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Albertus Magnus

Albertus Magnus

Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great) (C. 1200–1280), was a Dominican priest born in Bavaria, who in his lifetime attained a reputation for immense learning. After study at the University of Bologna, he taught at several universities, including the University of Paris, where he received his doctorate and was the teacher of Saint Thomas Aquinas. His knowledge was encyclopedic, encompassing theology, philosophy, logic, astronomy, music, botany, zoology, and mineralogy.

Albert’s theory of time shows those tendencies that are typical for his whole philosophical project: Aspects that are inspired from Aristotle find their place within a framework largely determined by Albert’s theological and noetic interests, which echo Averroes and some Neoplatonic sources (Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, Liber de causis, Proclus’s Elements of Theology). By integrating such very divergent streams of thought, Albert’s philosophical synthesis became the point of departure for various developments in subsequent medieval thought (e.g., Saint Thomas Aquinas; the Averroists; the German Dominicans, including Meister Eckhart; Renaissance Aristotelianism; and Nicholas of Cusa).

This integration also holds true for his ideas on time, which are explained in what follows, according to Albert’s systematic presentation in his “Sum of the admirable science of God” (Summa de mirabili scientia Dei; written after 1270). As do other Platonic thinkers (William of Conches, Nicholas of Cusa), Albert discusses time always in the horizon of eternity; even in his Physics commentary he adds a treatise on eternity to his explanations of Aristotle’s theory of time, which is concerned mainly with movement. Albert defines eternity and time in the traditional way as duration of God or of changeable objects, respectively. The most specific definition of time is that it is “a passion of the first movement and by that the measure and number of all movements.” Furthermore, Albert distinguishes from time and eternity a third form of duration, “eviternity” (aeviternitas or aevum), which “is a duration existing in the middle between time and eternity.” This eviternity has a beginning (duratio principiata) but does not have an end; although the objects of eviternity are free from bodily changes or movements, they are subject to some succession. This is because they have, as do all created objects, a tendency toward the “nothing” (nihil), which means that they are not capable of receiving at one moment their whole perfection (totum simul). This explanation of aevum is a typical Christian adaptation of a Neoplatonic concept, which can be found in Proclus and Boethius.

For Albert, however, all three forms of duration are determined by the particular moments that constitute them; that is, Albert applies the Aristotelian concept of a “now” as the constitutive element of time also to eternity and eviternity. Even more important is regarding time as the distinction of an “in-which-way-it-is” (quo est) and a “what-it-is” (quod est). Albert distinguishes these two aspects, following Boethius, in any nonmaterial objects. In the case of time, both aspects can be grasped only by understanding the “now” as the fundamental unity that constitutes the flow of time.

In his commentary (1254–1257) on the third book of Aristotle’s De anima, Albert connects these ontological speculations with the fundaments of ethics. Here, Albert presupposes an “absolute good” (bonum simpliciter), which he takes from the Greek words meaning “practical good” which had been translated into Latin as “actual good” (bonum actuale). From this absolute good, Albert distinguishes a “good for the moment” (bonum ut nunc), which is valid only in time, whereas the absolute good is “always good” (bonum semper). Whereas this eternal good is right at any place and in any respect, the “good for the moment” may be an apparent good, which is incorrectly regarded as good; this may lead human beings to false action. Thus, the Aristotelian theory of action is embedded in an ontological theory that distinguishes a temporal good and an eternal good. In this way, Albert’s Neoplatonic theory of time becomes the background for his understanding of Aristotle’s practical philosophy.

See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aristotle; Boethius, Anicius; Christianity; Eckhart, Meister; Ethics; Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus); William of Conches

Further Readings

 Anzulewicz, H. (2001). Aeternitas–aevum–tempus. The concept of time in the system of Albert the Great. In P. Porro (Ed.), The medieval concept of time: Studies on the scholastic debate and its reception in early modern philosophy (pp. 83–129). Boston: Brill Academic.

Steel, C. G. (2000). Dionysius and Albert on time and eternity. In T. Boiadjiev, G. Kapriev, & A. Speer (Eds.), Die Dionysius—Rezeption im mittelalter (pp. 317–341). Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

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Afterlife

Afterlife

Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander