Roger, b. c. 1220,, Ilchester, Somerset, or Bisley, Gloucester?, Eng.
d. 1292, Oxford? byname DOCTOR MIRABILIS (LATIN: "WONDERFUL TEACHER"),
English Franciscan philosopher and educational reformer who was a major
medieval proponent of experimental science.
Bacon studied mathematics,
astronomy, optics, alchemy, and languages. He was the first European
to describe in detail the process of making gunpowder, and he proposed
flying machines and motorized ships and carriages. Bacon (as he himself
complacently remarked) displayed a prodigious energy and zeal in the
pursuit of experimental science; indeed, his studies were talked about
everywhere and eventually won him a place in popular literature as a
kind of wonder worker.
represents a historically precocious expression of the empirical spirit
of experimental science, even though his actual practice of it seems
to have been exaggerated.
Bacon was born into
a wealthy family; he was well-versed in the classics and enjoyed the
advantages of an early training in geometry, arithmetic, music, and
Inasmuch as he later
lectured at Paris, it is probable that his master of arts degree was
conferred there, presumably not before 1241--a date in keeping with
his claim that he saw the Franciscan professor Alexander of Hales (who
died in 1245) with his own eyes and that he heard the master scholar
William of Auvergne (d. 1249) dispute twice in the presence of the whole
University and scientific
In the earlier part
of his career, Bacon lectured in the faculty of arts on Aristotelian
and pseudo-Aristotelian treatises, displaying no indication of his later
preoccupation with science.
His Paris lectures,
important in enabling scholars to form some idea of the work done by
one who was a pioneer in introducing the works of Aristotle into western
Europe, reveal an Aristotelianism strongly marked by Neoplatonist elements
stemming from many different sources. The influence of Avicenna on Bacon
has been exaggerated.
About 1247 a considerable
change took place in Bacon's intellectual development.
From that date forward
he expended much time and energy and huge sums of money in experimental
research, in acquiring "secret" books, in the construction
of instruments and of tables, in the training of assistants, and in
seeking the friendship of savants--activities that marked a definite
departure from the usual routine of the faculty of arts.
The change was probably
caused by his return to Oxford and the influence there of the great
scholar Robert Grosseteste, a leader in introducing Greek learning to
the West, and his student Adam de Marisco, as well as that of Thomas
Wallensis, the bishop of St. David's. From 1247 to 1257 Bacon devoted
himself wholeheartedly to the cultivation of those new branches of learning
to which he was introduced at Oxford--languages, optics, and alchemy--and
to further studies in astronomy and mathematics.
It is true that
Bacon was more skeptical of hearsay claims than were his contemporaries,
that he suspected rational deductions (holding to the superior dependability
of confirming experiences), and that he extolled experimentation so
ardently that he has often been viewed as a harbinger of modern science
more than 300 years before it came to bloom.
Yet research on
Bacon suggests that his characterization as an experimenter may be overwrought.
His originality lay not so much in any positive contribution to the
sum of knowledge as in his insistence on fruitful lines of research
and methods of experimental study. As for actual experiments performed,
he deferred to a certain Master Peter de Maricourt (Maharn-Curia), a
Picard, who alone, he wrote, understood the method of experiment and
whom he called dominus experimentorum ("master of experiments").
Bacon, to be sure,
did have a sort of laboratory for alchemical experiments and carried
out some systematic observations with lenses and mirrors. His studies
on the nature of light and on the rainbow are especially noteworthy,
and he seems to have planned and interpreted these experiments carefully.
But his most notable "experiments" seem never to have been
actually performed; they were merely described.
He suggested, for
example, that a balloon of thin copper sheet be made and filled with
"liquid fire"; he felt that it would float in the air as many
light objects do in water. He seriously studied the problem of flying
in a machine with flapping wings. He was the first person in the West
to give exact directions for making gunpowder (1242); and, though he
knew that, if confined, it would have great power and might be useful
in war, he failed to speculate further. (Its use in guns arose early
in the following century.)
spectacles (which also soon came into use); elucidated the principles
of reflection, refraction, and spherical aberration; and proposed mechanically
propelled ships and carriages. He used a camera obscura (which projects
an image through a pinhole) to observe eclipses of the Sun.
Career as a friar.
