Albert the Great: Patron Saint of Scientists
On November 15, the Church celebrates St Albert the Great, Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, Patron before God of Students of the Natural Sciences. Our resident scientist, Fr Jonathan Jong reflects on St Albert’s contribution to science and its philosophy.
The Church has a patron saint of natural scientists, though I confess that I have never availed myself of his intercession. Albert—called Magnus (the Great) even during his lifetime—is now best known as Thomas Aquinas’s teacher, but as the Church celebrates his feast on November 15th, we have an excellent excuse to learn a little more about his own life and work.
The circumstances of Albert’s birth are uncertain: he was probably born into a noble family somewhere in Germany—Lauingen and Cologne are the best contenders—sometime before the year 1200. As a youth, he was sent to Italy to prepare for university in Padua. The circumstances of Albert’s entering the Order of Preachers are also disputed. A meeting in the 1220s with Jordan of Saxony, master general of the order after St Dominic’s death, was probably crucial. In any case, he moved from Padua to Cologne as part of this process, where he continued his studies and also began teaching. From there—certainly a Dominican by this point—he went on to teach at Freiburg, Regensburg, Strasbourg, and then Paris, the intellectual centre of medieval Christendom.
It was in Paris that Albert met the twenty-year-old Thomas Aquinas, whose notes on Albert’s lectures on Pseudo-Dionysius still survive in Naples. The two became fast friends, and moved together to Cologne when Albert was asked to head up a studium generale—an institute of higher learning—there. His time in Cologne, though intellectually productive, was also frequently interspersed with responsibilities throughout Europe for the Dominican order and for the Church more broadly. From 1254-1256, for example, he was prior provincial for the German-speaking parts of the Dominican order. And in 1260, he was—against the order’s wishes—appointed as bishop of Regensburg, a diocese beset by scandal and financial ruin. He was allowed to resign in 1262, having improved matters, but was then ordered by Pope Urban IV to preach the crusade in German-speaking lands: this he gave up as soon the pope died. He finally returned to Cologne around 1270, where he died a decade later.
Albert’s literary output totals over 20,000 pages of sermons and treatises, ranging from philosophical, theological, and scientific works. Probably the best known of his writings were his commentaries and paraphrases of the entire Aristotelian corpus, even including some texts no longer considered to be written by Aristotle. This work solidified Aristotle’s place in the Christian West, paving the way for his student Thomas Aquinas’s own work. The fact that Albert commented upon all of Aristotle entails that his scope was at least as broad as Aristotle’s: and when he felt that “the Philosopher” left topics uncovered, he filled the gaps, producing works on things like geography and mineralogy. And in case you are worried that Albert was too narrowly obsessed with a single philosopher, he also wrote commentaries on the Bible, Porphyry, Boethius, Peter Lombard, Gilbert de la Porrée, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the neo-Platonic Liber de causis (though he thought that this last text was by Aristotle). Furthermore, his scientific writings—especially on minerals, plants, and animals—went beyond his source work, and included his own empirical investigations. It is therefore a travesty that Albert is rarely—at least in the public imagination—credited as a scientist.
I want to be careful not to say that Albert was an “early scientist” as if intellectual history progressed linearly from feckless groping in the dark ages to the revelatory wonders of what we might call “modern science”, which we typically date from between Galileo and Newton. The more accurate view is, as usual, a more complicated one in which there are different accounts—overt or unspoken—of science, different motivations, different methods, but also different metaphysics. Scientists will recognise much in Albert, and in that sense he is our forerunner. But we will also find much that is foreign, and it is not to be taken for granted that all these differences are deficiencies.
Like us, Albert was interested in the causes of things. Like ours, Albert’s science was empirical, in which theories were tested by observing things in the world. Albert’s views on the dignity and independence of the natural sciences was also surprisingly modern, though our surprise probably says more about our own prejudices than it does about the intellectual milieu of the 13th century. Contrary to the widespread opinion that scholars in the Middle Ages merely parroted the (often false) rumours about the natural world from authoritative sources like Aristotle, Albert insisted in his Book of Minerals that “It is [the task] of natural science not simply to accept what we are told but to inquire into the causes of natural things.”  Similarly in On Vegetation, he says “Only experience verifies in such investigations”.  This sentiment is echoed in various other places too. And while it may be too anachronistic to attribute to Albert the methodological atheism that currently typifies scientific research, he repeatedly brackets out theological explanations from his scientific works. At the very end of his commentary on Aristotle’s De Caelo, for example, he says that those who study nature do not inquire into how God miraculously uses the world to demonstrate power, but only into the inherent causes of natural things. 
The ways in which Albert’s philosophy of science, such as it is, differs from ours is subtler. Unlike us—some of us, anyway—Albert does not think that the natural sciences provide complete knowledge of reality. As intimated in what we have just seen in De Caelo, this is not to say that he requires supernatural intervention in his explanation of natural phenomena. He does, however, believe that there is more than can be known than through the natural sciences: indeed, the natural sciences themselves are founded upon principles that are, strictly speaking, not amenable to scientific investigation in this sense. But if the natural sciences are founded upon metaphysics that, for example, defend the veracity of empirical observation, metaphysics is itself done by reflecting on the natural sciences. Metaphysics is prior to natural science, but there is nevertheless a reciprocal relationship between them.
Another difference between Albert and us—at least in our worst moments—is in his motivation for doing science. Science, and scholarship more broadly, is increasingly being forced into a utilitarian mould: this climate cannot but form how scientists think about themselves, not least by shaping what they do. Here in the United Kingdom, we can easily observe how the government views science by looking at recent organisational changes. For example, Research Councils UK has recently transitioned to UK Research and Innovation, whose strategic prospectus is replete with talk of building “a prosperous economy”, and being “a powerful supporter of business innovation and enterprise” . Scientists might find this distasteful, but we do rely on UKRI and other such organisations for our funding: we cannot help but be affected by their agenda. As far as I know, Albert the Great—free from the perverse incentive structures that currently plague academic science—did not have this problem. This is not to say that utilitarian science was foreign to the medieval mind. One of Albert’s contemporaries and Oxford’s very own, Roger Bacon, emphasised the practical use of scientific research, and fair enough: without the obvious success of such applications, natural science may never even have taken off in western Europe when it did. In contrast, such references to the usefulness of scientific research are absent from Albert’s writing. Given his debt to the Peripatetics and the central role of the intellect in his account of what it means to be human, he likely considered the pursuit of science to be a part of the contemplative life, which is in turn the chief source of human happiness.
Pope Pius XII declared Albert “patron before God of students of the natural sciences” in 1941, as the world observed how science and technology could literally be weaponised to “visit the calamities of war even upon civilian centers and cities”. With the moral abuses of science in mind, the Pope had hoped for God to “arouse the hearts and minds of those who devote themselves to the sciences to a peaceful and orderly use of the natural forces, the laws of which, divinely established, they investigate and seek after” . Over 700 years after Albert’s death and over 70 years after Pius XII’s declaration—as scientific findings about vaccines and climate change are being ignored by people and politicians; as new scientific disciplines concerning big data and artificial intelligence pose new challenges to society; as science is widely seen as antithetical to faith—our need for a patron saint has hardly diminished.
Translation from Weisheipl, J. A. (ed.) (1980)., Albertus Magnus and the sciences: commemorative essays 1980. Toronto, CA: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. Original retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/archive/aas/documents/AAS-34-1942-ocr.pdf