Roger Bacon

Surely the man who can claim to be the world’s first experimental scientist and to have advised the Pope deserves a better reputation

Academia History Philosophy Science The Catholic Church Underrated

The Roger Bacon of legend was an alchemist and sorcerer who could materialise a bridge out of thin air so that he and his retinue could cross the Channel at ­leisure.

He also constructed a mirror that could be used to observe any place on earth. This was smashed on the orders of the authorities at Oxford University, worried that students were spending too much time spying on people rather than studying. The tale sprang from the Franciscan friar’s experiments with lenses and his invention of the magnifying glass, but the novelty of this work allowed such fantastical exaggerations to seem plausible.

Bacon’s thought and learning spanned the ancient and medieval worlds, the Christian and the Islamic. He was one of the first Westerners to open the Muslim seed bank of ideas and, with his teacher Robert Grosseteste, can claim to be the first experimental scientist.

The legend was not to last. Bertrand Russell wrote in his History of Western Philosophy that Bacon had been praised “far beyond his deserts”. If so then the friar has lately received his comeuppance, not featuring at all in the most respected history of philosophy since Russell’s — Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason. The anniversary of Bacon’s death passed with little notice in 1994, and two years later the publishers of The Cambridge Companion to Bacon were confident that no one would be confused when the cover of their book about Francis Bacon did not specify a Christian name.Bacon was born around 1214, probably in Somerset, to a wealthy family that was reduced to poverty by its allegiance to Henry III against the barons. Before this fall, he managed to spend £10m in today’s money pursuing his research. In 1266, Pope Clement IV wrote to him in secret, asking for his thoughts and solutions to the problems of the day. The response was an encyclopaedia beginning with the Opus Majus, written in defiance of a Franciscan prohibition, but there is no evidence that the Pope was able to read it before he died.

Bacon wrote that “he who is ignorant of mathematics cannot know the other sciences nor the affairs of this world”. He identified mathematics and experimentation as the twin pillars of science and even denounced Thomas Aquinas as a philosophical fraud for neglecting them. He was disgusted that the latter’s system convinced many that philosophy was at an end. On the contrary, he wrote, “future generations will know much that we are ignorant of, and a time will come when our successors will wonder that we were blind to things so obvious to them”.

Like Socrates, Bacon was fond of admitting his own ignorance, although it extended somewhat further than he suspected. Like all the best pre-modern thinkers he was responsible for his share of claptrap, such as his thesis on the preservation of youth that became a source­book for quacks.

He thought the disparity between contemporary lifespans and those of Biblical characters was down to a moral decline and suggested that old men could regain their youth by inhaling the breath of virgins. He shared the common delusion that the Second Coming was imminent. In fact, he argued that scientific research was needed because if good men did not use such learning then the Antichrist surely would, and he must not be allowed exclusive access to “burning glasses”, “navigating machines” for ships, horseless “scythe-­bearing cars that cut through all ­obstacles” and “flying machines”.The great achievements of philosophers are usually a matter of intellectual technology – the tools for thinking that they devise rather than the use to which they personally put them. In these terms Bacon was an exemplary judge of ideas, yet his work failed to ignite a scientific revolution, partly because he was neither a great mathematician nor an especially diligent ­experimenter.

But he was not the only philosopher in history who failed to be the finest exponent of his own precepts. William of Ockham, after all, used his famous razor to infer that there was no such thing as motion.

Bacon’s ideas were of the kind useful beyond the waxing and waning of theories, the kind immune to the errors and fancies of their creators. He did enough to have secured a reputation as a scientific genius if only his empiricist heart had been coupled with Italian descent and the ability to draw and paint. If he had had his way, the new translations of Aristotle would have brought an age of discovery rather than one of dogmatism and pedantry.

The recent denigration of Bacon’s achievements has less to do with their limitations than with a concern to rehabilitate his milieu. It is fashionable to argue that the medievals, unjustly vilified by 19th-century histor­ians, were in fact paragons of open-minded reason. This would have been news to poor Bacon, who found himself imprisoned for several years for unorthodoxy.

He was one of many thinkers – Descartes and Luther among them – who by innovating attempted to strengthen the Christian faith. But as reformers such men were not fooling any­one. In each case, the Church was quite right to see that its enemies would ultimately reap the bene­fits of their insight.