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Bacon, Roger

Category: Genius


Roger Bacon, OFM (c. 1214 –1292) also known as Doctor Mirabilis, meaning "wonderful teacher", was an English philosopher and Franciscan friar, who is described by some scholars and writers as the ‘first true scientist’. 

He was an alchemist and a genius, hence the reason he is placed in this category.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bacon, Roger
The 13th century, an age peculiarly rich in great men, produced few, if any, who can take higher rank than Roger Bacon.... Bacon, it is now said, was not appreciated by his age because he was in advance of it; he is no schoolman, but a modern thinker, whose conceptions of science are more just and clear than are even those of his more celebrated namesake.

Fundamental beliefs

Bacon’s metaphysics recognised two aspects to the universe – matter and spirit - the latter he calls virtus, species, imago agentis, depending on whether he is describing a function, a template or an aggregate – class. 

Alchemy, burning the dross away to gain a crown and wings

Change is produced by the execution of the virtus – the function execution – and each change results in a new version of the existence of matter.  In effect matter exists and then does not exist – it is recreated all the time by the action of the functions of the universe. 

Like Pythagoras, Bacon believed these functions can be mathematically described – in fact Bacon, like Pythagoras, saw the universe as entirely mathematical.

Little understood today in our very physical and materialistic scientific view of things, he was mirroring the understanding of numerous alchemists throughout the world from Kanada to Farrid ud-Din, Attar.

His spiritual and alchemical view of the universe lies at the root and heart of his whole philosophy. It is scattered in many of his major works – there are descriptions in the 4th and 5th parts of the Opus Majus, and in the tract De Multiplicatione Specierum, for example.

The first scientist

Frontispiece from Baro Urbigerus,
Aphorismi Urbigerani, London, 1690.

 There are a number of quite fundamental ways in which  he attempted to introduce a more scientific approach to acquiring knowledge:

The use of original texts - Bacon was fluent in several languages and lamented the corruption of the holy texts and the works of the Greek philosophers by numerous mistranslations and misinterpretations.  All the arguments, the frankly unreasonable interpretations made of the texts, often had their origins in the fact that the people were not actually studying the text at all but a corruption of a corruption. He cited the Bible as an example. 
In his own writings of 1260–1280, for example, Bacon used the Secretum secretorum, which he attributed to Aristotle, but Bacon took great pains to use the original and translated it himself, adding an introduction and notes.  It is interesting that despite Bacon’s clear and cogent arguments for going back to the originals, we still use texts – including the Bible, which are probably totally meaningless as source documents.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bacon, Roger
Aristotle was known but in part, and that part was rendered well-nigh unintelligible through the vileness of the translations; …... The Scriptures read, if at all, in the erroneous versions were being deserted ….. Physical science, if there was anything deserving that name, was cultivated, not by experiment in the Aristotelian way, but by arguments deduced from premises resting on authority or custom. Everywhere there was a show of knowledge concealing fundamental ignorance.

Alchemy .....

The use of experiments and observation - In contrast to Aristotle's argument that facts be collected before deducing scientific truths, physical science at that time had degenerated so that it was no longer carried out by observations from the natural world, but by arguments based solely on tradition and prescribed authorities and the corrupted texts described above.
Bacon proposed that there should be far more use of observation and experiment and simple observation – the documentation of facts as facts. 
From these facts, unbiased by any hypothesis, but confined by scope, the observations could then be synthesised to suggest hypotheses - the bottom up process from detail to classes. 
In this regard Bacon was actually well ahead of today’s method of scientific process which tends to concentrate on observations that fit a hypothesis, the worst of all worlds.   
His approach is all the more  remarkable in that the ability to record observations was hampered by the lack of easy ways to record them.  Today we have the Internet, database software and pattern matching and classification based software, [not that scientists appear to use these tools], but all he had was a pen and parchment.

Janus Lacinius Pretiosa Margarita novella 1577-1583. 
Alchemy - courtyards, the Elements, trees of life, portals
higher spirit, the lovers and the child
[see the definitions section of the site]

The use of logic, cause and effect – Bacon also used logic to suggest hypotheses, with tracts that followed a defined sequence of explanation showing how his conclusions had been formulated [the top down method].  Essentially Bacon used a cause effect chain to produce logical deductions about phenomena.  Bacon then added a further step whereby these logically derived conclusions were submitted for further experimental testing, in this he built on the work of Robert Grosseteste and his  'Method of Verification'.
Scientists these days are neither taught logic, nor do they appear to use it, thus science is currently way behind Bacon’s thinking.  In a sense, his proposals were visionary and we have still not come anywhere near fulfilling that vision

Roger Blish [author of Doctor Mirabilis – A Vision a fictional book based on Roger Bacon]
Roger Bacon was the first true scientist.  He was not an inventor, an Edison or Luther Burbank, holding up a test tube with a shout of Eureka! He was instead a theoretical scientist probing fundamental realities, and his visions were just by-products of the way he normally thought – the theory of theories as tools.    Bacon's writings, for example, consider Newtonian metrical frameworks for space, then reject these for something which reads remarkably like Einsteinian Relativity, and all ...breathtakingly without pause or hiccup, breezily moving without any recourse through over 800 years of physics.

