Jacques Maritain Center

The Experimental Sciences -- Albertus Magnus -- Roger Bacon

Very interesting in the history of philosophy in the Middle Ages is the chapter which treats of the condition of the experimental sciences amongst the Schoolmen. The mere mention of this subject opens up a wide field of investigations, and before entering this field a few remarks should be made.

CULTIVATION OF EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCES NOT THE HIGHEST PERFECTION. -- In the first place, it must not be supposed that proficiency in the physical and experimental sciences is the highest standard of perfection. Nature is a book wherein we should study the wondrous works of the Creator; to leave this book unopened would be culpable negligence. We must cultivate and develop all our faculties, yet it must be borne in mind that the highest perfection of man consists in the exercise of his highest faculties on their highest objects. Now, we have faculties that are brought into use by observation, experiment, and analysis; and we have also the higher faculty of intelligence and reason. All of these faculties can be exercised in the study of nature, if from nature we ascend to nature's God; but, be it remarked once for all, the observation, classification, and analysis of natural phenomena do not constitute the highest form of intellectual activity, especially if the devotees of this branch of knowledge studiously exclude from their investigations all that pertains to Metaphysics, Ethics and God. Success in the experimental sciences is desirable; it is a perfection and a sign of progress; but it is not the highest form of progress and perfection, because there are higher and nobler objects on which the God-given faculties of our minds can be exercised. In other words -- if we must make odious comparisons -- Plato was greater than Benjamin Franklin or Robert Fulton; St. Thomas Aquinas was greater than Edison; the author of a good catechism, or manual of religious instruction, is greater than the inventor of safety-matches.

It may be objected that such comparisons should not be made. These men were all great, each in his own sphere, and they cannot be compared in relation to perfections pertaining to different orders and spheres. Well said; and the comparison shall not be made provided men refrain from speaking and acting as if the sum total of perfection were to be found in the cultivation of the experimental sciences, as if no man is entitled to be considered enlightened and learned unless he is an expert on suspension bridges and the latest patterns of the chainless bicycle. We must do these things and not omit those. We must guard against being carried away in the whirlwind of our busy, practical times, when we hear much in praise of inventors and those who make progress in the applied sciences, whilst there is little said in commendation of those who devote themselves to higher and nobler pursuits. Very few dare to formulate these principles, proposing them as a theory or system, yet any intelligent observer knows that they are lik an under-current affecting the stream of public opinion in our days. We must distinguish carefully between the dignity and the necessity or usefulness of certain kinds of knowledge. The practical value of a science or of sciences will be in proportion to the needs of mankind at certain epochs. Most assuredly it would be the height of folly to claim that the educated men of America, France and England should devote their time and talents principally to philosophical speculations at the present time, when the work in chemical laboratories may decide the fate of a liberty-loving and knowledge-loving world. Yet, who would not prefer the glory of an Augustine, a Thomas, even a Nicholas of Cusa, to the plaudits showered upon the inventors of liquid fire, the gas-mask, the depth bomb or the battling aeroplane?

And to the peace-councils following the war, men of philosophic thought, historians, Christian statesmen and legislators, Christian gentlemen and scholars will be more valuable for the future peace and happiness of the world than the most ingenious inventor of death-dealing instruments. Woodrow Wilson is not a "world-beater" in the applied sciences, but he is recognized as a world-leader. From these considerations thoughtful men can draw their own conclusions, giving due value to the speculative and to the applied sciences.

CHURCH NOT OPPOSED TO SCIENCE. -- In the next place it is to be observed that whoever wishes to make an impartial study of the subject which we are considering must banish forever from his mind the thought that the Catholic Church is opposed to knowledge or enlightenment of any kind, or that she does not desire or favor the progress of science. How such a notion originated is not easily explained. She has always, indeed, taught that preparation for a happy eternity is more important than the leading of easy and comfortable lives; hence the knowledge of those things that lead to Heaven is of more value than anything pertaining to earthly perfection. In the ages of faith men were more anxious to lead good lives than to make progress in worldly affairs, and in this way it came to pass that they did not devote themselves to the natural sciences as much as men who have no thought of religion and no solicitude for the hereafter. If this be opposition to the progress of science, then all right-minded believers must plead guilty of the crime with which the Church is charged.

