Consider the example of the mountaineer. If our spirit loses itself in desire for the things that are passing far below, it is soon caught in a maze of infinite distractions and crooked ways; the soul is divided from itself, dissipated and torn into as many pieces as there are objects of its desire. This leads to an unstable climb, a journey without an end and toil without repose.
But if the heart and soul raise themselves by desire and love from what is beneath them and threatens to entangle them in many distractions; and if, forsaking these things, the soul recollects itself within the one, unchanging, all-sufficing good, dedicating itself to the service of this good, and steadily cleaving there by the power of its will – then this soul will be more recollected and strong the more its thoughts and desires soar to God.
De Adhaerendo Deo
Between superstition rising like a foul odour from the decay of classical Mediterranean religions and dogmatism pouring forth from Christianity bent towards total political and social control of the fragmented Roman Imperium, truth and insight found little room in which to flower. Once emperors abandoned republican ideals of humanitas, the state religion which nurtured them withered. Mysteries and secret rites, already materialized through popularization, were welcomed and degraded at the same time. Early church fathers, intent on securing respectability for the new religion and on seizing control of the reins and purse-strings of imperial administration, became so obsessed with eradicating contrasting philosophies that they frequently abandoned even the pretence of ethical thought and action. While individuals found nourishment for the soul in the teachings of Jesus just as they once found nutriment in the hymns of Orpheus, institutionalized religion became a strange mixture of fearful superstition and heartless dogma. Expansion and control were alleviated only by degrees of greed and self-aggrandizement; and the religion named after the Man of Sorrows crept like a dark cloud across Europe.
Long before Luther felt compelled almost against his will to raise the torch of protest on behalf of the capacity of the mind to be rational, reverential and free, others had come to sense that fundamental distortions permeated the church. Muslim Spain reintroduced Plato to the continent, and perceptive individuals responded to the reminder that the spiritual life is invisible, impossible to formulate and ultimately ineffable. When the writings of Aristotle followed some decades later, many teachers and thinkers saw in them a lever to move consciousness away from the empty abstractions of censored theology towards unfettered reasoning inspired by a free examination of nature. Relatively free to discuss previously unnoticed nature, monks and teachers grew bold and began to question institutional practices. Questions of structure eventually lead to questions of doctrine. Ecclesiastical indulgence and growing church wealth troubled many who were not prepared to challenge tenets of faith but who knew the Sermon on the Mount and read Plato. In the early years of the thirteenth century, religious orders devoted to the principle of voluntary poverty emerged, especially around the memory of Francis of Assisi and the work of Dominic Guzman of Spain. Roger Bacon was a Franciscan and Albertus Magnus joined the Dominican Order.
Though the early life of Albertus is obscure, tradition and circumstantial evidence agree that he was born the eldest son of the Count of Bollstiidt at Lauingen in Swabia in A.D. 1193. During his youth he was raised on the family estates, receiving an education appropriate to lesser nobility. Apparently his fascination with the operations and processes of nature manifested at a very young age; in his mature years Albertus composed treatises on falconry and horsemanship that were the best in their time, often correcting from extensive experience errors sanctified by tradition. When he wrote that "the aim of natural science is not merely to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes at work in nature", he summed up a lifelong inclination. After a prolonged education at home, Albertus entered the university recently founded at Padua. Whilst his soul found sustenance in Plato, his inquisitive temperament was sharpened by the writings of Aristotle. True to these twin interests, his unconcern with the subtleties of theological argumentation – orthodoxy lightened by a Platonic perspective satisfied him – was matched by the challenge of Aristotelian natural science. Reverence for the master is found in the organization of his own writings as a general commentary on Aristotle's books, and investigation is evidenced by his willingness to discover through experimentation the truth or falsehood of every conclusion.
Albertus possessed a remarkable gift for teaching as well as learning, and he found that management of ancestral lands and leisure pursuits of nobility were less attractive than intense study and quiet contemplation. In 1223 Jordan of Saxony, Master General of the Dominican Order of Preachers, arrived in Padua seeking recruits. He soon persuaded ten students to enter the order, including Albertus who had to endure and overcome furious opposition from his family. His intellectual and pedagogical talents were easily recognized, and he was ordered to continue his studies at Padua, and later Bologna, even while serving the order as a lector. For years he travelled to Dominican houses in Italy, France and the German states as a teacher and preacher whose integrity came to match his brilliance. While this combination of traits made Albertus especially fond of the withdrawn, contemplative life of a student and writer, others recognized his value as administrator and arbiter in both church affairs and secular society.