Key works

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bacon, Roger
Leland said that it is easier to collect the leaves of the Sibyl than the titles of the works written by Roger Bacon; and though the labour has been somewhat lightened by the publications of Brewer and Charles, it is no easy matter even now to form an accurate idea of his actual productions. An enormous number of MSS. are known to exist in British and French libraries, and probably not all have yet been discovered. Many are transcripts of works or portions of works already published and, therefore, require no notice.  The works hitherto printed (neglecting reprints) are the following:

AST15. Woodcut from Pierre d'Ailly
Concordantia astromonie cum theologia,
Venice, 1490

Opus Majus

Bacon's Opus Majus contains treatments of mathematics and optics, alchemy, and the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies. The parts are as follows:

  • Part I. -  which is sometimes designated De Utililate Scientiarum, treats of the four offendicula, or causes of error. These are, authority, custom, the opinion of the unskilled many, and the concealment of real ignorance with pretence of knowledge. The last error is the most dangerous, and is, in a sense, the cause of all the others.
  • Part II.  - treats of the relation between philosophy and theology - the true end of philosophy is to rise from the imperfect knowledge of created things to a knowledge of the Creator. Ancient philosophers, who had not the Scriptures, received direct illumination from God, and only thus can the brilliant results attained by them be accounted for.
  • AST10. Woodcut on title page of Messahalah
    de scientia motus orbis Nuremberg, 1504
    Part III. - treats of the utility of grammar, and the necessity of a true linguistic/symbolic science for the adequate comprehension either of the Scriptures or of books on philosophy. The translator should know thoroughly the language he is translating from, the language into which he is translating, and the subject of which the book treats.  He also needs to know symbolism.
  • Part IV  - also known as the Specula Mathematica, contains an elaborate treatise on mathematics, “the alphabet of philosophy,” maintaining that all the sciences rest ultimately on mathematics. He also proves that mathematical knowledge is essential in theology – drawing on Pythagoras.  Bacon was a proponent of Calendar reform. Drawing from Greco-Muslim astronomy and on the calendaric writings of Robert Grosseteste, he correctly deduced that the belief that the year was 365 days and a quarter, was wrong. A surplus of time over the centuries had accumulated to nine days during his time. He also charged that the then current notion of fixed equinoxes and solstices was also wrong. This is important because it had an effect on the timing of religious festivals.  He proposed a solution to Pope Clement IV in 1267 in his Opus Majus (Part IV).   Unfortunately, the untimely death of Pope Clement IV in 1268 put an end to his hopes.  Bacon's discovery were only accepted and the calendar corrected in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII in the Gregorian Calendar reformation.
  • AST05. Title page from George Hartgill Generall
    calendars, 1594
    Part V. -  also known as the Perspectiva (1614).  The treatise opens with an able sketch of psychology. The anatomy of the eye is next described. Many other points of physiological optics are touched on. It was in the Opus Majus that Bacon proposed a return to the original first version source documents both in theology and philosophy, in the language in which they had been written.  Perhaps more radical was his proposal that all theologians should adopt the methods of science that he proposed and add them to the normal university curriculum.

    Bacon lived by his proposals.  The study of optics in part five of Opus Majus, for example, is a totally scientific work on physical phenomenon, derived from a combination of observation and first version texts - including the work of both Claudius Ptolemy (his Optics in Arabic translation) and the Islamic scientists Alkindus (al-Kindi) and Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham). He includes a discussion of the physiology of eyesight, the anatomy of the eye and the brain, and considers light, distance, position, and size, direct vision, reflected vision, and refraction, mirrors and lenses.
  • AST14. Woodcut from Harmann Schedel Liber
    chronicarum Nuremberg, 1493
    Part VI. – covers the methods of experimental science, domina omnium scientiarum. There are two methods of knowledge: the one by logic, the other by observation. Logic alone is never sufficient; it may decide a question, but gives no satisfaction or certainty to the mind, which can only be provided by observation. But observation is of two sorts, external and internal; the first is that usually called experiment, but it can give no complete knowledge even of corporeal things, much less of spiritual. On the other hand, in inner experience the mind is illuminated by the divine truth, and of this supernatural enlightenment there are seven grades.
    Thus Roger Bacon, the first scientist, believed in the value and validity of 'revelation'. 
    And the reason he believed in the value of 'revelation - spiritual experience - was that one can get no information about the spiritual world without it.  And if one get no information, one either has to guess or, far worse, pretend it does not exist.
  • Part VII - The seventh part of the Opus Majus (De Morali Philosophia), also ‘noticed at considerable length in the Opus Tertium (cap. xiv.)’ – see below.

