Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

Philosopher, surnamed D OCTOR M IRABILIS , b. at Ilchester, Somersetshire, about 1214; d. at Oxford, perhaps 11 June, 1294. His wealthy parents sided with Henry III against the rebellious barons, but lost nearly all their property. It has been presumed that Robert Bacon, O.P., was Roger's brother; more probably he was his uncle. Roger made his higher studies at Oxford and Paris, and was later professor at Oxford (Franciscan school ). He was greatly influenced by his Oxonian masters and friends Richard Fitzacre and Edmund Rich, but especially by Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh, both professors at the Franciscan school, and at Paris by the Franciscan Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt (see Schlund in "Archiv. Francisc. Histor.", IV, 1911, pp. 436 sqq.) They created in him a predilection for positive sciences, languages, and physics ; and to the last-mentioned he owed his entrance about 1240 (1251? 1257?) into the Franciscans, either at Oxford or Paris. He continued his learned work; illness, however, compelled him to give it up for two years. When he was able to recommence his studies, his superiors imposed other duties on him, and forbade him to publish any work out of the order without special permission from the higher superiors "under pain of losing the book and of fasting several days with only bread and water."

This prohibition has induced modern writers to pass severe judgment upon Roger's superiors being jealous of Roger's abilities; even serious scholars say they can hardly understand how Bacon conceived the idea of joining the Franciscan Order. Such critics forget that when Bacon entered the order the Franciscans numbered many men of ability in no way inferior to the most famous scholars of other religious orders (see Felder, "Gesch. der wissenschaftlichen Studien im Franziskanerorden bis um die Mitte des 13. Jahrhunderts", Freiburg, 1904). The prohibition enjoined on Bacon was a general one, which extended to the whole order; its promulgation was not even directed against him, but rather against Gerard of Borgo San Donnino, as Salimbene says expressly (see "Chronica Fr. Salimbene Parmensis" in "Mon. Germ. Hist." SS.", XXII, 462, ed. Holder-Egger). Gerard had published in 1254 without permission his heretical work, "Introductorius in Evangelium æternum"; thereupon the General Chapter of Narbonne in 1260 promulgated the above-mentioned decree, identical with the "constitutio gravis in contrarium" Bacon speaks of, as the text shows (see the constitution published by Ehrle, S.J., "Die ältesten Redactionen der Generalconstitutionen des Franziskanerordens" in "Archiv für Literatur- und Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters", VI, 110; St. Bonaventure, "Opera Omnia", Quaracchi, VIII, 456).

We need not wonder then that Roger's immediate superiors put the prohibition into execution, especially as Bacon was not always very correct in doctrine ; and although on the one hand it is wrong to consider him as a necromancer and astrologer, an enemy of scholastic philosophy, an author full of heresies and suspected views, still we cannot deny that some of his expressions are imprudent and inaccurate. The judgments he passes on other scholars of his day are sometimes too hard, so it is not surprising that his friends were few. The above-mentioned prohibition was rescinded in Roger's favour unexpectedly in 1266. Some years before, while still at Oxford, he had made the acquaintance of Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques, whom Urban IV had sent to England to settle the disputes between Henry III and the barons; others believe that the cardinal met Roger at Paris, in 1257 or 1258 (see "Archiv. Francisc. Histor.", IV, 442). After a conference about some current abuses, especially about ecclesiastical studies, the cardinal asked Roger to present his idea in writing. Roger delayed in doing this; when the Cardinal became Clement IV and reiterated his desire, Bacon excused himself because the prohibition of his superiors stood in the way. Then the pope in a letter from Viterbo (22 June, 1266) commanded him to send his work immediately, notwithstanding the prohibition of superiors or any general constitution whatsoever, but to keep the commission a secret (see letter published by Martene-Durand, "Thesaurus novus anecdotorum", II, Paris, 1717, 358, Clement IV, epp. n. 317 a; Wadding, "Annales", ad an. 1266, n. 14, II, 294; IV, 265; Sbaralea, "Bullarium Franciscanum", III, 89 n. 8f, 22 June, 1266).

We may suppose that the pope, as Bacon says, from the first had wished the matter kept secret; otherwise we can hardly understand why Bacon did not get permission of his superiors; for the prohibition of Narbonne was not absolute; it only forbade him to publish works outside the order "unless they were examined thoroughly by the minister general or by the provincial together with his definitors in the provincial chapter". The removal of the prohibitive constitution did not at once remove all the obstacles; the secrecy of the matter rather produced new embarrassments, as Bacon frankly declares. The first impediment was the contrary will of his superiors: "as your Holiness", he writes to the pope, "did not write to them to excuse me, and I could not make known to them Your secret, because You had commanded me to keep the matter a secret, they did not let me alone but charged me with other labours; but it was impossible for me to obey because of Your commandment". Another difficulty was the lack of money necessary to obtain parchment and to pay copyists. As the superiors knew nothing of his commission, Bacon had to devise means to obtain money. Accordingly, he ingenuously reminded the pope of this oversight, "As a monk ", he says, "I for myself have no money and cannot have; therefore I cannot borrow, not having wherewith to return; my parents who before were rich, now in the troubles of war have run into poverty; others, who were able refused to spend money; so deeply embarrassed, I urged my friends and poor people to expend all they had, to sell and to pawn their goods, and I could not help promising them to write to You and induce Your Holiness to fully reimburse the sum spent by them (60 pounds)" ("Opus Tertium", III, p. 16).

Finally, Bacon was able to execute the pope's desire; in the beginning of 1267 he sent by his pupil John of Paris (London?) the "Opus Majus", where he puts together in general lines all his leading ideas and proposals; the same friend was instructed to present to the pope a burning-mirror and several drawings of Bacon appertaining to physics, and to give all explanations required by His Holiness. The same year (1267) he finished his "Opus Minus", a recapitulation of the main thoughts of the "Opus Majus", to facilitate the pope's reading or to submit to him an epitome of the first work if it should be lost. With the same object, and because in the first two works some ideas were but hastily treated, he was induced to compose a third work, the "Opus Tertium"; in this, sent to the pope before his death (1268), he treats in a still more extensive manner the whole material he had spoken of in his preceding works. Unfortunately his friend Clement IV died too soon, without having been able to put into practice the counsels given by Bacon. About the rest of Roger's life we are not well informed. The "Chronica XXIV Generalium Ordinis Minorum" says that "the Minister General Jerome of Ascoli [afterwards Pope Nicholas IV ] on the advice of many brethren condemned and rejected the doctrine of the English brother Roger Bacon, Doctor of Divinity, which contains many suspect innovations, by reason of which Roger was imprisoned " (see the "Chronica" printed in "Analecta Franciscana", III, 360). The assertion of modern writers, that Bacon was imprisoned fourteen or fifteen years, although he had proved his orthodoxy by the work "De nullitate magiæ", has no foundation in ancient sources.

Some authors connect the fact of imprisonment related in the "Chronica" with the proscription of 219 theses by Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, which took place 7 March, 1277 ( Denifle, "Chartularium Universitatis Pariensis", I, 543, 560). Indeed it was not very difficult to find some "suspect innovation" in Bacon's writings, especially with regard to the physical sciences. As F. Mandonnet, O.P., proves, one of his incriminated books or pamphlets was his "Speculum Astronomiæ", written in 1277, hitherto falsely ascribed to kBlessed 1Albert the Great [Opera Omnia, ed. Vives, Paris, X, 629 sq.; cf. Mandonnet, "Roger Bacon et le Speculum Astronomiæ (1277) in "Revue Néo-Scolastique", XVII, Louvain, 1910, 313-35]. Such and other questions are not yet ripe for judgment; but it is to be hoped that the newly awakened interest in Baconian studies and investigations will clear up more and more what is still obscure in Roger's life.

The writings attributed to Bacon by some authors amount to about eighty; many (e.g. "Epistola de magnete", composed by Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt) are spurious, while many are only treatises republished separately under new titles. Other writings or parts of writings certainly composed by him were put in circulation under the name of other scholars, and his claim to their authorship can be established only from internal reasons of style and doctrine. Other treatises still lie in the dust of the great European libraries, especially of England, France, and Italy. Much remains to be done before we can expect an edition of the "Opera Omnia" of Roger Bacon. For the present the following statements may suffice. Before Bacon entered the order he had written many essays and treatises on the subjects he taught in the school, for his pupils only, or for friends who had requested him to do so, as he confesses in his letter of dedication of the "Opus Majus" sent to the pope : "Multa in alio statu conscripseram propter juvenum rudimenta" (the letter was discovered in the Vatican Library by Abbot Gasquet, O.S.B., and first published by him in the "English Historical Review", 1897, under the title "An unpublished fragment of a work by Roger Bacon", 494 sq.; for the words above cited, see p. 500). To this period seem to belong some commentaries on the writings of Aristotle and perhaps the little treatise "De mirabili potestate artis et naturæ et de nullitate magiæ" (Paris, 1542; Oxford, 1604; London, 1859). The same work was printed under the title "Epistola de secretis operibus artis et naturæ" (Hamburg, 1608, 1618). After joining the order, or more exactly from about the years 1256-57, he did not compose works of any great importance or extent, but only occasional essays requested by friends, as he says in the above-mentioned letter, "now about this science, now about another one", and only more transitorio (see "Eng. Hist. Rev.", 1897, 500). In the earlier part of his life he probably composed also "De termino pascali" (see letter of Clement IV in " Bull. Franc.", III, 89); for it is cited in another work, "Computus naturalium", assigned to 1263 by Charles ("Roger Bacon. Sa vie, etc.", Paris, 1861, p. 78; cf. pp. 334 sqq.).

The most important of all his writings are the "Opus Majus", the "Opus Minus", and the "Tertium". The "Opus Majus" deals in seven parts with (1) the obstacles to real wisdom and truth, viz. errors and their sources; (2) the relation between theology and philosophy, taken in its widest sense as comprising all sciences not strictly philosophical : here he proves that all sciences are founded on the sacred sciences, especially on Holy Scripture ; (3) the necessity of studying zealously the Biblical languages, as without them it is impossible to bring out the treasure hidden in Holy Writ ; (4) mathematics and their relation and application to the sacred sciences , particularly Holy Scripture ; here he seizes an opportunity to speak of Biblical geography and of astronomy (if these parts really belong to the "Opus Majus"); (5) optics or perspective; (6) the experimental sciences ; (7) moral philosophy or ethics. The "Opus Majus" was first edited by Samuel Jebb, London, 1733, afterwards at Venice, 1750, by the Franciscan Fathers. As both editions were incomplete, it was edited recently by J. H. Bridges, Oxford, 1900 (The 'Opus Majus' of Roger Bacon, edited with introduction and analytical table," in 2 vols.); the first three parts of it were republished the same year by this author in a supplementary volume, containing a more correct and revised text. It is to be regretted that this edition is not so critical and accurate as it might have been. As already noted, Bacon's letter of dedication to the pope was found and published first by Dom Gasquet; indeed the dedication and introduction is wanting in the hitherto extant editions of the "Opus Majus", whereas the "Opus Minus" and "Opus Tertium" are accompanied with a preface by Bacon (see "Acta Ord. Min.", Quaracchi, 1898, where the letter is reprinted).

Of the "Opus Minus", the relation of which to the "Opus Majus" has been mentioned, much has been lost. Originally it had nine parts, one of which must have been a treatise on alchemy, both speculative and practical; there was another entitled "The seven sins in the study of theology ". All fragments hitherto found have been published by J. S. Brewer, "Fr. R. Bacon opp. quædam hactenus inedita", vol. I (the only one) containing: (1) "Opus Tertium"; (2) "Opus Minus"; (3) "Compendium Philos." The appendix adds "De secretis artis et naturæ operibus et de nullitate magiæ", London, 1859 (Rerum Britann. med. æv. Script.). The aim of the "Opus Tertium" is clearly pointed out by Bacon himself: "As these reasons [profoundness of truth and its difficulty] have induced me to compose the Second Writing as a complement facilitating the understanding of the First Work, so on account of them I have written this Third Work to give understanding and completeness to both works; for many things are here added for the sake of wisdom which are not found in the other writings ("Opus Tertium", I, ed. Brewer, 6). Consequently this work must be considered, in the author's own opinion, as the most perfect of all the compositions sent to the pope ; therefore it is a real misfortune that half of it is lost. The parts we possess contain many autobiographical items. All parts known in 1859 were published by Brewer (see above). One fragment dealing with natural sciences and moral philosophy has been edited for the first time by Duhem ("Un fragment inédit de l'Opus Tertium de Roger Bacon précédé d'une étude sur ce fragment", Quaracchi, 1909); another (Quarta pars communium naturalis philos.) by Höver (Commer's "Jahrb. für Philos. u. speculative Theol.", XXV, 1911, pp. 277-320). Bacon often speaks of his "Scriptum principale". Was this a work quite different from the others we know ? In many texts the expression only means the "Opus Majus", as becomes evident by its antithesis to the "Opus Minus" and "Opus Tertium". But there are some other sentences where the expression seems to denote a work quite different from the three just mentioned, viz. one which Bacon had the intention of writing and for which these works as well as his proeambula were only the preparation.

