St. Albert, the Great

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 bishop who achieved fame for his comprehensive knowledge of and advocacy for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion.


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.


The Catholic Church honours him as a Doctor of the Church, one of only 33 persons with that honor.

 

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. His scholarly legacy justifies his contemporaries' bestowing upon him the honourable surname Doctor Universalis.

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.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. He is credited with the discovery of the element arsenic and experimented with photosensitive chemicals, including silver nitrate. 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. Much of the modern confusion results from the fact that later works, particularly the alchemical work known as the Secreta Alberti or the Experimenta Alberti, were falsely attributed to Albertus by their authors to increase the prestige of the text through association.

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. Magnus does not confirm he discovered the stone in his writings, but he did record that he witnessed the creation of gold by "transmutation." 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. While today we would view this as evidence of superstition, 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 logical 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.