Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

The Thirteenth Century

Chapter IV

Roger Bacon

A. His Life and Work

Roger Bacon was born in England about 1219. He may have studied the arts at Oxford and then gone on to Paris to teach, or he may have begun his studies at Paris; at any rate, he began his teaching career at Paris, in the faculty of arts, and prided himself on the frequency with which he commented on the works of Aristotle. This is the first phase of his career, and the writings of Bacon representative of this phase, while of interest, do not prepare us for what he was to become. It is often said, perhaps unjustly, that they are indistinguishable from the philosophical efforts of the typical lecturer at Paris at the time. About the year 1247 Roger returned to England, where at Oxford he came under the influence of Robert Grosseteste. Bacon was a man of violent likes and dislikes, and for Grosseteste he conceived an almost unbounded admiration. His own work took a dramatic turn. For ten years Bacon devoted himself to scientific studies, though his conception of the scope of such studies must temper the judgment that in Bacon we have a forerunner of modern science. Alchemy and astrology fascinated Bacon, and his interest in mathematics, pure and applied, carried him back and forth across the border between magic and science. He was heavily influenced by a pseudo-Aristotelian work, The Secret of Secrets, and was charged with necromancy. The picture Bacon sketches of the ten years of study he undertook in the wake of his contact with Grosseteste may seem overdrawn, but his whole career was one of such intensity and indefatigable energy that it must be accepted. In that picture Bacon comports himself in the shifting role of mad scientist, dedicated scholar, and a university master who is progressively less patient with the usual academic fare. The disputes of the schools seemed to him airy and ungrounded; he was shocked by the spectacle of men without training in philosophy occupying chairs of theology. (Bacon himself must for a time have been a student in the faculty of theology.) In approximately 1257 Bacon joined the Franciscan Order.

As a Franciscan, Bacon seems to have stopped teaching; furthermore, because of a nile of his order, he could not write for external publication without obtaining permission. Another decade went by and reached its culmination when Bacon contacted the future Pope Clement IV, seeking patronage for a work he wanted to compose in which a reform of university education would he set forth. The sequel to this contact has its bizarre moments. Guy de Foulques, the cardinal Bacon contacted, was elected pope. He seems to have had the impression that the work Bacon mentioned was completed and needed only to be copied before being sent to him. He requested that Bacon send it on, enjoining him to do so secretly. The Pope is sometimes described as Bacon's patron and benefactor, even as being enthusiastic about the writings Bacon eventually sent him. This is all conjecture. The most that can be said is that the Pope accepted the offer of Bacon's book and that he received what Bacon sent him. The claim that the Pope was on the verge of introducing Bacon's proposed reforms when death cut him down is pure fable. Were one to permit his imagination a bit of leash here, it would be just as easy to imagine the Pope chuckling over the inflated offer of the friar, concealing his mirth as he writes that he will accept the book, and being alternately overwhelmed by the four huge parcels that contained the Opus majus and miffed when Bacon tried to dun him for expenses. The fact is, we simply do not know what the Pope's attitude in this matter was. We know he received the Opus majus since it is still in the Vatican library.

Bacon was upset when he learned from the Pope's letter that the impression had been created that he had already written a work he had simply proposed to write. Indeed, there is some basis for thinking that what Bacon had in mind was something like an encyclopedia by several hands rather than a personal work. Nonetheless, he took the papal letter as a mandate enjoining him to secret composition, and he set to work on what became the Opus majus. This was followed shortly by the Opus minus and the Opus tertium. The Pope is thought to have received these works in 1267; in 1268 he died. Bacon turned to other works then, but he was now an object of suspicion in his own order. His teachings were condemned by the minister general, and Bacon was put in prison by the Franciscans. We do not know how long he was in prison, only that he was out before 1292, when he wrote his last work, a Compendium of Theological Studies. his death may be placed in that same year.

Roger Bacon is a polyvalent figure -- dedicated, irascible, caustic, vain, credulous, and critical. With few exceptions he despised his contemporaries, and he voiced his views in untempered language. His jeremiads become tedious, his promissory notes seem unredeemable, his self-importance is comic. And yet, and yet . . . Bacon himself would not have been content to bring home half a loaf, but what he had to say about university education in his time had its merit. He saw the danger in a theology unanchored in philosophy and science; he knew the book of the world had not yet been reduced to books. The final irony is that it was likely his abrasive personality more than his ideas that denied him the hearing he craved.

B. The Opus majus

The writing of the Opus majus occupied a very small portion of Roger Bacon's scholarly life. Yet it represents a period when he was at the height of his powers, had done a good deal of the research which set him off from other masters of arts, and was quite unrestrained with respect to the scope of his vision and ambition. This work provides us with a convenient source to give something of the spirit and character of Bacon's thought. As we have seen, it was followed by other writings, writings whose importance is undeniable; nonetheless, the Opus majus is vast and representative of the mature Roger Bacon.

