Thursday, February 26, 2009

St. Albert the Great

I have several dozen reference books nearby. We all know that some things are easier to search for on a computer, but there are some things where I (like others) prefer "tactile books", as I have noted elsewhere.

It would be hard to select the critical volumes from among them. Some get used more frequently, of course; I've never bothered to accumulate any access frequencies. (What a bore - that's for computers!) But off the top of my head I would name three of the highest importance: the dictionary, the Bible, and the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, also available here. I've had one since I was in grade school, and it has done much to inspire and aid me in my work; my shelf edition is fairly old now - for all I know they've had to add another row to the Periodic Table - but it is still useful, so it has a large place on the shelf. (Hee hee!) Only my Liddell and Scott outweighs it.

Now, if I told you that there was a saint mentioned in that CRC book, would you believe me? Could you guess who it is? Well, you would probably guess because of the title I gave this post. (Rats.) But yes, if you read the utterly fascinating little entries about the chemical elements, which give some basic physical facts and the historical data about their discovery, you will find this:
Arsenic - ... It is believed that Albertus Magnus obtained the element in 1250 A.D.
Another related reference, Nature's Building Blocks by John Emsley, attributes its discovery to Albertus Magnus - which is none other than the Latin version of St. Albert the Great!

"It was his contemporaries who dubbed St. Albert 'the Great'." So begins the entry in Butler's Lives of the Saints (which are two shelves down from the CRC reference). It ends with the words "He is the patron saint of students of the natural sciences." Albert lived from (about) 1206 to 1280 A.D; he was a Dominican, the Bishop of Regensburg, the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, and was named a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI, who said "he is exactly the saint whose example should inspire the present age, which so ardently seeks peace and is so full of hope in its scientific discoveries." St. Albert's chapter in Fr. Rengers' The 33 Doctors of the Church begins with this amazing line: "There is only one man in all history who is called 'The Great' because of his scholarship."

Albert lived in the heart of the Ages of Light. He was called "the Universal Doctor", "the Secretary of the Blessed Virgin Mary." He taught at Paris and Cologne, preached in Roma, and his writing fills some 38 quarto volumes in the "Paris" edition, estimated to be 20 million words. (For comparison, the GKC works in AMBER stands at about 8 million presently.) Chesterton mentions him several times, in particular in his St. Thomas Aquinas, where he is called
...the greatest of all German Professors ... Think of the modern German Professor being famous throughout Europe for his popularity when lecturing in Paris. ... Albert the Swabian, rightly called the Great, was the founder of modern science. He did more than any other man to prepare that process, which has turned the alchemist into the chemist, and the astrologer into the astronomer. It is odd that, having been in his time, in this sense almost the first astronomer, he now lingers in legend almost as the last astrologer. Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the medieval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards. It is very nearly the opposite of the truth. The world sometimes persecuted them as wizards, and sometimes ran after them as wizards; the sort of pursuing that is the reverse of persecuting. The Church alone regarded them really and solely as scientists. ... Aquinas was still generally known only as one obscure and obstinately unresponsive pupil, among many more brilliant and promising pupils, when the great Albert broke silence with his famous cry and prophecy; "You call him a Dumb Ox; I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud that his bellowings will fill the world." To Albertus Magnus, as to Aristotle or Augustine or any number of other and older teachers, St. Thomas was always ready, with the hearty sort of humility, to give thanks for all his thinking. None the less, his own thinking was an advance on Albertus and the other Aristotelians, just as it was an advance on Augustine and the Augustinians. Albert had drawn attention to the direct study of natural facts, if only through fables like the unicorn and the salamander but the monster called Man awaited a much more subtle and flexible vivisection. The two men, however, became close friends and their friendship counts for a great deal in this central fight of the Middle Ages. ... Between those rather incongruous passions, the love of Plato and the fear of Mahomet, there was a moment when the prospects of any Aristotelian culture in Christendom looked very dark indeed. Anathema after anathema was thundered from high places; and under the shadow of the persecution, as so often happens, it seemed for a moment that barely one or two figures stood alone in the storm-swept area. They were both in the black and white of the Dominicans; for Albertus and Aquinas stood firm. ... It is true that he [Aquinas] did not himself contribute anything concrete in the experiment or detail of physical science; in this, it may be said, he even lagged behind the last generation, and was far less of
an experimental scientist than his tutor Albertus Magnus. But for all that, he was historically a great friend to the freedom of science. The principles he laid down, properly understood, are perhaps the best that can be produced for protecting science from mere obscurantist persecution.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:444-5, 455, 458-9, 469, 470-1]
GKC also carried on a very interesting and humorous argument over Albert's mention of dance and Purgatory in The Superstitions of the Sceptic. Here is an interesting allusion from a different place:
If ever men did regard learning as a release, I should say it was those eager students of Paris and Oxford who found the whole world illuminated for them by the universal sun of Aristotle. If ever men invited to participate it was those crowds of poor scholars who came to the feasts of Abelard and Albertus Magnus. Nobody with the least living logic in his head can read the greatest of the Schoolmen without realising the true relish of intellectual activity; the appetite for the abstract. Nobody with the least popular sympathy in his heart who reads of those ragged crowds, living on crusts and onions at the Sorbonne and the other colleges, solely for the sake of the wine of words to be poured into them, can fail to recognise the one historic case of real popular education.
[GKC ILN Sept 25 1920 CW32:96]
Jaki parallels one of GKC's points:
Aquinas is, indeed, notable for his lack of appreciation of experimental investigation. His case is, however, more that of individual temper and preference than of methodological dictates. His master Albertus Magnus, was a most enthusiastic advocate of experimental investigation and he found in the contingency of the world the justification to his prolific collection of data concerning natural history. ... His [Roger Bacon's] continual reference to the need of experimenting had much to commend itself, but others, like Albertus Magnus, deserved no less credit on that score.
[Jaki, Science and Creation 226, 227; a note states: "On Albertus Magnus’s scientific programme and accomplishments see the twenty-two essays in Angelicum, vol. XXI (1944)."]
I will give one more fragment of detail from another author:
One of the greatest of the chemists of the thirteenth century was Albert the Great, or Albertus Magnus, as he is more familiarly called, who taught for many years at the University of Paris. He was a theologian as well as a physician and a scientist. His works have been published in twenty-one folio volumes, which will give some idea of the immense industry of the man. Those relating to chemistry are as follows: Concerning Metals and Minerals; Concerning Alchemy; A Treatise on the Secrets of Chemistry; A Brief Compend on the Origin of the Metals; A Concordance, that is, a Collection, of Observations from Many Sources, with Regard to the Philosopher's Stone; A Treatise on Compounds; a book of eight chapters on the Philosopher's Stone. Most of these are to be found in his works under the general heading "Theatrum Chemicum." Thomson, in his "History of Chemistry," says, that they are, in general, plain and intelligible. [James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science, 134-5]
Yes, you read that correctly - he wrote about the Philosopher's Stone! I don't recall if J. K. Rowling mentions Albertus Magnus in her writing, but his work is studied in the most unlikely places.

Dear St. Albert, holy Doctor, Teacher, Chemist, Scientist: pray for us, and guide us to use our knowledge and energy in the love and service of God and our neighbour. Amen.


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