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Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon (1214-1294), also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin: "wonderful teacher"), was an English philosopher who placed considerable emphasis on empiricism, and is thought of as one of the earliest advocates of the modern scientific method.

Bacon was born near Ilchester[?] in Somerset. His family appears to have been well-off, but, during the stormy reign of Henry III of England, their property was despoiled and several members of the family were driven into exile.

Roger Bacon studied at Oxford, lectured on Aristotle and later became a Franciscan friar and a professor at Oxford. He probably took orders in 1233, and crossed over to France to study at the university of Paris, then the centre of intellectual life in Europe. The two great orders, Franciscans and Dominicans, were not long-established, and had begun to take the lead in theological discussion. Alexander of Hales led the Franciscans, while the rival order rejoiced in Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Bacon's abilities were soon recognised, and he enjoyed the friendship of such eminent men as Adam de Marisco[?] and Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln. In the course of his teaching and research, he performed and described various experiments.

The scientific training Bacon had received, mainly from the study of the Arab writers, showed him the defects in existing academic debate. Aristotle was known only through poor translations; none of the professors would learn Greek. The same was true of Scripture. Physical science was not carried out by experiment in the Aristotelian way, but by arguments based on tradition. Bacon withdrew from the scholastic routine and devoted himself to languages and experimental research. The only teacher whom he respected was a certain Petrus de Maharncuria Picardus[?], or "of Picardie", probably identical with a certain mathematician, Petrus Peregrinus of Picardie[?], who is perhaps the author of a MS. treatise, De Magnete, contained in the Bibliotheque Imperiale at Paris. The contrast between the obscurity of such a man and the fame enjoyed by the fluent young doctors roused Bacon's indignation. In the Opus Minus and Opus Tertium he pours forth a violent tirade against Alexander of Hales, and another professor, who, he says, acquired his learning by teaching others, and adopted a dogmatic tone, which caused him to be received at Paris with applause as the equal of Aristotle, Avicenna, or Averroes.

Bacon met the Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques[?], who became interested in his ideas and asked him to produce a comprehensive treatise. Bacon, being constrained by a rule of the Franciscan order against publishing works out of the order without special permission, initially hesitated. The cardinal became Pope Clement IV and urged Bacon to ignore the prohibition and write the book in secret. Bacon complied and sent his work, the Opus Majus, to the pope in 1267. It was followed in the same year by the Opus Minus, a summary of the main thoughts from the first work. In 1268, he sent a third work, the Opus Tertium to the pope, who died the same year. Bacon fell out of favor, and was in fact later imprisoned by the Franciscan order, presumably because of some of his controversial teachings and aggressive style.

In his writings, Bacon calls for a reform of theological study. Less emphasis should be placed on minor philosophical distinctions as in scholasticism, but instead the bible itself should return to the center of attention and theologians should thoroughly study the languages in which their original sources were composed. He was fluent in several languages and lamented the corruption of the holy texts and the works of the Greek philosophers by numerous mistranslations and misinterpretations. Furthermore, he urged all theologians to study all sciences closely, and to add them to the normal university curriculum.

He rejected the blind following of prior authorities, both in theological and scientific study. His Opus Majus contains treatments of mathematics and optics, alchemy and the manufacture of gunpowder, the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies[?], and anticipates later inventions such as microscopes, telescopes, spectacles, flying machines and steam ships. Bacon studied astrology and believed that the celestial bodies had an influence on the fate and mind of humans. He also wrote a criticism of the Julian calendar which was then still in use.

He was intimately acquainted with the philosophical and scientific insights of the Arabic world, which was the most advanced civilization at the time. He was an enthusiastic proponent and practician of the experimental method of acquiring knowledge about the world. He planned to publish a comprehensive encyclopedia, but only fragments ever appeared.


The following was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. As such, it may not yet be properly adapted to Wikipedia (obsolete, typos, no accidental links, etc.). It is included as a stub of sorts to inspire you to fix these problems and modify it:

Bacon, during his stay in Paris, acquired considerable renown. He took the degree of doctor of theology, and seems to have received the complimentary title of doctor mirabilis. In 1250 he was again at Oxford, and probably ,about this time entered the Franciscan order. His fame spread at Oxford, though it was mingled with suspicions of his dealings in 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 place himself under the superintendence of the body at Paris. Here for ten years he remained under supervision, suffering great privations and strictly prohibited from writing anything for publication. But his fame had reached the ears of the papal legate in England, Guy de Foulques, who in 1265 became pope as Clement IV. In the following year he wrote to Bacon, 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, whose previous writings had been mostly scattered tracts, capitula quaedam, took fresh courage from this command of the pope. He set at naught 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. 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 permitted to retfjin 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 preliminaries, laying down principles which were afterwards to be applied tn the sciences, The first part of an encyclopaedic work probably remains to us in the Compendium Studii Philosophiae (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 his books were condemned by Jerome de Ascoli, general of the Franciscans, afterwards Pope Nicholas IV., and he himself was thrown into prison 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 Theologiae, 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.

Works and Editions.—Leland said that it is easier to collect the leaves of the Sibyl than the titles of the works written by Roger 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. An enormous number of MSS. are known to exist in British and French libraries, and probably Brewer thinks this unknown professor is Richard of Cornwall, but the little we know of Richard is not in harmony 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. It is worth pointing out that Brewer, in transcribing the passage bearing on this (Op. med. p. 327), has the words fratrum puerutus, 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 fratrun. not all have yet been discovered. Many are transcripts of works or portions of works already published and, therefore, require no notice.

The works hitherto printed (neglecting reprints) are the following

  • (1) Speculum Alchimiae (1541)—translated into English (1597); French, A Poisson (1890);
  • (2) De Mirab-ili Fotestate Artis et Naturae (1542)—English translation (1659);
  • (3) L'ibellus de Retard andis Senectutis Accidentibus (1590)— translated as the “ Cure of Old Age,” by Richard Brown (London, 1683);
  • (4) Sanioris Medicinae Magistri D. Rogeri Baconis Anglici, de Arte Chymiae Scripta (Frankfort, 1603)—a collection, of small tracts containing Excerpta de Libro Avicennae de Anima, Breve Breviarium, Verbum Abbreviatum,' Secretum Secrelorum, Tract at us 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 S. Jebb (I733) and J. H. Bridges (London, 1897);
  • (8) OPerci hactenus Inedita, by J. S. Brewer (1859), containing the Opus Tertium, Opus Minus, Compendium Studii Philosophiae and the Dc Secretis Operibus Naturae;
  • (9) Dc Morali Philosop/iia (Dublin, 1860, see below);
  • (10) The Greek Grammar of R. Bacon and a Fragment of his Hebrew Grammar, edited with introduction and notes by E. S. Nolan and S. A. Hirsch (1902);
  • (11) Metaphysica Fratris Rogeri, edited by R. Steele, with a preface (1905); * (12) Opera hactenus inedita, by Robert Steele (1905).

How these works stand related to one another can only be determined by internal evidence. The smaller works, 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. It has been called by Whewell at once the Encyclopaedia and the Organum of the i3th century.

Part I. (pp. 1—2 2), which is sometimes designated De Utilitate Scientiarum, treats of the four off endicula, or causes of error. These are, authority, custom, the opinion of the unskilled many, and the concealment of real ignorance with pretence of knowledge. The last error is the most dangerous, and is, in a sense, the cause of all the others. The off endicula have sometimes been looked upon as an anticipation of Francis Bacon's Idola, but the two classifications 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 encyclopaedic treatment.

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 adequate comprehension either of the Scriptures or of books on philosophy.

1 The more important MSS. are:—

  • (1) The extensive work on the fundamental notions of physics, called Communia Naturali urn, which is found in the Mazarin library at Paris, in the British Museum, and in the Bodleian and University College libraries at Oxford;
  • (2) on the fundamental notions of mathematics, Dc Corn-' munibus Mathematicae, part of which it 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 Cornpendii Theologiae, in the British Museum;
  • (5) the Compendium Studii Theologiae, in the British Museum;
  • (6) the logical fragments, such as the Surnrnulae Dialectices, in the Bodleian, and the glosses upon Aristotle's physics and metaphysics in the library at Amiens. See Little, The Grey Friars -in Oxford (1892).

At the close of the Verb. Abbrev. is a curious note, concluding with the words, “ ipse Rogerus fuit discipulus fratris Alberti I” The necessity of accurate acquaintance with any foreign language and of obtaining good texts, is a subject Bacon is never weary of descanting upon. A translator 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. (pp. 5 7-255) contains an elaborate treatise on mathematics, “the alphabet of philosophy,” maintaining that all the sciences rest ultimately on mathematics, and progress only when their facts can be subsumed under mathematical principles. This fruitful thought he 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 Vundi, and was strongly influenced by its reasoning.

Part V. (pp. 256-3 57) 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 Kindi and Alhazen. The treatise opens with an able sketch of psychology, founded upon, but in some important respects varying fI~m, Aristotle's De Anima. The anatomy of the eye is neit 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 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 Mulliplicatione 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 scienliarum. 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 Tertiuin (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:—(i) 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 pature and cause of the rainbow, which is really a very fine specimen of inductive research.

The seventh part of the Opus Majus (De MoraU Philosophia), not given in Jebb's edition, is noticed at considerable length in the Opus Terlium (cap. xiv.). Extracts from it are given by Charles (pp. 339-348).

Ashas 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. med. (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 (~vhich 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 Coin pendium, 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 Studi-i Philosophiae (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 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. 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 cuin grano salis; he believed in astrology, in the doctrine of signatures, and in the philosopher's stone, and knew that the circle had been squared. For his work in connexion with gunpowder, the invention of which has been claimed for him on the ground of a passage in his De mirabili potestale artis et naturae, see: Gunpowder.

Summary.—The 13th century, an age peculiarly 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 Albertus Magnus, Bonaveiftura, and Thomas Aquinas. These had an infinitely wider renown in their day, but modern criticism has restored the balance in his favour, and is even in danger of erring in the opposite direction. Bacon, it is now said, was not appreciated by his age because he was in advance of it; he 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 some truth, but it is much exaggerated. As a general rule, no man can be completely dissevered from his national antecedents and

1 See Duhring, Krilische Ges. d. Phil. 192, 249-251.




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