Vanderkwaak (2023 Congress)

Matthew Vanderkwaak
(University College Dublin)

“Divine Instruments:
The Role of the Heavens in Albert the Great‘s Astrological Cosmos”

Abstract of Paper
presented at the 58th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2023)

Session on “Moving Parts and Pedagogy, Parts I–II”
Part II:  “Teaching Astrology and other Liberal Arts”

Organized by David Porreca

Co-Sponsored by the RGME and the Societas Magica

2023 Congress Program



In his commentary on the Liber de causis, the De causis et processu universitatis, Albert the Great (circa 1200 – 1280) establishes the metaphysical principles of an astrological cosmos. Albert’s interpretation of the Liber de causis (a metaphysical handbook from 9th-century Baghdad) works out a hierarchy of primary causes that he compares to the faculties of a cosmic artist: the first cause is like the agent intellect of an artist, separate intelligences like the dimensionless form the artist contemplates, celestial soul like the artist’s spirit mediating immaterial form to the artist’s body, and the heavens like the hand or instrument which the artist uses to shape the material.

This presentation examines the fourth of these primary causes, the heavens, which Albert calls “nature”. Albert’s interpretation of nature in the Liber de causis is one of the most distinctive aspects of his commentary. Most commentaries on the Liber de causis only recognize three primary causes — the first cause, intelligence, and noble soul — but Albert adds a fourth, nature or the heavens. Albert’s interpretation of nature depends on two 9th-century Arab authors: the Jewish Neoplatonist Isaac Israeli the Elder and the astrologer Mā Shā’ Allāh ibn Athari. As Albert synthesizes these two thinkers with the systematic theology of the Liber de causis, he develops the metaphysical underpinnings of an astrological cosmos in which the heavens are likened to a divine instrument that mediates the creative power of transcendent causes to the world of sensible experience.