Roger Bacon: An Appreciation

[This is taken from H. Stanley Redgrove's Bygone Beliefs.]


IT has been said that “a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.”  Thereto might be added, “and in his own time”; for, whilst there is continuity in time, there is also evolution, and England of to-day, for instance, is not the same country as England of the Middle Ages.  In his own day ROGER BACON was accounted a magician, whose heretical views called for suppression by the Church.  And for many a long day afterwards was he mainly remembered as a co-worker in the black art with Friar BUNGAY, who together with him constructed, by the aid of the devil and diabolical rites, a brazen head which should possess the power of speech—the experiment only failing through the negligence of an assistant.[1] Such was ROGER BACON in the memory of the later Middle Ages and many succeeding years; he was the typical alchemist, where that term carries with it the depth of disrepute, though indeed alchemy was for him but one, and that not the greatest, of many interests.

[1] The story, of course, is entirely fictitious. For further particulars see Sir J. E. SANDYS’ essay on “Roger Bacon in English Literature,” in Roger Bacon Essays (1914), referred to below.


Ilchester, in Somerset, claims the honor of being the place of ROGER BACON’S birth, which interesting and important event occurred, probably, in 1214.  Young BACON studied theology, philosophy, and what then passed under the name of “science,” first at Oxford, then the centre of liberal thought, and afterwards at Paris, in the rigid orthodoxy of whose professors he found more to criticize than to admire.  Whilst at Oxford he joined the Franciscan Order, and at Paris he is said, though this is probably an error, to have graduated as Doctor of Theology.  During 1250-1256 we find him back in England, no doubt engaged in study and teaching.  About the latter year, however, he is said to have been banished—on a charge of holding heterodox views and indulging in magical practices—to Paris, where he was kept in close confinement and forbidden to write.  Mr. LITTLE,[1] however, believes this to be an error, based on a misreading of a passage in one of BACON’S works, and that ROGER was not imprisoned, but stricken with sickness.  At any rate it is not improbable that some restrictions as to his writing were placed on him by his superiors of the Franciscan Order.  In 1266 BACON received a letter from Pope CLEMENT asking him to send His Holiness his works in writing without delay.  This letter came as a most pleasant surprise to BACON; but he had nothing of importance written, and in great haste and excitement, therefore, he composed three works explicating his philosophy, the Opus Majus, the Opus Minus, and the Opus Tertium, which were completed and dispatched to the Pope by the end of the following year.  This, as Mr. ROWBOTTOM remarks, is “surely one of the literary feats of history, perhaps only surpassed by Swedenborg when he wrote six theological and philosophical treatises in one year.”[1b]

[1] See his contribution, “On Roger Bacon’s Life and Works,” to Roger Bacon Essays.

[1b] B. R. ROWBOTTOM:  “Roger Bacon,” The Journal of the Alchemical Society, vol. ii. (1914), p. 77.


The works appear to have been well received.  We next find BACON at Oxford writing his Compendium Studii Philosophiae, in which work he indulged in some by no means unjust criticisms of the clergy, for which he fell under the condemnation of his order, and was imprisoned in 1277 on a charge of teaching “suspected novelties”. In those days any knowledge of natural phenomena beyond that of the quasi-science of the times was regarded as magic, and no doubt some of ROGER BACON’S “suspected novelties” were of this nature; his recognition of the value of the writings of non-Christian moralists was, no doubt, another “suspected novelty”.  Appeals for his release directed to the Pope proved fruitless, being frustrated by JEROME D’ASCOLI, General of the Franciscan Order, who shortly afterwards succeeded to the Holy See under the title of NICHOLAS IV.  The latter died in 1292, whereupon RAYMOND GAUFREDI, who had been elected General of the Franciscan Order, and who, it is thought, was well disposed towards BACON, because of certain alchemical secrets the latter had revealed to him, ordered his release.  BACON returned to Oxford, where he wrote his last work, the Compendium Studii Theologiae.  He died either in this year or in 1294.[1]

[1] For further details concerning BACON’S life, EMILE CHARLES:  Roger Bacon, sa Vie, ses Ouvrages, ses Doctrines (1861); J. H. BRIDGES:  The Life & Work of Roger Bacon, an Introduction to the Opus Majus (edited by H. G. JONES, 1914); and Mr. A. G. LITTLE’S essay in Roger Bacon Essays, may be consulted.