The Church, too, frequently has reminded scientists that they should confine themselves to their own field of investigation; that they should not speak and act as if there were no light in Heaven or on earth except the light of their little lamps. She has told them that they have no right to begin their investigations with the supposition that there is no God, that there is no such thing as revelation, that the first chapter of Genesis contains a false account of the creation of the world. She has also told them that they must not jump at conclusions in the course of their investigations; but those words of advice and caution cannot be construed into opposition to the progress of science. They have never been understood in this sense by her own children, and assuredly they ought to know her intentions better than outsiders.

That the Church gladly welcomes any light that science may afford to aid in the explanation and defence of revealed truth is well-known to all who read the theological or scriptural treatises of Catholic writers. Our faith is not built on the claims of science; we believe certain truths, not because science teaches them, but because they have been revealed by the Author of all truth and of all science. We know, however, that the Faith has nothing to fear from the claims of science; hence the Church favors the most complete scientific investigation, provided it be conducted in the proper spirit, with the desire of arriving at the truth.

Pius IX. -- Pius IX, in various allocutions and letters, especially in those addressed to the bishops and theologians of Germany, fully recognized the importance of scientific investigation, provided science did not go beyond its own sphere. He foreshadowed the definitions of the Vatican Council on the relations of reason to faith; and we defy our adversaries to find in the decrees of that Council a single word in condemnation of any just claims of science.

Leo XIII. -- It is well-known that Leo XIII, in many of his official acts, particularly in his Encyclical on the Restoration of Christian Philosophy, and his letters on the study of history and of the Sacred Scriptures, encouraged and exhorted Catholics to apply themselves to the study of the sciences, because the Faith has nothing to fear and men might gain much from the light of scientific investigations.

Let us pass over these words of advice and instruction, because some might say: These are recent acts; they are the words of progressive pontiffs; but it was not always thus, and the attitude of Rome was not always favorable to the natural sciences. Now, we know that Rome never changes in matters of faith or doctrine. But, in order to show that there is absolutely no ground for claiming that the Church was at any time opposed to scientific investigation, let us turn to the spectacle presented in the Middle Ages.

Thirteenth Century. -- What do we find in the thirteenth century, when the influence of the Church was paramount? We find that the greatest theologians of those days were also the most skillful scientists. Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon are justly classed amongst the greatest scientists of any age; and it must not be supposed that they stand alone amongst the churchmen who were proficient in the natural sciences. They are the best-known and most illustrious representatives of a school of men who strove to acquire eminence in all branches of knowledge. The history of those schools and of those men stands before the world as a continual refutation of the calumnious assertion that the Church is opposed to the cultivation of the natural sciences.[22]

Time Necessary for Proficiency in the Natural Sciences. -- In forming an estimate of their skill and proficiency we must bear in mind that the science of nature, like every other branch of human knowledge, was subject to the general law of evolution, or gradual development. There was the time of incipiency, or growth and progress before the time of perfection. Absolute perfection in this branch of knowledge will never be attained by man, because nature has many secrets which we shall never know, and it would be unfair to demand of men who lived six centuries ago that perfection of science which is easily attained by the specialists of our day. Just think of the wondrous changes wrought by the inventions and discoveries of scientists during the nineteenth century! We do not blame men of the eighteenth century, or consider them ignorant, because they did not ride in automobiles or in Pullman cars lighted by electricity. We do not consider ourselves unprogresssive because we cannot journey in twenty-four hours from New York to London in an airship. In like manner we should not condemn men of the Middle Ages if they fall short of the twentieth century standard of perfection in the natural sciences. We can require of them only a relative perfection, such proficiency as they could have attained, considering the time when they lived and the opportunities afforded them of making progress in the branches which depend so much on observation and experiment.

TWO GREAT MEDIEVAL SCIENTISTS. -- Judged by this standard the achievements of Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon are simply marvellous; and it is not surprising that they were regarded with a feeling akin to superstition whilst they were living, or that legends were intermingled with the true accounts of their scientific experiments and accomplishments. The only serious criticism directed against them consisted in saying that they exaggerated the importance of philosophy and the natural sciences to the detriment of theological studies. Here the critics are guilty of exaggeration.

