Sunday, December 11, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 50 ~ Albertus Magnus

There’s no quicker way to turn me grouchy than to start going on about “the conflict between science and religion.” There have certainly been instances of conflict between scientists and religious believers, but to say that there is “a conflict,” period, is untenable.

People who ride that particular hobby horse can point to fundamentalist Christians who deny various aspects of evolutionary and geological science, but fundamentalist Christians are not the whole of “religion” and Darwinism is not the whole of “science.” Since the Catholic Church is at worst (from the science-as-religion point of view) something of a fence-sitter about evolution, the one argument they rely on is “Galileo!” In my experience the attempt to respond to that by citing the long history of the involvement of Catholics, lay and clerical, in science, and the absence of any institutional opposition to it, provokes the rejoinder “But—Galileo!”

One in fifty would probably be a generous estimate of the number of these folks who would even recognize the name Albertus Magnus, or Alfred the Great, a medieval Dominican who made very significant contributions to the development of the scientific method. This isn’t Catholic propaganda--let’s look at what a couple of secular sources say.

In the first section of his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics Albertus Magnus discusses the possibility of the study of natural science. If science could only study particulars, Albert argues, then there would be no science in the sense of the demonstration of necessary causes because there would be as many sciences as there are particulars. But particulars, Albert goes on to point out, belong to definite kinds (species) and these can be studied because their causes can be demonstrated. Species have common attributes and a determined subject of which the attributes can be determined with necessity. Thus science is possible.

And this conviction about science being possible, as opposed to the Platonic and Neoplatonic tendency to discount the world of particular reality, and its presumed unaccountable changeableness, was not just a theoretical position on Albert’s part. He devotes a great deal of his time and attention to the actual empirical study of the relationships between attributes and natural subjects. Furthermore, he orders such study into what today would be called the “natural sciences”. Besides the study of the heavens and the earth and generation and corruption that he found in Aristotle, he adds the study of meteors, the mineral, animal, and vegetable kingdoms.

Albertus’ works represent the entire body of European knowledge of his time not only in theology but also in philosophy and the natural sciences. His importance for medieval science essentially consists in his bringing Aristotelianism to the fore against reactionary tendencies in contemporary theology. On the other hand, without feeling any discrepancy in it, he also gave the widest latitude to Neoplatonic speculation, which was continued by Ulrich of Strasbourg and by the German mystics of the 14th century. It was by his writings on the natural sciences, however, that he exercised the greatest influence. Albertus must be regarded as unique in his time for having made accessible and available the Aristotelian knowledge of nature and for having enriched it by his own observations in all branches of the natural sciences. A preeminent place in the history of science is accorded to him because of this achievement [My emphasis.]

Both the above links will take you to biographies of the saint, so I will give only the basics here: he was born around the beginning of the 13th century and died toward the end of it, approximately eighty years later. He was primarily an academic, holding among other positions the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Paris. Thomas Aquinas was his student, and the two were friends, not surprisingly since they are obviously kindred spirits, at least in the intellectual realm. He served as Provincial of the Dominicans in Germany for three years, from 1254 to 1257. He was made bishop of Regensburg in 1260 but apparently felt that this was not the role for him, and resigned it after three years. He was obliged to outlive his student and friend when St. Thomas died In 1274. Albert declared that “the light of the Church had been extinguished.”

He wrote a truly prodigious amount, having set himself the task of writing down more or less everything that was known at the time, and apparently making a pretty good job of it. He carried out physical investigations that were truly experimental science in the sense that we know it. And his abilities and achievement were honored during his life. But as I noted when discussing Newman here a few weeks ago, to be a great man and to be a saint are hardly the same thing. In the hour or two that I’ve spent looking around for information about him on the internet, I haven’t turned up much that discussed his personal qualities. I am intrigued by the description of his last years in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Something of his old vigour and spirit returned in 1277 when it was announced that Stephen Tempier and others wished to condemn the writings of St. Thomas, on the plea that they were too favourable to the unbelieving philosophers, and he journeyed to Paris to defend the memory of his disciple. Some time after 1278 (in which year he drew up his testament) he suffered a lapse of memory; his strong mind gradually became clouded; his body, weakened by vigils, austerities, and manifold labours, sank under the weight of years.

And he died in Cologne in 1280. What sort of purgation might he have undergone in those two years? To have lived so long by his intellect, and then to lose it, must have been a greater trial even than the decline of his body. “Vigils, austerities, and manifold labours” certainly indicate a life of severe discipline. When he was bishop of Regensburg he declined the use of a horse, and got about his diocese on foot.

He was beatified in 1622 but not canonized until 1931. Considering that Aquinas was canonized within roughly fifty years of his death, why the long delay for Albert even to be beatified, and then another three hundred years before canonization, a total span of roughly six and a half centuries between death and canonization? Well, a book which I found on Google Books, A Companion to St. Albert the Great, suggests it was

...perhaps because [his] name had been associated with false accusations of sorcery, necromancy, and magic, rooted in suspect or spurious works attributed to him in the later Middle Ages. That Peter of Prussia, Albert’s 15th century biographer, devotes a great deal of energy to defend him against these charges indicates their gravity.

At any rate, he was finally canonized, and declared a Doctor of the Church, and named as the patron saint of scientists. And that job must surely involve listening to the prayers of non-scientists engaged in the war against the war between science and religion.

Maclin couldn't find many good pictures of Albertus Magnus,
  but thankfully my daughter and husband had their picture taken with him.

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 AuthorsIn this series he has written about St HenrikSt. John FisherSt AnsgarSt. Mary of Egypt, Bl. John Henry Newman, and St. John Kemble.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

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