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From The Mediaeval Mind, A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, by Henry Osborn Taylor in Two Volumes, Volume II., MacMillan Co., New York, 1911; pp. 420-432.





ALBERT THE GREAT was prodigious in the mass of his accomplishment Therein lay his importance for the age he lived in; therein lies his interest for us. For him, substantial philosophy, as distinguished from the instrumental rôle of logic, had three parts, set by nature, rather than devised by man; they are physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. “It is our intention,” says Albert at the beginning of his exposition of Aristotle’s Physics, “to make all the said parts intelligible to the Latins.” And he did. Perhaps the world has had no greater purveyor of a knowledge not his own. He is comparable with Boëthius, who gave the Latin world the Aristotelian Organon, a gift but half availed for many centuries. Albert gave his Latin world the rest of Aristotle, the philosophia realis. His world was as ready to receive this great donation, as the time of Boëthius was unready to profit by any intellectual gift demanding mental energies for its assimilation. Boëthius stood alone in his undertaking; if his hand failed there was none to take up his task. Fate stayed his hand; and the purpose that was his, to render the whole of Plato and Aristotle intelligible to the Latin world, perished with him, the Latin world being by no means eager for the whole of Aristotle and Plato, and unfit to receive it had it been proffered. But Albert’s time was eager; it was importunate for the very enlargement of knowledge which Albert, more than any other man, was bringing it. An age obtains what it demands. Albert had fellow-labourers, some preceding, some assisting, and others following him, to perfect the 421 knowledge in which he worked, and build it into the scholastic Christian scheme. But in this labour of purveyorship he overtopped the rest, the giant of them all.

He was born Count of Bollstadt, in Suabia, probably in the year 1193. Whether his youth was passed in the profession of arms, or in study, is not quite clear. But while still young he began his years of studious travel, and at Padua in 1223 he joined the Dominican Order. He became a miracle of learning, reputed also as one who could explain the phenomena of nature. From 1228 to 1245 he taught in German cities, chiefly at Cologne. Then the scene changed to Paris, where he lectured and won fame from 1245 to 1248. With this period begins the publication of his philosophical encyclopaedia. Perhaps it was first completed in 1256. But Albert kept supplementing and revising it until his death. In 1248 he was remanded to Cologne to establish a school there. His life continued devoted to study and teaching, yet with interruptions. For he filled the office of Provincial of his Order for Germany from 1254 to 1257, and was compelled to be Bishop of Regensburg from 1260 to 1262. Then he insisted on resigning, and retired to a cloister at Cologne. Naturally he was engaged in a number of learned controversies, and was burdened with numerous ecclesiastical affairs. In 1277 for the last time he set his face towards Paris, to defend the doctrines and memory of his great pupil, who had died three years before. His own illustrious life closed at Cologne on the fifteenth of November, 1280. Albert was a man of piety, conforming strictly to the rules of his Order. It is said that he refused to own even the manuscripts which he indited; and as Dominican Provincial of Germany he walked barefoot on his journeys through the vast territory set under his supervision. Tradition has him exceedingly small of stature.

Albert’s labours finally put within reach of his contemporaries the sum of philosophy and science contained in the works of Aristotle, and his ancient, as well as Arabian, commentators. The undertaking was grandly conceived; it was carried out with tireless energy and massive learning. Let us observe the principles which 422 informed the mind of this mighty Teuton scholar. He transcribed approvingly the opinion expressed by Aristotle at the opening of the Metaphysics, that the love of knowledge is natural to man; and he recognized the pleasure arising from knowledge of the sensible world, apart from considerations of utility.1 He took this thought from Aristotle; but the proof that he made it his own with power lay in those fifty years of intellectual toil which produced the greatest of all mediaeval storehouses of knowledge.

In his reliance on his sources, Albert is mediaeval; his tendency is to accept the opinion which he is reproducing, especially when it is the opinion of Aristotle. Yet he protested against regarding even him as infallible. “He who believes that Aristotle was God, ought to believe that he never erred. If one regards him as a man, then surely he may err as well as we.”2 Albert was no Averroist to adhere to all the views of the Philosopher; he pointedly differed from him where orthodoxy demanded it, maintaining, for instance, the creation of the world in time, contrary to the opinion of the Peripatetics. Albert, and with him Aquinas, had not accepted merely the task of expounding Aristotle, but also that of correcting him where Truth (with a large Christian capital) required it. Albert held that Aristotle might err, and that he did not know everything. The development of science was not closed by his death: “Dicendum quod scientiae demonstrativae non omnes factae sunt, sed plures restant adhuc inveniendae.”3 This is not Roger Bacon speaking, but Albertus; and still more might one think to hear the voice of the recalcitrant Franciscan in the words: “Oportet experimentum non in uno modo, sed secundum omnes circumstantias probare.”4 Yet these words too are Albert’s, and he is speaking of the observation of nature’s phenomena; regarding which one shall not simply transcribe the ancient statement; but observe with his own eyes and mind.


This was in the spirit of Aristotle; Albert recognizes and approves. But did he make the experimental principle his own with power, as he did the thought that the desire to know is inborn? This is a fundamental question as to Albert. No one denies his learning, his enormous book-diligence. But was he also an observer of natural phenomena? One who sought to test from his own observation the statements of the books he read? It is best here to avoid either a categorical affirmation or denial. The standard by which one shapes one’s answer is important. Are we to compare Albert with a St. Bernard, whose meditations shut his eyes to mountains, lakes, and woods? Or are we to apply the standards of a natural science which looks always to the tested results of observation? There is sufficient evidence in Albert’s writings to show that he kept his eyes open, and took notice of interesting phenomena, seen, for instance, on his journeys. But, on the other hand, it is absurd to imagine that he dreamed of testing the written matter which he paraphrased, or of materially adding to it, by systematic observation of nature. Accounts of his observations do not always raise our opinion of his science. He transcribes the description of certain worms, and says that they may come from horse-hairs, for he has seen horse-hairs, in still water, turning into worms.5 The trouble was that Albert had no general understanding of the processes of nature. Consequently, in his De animalibus for instance, he gives the fabulous as readily as the more reasonable. Nevertheless let no one think that natural knowledge did not really interest and delight him. His study of plants has led the chief historian of botany to assert that Albert was the first real botanist, after the ancient Theophrastus, inasmuch as he studied for the sake of learning the nature of plants, irrespective of their medical or agricultural uses.6

The writings of Albertus Magnus represent, perhaps more fully than those of any other man, the round of knowledge and intellectual interest attracting the attention of western Europe in the thirteenth century. At first glance 424 they seem to separate into those which in form and substance are paraphrases of Aristotelian treatises, or borrowed expositions of Aristotelian topics; and those which are more independent compositions. Yet the latter, like the Summa de creaturis, for example, will be found to consist largely of borrowed material; the matter is rearranged, and presented in some new connection, or with a purpose other than that of its source.

In his Aristotelian paraphrases, which were thickly sown with digressive expositions, Albert’s method, as he states at the beginning of the Physica, is “to follow the order and opinions of Aristotle, and to give in addition whatever is needed in the way of explanation and support; yet without reproducing Aristotle’s text (tamen quod textus eius nulla fiat mentio). And we shall also compose digressions to expound whatever is obscure.” The titles of the chapters will indicate whether their substance is from Aristotle. Thus instead of giving the Aristotelian text, with an attached commentary, Albert combines paraphrase and supplementary exposition. Evidently the former method would have presented Aristotle’s meaning more surely, and would have thus observed a closer scholarship. But for this the Aristotelian commentaries of Aquinas must be awaited.

The compass of Albert’s achievement as a purveyor of ancient knowledge may be seen from a cursory survey of his writings; which will likewise afford an idea of the quality of his work, and how much there was of Albert in it.7 To begin with, he sets forth with voluminous exposition the entire Aristotelian Organon. The preliminary questions as to the nature of logic were treated in the De praedicabilibus,8 which expanded the substance of Porphyry’s Isagoge. In this treatise Albert expounds his conclusions as to universals, the universal being that which is in one yet is fit (aptum) to be in many, and is predicable of many. “Et hoc modo prout ratio est praedicabilitatis, ad logicam pertinet de universali tractare; quamvis secundum quod est natura quaedam 425 et differentia entis, tractare de ipso pertineat ad metaphysicam.” That is to say, It pertains to logic to treat of the universal in respect to its predicability; but in so far as the question relates to the nature and differences of essential being, it pertains to metaphysics. This sentence is an example of Albert’s awkward Latin; but it shows how firmly he distinguishes between the logical and the metaphysical material. His treatment of logic is exhaustive, rather than acutely discriminating. He works constantly with the material of others, and the result is more inclusive than organic.9 In his ponderous treatment of logical themes, no possible consideration is omitted.

The De praedicabilibus is followed by the De praedicamentis, Albert’s treatise on the Categories. Next comes his Liber de sex principiis, which is a paraphrasing exposition of the work of Gilbert de la Porrée. Then comes his Perihermenias, which keeps the Greek title of the De interpretatione. These writings are succeeded by elaborate expositions of the more advanced logical treatises of Aristotle, all of them, of course, Analytics (Prior and Posterior), Topics, and Elenchi. The total production is detailed, exhaustive, awful; it is ingens truly, only not quite informis; and Teutonically painstaking and conscientious.

Thus logic makes Tome I. of the twenty-one tomes of Albert’s Opera. Tome II. contains his expository paraphrases of Aristotle’s Physics and lesser treatises upon physical topics, celestial and terrestrial. From the opening chapter we have already taken the programme of his large intention to make known all Aristotle to the Latins. In this chapter likewise he proceeds to lay out the divisions of philosophia realis into Aristotelian conceptions of metaphysica, mathematica, and physica. With chapter two he falls into the first of his interminable digressions, taking up what were called “the objections of Heracleitus” to any science of physics. Another digressive chapter considers the proper subject of physical science, to wit, corpus mobile, and another considers its divisions. After a while he takes up the opinions of the ancients upon the beginnings (principia) of things, and then 426 reasons out the true opinion in the matter. Liber II. of his Physica is devoted to Natura, considered in many ways, but chiefly as the principium intrinsecum omnium eorum quae natualia sunt. It is the principle of motion in the mobile substance. Next he passes to a discussion of causes; and in the succeeding books he considers movement, place, time, and eternity. Albert’s paraphrase is replete with logical forms of thinking; it seems like formal logic applied in physical science. The world about us still furnishes, or is, data for our thoughts; and we try to conceive it consistently, so as to satisfy our thinking; so did Aristotle and Albertus. But they avowedly worked out their conceptions of the external world according to the laws determining the consistency of their own mental processes; and deemed this a proper way of approach to natural science. Yet the work of Aristotle represents a real consideration of the universe, and a tremendous mass of natural knowledge. The achievement of Albertus in rendering it available to the scholar-world of the thirteenth century was an extension of knowledge which seems the more prodigious as we note its enormous range. This continues to impress us as we turn over Albert’s next treatises, paraphrasing those of Aristotle, as their names indicate: De coelo et mundo; De generatione et corruptione; Libri Iv. meteorum; De mineralibus, which ends Tome II. and the physical treatises proper.

Tome III. introduces us to another region, opening with Albert’s exhaustive paraphrase De anima. It is placed here because the scientia de anima is part of naturalis scientia, and comes after minerals and other topics of physics, but precedes the science of animate bodies — corporum animatorum; for the last cannot be known except through knowing their animae. In this, as well as in other works of Albert, psychological material is gathered from many sources. One may hardly speak of the psychology of Albert Magnus, since his matter has no organic unity. It is largely Aristotelian, with the thoughts of Arab commentators taken into it, as in Albert’s Aristotelian paraphrases generally. But it is also Augustinian, and Platonic and Neo-Platonic. Albert is capable of defending opposite views in the same treatise; and in spite of best intentions, he does not succeed 427 in harmonizing what he draws from Aristotle, with what he takes from Augustine. Hence his works nowhere present a system of psychology which might be called Albert’s, either through creation or consistent selection. But at least he has gathered, and bestowed somewhere, all the accessible material.10

Tome III. of Albert’s Opera contains also his Aristotelian paraphrase, Metaphysicorum libri XIII. In this vera sapientia philosophiae, he follows Aristotle closely, save where orthodoxy compels deviation.11 Tome IV. contains his paraphrasing expositions, Ethica and In octo libros politicorum Aristotelis commentarii. Tome V. contains paraphrases of Aristotle’s minor natural treatises, — parva naturalia; to wit, the Liber de sensu et sensato, treating problems of sense-perception; next the Liber de memoria et reminiscentia, in which the two arts are thus distinguished: “Memoria motus continuus est in rem, et uniformis. Reminiscibilitas autem est motus quaisi interceptus et abscissus per oblivionem.” Treatises follow: De somno et vigilia; De motibus animalium; De aetate, sive de juventute et senectute; De spiritu et respiratione; De morte et vita; De nutrimento et nutribile; De natura et origine animae; De unitate intellectus contra Averroem (a controversial tract); De intellectu et intelligibile (an important psychological writing); De natura locorum; De causis proprietatum elementorum; De passionibus aeris, sive de vaporum impressionibus; and next and last, saving some minor tracts, Albert’s chief botanical work, De vegetabilibus

Aristotle’s Botany was lost, and Albert’s work was based on De plantis of Nicolas of Damascus, a short compend vulgarly ascribed to Aristotle, but really made in the first century, and passing through numerous translations from one language to another, before Albert accepted it as the composition of the Stagirite. It consisted of two short books; Albert’s work contained seven long ones, and made the most important work on botany since the times of Aristotle 428 and his pupil Theophrastus. In opening, Albert says that generalities applicable to all animate things have been already presented, and now it is time to consider more especially and in turn, vegetabilia, sensibilia, rationabilia. In the first eight chapters of his first book Albert follows his supposed Aristotelian source, and then remarks that the translation of the Philosopher’s treatise is so ignorantly made that he will himself take up in order the six problems thus far incompetently discussed. So he considers whether plants have souls; whether plant-souls feel and desire; whether plants sleep; as to sex in plants; whether without sex they can propagate their species; and as to their hidden life.

In the second book, having again bewailed the insufficiency of his source, Albert takes up the classification of plants, and proceeds with a description of their various parts, then passes on to the shape of leaves, the generation and nature of flowers, their colour, odour, and shape. Liber III., still as an independent digressio, discusses seeds and fruit. In Liber IV. Albert returns to his unhappy source, and his matter declines in interest; but again, in Liber V., he frees himself in a digressio on the properties and effects of plants, gathered from many sources, some of which are foolish enough. His sixth book is a description of trees and other plants in alphabetical order. The last and seventh is devoted to agriculture.12

In the De vegetabilibus, Albert, as an expounder of natural knowledge, is at his best. A less independent and intelligent production is his enormous treatise De animalibus libri XXVI., which fills the whole of Tome IV. of Albert’s Opera. A certain Thomas of Cantimpré, an admiring pupil of Albert, may have anticipated the above-named work of his teacher, by his own composition, De naturis rerum, which appears to have been composed shortly before the middle of the thirteenth century. Its descriptions of animals, although borrowed and uncritical, were at least intended to describe them actually, and were not merely fashioned for the moral’s sake, after the manner of the Physiologus,13 and many a compilation of the 429 early Middle Ages. Yet the work contains moralities enough, and plenty of the fabulous. But Thomas diligently gathered information as he might, and from Aristotle more than any other. Thus, in his lesser way, he, as well as Albert, represents the tendency of the period to interest itself in the realities, as well as in the symbolism, of the natural world.

Albert’s work is not such an inorganic compilation as Thomas’s. He has paraphrased the ten books of Aristotle’s natural histories, his four books on the parts of animals, and his five books on their generation. To these nineteen, he has added seven books on the nature of animal bodies and on their grades of perfection; and then on quadrupeds, birds, aquatic animals, snakes, and small bloodless creatures. Besides Aristotle, he draws on Avicenna, Galen, Ambrose (!), and others, including Thomas of Cantimpré. Thus, his work is made up mainly of the ancient written material. Moreover, Albert is kept from a natural view of his subject, through the need he feels to measure animals by the standards of human capacity, and learn to know them through knowing man. His digressiones usually discuss abstract problems, as, for instance, whether beyond the four elements, any fifth principle enters the composition of animal bodies. As for his anatomy, he describes the muscles, and calls the veins nerves, having no real knowledge of the latter. He corrects few ancient errors, either anatomical or physiological; and his own observations, occasionally referred to in his work, scarcely win our respect. Nor does he exclude fabulous stories, or the current superstitions as to the medicinal or magical effect of parts of certain animals. On the whole, Albert’s merit in the province of Zoology lies in his introduction of the Aristotelian data and conceptions to the mediaeval Latin West.14

After Tome IV. of Albert’s Opera, follow many portly tomes, the contents of which need not detain us. There are enormous commentaries on the Psalms and Prophets, and the Gospels (Tomes VII.-XI.); then a tome of sermons, then a tome of commentaries on the Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius; and three tomes of commentaries on the Lombard’s Sentences, — commentaries, that is to say, upon works which stood close 430 to Scripture in authority. With these we reach the end of Albert’s labours in paraphrase and commentary, and pass to his more constructive work. Of course, the first and chief is his Summa theologiae, contained in Tomes XVII. and XVIII. of the Opera. With Albert, theology is a science, a branch of systematic knowledge, the highest indeed, and yet one among others. This science, says he in the Prologue to his Summa,

“. . . is of all sciences the most entitled to credence — certissimae credulitatis et fidei. Other sciences, concerning creatures, possess rationes immobiles, yet those rationes are mobiles because they are in created things. But this science is founded in rationibus aeternis is immutable both secundum esse and secundum rationem. And since it is not constituted of the sensible and imaginable, which are not quite cleared of the hangings of matter, plainly it, alone or supremely, is science: for the divine intellect is altogether intellectual, being the light and cause of everything intelligible; and from it to us is the divine science.”

Albert’s dialectic is turgid enough, and lacks the lucidity of his pupil. Yet his reasoning may be weighty and even convincing. Intellect, Reason and its realm of that which is known through Reason, is higher than sense perceptions and imaginations springing from them: it affords the surest knowledge; the science that treats of pure reason, which is in God, is the surest and noblest of sciences. Albert clearly defines the province and nature of theology.

“It is scientia secundum pietatem; it is not concerned with the knowable (scibile) simply as such, nor with the knowable universally; but only as it inclines us to Piety. Piety, as Augustine says, is the worship of God, perfected by faith, hope, charity, prayer, and sacrifices. Thus theology is the science of what pertains to salvation; for piety conduces to salvation.”15

The Summa theologiae treats of the encyclopaedic matter of the sacred science, in the order and arrangement with which we are familiar.16 It is followed (Tome XIX.) by Albert’s Summa de creaturis, a presentation of God’s creation, omitting the special topics set forth in the De vegetabilibus and De animalibus. It treats of creation, of 431 matter, of time and eternity, of the heavens and celestial bodies, of angels, their qualities and functions, and the hierarchies of them; of the state of the wicked angels, of the works of the six days, briefly; and then of man, soul and body, very fully; of man’s habitation and the order and perfection of the universe. Thus the Summa de creaturis treats of the world and man as God’s creation; but it is not directly concerned with man’s salvation, which is the distinguishing purpose of a Summa theologiae, hwever encyclopaedic such a work may be.