In 1257 another
marked change took place in Bacon's life. Because of ill health and
his entry into the Order of Friars Minor, Bacon felt (as he wrote) forgotten
by everyone and all but buried. His university and literary careers
His feverish activity,
his amazing credulity, his superstition, and his vocal contempt for
those not sharing his interests displeased his superiors in the order
and brought him under severe discipline. He decided to appeal to Pope
Clement IV, whom he may have known when the latter was (before his election
to the papacy) in the service of the Capetian kings of France. In a
letter (1266) the pope referred to letters received from Bacon, who
had come forward with certain proposals covering the natural world,
mathematics, languages, perspective, and astrology.
Bacon had argued
that a more accurate experimental knowledge of nature would be of great
value in confirming the Christian faith, and he felt that his proposals
would be of great importance for the welfare of the church and of the
universities. The pope desired to become more fully informed of these
projects and commanded Bacon to send him the work. But Bacon had had
in mind a vast encyclopaedia of all the known sciences, requiring many
collaborators, the organization and administration of which would be
coordinated by a papal institute.
The work, then,
was merely projected when the pope thought that it already existed.
In obedience to the pope's command, however, Bacon set to work and in
a remarkably short time had dispatched the Opus majus ("Great Work"),
the Opus minus ("Lesser Work"), and the Opus tertium ("Third
He had to do this
secretly and notwithstanding any command of his superiors to the contrary;
and even when the irregularity of his conduct attracted their attention
and the terrible weapons of spiritual coercion were brought to bear
upon him, he was deterred from explaining his position by the papal
command of secrecy. Under the circumstances, his achievement was truly
He reminded the
pope that, like the leaders of the schools with their commentaries and
scholarly summaries, he could have covered quires of vellum with "puerilities"
and vain speculations. Instead, he aspired to penetrate realms undreamed
of in the schools at Paris and to lay bare the secrets of nature by
positive study. The Opus majus was an effort to persuade the pope of
the urgent necessity and manifold utility of the reforms that he proposed.
But the death of
Clement in 1268 extinguished Bacon's dreams of gaining for the sciences
their rightful place in the curriculum of university studies.
yet another encyclopaedia, of which only fragments were ever published,
namely, the Communia naturalium ("General Principles of Natural
Philosophy") and the Communia mathematica ("General Principles
of Mathematical Science"), written about 1268.
In 1272 there appeared
the Compendium philosophiae ("Compendium of Philosophy").
In philosophy--and even Bacon's so-called scientific works contain lengthy
philosophical digressions--he was the disciple of Aristotle; even though
he did incorporate Neoplatonist elements into his philosophy, his thought
remains essentially Aristotelian in its main lines.
1277 and 1279, Bacon was condemned to prison by his fellow Franciscans
because of certain "suspected novelties" in his teaching.
was probably issued because of his bitter attacks on the theologians
and scholars of his day, his excessive credulity in alchemy and astrology,
and his penchant for millenarianism under the influence of the prophecies
of Abbot Joachim of Fiore, a mystical philosopher of history.
How long he was
imprisoned is unknown. His last work (1292), incomplete as so many others,
shows him as aggressive as ever.
For if any man who
never saw fire proved by satisfactory arguments that fire burns. His
hearer's mind would never be satisfied, nor would he avoid the fire
until he put his hand in it that he might learn by experiment what argument
aconclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, unless the minddiscovers
it by the path of experience.
The strongest argumentsprove
nothing so long as the conclusions are not verified by experience.Experimental
science is the queen of sciences and the goal of all speculation.
Argument is conclusive...
but ... it does not remove doubt, so that the mind may rest in thesure
knowledge of the truth, unless it finds it by the method of experiment....For
if any man who never saw fire proved by satisfactory arguments thatfire
burns ... his hearer’s mind would never be satisfied, nor wouldhe
avoid the fire until he put his hand in it ... that he might learnby
experiment what argument taught.
All science requiresmathematics.
The knowledge of mathematical things is almost innate inus.... This
is the easiest of sciences, a fact which is obvious in thatno one’s
brain rejects it; for laymen and people who are utterlyilliterate know
how to count and reckon.
For the things ofthis
world cannot be made known without a knowledge of mathematics.
