(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Roger Bacon c. 1214/1220-1292

English philosopher.

Considered one of the most profound of the Schoolmen (a group of writers and teachers from about the eleventh to the fifteenth century who were interested in logic, meta-physics, and thology), Bacon fused elements of classical humanistic philosophy with a Christian worldview as well as Judaic and Islamic scientific and mathematical knowledge to form a coherent philosophy which lasted into the Renaissance. Such was his knowledge that some scholars have considered "Doctor Mirabilis"—as Bacon was called—superior in philosophical significance to his distinguished descendent, Sir Francis Bacon.

Biographical Information

Information about the life of Bacon is slim and accounts conflict. His birthplace is believed to have been either Ilchester, Somersetshire or Bisley, Gloucestershire. He studied at Oxford during the tenure of the distinguished classicist and natural philosopher Robert Grosseteste, and by 1236 he had established himself at the University of Paris as one of the first professors of Aristotle's works. While in Paris, Bacon became interested in scientific experimentation, and in about 1247 he began pursuing optical, mathematical, and scientific studies in addition to the disciplines in which he had been trained, which included languages and philosophy. Four years later he returned to England, where he entered the Franciscan order. He returned to Paris, where his writings had come to the attention of John of Fidanza, known today as Bonaventure, head of the Franciscan order at that time. Biographers long held that Bonaventure, displeased with Bacon's writings, placed Bacon under confinement for about ten years, denying him books, paper, and writing instruments; but the story of this imprisonment today seems doubtful. Bacon's writings did come to the attention of Pope Clement IV, and, to Bacon's surprise, Clement wrote to request a fair copy of his doctrines. Now under the gaze of a protector of sorts, and hoping to be commended by the Pope, Bacon responded by writing his Opus majus (c. 1267-68). Then, thinking he might be misunderstood, he wrote a lengthy explanatory treatise, Opus minus (1267). Having composed these massive works in fifteen months, he dispatched them to Rome, along with a work on alchemy, Tractatus de multiplicatione speciarum, in about 1268. Clement died the same year, and it is unclear what he thought of Bacon's works-or, for that matter, if he read them; however, it is clear that his death and the accession of Gregory X to the papacy boded ill for Bacon, as Gregory was not sympathetic to works containing the unfamiliar and the possibly heretical. Bacon left Paris for Oxford, where he completed his third major work, Opus tertium (1268), as well as Greek and Hebrew grammars, and began an ambitious, encyclopedic work, Compendium philosophiae. This uncompleted project contains a blistering attack on Bacon's rivals among the clergy, and upon his monastic superiors for their ignorance and pedantry. In 1278 the head of the Franciscan order, Jerome of Ascoli (later Pope Nicholas IV) held an assembly in Paris to investigate contemporary works of heresy in the Church. Bacon was present at this meeting, and his writings were judged to contain serious theological errors. Bacon was then confined for (it is presumed) about ten years. Upon his release, he wrote two further treatises, not considered highly noteworthy. He died in 1292 and, it is believed, is buried at Oxford.

Major Works

Grosseteste exercised the most decisive influence upon Bacon's philosophical and scientific views as expressed in his three major works. From Grosseteste Bacon also derived his strong belief in the importance of mathematics, as well as his interest in the study of Greek and oriental languages. Bacon's originality lies in two areas: first, he further developed some of the ideas in natural philosophy which he found in Grosseteste; secondly, he attempted to completely synthesize the natural science, philosophy, and religious teaching of his time. Embracing Aristotle's works on physics and metaphysics as harmonious with Christian teaching, Bacon believed in the ultimate unity of all knowledge, physical and metaphysical; he fulminated against his contemporaries who insisted upon a separation of the two, and against the bluff ignorance of his fellow scholars who belittled and disdained learning about the physical sciences. In this, he is important for transmitting Islamic science into the Latin West. At the same time, he did not seek to free science and reason from theology. As Christopher Dawson has written, "The unity of science in which he believes is a purely theological unity. To an even greater extent than the earlier Augustinians he is prepared to subordinate all human knowledge to the divine wisdom that is contained in the Scriptures. All knowledge springs ultimately from Revelation." In his Christian humanist worldview, Bacon, wrote Dawson, "admits the possibility of scientific progress, for there is no finality in this life, and knowledge must continue to increase with the rise and fall of the world religions. All signs, he believed, pointed to the approaching end of the age and to the coming of Anti-christ, and it was to arm Christendom for the struggle and to prepare the way for its renovation under the leadership of a great Pope and a great king that he propounded his schemes for the reform of studies and the utilization of the power of science."

Critical Reception

For centuries Bacon's works existed, for the most part, only in manuscript form in libraries in Oxford, London, Douai, Paris, and Italy. One scholar declared that "it is easier to collect the leaves of the Sybil than the titles of the works written by Roger Bacon." Several fragments, mostly related to alchemy, were published sporadically throughout the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, and for all that period Bacon was commonly thought of as an alchemist. A better-informed scholarly interest in them began in 1733, when Samuel Jebb published an incomplete Latin edition of Opus majus. For over one hundred years, this was the only available edition of Bacon's major works-until J. S. Brewer published Fr. Rogeri Bacon Opera Quœdam hactenus inedita (1859), containing Opus tertium, Opus minus, and the extant portion of Compendium philosophiae, in 1859. This was followed by a still-incomplete Latin edition in 1897, with the first principal English edition of Bacon's writings appearing in 1928. Perhaps the most intriguing of Bacon's works came to light around 1912, when Wilfrid M. Voynich, a specialist in rare books and manuscripts, purchased at auction an illustrated treatise on natural science which came to be called the Voynich Manuscript. This bizarre document, written entirely in cypher, presents an attempt by Bacon to explain and integrate aspects of natural science not otherwise understood by thirteenth-century scholars. Only a few studies of the Voynich Manuscript have been published in the twentieth century, but many books and articles on Bacon's overall accomplishment have appeared, with key explorations conducted by Dawson, Robert Steele, Lynn Thorndike, A. G. Little, and Etienne Gilson. Current Bacon scholarship, in regard to translations and critical studies, is dominated by Jeremiah Hackett, Thomas S. Maloney, and David C. Lindberg. Although the extent of Bacon's influence and his importance to the beginnings of science in the western world have still not been fully noted or understood, commentators agree that he played a major part in the intellectual arena of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe.