Albertus Magnus, Saint (circa 1200-80)

Albertus Magnus, Saint (circa 1200-80), called Albert the Great and known as doctor universalis for his wide interest in natural science. He was especially noted for his introduction of Greek and Arabic science and philosophy to the medieval world.

Born in Lauingen, Bavaria, to a noble military family, Albert was studying at Padua in 1223, when he was attracted to the Dominican Order of Preachers, then less than ten years old. He was ordained in Germany and taught there before going on to the University of Paris, where he became a master of theology in 1245 and subsequently held one of the Dominican chairs of theology. Among his early students was Thomas Aquinas. Albert was an influential teacher, church administrator, and preacher. He traveled through western Europe on behalf of his order and served as a provincial and, briefly, as bishop of Regensburg (1260-62) before returning to teaching and research.

Albert was a key figure in the assimilation of Aristotelian philosophy into medieval Scholasticism and in the revival of natural science that it inspired. Early in the 13th century, a body of philosophical and scientific writings previously unknown to Western philosophers and theologians became a disturbing force in Scholastic circles. These Latin writings, based on Arabic translations of the works of Aristotle, were accompanied by the writings of Arab commentators, notably Avicenna and AverroŽs. As such, they presented a point of view foreign to the church-trained Scholastics, whose knowledge of Aristotle was confined to his logic, as taught and interpreted for centuries by the church, in the tradition of St. Augustine and the Neoplatonists. See Scholasticism.

Albert had, on his journeys, shown an intense interest in natural phenomena, and he seized on Aristotle's scientific writings. He examined them, commented on them, and occasionally contradicted them on the evidence of his own careful observations. He produced essentially new works and, according to the English philosopher Roger Bacon, held much the same authority in his time as did Aristotle himself.

As a theologian, Albert was outstanding among the medieval philosophers but not as innovative as his pupil Aquinas. In his Summa Theologiae (circa 1270), he attempted to reconcile Aristotelianism and Christian teachings. He maintained that human reason could not contradict revelation, but he defended the philosopher's right to investigate divine mysteries.

Albert died at Cologne on November 15, 1280. He was beatified in 1622 and declared a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1931, at which time he was acclaimed an official Doctor of the Church. In 1941 Pope Pius XII made him the patron of all who study the natural sciences. His feast day is November 15.

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