Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Universal Doctor

TODAY IS THE FEAST DAY of Saint Albert the Great (ca. 1200-1280), Albertus Magnus, the 13th century Dominican, theologian, bishop, scientist, philosopher, and prodigious writer. He was the Pope's personal theologian, and worked to heal the schism with the Orthodox Christians. He is called the "Universal Doctor" due to his encyclopedic writings.

The division of knowledge into various fields can be considered an efficient specialization of intellectual labor. But it can also be seen as a kind of decadence, dividing up the world into various, and often conflicting, viewpoints. Saint Albert studied everything under the general umbrella of philosophy, and so unified knowledge, instead of scattering it.

Albert did not reject the philosophy of the pagans, but instead took what was true and rejected what was not, all done within a Christian framework. He made the study of Aristotle respectable in Christian circles, by refuting unorthodox conclusions made by earlier pagan, Jewish, and Islamic commentators. Albert was a critical admirer of Aristotle: although he found much agreement with the ancient Greek, he wasn't afraid to point out his mistakes also. Due in part to Saint Albert, a great synthesis of orthodoxy in theology and philosophy developed among the monotheistic faiths.

Albert's student at the University of Paris, Saint Thomas Aquinas, is a better theologian, but Albert's interests were far broader, including physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, astronomy, mathematics, and geography, and was a recognized authority in all of these. He accurately calculated the size of the earth, and wrote about the lands that were either known or suspected to exist between Europe and Asia: this predates the discovery of America by centuries. He also was a master of the experimental sciences and the mechanical arts: he famously coined the term "android" and constructed a speaking robot (apparently using hydraulics), which purportedly was destroyed by his pupil Saint Thomas. Albert discovered and isolated arsenic, which was the first new element discovered since antiquity.

Sadly, the modern mind believes that no science was done between Democritus and Galileo.

Albert was elected prior provincial of the Dominican Province of Teutonia, which is primarily Germany. The Order of Preachers was growing quickly during this time period, and Saint Albert would travel on foot to each of the friaries or convents. He had a method to his travels: along the route, he would investigate the local plants, animals, geology, and such forth; upon arrival at a friary, he would go to the chapel to offer thanks to God for a safe journey; then he would go to the library to see if they had any new books.

For a while Albert was, unwillingly, made Bishop of Regensburg; he found the Diocese bankrupt. He used his considerable intellect to reform his diocese, and practiced a form of "management by walking around", visiting his entire diocese on foot, seeing the problems for himself. Albert later was kept very busy as an arbitrator, and traveled constantly performing consecrations, so much so that he complained that he didn't have enough time for prayer or study.

Albertus Magnus, in the centuries following his death, gained the reputation of being a magician and wizard, and so is often praised in occult circles. He was also credited with the discovery of the "Philosopher's Stone", a substance that could either transmute base metals into gold or create an elixir of life. (Note to Harry Potter fans: the Philosopher's Stone of the British edition of the first Potter novel was changed in the American edition to Sorcerer's Stone because, apparently, they thought that Americans are stupid.) But we should recall Arthur C. Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and Saint Albert was an advanced technologist for his day, doing things that appeared to later generations to be miraculous. Unfortunately, after the Middle Ages, much philosophy of that era was discarded and forgotten, including its scientific advancements. Regarding the Philosopher's Stone, Albert theorized that transmutation of the elements was impossible: he assumed that elements were actually elemental, that is base substances. Only later did we learn about protons, neutrons, and electrons and radioactive decay.

Saint Albert coined the term "preternatural" as a distinction between the natural and the supernatural. In Catholic theology, the supernatural is reserved to acts and gifts of God alone: it is above and beyond the created realm. The preternatural order of things still exists within created nature, although it is nature in the extreme and far beyond the ordinary. For example, angelic beings are bound by the laws of nature just as much as humans, animals, and rocks are, but they have preternatural speed and intelligence, that is, far beyond that of humans. There is then no theoretical distinction in Medieval philosophy between occult magic and technology, except that with occult magic, a practitioner seeks demonic assistance instead of using reason. A magician, in principle, can only do things that can also be done, at least theoretically, with technology.

Saint Albert studed some questionable material, such as alchemy, but certainly he was concerned with the truth of the matter and its consistency with the rest of the sciences. Unfortunately, having abandonded Medieval science, the men of the Enlightenment actually became superstitious, falsely believing that the occult arts had secret knowledge that was not obtainable by the natural sciences. This was directly opposed to Saint Albert's idea of a universal view of nature. In the modern era, many prominent scientists, including Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, would openly practice science by day and secretly study the occult by night. Even today, little has changed: I used to work at a large biological research laboratory, and many of the scientists' cars had Wiccan or occult bumper stickers (and I never saw a Christian bumper sticker there.)

The loss of Saint Albert's idea of the preternatural order of nature leads many modern minds, dissatisfied with our current sciences, to embrace the occult, unaware of its dangers to the soul.

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