Albertus Magnus was a great theologian, and he it was who moulded the mind of the greatest of all theologians, St. Thomas of Aquin. According to the opinion of some writers, Roger Bacon did become so absorbed in the pursuit of natural sciences as to neglect certain branches of theology; but we must remember that only men of exceptional geniuis can become specialists in several branches. In truth, he probably gave more time than his critics to the study of theology; and, even if he were too enthusiastic in his favorite study, we should be willing to pardon the fault, as we are inclined to rejoice rather than grieve over his successful pursuit of the natural sciences.

These two remarkable men were contemporaries. Albertus was born in 1193 (according to some authorities in 1206), and died in 1280. Bacon was born in 1214 and died in 1294. They were Christian scientists in the true sense of the word, and they are entitled to the gratitude of the world for proving by their careers that a good Christian can be a great scientist. The question was as actual in the thirteenth century as it is to-day, with this difference, that the theories then advanced in the name of science were more primitive, and perhaps more unreasonable, than modern scientific theories, though one needs strong faith to accept without doubting all that now passes under the name of science.

Natural science, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was looked upon with suspicion because it was presented under the garb of Arabian Aristotelianism. Students of the universities seized with avidity everything that was presented in the name of science; sound judgment forbade the acceptance of all the foolish assertions of the alchemists and astrologers; the uninitiated either became superstitious or looked upon the philosophers as harmless dreamers; the educated scented danger to the faith from the writings of a pagan philosopher explained by the unbelieving Moors; the study of Aristotle's Physics was forbidden because false and dangerous systems were based upon the Stagyrite's works. The world of students was thrown into confusion, and a master-mind was needed to establish order in the chaos of conflicting opinions and tendencies.

Albert the Great. -- That master-mind was Albertus Magnus, who is eulogized in an old Belgian Chronicle as Magnus in magia, major in philosophia, maximus in theologia (i.e., "Great in magic [natural sciences], greater in philosophy, greatest in theology"). He led the way for St. Thomas, who walked in the footsteps of his master when he resolved to Christianize philosophy and systematize theology, accepting what was true and rejecting what was false in the writings of Aristotle. In variety and extent of knowledge, and in soundness of judgment, the disciple surpassed the master, but Albert was the leader, and his first works were commentaries on the philosophy of Aristotle, which embraced the whole range of the natural sciences.

Albert the Great is undoubtedly one of the greatest men that ever lived. The history of his career as a student at Paris, Padua, and Bologna, as a Dominican friar, and as professor at Hildesheim, Freiburg, Ratisbon, Strasburg, Paris and Cologne, as Provincial of his Order, and as Bishop of Ratisbon, would lead one to think that the active duties of the offices which he filled and the long journeys which he was compelled to make in those days of slow travelling, would leave him no time for writing; yet he has left "twenty-one folio volumes upon every then known subject that can be put under logic, metaphysics, psychology, natural science, ethics, theology, chemistry, botany, and the rest."[23] Commentaries on almost all the works of Aristotle; Natural Philosophy; Commentaries on Denis the Areopagite; Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard; Summa Theologica, or Manual of Theology -- these are the headings under which we may classify the writings of the man who has merited the title of Doctor Universalis, the Universal Doctor.

Albert's Scientific Knowledge. -- We are dealing with his treatment of the natural sciences, and let us first separate true history from the legends that have been woven around his name. It is certain that he was remarkable as a botanist, chemist, geographer, geologist, mechanic, and anatomist.

"Albertus Magnus," writes Humboldt in his "Cosmos," was equally active and influential in promoting the study of natural science and of the Aristotelian philosophy. . . . His works contain some exceedingly acute remarks on the organic structure and physiology of plants. One of his works, bearing the title of 'Liber Cosmographicus de Natura Locorum,' is a species of physical geography. I have found in it considerations on the dependence of temperature concurrently with latitude and elevation, and on the effect of different angles of incidence of the sun's rays in heating the ground, which have excited my surprise." Some writers assert that Albert could make gunpowder, and that as a geographer he anticipated the discovery of America.[24] "The Jews looked upon his writings and discoveries with respect. A certain Abraham translated into Arabic his Summa of natural philosophy; while the learned Jewish physician, Portaleone (1542-1612), pays a handsome compliment to Albert's treatment of 'precious stones.'"[25] Augusta Theodosia Drane (Mother Raphael, O.S.D.), in her work on "Christian Schools and Scholars" (London, 1881), calls attention to a few of the scientific views of Albert which show how much he owed to his own sagacious observation of natural phenomena, and how far he was in advance of his age.