It was not until the publication by Dr SAMUEL JEBB, in 1733, of the greater part of BACON’S Opus Majus, nearly four and a half centuries after his death, that anything like his rightful position in the history of philosophy began to be assigned to him.  But let his spirit be no longer troubled, if it were ever troubled by neglect or slander, for the world, and first and foremost his own country, has paid him due honor.  His septcentenary was duly celebrated in 1914 at his alma mater, Oxford, his statue has there been raised as a memorial to his greatness, and savants have meted out praise to him in no grudging tones.[2] Indeed, a voice has here and there been heard depreciating his better-known namesake FRANCIS,[3] so that the later luminary should not, standing in the way, obscure the light of the earlier; though, for my part, I would suggest that one need not be so one-eyed as to fail to see both lights at once.

[2] See Roger Bacon, Essays contributed by various Writers on the Occasion of the Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of his Birth.  Collected and edited by A. G. LITTLE (1914); also Sir J. E. SANDYS’ Roger Bacon (from The Proceedings of the British Association, vol.  vi., 1914).

[3] For example, that of ERNST DUHRING.  See an article entitled “The Two Bacons,” translated from his Kritische Geschichte der Philosophie in The Open Court for August 1914.


To those who like to observe coincidences, it may be of interest that the septcentenary of the discoverer of gunpowder should have coincided with the outbreak of the greatest war under which the world has yet groaned, even though gunpowder is no longer employed as a military propellant.

BACON’S reference to gunpowder occurs in his Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae, et de Nullitate Magiae (Hamburg, 1618) a little tract written against magic, in which he endeavors to show, and succeeds very well in the first eight chapters, that Nature and art can perform far more extraordinary feats than are claimed by the workers in the black art.  The last three chapters are written in an alchemical jargon of which even one versed in the symbolic language of alchemy can make no sense.  They are evidently cryptogramic, and probably deal with the preparation and purification of saltpeter, which had only recently been discovered as a distinct body.[1] In chapter xi.  there is reference to an explosive body, which can only be gunpowder; by means of it, says BACON, you may, “if you know the trick, produce a bright flash and a thundering noise.”  He mentions two of the ingredients, saltpeter and sulphur, but conceals the third (i.e. charcoal) under an anagram.  Claims have, indeed, been put forth for the Greek, Arab, Hindu, and Chinese origins of gunpowder, but a close examination of the original ancient accounts purporting to contain references to gunpowder, shows that only incendiary and not explosive bodies are really dealt with.  But whilst ROGER BACON knew of the explosive property of a mixture in right proportions of sulphur, charcoal, and pure saltpeter (which he no doubt accidentally hit upon whilst experimenting with the last-named body), he was unaware of its projective power.  That discovery, so detrimental to the happiness of man ever since, was, in all probability, due to BERTHOLD SCHWARZ about 1330.

[1] For an attempted explanation of this cryptogram, and evidence that BACON was the discoverer of gunpowder, see Lieut.-Col. H. W. L. HIME’S Gunpowder and Ammunition: their Origin and Progress (1904).


ROGER BACON has been credited[1] with many other discoveries.  In the work already referred to he allows his imagination freely to speculate as to the wonders that might be accomplished by a scientific utilization of Nature’s forces—marvelous things with lenses, in bringing distant objects near and so forth, carriages propelled by mechanical means, flying machines . . .—but in no case is the word “discovery” in any sense applicable, for not even in the case of the telescope does BACON describe means by which his speculations might be realized.

[1] For instance by Mr. M. M. P. MUIR.  See his contribution, on “Roger Bacon:  His Relations to Alchemy and Chemistry,” to Roger Bacon Essays.


On the other hand, ROGER BACON has often been maligned for his beliefs in astrology and alchemy, but, as the late Dr BRIDGES (who was quite skeptical of the claims of both) pointed out, not to have believed in them in BACON’S day would have been rather an evidence of mental weakness than otherwise.  What relevant facts were known supported alchemical and astrological hypotheses.  Astrology, Dr BRIDGES writes, “conformed to the first law of Comte’s philosophia prima, as being the best hypothesis of which ascertained phenomena admitted.”[1] And in his alchemical speculations BACON was much in advance of his contemporaries, and stated problems which are amongst those of modern chemistry.

[1] Op. cit., p.84.


ROGER BACON’S greatness does not lie in the fact that he discovered gunpowder, nor in the further fact that his speculations have been validated by other men.  His greatness lies in his secure grip of scientific method as a combination of mathematical reasoning and experiment.  Men before him had experimented, but none seemed to have realized the importance of the experimental method.  Nor was he, of course, by any means the first mathematician—there was a long line of Greek and Arabian mathematicians behind him, men whose knowledge of the science was in many cases much greater than his—or the most learned mathematician of his day; but none realized the importance of mathematics as an organon of scientific research as he did; and he was assuredly the priest who joined mathematics to experiment in the bonds of sacred matrimony.  We must not, indeed, look for precise rules of inductive reasoning in the works of this pioneer writer on scientific method.  Nor do we find really satisfactory rules of induction even in the works of FRANCIS BACON.  Moreover, the latter despised mathematics, and it was not until in quite recent years that the scientific world came to realize that ROGER’S method is the more fruitful—witness the modern revolution in chemistry produced by the adoption of mathematical methods.

ROGER BACON, it may be said, was many centuries in advance of his time; but it is equally true that he was the child of his time; this may account for his defects judged by modern standards.  He owed not a little to his contemporaries:  for his knowledge and high estimate of philosophy he was largely indebted to his Oxford master GROSSETESTE (c. 1175-1253), whilst PETER PEREGRINUS, his friend at Paris, fostered his love of experiment, and the Arab mathematicians, whose works he knew, inclined his mind to mathematical studies.  He was violently opposed to the scholastic views current in Paris at his time, and attacked great thinkers like THOMAS AQUINAS (c. 1225-1274) and ALBERTUS MAGNUS (1193-1280), as well as obscurantists, such as ALEXANDER of HALES (ob. 1245). But he himself was a scholastic philosopher, though of no servile type, taking part in scholastic arguments.  If he declared that he would have all the works of ARISTOTLE burned, it was not because he hated the Peripatetic’s philosophy—though he could criticize as well as appreciate at times,--but because of the rottenness of the translations that were then used.  It seems commonplace now, but it was a truly wonderful thing then: ROGER BACON believed in accuracy, and was by no means destitute of literary ethics.  He believed in correct translation, correct quotation, and the acknowledgment of the sources of one’s quotations—unheard-of things, almost, in those days.  But even he was not free from all the vices of his age: in spite of his insistence upon experimental verification of the conclusions of deductive reasoning, in one place, at least, he adopts a view concerning lenses from another writer, of which the simplest attempt at such verification would have revealed the falsity.  For such lapses, however, we can make allowances.

Another and undeniable claim to greatness rests on ROGER BACON’S broad-mindedness. He could actually value at their true worth the moral philosophies of non-Christian writers—SENECA (c. 5 B.C.- A.D. 65) and AL GHAZZALI (1058-1111), for instance.  But if he was catholic in the original meaning of that term, he was also catholic in its restricted sense.  He was no heretic: the Pope for him was the Vicar of CHRIST, whom he wished to see reign over the whole world, not by force of arms, but by the assimilation of all that was worthy in that world.  To his mind—and here he was certainly a child of his age, in its best sense, perhaps—all other sciences were handmaidens to theology, queen of them all.  All were to be subservient to her aims: the Church he called “Catholic” was to embrace in her arms all that was worthy in the works of “profane” writers—true prophets of God, he held, in so far as writing worthily they unconsciously bore testimony to the truth of Christianity,--and all that Nature might yield by patient experiment and speculation guided by mathematics.  Some minds see in this a defect in his system, which limited his aims and outlook; others see it as the unifying principle giving coherence to the whole.  At any rate, the Church, as we have seen, regarded his views as dangerous, and restrained his pen for at least a considerable portion of his life.

ROGER BACON may seem egotistic in argument, but his mind was humble to learn.  He was not superstitious, but he would listen to common folk who worked with their hands, to astrologers, and even magicians, denying nothing which seemed to him to have some evidence in experience: if he denied much of magical belief, it was because he found it lacking in such evidence.  He often went astray in his views; he sometimes failed to apply his own method, and that method was, in any case, primitive and crude.  But it was the RIGHT method, in embryo at least, and ROGER BACON, in spite of tremendous opposition, greater than that under which any man of science may now suffer, persisted in that method to the end, calling upon his contemporaries to adopt it as the only one which results in right knowledge.  Across the centuries—or, rather, across the gulf that divides this world from the next—let us salute this great and noble spirit.






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