The German philosopher and naturalist St. Albertus Magnus (ca. 1193-1280), also known as Albert the Great, was a dominant figure in the evolution of Christian scholastic thought and a precursor of modern science.
Albert was born in Lauingen, Swabia. His family, the counts of Bollstädt, members of the lesser nobility, sent him to study at the new University of Padua in Italy. After two decades of liberal-arts study Albert was accepted into the Dominican order of mendicant friars in 1223. He studied theology in Germany and was the first German Dominican to become a master of theology at the University of Paris.
The political and social violence of the epoch was accompanied by equally bitter conflicts in the realms of philosophy and theology. In 1256 Pope Alexander IV ordered Albert to his court to defend the Mendicants against the professors of the University of Paris, who were members of the secular clergy. In 1263-1264 he served as the Pope's legate, preaching the crusade in Germany.
Biological and Physical Sciences
The works of Albertus Magnus embrace all the knowledge of the time in natural science and philosophy as well as in theology. His botanical writings, particularly De vegetabilibus et plantis, are noted for their accuracy and detailed descriptions of plant anatomy. His clear grasp of the empirical basis of a taxonomic scheme for plant evolution, evident in his explanation of mutable forms, was not to be surpassed until the Renaissance botanists rediscovered nature. He also had qualities of the practical farmer and intuitive conservationist, advocating the proper use of manure, the planting of trees to arrest soil erosion, and the cultivation of vineyards.
Following the lead of Aristotle, he wrote voluminously of the animal world as well. De animalibus contains descriptions of many animal forms and sections on reproduction and embryology. Albertus Magnus had little knowledge of internal anatomy, treated anthropology philosophically rather than empirically, and presented an Aristotelian classification scheme for the animal kingdom. Furthermore, he was one of the first western European scholars to take careful note of the adaptation of animal form to the environment.
In the physical sciences he commented extensively on chemistry, geology, petrology, and the complex problem of the stability of mineral forms. Here he followed the Aristotelian conception of the four elements and the four qualities and avoided the fanciful notions of the alchemists by retaining a skeptical attitude toward the possibility of a true transformation of the base metals into gold or silver. He isolated the element arsenic, compiled a list of about 100 minerals and their properties, and made accurate observations of fossils. His "chemical writings" discriminate the basic processes of protochemistry, that is, sublimation, distillation, pulverization, grinding, heating, cementing, dissolving, coagulation, and liquefaction.
Autonomy of Reason
The operational principles underlying the scientific work of Albertus Magnus are evident in the following statements taken from his works:
In science we do not have to investigate how God the Maker by His free will uses that which He has created for a miracle by means of which He manifests His power, but rather what may happen in natural things on the ground of causes inherent in nature.
Science does not consist simply in believing what we are told, but in inquiring into the nature of things.
A conclusion that is inconsistent with our senses cannot be believed; a principle that does not agree with experience gained by sense perception is not a principle, but rather the reverse of it.
The investigation of nature should be pursued even unto individual things; knowledge of the natures of things in general is only rudimentary knowledge.
These precepts are indeed remarkable for a 13th-century scholar. They provide eloquent support for the claim that it was Albertus Magnus who first clearly established the autonomy of reason in the sphere of science and hence, at a critical moment in European history, prevented the rational studies of nature from being outlawed by the Church as a form of magic or necromancy or from being inundated by the tides of mysticism or dogmatic orthodoxy.
Further Reading on St. Albertus Magnus
A modern biography of St. Albertus Magnus is S. M. Albert, Albert the Great (1948). The best analysis of his role in the evolution of medieval thought appears in the various writings of the great French historian Etienne H. Gilson: Christianity and Philosophy (1936; trans. 1939) and The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (1932; trans. 1936). See also E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture (trans. 1961), and Fritz Paneth, Chemistry and Beyond: A Selection, edited by Herbert Dingle and G. R. Martin (1964).