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17.10.11, Möhle, Albertus Magnus

17.10.11, Möhle, Albertus Magnus

Möhle's excellent Albertus Magnus is the seventh volume in the series "Zugänge zum Denken des Mittelalters," whose previous subjects include Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham. Edited by Mechthild Dreyer, the series aims to furnish readers with knowledge in compact and easily comprehensible form of the historical, social, political, and cultural contexts of great medieval authors with the aim of clarifying their ideas, influences, reception, and impact. Möhle's contribution takes the form of an intellectual biography that follows Albert the Great from birth to death, discussing his family background, entry into the Dominican order, and work within Dominican houses of religious formation and at the University of Paris. Considerable attention is devoted to Albert as churchman, including his role as Provincial of Teutonia and Bishop of Regensburg, advisor to Popes Alexander IV and Urban IV, preacher of the Eighth Crusade, and arbitrator of multiple violent conflicts between citizens and archbishops of Cologne.

Möhle discusses nearly every kind of writing Albert produced. This sets his biography apart from Alain de Libera's Albert le Grand et la Philosophie and Ingrid Craemer-Ruegenberg's Albertus Magnus, the first editions of which are now more than twenty-five years old (a new version of Craemer-Ruegenberg's book, fully revised, updated, and annotated by Henryk Anzulewicz, was published in 2005). A member of the Albertus-Magnus-Institut in Bonn, Möhle engages Albert's theology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, natural philosophy, ethics, politics, and Biblical interpretation, referencing much significant scholarship of the last three decades.

The work is intended for beginners; the premise of the series is that medieval philosophers are hard to read and their doctrines easily misunderstood without proper contextualization. In this vein, Möhle provides short, general excurses on matters such as the origin and growth of the Dominican order, the formation and organization of universities, and the mendicant controversy. He also provides extensive excerpts and exegeses of works by other authors. Just what Albert is saying in his Paris summa about the nature and methods of theology, for example, is explained by contrast with some nearly contemporaneous sermons by anonymous authors at the Dominican priory of St. Jacques. Similarly, Möhle illumines the nature and purpose of Albert's fifteen-year project of "making Aristotle intelligible to the Latins" by contrasting it with the encyclopedia produced around the same time by his fellow Dominican Vincent of Beauvais. His penultimate chapter includes a translation of Albert's last will and testament together with a discussion of what it reveals about the German Dominican's values and legacy, and the monetary value of the property he left.

Given the scope of his project, Möhle's portrait is necessarily selective. He focuses his discussion of Albert's early career around his conception of theology and the special question of whether theology constitutes a scientia in Aristotle's sense. Whereas the Summa Halensis had asked that question specifically, Albert's Sentences-commentary does not, but instead asks whether theology is a unified science and, if so, what distinguishes it from other disciplines and in particular from metaphysics. Drawing upon Maria Burger's study in this area, Möhle argues that for Albert, theology is indeed a unified science, and what distinguishes it from other sciences is not that it is a higher form of knowing (as the Summa Halensis had held), but rather that it concerns a different subject. That subject of theology is, as for metaphysics, something universal: namely, everything that promotes the attainment of human happiness. Whereas what lends unity to a paradigmatic Aristotelian science is its concern with a subject of one particular kind, what lends unity to theology is its concern with everything that can contribute to human flourishing. Theology possesses what Möhle calls relational unity ("relationale Einheit," 47) rather than a generic unity ("Gattungsgemeinsamkeit," 47). If this solution preserves the unity of theology, it seems to do so at the expense of conflating theology with ethics. Albert avoids that consequence, says Möhle, by contending that whereas ethics is a practical science, theology is an affective one. Such sciences combine the concern of theoretical science with knowledge of truth and the concern of practical sciences with seeking the good. Möhle exhibits how Albert applies his abstract conception of the theology to the solution of particular theological problems, including the role of angels in the motions of superlunary bodies and the metaphysics of transubstantiation. Elsewhere he exhibits how Albert approaches Biblical interpretation by foregrounding differences in the exposition of the Lord's Prayer between Albert's Super Matthaeum, the Glossa Ordinaria, and the Postilla of Hugh of St. Cher.

Recent scholars have marveled at the innovations Albert introduced at the Dominican studium generale in Cologne between 1248 and 1252. Loris Sturlese has written about the implications of Albert's decision to integrate the study of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics into the curriculum there, seeing in it an almost unbelievable manifestation of autonomy ("eine geradezu unglaubliche Mainfestation von Autonomie," 61). Möhle stresses that Albert's first curricular innovation at Cologne concerned not Aristotle but Pseudo-Dionysius. Commenting on each of Dionysius' works appealed to Albert not least because he found in the Corpus Dionysiacum resources for enriching his conception of theology so as to acknowledge the limits of affirmative propositional discourse about God and the value of negative mystical discourse.

Like his Dionysian commentaries, Albert's Aristotelian commentaries provide on Möhle's account much more than textual exposition. Forming an integrated corpus of some thirty works, they include paraphrases of Aristotle's known works (including works falsely ascribed to Aristotle) as well as original works composed by Albert himself to fill in gaps (e.g., De mineralibus, De natura et origine animae, and De intellectu et intelligibli). The corpus aimed to help Christian intellectuals to understand the grounds and causes ("rationes et causae," 76) of Aristotle's findings while inviting critical engagement with them. Writing in a context of considerable suspicion of Aristotle's metaphysical and natural-scientific writings, Albert foregrounded points of agreement with Christian doctrine, and furnished, within elaborate excurses, supplementary explanations and justifications. Albert's aim says Möhle was neither to buttress Aristotle's authority nor to catalogue his teachings but to clear a space for Christian intellectual engagement with Aristotle's while expanding the range of subjects about which Christians speculated.

A major achievement in this regard and one particularly admired by his contemporaries was Albert's elucidation of the principles underlying Aristotle's natural philosophy. Judging from the number of copies of them that appear in the Taxation List of 1304 of the Parisian stationarius, Albert's commentaries on Aristotle's natural-philosophical works were among his most influential. Möhle traces Albert's effort, across a number of commentaries and original natural-philosophical works, to complete Aristotle's imperfect science of nature by investigating questions that Aristotle neglects (e.g., the origin of soul) and by incorporating truths that Aristotle denies (e.g., the soul can exist separately from the body).

Albert attended to the question of what constitutes scientific knowledge with great care, tackling Aristotle's treatment of that question in Posterior Analytics and presenting Euclid's Elements as an ideal realization of Aristotle's vision of science as hierarchy of deductions from first principles. Even as he did this, Albert recognized natural science as a valid alternative—one premised not on a deduction of concepts from abstract principles but rather on the identification of causal relationships implanted in nature and observable in the motions of natural bodies. Moehle's Albert is a thinker intensely interested in the world around him who takes note of differences in search of the order that underlies them. His quest for unity through differentiation ("Einheit durch Differenzierung," 209) drives him to ask and answer questions about knowledge and nature with eyes wide open to the diversity of God's creation and of ways we know it.

Albert was asked to help arbitrate some twenty-four different disputes. Möhle details Albert's role in developing the Great Arbitration of 1258 concerning Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden and the citizens of Cologne. He begins by expositing the political-theoretical views expressed in Albert's Augsburg sermons of 1257. Albert's organizational and social competence are fully on display, not to mention his forward thinking, as he argues in defense of a divided government with checks and balances and defends the principle that competence and not good birth is what qualifies a citizen for membership on a jury. Möhle nimbly connects his account of Albert's intervention in this controversy to ideas expressed in his moral and political writings.

Möhle does not say much about Albert's immediate reception and influence, as they are not his focus. That is regrettable, given the important division within Albert's studies about them. In particular, he does not address directly the theses of Alain de Libera--advanced in support of the late Bruno Nardi and against the late Fernand van Steenberghen--that Albert is the intellectual father of Latin Averroism, that his most faithful student was Ulrich of Strasburg, and that Thomas Aquinas was more of an opponent than a disciple of some of Albert's key teachings.

Notwithstanding that missed opportunity, Möhle produces what he set out to achieve: an historically-informed general survey of Albert's treatment of matters of pressing interest to himself and his contemporaries. The book contains a useful timeline and bibliography. By addressing the full scope of Albert's writings and showing his engagement with contemporary questions, Möhle makes it easy to see why Albert was known in his lifetime both as "great" (magnus) and an "authority on every subject" (doctor universalis).