His Bellows Will Resound throughout the World
Today, November 15, is the Feast of Saint Albert the Great, or Saint Albert of Regensburg. He was a towering figure in medieval philosophy and theology and had such encyclopedic knowledge and an incisive mind that, even in his lifetime, he was called “the Great.”
Ulrich of Strasbourg said of Albert:
He was a man so superior in every science, that he can fittingly be called the wonder of our time.
Albert was born in Swabia in Germany around the year 1200 and studied at the University of Padua. It was there he encountered Blessed Jordan of Saxony and entered the Order of Friars Preachers, the Dominican Order. He went to the University of Paris to continue his studies where he received the degree of Master of Theology and helped to introduce the newly discovered natural, metaphysical and ethical works of Aristotle into the university curriculum.
Soon after Thomas Aquinas escaped the imprisonment of his family and was also able to join the Dominicans, he was, at the age of twenty, placed under the instruction of St. Albert the Great, first in Paris and later in Cologne. Because of his large stature and quiet nature, Thomas’ fellows called him a dumb ox, but St. Albert declared that Thomas’ bellows would resound throughout the world.
Saint Albert established and organized the Dominican House of Studies in Cologne, and is said to have consulted on the construction of that city’s impressive gothic cathedral.
Albert had a consuming interest in studying the natural world and conducted much research into various animals, birds, insects, plants and minerals. It is from these studies that he has been associated with alchemy and even acclaimed (or slandered) as a practitioner of magic and the occult. He, in fact, limited himself mostly to observation and classification, and did much to debunk more fanciful explanations for the workings of nature.
The aim of natural science is not to simply accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature.
Albert was elected provincial of the German province of the Dominican Order and was eventually appointed bishop of Ratisbon (Regensburg). He died in 1280 and was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1931, and proclaimed Patron Saint of natural scientists in 1941.
I have always had a fond devotion to Saint Albert the Great as the Dominican House of Studies where I lived while completing my undergraduate degree was named after him, and on his Feast Day would have a special celebration. I continued the tradition when I came to Texas for graduate school, and my roommate and I would host legendary annual Saint Albert Feast Day Parties for all the grad phil and theology nerds of the University of Saint Thomas.
While procrastinating from actual studies, I found it asserted that St. Albert saw in what we call “the-man-in-the-moon” a visual depiction of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and the Serpent, a celestial reminder to mankind of its original fall and sin. I’ve been trying to hunt down an image of this interpretation that I used for the invitation to one of the grad phil St. Albert parties, but to no avail. Thanks to the internet, though, (what would we do without you!) I was able to find a more recent presentation of what Albert says he saw.
According to Ewen A. Whitaker (source of the figure on the left, above), Mapping and Naming the Moon: A History of Lunar Cartography and Nomenclature (Cambridge UP 2003), Saint Albert describes what he saw in the shading of the Moon:
It seems to me that this shading is to be found on the eastern part of the Moon towards the lower limb, having the figure of a dragon which has its head toward the west and its tail toward the east with respect to the lower limb; the tip of the tail is not sharp, but large like a leaf with three contiguous circular segments. Above the dragon’s back stands the figure of a tree from which the branches proceed obliquely from the center of the trunk towards the lower eastern part of the Moon, and leaning against the oblique part of the trunk with head and elbows there is a man whose legs descend from the upper parts of the Moon towards the western part.De Caelo et Mundo, Lib. II, tract. 3, cap. 8.
What is interesting is that, more in line with his reputation as a sober and careful observer of the natural world, St. Albert does not, as far as I can tell, give a theological interpretation for what he saw in these shadings of the Moon. Whitaker’s presentation does not either, but whatever I used for my party invitation, I remember did; but then, Whitaker’s work was published around ten years after the legendary Feast Day parties. (Whitaker does cite a source for his chapter containing this quote, J. W. Stein, S.J., Saint Albert le Gran et l’Astronomie, Specola Vaticana Miscellanea Astronomica 3, No. 102., p. 81-8, so maybe Fr. Stein asserts the connection with Genesis; I haven’t been able to find this article, either.) The theological interpretation seems like it would be obvious to a medieval thinker, especially as it was pretty common at that time (think St. Patrick and the shamrock as a sign of the Holy Trinity (though that particular example is probably apocryphal)).
Anyway, it seems St. Albert was more careful than what many modern writers give medieval thinkers credit for being. I recently read that we are, in a very fundamental way, pattern detecting animals, and that this leads both to apophenia (finding a pattern of connection between unrelated things or events) which is the source for wacky conspiracy theories or cultic (or at least superstitious) religious beliefs, and it leads to genuine scientific knowledge. But what distinguishes science from mere fancy is that science has a method to test the patterns suggested by making predictions that confirm (or disconfirm) the theory, devising tests of such predictions and then conducting the tests and observing the results. It seems to me that this is where one can find true creativity in science beyond dumb, passive observation: seeing patterns, proposing predictions and devising tests.
The nature of genuine (as opposed to superstitious) religious belief is harder to characterize in such a pithy manner. I think there is, and has to be, a sense in which true religious beliefs pass disconfirming test, and even confirming arguments (apologetics) but ultimately it rests on authority, but authority of a trustworthy nature (God and the Church He established and sustains). There are, too, tests for the trustworthiness of these authorities, which while not exactly proving that what God reveals is the case, they do confirm that God revealed it and that He should be trusted.
Anyway, Happy Feast of Saint Albert the Great, O.P., Patron of Scientists and model of restrained observation and of the harmony between faith and science.