It should be said at once that Bacon conceived the work to be a program rather than an accomplishment; it points beyond itself and seeks to summarize not so much what has been done as what must be done. The work is divided into seven parts and is written with an urgency, directness, and forcefulness that make it quite personal. One would not go far wrong in describing it as a voluminous letter to the Pope. This is not to say that it lacks some of the common features of the scholarly style of the day, but even when familiar stylistic notes are present, their familiarity is dimmed, and intentionally so, by Bacon's conviction that the times called, not for encyclopedias, but for a vast concatenation of scholarly efforts. It would be both an anachronism and a disservice to Bacon to say that his work reads something like a prolonged and prolix appeal to a foundation for funds to support research -- but the parallel does suggest itself.

Part one of the Opus majus discusses the four general causes of human ignorance. These causes are subjection to unworthy authority, the influence of habit, popular prejudice, and false conceit of our own wisdom. It is noteworthy that Bacon is concerned here with moral faults rather than with what might be called intrinsic causes of human error. His choice is of course dictated by the fact that he is launching a general critique of his milieu. Thus, though Bacon prided himself on his own sustained attention to the writings of Aristotle during his tenure as master in the faculty of arts at Paris, he points out that while Aristotle was undoubtedly one of the wisest of men, he is not without his defects. Thus, while deference to Aristotle may bring one to the truth, it may lead one into error. Indeed, Bacon holds that it is only rarely that authority, habit, and popular prejudice have positive effects in the search for truth. But the most prominent target of Bacon's criticism, and the one from which he considered himself to have suffered the most, is popular prejudice. He goes on to make a number of very useful remarks having to do with the attitude of the student, who must question authorities and enter into discussion with them, for a later generation can often detect flaws in a great man which were concealed from his contemporaries. Though his ire mounts most noticeably when discussing the deleterious effects of popular prejudice, Bacon holds that false conceit of one's own wisdom is the most injurious factor in the pursuit of truth. In the first place, knowledge must always be of less scope than religious faith; second, the sum total of what is known and of what has been revealed is as nothing when compared with what can be known. A boy of today may know more than the wisest men of yesteryear, Bacon observes, and thus how stupid to be puffed up if one is abreast of the present status of knowledge. Addressing the Pope directly, Bacon says that his point is not that anything of substance now being taught in the universities should be proscribed; rather, he is directing attention to the vast areas of inquiry which are presently ignored.

The first part of the Opus majus is thus quite moralistic in tone; Bacon chides, laments, urges, prescribes, pleads. Nor should we think that Bacon's concern with the morals of the intellectual is a rhetorical device. He was of the opinion that moral philosophy is the aim and goal of speculative philosophy. The moral philosophy he advocates is continuous with pagan ethics but goes far beyond it because of the influence of Christianity. This poses the problem of Bacon's conception of the relationship between philosophy and theology, a problem to which he devotes part two of the Opus majus.

Bacon sees the search for truth as divided into three avenues: Scripture, canon law, and philosophy. All truth is contained in Scripture, but to elicit it we need canon law and philosophy. Wisdom, however, is one. Canon law is an articulation of what is contained in Scripture, and so is philosophy. Bacon is not suggesting that all the scholar need do is pore over the Scriptures in order to arrive at the truth. His point is rather this: no truth can be incompatible with Scripture because wherever truth is found it belongs to Christ. It is at this point that Bacon, although he makes reference to Augustine, takes a stand on one of the vexed points of Aristotelian interpretation. The agent intellect, Bacon says, is not a part of our nature, not a faculty of the human soul. Avicenna is right in this interpretation of Aristotle: the agent intellect is outside us, something to whose influence we are susceptible, something divine. And since all human knowledge requires the influence of this separated agent intellect, knowledge is something divine. The effective source of all knowledge in God indicates the ultimate goal of knowledge, which, again, is God, God as final cause. Bacon accepts an Augustinian suggestion, also made by Abelard, that the giants of pagan philosophy were recipients of a revelation from God. What then of the distinction between philosophy and theology? Philosophy and theology are parts of one whole. The whole purpose and function of philosophy is to lead us to the threshold of divine truth; across that threshold would seem to be Scripture. Bacon guards against the view that philosophy is something to be gotten through hastily in order to arrive at revelation in Scripture. The task of philosophy is one that never ends, for what do we indeed know? The Christian must not simply borrow bits and pieces from the philosophers; he must engage in philosophy, in the ceaseless pursuit of truth, with a constant eye for its relevance to what God has revealed in Scripture. Bacon's conception of philosophy and theology, while obscure, seems clearly distinct from that held by Aquinas, for example. The notion of a theology fashioned on the model of Aristotelian science is absent from Bacon's writings. What we find is the much earlier notion that in some vague and ad hoc way all human knowledge serves to illustrate the truths God has revealed in Scripture. The appeal to illumination, the interpretation of the status of the agent intellect, serves to blur the distinction between faith and knowledge, although Bacon frequently mentions such a distinction. What Bacon seems most concerned with is that human knowledge, philosophy, be open with respect to revealed truth and see it as its complement. The very limitations of philosophical knowledge enable the philosopher to devise an argument to the effect that God must have revealed to man truths which are of the greatest importance.

