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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 111. Roger Bacon.


Literature: Works.—Among the early publications were Speculum alchymiae, Nurnb., 1541, Engl. trans. London, 1597; De mirabili potestate artis et naturae, Paris, 1542, Engl. trans. 1659; De retardandis senectutis accidentibus, Oxford, 1590, Engl. trans.; The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth, by the great mathematician and physician, Roger Bacon, ed. by R. Browne, London, 1683; Opus majus (six books only), by Samuel Jebb, London, 1733, reprinted Venice, 1750; Opus minus and Opus tertium, with valuable Preface by J. S. Brewer, London, 1859, Rolls Series; Opus majus, with valuable Preface, by J. H. Bridges, all the seven books, 3 vols., London, 1900.

Biographical: Emile Charles: B. Bacon, sa vie, ses ouvrages, ses doctrines, Paris, 1861.—L. Schneider; R. Bacon, etc., Augsb., 1873-the Prefaces of BREWER and BRIDGES as above.—Professor R. Adamson, in "Ency. Britt." III. 218–222, and Dict. of Natl. Biog., II. 374–378. White: Warfare of Science and Theol. I. 386–393.


Duns Scotus was a Schoolman and nothing more. Roger Bacon, his contemporary, belongs to a different order of men, though one of the greatest theological thinkers of his age. He did not take up the great questions of theology and seek to justify them by dialectical processes. The most he did was to lay down principles for the study of theology; but it is as the pioneer of modern science and the scientific method of experiment that he has his distinguished place in the mediaeval galaxy of great minds. The fact that he had to suffer for his boldness of speech by imprisonment and enforced silence increases the interest felt in his teachings. His method of thought was out of accord with the prevailing method of his times. He was far ahead of his age, a seer of another era when the study of nature was to be assigned its proper place of dignity, and theology ceased to be treated as a field for dialectical ingenuity.

Born in Somersetshire, England, Roger Bacon, called the Wonderful doctor, mirabilis doctor, 1214(?)-1294, studied in Oxford, where he came into close contact with Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh, whom he often mentions with admiration. He went to Paris about 1240, continued his studies, and entered the Franciscan order. He speaks in his Opus tertium of having been engaged more than twenty years in the study of the languages and science, and spending £2000 in these studies and the purchase of books and instruments, or £600 or £700 present value.15941594    Bridges’ ed., p. xxiii.ied the privilege of writing, but was allowed to give instruction to young students in the languages.

Clement IV. who, before his elevation to the papal chair and as legate in England, had been his friend, requested copies of his writings. In about eighteen months, 1264–1266, Bacon prepared the Opus majus and then its two appendages, the Opus minus and the Opus tertium, and sent them to the pope. In 1268, he was again in Oxford. In 1278, he was relegated to closer confinement on account of "certain suspected " about which we are not more particularly informed, adduced by the Franciscan general, Jerome of Ascoli, afterwards Nicolas IV. He was set free again in 1292, as we know. His body lies buried in the Franciscan church of Oxford. It was said that his books were nailed to the walls of the library at Oxford and left to perish. The story may be dismissed as untrue, but it indicates the estimate put upon the scholar’s writings.

If we were to depend upon the influence he had upon his age, Roger Bacon would have no place here. At best he was thought of as a dabbler in the dark arts and a necromancer. He had no place of authority among his contemporaries, and the rarest notice of him is found for several centuries. D’Ailly, without quoting his name, copied a large paragraph from him about the propinquity of Spain and India which Columbus used in his letter to Ferdinand, 1498. It was not till the Renaissance that his name began to be used. Since the publication of his writings by Samuel Jebb, 1733, he has risen more and more into repute as one who set aside the fantastical subtleties of scholasticism for a rational treatment of the things we see and know, and as the scientific precursor of the modern laboratory and modern invention. Prophetic foresight of certain modern inventions is ascribed to him, but unjustly. He, however, expounded the theory of the rays of light, proved the universe to be spherical, and pronounced the smallest stars larger than the earth.15951595    Opus majus, Bridges’ ed., I. 152, 176. of the snows in Ethiopia.15961596    I. 323.

Bacon’s works, so far as they are published, combine the study of theology, philosophy, and what may be called the physical sciences. His Opus majus in seven books, the Opus minus, and Opus tertium are measurably complete. Of his Scriptum principale or Compendium studii philosophiae, often referred to in the writings just mentioned, only fragments were written, and of these only portions are left. The work was intended to be in four volumes and to include a treatment of grammar and logic, mathematics, physics, and last metaphysics and morals. The Communio naturalium and other treatises are still in manuscript.

The Opus majus in its list of subjects is the most encyclopaedic work of the Middle Ages. It takes up as separate departments the connection of philosophy and theology, astronomy including geography, astrology, barology, alchemy, agriculture, optics or perspective, and moral philosophy, medicine and experimental science, scientia experimentalis.

By agriculture, he meant the study of the vegetable and animal worlds, and such questions as the adaptation of soil to different classes of plants. In the treatment of optics he presents the construction of the eye and the laws of vision. Mathematics are the foundation of all science and of great value for the Church. Alchemy deals with liquids, gases, and solids, and their generation. A child of his age, Bacon held that metals were compound bodies whose elements can be separated.15971597    As an illustration of some of Bacon’s chemical and medical advice the following receipt may be given. He says a combination of gold, pearl, flower of sea dew, spermaceti, aloes, bone of stag’s heart, flesh of Tyrian snake, and Ethiopian dragon, properly prepared in due portions, might promote longevity to a length hitherto unimagined, Op. Maj., II. 206.r less dependent upon their potency. As the moon affects the tides, so the stars implant dispositions good and evil. This potency influences but does not coerce man’s free will. The comet of 1264, due to Mars, was related to the wars of England, Spain, and Italy.15981598    Op. maj., I. 385 sqq.ng and experience. Doubts left by reasoning are tried by experience, which is the ultimate test of truth.

The practical tendency of Bacon’s mind is everywhere apparent. He was an apostle of common sense. Speaking of Peter of Maricourt of Paris, otherwise unknown, he praises him for his achievements in the science of experimental research and said: "Of discourses and battles of words he takes no heed. Through experiment he gains knowledge of natural things, medical, chemical, indeed of everything in the heavens and the earth. He is ashamed that things should be known to laymen, old women, soldiers, and ploughmen, of which he is himself ignorant." He also confessed he had learned incomparably more from men unlettered and unknown to the learned than he had learned from his most famous teachers.15991599    Bridges’ ed., Op. maj., I. pp. xxv., 23.

Bacon attacked the pedantry of the scholastic method, the frivolous and unprofitable logomachy over questions which were above reason and untaught by revelation. Again and again he rebuked the conceit and metaphysical abstruseness of the theological writers of his century, especially Alexander of Hales and also Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. He used, at length, Alfarabius, Avicenna, Algazel, and other Arabic philosophers, as well as Aristotle. Against the pride and avarice and ignorance of the clergy he spoke with unmeasured severity and declared that the morals of Seneca and his age were far higher than the morals of the thirteenth century except that the ancient Romans did not know the virtues of love, faith, and hope which were revealed by Christ.16001600    Op. maj., II. 303 sqq.

This thirteenth-century phiIosopher pronounced the discussion over universals and individuals foolish and meaningless. One individual is of more value than all the universals in the world. A universal is nothing but the agreement between several objects, convenientia plurium individuorum convenientia individui respectu alterius. That which is common between two men and which an ass or a pig does not possess, is their universal.

In the department of philology,16011601    Bridges’ ed., 1. 66-96.nd Greek. He carried down the history of the translations of the Bible to Jerome.

He recommended the study of comparative religions which he arranges in six classes,—Pagan, Idolater, Tartar (Buddhist), Saracen, Jew, and Christian,—and concludes that there can be only one revelation and one Church because there is only one God.16021602    Bridges’ ed., II. 366-404., sanctity, wisdom, miraculous powers, firmness under persecution, uniformity of faith, and their success in spite of humble origin. It is characteristic of this philosopher that in this treatment he avails himself of the information brought to Europe by William Rubruquis whom he quotes.16031603    I. 303, II. 367 sq.

He regarded philosophy as having been revealed to the Jewish patriarchs, and the Greek philosophy as having been under the guidance of providence, nay, as having been a divine gift, as Augustine said of Socrates.16041604    I. 41.istotle is the great phiIosopher, and philosophy leads to the threshold of revealed truth, and it is the duty of Christians to avail themselves of it.16051605    I. 56-59.hould utilize heathen philosophers.16061606    I. 37.16071607    I. 28-30.heory of the dependence of the Apostolic writers upon Hellenic modes of thought. Bacon magnified the supreme authority of the Scriptures in which all truth strikes its roots and which laymen should read. All sciences and knowledge are to be subordinated to the Catholic Church, which is the appointed guardian of human interests. Theology is the science which rules over all the others.16081608    I. 33, Una scientia dominatrix aliarum. altar" as containing in itself the highest good, that is, the union of God with man. In the host the whole of the Deity is contained.

The admirable editor of Bacon’s Opus majus, Dr. Bridges, has compared Bacon’s procedure to a traveller in a new world, who brings back specimens of produce with the view of persuading the authorities of his country to undertake a more systematic exploration.16091609    I p. lxxxix.sserted the right principle of theological study which excludes from prolonged discussion subjects which have no immediate bearing upon the interests of daily life or personal faith, and pronounced as useless the weary systems which were more the product of human ingenuity in combining words than of a clear, spiritual purpose. To him Abaelard is not to be compared. Abaelard was chiefly a scholastic metaphysician; Bacon an observer of nature. Abaelard gives the appearance of being a vain aspirant after scholastic honors; Bacon of being a patient and conscientious investigator.

Professor Adamson and Dr. Bridges, two eminent Baconian scholars, have placed Roger Bacon at the side of such thinkers as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. A close student of the Middle Ages, Coulton, has recently gone so far as to pronounce him a greater intellect than Thomas Aquinas.16101610    From St. Francis to Dante, p. 293.lic communion. There is, however, danger of ascribing to him too much. Nevertheless, this forerunner of modern investigation may by common verdict, though unhonored in his own age, come to be placed higher as a benefactor of mankind than the master of metaphysical subtlety, Duns Scotus, who spoke to his age and its immediate successors with authority.




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