In the mathematicsI
can report no deficience, except that it be that men do not sufficientlyunderstand
the excellent use of the pure mathematics, in that they doremedy and
cure many defects in the wit and faculties intellectual. Forif the wit
be too dull, they sharpen it; if too wandering, they fix it;if too inherent
in the sense, they abstract it. So that as tennis is agame of no use
in itself, but of great use in respect it maketh a quickeye and a body
ready to put itself into all postures; so in the mathematics,that use
which is collateral and intervenient is no less worthy than thatwhich
is principal and intended. It is the perennial youthfulness of mathematicsitself
which marks it off with a disconcerting immortality from the othersciences.
There are in factfour
very different stumbling blocks in the way of grasping the truth,which
hinder every man however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to wina
clear title to wisdom, namely, the example of weak and unworthy authority,longstanding
custom, the feeling of the ignorant crowd, and the hidingof our own
ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge.
Many secrets of
artand nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical.
Roger Bacon, also
known as Doctor Mirabilis(Latin: "astounding teacher"). b.
at Ilchester, Somersetshire,about 1214; d. at Oxford, perhaps 11 June,
1294. His wealthy parents sidedwith Henry III against the rebellious
barons, but lost nearly all theirproperty. It has been presumed that
Robert Bacon, O.P., was Roger's brother;more probably he was his uncle.
Within the esoteric
traditions, it is considered thatMaster
R, now theMahachohan, had previous incarnations as Roger Bacon and
later as the Count St. Germain. These incarnations wouldhave been strongly
influenced by the 7th Ray.
Publicly, we know
he was an English philosopher with occultand alchemical knowledge. He
was also an early advocate of the modernscientific method. He was well
acquainted with the philosophical and scientificinsights of the advances
made in the Arab world.
Bacon was a faithful
scholar of open character who franklyuttered what he thought, who was
not afraid to blame whatsoever and whomsoeverhe believed to deserve
censure, a scholar who was in advance of his ageby centuries. His iron
will surmounted all difficulties and enabled himto acquire a knowledge
so far surpassing the average science of his age,that he must be reckoned
among the most eminent scholars of all times.
Bacon is believed
to have been born near Ilchester inSomerset, though he has also been
claimed by Bisley in Gloucestershire.His date of birth is equally uncertain.
The only source is his statementin the Opus Tertium, written in 1267,
that forty years have passed sinceI first learned the alphabet. The
1214 birth date assumes he was not beingliteral, and meant 40 years
had passed since he matriculated at Oxfordat the age of 13. If he had
been literal, his birth date was more likelyaround 1220.
was originally well-off, but in the reignof Henry III of England their
property was despoiled and several membersof the family were driven
Roger Bacon studied
and became a Master at Oxford, lecturingon Aristotle. There is no evidence
he was ever awarded a doctorate - thetitle Doctor Mirabilis was posthumous
and figurative. He crossed overto France in 1241 to teach at the university
of Paris, then the centreof intellectual life in Europe.
The teaching of
Aristotle had until that time been forbiddenbecause Aristotle was not
a Christian, but was recently resumed. As anOxford Master, Bacon was
a natural choice for the post. He returned toOxford in 1247 and studied
intensively for many years, forgoing much ofsocial and academic life.
He is known to have ordered many expensive books(which were hand-copied
at the time) and various instruments. He laterbecame a Franciscan friar,
probably taking orders in 1253, after 10 yearsof study, which had left
him physically and mentally exhausted.
The two great orders,
Franciscans and Dominicans, werenot long-established, and had begun
to take the lead in theological discussion.Alexander of Hales led the
Franciscans, while the rival order rejoicedin Albertus Magnus and Thomas
Aquinas. Bacon's abilities were soon recognised,and he enjoyed the friendship
of eminent men. In the course of his teachingand research, he performed
and described various experiments.
He was a most commanding
intellect of his or perhapsany age and many discoveries. He was fluent
in several languages and lamentedthe corruption of the holy texts and
the works of the Greek philosophersby numerous mistranslations and misinterpretations.
In his writings, Baconcalls for a reform of theological study, with
less emphasis on minor philosophicaldistinctions and a greater focus
on the Bible itself, encouraging theologiansto thoroughly study the
languages of their original sources. He furtherurged theologians to
study the sciences closely and include them in normaluniversity curriculum.
training showed him defects in existingacademic debate. Aristotle and
biblical Scripture was known only throughpoor translations. Physical
science was not carried out by experiment,but arguments based on tradition.
Bacon withdrew from academia and devotedhimself to languages and experimental
In the Opus Minus
and Opus Tertium he pours forth a violenttirade against a professor,
and caused him to be received at Paris withapplause as the equal of
Aristotle, Avicenna, or Averroes. Bacon was alwaysan outspoken man who
stated what he believed to be true and attacked whomhe did not agree
with, which repeatedly caused him great trouble. In 1256a new head of
the scientific branch of the Franciscan order in Englandwas appointed
whom Bacon had strongly disagreed with. It was not longbefore Bacon
was transferred to a monastery in France where he had contactwith intellectual
peers in writing for about 10 years.
Upon the urging
of Pope Clement IV, Bacon complied andsent his work, the Opus Majus,
a treatise on the sciences (grammar, logic,mathematics, physics, and
philosophy)in 1267. It was followed in the sameyear by the Opus Minus,
a summary of the main thoughts from the firstwork. In 1268, he sent
a third work, the Opus Tertium to the pope. Whenthe Pope died Bacon
fell out of favor and was eventually imprisoned bythe Franciscan order
as his dissemination of arab alchemy and protestsagainst the ignorance
and immorality of the clergy roused accusationsof witchcraft. He was
imprisoned for over 10 years, until intercessionof English noblemen
secured his release. He rejected the blind followingof prior authorities,
both in theological and scientific study.
His "Opus Majus"
contains treatments of mathematicsand optics, alchemy, the manufacture
of gunpowder, the positions and sizesof the celestial bodies. Bacon
clearly studied astrology and believedthat celestial bodies had an influence
on humanity. It is in these treatises(and other works of the same kind)
that Bacon speaks of the reflectionof light, mirages, and burning- mirrors,
of the diameters of the celestialbodies and their distances from one
another, of their conjunction andeclipses; that he explains the laws
of ebb and flow, proves the Juliancalendar to be wrong; he explains
the composition and effects of gunpowder,discusses and affirms the possibility
of steam- vessels and aerostats,of microscopes and telescopes, and some
other inventions made many centurieslater. Specifically, he recognized
the visible spectrum in a glass ofwater, centuries before SirIsaac
Newton discovered that lenses could disassemble and reassemblewhite
The most important
of all his writings are the "OpusMajus", the "Opus Minus",
and the "Tertium".The "Opus Majus" deals in seven
parts with (1) the obstaclesto real wisdom and truth; (2) the relation
between theology and philosophy,in which he proves that all sciences
are founded on the sacred sciences,especially on Holy Scripture; (3)
the necessity of studying zealouslythe Biblical languages, as without
them it is impossible to gain the truemeaning; (4) mathematics and their
relation and application to the sacredsciences, particularly of Biblical
geography and of astronomy; (5) opticsor perspective; (6) the experimental
sciences; (7) moral philosophy orethics.
The aim of the "Opus
Tertium" is pointed outby Bacon himself: "As these reasons
[profoundness of truth and itsdifficulty] have induced me to compose
the Second Writing as a complementfacilitating the understanding of
the First Work, so on account of themI have written this Third Work
to give understanding and completenessto both works; for many things
are here added for the sake of wisdom whichare not found in the other
writings. Consequently this work, in the author'sopinionis the most
perfect of compositions sent to the pope. The realmisfortune is that
half of it is lost.
It is in these treatises
(and other works of the samekind) that Bacon speaks of the reflection
of light, mirages, and burning-mirrors, of the diameters of the celestial
bodies and their distancesfrom one another, of their conjunction and
eclipses; that he explainsthe laws of ebb and flow, proves the Julian
calendar to be wrong; he explainsthe composition and effects of gunpowder,
discusses and affirms the possibilityof steam- vessels and aerostats,
of microscopes and telescopes, and someother inventions made many centuries
have done him more justice in recognizinghis merits in the field of
natural science. JohnDee,
for instance, who addressed (1582) a memorial on the reformationof the
calendar to QueenElizabeth,
speaking of those who had advocated this change, says:"None hath
done it more earnestly, neither with better reason andskill, than hath
a subject of this British Sceptre Royal done, named assome think David
Dee of Radik, but otherwise and mostcommonly (upon his name
altered at the alteration of state into friarlyprofession) called Roger
Bacon, about the year of our Lord, 1267. Deethen remarks that Paul of
Middleburg, in "Paulina de recta Paschæcelebratione",
had made great use of Bacon's work: "His greatvolume is more than
half thereof written (though not acknowledged) bysuch order and method
generally and particularly as our Roger Bacon laidout for the handling
of the matter"
He openly exposes
the "sins" of his time inthe study of theology, which are
seven. Though this part has been lost,we can reconstruct his arrangement
with the aid of the "Opus Minus"and "Opus Tertium".
The first sin is the preponderanceof (speculative)
philosophy. Theology is a Divine science, hence it mustbe based on Divine
principles and treat questions touching Divinity, andnot exhaust itself
in philosophical cavils and distinctions. Thesecond sin is
ignorance of the sciences necessary to theologians.A third sin
is the defective knowledge of even the foursciences which are cultivated.
A fourth sin is the preferencefor the "Liber Sententiarum"
and the disregard of other theologicalmatters, especially Holy Scriptures.
A fifth sin is thatthe text of Holy Writ is horribly
corrupted, especially in the "exemplarParisiense", that is
to say the Biblical text used at the Universityof Paris and spread by
its students over the whole world. Thesixth and worst
all sins is the consequence of the foregoing:the falsity or doubtfulness
of the literal sense and consequently of thespiritual meaning. The
seventh sin is the radically falsemethod of preaching, indulging
in the jingle of words and quibbles. Theyare even ignorant of the rules
Many writers of
earlier times have been attracted to RogerBacon as the epitome of a
wise and subtle possessor of forbidden knowledge,similar to Faustus.
A succession of legends and unverifiable stories havegrown up about
him. The writings attributed to Bacon by some authors amountto about
eighty; many are spurious, while many are only treatises republishedseparately
under new titles. Other writings or parts of writings certainlycomposed
by him were put in circulation under the name of other scholars,and
his claim to their authorship can be established only from internalreasons
of style and doctrine. Other treatises lie in the dust of Europeanlibraries,
especially of England, France, and Italy.
He planned to publish
a comprehensive encyclopedia, butonly fragments ever appeared. If we
may conclude from some of his expressionswe can reconstruct the plan
of this grand encyclopædia: it was conceivedas comprising four
volumes, the first of which was to deal with grammar(of the several
languages he speaks of) and logic; the second with mathematics(arithmetic
and geometry), astronomy, and music; the third with naturalsciences,
perspective, astrology, the laws of gravity, alchemy, agriculture,medicine,
and the experimental sciences; the fourth with metaphysics andmoral
But far from being
an idle fault-finder who only demolishedwithout being able to build
up, Bacon makes proposals extremely fit andefficacious, the only failure
of which was that they were never put intogeneral practice, by reason
of the premature death of the pope. Baconhimself and his pupils, such
as John of Paris, whom he praises highly,William of Mara, Gerard Huy,
and others are a striking argument that hisproposals were no Utopian
fancies: they showed in their own persons whatin their idea a theologian
It would be difficult
to find any other scholar who showssuch a profound knowledge of the
Arabic philosophers as Bacon does. Hereappears the aim of his philosophical
works, to make Christian philosophyacquainted with the Arabic philosophers.
He is an enemy only of the extravagancesof Scholasticism, the subtleties
and fruitless quarrels, to the neglectof matters much more useful or
necessary and the exaltation of philosophyover theology. Far from being
hostile to true philosophy, he bestows alavish praise on it. None could
delineate more clearly and convincinglythan he, what ought to be the
relation between theology and philosophy,what profit they yield and
what services they render to each other, howtrue philosophy is the best
apology of Christian faith.
His writings are
wonderful and evincing by their trainof thought and the drawings inserted
here and there such a knowledge ofthe subject matter, that we can easily
understand modern scholars sayingthat Bacon was born out of due time,
or, with regard to the asserted imprisonment,that he belonged to that
class of men who were crushed by the wheel oftheir time as they endeavoured
to set it going more quickly.