Albert the Great and the Visio Mystica Epistemology

Markus Führer

Markus Führer

In order to come to a sound understanding of any aspect of the thought of Albert the Great insofar as it pertains to the adjective “mystical”, great care must be taken to avoid importing into Albert’s ideas any of the modern connotations of that term which may have been alien to his time and culture. And the best way to achieve this goal is to try to learn how Albert used the term.

Fortunately, Albert himself is helpful here. In his ‘Commentary on the Mystical Theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius’, he remarks upon what he calls “negative theology”, noting that “this doctrine ought to be called ‘mystical’ rather than anything else, because it leaves us in the dark […] ”.

The phrase “in the dark” (in occulto) is crucial here. For Albert is using the term “mystical” not merely to describe a linguistically based method of doing theology, but also to suggest an epistemological metaphor that will help us approach his mystical writings from the right direction, which is as a theory of knowledge, and focus on the intended metaphysical point of view of those writings. And this point of view is what is usually called a “metaphysics of light”.

The theological topics that Albert himself would call “mystical” were surprisingly few in number. Albert’s confidence in his use of Scholastic analysis led him to a kind of assurance with respect to aspects of the divine being that not all theologians, let alone very many Scholastic theologians, would dare to venture. To be sure, Albert’s breadth of vision was as wide as it was deep. But it was always deep. And always informed by a remarkable wisdom. Because of this wisdom, there was one topic that Albert approached with great caution and deference.

The visio mystica, the mystical vision of God, gave Albert pause. The question was this: “How is it possible for the human soul to have the vision of God?” One might wish to add to the question, “while in this life”. But Albert was not so concerned with such an addendum. This is one reason why we must be cautious about that term “mystical”.

The modern mind, influenced more by post-Renaissance mysticism rather than the mystical theology of the High Middle Ages, is anxious, perhaps a little too anxious, to achieve an experiential confirmation of the supernatural. The weakness of faith causes us to demand the certitude of experience. Never mind that Descartes and company have continuously warned us off of such certitude.

These warnings are philosophical, and thus easy to dismiss. We live in a scientific age — experience is the lifeblood of our thought. Now, Albert had a scientific bent too. He was the kind of person who tended to be “tough minded” about theological as well as empirical matters. Even so, he was a man of faith and he lived in an age of faith.

Consequently, he was not so concerned with proving the reality of the supernatural. It was a given for him. The mystical concerned the supernatural, whether it was manifested in this life by some kind of direct experience or not.

What interested Albert was this: what is it that is supposed to happen when the mind encounters the divine itself? That there was such an encounter after death was an article of faith for Albert. His question was, could a human being encounter God in any way that we can make sense of?

The answer, if forthcoming, would apply equally to what he would call an in via experience (that is, the soul’s encounter with God in this life) as to an in patria experience (that is, the soul’s encounter with the divine in the next life). Both of these encounters would fall under the category of visio mystica, but the latter he would call visio beatifica or the beatific vision.

Now while Albert says precious little about in via visions of God, he repeatedly addresses the problem of in patria visions. One might wonder why he does this. The answer to this particular question is important because it will explain to us the difficulty and the danger of the ground upon which Albert was walking as he tried to give an analysis of the visio mystica.

Fr Simon Tugwell, in his excellent and informative introduction to his translation of Albert the Great’s ‘Commentary on the Mystical Theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius’, gives a kind of synopsis of the theological events that precede Albert’s attempt to explain the visio mystica.

The problem seems to begin with those thinkers in Western Europe who were attempting to incorporate ideas into theology found in the newly translated texts of Aristotle. Particularly troublesome was the theology of the beatific vision. Here it appeared that the new thinking was attempting either to deny the beatific vision outright or to place some intermediary between the soul and God, or, as in the case of David of Dinant, to fuse the soul and God in the beatific vision.

