Though Albert taught him philosophy and theology in Paris and Cologne for the first seven years of his Dominican life, we recognize Thomas as more perceptive, more comprehensive, and more influential than his master in the Church’s intellectual heritage. St. Thomas Aquinas surpassed St. Albert the Great, and this is Albert’s great virtue.
University professors are a peculiar species. Though they have all the same virtues and vices as the rest of humanity, it is the special temptation of the professional intellectual to perpetuate himself by making students into his carbon copies, loyal disciples of his school of thought.
At the beginning, a student must be receptive and humble as the professor imparts his knowledge with drill and discipline. Learning a foreign language is like this. The vocabulary flash cards, the conjugation charts, the declensions, the parts of speech, and so forth are all quite necessary at the beginning. However, as the student advances, he becomes a master of the material himself, even to the point of possessing the ability to create something not seen before, something the professor hasn’t thought of.
There are at least three different reactions that the professor could have at this point: envy, suspicion of intellectual treason, or pride (the good sort) in the accomplishment of his student. The professor could resent the student for doing something beyond the professor’s own capacity. If the subject studied is prone to partisanship, the student’s divergent scholarly opinion could be construed by the professor as an intellectual betrayal, heresy, or high treason. Or the professor, if he be humble, could acknowledge that the student has surpassed him and made a real contribution to the field.
When the professor gives in to one of the first two reactions, the splendor of truth is obscured. There is a narrowing effect that damages the particular academic discipline, the professor, but above all the student. The student is treated as a rival ideologue and a simple partisan rather than a companion in the pursuit of truth, a pursuit which aims higher than group consensus and the conformity of a younger mind to an older one. Instead, study ought to be the arena in which we strive “for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:15).
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This line is found in the letters of Isaac Newton and probably originated with Bernard of Chartres. Albert gave himself totally in Thomas’ education, everything he had intellectually, that Thomas might stand on his shoulders. Thomas took what he received further, deeper, and higher. Thomas could see truth more clearly on the horizon because he was standing on Albert’s shoulders. And we now hope to stand on the shoulders of both of them and many others in between. The Catholic philosophical and theological tradition is indebted to the Patriarchs, the Prophets, the Evangelists, the Fathers, the medievals, and even (some of) the moderns.
The student, of course, has to prove himself. He must pass through the narrow gate of study that he may creatively serve the truth with love rather than become a slave of academic recognition. What Jesus says to the apostles in John 14 could be on the lips of every teacher speaking of that zealous student in his class: “greater works than these will he do.” And when those two rare creatures meet, the professor detached from his own reputation and the student boldly in love with the truth, great works are written, false systems of thought are obliterated, truth is made visible, and the rest of us see the beauty of that truth evermore clearly.
St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church, pray for us.