Roger Bacon

by Jay Atkinson

Roger Bacon was an English scholastic philosopher and also considered a scientist because he insisted on observing things for himself instead of depending on what people had written. Bacon was born into a wealthy family in 1214 and died in 1294. He was trained in the classics, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy and was a student at the University of Paris as a young man and later an educational reformer at Oxford in England. He became a Franciscan friar at the age of 33. Bacon was regarded as the forerunner of the modern experimental method and advocated a scientific method of learning emphasizing observation, experimentation, mathematics and physics. He was a devotee of "true" experimental methods. It is said that he was more an advocate of experimental science than an actual practitioner of it, but was far ahead of others in the realm of natural science and accurate observation of phenomena.

Bacon studied mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, languages and homeopathic medicine. He was the first Westerner to describe in detail the process of making gunpowder, albeit accidently. He has been credited with inventing the magnifying glass, which led to later developments of eyeglasses, the telescope and the microscope. He proposed flying machines, motorized ships, horseless carriages and submarines. Most of his experiments involved optics and the study of light. He claimed to have learned the secret of the Philosopher's Stone and frightened his students by creating a rainbow by passing light through some glass beads. This demonstration marked one of the earliest attempts to duplicate a natural phenomenon in the laboratory for analysis. Bacon believed that the Earth was spherical and that one could sail around it. He estimated the distance to the stars at 130 million miles. He used a camera that projected an image through a pinhole to observe solar eclipses. His work was so popular that it encouraged others to experiment on their own, and by so doing helped bring about the Renaissance.

Bacon was energetic and zealous in the pursuit of experimental science. He was celebrated everywhere and was considered a kind of wonder worker. His writings are a fiery diatribe against ignorance. He was not opposed to religion and is writing in support of it, but his study of the Greek and Arab philosophers and writers showed him the defects of the system. He denounced four chief sources of ignorance: respect for authority; the sense of the ignorant crowd; custom; and the vain, proud unteachableness of our dispositions. This progressive breed of liberal thought would only get him in trouble.

Taking reason and experience even further, Bacon taught that there is a double way of coming to the knowledge of things, one through the experiments of science and the other through divine inspiration. It is only the fool that chooses reason over faith or faith over reason for God is the giver of both. In this, Bacon recognizes revelation knowledge as an insight to scientific experimentation. He tells us that of this inner experience there are seven degrees, one through spiritual illumination in regard to scientific things. The second consists of virtue, for evil is ignorance. The third degree of spiritual experience is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Isaiah describes. The fourth lies in the beatitudes, which our Lord enumerates in the Gospels. The fifth is the spiritual sensibility. The sixth is in such fruits as the peace of God, which passes all understanding. The seventh lies in states of rapture and in the methods of those also, various ones of whom receive it in various ways, that they may see many things which it is not permitted to speak of to man. Whoever is thoroughly practiced in these experiences or in many of them is able to assure himself and others, not only concerning spiritual things, but all human knowledge.

Bacon sent a letter to Pope Clement IV in 1266 urging more experimentation in the educational system. Bacon made the bold claim that all of education needed to be revised, and that the revisions could be found in his work. He gave to the pope a proposal for a universal encyclopedia of knowledge and asked for a team of collaborators, coordinated by a body in the Church. Pope Clement, however, was not accustomed to receiving proposals like this and misunderstood what Bacon was asking. The pope demanded to see the documents thinking that Bacon's encyclopaedia of science already existed. What Bacon had meant was that he could write such material, not that he had. Pope Clement bound Bacon by a papal oath of secrecy to write down his beliefs and philosophies. Bacon revered the pope and could not disobey. He quickly composed a three-volume encyclopedia on the sciences without the knowledge of his superiors (they were violently opposed). They consisted of the Opus Majus (Great Work), the Opus Minus (Lesser Work) and the Opus Tertium (Third Work), explaining to the pope the rightful role of the sciences in the university curriculum and the interdependence of all disciplines of learning.

Here's an excerpt from his Opus Majus:

"I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experience nothing can be sufficiently known. For there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience; since many have the arguments relating to what can be known, but because they lack experience they neglect the arguments, and neither avoid what is harmful nor follow what is good. For if a man who has never seen fire should prove by adequate reasoning that fire burns and injures things and destroys them, his mind would not be satisfied thereby, nor would he avoid fire, until he placed his hand or some combustible substance in the fire, so that he might prove by experience that which reasoning taught. But when he has had actual experience of combustion his mind is made certain and rests in full light of truth. Therefore reasoning does not suffice, but experience does."

In 1268 Pope Clement IV died and Bacon's chances of seeing the encyclopedia project vanished and along with it the prospect of revamping the university curriculum. About this time however Bacon embarked on another great project and started to write the Communia naturalium ("General Principles of Natural Philosophy") and the Communia mathematica ("General Principles of Mathematical Science"), written about 1268. Unfinished, only part of it was ever published. In 1272 he published his Compendium philosophiae ("Compendium of Philosophy").

Even as a Franciscan, Roger Bacon remained very involved and published works on logic, philosophy and the experimental sciences Bacon also continued his tirades on the doctors of the church, the theologians and scholars of his time. The judgments seemed too severe at times and so alienated many of them, he had made some mistakes and appeared too egotistic. "The whole clergy is intent upon pride, lechery, and avarice", he would write; "and wherever clerks are gathered together, as at Paris and Oxford, they scandalize the whole laity with their wars and quarrels and other vices." He began experiments in alchemy, which is merely the fusion of metals or taking chemistry beyond previously known as in making alloys or trying to convert base metals into gold. It was considered magic or sorcery in Bacon's time; many Christians today still consider science as part of the occult. He told the people not to mistake his interest in astronomy with astrology, but to no avail. Bacon also came under the influence of Abbot Joachim of Fiore, a prophet and mystical philosopher of history. Bacon was a mystic himself, believed in revelation knowledge and studied millenarianism (the 1000-year kingdom). To Christians who have never experienced spiritual gifts or the power of the Holy Ghost, these things resemble witchcraft.

In 1277 The Minister General of the Franciscans, Jerome of Ascoli condemned Bacon's work because of the "suspect novelties" they contained and the brothers of the order had him imprisoned. He had always submitted his writings to the judgment of the Church and now appealed to the pope, but lost. The gross ignorance of foolish conservatism is hard to comprehend, then and now. How long he was imprisoned is not known. Some sources say two years, others much longer. His last work published the year of his death was a stinging reproach of corrupt Christianity, incomplete but shows him just as determined as any time of his life to expose ignorance.
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