It was said earlier that Bacon does not refer to the truth contained in Scripture in such a way that he is contemning the need for philosophical research. That is true, but it must be added that Bacon does tend toward the view that the totality of truth was known by the Patriarchs and has been lost because of the moral defects of men. The Scriptures then come to seem repositories of esoteric knowledge which must be elicited by the appropriate means. Since philosophy is a principal means of eliciting this truth, Bacon can at one and the same time hold that in a hidden fashion everything is contained in Scripture and that we must bend our best efforts to discover knowledge.

Although it is difficult to establish an order among Bacon's enthusiasms, since he went all out for anything he favored, his recommendation of the study of languages is impassioned and is the subject of part three of the Opus majus. He expatiates on the difficulties of accurate translation and urges the study of Greek and Hebrew. The obvious advantages of knowledge of these languages for grasping the meaning of Scripture are dwelled on, but Bacon points as well to the advantages for ecclesiastical diplomacy and for preaching the Gospel to all nations to be gained from the study of languages.

Parts four, five, and six constitute the bulk of the Opus majus and treat, respectively, mathematics, optics, and experimental science. Bacon considers mathematics to be the key to all the other sciences; consequently, having said something of mathematics itself, he will show its importance not only for other human knowledge but to divine knowledge and to the governance of the Church. Bacon makes a teasing remark on the affinity of logic to mathematics, and speaks of the greater cogency of mathematical demonstrations and the tendency we show, in other domains, of selecting examples from mathematics to illustrate our points. The discussions which ensue are, from the outset, devoted to applied mathematics, its use in astronomy, in understanding the propagation of light, and so forth. It becomes clear that in part four it is precisely the utility of mathematics in other sciences that Bacon is out to show. Its application to sacred subjects is of particular interest.

Bacon reverts to his point that knowledge of nature is needed if we are to unpack the message of Scripture. Distinguishing between the literal and spiritual meanings of Scripture, Bacon says that we need to grasp the former to get at the latter and that to grasp the literal meaning of Scripture mathematical knowledge is necessary. He illustrates this by appealing to astronomy; this enables us to see the relative insignificance of the earth in the universe. Geography enables us to determine the exact location of the places mentioned in Scripture. The chronology of Scripture can be established by appeal to astronomy. Furthermore, what we know about the rainbow is particularly fruitful for understanding the literal and then the spiritual meaning of Scriptural passages. It is in this section of the Opus majus that Bacon proceeds with the most gusto. When he begins to discuss the terrestrial effects of celestial bodies, Bacon does not go immediately to astrology. Rather he goes on at great length to relate character traits, and even religious profession, to regional and climatic conditions. Only afterward does he insist that the stars exercise an influence on the affairs of men, an influence that can be understood and thus can become a powerful force in human foresight and governing.

Part five, which deals with optics, is thought to be the section that best illustrates Bacon's own work. He begins with the physiology of eyesight, the eye, and the brain, and goes on to discuss the conditions of seeing: light, distance, position, size. There are other conditions as well, and, after considering them, Bacon relates what he has said to Aristotelian psychology. He goes on to discuss direct vision, reflected vision, and refraction. Typically, after a quite lengthy treatise, whose scope and content may surprise one whose opinion of medieval science is dictated by myth rather than history, Bacon typically discusses the spiritual significance of optics. Here he considers, for example, the meaning of the prayer in which we ask God to guard us as the apple of his eye.

Bacon's discussion of experimental science in part six must be correctly understood. Although he begins with the observation that there are two ways of acquiring knowledge, reasoning and experience, he goes on to divide experience into sense experience (our own or that of trustworthy witnesses) and internal experience. Internal experience has as its object spiritual things and is aided by grace; a by-product of internal experience is often knowledge of earthly things. Bacon lists seven grades of spiritual experience and, in one of those asides that make the Opus majus the singular work it is, tells the Pope that the young man who has carried the book to him is a good example of the intellectual benefits to be derived from a spotless life. Although he distinguishes these various meanings of "experience," the experimental science Bacon wishes to discuss is that which tests tentative judgments about natural things. Bacon discourses on various experimental apparatuses and goes on to picture the inventions that may be expected if studies are turned in the direction he advocates.