If we may conclude from some of his expressions we can reconstruct the plan of this grand encyclopædia: it was conceived as 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 natural sciences, perspective, astrology, the laws of gravity, alchemy, agriculture, medicine, and the experimental sciences ; the fourth with metaphysics and moral philosophy (see Delorme in "Dict. de Theol.", s. v. Bacon, Roger; Brewer, pp. 1 sq.; Charles, 370 sq., and particularly Bridges, I, xliii sq.). It is even possible that some treatises, the connection of which with the three works ("Opus Majus", "Opus Minus", "Opus Tertium") or others is not evident, were parts of the "Scriptum principale"; see Bridges, II, 405 sq., to which is added "Tractatus Fr. Rogeri Bacon de multiplicatione specierum", which seems to have belonged originally to a work of greater extent. Here may be mentioned some writings hitherto unknown, now for the first time published by Robert Steele: "Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi. Fasc. I: Metaphysica Fratris Rogeri ordinis fratrum minorum. De viciis contractis in studio theologiæ, omnia quæ supersunt nunc primum edidit R. St.", London, 1905; Fasc. II: "Liber primus communium naturalium Fratris Rogeri, partes I et II", Oxford, 1909. Another writing of Bacon, "Compendium studii philosophiæ", was composed during the pontificate of Gregory X who succeeded Clement IV (1271-76), as Bacon speaks of this last-named pope as the "predecessor istius Papæ" (chap. iii). It has been published, as far as it is extant, by Brewer in the above-mentioned work. He repeats there the ideas already touched upon in his former works, as for instance the causes of human ignorance, necessity of learning foreign languages, especially Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek; as a specimen are given the elements of Greek grammar.

About the same time (1277) Bacon wrote the fatal "Speculum Astronomiæ" mentioned above. And two years before his death he composed his "compendium studii theologiæ" (in our days published for the first time in "British Society of Franciscan Studies", III, Aberdeen, 1911), where he set forth as in a last scientific confession of faith the ideas and principles which had animated him during his long life; he had nothing to revoke, nothing to change. Other works and pamphlets cannot be attributed with certainty to any definite period of his life. To this category belong the "Epistola de laude Scripturarum", published in part by Henry Wharton in the appendix (auctarium) of "Jacobi Usserii Armachani Historia Dogmatica de Scripturis et sacris vernaculis" (London, 1689), 420 sq. In addition there is both a Greek and a Hebrew grammar, the last of which is known only in some fragments: "The Greek grammar of Roger Bacon and a fragment of his Hebrew Grammar, edited from the manuscripts, with an introduction and notes", Cambridge, 1902. Some specimens of the Greek Grammar, as preserved in a manuscript of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, had been published two years before by J. L. Heiberg in "Byzantinische Zeitschrift", IX, 1900, 479-91. The above-mentioned edition of the two grammars cannot be considered very critical (see the severe criticism by Heiberg, ibid., XII, 1903, 343-47). Here we may add Bacon's "Speculum Alchemiæ", Nuremberg, 1614 (Libellus do alchimia cui titulus : Spec. Alchem.); it was translated into French by Jacques Girard de Tournus, under the title "Miroir d'alquimie", Lyons, 1557. Some treatises dealing with chemistry were printed in 1620 together in one volume containing: (1) "Breve Breviarium de dono Dei"; (2) "Verbum abbreviatum de Leone viridi"; (3) "Secretum secretorum naturæ de laude lapidis philosophorum"; (4) "Tractatus trium verborum"; (5) "Alchimia major". But it is possible that some of these and several other treatises attributed to Bacon are parts of works already mentioned, as are essays "De situ orbis", "De regionibus mundi", "De situ Palæstinæ", "De locis sacris", "Descriptiones locorum mundi", "Summa grammaticalis" (see Golubovich, "Biblioteca bio-bibliografica della Terra Santa e dell'Oriente Francescano", Quaracchi, 1906, I, 268 sq.).

If we now examine Bacon's scientific systems and leading principles, his aims and his hobby, so to say, we find that the burden not only of the writings sent to the pope, but also of all his writings was: ecclesiastical study must be reformed. All his ideas and principles must be considered in the light of this thesis. He openly exposes the " sins " of his time in the study of theology, which are seven, as he had proved, in the "Opus Majus". 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 preponderance of (speculative) philosophy. Theology is a Divine science, hence it must be based on Divine principles and treat questions touching Divinity, and not exhaust itself in philosophical cavils and distinctions. The second sin is ignorance of the sciences most suitable and necessary to theologians ; they study only Latin grammar, logic, natural philosophy (very superficially!) and a part of metaphysics : four sciences very unimportant, scientiæ viles. Other sciences more necessary, foreign (Oriental) languages, mathematics, alchemy, chemistry, physics, experimental sciences, and moral philosophy, they neglect. A third sin is the defective knowledge of even the four sciences which they cultivate: their ideas are full of errors and misconceptions, because they have no means to get at the real understanding of the authors from whom they draw all their knowledge, since their writings abound in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic expressions. Even the greatest and most highly-esteemed theologians show in their works to what an extent the evil has spread.

Another sin is the preference for the "Liber Sententiarum" and the disregard of other theological matters, especially Holy Scripture ; he complains: "The one who explains the 'Book of the Sentences' is honoured by all, whereas the lector of Holy Scripture is neglected; for to the expounder of the Sentences there is granted a commodious hour for lecturing at his own will, and if he belongs to an order, a companion and a special room; whilst the lector of Holy Scripture is denied all this and must beg the hour for his lecture to be given at the pleasure of the expounder of the Sentences. Elsewhere the lector of the Sentences holds disputations and is called master, whereas the lector of the [Biblical] test is not allowed to dispute" ("Opus Minus", ed. Brewer, 328 sq.). Such a method, he continues, is inexplicable and very injurious to the Sacred Text which contains the word of God, and the exposition of which would offer many occasions to speak about matters now treated in the several "Summæ Sententiarum". Still more disastrous is the fifth sin : the text of Holy Writ is horribly corrupted, especially in the "exemplar Parisiense", that is to say the Biblical text used at the University of Paris and spread by its students over the whole world. Confusion has been increased by many scholars or religious orders, who in their endeavours to correct the Sacred Text, in default of a sound method, have in reality only augmented the divergences; as every one presumes to change anything "he does not understand, a thing he would not dare to do with the books of the classical poets", the world is full of "correctors or rather corruptors". The worst of all sins is the consequence of the foregoing: the falsity or doubtfulness of the literal sense (sensus litteralis ) and consequently of the spiritual meaning (sensus spiritualis ); for when the literal sense is wrong, the spiritual sense cannot be right, since it is necessarily based upon the literal sense. The reasons of this false exposition are the corruption of the sacred text and ignorance of the Biblical languages. For how can they get the real meaning of Holy Writ without this knowledge, as the Latin versions are full of Greek and Hebrew idioms?

The seventh sin is the radically false method of preaching: instead of breaking to the faithful the Bread of Life by expounding the commandments of God and inculcating their duties, the preachers content themselves with divisions of the arbor Porphyriana, with the jingle of words and quibbles. They are even ignorant of the rules of eloquence, and often prelates who during their course of study were not instructed in preaching, when obliged to speak in church, beg the copy-books of the younger men, which are full of bombast and ridiculous divisions, serving only to "stimulate the hearers to all curiosity of mind, but do not elevate the affection towards good" ("Opus Tertium", Brewer, 309 sq.). Exceptions are very few, as for instance Friar Bertholdus Alemannus (Ratisbon) who alone has more effect than all the friars of both orders combined ( Friars Minor and Preachers). Eloquence ought to be accompanied by science, and science by eloquence; for "science without eloquence is like a sharp sword in the hands of a paralytic, whilst eloquence without science is a sharp sword in the hands of a furious man " ("Sapientia sine eloquentia est quasi gladius acutus in manu paralytici, sicut eloquentia expers sapientiæ est quasi gladius acutus in manu furiosi"; "Opus Tertium, I, Brewer, 4). But far from being an idle fault-finder who only demolished without being able to build up, Bacon makes proposals extremely fit and efficacious, the only failure of which was that they were never put into general practice, by reason of the premature death of the pope. Bacon himself and his pupils, such as John of Paris, whom he praises highly, William of Mara, Gerard Huy, and others are a striking argument that his proposals were no Utopian fancies: they showed in their own persons what in their idea a theologian should be. First of all, if one wishes to get wisdom, he must take care not to fall into the four errors which usually prevent even learned men from attaining the summit of wisdom, viz. "the example of weak and unreliable authority, continuance of custom, regard to the opinion of the unlearned, and concealing one's own ignorance, together with the exhibition of apparent wisdom" ("Fragilis et indignæ autoritatis exemplum, consuetudinis diuturnitas, vulgi sensus imperiti, et propriæ ignorantiæ occultatio cum ostentatione sapientiæ apparentis"; "Opus Majus", I, Bridges, 1, 2).

Thus having eliminated "the four general causes of all human ignorance ", one must be convinced that all science has its source in revelation both oral and written. Holy Scripture especially is an inexhaustible fountain of truth from which all human philosophers, even the heathen, drew their knowledge, immediately or mediately; therefore no science, whether profane or sacred, can be true if contrary to Holy Writ (see "English Hist. Rev.", 1897, 508 sq.; "Opus Tertium", XXIV, Brewer, 87 sq.). This conviction having taken root, we must consider the means of attaining wisdom. Among those which lead to the summit are to be mentioned in the first place the languages, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. Latin does not suffice, as there are many useful works written in other languages and not yet translated, or badly translated, into Latin. Even in the best versions of scientific works, as for instance of Greek and Arabic philosophers, or of the Scriptures, as also in the Liturgy, there are still some foreign expressions retained purposely or by necessity, it being impossible to express in Latin all nuances of foreign texts. It would be very interesting to review all the other reasons adduced by Bacon proving the advantage or even necessity of foreign languages for ecclesiastical, social, and political purposes, or to follow his investigations into the physiological conditions of language or into what might have been the original one spoken by man. He distinguishes three degrees of linguistic knowledge ; theologians are not obliged to reach the second degree, which would enable them to translate a foreign text into their own language, or the third one which is still more difficult of attainment and which would enable them to speak this language as their own. Nevertheless the difficulties of reaching even the highest degree are not as insurmountable as is commonly supposed; it depends only on the method followed by the master, and as there are very few scholars who follow a sound method, it is not to be wondered at that perfect knowledge of foreign languages is so rarely found among theologians (see "Opus Tertium", XX, Brewer, 64 sq.; "Compendium Studii phil.", VI, Brewer, 433 sq.). On this point, and in general of Roger's attitude towards Biblical studies, see the present author's article "De Fr. Roger Bacon ejusque sententia de rebus biblicis" in "Archivum Franciscanum Historicum", III, Quaracchi, 1910, 3-22; 185-213.

Besides the languages there are other means, e.g., mathematics, optics, the experimental sciences, and moral philosophy, the study of which is absolutely necessary for every priest, as Bacon shows at length. He takes special pains in applying these sciences to Holy Scripture and the dogmas of faith. These are pages so wonderful and evincing by their train of thought and the drawings inserted here and there such a knowledge of the subject matter, that we can easily understand modern scholars saying that 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 of their time as they endeavoured to set it going more quickly. It is in these treatises (and other works of the same kind) that Bacon speaks of the reflection of light, mirages, and burning- mirrors, of the diameters of the celestial bodies and their distances from one another, of their conjunction and eclipses; that he explains the laws of ebb and flow, proves the Julian calendar 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 centuries later. Subsequent ages have done him more justice in recognizing his merits in the field of natural science. John Dee, for instance, who addressed (1582) a memorial on the reformation of the calendar to Queen Elizabeth, speaking of those who had advocated this change, says: "None hath done it more earnestly, neither with better reason and skill, than hath a subject of this British Sceptre Royal done, named as some think David Dee of Radik, but otherwise and most commonly (upon his name altered at the alteration of state into friarly profession) called Roger Bacon: who at large wrote thereof divers treatises and discourses to Pope Clement the Fifth [sic ] about the year of our Lord, 1267. To whom he wrote and sent also great volumes exquisitely compiled of all sciences and singularities, philosophical and mathematical, as they might be available to the state of Christ his Catholic Church ". Dee then remarks that Paul of Middleburg, in "Paulina de recta Paschæ celebratione", had made great use of Bacon's work: "His great volume is more than half thereof written (though not acknowledged) by such order and method generally and particularly as our Roger Bacon laid out for the handling of the matter" (cited by Bridges, "Opus Majus", I, p. xxxiv).

Longer time was needed before Bacon's merits in the field of theological and philosophical sciences were acknowledged. Nowadays it is impossible to speak or write about the methods and course of lectures in ecclesiastical schools of the Middle Ages, or on the efforts of revision and correction of the Latin Bible made before the Council of Trent, or on the study of Oriental languages urged by some scholars before the Council of Vienne, without referring to the efforts made by Bacon. In our own day, more thoroughly than at the Council of Trent , measures are taken in accordance with Bacon's demand that the further corruption of the Latin text of Holy Scripture should be prevented by the pope's authority, and that the most scientific method should be applied to the restoration of St. Jerome's version of the Vulgate. Much may be accomplished even now by applying Bacon's principles, viz.: (1) unity of action under authority; (2) a thorough consultation of the most ancient manuscripts ; (3) the study of Hebrew and Greek to help where the best Latin manuscripts left room for doubt ; (4) a thorough knowledge of Latin grammar and construction; (5) great care in distinguishing between St. Jerome's readings and those of the more ancient version (see "Opus Tertium", XXV, Brewer, 93 sq.; Gasquet, "English Biblical Criticism in the Thirteenth Century" in "The Dublin Review", CXX, 1898, 15). But there are still some prejudices among learned men, especially with regard to Bacon's orthodoxy and his attitude towards Scholastic philosophy. It is true that he speaks in terms not very flattering of the Scholastics, and even of their leaders. His style is not the ordinary Scholastic style proceeding by inductions and syllogisms in the strictest form; he speaks and writes fluently, clearly expressing his thoughts as a modern scholar treating the same subject might write. But no one who studies his works can deny that Bacon was thoroughly trained in Scholastic philosophy. Like the other Scholastics, he esteems Aristotle highly, while blaming the defective Latin versions of his works and some of his views on natural philosophy. Bacon is familiar with the subjects under discussion, and it may be of interest to note that in many cases he agrees with Duns Scotus against other Scholastics, particularly regarding matter and form and the intellectus agens which he proves not to be distinct substantially from the intellectus possibilis ("Opus Majus", II, V; "Opus Tertium", XXIII).

It would be difficult to find any other scholar who shows such a profound knowledge of the Arabic philosophers as Bacon does. Here appears the aim of his philosophical works, to make Christian philosophy acquainted with the Arabic philosophers. He is an enemy only of the extravagances of Scholasticism, the subtleties and fruitless quarrels, to the neglect of matters much more useful or necessary and the exaltation of philosophy over theology. Far from being hostile to true philosophy, he bestows a lavish praise on it. None could delineate more clearly and convincingly than he, what ought to be the relation between theology and philosophy, what profit they yield and what services they render to each other, how true philosophy is the best apology of Christian faith (see especially "Opus Majus", II and VII; "Compend. studii philos."). Bacon is sometimes not very correct in his expressions; there may even be some ideas that are dangerous or open to suspicion (e.g. his conviction that a real influence upon the human mind and liberty and on human fate is exerted by the celestial bodies etc.). But there is no real error in matters of faith, and Bacon repeatedly asks the reader not to confound his physics with divination, his chemistry with alchemy, his astronomy with astrology ; and certainly he submitted with all willingness his writings to the judgment of the Church. It is moving to note the reverence he displayed for the pope. Likewise he shows always the highest veneration towards the Fathers of the Church ; and whilst his criticism often becomes violent when he blames the most eminent of his contemporaries, he never speaks or writes any word of disregard of the Fathers or ancient Doctors of the Church , even when not approving their opinion; he esteemed them highly and had acquired such a knowledge of their writings that he was no way surpassed by any of his great rivals. Bacon was a faithful scholar of open character who frankly uttered what he thought, who was not afraid to blame whatsoever and whomsoever he believed to deserve censure, a scholar who was in advance of his age by centuries. His iron will surmounted all difficulties and enabled him to 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.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Philippians 1:1-11
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 111:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 Alleluia! I give thanks to Yahweh with all my ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 14:1-6
1 Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 31st, 2014 Image

St. Wolfgang
October 31: Wolfgang (d. 994) + Bishop and reformer. Born in Swabia, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter