicitia quae fundatur super honestum).[27]

Cultural references

The iconography of the tympanum and archivolts of the late 13th-century portal of Strasbourg Cathedral was inspired by the writings of Albertus Magnus.[28] Albertus is recorded as having made a mechanical automaton in the form of a brass head that would answer questions put to it. Such a feat was also attributed to Roger Bacon.[29]

In The Concept of Anxiety Søren Kierkegaard wrote that Albert Magnus, "arrogantly boasted of his speculation before the deity and suddenly became stupid." Kierkegaard cites Gotthard Oswald Marbach (de) who he quotes as saying "Albertus repente ex asino factus philosophus et ex philosopho asinus" [Albert was suddenly transformed from an ass into a philosopher and from a philosopher into an ass].[30]

Influence and tribute

A number of schools have been named after Albert, including Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia, New York,[31] Albertus Magnus Lyceum in River Forest, Illinois, and Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut.[32] The main science building at Providence College is named in honor of Albertus Magnus. The main science building at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is also named after Albertus Magnus.

The Academy for Science and Design in New Hampshire honored Albertus by naming one of its four houses Magnus House.

As a tribute to the scholar's contributions to the law, the University of Houston Law Center displays a statute of Albertus Magnus. It is located on the campus of the University of Houston.

The Albertus-Magnus-Gymnasium is found in Regensburg, Germany.

In Managua, Nicaragua, the Albertus Magnus International Institute, a business and economic development research center, was founded in 2004.

In The Philippines, the Albertus Magnus Building at the University of Santo Tomas that houses the Conservatory of Music, College of Tourism and Hospitality Management, College of Education, and UST Education High School is named in his honor. The Saint Albert the Great Science Academy in San Carlos City, Pangasinan, which offers preschool, elementary and high school education, takes pride in having St. Albert as their patron saint. Its main building was named Albertus Magnus Hall in 2008.

Due to his contributions to natural philosophy, the plant species Alberta magna and the asteroid 20006 Albertus Magnus were named after him.

Numerous Catholic elementary and secondary schools are named for him, including schools in Toronto, Cologne, and Dayton, Ohio.

The Albertus typeface is named after him.

See also



  • On the causes of the properties of the elements, translated by Irven M. Resnick, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2010) [translation of Liber de causis proprietatum elementorum]
  • Questions concerning Aristotle's On animals, translated by Irven M Resnick and Kenneth F Kitchell, Jr, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008) [translation of Quaestiones super De animalibus]
  • The cardinal virtues: Aquinas, Albert , and Philip the Chancellor, translated by RE Houser, (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004) [contains translations of Parisian summa, part six: On the good and Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, book 3, dist. 33 & 36]
  • The commentary of Albertus Magnus on book 1 of Euclid's Elements of geometry, edited by Anthony Lo Bello, (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003) [translation of Priumus Euclidis cum commento Alberti]
  • On animals: a medieval summa zoologica, translated by Kenneth F Kitchell, Jr. and Irven Michael Resnick, (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) [translation of De animalibus]
  • Paola Zambelli, The Speculum astronomiae and its enigma: astrology, theology, and science in Albertus Magnus and his contemporaries, (Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992) [includes Latin text and English translation of Speculum astronomiae]
  • Albert & Thomas: selected writings, translated by Simon Tugwell, Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, (1988) [contains translation of Super Dionysii Mysticam theologiam]
  • On union with God, translated by a Benedictine of Princethorpe Priory, (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1911) [reprinted as (Felinfach: Llanerch Enterprises, 1991) and (London: Continuum, 2000)] [translation of De adherendo Deo]

Further reading

  • Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-14-051312-4.
  • Collins, David J. "Albertus, Magnus or Magus?: Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages." Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2010): 1–44.
  • Honnefelder, Ludger (ed.) Albertus Magnus and the Beginnings of the Medieval Reception of Aristotle in the Latin West. From Richardus Rufus to Franciscus de Mayronis, (collection of essays in German and English), Münster : Aschendorff, 2005.
  • Kovach,Francis J. & Shahan,Robert W. Albert the Great. Commemorative Essays, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
  • Miteva, Evelina. "The Soul between Body and Immortality: The 13th Century Debate on the Definition of the Human Rational Soul as Form and Substance", in: Philosophia: E-Journal of Philosophy and Culture, 1/2012. ISSN: 1314-5606.
  • .

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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  • Alberti Magni Works in Latin Online
  • Albertus Magnus on Astrology & Magic
  • "Albertus Magnus & Prognostication by the Stars"
  • Albertus Magnus: "Secrets of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts" London, 1604, full online version.
  • Albertus Magnus – De Adhaerendo Deo – On Cleaving to God
  • Online Galleries, History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries High resolution images of works by Albertus Magnus in .jpg and .tiff format.

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