Opus Minus

Bacon had no sooner finished the Opus Major when he began to prepare a summary to be sent along with it. Of this summary, or Opus Minus, part has come down and is published in Brewer's Op. Ined. (313-389), from what appears to be the only MS. The work was intended to contain an abstract of the Opus Majus. At the same time, or immediately after, Bacon began a third work as a preamble to the other two, giving their general scope and aim, but supplementing them in many points. The part of this work, is generally called Opus Tertium.

In the Opus Minus, Bacon criticised his contemporary Alexander of Hales.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bacon, Roger
The only teacher whom he respected was a certain Petrus de Maharncuria of Picardy, …The contrast between the obscurity of such a man and the fame enjoyed by the fluent young doctors roused Bacon's indignation. In the Opus Minus and Opus Tertium he pours forth a violent tirade against Alexander of Hales

The two great orders, Franciscans and Dominicans, ‘were in the vigour of youth’, and had already begun to take the lead in theological discussion. Alexander of Hales was the oracle of the Franciscans, while the rival order rejoiced in Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.  Thus although Bacon was a Franciscan friar, his criticism was not provoked by any rivalry between the orders.

Alchemical Tarot card - the lovers, the caduceus,
the lion and the unicorn, twin pillars, androgynous
higher spirit - see the symbol section for an
explanation [definitions]

Other important works

There is a tendency for those of a more materialistic disposition to dismiss many of the more alchemical and spiritual books by Bacon as 'not his'.  As the first scientist, the idea that he was a deeply spiritual person capable of writing extremely symbolic and  alchemical texts, simply does not gel with the image they appear to want to promote.

The Voynich manuscript  - is a cryptic book which employs heavy use of symbolism.  It is the subject of discussion as to whether it is his or not – mostly one suspects because academics do not understand the symbolism.  It was owned by Rudolf II King of Bavaria a very key alchemist and Athanasius Kirchner, which somewhat indicates it is of key importance.

The document/manuscript itself was apparently not written by him - the vellum of the Manuscript has been 'dated' to the first part of the 15th century -  but this dating is itself the subject of controversy and the dating does not mean the original work itself was not written by him, as it could easily have been a copy produced for example to preserve the text as the vellum of the original manuscript deteriorated.

At the time of writing, this document was owned by Yale University and was in process of being decrypted.  According to one source they had already discovered references to Roger Bacon and the sentence "Andromeda galaxy, ovaries & ova"! which if right and genuine, hints at spiritual abilities far better than a first scientist - out of body being one.

Extract from the Voynich manuscript - the herbal remedies


The Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae, et de Nullitate Magiae (1542) – with an English translation in 1659 called  Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature, and on the Vanity of Magic, also sometimes alternatively entitled De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae  - On the Wonderful Powers of Art and Nature. This treatise dismisses magical practices like necromancy, but contains most of the alchemical work attributed to Bacon.  As such it is exceptionally important to this site.  It describes both spiritual alchemy – ‘containing a  formula for the philosopher's stone’ and physical alchemy.  It has an interesting combination of Leonardo da Vinci like prophecies - containing passages about hypothetical flying machines and (what we today call) submarines - as well as information about actual discoveries such as gunpowder.  Scholars have concluded that Bacon had most likely witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecrackers:

cited in Joseph Needham; Gwei-Djen Lu; Ling Wang (1987). Science and civilisation in China, Volume 5, Part 7.
We have an example of these things (that act on the senses) in [the sound and fire of] that children's toy which is made in many [diverse] parts of the world; i.e. a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre [together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder] so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment [containing it], that we find [the ear assaulted by a noise] exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning."

AST04. Woodcut from Sebastian Münster Cosmographia, 1544
The Egg, Sun and Moon, Fire, Air, Earth, Water

Speculum Alchemiae (1541)—translated into English as The Mirror of Alchimy (1597), and French, A Poisson (1890). It is a short treatise about the composition and origin of the symbolic metals.  His spiritual and alchemical roots are well in evidence here and he clearly knew of the alchemical works of the Arabs [Sufis] and Greeks.  Academics have claimed that the work has nothing to do with Roger Bacon, but then they would, because they have no understanding of alchemy. 

Libellus de Retardandis Senectutis Accidentibus (1590)—translated as the “Cure of Old Age,” by Richard Brown (London, 1683)

Sanioris Medicinae Magistri D. Rogeri Baconis Anglici de Arte Chymiae Scripta (Frankfort, 1603) - a collection of small tracts containing Excerpta de Libro Avicennae de Anima, Breve Breviarium, Verbum Abbreviatum, Secretum Secretorum, Tractatus Trium Verborum, and Speculum Secretorum

Liber Sex Scientiarum  - All these large works Bacon appears to have looked on as preliminaries, introductions, leading to a great work which should embrace the principles of all the sciences. This great work, which is perhaps the frequently-referred-to Liber Sex Scientiarum, he began, and a few fragments still indicate its outline. It was to cover an account of the causes of error, and then entering at length upon grammar. After that, apparently, logic was to be treated; then, possibly, mathematics and physics; then speculative alchemy and experimental science. It is, however, very difficult, in the present state of our knowledge of the MSS., to hazard even conjectures as to the contents and nature of this last and most comprehensive work.


"Friar Bacon's Study", in Oxford on Folly Bridge,
once a place of pilgrimage for scientists.
The Tower is a symbolic construction as is
a Bridge and a River. Bacon was no ordinary
alchemist, he also created his own sacred

Roger Bacon was born in Ilchester in Somerset, England, possibly in 1213 or 1214 at the Ilchester Friary.  His family appears to have been well-off, but during the stormy reign of Henry III of England their property was seized and several family members driven into exile.

Bacon studied at Oxford. His abilities were speedily recognized by his contemporaries, and he enjoyed the friendship of such eminent men as Adam de Marisco and Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln. 

He became a master at Oxford, lecturing on Aristotle. Sometime between 1237 and 1245, he began lecturing at the University of Paris, then the centre of European intellectual life. Where he was between 1247 and 1256 is unknown, but about 1256 he became a friar in the Franciscan Order, and no longer held a teaching post.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bacon, Roger
About 1257, Bonaventura, general of the order, interdicted his lectures at Oxford, and commanded him to place himself under the superintendence of the body at Paris. Here for ten years he remained under supervision, suffering great privations and strictly prohibited from writing anything for publication. But his fame had reached the ears of the papal legate in England, Guy de Foulques, who in 1265 became pope as Clement IV. In the following year he wrote to Bacon, ordering him notwithstanding any injunctions from his superiors, to write out and send to him a treatise on the sciences which he had already asked of him when papal legate. Bacon, whose previous writings had been mostly scattered tracts, capitula quaedam, took fresh courage from this command of the pope. He set at naught the jealousy of his superiors and brother friars, and despite the want of funds, instruments, materials for copying and skilled copyists, completed in about eighteen months three large treatises, the Opus Majus, Opus Minus and Opus Tertium, which, with some other tracts, were despatched to the pope. We do not know what opinion Clement formed of them, but before his death he seems to have bestirred himself on Bacon's behalf, for in 1268 the latter was permitted to return to Oxford. Here he continued his labours in experimental science and also in the composition of complete treatises.

Pope Clement died in 1268 and Bacon lost his protector. Some time between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was apparently imprisoned or placed under house arrest for his use and belief in alchemy and for his criticisms of the methods of  ‘scientists’ and theologians of the time.   But, according to Wikipedia

the first known reference to an imprisonment originates around eighty years after Bacon's death. It says the order was given by the head of the Franciscans because of unspecified "suspected novelties". However, the fact that no earlier report has been found drives scepticism over the assertion. Moreover, current historians of science who see an incarceration as plausible, typically do not connect it with Bacon's scientific writings. Instead, if it happened, scholars speculate that his troubles resulted from such things as his sympathies for radical Franciscans, attraction to contemporary prophecies, or interest in certain astrological and alchemical doctrines.

AST09. Engraving of Kepler's Platonic Universe
from Mysterium Cosmographicum, Tübingen, 1596

Some time after 1278 Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he continued his studies and is presumed to have spent most of the rest of his life. He is said to have died in June of 1292 - the year of his last dateable writing, Compendium studii theologiae.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bacon, Roger
His wonderful predictions (in the De Secretis) must be taken cum grano salis; he believed in astrology, in the doctrine of signatures, and in the philosopher's stone, and knew that the circle had been squared.

 and the Egg had gained its shell.


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