Bacon, Roger the greatest of English philosophers before the time of his namesake, Lord Bacon, was born near Ilchester, in Somersetshire, about 1214. He was educated at Oxford, and, according to the custom of his day, proceeded to the university of Paris to study philosophy and theology. Here he received his doctor's degree. About 1240(?) he returned to Oxford, and there (perhaps on the advice of Grossetete q.v.), he took the vows as a Franciscan, and applied himself closely in his convent to the study of languages, as well as to experimental philosophy. It was the mistake of his life that he joined the Franciscans; his brethren soon began to manifest a spirit of enmity, a prohibition being issued against Bacon's lectures in the university, as well as against the publication of any of his writings. He was charged with magic and diabolism, as was commonly the case at that time with those who studied the sciences, and particularly chemistry. Bacon was a true thinker, and, as such, was necessarily regarded as an innovator in such an age, although it was the age of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura. He complained of the absolute submission to authority. "I would burn all the books of Aristotle if I had them in hand" (Comp. Theol. pt. 1, ch. 2). He was very severe upon the scholastic theology, even upon Alexander de Hales, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas, whom he styles vir erroneus et famosus. It was not unnatural that the monks should suspect so plainspoken a man, especially one who kept cauldrons and crucibles at work, studied the stars, and made strange experiments of all sorts. Wadding, the historian of the Franciscans, says that Bacon was condemned propter novitates quasdam suspectas. From 1257 until 1267 he was continually persecuted; most of the time kept in prison, his studies hindered, and all intercourse with the outer world prohibited. In 1265 Clement IV (Guy Foulques, a Frenchman) became pope. He had been Bacon's friend when cardinal legate in England, had taken great interest in his studies, and had sought to get hold of his writings, but the strict watch kept on Bacon prevented him from sending them. Bacon managed to get letters conveyed to the new pope, stating his sad case, and asking help in the name of religion and good learning. Clement's answer required him to send his writings with haste, any command of his superiors or constitution of his order notwithstanding. Bacon at once prepared his Opus Majus from his materials on hand, with an account of his troubles and persecutions in the preface. The book was sent in the year 1267, but the pope did not venture to release him from prison till several months had elapsed, so great was the power of the Franciscan order. Clement died in November, 1268, and Bacon was thus again at the mercy of his enemies; but he still pursued his studies, and was allowed to remain free from open persecution up to 1278; but in that year Jerome of Ascoli, general of the Franciscan order, afterward pope under the title of Nicholas IV, was appointed legate to the court of France. Bacon, then sixty-four years old, was summoned to Paris, where a council of Franciscans, with Jerome at their head, condemned his writings, and committed him to close confinement. A confirmation of the proceeding was immediately obtained from the court of Rome. During ten years every effort made by him to procure his enlargement was without success; but, on the accession of Jerome (Nicholas IV), that which was not to be obtained from the justice of the pope was conceded to private interest, and Bacon was at last restored to liberty by the intercession of some powerful nobles. Some say he died in prison; but the best authorities unite in stating that he returned to Oxford, where he wrote his Compendium Theologiae, and died June 11, 1291, or, as some say, a year and a half after Nicholas IV (who died April, 1292). The suspicion and fear of the monks followed the great man's books after his death; "the books were nailed to boards, so that they could not be read, and were left to rot amid dirt and damp." Of the grandeur of Bacon's scientific intellect, and of the marvellous discoveries made by him, this is not the place to speak at length. Humboldt calls him the greatest apparition of the Middle Ages. In the depths of an age of tradition, he saw what science was, and devoted his life to its pursuit. In languages, he mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. He held, with Plato, that Mathematics is the mistress and key of all the sciences (Opus Majus, pt. 4). In twenty years he spent 2000 livres (a vast sum for that age) in books, apparatus, and experiments. As early as 1264 he sent the pope a proposal to rectify the Julian calendar — three centuries before the thing was done. "Roger Bacon, the vastest intellect that England has produced, studied nature as a natural philosopher rather than as a chemist, and the extraordinary discoveries he made in those branches of science are familiarly known: the rectification of the errors committed in the Julian calendar with regard to the solar year; the physical analysis of the action of lenses and convex glasses; the invention of spectacles for the aged; that of achromatic lenses; the theory and perhaps the first construction of the telescope. From the principles and laws laid down or partially apprehended by him, a system of unanticipated facts was sure to spring, as he himself remarked; nevertheless, his inquiries into chemical phenomena have not been without fruit for us. He carefully studied the properties of saltpetre, and if, in opposition to the ordinary opinion, he did not discover gunpowder, which had been explicitly described by Marcus Graecus fifty years before, he improved its preparation by teaching the mode of purifying saltpetre by first dissolving the salt in water and then crystallizing it. He also called attention to the chemical action of air in combustion" (Figuier, L'Alchimie et les Alchimistes, part 1, ch. 4, p. 80, 81).
The history of Bacon's writings is among the curiosities of literature. A number of his smaller works were printed before the 18th century, but his greatest writings waited until that date. Among the former are his
Perspectiva (Frank. 1614); De Speculis and Specula Mathematica (Frank. 1614, reprinted in 1671); De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae (Paris, 1542); Girard, De l'admirable Pouvoir, etc., ou est traicte de la Pierre Philosophale (translation of the preceding) (Paris, 1557, reprinted in 1629); Scripta quaedam de Arte Chemiae (Frank. 1603 and 1620); Speculum Alchemiae and De Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae, et de Nullitate Magiae (in vols. 2 and 5 of Zetzner's Theatrum Chemicum, Strasb. 1659, transl. by Girard, under the title Misroir d'Alquimie, Lyon, 1557; Paris, 1612 and 1627); De retardandis Senectutis Accidentibus (Oxf. 1590, translated by Dr. R. Browne, Lond. 1683). The greatest of his works were not published until 1733. A number of Bacon's MSS. were known to exist in the libraries of the Continent and of England, especially in the Cottonian Library and in that of Dublin, and Dr. Samuel Jebb, at the request of Richard Mead (court physician), edited and printed the Opus Majus (Lond. 1733, fol.). It is carefully done, but yet omits ch. 7 (the Ethica), and inserts other things not belonging to this book. Professor Ingram, of the University of Dublin, has discovered some of the missing part of the work, and a complete edition of his works is promised, as the British government intrusted the task to Professor Brewer, of King's College, who published vol. 1 in 1859, including the Opus Minus, Opus Tertium, Compendium philosophiae, and de Nullitate Magiae (large 8vo). The Opus Minus is an epitome and complement of the Opus Majus; the Opus Tertium is an enlargement of it. Cousin discovered a MS. of this last work in the library of Douai, and published an enthusiastic account of it and of Bacon in the Journal des Savants, 1848. Pursuing his researches, he found in the Amiens library a manuscript commenting on Aristotle. Cousin now appealed to England to vindicate the name of one of her greatest sons, and the result is seen in the edition announced above. A French scholar, M. Emile Charles, also devoted years of study and travel to Roger Bacon, and published Roger Bacon, sa vie, ses oeuvres, ses doctrines, d'apres des textes inedits (1862, 8vo).
Roger Bacon was the forerunner, in philosophy, of Lord Bacon, who borrowed largely from him, not only in method, but also even in details. The monk possessed, what the chancellor had not, the power of penetrating the secrets of nature. Lord Bacon promoted science by his method, but in actual application of the method he was a child. Roger Bacon anticipated him in the method, and was, at the same time, himself a great experimenter and successful inventor. On the relations between these two great men, see Professor Holmes's excellent articles in the Methodist Quarterly, January and April, 1858, where the subject is more ably and thoroughly treated than by any other writer. Professor Holmes sums up as follows: "That Lord Bacon was anticipated by Roger Bacon in nearly everything that was most distinctive in the double forms of the same identical philosophy cannot be doubted after the copious illustrations given in this essay. That he borrowed directly and consciously from him is our own private conclusion; and that the forced loan amounted to plagiarism, and was levied, like one of James I's voluntary gifts from his people, forcibly and without acknowledgment, is also our conviction, though we will not demand from the public an absolute verdict to this effect. But we do claim that the highest honors which have been assigned to Francis Bacon are due to Roger Bacon and his contemporaries, and we do assert that the friar has been as harshly and unjustly dealt with by the lord chancellor of nature as Aubrey, and Egerton, and the other suitors in the court of equity were handled by the lord high chancellor of England." "Throughout the whole of his writings Bacon is a strict Roman Catholic; that is, he expressly submits matters of opinion to the authority of the church, saying (Cott. MSS. cited by Jebb) that if the respect due to the vicar of the Savior (vicarius Salvatoris) alone, and the benefit of the world, could be consulted in any other way than by the progress of philosophy, he would not, under such experiments as lay in his way, proceed with his undertaking for the whole Church of God, however much it might entreat or insist. His zeal for Christianity, in its Latin or Western form, breaks out in every page; and all science is considered with direct reference to theology, and not otherwise. But, at the same time, to the credit of his principles, considering the book-burning, heretic-hunting age in which he lived, there is not a word of any other force except that of persuasion. He takes care to have both authority and reason for every proposition that he advances; perhaps, indeed, he might have experienced forbearance at the hand of those who were his persecutors, had he not so clearly made out prophets, apostles, and fathers to have been partakers of his opinions. 'But let not your serenity imagine,' he says, 'that I intend to excite the clemency of your holiness, in order that the papal majesty should employ force against weak authors and the multitude, or that my unworthy self should raise any stumbling-block to study' (Penny Cyclopoedia, s.v.). Indeed, the whole scope of the first part of the work is to prove, from authority and from reason, that philosophy and Christianity cannot disagree — a sentiment altogether of his own revival, in an age in which all philosophers, and mathematicians in particular, were considered as at best of dubious orthodoxy. The effect of his writings on theology was to introduce a freer spirit, and to prepare the way for Wickliffe, Huss, and the later reformers. He combatted the one-sided supremacy of Aristotle, and even the authority of the fathers; he pointed out errors in their writings, and appealed to the original sources of theological knowledge. He was distinguished for his knowledge of languages, and made himself familiar with the original Scriptures. In a treatise on the advantages of grammar, he endeavored to prove the necessity of linguistic studies, in order better to understand the Bible, which, he said, every layman ought to study in the original. He disputed the authority of the Vulgate, in which he detected mistakes. The Bible, according to his view, ought to be the supreme law. to which every department of life and knowledge must be subjected. A reformatory germ lay in this exaltation of the Bible above the authority of the church and tradition, Theology he placed at the head of all the sciences; revelation is the completion and perfecting of human reason; in all knowledge, including philosophical and theological, harmony necessarily reigns. "Theology develops immediately the contents of Scripture; speculation is the link between Scripture and natural reason. It receives what is true in earlier speculation, and connects with it those truths which reason might indeed know of itself, but which it would never have found without the impulse which revelation gives it. Christian philosophy can therefore be reconciled with faith, since it asserts rational truths which every wise man admits, although if left to himself he would not have known them. This corresponds not only to Christian philosophy, but also to the Christian consciousness, which must bring all truth to divine truth, to be subordinate to it and serve it. Propter conscientiam Christianam, quae valet omnem veritatem ducere ad divinam, ut ei subjiciatur et famuletur. Opus Majus, p. 41." (Neander, History of Dogmas, 2:554, 577.) See an essay by Saisset, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, also in Saisset's Precurseurs et disciples de Descartes (Paris, 1862; transl. by Howland, in American Presb. Review, Oct. 1863); and, besides the works cited in the course of this article, see Daunou and Leclerc, in Hist. Litt. de la France, 20:230. Hoefer, Histoire de la Chimie, t. i, Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Generale, 3, 91; Ritter, Geschichte d. Christlichen Philosophie, 4:473 sq.; Gieseler, Church Hist. § 74; Neander, Church Hist. 4:424: Biographia Britannica, 4:616; Ingram, On the Opus Majus of Roger Bacon (Dublin, 1858, 8vo).