« Bacon, Leonard Woolsey Bacon, Roger Baden »

Bacon, Roger

BACON (BACO), ROGER: The famous Franciscan theologian, called doctor mirabilis; b. at or near Ilchester (31 m. s. of Bristol), Somersetshire, 1214; d. at Oxford June 11, 1294. He studied first at Oxford, then at Paris, where he took the degree of doctor of holy scripture in 1248 and joined the order of St. Francis, probably immediately after receiving his degree. In taking this step, he followed, it is said, the advice of the famous bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste; but it is more probable that his countryman Adam of Marsh (de Morisco) from Bath, himself a Franciscan and professor of philosophy at Oxford (d. about 1260), induced him to join that order (cf. J. Felten, Robert Grosseteste, Freiburg, 1887, 94 sqq.). Bacon now taught in Oxford and Paris, though it can not be stated how long he stayed in either place.

Suspected and Persecuted as a Magician.

On account of his deep insight into the realm of natural science, which was then little known, and because of the astonishing effects which his physical experiments produced upon pupils and other contemporaries, he was suspected of being a “magician" and astrologer, busying himself with illicit arts. Some accidental remarks of his on the influence of the stars upon human destiny may have furnished occasion for this surmise. There is no doubt that he was himself the scholar of whom he narrates that he was fined for making a burning-glass (Op. maj., iii, 116). The many vexations which he experienced, especially at the hands of the friars, induced him to write to Pope Clement IV (formerly Guido Foulques), who as cardinal-legate in France and England had shown a friendly disposition toward him. Clement answered from Viterbo (Aug. 22, 1266) in a kindly manner, and requested Bacon to send some of his works. Accordingly he sent his Opus majus to Rome, and between 1266 and 1268 also the Opus minus and Opus tertium. A pupil of Bacon, the London magister John, seems to have taken an important part at that time in interpreting these works to the pope, and probably also produced and explained some instruments made by 417 his teacher. The first investigation was favorable to the genial scholar, but a renewed charge which was brought against him by the general of the Franciscans, Jerome of Ascoli, during the pontificate of Nicholas III (1277-81), especially on account of the treatise De vera astronomia, ended with Bacon’s imprisonment in a monastery either in Paris or at some other place in France. Ten years he thus spent behind the walls, but when Jerome had become Pope Nicholas IV, Bacon obtained his liberty through the recommendation of influential friends and was permitted to return to England.

Anticipation of Modern Methods and Discoveries.

Bacon belongs to those scientists of the Middle Ages who approached modern methods. On this account he criticizes sharply the scholastic method of instruction. In his Compendium studii philosophiœ he speaks disparagingly of Aristotle, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas, whose “boyish" learning and effort he censures, also of the great Franciscan theologian Alexander of Hales. The attacks upon the latter explain in part the hostilities which he experienced from his fellow friars. In the Opus majus (treating in six sections “of the hindrances of philosophy; of the relation between theology and philosophy; of the study of languages; of mathematics; of optics; of experimental knowledge") his decidedly antischolastic standpoint is also evident. No less do we find this in his Opus minus, which endeavors to reproduce the contents of the Opus principale in an abbreviated form, and in the Opus tertium, in which the principal theses of both works are reproduced in a more aphoristic form (clothed in a more elegant diction to make their understanding easier and more acceptable to his papal protector Clement IV). In his theological works, of which two only have been preserved, Bacon also appears as representative of an antischolastic tendency. The Epistola de laude Scripturœ Sacrœ (ed. Wharton, in Ussher’s Historia dogmatica de Scripturis, London, 1699) is permeated by a reformatory spirit. He emphasizes the sentence: Tota scientia in Bibliis contenta est principaliter et fontaliter; he insists upon the reading of the Bible in the original (and, if possible, also by the laity); he emphasizes in a critical spirit the need of correcting the Vulgate and cautions against the implicit confidence of the expositors in the authority of the Church Fathers. In the last of his works, the Compendium studii theologici (composed in 1292), he appears rather as a representative of church tradition, and denounces the “gross errors" of a Parisian theologian, the sententiarian Richardus Cornubiensis. The advanced character of his theological thought and teaching is evident also in his works on natural philosophy; for example, he speaks in the Opus minus of the “seven principal sins" in theological study, including the neglect of the original languages of the Holy Scripture, the corruption of the traditional text, and the wrong confidence in the authority of the Fathers. With regard to the future progress and triumphs of natural science, Bacon, in bold anticipation, foresaw and predicted many things, which assure to him the repute of a prophet, just as he discovered the principles of the telescope and microscope, was able to outline the laws of refraction and reflection, and penetrated more deeply into the laws of cosmology than any other scholar of the Middle Ages. His proofs that the Julian calendar needed correction, and the ways and means which he indicated to accomplish this end, and for which he was praised by Copernicus, must also be mentioned.


Of Bacon’s writings the most are philosophical, or rather physical. The most important works of this class, especially the Opus majus, remained in manuscript till toward the end of the eighteenth century. The Opera chemica Rogeri Baconis, which was published in folio in 1485, was followed by a few minor writings pertaining to alchemy and mathematics. Of these the most interesting is the tractate on the secret powers of art and nature (first published at Paris, 1541, under the title, De mirabili potestate artis et naturœ; often issued since the beginning of the seventeenth century with the title: De secretis operibus artis et naturcœ). His principal work, Opus majus ad Clementem IV, was first published in the eighteenth century by Samuel Jebb (London, 1733), and not before 1859 were his philosophical and physical works, which supplement his main work, issued (Fr. R. Baconis opera quœdam hactenus inedita, scil. Opus tertium, Opus minus, Compendium studii philosophiœ, De nullitate magiœ, De secretis naturœ operibus, ed. J. F. Brewer, Rolls Series, No. 15). Two other works followed this publication: the tractate De philosophia morali, which Bacon composed as part vii of his Opus majus (Dublin, 1860), and De multiplicatione specierum, which was published in 1897 as an addition to J. H. Bridges’s new edition of the Opus majus (The Opus majus of R. Bacon, edited with introduction and analytical table, 2 vols., Oxford, 1897), which gives for the first time the complete text, including also the seventh part, of moral-philosophical contents. His Greek Grammar and a Fragment of his Hebrew Grammar, edited from the manuscript, with notes by E. Nolan and S. A. Hirsch, appeared in 1902 (London), and a Greek tragedy was first published in the same year by the Cambridge press. In manuscript are still the Computus naturalium (3 books pertaining to the calendar and chronology), the Communia naturalium, and the Communia, mathematica.

O. Zöckler†.

Bibliography: For the life Jebb’s preface to his edition of the Opus majus, ut sup.; M. le Clerc, in the Histoire littéraire de la France, vol. xx, Paris, 1842; E. Charles, Roger Bacon, sa vie, ses ouvrages, ses doctrines, Paris, 1861 ("a model of industry, skill, and intelligence"); L. Schneider, Roger Bacon, eine Monographie zur Geschichte der Philosophie des dreizehnten Jahrhunderts, Augsburg, 1873; DNB, ii, 374-378; J. H. Bridges, in the introduction to his edition of the Opus majus, ut sup. (this and Charles are the best sources); H. Hurter, Theologia catholica tempora medii ævi, pp. 310-312, Innsbruck, 1899. On Bacon as scientific investigator consult: K. Werner, Die Psychologie, Erkenntnislehre und Wissenschaftslehre des Roger Baco, and Die Kosmologie and allgemeine Naturlehre des Roger Baco, both Vienna, 1879. For his significance as forerunner of the evangelical doctrine of scripture and as Bible-critic, F. A. Gasquet, English Bible Criticism in the Thirteenth Century, in The Dublin Review, cxxii (1898), 1-22.

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