Roger Bacon (c. 1220 -1292), English Franciscan philosopher and educational reformer who was a major medieval proponent of experimental science. Bacon studied mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, and languages. He was the first European to describe in detail the process of making gunpowder, and he proposed flying machines and motorized ships and carriages. Bacon (as he himself complacently remarked) displayed a prodigious energy and zeal in the pursuit of experimental science; indeed, his studies were talked about everywhere and eventually won him a place in popular literature as a kind of wonder worker. Bacon therefore represents a historically precocious expression of the empirical spirit of experimental science, even though his actual practice of it seems to have been exaggerated.
Bacon was born into a wealthy family; he was well-versed in the classics and enjoyed the advantages of an early training in geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. Inasmuch as he later lectured at Paris, it is probable that his master of arts degree was conferred there, presumably not before 1241—a date in keeping with his claim that he saw the Franciscan professor Alexander of Hales (d. 1245) with his own eyes and that he heard the master scholar William of Auvergne (d. 1249) dispute twice in the presence of the whole university.
In 1257,a marked change took place in Bacon’s life. Because of ill health and his entry into the Order of Friars Minor, Bacon felt (as he wrote) forgotten by everyone and all but buried. His university and literary careers seemed finished. His feverish activity, his amazing credulity, his superstition, and his vocal contempt for those not sharing his interests displeased his superiors in the order and brought him under severe discipline. He decided to appeal to Pope Clement IV, whom he may have known when the latter was (before his election to the papacy) in the service of the Capetian kings of France. In a letter (1266) the pope referred to letters received from Bacon, who had come forward with certain proposals covering the natural world, mathematics, languages, perspective, and astrology. Bacon had argued that a more accurate experimental knowledge of nature would be of great value in confirming the Christian faith, and he felt that his proposals would be of great importance for the welfare of the church and of the universities. The pope desired to become more fully informed of these projects and commanded Bacon to send him the work. But Bacon had had in mind a vast encyclopaedia of all the known sciences, requiring many collaborators, the organization and administration of which would be coordinated by a papal institute. The work, then, was merely projected when the pope thought that it already existed. In obedience to the pope’s command, however, Bacon set to work and in a remarkably short time had dispatched the Opus majus (“Great Work”), the Opus minus (“Lesser Work”), and the Opus tertium (“Third Work”). He had to do this secretly and notwithstanding any command of his superiors to the contrary; and even when the irregularity of his conduct attracted their attention and the terrible weapons of spiritual coercion were brought to bear upon him, he was deterred from explaining his position by the papal command of secrecy. Under the circumstances, his achievement was truly astounding. He reminded the pope that, like the leaders of the schools with their commentaries and scholarly summaries, he could have covered quires of vellum with “puerilities” and vain speculations. Instead, he aspired to penetrate realms undreamed of in the schools at Paris and to lay bare the secrets of nature by positive study. The Opus majus was an effort to persuade the pope of the urgent necessity and manifold utility of the reforms that he proposed. But the death of Clement in 1268 extinguished Bacon’s dreams of gaining for the sciences their rightful place in the curriculum of university studies.
Bacon projected yet another encyclopaedia, of which only fragments were ever published, namely, the Communia naturalium (“General Principles of Natural Philosophy”) and the Communia mathematica (“General Principles of Mathematical Science”), written about 1268. In 1272 there appeared the Compendium philosophiae (“Compendium of Philosophy”). In philosophy—and even Bacon’s so-called scientific works contain lengthy philosophical digressions—he was the disciple of Aristotle; even though he did incorporate Neoplatonist elements into his philosophy, his thought remains essentially Aristotelian in its main lines.
Sometime between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was condemned to prison by his fellow Franciscans because of certain “suspected novelties” in his teaching. The condemnation was probably issued because of his bitter attacks on the theologians and scholars of his day, his excessive credulity in alchemy and astrology, and his penchant for millenarianism under the influence of the prophecies of Abbot Joachim of Fiore, a mystical philosopher of history. How long he was imprisoned is unknown. His last work (1292), incomplete as so many others, shows him as aggressive as ever.