"He decides that the Milky Way is nothing but a vast assemblage of stars, but supposes, naturally enough, that they occupy the orbit which receives the light of the sun. The figures visible on the moon's disk are not, he says, as had hitherto been supposed, reflections of the seas and mountains of the earth, but configurations of her own surface. He notices, in order to correct it, the assertion of Aristotle that lunar rainbows appear only twice in fifty years. 'I myself,' he says, 'have observed two in a single year.' He has something to say on the refraction of the solar ray, notices certain crystals which have a power of refraction, and remarks that none of the ancients, and few moderns, were acquainted with the properties of mirrors. In his tenth book, wherein he catalogues and describes all the trees, plants, and herbs known in his time, he observes, 'all that is here set down is the result of our own experience, or has been borrowed from authors whom we know to have written what their personal experience confirmed; for in these matters experience alone can give certainty.' (Experimentum solum certificat de talibus.) Such an expression, which might have proceeded from the pen of Bacon, argues in itself a prodigious scientific progress and shows the medieval friar was on the track so successfully pursued by modern natural philosophy. He had fairly shaken off the shackels which had hitherto tied up discovery and was the slave neither of Pliny nor of Aristotle.

"He treats as fabulous the commonly received idea in which Bede had acquiesced, that the region of the earth south of the equator was uninhabitable, and considers that, from the equator to the south pole, the earth was not only habitable, but, in all probability, actually inhabited, except directly at the poles, where he imagines the cold to be excessive. If there are any animals there, he says, they must have thick skins to defend them from the rigour of the climate, and are probably of a white color. The intensity of cold, however, is tempered by the action of the sea. He describes the antipodes and the counties they comprise, and divides the climate of the earth into seven zones. He smiles with a scholar's freedom at the simplicity of those who suppose that persons living at the opposite extreme of the earth must fall off -- an opinion which can only arise out of the grossest ignorance -- 'for, when we speak of the lower hemisphere, this must be understood merely as relative to ourselves.' It is as a geographer that Albert's superiority to the writers of his own time chiefly appears. Bearing in mind the astonishing ignorance which then prevailed on this subject, it is truly admirable to find him correctly tracing the chief mountain chains of Europe, with the rivers which take their source in each, remarking on portions of coast which have in later times been submerged by the ocean, and islands which have been raised, by volcanic action, above the level of the sea, noticing the modification of climate caused by mountains, seas, and forests; and the divisions of the human race, whose differences he ascribes to the effect of the countries they inhabit. In speaking of the British Isles, he alludes to the commonly received idea that another distant island, called Tile or Thule, existed far in the Western Ocean, uninhabitable by reason of its frightful climate, but which, he says, has perhaps not yet been visited by men. He was acquainted with the sleep of plants; with the periodical opening and closing of blossoms; with the diminution of sap during evaporation from the cuticle of the leaves, and with the influence of the distribution of the bundles of vessels on the folial indentations.[26] His minute observations on the forms and variety of plants indicate an exquisite sense of floral beauty. He distinguishes the star from the bell flower, tells us that a red rose will turn white when submitted to the vapour of sulphur, and makes some very sagacious observations on the subject of germination. The extraordinary erudition and originality of this treatise has drawn from M. Meyer the following comment: 'No botanist who lived before Albert can be compared to him, unless it be Theophrastus, with whom he was not acquainted; after him none has painted nature in such living colours, or studied it so profoundly, until the time of Conrad, Gesner, and Cesalpini. All honour, then, to the man who made such astonishing progress in the science of nature as to find no one, I will not say to surpass, but even to equal him, for the space of three centuries.' . . . It was not extraordinary that one who had so deeply studied nature, and had mastered so many of her secrets, should by his wondering contemporaries have been judged to have owed his marvellous knowledge to a supernatural source, or that his mechanical contrivances, his knowledge of the power of mirrors, and his production of a winter garden, or hothouse, where, on the feast of the Epiphany, 1249, he exhibited to William of Holland, king of the Romans, plants and trees in full blossom, should have subjected him in the mind of the vulgar to the suspicion of sorcery."

Legends about Albert. -- From the legends associated with the name of Albert we may select three as worthy of mention.

(1) There is the popular tradition that Albert furnished the plans for the Cathedral of Cologne. Dr. Sighard,[27] an enthusiastic admirer of the great man, says that it is impossible to attribute to him the design of the Cologne basilica. Probably, he was invited to take part in the deliberations with regard to the edifice, and may have spoken in favor of the wonders he had seen in Paris, and of the Gothic style of architecture, which had been adopted in almost all the Dominican churches; but he had no opportunity to gain such an insight into the artistic and practical details of architecture as was possessed by the author of Cologne's great cathedral. Vaughan says "As an architect he gave plans for several churches; and the first design of the stately Cathedral of Cologne is said to have been copied from his drawings."[28]

(2) Another legend relates to an automaton that he labored thirty year to produce, which he succeeded in making to speak. St. Thomas, the legend says, came unawares upon it in the workshop of Albert, and was so startled that he seized a stick, and shrieking Salve! Salve! smashed the fearful monster to pieces, thinking it to be some cruel savage who was about to attempt his life. The truth is this: Albert could manufacture automata, which were made to move by means of mercury, after the manner of Chinese mannikins and tumbling-toys; and it is possible that he may have constructed small mechanical figures capable of emitting sounds, for he speaks of these inventions as things then known. "The Barbiton," he says, "is a figure with a long beard, from the mouth of which comes a tube, with a bellows attached to one side. It is set in motion by the introduction of air into the tube, so that the bearded mannikin appears to play the flute." Albert probably manufactured an automaton of this kind, capable of moving and uttering the word Salve, so that the legend about St. Thomas's vigorous application of the stick is founded upon a historical fact.

(3) Finally, wonderful things are told of Albert's magic cup, which is still preserved in the museum of Cologne. "It is," writes Dr. Sighart, "an ordinary cup, the recess of which is formed of two plates of metal, the upper part being perforated. Antimony (antimonium) was placed between the plates. When water was poured into it, a portion of the antimony slowly dissolved, and the beverage had a laxitive effect. In wine, the dissolution was greater, and the liquid excited vomiting. Albert thus possessed a universal medicine; he could employ the two principal processes of the medical art, and there is no doubt that by this means he wrought the cure of many sick persons."[29] Sighart adds that most of the convents in Bavaria possessed, until recent times, cups of this description.

It is not surprising, then, that Albert should have been regarded by the common people as a magician or sorcerer, just as in our times people wondered whether Herman and Kellar possessed any secret methods of doing their remarkable "tricks." "But is is certainly surprising," writes Mother Drane, "that such charges should be reproduced by modern critics, who, it might have been thought, would have condemned the very belief in witchcraft as a medieval superstition. The more so as Albert devotes no inconsiderable portion of his pages to the exposure and refutation of those forbidden arts, which he will not allow to be reckoned among the sciences, such as geomancy, chiromancy, and a formidable list of other branches of magic."[30]

Roger Bacon. - The Franciscan, Roger Bacon, was a contemporary of Albertus Magnus, and devoted himself more exclusively than the Doctor Universalis to the natural sciences. Albert is greater as a metaphysician and theologian; Bacon merited the title of Doctor Mirabilis (Wonderful Doctor), by the success of his studies and experiments in nature. He cannot justly be regarded as the founder of the experimental school of philosophy, since all good philosophers recognized the importance of observation and experiment as a means of arriving at the knowledge of the truth, and before his time many had distinguished themselves by the acuteness of their observations and the success of their experiments. Bacon urged more earnestly than any of his predecessors or contemporaries the necessity of the experimental method, and has been reproached with the neglect of philosophy and theology. Let us remember that he had received the degree of Doctor in Theology from the University of Paris. Returning to Oxford, he spent forty years of his life in studying and lecturing on the natural sciences. He thus became a specialist, and we must not be surprised to find him enthusiastic and exaggerated in his devotion to this branch of study. Humboldt says that he was the most important cultivator of the natural sciences who appeared during the Middle Ages.