David is a good example of someone applying in theology the Aristotelian principle that the intellect becomes assimilated to its object in the act of intellection. So the soul becomes assimilated to God. The result was a form of autotheism — a doctrine that was condemned as heterodox as early as 1210. Already by this date the influence of Peter Lombard’s ‘Sentences’ had come to serve as a measure of orthodoxy in theological matters. And Peter had claimed that the souls of those in heaven participated in the vision of God.

On January 13th, 1241, William of Auvergne, as the bishop of Paris, and Odo de Castro Radulfi, as the chancellor of the University of Paris, officially condemned the theological position that the divine essence will not be seen by the blessed. As Fr Tugwell correctly observes, “The Condemnation of 1241 represented a victory for those who were disillusioned with the attempt to accommodate the Christian hope of the beatific vision to a general, philosophical epistemology.” But not just any epistemology was at stake here; it was the Aristotelian theory of knowledge that was being repudiated and rejected.

The situation must have posed an intriguing problem for Albert the Great. Although his commitment to the philosophy of Aristotle was not total, he still held it in high regard. In Albert’s mind, it appears to be worth accommodating in some way or other. And in Albert’s case, the accommodation was to an ancient form of Christian Neoplatonism, found principally, but not exclusively, in the writings of St Augustine.

The task of bringing the Stagirite into some kind of concordance with Augustine, especially in the area of epistemology, was no doubt a daunting task even for someone of the stature of Albert the Great. But the Condemnation of 1241 seemed to strike at the very principle that explained the operation of the agent intellect in Aristotle, thus rendering accommodation impossible. Or so it must have seemed. But the principle of the identity of subject and object in the act of intellection was crucial not only to Aristotle. It also played an important role in St Augustine’s doctrine of the “inner teacher” and the whole operation of illumination — an operation that not only brings the soul back to God through Christ, but also gives it an identity with Christ; and this identity has redemptive power — at least according to some theologians.

So the Condemnation not only struck at Aristotle, it also unintentionally struck at one of the pillars of orthodox medieval Christian theology — St Augustine. All of this left Albert with the question we have already enunciated, “How is it possible for the human soul to have a vision of God?” Of course, the Condemnation of 1241 was only concerned with the in patria vision of God. But Albert saw the greater implications. How can the human mind know God directly at any time, that is, at any stage of its career?

It is perhaps not unreasonable to begin an investigation into how Albert answers this question by seeing what he has to say, if anything, about the text of Peter Lombard that seems to have led to the Condemnation of 1241. Indeed, Albert does have something to say.

In his commentary on Lombard’s ‘Sentences’, he postulates the standard Aristotelian distinction of the human intellect into the possible intellect and the agent intellect. However, having made this distinction, he begins almost immediately to interpret it in terms of light.

The possible intellect, he tells us, is purely receptive of the light of truth while the agent intellect is the source of light. Also, he tells us that this aspect of the intellect produces a light (or perhaps simply is a light) that causes an abstraction of the form or forms in which the truth resides.

However, then he almost immediately tells us that “the light of the agent intellect is not strong enough by itself but needs to be directed by the light of the uncreated intellect […] and that light is the inner teacher”. So here we have, in virtually the same passage, Aristotelian terminology and the Augustinian doctrines of illumination and the inner teacher. But more importantly, we have an appeal to a metaphysics of light. And in working out this metaphysics and seeing how it grounds Albert’s epistemology, we shall come to understand his position on the visio mystica.

Fr James McEvoy, in his article titled ‘The Metaphysics of Light in the Middle Ages’, points out that medieval thinkers were given to study creation in terms of light because they knew that “God makes light, because he is light in his own nature.” This is a different view from that held by Thomas Aquinas, for example. He conceived of God as esse ipsum, not light. But when God is conceived as light a different metaphysics ensues and creatures must be understood in terms of this metaphysics.

As Fr McEvoy further points out, within this metaphysics the human soul must not be understood as passive in relation to its environment, but as active — “a source of radiation, which propagates and diffuses its activity; it is light.” The soul is light and part of a hierarchy of light.

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