Roger Bacon

The medieval English philosopher Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-1294) insisted on the importance of a so-called science of experience, or "scientia experimentalis." In this respect he is often regarded as a forerunner of modern science.

Little is known about the details of Roger Bacon's life or about the chronology and motivation of his major works, the Opus majus, the Opus minus, and the Opus tertium. It appears that he was born in Ilchester, Somerset. At 13 he entered Oxford University, where he spent 8 years. Contrasting himself to other scholastics who received only a baccalaureate in the arts and then moved on to theology, Bacon took delight in having the advanced arts degree.

In the 1240s, perhaps in the early years of the decade, Bacon lectured at the University of Paris on the works of Aristotle. During this period he also wrote three works on logic. Within relatively few years there were three important events in Bacon's life: his return to England from France, the awakening of his scientific interests, and his entry into the Franciscan order.

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A Universal Science

Early in his empirical pursuits Bacon envisioned a universal science which would promote the spread of Christianity, prolong life, aid health, and form a synthesis between theology and the science of experience. Theology for Bacon was more or less biblical theology, not the scholastic theology based on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which Bacon may have known only superficially. He praised science as being "most beautiful and most useful." Bacon had other reasons for urging Christians to take up a science of experience. In many respects his age had an apocalyptic character, and there was considerable belief that a struggle with the antichrist was imminent. Bacon saw a science of experience as a Christian weapon for the fray.

It is quite likely that Bacon became a Franciscan in 1252. By Bacon's time, as even more so during the following century, the work begun by St. Francis had posed problems for his followers. Franciscans were required to take a vow of poverty, but their work had swelled to such size and importance that it was impossible to continue it unless the order owned or at least administered property and other possessions. However, the acquisition of property by the Franciscan order was seriously questioned by a group of friars who claimed a literal allegiance to St. Francis. Bacon joined this group.

Moreover, during this very period of struggle over the vow of poverty, the new orders, Dominican as well as Franciscan, were being attacked by the secular clergy, whose power was being diminished as the religious clergy grew in numbers and influence.

Period of Confinement

About 1257 Bacon was taken from England to France and, for unknown reasons, underwent some kind of confinement, perhaps even an imprisonment, in a French monastery. One theory is that his scientific interests made him suspect, but it is more likely that his views on Franciscan life proved unpopular with the friars in England. Actually, there are no grounds for thinking that this confinement had anything to do with an alleged conflict between science and religion.

During his period of confinement Bacon wrote his greatest works: the Opus majus, the Opus minus, and the Opus tertium. Differences among scholars concerning the order and purposes of these works underscore once again the many unknowns concerning Bacon's life. It seems that he intended to write a treatise on the sciences but soon realized the magnitude of such a task. Instead, he composed what is now known as the Opus majus, in which he made use of materials already written, added new material, and climaxed the work with a section on moral theory. With respect to the sciences, the overall tone of the Opus majus is a rhetorical plea, attempting to persuade the pope about the importance of experimental knowledge. There is no evidence that Bacon made any important contribution to science and much evidence that he was, instead, a reader, writer, and rhetorician in behalf of science. Concerning the Opus minus, a convincing theory is that it was written while the Opus majus was still in the hands of copyists and Bacon was reflecting on his omissions from the earlier manuscript. The Opus minus is thus a supplement to the Opus majus. The Opus tertium may well have been an expansion of what began as a preface to the earlier two works.

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Observations and Writings

In many ways Bacon was ahead of his time. His works mention flying machines, self-driven boats, and an "instrument small in size, which can raise and lower things of almost infinite weight." He studied the heavens. He seems to have studied the refraction of light under experimental conditions, but in his so-called science of experience he did not make any known advances into what is today called physics; and he did not make any known practical inventions.

After the three works previously mentioned, Bacon wrote a great part of Communium naturalium, one of his finest works. He also wrote a Greek grammar and a Hebrew grammar, and in 1272 he published Compendium of the Study of Philosophy, in which the old, angry, polemical Bacon reemerges. It is possible that an imprisonment in the final years of his life stems from the Compendium, in which he claimed to see in the then-warring factions of Christendom the presence of the antichrist and in which he took in general the extreme view of Franciscan life identified with Joachim of Fiore.

The length of his imprisonment and the causes of his release are again matters of educated guesswork. He was free enough late in life to write Compendium of Theology. He was not imprisoned at the time of his death, which occurred in 1294 (according to one account, on June 11).

Further Reading on Roger Bacon

The best work on Bacon is Stewart C. Easton, Roger Bacon and His Search for a Universal Science (1952). See also John Henry Bridges, The Life and Work of Roger Bacon (1914); Theodore Crowley, Roger Bacon (1950); and E. Westacott, Roger Bacon in Life and Legend (1953). Appreciative discussions of Bacon are in A. G. Little, ed., Roger Bacon: Essays Contributed by Various Writers on the Occasion of the Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of His Birth (1914). See also Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (2 vols., 1923), and a chapter by Robert Steele, "Roger Bacon and the State of Science in the Thirteenth Century," in Charles Singer, ed., Studies in the History and Method of Science, vol. 2 (1921).

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Additional Biography Sources

Bridges, John Henry, The life & work of Roger Bacon: an introduction to the Opus majus, Merrick, N.Y.: Richwood Pub. Co., 1976.

Westacott, Evalyn, Roger Bacon in life and legend, Norwood, PA:Norwood Editions, c1953, 1978.