1902 Encyclopedia > Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon
English philosopher and Franciscan friar
(c. 1214–1294)

ROGER BACON. The 13th century, an age peculiarly Roger, rich in great men, produced few, if any, who can take higher rank than Roger Bacon. He is in every way worthy to be placed beside such thinkers as Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, and Thomas Aquinas. These had an infinitely wider renown in their day, while he was ignored by his contemporaries and neglected by his successors; but modern criticism has restored the balance in his favour, and is even in danger of going equally far in the opposite direction. Bacon, it is now said, was not appreciated by his age because he was so completely in advance of it; he is a 16th or 17th century philosopher, whose lot has been by some accident cast in the 13th century; he Roger, is no schoolman, but a modern thinker, whose conceptions of science are more just and clear than are even those of his more celebrated namesake. In this view there is certainly a considerable share of truth, but it is much exaggerated. As a general rule, no man can be completely dissevered from his national antecedents and surroundings, and Bacon is not an exception. Those who take up such an extreme position regarding his merits have known too little of the state of contemporary science, and have limited their comparison to the works of the scholastic theologians. We never find in Bacon himself any consciousness of originality; he has no fresh creative thought or method to introduce whereby the face of science may be changed; he is rather a keen and systematic thinker, who is working in a well-beaten track, from which his contemporaries were being drawn by the superior attractions of theology and metaphysics.

Roger Bacon was born in 1214, near Ilchester, in Somersetshire. His family appears to have been in good circumstances, for he speaks of his brother as wealthy, and he himself expended considerable sums on books and instruments; but in the stormy reign of Henry III. they suffered severely, their property was despoiled, and several members of the family were driven into exile. Roger completed his studies at Oxford, though not, as current traditions assert, at Merton or at Brazenose, neither of those colleges having then been founded. His great abilities were speedily recognised by his contemporaries, and he came to be on terms of close intimacy with some of the most independent thinkers of the time. Of these the most prominent were Adam de Marisco and Robert Grosseteste (Oapito), afterwards bishop of Lincoln, a man of liberal mind and wide attainments, who had especially devoted himself to mathematics and experimental science.

Very little is known of Bacon's life at Oxford; it is said he took orders in 1233, and this is not improbable. In the following year, or perhaps later, he crossed over to France, and studied for a considerable length of time at the university of Paris, then the centre of intellectual life in Europe. The years Bacon spent there were unusually stirring. The two great orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, were in the vigour of youth, and had already begun to take the lead in theological discussion. Alexander of Hales, the author of the great Summa, was the oracle of the Franciscans, while the rival order rejoiced in Albertus Magnus, and in the rising genius of the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas.

The scientific training which Bacon had received, partly by instruction, but more from the study of the Arab writers, made patent to his eyes the manifold defects in the imposing systems reared by these doctors. It disgusted him to hear from all around him that philosophy was now at length complete, that it had been reduced into compact order, and was being set forth by a certain professor at Paris. Even the great authority on which they reposed, Aristotle, was known but in part, and that part was rendered well-nigh unintelligible through the vileness of the translations; yet not one of those professors would learn Greek so that they might arrive at a real knowledge of their philosopher. The Scriptures, if read at all in the schools, were read in the erroneous versions; but even these were being deserted for the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Physical science, if there was anything deserving that name, was cultivated, not by experiment in the true Aristotelian way, but by discussion and by arguments deduced from premises resting on authority or custom. Everywhere there was a show of knowledge covering and con cealing fundamental ignorance. Bacon, accordingly, who knew what true science was, and who had glimpses of a scientific urganon or method, withdrew from the usual scholastic routine, and devoted himself to languages and experimental researches. Among all the instructors with whom he came in contact in Paris, only one gained his esteem and respect ; this was an unknown individual, Petrus de Maharncuria Picardus, or of Picardy, probably identical with a certain mathematician, Petrus Peregrinus of Picardy, who is perhaps the author of a MS. treatise, DeMagnete, contained in the Bibliothèque Impériale at Paris. The contrast between the obscurity of such a man and the fame enjoyed by the fluent young doctors of the schools seems to have roused Bacon's indignation. In the Opus Minus and Opus Tertium he pours forth a violent tirade against Alexander of Hales, and against another professor, not mentioned by name, but spoken of as alive, and blamed even more severely than Alexander. This anonymous writer, he says, who entered the order when young (puerulus), who had received no proper or systematic instruction in science or philosophy, for he was the first in his order to teach such subjects, acquired his learning by teaching others, and adopted a dogmatic tone, which has caused him to be received at Paris with applause as the equal of Aristotle, Avicenna, or Averroes. He has corrupted philosophy more than any other; he knows nothing of optics or perspective, and yet has presumed to write de naturalibus; he is ignorant of speculative alchemy, which treats of the origin and generation of things ; he, indeed, is a man of infinite industry, who has read and observed much, but all his study is wasted because he is ignorant of the true foundation and method of science.*

It is probable that Bacon, during his stay in Paris, acquired considerable renown. He took the degree of doctor of theology, and seems to have received from his contemporaries the complimentary title of doctor mirabilis. In 1250 he was again at Oxford, and probably about this time, though the exact date cannot be fixed, he entered the Franciscan order. His fame spread very rapidly at Oxford, though it was mingled with suspicions of his dealings in magic and the black arts, and with some doubts of his orthodoxy. About 1257, Bonaventura, general of the order, interdicted his lectures at Oxford, and commanded him to leave that town and place himself under the superintendence of the body at Paris. Here for ten years he remained under constant supervision, suffering great privations, and strictly prohibited from writing anything which might be published. But during the time he had been at Oxford his fame had reached the ears of the Papal legate in England, Guy de Foulques, a man of culture and scientific tastes, who in 1265 was raised to the papal chair as Clement IV. In the following year he wrote to Bacon, who had been already in communication with him, ordering him, notwithstanding any injunctions from his superiors, to write out and send to him a treatise on the sciences which he had already asked of him when papal legate. Bacon, who in despair of being ever able to communicate his results to the world, had neglected to compose anything, and whose previous writings had been mostly scattered tracts, capitula qucedam, took fresh courage from this command of the Pope. Belying on his powerful protection, he set at naught the many obstacles thrown in his way by the jealousy of his superiors and brother friars, and despite the want of funds, instruments, materials for copying, and skilled copyists, completed in about eighteen months three large treatises, the Opus Majus, Opus Minus, and Opus Tertium, which, with some other tracts, were despatched to the Pope by the hands of one Joannes, a young man trained and educated with great care by Bacon himself.

The composition of such extensive works in so short a time is a marvellous feat. We do not know what opinion Clement formed of them, but before his death he seems to have bestirred himself on Bacon's behalf, for in 1268 the latter was released and permitted to return to Oxford. Here he continued his labours in experimental science, and also in the composition of complete treatises. The works sent to Clement he regarded as mere preliminaries, laying down principles which were afterwards to be applied to the several sciences. The first part of an encyclopaedic work probably remains to us in the Compendium Studii Philosophic, belonging to the year 1271. In this work Bacon makes a vehement attack upon the ignorance and vices of the clergy and monks, and generally upon the insufficiency of the existing studies. In 1278 he underwent the punishment which seems to have then been the natural consequence of outspoken opinions. His books were condemned by Jerome de Ascoli, general of the Franciscans, a gloomy bigot, who afterwards became Pope, and the unfortunate philosopher was thrown into prison, where he remained for fourteen years. During this time, it is said, he wrote the small tract De Retardandis Senectutis Accidentibus, but this is. merely a tradition. In 1292, as appears from what is probably his latest composition, the Compendium Studii Theologian, he was again at liberty. The exact time of his death cannot be determined; 1294 is probably as accurate a date as can be fixed upon.

Bacon's Works.—Leland has said that it is easier to collect the leaves of the Sibyl than the titles of the works written by Boger Bacon; and though the labour has been somewhat lightened by the publications of Brewer and Charles, referred to below, it is no easy matter even now to form an accurate idea of his actual productions. His writings, so far as known to us, may be divided into two classes, those yet in manuscript and those printed. An enormous number of MSS. are known to exist in British and French libraries, and probably all have not yet been discovered. Many are transcripts of works or portions of works already published, and therefore require no notice. Of the others, several are of first-rate value for the comprehension of Bacon's philosophy, and, though extracts from them have been given by Charles, it is clear that till they have found an editor, no representation of his philosophy can be complete.

The works hitherto printed (neglecting reprints) are the following :—(1.) Speculum Alchimios, 1541—translated into English, 159?; (2.) Be Mirabili Potestate Artis et
Naturae, 1542—English translation, 1659; (3.) Libellusde Roger. Retardandis Senectutis Accidentibus, 1590—translated as the "Cure of Old Age," 1683; (4.) Sanioris Medicince Magistri B. Rogeri Baconis Anglici de Arte Chymice Scripta, 1603—a collection of small tracts containing Excerpta de Libro Avicennos de Anima, Breve Breviarium, Verbum Abbreviatum, Secretum Secretorum, Tractatus Trium Verborum, and Speculum Secretorum; (5.) Perspectiva, 1614, which is the fifth part of the Opus Majus; (6.) Specula Mathematica, which is the fourth part of the same; (7.) Opus Majus ad Clementem IV., edited by Jebb, 1733; (8.) Opera hactenus Inedita, by J. S. Brewer, 1859, containing the Opus Tertium, Opus Minus, Compendium Studii Philosophic, and the De Secretis Operibus Natures.

How these works stand related to one another can only be determined by internal evidence, and this is a somewhat hazardous method. The smaller works, which are chiefly on alchemy, are unimportant, and the dates of their composition cannot be ascertained. It is known that before the Opus Majus Bacon had already written some tracts, among which an unpublished work, Computus Naturalium, on chronology, belongs probably to the year 1263 ; while, if the dedication of the De Secretis Operibus be authentic, that short treatise must have been composed before 1249.

It is, however, with the Opus Majus that Bacon's real activity begins. That great work, which has been called by Whewell at once the Encyclopaedia and the Organum of the 13th century, requires a much fuller notice than can here be given. As published by Jebb it consists of six parts; there should, however, be a seventh, De Morali Philosophia, frequently referred to in the Opus Tertium. Part I. (pp. 1-22), which is sometimes designated De Utilitate Scientiarum, treats of the four qfendicula, or causes of error. These are, authority, custom, the opinion of the unskilled many, and the concealment of real ignorance with show or pretence of knowledge. The last error is the most dangerous, and is, in a sense, the cause of all the others. The offendicula have sometimes been looked upon as an anticipation of the more celebrated doctrine of Idola ; the two classifications, however, have little in common. In the summary of this part, contained in the Opus Tertium, Bacon shows very clearly his perception of the unity of science, and the necessity of an encyclopaedical treatment. " Nam omnes scientise sunt annexae, et mutuis se fovent auxiliis, sicut partes ejusdem totius, quarum quaslibet opus suum peragit, non solum propter se, sed pro aliis."—(Op. Ined., p. 18.)

Part II. (pp. 23-43) treats of the relation between philosophy and theology. All true wisdom is contained in the Scriptures, at least implicitly; and the true end of philosophy is to rise from the imperfect knowledge of created things to a knowledge of the Creator. Ancient philosophers, who had not the Scriptures, received direct illumination from God, and only thus can the brilliant results attained by them be accounted for.

Part III. (pp. 44-57) treats of the utility of grammar, and the necessity of a true linguistic science for the ade-quate comprehension either of the Scriptures or of books on philosophy. The necessity of accurate acquaintance with any foreign language, and of obtaining good texts, is a subject Bacon is never weary of descanting upon. He lays down very clearly the requisites of a good translator; he should know thoroughly the language he is translating
from, the language into which he is translating, and the subject of which the book treats.

Part IV. (57-255) contains an elaborate treatise on mathematics, " the alphabet of philosophy," and on its importance in science and theology. Bacon shows at great length that all the sciences rest ultimately on mathematics, and progress only when their facts can be subsumed under mathematical principles. This singularly fruitful thought he exemplifies and illustrates by showing how geometry is applied to the action of natural bodies, and demonstrating by geometrical figures certain laws of physical forces. He also shows how his method may be used to determine some curious and long-discussed problems, such as the light of the stars, the ebb and flow of the tide, the motion of the balance. He then proceeds to adduce elaborate and sometimes slightly grotesque reasons tending to prove that mathematical knowledge is essential in theology, and closes this section of his work with two comprehensive sketches of geography and astronomy. That on geography is particularly good, and is interesting as having been read by Columbus, who lighted on it in Petrus de Alliaco's Imago Mundi, and was strongly influenced by its reasoning.

Part V. (pp. 256-357) treats of perspective. This was the part of his work on which Bacon most prided himself, and in it, we may add, he seems to owe most to the Arab writers Alkindi and Alhazen. The treatise opens with an able sketch of psychology, founded upon, but in some important respects varying from, Aristotle's De Anima. The anatomy of the eye is next described; this is done well and evidently at first hand, though the functions of the parts are not given with complete accuracy. Many other points of physiological optics are touched on, in general erroneously. Bacon then discusses very fully vision in a right line, the laws of reflection and refraction, and the construction of mirrors and lenses. In this part of the work, as in the preceding, his reasoning depends essentially upon his peculiar view of natural agents and their activities. His fundamental physical maxims are matter and force; the latter he calls virtus, species, imago agentis, and by numberless other names. Change, or any natural phenomenon, is produced by the impression of a virtus or species on matter—the result being the thing known. Physical action is, therefore, impression, or transmission of force in lines, and must accordingly be explained geometrically. This view of nature Bacon considered fundamental, and it lies, indeed, at the root of his whole philosophy. To the short notices of it given in the 4th and 5th parts of the Opus Majus, he subjoined two, or perhaps three, extended accounts of it. We possess at least one of these in the tract De Multiplication Specierum, printed as part of the Opus Majus by Jebb (pp. 358-444). We cannot do more than refer to Charles for discussions as to how this theory of nature is connected with the metaphysical problems of force and matter, with the logical doctrine of universals, and in general with Bacon's theory of knowledge.

Part VI (pp. 445-477) treats of experimental science, " domina omnium scientiarum." There are two methods of knowledge : the one by argument, the other by experience. Mere argument is never sufficient; it may decide a question, but gives no satisfaction or certainty to the mind, which can only be convinced by immediate inspection or intuition. Now this is what experience gives. But experience is of two sorts, external and internal; the first is that usually called experiment, but it can give no complete knowledge even of corporeal things, much less of spiritual On the other hand, in inner experience the mind is illuminated by the divine truth, and of this supernatural enlightenment there are seven grades.

Experimental science, which in the Opus Tertium (p. 46) is distinguished from the speculative sciences and the operative arts in a way that forcibly reminds us of Francis Bacon, is said to have three great prerogatives over all other sciences :—(1.) It verifies their conclusions by direct experiment; (2.) It discovers truths which they could never reach; (3.) It investigates the secrets of nature, and opens to us a knowledge of past and future. As an instance of his method, Bacon gives an investigation into the nature and cause of the rainbow, which is really a very fine specimen of inductive research.

The seventh part of the Opus Majus, not given in Jebb's edition, is noticed at considerable length in the Opus Tertium (cap. xiv.) Extracts from it are given by Charles, (pp. 339-348).
As has been seen, Bacon had no sooner finished this elaborate work than he began to prepare a summary to be sent along with it. Of this summary, or Opus Minus, part has come down and is published in Brewer's Op. Ined. (313-389), from what appears to be the only MS. The work was intended to contain an abstract of the Opus Majus, an account of the principal vices of theology, and treatises on speculative and practical alchemy. At the same time, or immediately after, Bacon began a third work as a preamble to the other two, giving their general scope and aim, but supplementing them in many points. The part of this work, generally called Opus Tertium, is printed by Brewer (pp. 1-310), who considers it to be a complete treatise. Charles, however, has given good grounds for supposing that it is merely a preface, and that the work went on to discuss grammar, logic (which Bacon thought of little service, as reasoning was innate), mathematics, general physics, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. He founds his argument mainly on passages in the Communia Naturalium, which indeed prove distinctly that it was sent to Clement, and cannot, therefore, form part of the Compendium, as Brewer seems to think. It must be confessed, however, that nothing can well be more confusing than the references in Bacon's works, and it seems well-nigh hopeless to attempt a complete arrangement of them until the texts have been collated and carefully printed.

All these large works Bacon appears to have looked on as preliminaries, introductions, leading to a great work which should embrace the principles of all the sciences. This great work, which is perhaps the frequently referred to Liber Sex Scientiarum, he began, and a few fragments still indicate its outline. First appears to have come the treatise now called Compendium Studii Philosophic (Brewer, pp. 393-519),containing an account of the causes of error, and then entering at length upon grammar. After that, apparently, logic was to be treated; then, possibly, mathematics and physics; then speculative alchemy and experimental science. It is, however, very difficult, in the present state of our knowledge of the MSS., to hazard even conjectures as to the contents and nature of this last and most comprehensive work.

Bacon's fame in popular estimation has always rested on his mechanical discoveries, Careful research has shown that very little in this department can with accuracy be ascribed to him. He certainly describes a method of constructing a telescope, but not so as to lead one to conclude that he was in possession of that instrument. Gunpowder, the invention of which has been claimed for him on the ground of a passage in his works, which fairly interpreted at once disposes of any such claim, was already known to the Arabs. Burning-glasses were in common use, and spectacles it does not appear he made, although he was probably acquainted with the principle of their construction. His wonderful predictions (in the De Secretis^ must be taken cum grano salis; and it is not to be forgotten that he believed in astrology, in the doctrine of signatures, and in the philosopher's stone, and knew that the circle had been squared.

The best work on Roger Bacon is undoubtedly that of E. Charles, Roger Bacon, sa Vie, ses Ouvrages, ses Doctrines à"après des textes inédits, 1861. Against the somewhat enthusiastic estimate and modern interpretation given in this work, Schneider in his Roger Bacon, Eine Monographie, Augsburg, 1873, has reclaimed. He points out very clearly certain aspects in which Bacon appears as a mere scholastic. The new matter contained in the publications of Charles and Brewer as summarised by H. Siebert, Roger Bacon : Inaugural Dissertation, Marburg, 1861. Cf. also, J. K. Ingram, On the Opus Majus of Bacon, Dublin, 1858 ; Cousin, Fragments, Phil, du Moyen Age (reprinted from Journal des Savans, 1848) ; Saisset, Précurseurs et Disciples de Descartes, pp. 1-58 (reprinted from Revue de Deux Mondes, 1861); Prantl, Gesch. der Logik, iii. 120-129 (a severe criticism of Bacon's logical doctrines). (R. AD.)


219-1 See Dühring, Kritische Ges. d. Phil, 192, 249-51

219-2 It is difficult to identify this unknown professor. Brewer thinks the reference is to Richard of Cornwall ; but the little we know of Richard is not in harmony with what is said here, nor with the terms in which he is elsewhere spoken of by Bacon. Erdmann conjectures Thomas Aquinas, which is extremely improbable, as Thomas was unquestionably not the first of his order to study philosophy. Cousin and Charles think that Albertus Magnus is aimed at, and certainly much of what is said applies with peculiar force to him. But some things do not at all cohere with what is otherwise known of Albert. The unknown is said to have received no regular philosophic training ; we know that Albert did. The unknown entered the order when very young ; unless the received date of Albert's birth be false, he did not enter till nearly twenty-eight years of age. Albert, too, could not be said with justice to be utterly ignorant of alchemy, and his mechanical inventions are well known. It is worth pointing out that Brewer, in transcribing the passage bearing on this (Op. Ined. p. 327), has the words Fratrwm puerulus, which in his marginal note he interprets as applying to the Franciscan order. In this case, of course, Albert could not be the person referred to, as he was a Dominican. But Charles, in his transcription, entirely omits the important word Fratrum. There are other instances in which Brewer and Charles do not agree, e.g., according to Brewer, Bacon speaks of Thomas and Albert as pueri duorum ordinum ; according to Charles, he says, primi duorum ordinum ; a discrepancy not unimportant.

220-1 The more important MSS. are:-- (1.) The extensive work on the fundamental portions of physics, called Communia Naturalium, which is found in the Mazarin Library at Paris, in the British Museum, and in the Bodleian and University Libraries at Oxford; (2.) On the fundamental notions of mathematics, De Communibus Mathematicae, part of which is in the Sloane collection, part in the Bodleian; (3.) Baconis Physica, contained among the additional MSS. in the British Museum; (4.) The fragment called Quinta Pars Compendii Theologiae, in the Brit. Mus.; (5.) the Metaphysica, in the Biblioth. Impér. at Paris; (6.) The Compendium Studii Theologiae, in the Brit. Mus.; (7.) The logical fragments, such as the Summa Dialectices, in the Bodleian, and the glosses upon Aristotle's physics and metaphysics in the library at Amiens.

220-2 At the close of Verb. Abbrev. is a curious note, concluding with the words, "ipse Rogerus fuit discipulus fratris Alberti!"

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