The culminating discussion of the Opus majus is to be found in part seven, which is devoted to moral philosophy. We have already mentioned that for Bacon knowledge is ordered to virtue, an opinion that dictated the structure of his work. The study of our practical conduct, that due to which we are adjudged good or bad, deals with the final purpose of all human wisdom. The conclusions of the other sciences are the starting points of ethics. That is to say, in moral philosophy we try to set forth the practical implications of all other knowledge.

The task of moral philosophy is threefold, dealing with duties to God, duties to our neighbor, and duties to ourselves. A recognition of the nature of the universe and its dependence on God is the basis for maxims having to do with worship of and reverence for God. Civic morality commences with reflections on the propagation of the species and moves quite naturally into matters of the state, the functions of the citizens, reward, punishment, and law. It is in the third part of moral philosophy that Bacon explicitly joins the discussions of Aristotle and that he treats of virtue and vice in general and then of the special virtues. His discussion of the moral virtues leans heavily on the fact that until our sensual desires are reined, the mind is not free for its pursuit of the truth. Bacon, who seems to have been a most irascible man, dwells on the topic of anger: its sources and remedies and, predictably, the way it impedes the intellectual life. His discussion of the proper attitude toward death and the way to peace of mind exhibits the influence of Stoicism on Bacon. The section on moral philosophy concludes with a discussion of the sacraments, placing special emphasis on the Mass and on the Eucharist.

C. Conclusion

The life of Roger Bacon almost spans the thirteenth century. Perhaps it can be said that he was typical of that century precisely in not being typical of it. The man to whom he would seem to be closest in spirit, Albert the Great, was a man Bacon professed to despise; his distance from the spirit of Aquinas, and even from that of Bonaventure, does not require emphasis. It seems necessary to say that Roger Bacon was at one and the same time a very traditional figure and a daring innovator. That kind of phrase, lacking as it does all sharpness and precision, could be applied to almost any figure in whatever time who excites our interest. It does, nonetheless, have a somewhat illuminating application to Roger Bacon.

Bacon's conception of the task of the Christian thinker was in fundamental continuity with St. Augustine. All truth, wherever it might be found, must be seized by the believer as rightfully his. All knowledge illumines and is illumined by what God has revealed in Scripture. Like Augustine, Bacon does not seem to have drawn a sharp distinction between philosophy and theology. This is due to the manner in which he compares knowledge and faith. Theology is taken to be the content of Scripture, but at other times it seems to consist of the application to revealed truth of human knowledge. The influence of Aristotle is seen in men like Aquinas in the conception of theology as a science which derives its principles from Scripture and by reasoning relates what is believed to what is known by natural powers. The model of theology, in short, is demonstrative science in the Aristotelian sense. It is not here that the influence of Aristotle on Roger Bacon is evident; rather it is in his passion to know the natural world.

The student of Aquinas finds that Thomas knew the natural writings of Aristotle and that he wrote commentaries on many of them, but he will search in vain for any contribution Thomas has made to our knowledge of the world around us. This is one of Bacon's complaints. Let us, he urges, carry on the work that Aristotle had begun. Let us study the natural world. Aristotle is not the last word here. Islamic thinkers who came into contact with Greek thought assimilated it and tried to continue it with their own work in mathematics and astronomy. Bacon's fear that the universities of his day would become too bookish, too tied down to authors and authorities, was not unfounded. No doubt he underestimated the value of the speculative work his contemporaries were doing, but he did so because he was so impressed by the promise of other studies, studies more experimental, studies that could correct and prolong what earlier thinkers had discovered. If his own vision of philosophy involves much credulity and fancy, it must nonetheless be said that Roger Bacon, though certainly not alone, was insisting on the quest for a certain kind of knowledge that could never be attained by the developing Scholastic method. There is no need to exaggerate his achievements, no need to deny his unlovableness, to recognize the importance of Roger Bacon for the history of human thought.

Bibliographical Note

The 'Opus Majus' of Roger Bacon, edited by John Henry Bridges in two volumes (Oxford, 1897); Fr. Rogeri Bacon opera quaedam hactenus inedita, ed. J. S. Brewer (London, 1859); Opera hactenus inedita Fratris Rogeri Baconis, edited by F. M. Delorme and A. G. Little in sixteen volumes (Oxford, 1905-1940). See as well the volume edited by A. G. Little, Roger Bacon: Essays Contributed by Various Authors on the Occasion of the Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of His Birth (Oxford, 1914); Theodore Crowley, Roger Bacon: The Problem of the Soul in His Philosophical Commentaries (Dublin, 1950); and E. Westacott, Roger Bacon in Life and Legend (New York, 1953).

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