Sense and Nonsense: Albertus Magnus

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In Chesteron’s book on St. Thomas Aquinas, the chapter on “The Aristotelian Revolution” begins, “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.”

Albert himself, however, was often called an alchemist and an astrologer. Richard McKeon wrote of him,

Many legends have grown about the name of Albertus Magnus. For centuries his repute as a scientist made him the form and type of magician and sorcerer, and about that reputation accumulated stories of brazen statues that talked, of philtres and curing chalices, of spells, enchantments and divinely inspired architectural projects.

No doubt, we could use a few “divinely inspired architectural projects” these days, but it is easy to see how Albert’s great learning, which made him the “Stupor Mundi,” the astonishment of the world, could easily cause him to be confused with a magician.


In his Medieval Religion, Christopher Dawson wrote in 1934 of Albert’s importance in science:

[Albert’s] greatest achievement was to put the whole corpus of Graeco-Arabic thought at the disposal of Western scholasticism through the encyclopedic series of commentaries and expositions by which, as he said, he made “all the parts of philosophy, physics, metaphysics and mathematics, intelligible to the Latins.” Nor was he merely a passive intermediary between two intellectual traditions … he had a really original mind, and his scientific observations, above all in biology, botany and geology, were among the first independent achievements of Western European science.

Clearly, this Albert remains someone worth our attention.

The Feast of St. Albert is November 15. Albert was born in Lauingen around 1206. He is best known today, of course, as St. Thomas Aquinas’s teacher. Yet, in his own time, Albert was the better known man. He was a Dominican, a professor at Paris, a provincial, and finally the Bishop of Ratisbon. Albert resigned from this episcopal see in 1262 and continued to teach in Cologne until his death on November 15, 1280.

Following the Dominican practice of the day, Albert literally walked all over Europe. I believe he was called “Boots” or “Clogs” because of his endurance in walking the paths of Europe. Belloc even suggested at the turn of this century, in The Path to Rome, that walking was perhaps the best way to see Europe. Maybe the Dominicans should not have dropped that custom! I do not recall, to be honest, that the Jesuits ever took it up. I draw no meta-physical conclusions. Albert, in any case, was way ahead of his time.

Albert was indeed a remarkable man. I once visited his grave in the cathedral in Cologne. I have even written an essay on Albert — “Immortality and the Political Life of Man in Albertus Magnus,” The Thomist (October 1984). I have always meant to do a November column on Albert. Let me delay no longer.

In the Divine Office for November 15, there is a second reading, as it is called, from St. Albert himself, from his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. The text is that of the Last Supper, in which Christ tells the Apostles to “do this in remembrance of me.” Albert’s exposition is a model of Aristotelian order and touching piety.

Albert observes that this command asks two things of us: (a) to “use this sacrament,” for what else could “do this mean”? (b) the sacrament “commemorates the Lord’s going to death for our sake.” Albert then, in good Ciceronian fashion, expands on the meaning of “Do This.” Christ, Albert maintains, certainly would not command anything of us to do if it were not the best thing. In fact, Albert’s Ciceronian style makes his point emphatic: “Certainly he [Christ] would demand nothing more profitable, nothing more pleasant, nothing more beneficial, nothing more desirable, nothing more similar to eternal life.” One can just hear the power of the repetition of the “nothing more” grow in force as Albert rose to the occasion.

But in a more Aristotelian fashion, perhaps, Albert then adds, “We will now look at each of these qualities separately.” He will tell us why this “Do This” is profitable, why it is pleasant, why beneficial, why lovable, why like eternal life. Christians, thus, see nothing wrong with rhetoric, with preaching, but what they preach is the Gospel — “Do This” — and it is addressed to our good sense, to our intelligence.

So why is this sacrament “profitable”? Albert answers “because it grants the remission of sins.” And he adds that the sacrament is “useful” also because “it bestows the fullness of grace on us in this life.” To demonstrate this Albert cites St. Paul telling us that “the Father of spirits instructs us in what is useful for our sanctification.” This sanctification is in “Christ’s sacrifice.” Our sanctification comes, Albert explains, “when he [Christ] offers himself in this sacrament to the Father for our redemption, to us for our use.” Christians do not eschew the Aristotelian category of “usefulness,” even in divine things. Unabashedly we are to seek our own sanctification and salvation in the only way it is offered to us, in Christ’s sacrifice.

Not only is this “Do This” useful, it is “pleasant” — more shades of Aristotle. “What is better,” Albert asks, “than God manifesting his whole sweetness to us?” And not only is the sacrament useful and pleasant, but it is also “beneficial.” Nothing is “more beneficial.” This sacrament is the fruit of the “tree of life.” And as if to show that he means no mean fruit, Albert adds that he is dealing with the greatest benefit we can possibly imagine: “Anyone who receives this sacrament with the devotion of sincere faith will never taste death.” Of course, Albert himself is dead. I have seen his grave in Cologne. But eternal death, no; the sacrament is that of Christ, Who died and rose again.

Albert next asks whether anything is more “lovable” or desirable. This very sacrament, he observes, “produces love and union.” He adds, “It is characteristic of great love to give itself as food.” The mystery of the Bread of Life, the sacrament — “as if to say,” Albert explains, “I have loved them and they have loved me so much that I desire to be within them, and they wish to receive me so that they may become my members. There is no more intimate or more natural means for them to be united to me, and I to them.” It is striking, in this context, that Albert describes the sacrament as “natural.”

And finally, in a remarkable image, Albert asks how it is that nothing is more like eternal life than this sacrament. He answers simply, “Eternal life flows from this sacrament because God with all sweetness pours himself out upon the blessed.” Why, we might ask, is this an answer to Albert’s question? It is simply because eternal life is the presence of God to us, a presence that can be described in many ways as to its effects. “Sweetness” is as good a way as any since it implies that in the sacrament, in eternal life, our relation to God is not alien, not distant, not harsh.

Etienne Gilson, in his famous History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, remarked of Albert, “There is little in Albert of the objectivity of Thomas Aquinas in abstract discussion; nothing is more familiar to him than the “I” and in this sense, he is … concretely and humanly real to us.” Albert’s little discussion of “Do this in remembrance of me,” I think, does serve to reveal something of an Albert who is not afraid to tell us what he holds, of what is profitable and lovable to him, of Someone who is concretely and ultimately real to us.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).