Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bacon, Roger
BACON, ROGER (1214?–1294), philosopher, was born at or near Ilchester, Somersetshire, about 1214. The materials for his life consist, in the first place, of the traditional records, partly drawn from early writers on the history of his time, but to a large extent without any satisfactory foundation; and, in the second place, of the somewhat numerous references, autobiographical in character, contained in his published or unpublished writings. The more important of these writings have only in recent times become the object of study, and the task of the biographer is largely the correction of the earlier tradition by means of the indications so afforded. An interesting but incomplete summary of the older material is furnished by Anthony à Wood; a more enlightened survey by Jebb in the preface to his edition of the 'Opus Majus' (1733); the latest researches have borne good fruit in the works of Brewer and Charles (cited under). Doubtless some obscure points may yet be cleared up by more thorough study of the manuscripts than has yet been undertaken, but it is not probable that there can ever be given more than a scanty outline of the life and labours of a very eminent English thinker.
Bacon's family seems to have been in good circumstances, but to have suffered severe reverses during the stormy reign of Henry III (Op. Ined. p. 16). He speaks of one brother as wealthy, and of another as a scholar (Op. Ined. 13), but there is no means of establishing any relation between these and certain others of the same name commemorated in the history of the time. Robert Bacon, the Dominican, who lectured at Oxford, may have been an uncle of Roger, but could hardly have been his brother. There is no reason to doubt the tradition that he began his university studies at Oxford, and if the report by Matthew Paris (Hist. Maj. 1644, p. 205) of the ironical riddle proposed by him to Henry III be accepted, he must have been at Oxford and in orders in 1233. How long he remained at Oxford there is no record to determine; sufficiently long, however, to have known and appreciated some of the able teachers who then gave the university its renown—Robert Grosseteste, Adam de Marisco, Richard Fitzacre, and Edmond Rich—and to have been influenced by them in the direction of positive science, natural and linguistic. As the length of his stay at Oxford is uncertain, so the date of the next event in his life, transference to the university of Paris, cannot be definitely fixed. From his own references to his study at Paris, his first residence there must have terminated about 1250 (Charles, p. 10). Tradition has assigned to him the usual brilliant career of an eminent teacher in a mediæval university. He is said to have graduated with distinction as doctor, to have attracted students by his lecturing, and to have been known by the significant cognomen of 'doctor admirabilis' (Wood, as in Brewer, Op. Ined. pref p. lxxxvi). But the historians of the university of Paris know or say little of him, and from the way in which he himself refers to his Paris studies it may be inferred that, though he certainly gained high reputation, his withdrawal from the ordinary current of thought was so complete as to render him in no special sense a brilliant light in the scholastic firmament. His contempt for the kind of work by which honour was there eained is unmeasured, and for his own part, with such aid as was afforded by the increasing knowledge of the Arab writers, he devoted himself to acquiring a knowledge of languages, and to experimental researches, partly in alchemy, partly in optics.
About the year 1250 Bacon seems to have returned to England, and though no details are known of the next definable period of his life extending up to 1257, the tradition may; be accepted that he spent the time mainly; at Oxford. The legendary connection between his name and the university of Oxford doubtless dates from this residence. That he had left Oxford in 1257 is attested by Bacon himself (Op. Ined. p, 7), but of the surrounding circumstances extremely little is known. The immediate occasion was the suspicion of his superiors in the Franciscan order, who, perhaps even before the date given, had put him under surveillance, and in 1257 sent him to Paris. At what time or for what reasons he had joined the Franciscan order, there are no means of determining. As he refers pointedly to the fact that he had not written anything 'in alio statu,' we may conjecture that he did not enter at a very early age. It was under the generalship of John of Fidanza, better known as Bonaventura, that Bacon was placed under restraint, and for ten years he was kept in close confinement in Paris. During that time he was denied all opportunity of writing; books and instruments were taken from him, and the most jealous care was taken that he should have no communication with the outer world.
Partial relief came from an unexpected quarter. In 1265 Guy de Foulques, who had in the previous year acted as papal legate in England, was raised to the papal chair as Clement IV. During his residence in England he had made various attempts to communicate with Bacon, and had solicited from him a general treatise on the sciences which rumour spoke of as completed. Bacon, who had no such general treatise ready, had been unable to reply to the friendly request, but, after the elevation of Guy de Foulques, was successful in privately laying before him a statement of the circumstances which had prevented his earlier reply. In answer the pope sent a letter enjoining Bacon to forward to him secretly and privately any writing he could prepare, notwithstanding all injunctions to the contrary of his superiors (the letter is given in Brewer's Op. Ined. p. 1).
The opening chapters of the writing called 'Opus Tertium' give a very vivid picture of Bacon's circumstances when he received this mandate, of the joy with which he hailed the opportunity afforded to him, of the manifold difficulties in the way of completing the work on which he forthwith entered, and of the plan he adopted for laying the substance of his reflections before his friendly auditor. Deeply impressed with a sense of the unity of the sciences, he thought it well first to treat in a general way of the various parts of human knowledge, giving a conspectus or compendious view of the whole before approaching the detailed treatment of the parts. This general view forms the 'Opus Majus,' and apparently the composition and copying must have been accomplished within a wonderfully brief space of time. For within almost two years from the time of receiving Clement's mandate, Bacon, in the 'Opus Tertium,' refers to the 'Opus Majus' as already sent off, and also to a subsequent writing, the 'Opus Secundum,' or 'Opus Minus,' in which an abridgment of the larger work had been given, with a special treatment of some essential subjects omitted either by design or by pressure of circumstances. Still desirous of conveying his thought in such a way as to win the ear of his powerful patron. Bacon forthwith began a new treatment of the whole, and in the seventy-five chapters printed under the title of the 'Opus Tertium' we have at least a portion of his new treatment. The 'Opus Tertium ' in its printed form contains an expanded summary of the main portions of the 'Opus Majus;' but as it makes frequent reference to other writings which were intended to be laid before Clement, it is probable that we have in it only a fragment of a larger work. Evidently during the composition of the 'Opus Tertium' Bacon was relieved from much of the restraint under which he had been suffering, and in 1268 he was again in England. Whether the other writings referred to in the extant chapters of the 'Opus Tertium' were composed in time to be sent to Clement (who died in November 1268) we cannot determine. In all probability they were not, and this circumstance may to some extent account for certain difficulties presented by the manuscripts to be afterwards referred to.
That Clement exerted himself on behalf of Bacon is a mere conjecture; it is certain that after 1267 he was in comparative freedom, and we may suppose devoted himself to working out, in special writings, the particular sciences forming in his conception the body of knowledge. There remain fragments of a work, part of which undoubtedly was written in 1271 or 1272 (Brewer, Op. Ined. pref p. 55), a compendium of philosophy, the projected outlines of which can be drawn with some accuracy. It is in the preliminary portion of this work, printed in the 'Opera Inedita' (pp. 393-511), that Bacon makes his most vehement onslaught on the clergy and the orders as withstanding the progress of true knowledge. In 1278 the general of the Franciscan order, Jerome of Ascoli, afterwards Nicholas IV, held a chapter at Paris for the consideration of the heretical propositions that were troubling the peace of the church. Amongst others who appeared was Roger Bacon, who, condemned 'propter quasdam novitates suspectas,' and prevented from writing to the pope (Gregory X) for defence and aid, passed into a prolonged confinement. Tradition at this point of his career becomes most confused; there exists, however, the manuscript of part of a work in which a date is explicitly recorded. The work is entitled 'Compendium Studii Theologiæ;' the date is 1292. In 1292, then, Bacon was alive, and moreover in freedom. Perhaps he owed his release to the liberality of Raymond Gaufredi, general of the order from 1289 to 1294, with whom tradition has certainly associated his name, and to the fortunate death of Nicholas IV in 1292 (seeCharles, pp. 40-1). How long he survived is unknown; the old biographers mention 1294 among other dates, as 1284, 1290, 1292; and as the latter must all be rejected, 1294 remains in possession of the field. He is said to have died and to have been buried at Oxford.
Bacon's writings fall into the two groups of printed and manuscript. Of the printed works an extremely accurate list is given by M. Le Clerc in the 'Histoire Litt. de la France;' with some supplement and correction it is here followed: 1. 'Opera Chemica Rogeri Bacconis,' 1485, fo.; the same under the titles 'Sanioris medicinæ magistri D. Rogeri Baconis Angli de Arte Chymiæ scripta,' Frankfort, 1603, 12mo; and 'R. B. Thesaurus Chemicus,' ib. 1020. 2. 'Speculum Alchymise,' Nürnberg, 1541, 4to, repeated in many collections of writings on alchemy published from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. A French translation appeared in 1557, and has been twice reprinted, in 1612 and in 1027, under the false title 'Le Miroir de Maistre Jean Mehun.' English translation, 'The Mirror of Alchymy, composed by the thrice famous and learned fryer Bacon,' in 1597, 4to, London; in the same volume is translated part of the 'De mirabili potestate Artis et Naturæ.' 3. 'De mirabili potestate Art is et Naturæ et de nullitate Magiæ,' Paris, 1542, 4to; and frequently either apart or in collections of alchemist writings. French translation, 1557, in the 'Miroir 'above noted, and later in 1612 and 1629; English translations, 1597 and 1659, entitled 'Discovery of the Miracles of Art, Nature, and Magick.' The tract is reprinted in Brewer's ' Opera Inedita,' pp. 523-51. 4. 'Libellus Rogerii Baconi Angli, doctissimi mathematici et medici, de retardandis senectutis accidentibus et de sensibus conservandis,' Oxford, 1590. English translation, 'The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth, by the great mathematician and physician, Roger Bacon, a Franciscan Friar. By Richard Browne,' London, 1683, 12mo. 5. 'Rogerii Baconis Angli viri eminentissimi Perspectiva, opera et studio Johannis Combachii, phil. prof, in acad. Marpurgensi,' Frankfurt, 1614, 4to ( = Pt. V. of 'Opus Majus'). 6. 'Specula Mathematica in quibus de specierum multiplicatione earundemque in inferioribus virtute agitur, Combachii st. et op.,' ibid. 1614 ( = Pt. IV. of 'Opus Majus'). 7. 'Opus Majus ad Clementem Papam,' ed. S. Jebb, London, fo., 1733: reprint, Venice, 1750. 8. 'Fr. Rogeri Bacon Opera quaedam hactenus inedita, Vol. I. containing: 1. Opus Tertium; 2. Opus Minus; 3. Compendium Philosophiæ,' ed. J. S. Brewer, London, Rolls Series, 1859. 9. 'R. B. de Morali Philosophia,' Dublin, 1860 ( = Pt. VII. of the 'Opus Majus,' not contained in Jebb's edition).
A glance at the number and dates of these published works suffices to explain how it has come about that the historical reputation of Roger Bacon inadequately represents, and in many ways misrepresents, his real work and merit. Not till the eighteenth century was it known, nor from the scanty references in the older authorities could it have been gathered, that Bacon was more than an ingenious alchemist, a skilled mechanician, and perhaps a dabbler in the black arts. In this light tradition viewed him, and it is his legendary history only that has established itself in English literature. The famous necromancer. Friar Bacon, with his brazen head, is no unfamiliar figure in popular English writing (see Professor Ward's book below cited). The publication of the 'Opus Majus,' however, rendered possible a more accurate conception of his aims and labours, and made it evident that the main interest of his life had been a struggle towards reform in the existing methods of philosophical or scientific thinking — a reform which in spirit and aim strikingly resembled that more successfully attempted by his more famous namesake in the seventeenth century. The 'Opus Majus,' in vigorous style and with great freedom of expression, discussed the obstacles in the way of true science, rejected authority and verbal subtleties, and sketched in broad outlines the essentials of the great branches of true knowledge. The work has well been designated 'at once the Encyclopædia and the Organon of the thirteenth century.' It is animated by the fresh breath of original study of nature; and though, as was inevitable, the fundamental ideas are in many respects those of the time, the mode of handling and applying them is wonderfully free from the battling restraints that meet one in scholastic speculations. The 'Opus Majus' itself professed to be no more than an encyclopædic outline, and only touched the main features of the great sciences, grammar and logic, mathematics, physics (of which perspective, i.e. optics, was for Bacon the type), experimental research, moral philosophy; it was left to other works to give a more detailed treatment of the various branches.
Later investigations have succeeded in disclosing various interesting and important fragments of the detailed work to which Bacon seems to have applied himself on the completion of the 'Opus Majus.' It is not possible to give an exhaustive enumeration of the extant manuscripts. Those known to exist, and partially examined, are very numerous and in every variety of condition; there are doubtless others not yet brought to light. It is hardly possible, moreover, so to connect the known manuscripts with the indications which can be gathered of Bacon's projected or accomplished writings as to effect some partial classification of them. Either Bacon himself or the transcribers of the manuscripts must have been in the habit of incorporating an accomplished writing in anew work, with such changes of beginning and ending as to bring about the junction; and as the titles of the existing manuscripts generally follow some of the introductory sentences, it is not uncommon to find that writings cited under various titles and assigned to various works are in substance identical. It will be best here to state what has been determined regarding Bacon's activity as a writer after the composition of the 'Opus Majus,' and to point out what manuscripts exist of the products of his activity.
The older authorities agreed in asserting that the 'Opus Majus' was not the only writing prepared by Bacon at the request of Clement, but their accounts of the other treatises were confused and imperfect. Wood quotes from the writing now called 'Opus Tertium,' but regards it as part of a writing called 'Opus Minus' (Brewer, pref. p. 98, says of the passage quoted: 'This passage does not occur in the Digby MS., therefore Wood must have seen some other copy of the "Opus Minus" not now discoverable.' But this is an error. The passage is given in Brewer's own reprint of the 'Opus Tertium,' pp. 272-3, and the title of the manuscript is not 'In Opere Minore,' but merely 'In Opere suo'). Jebb, who had carefully consulted the manuscripts in the British Museum, came upon traces of two writings, called 'Opus Minus' and 'Opus Tertium, but did not succeed in obtaining clear insight into their nature and scope. In 1848, however, Cousin discovered in the public library at Douai an important manuscript, of which he gave a full abstract in the 'Journal des Savants' of the same year. Other manuscripts of this work exist, and it has since been printed by Brewer under the undoubtedly correct title of 'Opus Tertium.' The biographical details given in the seventy-five chapters of printed text are of the utmost value, and the references to other writings enable a clear idea to be formed of the 'Opus Minus,' and a partial idea to be formed of certain projected treatises. From what Bacon himself says it becomes clear (1) that Jebb's edition of the 'Opus Majus' is imperfect as regards pt. ii., on grammar; is wanting in pt. vii., on moral philosophy; and is redundant by inclusion of a long treatise 'de multiplicatione specierum,' which is either part of a later work or an independent tract; (2) that the work called 'Opus Minus,' sent to Clement soon after the 'Opus Majus,' contained (a) a brief view of the contents of the larger treatise, (b) a criticism of the errors of theological study, and (c) a detailed treatment of speculative and practical alchemy. Only one manuscript (that in the Bodleian, Digby, 218) has been discovered which corresponds to the description of the 'Opus Minus.' It is in very imperfect condition, but the fragments, printed in Brewer's valuable edition, seem to represent all that we are likely to find of the work. Jebb, misinterpreting some references in the manuscripts before him, had conjectured that the 'Opus Minus' was intended to contain a body of separate treatments of the various sciences. This is incorrect, but it is certain that Bacon projected such separate treatments, and intended to send them to Clement. The chapters printed as the 'Opus Tertium' contain many forward references, and by comparing these with link-words found in the recently disclosed manuscripts M. Charles has endeavoured to reconstruct the plan of Bacon's work and to determine the manuscript fragments of it. From the circumstance above mentioned, however, it is very difficult to effect this satisfactorily, and it seems highly improbable that Bacon was able to prepare detailed treatises, following up the introduction called now 'Opus Tertium,' and to forward them to Clement. Rather we may conjecture that he began and carried out his plan of detailed treatment, so as to form a complete body of scientific exposition, and that the several portions were indifferently connected with the 'Opus Tertium' and with the later work, the 'Compendium Philosophiæ,' of which the introduction dates from 1271. For the indications point to a substantial identity of content in the two supposed systematic works. Under the one, the so-called 'Opus Tertium,' there appear to fall (1) grammar and logic, (2) mathematics, (3) physics, (4) metaphysics and moral philosophy; under the other, the 'Compendium Philosophiæ,' (1) grammar, (2) logic, (3) mathematics, (4) physics, (5) alchemy, (6) experimental science. The identity of contents explains the difficulty of assigning the extant fragments to the one or to the other, and probably the definite designations we adopt for the two works do not fairly represent anything in Bacon's plan. Of the treatment of grammar, some part remains in the manuscript on Greek grammar in University College, Oxford. Of mathematics, the discussion of the general ideas, 'Communia Mathematica,' is contained in the manuscripts, Brit. Mus. Sloane Coll. 2156, and Bodl. 1677. Of physics, a very important fragment, treating of the fundamental ideas, 'Communia Naturalium,' exists in no fewer than four forms, in the Mazarine Library, Paris, 1271, in the Brit. Mus. Royal Lib. 7 F. vii., in the Bodleian, 1671, and in the library of Univ. Coll. Oxford; the publication of this manuscript, which contains Bacon's treatment of the most important notions of scholastic thinking, is a desideratum. Of the metaphysics, a small portion is found in the Bodleian, 1791, and more in the Biblioth. Imp. at Paris, No. 7440. A more detailed treatment of physics, by its link-expressions designed to form part of the 'Compendium Philosophiæ,' is contained in the Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 8786. Of the latest work of Bacon, the 'Compendium Studii Theologiæ,' date 1292, some few fragments, from which the plan of the whole may be gathered, are contained in the British Mus. 7 F. vii. fo. 153, and 7 F. viii. fo. 2, and in the library of Univ. Coll. Oxford (see Charles, pp. 409-16). The British Museum (Royal Lib. 7 F. viii. fo. 99-191) has also a complete manuscript of an early writing, the 'Computus,' on astronomy and the reformation of the calendar, the date of which, as given in the manuiscript itself, is 1263.
It is much to be desired that a more thorough and detailed study of the known manuscripts and a more extensive search for others which doubtless exist should be undertaken. Some portions are in a condition suitable for publication, and it is wellnigh an obligation resting on English scholars to continue the good work begun by the late Professor Brewer. Bacon's works possess much historical value, for his vigorous thinking and pronounced scientific inclinations are not to be regarded as abnormal and isolated phenomena. He represents one current of thought and work in the middle ages which must have run strongly though obscurely, and without a thorough comprehension of his position our conceptions of an important century are incomplete and erroneous.[Of the earlier works in which Bacon was dealt with at large or incidentally, of Wadding, Cave, Oudin, Leland, Bale, Pits, Tanner, and others, a copious list will be found in the Histoire Littéraire de la France (xx. 227-52); the most valuable recent studies are those of Brewer (preface to E. B. Opera Inedita, London, 1859) and E. Charles (Roger Bacon, sa Vie, ses Ouvrages, ses Doctrines, d'aprês des testes inédits, Paris, 1861), whose work is a model of industry, skill, and intelligence; summaries, mainly of these two authorities, are to be found in Siebert, Roger Bacon, Marbiurg, 1861; Saisset, Revue des deux Mondes, 1861; Westminster Review, January and April 1864; Held, R. B.'s praktische Philosophie, Jena, 1881. Laying greater stress on the scholastic elements in Bacon's work, and somewhat depreciatory in tone, are L. Schneider, Roger Bacon, Augsburg, 1873, and K. Werner, Die Psychologie, Erkenntniss-und Wissenschafts-theorie des R. B., and Die Kosmologie und allgenieine Naturlehre des R. B., Wien, 1879. The popular legend, represented by the Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon, London, 1615 (reprinted in Thoms's Early Prose Romances, iii.), has been turned to good account in English literature; see Terilo's A Piece of Friar Bacon's Brazen Heade's Prophesie, 1604, reprinted in Percy Society Publications, vol. xv., 1844, and Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, 1587 or 1588. On Greene and on the references in other literary pieces to Roger Bacon, see the Introduction and Notes to Ward's Old English Drama, 1878.]