Around 1243 Albertus was sent to the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques at the University of Paris. Here he found Aristotle's own words, recently translated from Greek and Arabic, supplemented by translations of commentaries by Averroes. After lecturing on the Bible and on Peter Lombard's Sententiae, the standard theological textbook of the medieval era, Albertus was awarded a master's degree and given the university chair for foreigners in 1245, the year during which Thomas Aquinas came to Paris to study theology. Perhaps Thomas was first inspired to produce his massive Summa Theologiae by his early contacts with Albertus, who had begun to compose a monumental presentation of everything known in every branch and department of study. Spanning a period of two decades, Albertus alone among thinkers of his time provided commentaries on every treatise attributed to Aristotle. In addition, he wrote seminal essays on every branch of natural science, logic and rhetoric, mathematics and astronomy, ethics and metaphysics, economics and politics. Despite his love for such activity, his character and talents were recognized as valuable to the growth of his order and the programme of the church.
In 1248 Albertus was sent to Cologne as Regent of Studies to organize the first studium generale – the general house of studies – of the Dominican Order. Thomas became his chief disciple, and though Thomas returned to Paris in 1252 after theological differences between them became increasingly apparent, the two remained on closest terms throughout their lives. In 1254 Albertus was made provincial of Teutonia, the German province of the order, a task he performed superbly but with no enthusiasm. By 1256 the universities had become concerned about the way of life exemplified in the mendicant orders, especially the renunciation of all personal and community property and the homeless status of the monks which allowed them great freedom of travel. Paris attempted to prevent Dominicans and Franciscans from teaching, the only means of subsistence amongst mendicants, and Pope Alexander IV called a conference at Anagni to debate the issue. On papal orders, Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus represented the Dominicans, and Bonaventure spoke for the Franciscans. Despite vigorous protests from the regular clergy, the mendicants won the right to teach at Paris and other universities. For Albertus the victory was mixed: he was enabled to resign as provincial in 1257 so that he could again teach, but in 1259 the pope appointed him bishop of Regensburg. Albertus had already achieved recognition for settling disputes between the religious and political factions in Cologne, an ongoing tension he was compelled to return to numerous times throughout his later life. Abuses, inefficiency and irregularities at Regensburg had brought discredit to church administration. Albertus righted matters, and the death of Alexander IV allowed him to resign his office in 1261. He returned to Cologne, but as a bishop he was in some respects exempt from the rules of his order, and so could manage his time and ancestral inheritance more freely than before.
When Pope Urban IV decided to launch yet another crusade, he chose Albertus as his legate for Germany and Bohemia. For a year Albertus travelled, ostensibly preaching the crusade, but he quickly realized that there was almost universal disinterest in a venture that had repeatedly proven expensive, indecisive and vain. He seized the opportunity to study the flora, fauna and geology of the countryside through which he passed. He lectured at various cities and generally looked after the affairs of his rapidly expanding order, but he was pleased to return permanently to Cologne in 1270. Though officially in retirement, Albertus settled another dispute between archbishop and city and made two more journeys, one in 1274 to the Council of Lyons to support Rudolf of Habsburg for the kingship of Germany, the other in 1277 to Paris. Thomas Aquinas had died a few years earlier, and his writings were being condemned as heretical. Albertus defended the name of Thomas and those Aristotelian doctrines that they held in common.
Despite his administrative burdens and enforced travels, Albertus wrote voluminously and performed many practical experiments. His lifelong concern with the possibility of creating automata suggests that he may have actually done so. Tradition records that once Thomas entered the laboratory of Albertus uninvited, and there found a likeness of a young girl who uttered the word salve ("greetings") three times. Terrified at what he took to be a demonic phenomenon, Thomas shattered the image just as Albertus entered the room. "Thomas! Thomas!" Albertus cried, "what have you done? You have destroyed the labour of thirty years!" During his last years at Cologne, Albertus was honoured with the title Magnus, 'the Great', the only medieval scholar to receive that accolade in his lifetime. His Franciscan contemporary, Roger Bacon, who disagreed with him on many issues, called him "the most noted of Christian scholars". Albertus Magnus died in Cologne on November 15, 1280, to the relief of many who feared him as an alchemist and magician, and to the great sorrow of many others who saw in him the beacon of scholastic science and the exemplar of the enquiring mind. Declared a saint in 1931, a decade later he was named patron of those who are devoted to the natural sciences. He is known as Doctor Universalis for an immense range of learning that was to become an ideal of the Renaissance and believed impossible in later eras.
Albertus was a follower of Platonic doctrines in his religious life and an adherent of broadly Aristotelian methods in his observation of nature. While he clearly distinguished knowledge by revelation through faith and knowledge through philosophy and science, he denied any hint of "two truths". All that is really true, Albertus taught, harmonizes with both faith and reason. There are mysteries accessible only to faith, but many Christian teachings are recognizable by reason as well, e.g., the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Whilst quite willing to correct Aristotelian tradition and Christian doctrine in considerable detail, Albertus was loath to question the presuppositions of either. Nevertheless, his profound and usually unspoken conviction that the spiritual life fundamentally consists in the ardent turning of the soul towards the divine marked all his endeavours. This is helped by an increasing awareness of nature, Divinity's handiwork. Ancient authors shared the same reverence for the filigree of causality and thus deserve full respect themselves, but they would be shocked to discover that subsequent generations tended to idolize them as an excuse for accepting their opinions without adequate thought or independent investigation. Seeing no conflict between honouring the achievements of the past and vigorously questioning in the present, Albertus demonstrated true freedom of the mind and set the standards of enquiry that encouraged the Golden Age of Scholasticism to lay the foundations of the Renaissance. Viewing the manifest universe as a vast hierarchical procession emanating or flowing forth from the creative activity of Deity, Albertus taught that the study of operations in nature provides clues to the mysteries of being.
In addition to his refreshing treatments of horses and falcons in a long work on the animal kingdom, Albertus wrote so authoritatively on herbs and plants that for four hundred years subsequent herbals copied – often with many errors – from his writings. In studying alchemy he recognized the tendencies to charlatanry and misuse of knowledge. In his Libellus de Alchimia (Little Book on Alchemy), he warned:
The first precept is that the worker in this art must be silent and secretive and reveal his secret to no one, knowing full well that if many know, the secret in no way will be kept, and that when it is divulged, it will be repeated with error. Thus it will be lost, and the work will remain imperfect.
Given the secrecy of his own laboratory work and the response of Thomas to his automaton, Albertus understood firsthand the meaning of this injunction. More than he conveyed, he also knew that the same precept applies to spiritual alchemy.
Divide the egg of the philosophers into four parts of which each will have one nature, then bring together equally and proportionately, so that it has no inconsistency, and you will achieve that which was proposed, the Lord willing. This is a universal method.
De Mineralibus deals at great length with the composition and properties of precious and semi-precious stones, images cut in stone, the nature of metals and salts. Discussing the value of images and sigils incised in stone, Albertus indicates that astrological processes can imprint features of one species on the material of another.
Sometimes the luminaries and the other planets meet together in a place that has such great power for producing human beings that it impresses a human form even upon seed of an entirely different kind, and in opposition to the formative power inherent in that seed. . . . This is the reason why, even in stones hardened by vapours, there is impressed upon the material the shape of a man or that of some other species of nature. . . .
In his Liber de Natura Locorum, a treatise on geography, Albertus demonstrated that climate, and therefore flora and fauna, are determined by both latitude and local conditions. The earth is divided into climatic zones from tropical to frigid, but extensive forests, rivers and mountain ranges can radically alter temperatures and rainfall within those general zones. Albertus speculated, on the basis of second-hand knowledge of India, that the Southern hemisphere of the earth contained the same belts in reverse order. Albertus argued for a reasonably accurate diameter for a spherical earth, and denied as absurd the common opinion that the southern half of the globe was uninhabitable because people who happened to live there would fall off.
Natural phenomena are worth studying because they suffuse the mind with the wondrous activity of the Divine. Unthinking acceptance of tradition coupled with a worldly attitude blind and maim the soul, destroying the spiritual life of the individual, and so wasting the precious time between birth and death. He wrote in De Adhaerendo Deo (On Cleaving to God) that:
The real reason why we are in many ways shut out from the experience and enjoyment of the inner life and can in no wise achieve a glimpse of it is because the distracted, care-worn human mind does not enter into itself by remembering God. Man's misunderstanding is so cluttered up with earthly images that he cannot find the way back into his own inner heart, nor counter his desires and enter into himself by longing for the inner light of spiritual joy.
Albertus Magnus lived in an age of glaring limitations on thought and expression, and yet he showed how the mind supported by an awakened sense of the Divine in the heart can reach beyond the encumbrances of an era and aspire to elevated heights of awareness.
Let us withdraw our heart from the distractions of this world, and summon it back to the joys of the inner life so that we may be worthy in some small measure to fix our abode in the light of divine contemplation. For this is the life and the peace of our soul.