A Monk of Nature: The Medieval Science of Albertus Magnus
Albertus Magnus was one of those individuals seemingly born for the sole purpose of making the rest of humanity feel insignificant and underachieving. By every possible metric, he stuffed ten lifetimes of work, research, writing, and thought into his eight decades. He was a master in whatever field he touched with his intellect, a voracious devourer of ideas and experience, and wherever his interest was drawn, something revolutionary was bound to happen.
Of his early life, we know frustratingly little. He was either born in 1193 or 1206, depending on the historian you ask, though all agree he was probably of minor Swabian nobility. After that, we have nothing but rumor and improbable legend until he joined the order of the Dominicans in either 1223 or 1229. For those first three decades, all we have are glimpses provided by Albert himself, of a boy scrambling through the German countryside, investigating nature, and being drawn to the intellectual and mystical puzzles of Christianity.
He was, above all things, a collector and synthesizer of facts and ideas. He believed fervently that everything was connected to everything else, and that one man’s well-considered truths did not become invalidated just because that man was Jewish, Muslim, or pagan. He devoured the Arabic commentaries of Avicenna and Averroes on Aristotle’s works, and saw in the Greek’s grand vision a new path for Western science, philosophy, and theology.
It was not, however, a path to be blindly followed. Unlike many Aristotelian natural philosophers of the next three centuries, Albert was a profound believer in Finding Things Out For Yourself. Of the estimated 138 books he wrote, his most renowned are those recording his observations in botany and taxonomy. Centuries before Linnaeus, he was possessed of a need to systematize the startling diversity of life on this planet. He searched for common traits, performing pain-staking dissections of insects and plants, fish and fowl, to discover the micro-structures that link related animals together. His deftness with the scalpel allowed him to find differentiated sublayers where previous scientists had only found contiguous matter, to follow the nerves of flies, and repudiate the most firmly held beliefs of a millennium of biological wisdom.
It’s for this latter service that we have the greatest reason to keep Albertus Magnus in our collective memory. Confronted with a medievalism that believed firmly in the biological wisdom of the mystical creature bestrewn Physiologus, Albert went out into the forests and plains and found the animals spoken of, watched their habits, their birth and life and death, and investigated their anatomical structures, and whenever he found the mighty Aristotle in error, he raised the cry that new observations must trump old writings.
When Albert couldn’t determine directly the truth of a statement, he sought out those who had personal experience with the animals, minerals, and plants written of in the ancient sources—falcon keepers and metal workers, quarry managers and foresters. His travels on Dominican business took him all over Europe, and everywhere he went he sought out examples of local flora and fauna and mined the expertise of the region’s craftsmen and farmers. In this way, he was able to definitively eliminate much of the purely superstitious content of Aristotelian and medieval natural wisdom, and more importantly to establish a creed that old beliefs require constant new evaluation, an idea that would have worked much good had it not taken three centuries to catch on.
Not content with having merely mapped a path for botany, physics, mineralogy, comparative anatomy, taxonomy, and astronomy to follow, Albert was also the greatest philosophical systematizer of his day, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas and life source for a broad and intense scholasticism of so penetrating an intent that it ended by ripping its own foundations apart. He came of academic age during the great wave of Jewish and Arabic scholarship that gave the West its first stunning glimpses of the full breadth of Aristotelian and Platonic thought, and while some fought vigorously against the foreign onslaught, Albert embraced it, seeking out everywhere new ideas that he could weld to the philosophically anemic body of Christian thought to create, at last, an intellectually rigorous Christian theology.
Up to then, the best philosophical underpinnings that Christianity could muster were the Neoplatonic musings of St. Augustine, the logical pyrotechnics of Peter Abelard, and the obscure mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius. Neoplatonism was interesting, but failed utterly at resolving many of the most glaring contradictions at the heart of Christianity. Abelard’s project, all self-pitying claims to the contrary, was mostly destructive in its results. And nobody really quite knew just what pseudo-Dionysius was on about, other than that it was terribly mysterious. Something rigorous needed to be done.
The job would require somebody of exquisite breadth of learning and an intense capacity for systematization. Albert, and more famously his student Thomas Aquinas, managed the task by implanting an Aristotelian backbone in the body of Christian belief, providing a worked-out and profound structure onto which Christianity’s more diffuse notions could be plausibly hung. Aristotelian teleology, with its rigid sense of hierarchy and purpose, replaced the more poetic notions of Plato, to affect a conception of God, the creation of the universe, and man, which held together better than anything of the previous millennium and a half.
More significantly, the application of Jewish, Arabic, Greek, and mystic ideas to philosophically prop up the body of Catholic thought made Albert’s theology a far more cosmopolitan enterprise than anything attempted previously, a multi-denominational struggle after the meaning of the universe that didn’t care where answers came from so long as they were rational and consistent. Albert himself was too caught up emotionally in his life as a Dominican to take that idea to its fullest conclusion—that would have to wait for Descartes and eventually the Enlightenment—but the intellectual ideal that he constructed survived within Catholic thought and drove a counter-community of Catholics to the sciences and a broadly tolerant view of other cultures. Overshadowed by the Inquisitions and heresy-hunters of the pre-Reformation era, these scientifically leaning intellectuals are just now being rediscovered and appreciated for their paradoxical role in advancing natural philosophy.
What makes Albert’s intellectual achievement all the more remarkable is that writing was not the primary thing that he did—it was what he did on his off hours. Most of the time, he was traveling across Europe, undertaking commissions from both the master of his order and the Pope. Well into his eighties, he was running these religious errands, giving dispensations for religious festivals to offer forty-day indulgences to all attendees (the grandfather of the First 500 Fans Get a Free Bobblehead ploy), hearing disputes between the secular and religious leadership, whipping up support for a new Crusade in Germany, establishing new monkeries, and even taking on a two-year stint as a bishop.
His time and reputation were constantly under the demands of others, but he made his own opportunities for observation. When food was brought to him at the table, while his fellow monks shoveled the teeming courses into their maws, he would first investigate what was before him—what type of fish was this, what was its skeletal structure? How would one describe the pigment of this fruit, how best to dissect the sensations of its taste? Each moment was a learning experience, filed away in his immaculate memory for inclusion in a book later.
He was a Catholic, absolutely—believed in God and the Trinity, had a getting-towards-creepy obsession with the Virgin Mary, and shot through reams of parchment trying to create a consistent system from the content of Christianity’s mystical traditions. So, why include him in a history of humanism?
Certainly, his books on botany and animal classification stand as the greatest and most empirically driven scientific work of the Middle Ages, and, really, that ought to be enough to earn the affection of anybody with the slightest secular leaning. But far more than that, we should recognize the humanism of his spirit—the acceptance of great minds from all cultures, the striving for synthesis and consistency, and the omnipresent curiosity about this world in all of its irrepressible variety, are all qualities that any humanist today would be proud to possess, and that they all existed in one medieval man, in spite of a culture that tended to brand curiosity as heresy and inclusivity likewise, is astounding.
Yes, what we take of as the start of the Humanist Era of our history did not take place until centuries after Albertus Magnus, and its birth can be pinpointed to the moment when his monumental philosophical system was at last torn down, but the tools used in that destruction were ones that Albert himself crafted—the reluctance to accept authority, the need to evaluate for one’s self the truth of an assertion, and the use of the best ideas at hand. Had you asked Albert why he wrote those 100+ books, he would have answered unhesitatingly, “For the greater glory of God.” But in practice his curious spirit was simply too broad, too lusciously all-consuming, to remain tethered to anything as small as a god, it was a mind that will have something to offer all of us so long as we wander through nature, and wonder at what we find.
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