Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/January 1902/Friar Roger Bacon

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A RECENT perusal of the published works of Bacon leads me to attempt to set forth, in this place, something of his life and of his times. He is, beyond a doubt, one of the great illustrations of our race. Let us in the first place set down the facts of his checquered life in a story, without seeking too deeply for the causes of his defeats and perils. It will be time enough to examine the reasons when we know the results. He was born of a good and wealthy family, in England, between the years 1210 and 1215. He first appears in history in the year 1233. King Henry the Third had just listened, at Oxford, to a long sermon and to reprimands from a relative of Bacon's—probably an uncle—who charged the king to dismiss from his council Pierre Des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, who was hated by the English. A young clerk—it was Bacon—dared to address the king with this audacious raillery, says Matthew Paris in his chronicle.

"Seigneur Roi, savez-vous les dangers qu'on a le plus à redouter quand on navigue au-delà de la mer?

"Ceux-là le savent, répartit Henri, qui ont l'habitude de ces voyages.

"Eh bien, je vais vous le dire, reprit le clerc, ce sont les pierres et les roches—et il voulait désigner par là Pierre Des Roches, l'évêque de Winchester.'

Bold and reckless speaking regardless of consequences was a lifelong characteristic of Bacon, and the first and only anecdote that we have represents him bold with kings, as he afterwards was bold towards popes, cardinals, generals of his order, doctors of the church and the society in which he lived. It may, for a moment, seem to us to be a merit. In sad fact, it was never so in his life, and it led to his undoing.

He learned this temerity from a great man who was his master at Oxford and afterwards the illustrious Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grossteste, the first English scholar of his time—he who browbeat the pope and called him 'heretic' and 'anti-Christ.' Robert was Superior of the Franciscans at Oxford and lectured there on optics. Athelard of Bath, the first translator of Euclid, was not forgotten in those schools, which were then marked by great intellectual freedom and by a strong leaning towards science.

Here Bacon passed years in ardent research. He mastered all the book learning of the schools—philosophy and mathematics; and expended, he tells us, something like £2,000 (probably French pounds) in his experiments in natural philosoph}-, chemistry and astronomy. Experimental science v.as a new thing and Bacon may well claim to be its founder, though Ptolemy experimented on refraction, Galen on the nerves and muscles and the Arabs in various branches of science.

About the year 1240 Bacon became a friar of the order of St. Francis. If he had seen clearly, his career was made. Albertus Magnus and his great pupil, Thomas Aquinas, were the lights of the Dominican Order. The Franciscans would have welcomed and honored a champion who was the superior of Albert and the equal, or almost the equal, of Aquinas. But Bacon had only rough and bitter criticisms for all monks—Franciscans and Dominicans alike. His was an original and hardy genius; and he proved himself a merciless critic of all celebrities, of every accepted method and conclusion. Alexander of Hales, Doctor Irrefragabilis, was the oracle of the Franciscans. Of his Summa Theologiæ, Bacon says: It was a load for a horse—true—but—the reputed author did not write it. Albertus Magnus wrote libraries of books: All of them that were of any account, says Bacon, could be put in a single volume. Aquinas is vir erroneus et famosus. Of the other doctors, Michael Scot, he says, knew no Greek, Gerhard of Cremona, not even Latin, and William of Morbecke, the friend of Aquinas, was the most ignorant of all. St. Augustine and Origen were full of errors, and St. Jerome did not always understand the scriptures he translated.

"Never was there so great an appearance of wisdom, nor so much exercise of study as for this last forty years. Doctors are everywhere, in every castle, in every burgh, especially the students of the two Orders (Franciscan and Dominican). And yet there never was so much ignorance and error." He condemned the current versions of Aristotle—retranslations from the Arabic of translations once made into Syriac by Nestorian monks. "The common herd of students," he says, "mope and make asses of themselves over their bad translations and waste their time, their trouble and their money." In fact, he declares, "What the mass of men believe is necessarily false." As for the works of Aristotle, he would burn them all.

It is no wonder that Bacon was disciplined and imprisoned in Paris during the }ears 1257 to 1267. How severe his punishment was we shall never know. A part of it was rigorous. He was forbidden books and copyists, kept on bread and water. At times, however, he had pupils, copyists and some slight degree of liberty. He was condemned by a council of his order propter quasdam novitates suspectas—in reality because his harsh and innovating spirit diffused uneasiness all about him. It is charitable if we do not pronounce him envious. With Albertus Magnus and Aquinas he made up a trio of really great men, but he has no good words for either of them or for their works and ways. The men of no century have listened willingly to criticism delivered in this temper. That his strictures were substantially just did not make them more acceptable in Bacon's case, nor four centuries later, in the case of Galileo. It was of no avail that his life was pure, that he had not sinned against the faith, that he had not rebelled against authority. His real offence was the censorious temper which made him enemies on every hand.

A new opportunity came to Bacon with the election of Guy Foulques (Clement IV.) to the papacy. The new pope had been a soldier, a learned jurisconsult, and Secretary of Saint Louis, before taking religious orders. While he was legate of the reigning pope in England he heard that Bacon was writing a treatise on the reformation of learning, and on many occasions he endeavored to communicate with him by letters which were intercepted by the Franciscans. In the second year of his own pontificate (1266) the new pope. Head of the Church, succeeded in sending a letter to Bacon by private hand. The letter orders Bacon "in the name of our apostolic authority and notwithstanding any injunctions to the contrary from any prelate whatsoever, and notwithstanding the constitution of your Order, to send, without delay, a copy of the work for which we asked at the time of our legation into England"; and the pope especially charges his correspondent that all this should be done "with all the secrecy possible." What a commentary upon the strictness of Bacon's imprisonment is this letter from the Head of the Church, the successor of St. Peter, with power to bind and loose! If it exhibits the persecution of Bacon, the power of the Orders, the penances of fasts and macerations, the misery of the prisoner, it also exhibits in the best and strongest light the existence in the Church of enlightened and generous spirits. Everything in the picture is not dark.

Bacon was released in 1267 by order of the pope who had then received his Opus Majus, and he returned to Oxford to find his group of noble friends dispersed or dead. Here he resumed his studies, his writings, his criticisms, his bitter and censorious polemics.

His protector, Clement IV., died in 1268 and the new pope soon had good reason to distrust the English friar. Bacon vehemently attacked the orders, the pope, the court at Rome, the prelates, the laïcs, the clerks, the doctors of the Church, the theologians. He swept the world clean of friends and followers. "Consider," he says, "every rank of society and you shall find an infinite corruption everywhere, beginning at the summit. The court at Rome is dominated by the Civil Law * * * this sacred seat is the prey of crime and deceit, justice is perishing, peace is violated, pride reigns, avarice burns there, gluttony corrupts manners, envy eats their hearts, luxury dishonors the entire Court of the Papacy. * * * And the prelates! consider how eager they are for riches, how indifferent to the care of souls, * * * The religious (of the orders) are no better, and I except no Order whatsoever. * * * This people of clerks are a prey to pride, luxury and avarice. Everywhere, as at Paris and Oxford, they scandalize the laïcs * * * by their vices."

What remedy for this horrible state of things? What examples of holy living and dying does Bacon put forth for imitation? Why, the ancients like Zeno and Seneca, pagans all, and infidels like Avicenna, Alfarabius and the rest! We seem to hear the murmurs of the Renaissance in the words of this monk of the thirteenth century. If the church will not purge herself of evil he predicts the coming of the Tartars or the Saracens. In reality he was foretelling the Reformation. Terrible words like these led to his own imprisonment, again at Paris, in the year 1278. This time his punishment was strict. He was not released until a liberal general of his Order sent him home in 1293, an old man of some eighty years, to die in peace at Oxford.

The story of his life is told. Henceforward we are concerned only with the debt which modern science owes to him. But there are two errors into which we must not fall. In the first place those dark ages were not without illumination. Consider the group of great and liberal men who were Bacon's companions at Oxford in his early years, and that other group of free spirits at Paris. Consider the patience with which a pope tries for years to lighten his lot and the generosity with which he sets him free at last. Consider that the same history is almost exactly repeated by the enlightened general of his order who releases him in 1292.

And, again, let us see what were, in all likelihood, the suspect novelties for which he was punished. Like all the great and small of his time Bacon believed in astrology—in the influence of the stars upon the destinies of men. Was not Christianity itself ushered in by the portent of the Star of Bethlehem? An idea adopted from the Arab Albumazar, that the advent and continuance of religions depend upon the conjunctions of the planets, was his ruin. Christianity came in, he said, with a conjunction of Jupiter and Mercury, and all religions were to disappear at a future conjunction of Jupiter and the moon. This is the suspect novelty for which he was condemned by a chapter of his order; and who shall say that he was not justly condemned? If it were allowable in a superstitious age to cast horoscopes and to reckon up the influence of stars upon the fate of individuals, it would have been monstrous and suicidal for the church to agree that religions were subject to purely natural laws and conjunctions. No church could fail to strike home when threatened with extinction in this material fashion. Bacon is no martyr of science. He was punished for an attack on the very nature and existence of the church itself; for setting up a natural law to govern and limit the things of the spirit.

Owing to the horror which was felt by the writers of that age for the heresies of Bacon, his influence was very small. While Albertus Magnus was entertaining kings, and while Aquinus was the honored expounder of ecclesiastical doctrine, their contemporary and peer was languishing in confinement. His immense work was done in spite of his disgrace. His pupils received his doctrines and through them his ideas gained currency. His writings are scarcely mentioned by the authors of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but we know of at least three cases in which they exerted a profound influence. The admirable doctrine of optics set forth in his work on perspective was known to Descartes, beyond a doubt, and cannot have failed to direct the thoughts of the philosopher to whom we owe the foundation of our modern theories. Again, Paul of Middleburg was deeply concerned with the reform of the calendar, and in his treatise on the subject made great use of Bacon's writings. It was Paul that suggested to Copernicus the need of more accurate tables of the planets, and we may fairly say that Bacon's labors came to fruition in the heliocentric theory of the world. Finally, a long passage in his Opus majus, treating of the probable proximity of Spain and India, was literally transferred (without credit) to the Imago Mundi of Peter d'Ailly. It is Columbus himself, in a letter to the King and Queen of Spain, who cites this passage as one of the authorities that put it into his mind to venture on his great voyage. Truly ideas do not die, and those of Bacon have made great changes in this little world of ours.

We may pass over his influence upon the metaphysical controversies of his time, though it was not small. He was thoroughly versed in scholastic dialectic and was much concerned to combat the pantheistic theories of Averroës and his school. He is of the strictest sect of the Nominalists, with a reasonable practicality all his own. "The prevalent view," he says, "is that universals exist only in the mind. Yet two stones would be like one another even though there should be no mind to perceive them. But it is precisely this likeness of the two stones that constitutes their universal." How modern it sounds! How crisp and neat, like a French logician. With Bacon as with others whom we call the ancients, we perpetually meet the modern note. A man's character is his fate was not written by Taine or Stendhal, but by Heracleitus five centuries before the Christian era.

Bacon proposed to Clement IV. the reform of the calendar in sagacious and artfully presented terms. He points out to the pope the errors of the accepted lunar tables, and proves that after a series of years the moon will be a full moon in the sky, but a new moon in the calendar. Nothing could be neater than the presentation of this dilemma.

Bacon understood the theory of vision, the anatomy of the eye and much of the physiology of perception, as well as the theory of lenses and of the simple microscope. He did not combine two lenses to make a telescope, but he was on the high road to it. His works on alchemy were undertaken in the same scientific spirit, though in the infancy of chemistry they led to few results of value. Gunpowder he knew, very likely through the Arabs or the Greeks of Constantinople, who had it from the east. The children of his time played with it, he says.

No better example of the experimental method imagined and extolled by Bacon can be given than an analysis of his brilliant demonstration of the nature of the rainbow. Let the experimenter, he says, first consider the cases in which he finds the same colors; as in the hexagonal prisms of Iceland spar, for example. By looking into these he will see the rainbow hues. Many think that these arise from some special virtue of the stones, or from their hexagonal figure. Let the experimenter therefore go on and he shall find the same colors in other stones of other shapes, as well as in the drops of water dashed from oars in the sunshine, and the like. All these are instances like the phenomenon of rainbow colors. With regard to the form of the bow he is still more precise. He bids us measure the altitude of the bow and of the sun and note that the center of the bow is exactly opposite to the sun. He explains its circular form—its independence of the form of the raincloud—its moving when we move—its flying when we follow—by its consisting of reflections from a vast multitude of minute drops of rain. In the iris shown by the spray of a waterfall we may see the whole circle. In the sky the plane of the horizon comes in to interfere. Each drop of rain in the cloud is to be regarded as a spherical mirror.

His views of the nature of force are expansions of those held vaguely by Democritus and Lucretius. A body is a center of force from which energies radiate in every direction. Every action is accompanied by a reaction, and there is an interchange of force between all bodies of the universe. The propagation of force, of light for example, requires time. "There is no substance on which the action involved in the passage of a ray may not produce a change. Thus it is that rays of heat or sound penetrate the walls of a vessel of gold or brass. In any case, there are many dense bodies which altogether interfere with the visual and other senses of man so that rays cannot pass so as to produce an effect on human sense and yet, nevertheless, rays do really pass, though without our being aware of it." These precise statements were mere words to his contemporaries and could not have been completely understood before the beginning of our own century. The note is that of Count Rumford or, at earliest, of Newton and Huyghens,

That learning might be reformed, he proposed the study of the comparative grammar of Greek, Arabic, Latin and Hebrew, the assiduous collection of ancient manuscripts and the ardent study of the classics. Here is the distinctive note of the Renaissance. But if the study of ancient books be so important how much more imperative is the study of the book of Nature!

I call experimental science, says Bacon, that which neglects argumentation; for the strongest arguments prove nothing so long as they are not verified by experience.

Experimental science does not receive truth from the hands of the higher sciences; it is she who is the mistress; the others are but her handmaids.

She has the right to command; for she alone certifies and consecrates their results.

Experimental science is then the Queen of the sciences and the limit of all speculation.

Physicists should know that their science is impotent if they do not utilize the power of mathematics, without which observation grows weak and incapable of any certitude.

These sentences selected at random out of whole chapters epitomize the teachings of Francis Bacon three centuries later and bring us near to the viewpoint of Helmholtz or Lord Kelvin.

Bacon had already begun the application of his absolutely new method and he has a clear vision of what may be accomplished in the future. After the mere facts of nature are discovered, he says, the laws back of the facts will be brought to light. When they are once known, the work of speculation will be completed. Man is to be the master of the world and his will is to govern. "Machines will be invented to navigate the seas without rowers; to traverse the land with unimaginable velocity; to fly with artificial wings; to walk on the bottom of the seas without danger; to bridge rivers without piers or columns.' We are yet very far from a complete conquest of nature, but the nineteenth century has seen the accomplishment of each of these visions of the astonishing monk of the thirteenth.

The entire work of Bacon is summed up in two insights of widely different character and of the first importance. Either of them is a title to enduring fame. He was the first of men to expose the essential infertility of scholastic philosophy; and he was the originator of the inductive methods that characterize modern science. If we set down in detail the matured judgments of our own time upon the scholasticism of the thirteenth century we shall find that each and every one of them was fully anticipated by Bacon; that he clearly saw all its weaknesses and defects; and that he enforced his insight by constant, bold, vigorous and searching criticism. If we analyze the scientific methods of Galileo, Huyghens and Newton we shall find that, in their large lines, they are the same as those of the Experimental Science based upon mathematics, of which Bacon was the first inventor and almost the only exponent for three hundred years

The thirteenth century, as a whole, received its full expression in the works of Albertus Magnus. We can only comprehend the admirable independence and originality of Bacon's mind when we have compared him, point by point, with his great rival. They are literally worlds apart. One epitomizes the old world; the other foretells the new. Seen in this summary way Bacon appears a lusus naturæ—as a man born quite out of his own time; and he is usually so regarded. When, however, we consider his whole career with a minuteness that has been impossible in this short sketch, we discover that the seeds of the rich harvest of his mind were sown by his great teacher, Robert of Lincoln; that in Paris Peter of Mericourt—the author of De Magnete, from which Gilbert of Colchester derived many of his ideas—was his master in experimental science; and that both in Oxford and Paris he found many kindred spirits. We have proofs, therefore, that in the first half of the thirteenth century there were at least two companies of open-minded and liberal scholars. The fame of Bacon's lectures at the universities testifies to the existence of the same spirit in other large companies. It is only because the annals of the time are so deficient, and especially because the history of that time has been written by the Dominicans, his enemies, that we cannot adduce other specific instances, with names and dates, to demonstrate more fully that Bacon had the fellowship of men of his own stamp; that, in a strict sense he was the highest product of his age; that he was not, at least for half his life, utterly isolated. Until we understand these conditions we cannot comprehend his true relations to his age. At the beginning of the century there was a striving towards sound learning—a veritable revival—of which Bacon is the highest exponent. We are not concerned to here exhibit how and why the spirit of the century changed when its years were half run out.

If his career could have been, like that of Albertus Magnus, molded into a reasonable conformity to the spirit of his time, his works would have also been the text-books of the schools of the thirteenth century; his influence would have been immense and immediate; the revival of learning would have dated from Bacon, not from Petrarch; the foundations of modern science would have been firmly laid three centuries before Copernicus. Why these changes were not to be is explained by his character: and his character was his fate.