Writings of Bacon. -- His writings included treatises on optics (then called perspective), mathematics, chemistry, arithmetic, astronomy, the tides, and the reformation of the calendar. His skill in the use of optical and mechanical instruments caused him to be regarded by many as a sorcerer. He was acquainted with the properties of mirrors, knew the powers of steam and gunpowder, knew something about the microscope, and possessed an instrument very much like our telescope. He claimed for this tube that it would make the most distant object appear near, that it would make stars appear at will, and, what is more, that it had the power of beholding future events. This was an exaggeration, to say the least, unless we suppose that the wonderful friar, with the aid of his tube, could fortell storms and hot and cold waves, as our weather bureau does.

Devotion to his favorite science led Bacon into the wild theories of the alchemists. "He believed in the possibility of contriving lamps that should burn forever, magic crystals, the elixir of life, and the philosopher's stone, and wrote treatises on the two last-named subjects."[31]

Notwithstanding these errors, which are excusable in one who lived six hundred hears ago, Montalembert wrote of Bacon: "He rehabilitated and sanctified the study of nature; he classified all the sciences and foresaw (if he did not accomplish), the greatest discoveries of modern times." Suspension bridges (Pontes ultra flumina, sine columna vel aliquo sustentaculo), diving-bells and flying machines, were amongst the possibilities he predicted. He did not know Santos-Dumont, Curtiss, or the Wright brothers, but he wrote that it was possible to make a contrivance, by which a man, sitting in the middle of an airship, could, by turning a crank, move artificial wings, and sail through the air like a bird. (Instrumenta volandi, ut homo, sedens in medio instrumenti, revolvens aliquod instrumentum, per quod alae artificialiter compositae aerum verberant, ad modum avis volant.)

We are not told whether it was the lack of a ship, Bacon's own prudence, or the vigilence of his superiors, that prevented him from "going up in the air"; but we are glad that he did not experiment too much with his flying machine; otherwise his fate would have been worse than that of Albertus Magnus' automaton, which was broken to pieces by St. Thomas.

Bacon was also a philologist, and, in his enthusiasm for the study of languages, he held that all Christians should know the Scriptures thoroughly, and be able to consult the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. When it was objected that this was not possible, he replied that he had invented a universal grammar, with the aid of which he could teach any man Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic in a few days. He also boasted that he could teach the whole course of arithmetic and geometry in a week. These are exaggerations which must be attributed to his enthusiasm and to the facility with which he himself acquired knowledge. They will be pardoned in one who has done do much to prove that the Middle Ages were far from being buried in the darkness of ignorance and superstition.

In the course of these studies mention is made of men who were eminent in learning in every age from the beginning of the ninth to the end of the thirteenth century. Some of them were the greatest and most learned men that the world ever knew; some were led into fanciful theories and dangerous errors; but the history of these men and of their times gives evidence of a desire for knowledge and of intellectual activity that has never been surpassed, even in our own days of boasted enlightenments! Why, then, should those centuries be called the "dark ages"? In the highest branches of human knowledge, sound philosophy and intelligent theology, the Scholastics are still the leaders, and their works are to this day the best models we possess of true science.

In the experimental sciences Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon were far in advance of their times, and many of their opinions are regarded with respectful admiration by the scientists of to-day. In the name of truth, then, and in the name of all that is fair and decent, let men cease to say or to insinuate that the Church is opposed to science or to true knowledge of any kind. Believers may search and investigate nature as much as they will, provided they do not try to shut out the light which Heaven gives to guide them in their investigations; and their faith will be strengthened. Unbelievers, too, may search as they will. Their investigations alone may not lead them to the faith, which is based on the word of God, but we can assure them that in all their investigations they will never find the least foundation for opposition to revelation; for revelation is the light of God, and there can be no opposition between the light of science and the light of God. Both dispel darkness, and both should always point out the way that leads to the bright, eternal Light of Lights.

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