Sunday, September 26, 2010

Albertus Magnus Biography

Albertus Magnus Biography Cover Albertus Magnus (1193-1206? - 1280) also known as “Albert the Great” was a German scholar of theology, philosophy, natural science, medicine, alchemy, astrology, chemistry and physics. He was also an alleged magician who believed in the benefits of botany, claiming that various plants, rocks and amethysts improved clairvoyance. He was known as “Doctor Universalis” (“Universal Doctor”) because of the breadth of his knowledge, and was especially noted for introducing Greek and Arabic science and philosophy to the medieval world. He was the most prolific writer of his century and was the only scholar of his time to be called “the Great”, a title that was used even before his death.

Albertus Magnus was born Albert de Groot, in Lauingen, Bavaria, the eldest son of the Count of Bollstadt, a military lord in the service of Emperor Frederick II. Later contemporaries such as Roger Bacon (1214-1294) applied the latinised name of “Albertus Magnus” out of respect for his immense reputation as a scholar and philosopher. Nothing about his primary or preparatory education is known but it is thought he was privately tutored at home before being sent to Bologna University in Italy for his formal education. He then moved to Padua University where he studied the liberal arts and teachings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

While there in 1223, he was recruited by the Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the second Master General of the recently formed Dominican Order of Friar Preachers (founded by St Dominic in 1214), who was doing the rounds of major universities in Europe recruiting the best young scholars into the Dominican Order. The Order at that time was less than ten years old, and had only been granted ecclesiastical approval in 1216. Magnus was ordained in a Dominican convent house in Cologne, Germany, from where he quickly advanced through the ranks of the Order.

After leaving Padua, Magnus taught theology at several convent houses throughout Germany including: Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg, Hildesheim and lastly at the convent house in Cologne, were he reinterpreted Peter Lombard’s “Book of the Sentences” (Magister Sententiarum), the theological textbook used in most of the medieval universities. He then moved on to the University of Paris were he became Master of Theology in 1245.

His most famous pupil at the University of Paris was Thomas Aquinas, who later in 1248 joined him at the new Studium Generale in Cologne, in which Magnus was appointed Regent and were Aquinas became his second professor and Magister Studentium (Master of Students). Magnus went on to become an influential Church administrator, teacher and preacher, and travelled throughout Western Europe on behalf of the Dominican Order.

In 1254 Magnus was made provincial of the Dominican Order in Germany, and in 1256 journeyed to Rome to defend the Mendicant Orders against an attack by William of St. Amour, who sought to have the Dominican’s right to alms removed. Magnus succeeded in having his book treatise “De novissimis temporum periculis” condemned by Pope Alexander IV on the 05th October 1256. During his short stay in Rome, he also filled the position of Master of the Sacred Palace, from were he preached on the Gospel of St. John and the Canonical Epistles.

A year later in 1257, Magnus resigned the office of Provincial in Germany to devote himself to his studies and teaching, although he remained a leading force in the Order. At a General meeting of the Dominicans held in Valenciennes, France in 1258, with Thomas Aquinas and Peter of Tarentasia (later Pope Innocent V), he drew up rules for the direction of studies and determined the future system of graduation to be used throughout the Order.

In 1260 Magnus was called by the Pope Alexander IV to serve as the Bishop of Regensburg, a position he resigned from in 1262, in order return to his convent in Cologne, there once again to concentrate on his scholarly interests. However from 1263 to 1264 he was made a legate of Pope Urban IV, and sent to preach the crusades throughout Germany and Bohemia, where subsequently he lectured at Wurzburg and at Strasbourg.

On his journeys around Europe, Magnus showed an intense interest in natural phenomena, and was consumed by the scientific writings of Aristotle. He examined his works, commented on them, and occasionally contradicted them based on the evidence of his own observations. In his laboratory in Cologne he carried out his own experiments in chemistry, mineralogy and physics, and built up a collection of plants, insects and chemical compounds. Of his experiments he is said to have discovered the metallic element of arsenic, caustic potash, and was the first person to determine the chemical composition of cinnabar, minium and white lead.

As a theologian and philosopher, Magnus was outstanding among his contemporaries but not as innovative as his star pupil Thomas Aquinas. Magnus attempted to bring Aristotelian doctrines together with Christian teachings, and in his Summa Theologiae (1270) he maintained that human reason could not contradict revelation, but defended the philosopher’s right to investigate divine mysteries.

In 1274 Magnus was called by Pope Gregory X to attend the ecumenical Council of Lyon, where he had to defend the orthodoxy of his former pupil Thomas Aquinas and the Aristotelian doctrines that both he and Aquinas held to be true. While there he received the sad news that Aquinas had died on his way to the same Council. The news was a heavy blow to Magnus who declared, “that a shining light of the Church had been extinguished”. In 1277 when it was announced that critics wished to condemn and writings of Aquinas, believing that his teachings were too favourable to unbelieving philosophers, Magnus again travelled to Paris to defend his good name.

Magnus suffered serious health problems in 1278 and later died in Cologne on the 15th of November 1280. He was buried in a crypt tomb at the Dominican Church of St. Andreas in Cologne, while his relics were held at Cologne Cathedral. Much later in 1622 he was beatified, and later still declared a Saint by Pope Pius XI in 1931, at which time he was also acclaimed an official Doctor of the Church. In 1941 Pope Pius XII made him the Patron Saint of Natural Sciences.

In the centuries after his death, many myths and stories were told about Magnus the alchemist and magician. On the subject of alchemy and chemistry, he had written mant treaties, including: Alchemy; Metals and Materials; the Secrets of Chemistry; the Origin of Metals; the Origins of Compounds, and Concordance, which is a collection of Observations on the philospher's stone. Other alchemical and chemistry topics were collected under the name of Theatrum Chemicum.

Magnus believed that stones had occult properties, as he related in his work De mineralibus. However there is little actual evidence that he personally performed alchemical experiments. Most of the modern myths are the result of later works, such as the alchemical work known as the Secreta Alberti or the Experimenta Alberti, which were falsely attributed to Magnus by their authors in order to increase their prestige through association. According to one myth, Magnus is said to have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and passed it on to his pupil Thomas Aquinas. While Magnus made observations about the stone in his writings, he does not mention ever discovering or owning it, although he did record that he witnessed the creation of gold by “transmutation”.

Magnus was also deeply interested in astrology, as were most academics in his day. In the high Middle Ages and well into the early modern period, few intellectuals questioned the basic theories of astrology i.e. that humans lived within a web of celestial influences that affect their bodies, and motivates them to behave in certain ways. They believed that astrology could be used to predict the probable future of a human being. Magnus made this a central component of his philosophical system, arguing that an understanding of celestial influences could help us to live our lives more in accord with Christian precepts. His astrological beliefs can be found in a work he authored around 1260, now known as the Speculum astronomiae. However, details of these beliefs can be found in almost everything he wrote, from his early Summa de bono to his last work the Summa theologiae.

The works of Albertus Magnus represents the entire body of European knowledge, as was extent during his time, not only in theology but also in philosophy and the natural sciences. His importance to the history of medieval academia consists in his bringing Aristotelian doctrines to the fore against the reactionary tendencies of his contemporaries. But it was by his writings on the natural sciences that he exercised his greatest influence. Albertus Magnus 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. A pre-eminent place in the history of science was accorded to him when because of his achievements, he was canonised and made the Patron Saint of Natural Sciences.

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