Two tomes remain of Albert’s Opera, containing much that is very different from anything already considered. Tome XX. is devoted to the Virgin Mary, and is chiefly made up of two prodigious tracts: De laudibus beatae Mariae Virginis libri XII., and the Mariale, sive quaestiones super evangelium, Missus est angelus Gabriel. These works — it is disputed whether Albert was their author — are a glorification, indeed a deification of Mary. They are prodigious; they are astounding. The worship of Mary is gathered up in them, of Mary the chief and best beloved creation of the Middle Ages; only not a creation, strictly speaking, for the Divine Virgin, equipped with attribute and quality, sprang from the fecund matrix of the early Church. The works before us represent a simpler piety than Albert’s Summa theologiae. They contain satisfying, consoling statements, not woven of dialectic. And the end is all that the Mary-loving soul could wish. “Christ protects the servants of His genetrix: — and so does Mary, as may be read in her miracles, protects us from our bodily enemies, and from the seducers of souls.”17 The praises of Mary will seem marvellous indeed to anyone turning over the tituli of books and chapters. There is here a whole mythology, and a universal symbolism. Symbolically, Mary is everything imaginable; she has every virtue and a mass of power and privileges. She is the adorable and chief efficient Goddess mediating between the Trinity and the creature man.

Tome XXI., last tome of all, has a variety of writings, some of which may not be Albert’s. Among them is a work 432 of sweet and simple piety, a work of turning to God as a little child; and one would be loath to take it away from this man of learning. De adhaerendo Deo is its title, which tells the story. Albert wished at last to write something presenting man’s ultimate perfection, so far as that might be realized in this life. So he writes this little tract of chamber-piety, as to how one should cling to Christ alone. Yet he cannot disencumber himself of his lifelong methods of composition. He might conceive and desire; but it was not for him to write a tract to move the heart. The best he can say is that the end of all our study and discipline is intendere et quiescere in Domino Deo intra te per purissimum intellectum, et devotissimum affectum sine phantasmatibus et implicationibus. The great scholar would come home at last, like a little child, if he only could.



1  Albertus, Metaphysicorum libri XIII., lib. i. tract 1, cap. 4.

2  Physic. lib. viii. tract. 1, cap. 14.

3  Poster. Analyt. lib. i. tract. 1, cap. 1. This and the previous citation are from Mandonnet’s Siger de Brabant.

4  Ethic. lib. vi. tract. 2, cap. 25.

5  Carus, Ges. der Zoologie, p. 231.

6  Ernst Meyer, Ges. der Botanik, Bd. iv. p. 77.

7  The works of Albertus were edited by the Dominican Jammy in twenty-one volumes (Lyons, 1651); they are reprinted by Borgnet (Paris, 1890 et seq.). My references to volumes follow Jammy’s edition.

8  See ante, pp. 314 sqq.

9  Prantl, Ges. der Logik, iii. 89 sqq., calls him an “unklarer Kopf,” incapable of consistent thinking.

10  This is the view of A. Schneider, Die Psychologie Alberts des Grossen (Baeumker’s Beiträge, Münster, 1903). The author presents analytically the disparate elements — Aristotlian, Neo-Platonic, and theological-Augustinian, which are found in Albert’s writings.

11  See Endriss, Albertus Magnus als Interpret der Aristotelischen Metaphysik (Munich, 1886).

12  The above is mainly drawn from E. Meyer’s Ges. der Botanik, Bd. iv. pp. 38-78.

13  Ante, Volume I. p. 76.

14  See Carus, Geschichte der Zoologie, pp. 211-239.

15  Sum. theol. pars prima, tract. 1, quaest. ii.

16  Ante, Chapter XXXV., 1.

17  Tome xx. p. 41a.


  Elf.Ed. — See Paolo Giovio’s brief tribute Albertus Magnus, in the 16th century here.


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