Roger Bacon Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

0111200123-Bacon_R.jpg Roger Bacon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Bacon was a pioneer in the development of the scientific experimental method, and he advocated educational reform based on secular, scientific disciplines.

Early Life

Roger Bacon was born into a family of minor nobility sometime around the year 1220 in Ilchester, Somerset, England. Although very little is known concerning his life prior to 1239, he was trained in his youth in the classics and in the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). He studied the liberal arts at Oxford University and received his baccalaureate from either Oxford or the University of Paris around 1239. Soon thereafter, he received a master of arts from Paris and began his teaching career there as a regent master on the arts faculty.

During Bacon’s early professional years, he lectured on Aristotelian and pseudo-Aristotelian treatises—especially the Secretum secretorum (fourth century b.c.e.), a long letter of advice on kingship and practical affairs supposedly written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great—but he exhibited no indication of his later preoccupation with science. As an eclectic thinker during this period from 1239 to 1247, Bacon blended his Aristotelian ideas with certain Neoplatonist elements derived from many different sources. Nevertheless, he was one of the first Parisian masters to lecture on the forbidden books of Aristotle soon after the Church lifted the ban. There, he wrote his early scholastic works and commentaries on grammar, dialectics, physics, metaphysics, and astronomy. He also popularized the ideas of Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and Averroes, thus integrating Arabic thought with that of the West. Again, his eclecticism led him to criticize the Moslem savants on many issues, especially when they espoused concepts that he considered to be anti-Christian or antiscriptural.

About 1247, a major change occurred in Bacon’s intellectual development. Abandoning his teaching position in Paris to return to Oxford, he devoted all of his time, and large sums of money raised mainly from family members, to experimental research, to acquiring certain “secret” books, to constructing scientific instruments and tables, to training assistants, and to conferring with scholars of like mind. These activities marked a definite departure from the usual routine practiced by his colleagues. Through these endeavors he became immensely impressed with the benefits that science could bestow upon religion—a “universal” science that would include all the secrets of nature.

This change probably was caused by the Oxford environment and the influence exerted there by Robert Grosseteste (whom Bacon may never have met personally), a leader in introducing Greek learning to the West and an early advocate of the experimental method. Bacon was also impressed by Adam Marsh, Grosseteste’s most famous associate, and by Thomas Wallensis, the bishop of St. David’s.

From 1247 to 1257, Bacon devoted himself to the study of languages, optics, alchemy, astronomy, and mathematics. He campaigned against hearsay evidence, denounced rational, Platonist deductions, and extolled experimentation so relentlessly that he began to anger the more traditional scholars. Although his role as an experimenter may be exaggerated historically and his originality may not have produced significant scientific or technological breakthroughs, he did operate a quasi-laboratory for alchemical experiments and did carry out systematic observations with lenses and mirrors. Also important was his work on the nature of light (reflection, refraction, and spherical aberration) and on the rainbow. Of lesser significance were his ideas on flight, gunpowder, mechanically propelled land vehicles and seacraft, and eclipses of the sun.

Life’s Work

About 1252, Bacon joined the Franciscan Order (soon after Grosseteste had bequeathed his library to them), but from the beginning he appears to have been unhappy. He had difficulty acquiring scientific equipment, he abhorred his colleagues’ disinterest in his work, and he resented the preference shown by his superiors to the more orthodox teachers on the faculty. Within several years, he became embittered and began to level criticisms (often unjust) at some of the best minds of his age. Yet for a time, he was permitted to engage in scientific speculation and observation without interference.

In 1257, he was transferred to the Frairs Minor convent at Paris, possibly because of the...

(The entire section is 1853 words.)