Today, November 15, is the feast day of Albert the Great. He is the patron saint of scientists. As I was trained as a neuroscientist it seemed fit to say a few words here in honor of the man. He was born just before 1200 AD near Cologne Germany and died some 84 years later. That was a tremendously long life to live for the middle ages (most people died by 40 years of age in those days) and it is no exaggeration to say that he spent it well in service to the Church and to science.besides authoring dozens of scientific and theological works he worked tirelessly as official administrative Church positions all his life.
Most people remember Albert the Great as the mentor and teacher of his more famous student St Thomas Aquinas. Albert was fiercely proud and protective of Thomas. He more than once defended Thomas against charges of heresy from the theologians at the University of Paris. While Thomas surpassed his master in the area of theology, Albert was by far the better scientist than Thomas (and Thomas was the better theologian).
What is the significance of the man for us today? I hesitate to pronounce on so weighty a question as I have read only the De homine. How can you evaluate a man’s intellectual legacy after having read only a single one of his works? Answer: You can’t. So what I am about to share here are simply my impressions of Albert’s key contributions.
First of all Albert was the key figure who introduced all of the newly discovered corpus of Aristotle’s works to the church and the west. Since Aristotle was a man who was interested in everything he required a man like Albert 9who was also interested in everything) to appreciate the magnitude of Aristotle’s accomplishments and bring them to the intellectual foreground in the high middle ages. Aristotle’s interests included everything from minerals and geology to ethics and psychology. Albert produced small advances on Aristotle in several scientific fields including geology, mathematics, biology, astronomy and psychology.
Without the rediscovery of Aristotle’s works in the high middle ages it is likely that the scientific revolution in the west would have been delayed for centuries. It was Albert who made Aristotle acceptable to the Church and thus to the west. The battle within the church over Aristotle went on for over a century and continued even after Albert’s death but Albert’s intervention on behalf of Aristotle was certainly a turning point for the Church in its acceptance of the imago dei as reason or intellect.
The theologians were suspicious of Aristotle not just because he was a pagan philosopher but also because they interpreted him through the commentaries of Averroes-the famous Muslim philosopher. Averroes put a Muslim spin on Aristotelian concepts and thus Aristotle came off as incompatible with Christian doctrine. But Albert showed that Averroes interpretations of Aristotle were incorrect and that Aristotle’s basic metaphysics and categories were perfectly compatible with Christian doctrine. Averroes for example, tended to treat individuals as simple emanations from a larger agent intellect or world soul or God. Albert saw that that perspective destroyed individuality and pointed out that the doctrine could not be found in Aristotle’s treatment of the agent intellect. Thus, Albert preserved the long tradition in the west to favor the individual over group consciousness.
This accent on the individual could also be seen in his nuanced treatment of the problem of universals. Are general concepts like “whiteness” or “man” independent ideas that exist in a realm of eternal ideas or are there no eternal ideas and are these general ideas better understood as qualities that only appear in individuals? The nominalists denied existence to universal ideas and argued that the only reality existed in individual things while the universalists argued with Plato that only the universals were real and individual things simply manifested these eternal ideas. The problem will never be solved until we have direct access to an eternal realm to verify whether eternal ideas exist. Albert argued for a moderate realism and allowed theologians and philosophers to make a bit of progress on the issue by making some crucial distinctions. Albert suggested that we should distinguish 1) universals that pre-exist (perhaps in some eternal realm) the individuals that manifest them; 2) those that exist in individual things (i.e. particulars) and 3) those that exist in the mind when abstracted from particulars. In Albert’s scheme each position has some truth: there are eternal ideas and universals can also be manifest in particulars. They are sometimes in the eternal realm; sometimes in the mind only and sometimes in the substance itself, independent of the mind. These distinctions allowed later philosophers to preserve the integrity of the individual. The individual need not be seen as merely an instance of a larger group or abstract idea.
I find that one of the most interesting of Albert’s contributions to philosophy and theology to be his treatment of the agent intellect in De homine. The agent intellect is largely an idea of the western catholic philosophers in the middle ages with Albert being the first to make it central to his philosophical anthropology. The mediaeval philosophers thought they had found the idea of the agent intellect in Aristotle’s De Anima but if they had it was derived from a very cursory treatment of the idea. No. Aristotle did not produce the idea—the mediaeval philosophers (especially Albert and Thomas) did.
What is the agent intellect and why is it important? It is the imago dei; the essence of the human soul — the human intellect. It is our capacity to reason, to make free choices. The agent intellect spiritualizes all that it attends to. It extracts form and intelligibility from the particulars in the world out there beyond the mind. Complimentary to the agent intellect is the passive intellect which picks up sensory impressions and provides the raw material for the agent intellect to transform into spirit. Now Albert asked what happens if the agent intellect turned its powers on itself and the passive intellect? In that case the possible intellect can consider the intelligible forms of the mental images of the mind which are derived from the senses, thus spiritualizing consciousness itself. When the passive intellect operates under the sole influence of the agent intellect, the possible intellect undergoes a complete transformation and subsequently enhances the powers of the agent intellect. Then emerges what Albert called the “adept intellect” which then allows the human being to undergo mystical illumination by higher angelic intellects and this constitutes man’s natural happiness.
Saint Albertus Magnus pray for us!