Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

The Thirteenth Century

Chapter III

Albert the Great

A. The Man and His Work

Albert was born in Lauingen, in Bavaria, in 1206 and died in Cologne in 1280. His long life, superimposed on three-quarters of the thirteenth century, makes him a particularly interesting figure since be was very much a part of the intellectual developments of his century, of his order, and of his country. Thomas Aquinas studied under Albert, and although it is no easy matter to compare the doctrine of master and pupil on many points, it is safe to say that Albert's indefatigable energy and the scope of his interests inevitably had their impact on Aquinas. It is a tempting thought that the influence might in some cases have gone in the opposite direction, though there is as yet no scholarly agreement on the extent of such influence. In some ways the interests of Albert were broader than those of Aquinas, a fact that does not seem explicable merely in terms of Albert's longer life. There is little or nothing in Aquinas that echoes Albert's concern with what he called experimental knowledge. Aquinas will insist that our knowledge of nature arises only out of experimental contact with it, but we do not find any of the detailed natural descriptions in Aquinas that we find in Albert; nor do we find in Aquinas, as we do in Albert, such judgments passed on classical texts as "I have tested this," "I have not tested this," "This does not accord with experience.

Albert began his university studies at Bologna and Padua, but he seems to have spent scarcely more than a year in the Italian schools. In 1223 he joined the Dominican Order and was sent to the convent at Cologne to make his novitiate and pursue his studies. One of Roger Bacon's complaints against Albert was that the latter had not pursued the study of philosophy in the university. With the exception of his brief sojourn in Italy as a boy, this charge is accurate. From 1228 to 1240 Albert taught theology in various Dominican convents in Germany; in 1240 he was sent to the University of Paris. After two years of study he occupied one of the two Dominican chairs (1242-1248). He was then sent to Cologne to set up the Dominican Studium generale; he was Dominican provincial of Germany from 1254 to 1257; he returned to teaching at Cologne for three years and became bishop of Ratisbon in 1260, remaining in the post for two years. After resigning his see, Albert devoted the last eighteen years of his life to teaching, preaching, research, and writing.

It is convenient to consider the writings of Albert from the point of view of chronology, and the chronological periods distinguished by Van Steenberghen and the location of writings within these periods serve our purposes ideally. A first period, what Van Steenberghen calls the first theological period, extends from 1228 to 1248 and comprises Albert's first teaching in Germany and the Parisian sojourn (1240-1248). Apart from many of the biblical commentaries, three important works may be assigned to this period. First, there is the Tractatus de natura boni (Treatise on the Good). Second, there is the Summa de creaturis (Summa on Creatures), perhaps written in the first half of Albert's stay in Paris and containing five parts: (1) On the Four Coevals, (2) On Man, (3) On Good and the Virtues, (4) On the Sacraments, and (5) On the Resurrection. Finally, there is Albert's commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

A second period, extending from 1248 to 1254, is called by Van Steenberghen the mystical, or Dionysian, period. In this period, of course, are located Albert's commentaries on the entire corpus of Pseudo-Dionysius. Furthermore, Albert's first commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics was written during this time span.

Albert's so-called Aristotelian, or philosophical, period is located between the years 1254 and 1270. To this period are assigned his paraphrases of Boethius as well as of a vast number of works of Aristotle. It may be noted here that Albert is quite insistent on the fact that his own views do not appear in these commentaries or paraphrases; his task, he claims, is simply to set forth the tenets of the Peripatetic philosophy. His description of the philosophy he is relating is significant, for what we find in these writings of Albert is not simply a restatement of the works of Aristotle, or Boethius, which give them their titles. Albert draws on the various commentators on these works and is thought to show a marked preference for the interpretations of al-Ghazzali and Avicenna. To show a preference is, of course, to make a judgment, and to make a judgment is to reveal one's criteria as a judge; thus, a good deal of Albert inevitably gets into these works. In his exposition, or paraphrase, of the Liber de causis Albert is partidillarly drawn by the views of al-Ghazzali.

As Duhem has pointed out, we find Albert addressing himself in these writings to issues which must vex the Christian thinker. For instance, in his exposition of the Metaphysics (bk. XI, treat. 3, chap. 7) Albert brings up the matter of the relationship between philosophy and theology. He describes the two disciplines in a manner consonant with his treatment in his Summa theologiae, as we shall see below, but adds here that we cannot discuss theological questions in philosophy. Moreover, Albert suggests that in philosophy we merely follow the argument, not concerning ourselves with what religion teaches. This suggestion of the autonomy and neutrality of philosophy vis-à-vis faith becomes quite explicit when Albert asks what results when philosophy arrives at positions contrary to faith. Albert uses the specific example of Peripatetic philosophy's contention that from one only one proceeds and that not all things are direct effects of God, but only one thing. Well, he will say, theology contradicts the "one-from-one" principle, and, besides, the philosophy he is setting forth is not his own; for his personal opinions we will have to consult his theological writings. Despite this disclaimer, however, Albert attempts to adjudicate such divergences from faith within the context of his philosophical writings. In presenting the doctrine of book eight of Aristotle's Physics and its arguments that motion could not have begun absolutely in some past time, Albert interjects that he holds that everything has been simultaneously created by God and that, anyway, one well acquainted with Aristotle will know that Aristotle has nowhere proved the eternity of the world, has nowhere shown that the beginning of time and of motion are one with the beginning of the heavenly movements. Albert will even review natural or philosophical arguments which attempt to show that the world and motion and time had a beginning, but, like Maimonides, he is not much impressed with these, holding that none is completely cogent.

We will, as we have already indicated, return to Albert's views on the relation between faith and reason, theology and philosophy, but it seemed appropriate to say something here about Albert's curious insistence that what he is doing in his philosophical writings does not engage his personal thought and amounts to nothing more than a neutral relation of the contents of an ambiguous aggregate dubbed Peripatetic philosophy.

The fourth and final period of Albert's career is called by Van Steenberghen the second theological period. It extends from 1270 to 1280. The major work of this period is Albert's Summa theologiae, which was composed after that of Aquinas and which, like that of Aquinas, was not completed. It shows little, if any, influence on Albert of his most important student.

Albert was a prodigious writer, and the length of his life and active career makes his collected writings an imposing, even intimidating, edifice. It will be appreciated that in the present sketch we have referred to his writings largely by way of class and type rather than by individual title. To do the latter would amount to giving a very long list indeed.

B. Faith and Reason

The relationship between faith and reason is most profitably discussed, as far as the bulk of thirteenth-century authors is concerned, in terms of the nature of theology, its relation to philosophy, and so forth. We have already said that Albert indicates something of his views on this matter in writings that are billed as ignoring the relation involved, and that even when some glimmer of his own thought is seen, he directs us for his definitive stand to his overtly theological writings. In following this advice we now turn to Albert's Summa theologiae, which, as the foregoing makes clear, is a late work and should provide us with Albert's mature and developed thoughts on the matter in question. Obviously, a full understanding of Albert's doctrine would involve comparing the doctrine of the Summa theologiae with earlier explicit as well as oblique treatments, but the narrower procedure we shall follow, while not aiming at such a complete statement, nevertheless sketches what would have to be a significant component of the wider treatment.

At the very outset of the Summa Albert asks if theology is a science and, if so, what kind of science it is, what its subject matter is, and so forth. He has little doubt that theology is a science; indeed, beyond being a science it is also a wisdom. He gives the following definition of it: theologia scientia est, ea quae sunt ad fidem generandum, nutriendam, roborandum considerans (theology is a science that considers whatever pertains to generating, nourishing, and strengthening faith). Referring to Paul's Epistle to Titus (1:1), he emphasizes that theology is concerned with what is knowable, though not with every knowable thing, but only with the knowable as it inclines to piety. Piety is defined as the cult of God which is perfected by faith, hope, and charity, prayers and sacrifices. (Summa theologiae, first part, treat. 1, quest. 2, sol.) Theology, in short, is knowledge of those things which pertain to salvation, and for this reason it is concerned with those things from which faith is generated and by which it is nourished and strengthened in us with respect to our assent to the first truth. What unifies theology, for Albert, is its end, namely, salvation. But what precisely is the subject of theology? Albert remarks that the subject of a science can be understood in several ways: thus, God is the subject of metaphysics in the sense that knowledge of God is what is principally sought in that science; being is the subject of metaphysics in the sense of that whose properties and causes are sought. So too, the subject of theology can be variously designated. God is its subject since knowledge of God is principally sought and intended by the theologian; theology's subject in the sense of that whose properties are sought is Christ and the Church, or the Incarnate Word and all the sacraments with which he perfects the Church. That is to say, the subject of theology is the work of reparation. (Ibid., treat. 1, a. 3) The comparison of theology and metaphysics in this passage leads us to ask in what they differ, and Albert states the difference succinctly. "Ad secundum dicendum quod prima philosophia est de Deo secundum quod substat proprietatibus entis primi secundum quod ens primum est. Ista autem de Deo est secundum quod substat attributis quae per fidem attribuntur." (Ibid., q. 4) In metaphysics God is known in terms of being and its properties because he is the first being; theology considers God in terms of attributes known to be his through faith. The difference in mode of access to a common concern of theology and metaphysics is accompanied by another difference, namely, that theology is more certain than metaphysics. "Certior est scientia quae magis primis innititur, quam quae secundis, et sic deinceps. Theologia autem innititur primac veritati incircumseriptae et increatae et aeternae: aliae vero scientiae veritatibus creatis, et ideo non primis, nec immutabilibus, nec aeternis: quia omne creatum, ut dicit Damascenus, vertibile sive mutabile est. Theologia ergo certior omnibus est." (Ibid., q. 5) If we range the sciences and assess their certitude in terms of the ontological hierarchy of their objects, then theology, which is concerned with and founded on what is first, immutable, and eternal, is the most certain science. We will come back to this comparison and claim later.

The foregoing suggests that theology is knowledge of God which. as knowledge, is in some way comparable to other sciences, the philosophical sciences, but with the difference that God is studied in theology in terms of those attributes of his which are revealed to faith. Moreover, the term of the study is not knowledge as such but salvation. In the Summa theologiae Albert spends a great deal of time discussing the knowability of God, and the contrasts and similarities already mentioned are further elaborated. Let us consider the way in which Albert handles the question Can God be known on a purely natural basis? He replies by saying that God can be known in many ways: positively, by knowing that he is, what he is, and so on, or privatively, by knowing what he is not, how he is not, and so forth. "Dicimus igitur quod ex solis naturalibus potest cognosci quia Deus est positivo intellectu: quid autem, non potest cognosci, nisi infinite. Dico autem infinite: quia si cognoscatur, quod substantia est incorporea, determinari non potest quid finite genere, vel specie, vel differentia, vel numero illa substantia sit. Et remanet intellectus infinitus, qui constituitur ex negatione finientium ad nos ex constitutione infiniti. Dicimus enim, quod cum dicitur substantia Deus, non est substantia quae nobis innotescit finite genere, vel specie, vel differentia, vel numero: sed est substantia infinite eminens super omnem substantiam. (Ibid., treat. 3, q. 14, memb. 1) On a natural basis, then, we can have positive knowledge that God is, but we can know what God is only "infinitely," that is, in a manner that leaves undetermined what precisely God is. Albert uses the example of our saying that God is an incorporeal substance; to know this about God is not to know him as a finite substance may be known, a finite substance whose genus, species, difference, and so forth are known. Rather, when we know God is substance, our knowledge is of a substance more perfect than any we can determinately know, and we fashion our notion of the divine substance by negating the characteristics of finite substance.

To know God privatively is to know that he is not a body and is not measured by any corporeal measures, that is, God is not measured by place and time and so forth. The kind of natural knowledge Albert is discussing here is, he suggests, that indicated by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (1:20), where we read that the invisible things of God can be known by knowledge of what God has made. Later (ibid., q. 15, memb. 1) Albert expatiates on the discursive knowledge suggested by the Pauline text. "Dicendum, quod in praesenti vita cognitio Dei sine medio esse non potest: quod medium effectus Dei est in natura, vel gratia, in quo Deus monstratur. Talis enim cognitio per medium ad viam pertinet, et cognitio viae vocatur. . . Notandum tamen est, quod medium est duplex: ex parte visibilis, et ex parte videntis. Ex parte visibilis formaliter et effective medium est, quod ut actus visibilium, invisibilia potentia actu facit esse visibilia. Ex parte videntis medium duplex: commune scilicet, et speciale. Commune est illud, quod sub uno vel duplici situ formam visibilis ad visum est deferens. Specialis est, quo utitur visus ad excellens, sicut ad solem in rota videndum. . . ." In this life all knowledge of God is through knowledge of something else, through some mean or medium, whether a natural mean or grace as the mean. The natural mean can be considered either from the side of the known or the knower. What are the means whereby God can be naturally known? Albert invokes the Augustinian notions of vestige and image. The vestige is an imperfect similitude of creature to God, the image a less imperfect similitude. Albert's development of the way in which God is diversely known through his vestiges and images in creatures, besides recalling Augustine, is reminiscent of Bonaventure rather than of Aquinas, though the latter too employs this Augustinian distinction. As for knowledge of God through his image, we find that man or the human soul is treated as what gives us the best access to God. Thus, the vestige of God is found in all creatures, his image in some, and both these means of knowing God are distinguished from the way we know God through faith. "Dicendum quod fides medium est in cognitione viae, sive sit fides informis sive formata. . . . Et cum supra multiplex medium est distinctum, fides est medium dicens in scientiam crediti, et coadjuvans credentem ad intelligendum: per quod medium quaeritur et invenitur intellectus crediti." (Ibid., treat. 3, q. 15)

In comparing the knowledge of God gained through natural means and that had through faith, Albert returns to the comparison of philosophical and theological knowledge in terms of certitude, this time distinguishing kinds of certitude. "Certitudo multiplex est. Est enim certitudo simpliciter et certitudo quoad nos: et certitudo quoad nos duplex, scilicet certitudo inclinantis ad actum, et certitudo rationis quasi arguentis. Et quaelibet istarum certitudinum ducit ad alterum minus certum. Certitudine ergo simpliciter nihil est adeo certum sicut Deus et divina. . . . Hoc modo certissima cognitionum est cognitio divinorum facie ad faciem, et sub illa cognitio per fidem, infima vero cognitio per naturalem rationem. . . . Certitudo autem quae est quoad nos, ex notioribus est quoad nos, secundum quod animales sumus enutriti sensibus. . . . Et hoc modo nihil prohibet cognitionem per naturales rationes esse certissimam, et post hoc cognitionem fidei, et minime certain cam quae est facie ad faciem." (Treat. 3, q. 15, memb. 3, a. 2) What Albert now compares is the knowledge of vision in the next life when God is known face to face and the knowledge through faith and the knowledge of God through natural reason in this life. Certitude is said to be of two kinds, absolute and relative (to us). Albert does not here say what constitutes certitude in the absolute sense, but we can get a glimmer by recalling the earlier passage where it is a function of our mode of access to an object as well as the perfection of the object. Since in all cases being compared here it is God who is known, it must be the way he is known that produces the variation in certitude. Knowledge of vision would seem to be God's unmediated presence to the blessed; the other two kinds of knowledge are through a medium, and faith is more certain than reasoned knowledge of God in that the former is explicitly based on the authority of the first truth. In terms of the mode of knowledge most in tune with our nature, that intimately related to sense perception, the scale of certitudes is exactly reversed. It must be said that Albert's handling of this issue does not have the clarity of Bonaventure's or Aquinas' treatment.

When Albert turns to the precise manner in which God's existence can be naturally known, he sets down his own quinque viae, but these five ways of proving God's existence are quite distinct from the more famous five found in Aquinas. Indeed, it is only after Albert lists five proofs taken from Ambrose, Augustine, and Peter Lombard that he adds two others, one from Aristotle, the other from Boethius. The proof taken from Aristotle is that of the prime mover. "His viis ego addo duas. Una quae sumitur ex octavo Physicorum, in cujus principio probatur, quod motor primus non potest esse motus ab aliquo. Deinde probatur, quod movens motum nec movere, ne moveri habet nisi per influentiam a primo per omnia media moventia et mota usque ad ultimum quod est motum tantum. Propter quod si cessaret motus in primo secundum quod est actus moventis, cessaret in omnibus mediis in quibus est actus moventis et mobilis, et cessaret in ultimo in quo est actus mobilis tantum. Destruatur ergo consequens: quia videmus, quod non cessat in mediis, nec in ultimo. Ad sensum enim patet esse multa mota; et multa esse moventia et mota: ergo necesse est esse unum primum movens, in quo non cessat motus, secundum quod est actus moventis et non mobilis." (Ibid., treat. 3, q. 18) This is a rather bland summary of the proof of the light of the controversies Albert alluded to in his philosophical commentaries. No mention whatsoever of real or apparent conflicts with truths of faith; no mention, for that matter, of the eternity of the world or of the "one-from-one" principle Albert had attributed to the philosophers. The proof, as he presents it, relies on a distinction between what is only moved and what is moved and moves, and the question becomes, Is there something which only moves and is not moved? A moved mover cannot move save under the influence of the first mover, something true of the whole range of such movers between the unmoved mover and what is moved alone and does not move something else. Thus, if the activity of the first mover ceased, all activity subsequent to it would cease. This of course does nothing toward proving that there is a first mover. In fact, it is difficult to say that Albert, even indirectly, has set forth the premises of the Aristotelian proof. One is shocked by the apparent indifference of Albert in this regard, and it is tempting to suggest that we are faced here with the effort of an aging man, that, ironically, the promissory notes issued in those impressive philosophical works are not too persuasively redeemed in the later theological works.

C. Conclusion

Although we found it necessary to conclude the preceding section with a criticism of the manner in which Albert presents an important and much discussed Aristotelian doctrine, and this in a work where we have reason to expect a nuanced study, we must end by saying that the massive effort Albert undertook in endeavoring to present in a narrative fashion the Peripatetic philosophy in its full scope did as much as any other single thing to make respectable the study of Aristotle. That Albert himself tended to favor the lead taken by al-Ghazzali and Avicenna in interpreting Aristotle has its significance; insofar as the philosophers of Islam were heavily influenced by certain tenets of Neoplatonism, we should expect to find the same influence in Albert. Many students of Albert's writings have insisted that there is much Neoplatonism there.

Bibliographical Note

The collected works (Opera omnia) have long been available in the Borgnet edition in thirty-eight volumes (Paris, 1890-1899), but a new and better edition is currently in preparation, several volumes of which have already appeared (Munster, 1951- ). See as well James A. Weisheipl, OP., "The Problemata Determinata XLIII Ascribed to Albertus Magnus (1271)," Mediaeval Studies, 22 (1960), pp. 303-354.

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