Bacon, Roger

from Global Encyclopedia

Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was an English philosopher during the Middle Ages. Bacon is also considered a scientist because he insisted on observing things for himself instead of depending on what people had written.

Most of his experiments involved optics, the study of light. His work encouraged people to try experiments of their own, and this helped bring about the Rennaisance.


Bacon's family appears to have been well off, but in the stormy reign of Henry III. their property was despoiled and several members of the family were driven into exile. Roger completed his studies at Oxford, though not, as current traditions assert, at Merton or at Brasenose, neither of which had been founded. 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.

Very little is known of Bacon's life at Oxford; it is said he took clerical orders in 1233, and this is not improbable. In the following year, or perhaps later, he crossed over to France and studied at the university of Paris, then the center of intellectual life in Europe. The two great monastic orders, Franciscans and Dominicans, were in the vigor 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.

The scientific training which Bacon had received, mainly from the study of the Arab writers, showed him the manifold defects in the systems reared by these doctors. Aristotle was known but in part, and that part was rendered well-nigh unintelligible through the vileness of the translations; yet not one of those professors would learn Greek. The Scriptures read, if at all, in the erroneous versions were being deserted for the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

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. Bacon, accordingly, withdrew from the scholastic routine and devoted himself to languages and experimental research.

The only teacher whom he respected was a certain Petrus de Maharncuria Picardus, or of Picardy, probably identical with a certain mathematician, Petrus Peregrinus of Picardy, who is perhaps the author of a manuscript treatise, De Magnete, contained in the Bibliotheque Imperiale at Paris.

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, and another professor, not mentioned by name, but spoken of as alive, and blamed even more severely than Alexander. This anonymous writer, he says, acquired his learning by teaching others, and adopted a dogmatic tone, which has caused him to be received at Paris with applause as the equal of Aristotle, Avicenna, or Averroes.

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