Bacon, Roger

, a learned English monk of the Franciscan order, who flourished in the thirteenth century, was born near Ilchester in Somersetshire, in 1214, and was descended of a very ancient and honourable family. He received the first tincture of letters at Oxford, where having gone through grammar and logic, the dawnings of his genius gained him the favour and patronage of the greatest lovers of learning, and such as were equally distinguished by their high rank, and the excellence of their knowledge. It is not very clear, says the Biographia Britannica, whether he was of Merton college, or of Brazen-nose hall, and perhaps he studied at neither, but spent his time at the public schools. The latter is indeed more probable than that he studied at Merton college, which did not then exist. It appears, however, | that he went early over to Paris, where he made still greater progress in all parts of learning, and was looked upon as the glory of that university, and an honour to his country. In those days such as desired to distinguish themselves by an early and effectual application to their studies, resorted to Paris, where not only many of the greatest men in Europe resided and taught, but many of the English nation, by whom Bacon was encouraged and caressed. At Paris he did not confine his studies to any particular branch of literature, but endeavoured to comprehend the sciences in general, fully and perfectly, by a right method and constant application. When he had attained the degree of doctor, he returned again, to his own country, and, as some say, took the habit of the Franciscan order in 1240, when he was about twenty-six years of age but others assert that he became a monk before he left France. After his return to Oxford, he was considered, by the greatest men of that university, as one of the ablest and most indefati^ gable inquirers after knowledge that the world had ever produced and therefore they not only shewed him all due respect, but likewise conceiving the greatest hopes from his improvements in the method of study, they generously contributed to his expences, so that he was enabled to lay out, within the compass of twenty years, no less than two thousand pounds in collecting curious authors, making trials of various kinds, and in the construction of different instruments, for the improvement of useful knowledge. But if this assiduous application to his studies, and the stupendous progress he made in them, raised his credit with the better part of mankind, it excited the envy of some, and afforded plausible pretences for the malicious designs of others. It is very easy to conceive, that the experiments he made in all parts of natural philosophy and the mathematics, must have made a great noise in an ignorant age, when scarcely two or three men in a whole nation were tolerably acquainted with those studies, and when all the pretenders to knowledge affected to cover their own ignorance, by throwing the most scandalous aspersions on those branches of science, which they either wanted genius to understand, or which demanded greater application to acquire, than they were willing to bestow. They gave out, therefore, that mathematical studies were in some measure allied to those magical arts which the church had condemned,and thereby brought suspicions upon men of | superior learning. It was owing to this suspicion that Bacon was restrained from reading lectures to the young students in the university, and at length closely confined and almost starved, the monks being afraid lest his writings should extend beyond the limits of his convent, and be seen by any besides themselves and the pope. But there is great reason to believe, that though his application to the occult; sciences was their pretence, the true cause of his ill-usage was, the freedom with which he had treated the clergy in, his writings, in which he spared neither their ignorance nor their want of morals. But notwithstanding this harsh feature in the character of the times, his reputation continued to spread over the whole Christian world, and even pope Clement IV. wrote him a letter, desiring that he would send him all his works. This was in 1266, when our author was in the flower of his 4 age, and to gratify his holiness, collected together, greatly enlarged and ranged in some order, the several pieces he had written before that time, and sent them the next year by his favourite disciple John of London, or rather of Paris, to the pope. This collection, which is the same that himself entitled Opus Majus, or his great work, is yet extant, and was published by Dr. Jebb, in 1773. Dr. Jebb had proposed to have published all his works about three years before his edition of the Opus Majus, but while he was engaged in that design, he was informed by letters from his brother at Dublin, that there was a“manuscript in the college library there, which contained a great many treatises generally ascribed to Bacon, and disposed in such order, that they seemed to form one complete work, but the title was wanting, which l,iad been carelessly torn off from the rest of the manuscript. The doctor soon found that it was a collection of those tracts which Bacon had written for the use of pope Clement IV. and to which he had given the title of Opus Majus, since it appeared, that what he said of that work in his Opus Tertium, addressed to the same pope, exactly suited with this; which contained an account of almost all the new discoveries and improvements that he had made in the sciences,. Upon this account Dr. Jebb laid aside his former design, and resolved to publish only an edition of this Opus Majus. The manuscripts which he made use of to complete this edition, are, 1. ms. in the Cotton library, inscribed^” Jul. D. V.“which contains the first part of the Opus Majus, under the title of a treatiseJl)e utijitate Scientiarnii). “2. Another ms. in the same library, marked” Tib. C. V." | containing the fourth part of the Opus Majus, in which is shewn the use of the mathematics in the sciences and affairs of the world in the ms. it is erroneously called the fifth part. 3. A ms. in the library belonging to Corpus Christi in Cambridge, containing that portion of the fourth part which treats of geography. 4. A ms. of the fifth part, containing a treatise upon perspective, in the earl of Oxford’s library. 5. A ms. in the library of Magdalen college, Cambridge, comprehending the same treatise of perspective. 6. Two Mss. in the king’s library, communicated to the editor by Dr. Richard Bentley, one of which contains the fourth part of Opus Majus, and the other the fifth part. It is said that this learned book of his procured him the favour of Clement IV. and also some encouragement in the prosecution of his studies but this could not have lasted long, as that pope died soon after, and then we find our author under fresh embarrassments from the same causes as before; but he became in more danger, as the general of his order, Jerom de Ascoli, having heard his cause, ordered him to be imprisoned. This is said to have happened in 1278, and to prevent his appealing to pope Nicholas III. the general procured a confirmation of his sentence from Rome immediately, but it is not very easy to say upon what pretences. Yet we are told by others, that he was imprisoned by Reymundus Galfredus, who was general of his order, on account of some alchemistical treatise which he had written, and that Galfredus afterwards set him at liberty, and became his scholar. However obscure these circumstances may be, it is certain that his sufferings for many years must have brought him low, since he was sixty-four years of age when he was first put in prison, and deprived of the opportunity of prosecuting his studies, at least in the way of experiment. That he was still indulged in the use of his books, appears very clearly from the great use he made of them in the learned works he composed.

Pope Nicholas III. dying in the year 1280, Simon de Brie, cardinal of St. Cecilia, was elected pope, and four years after, was succeeded by cardinal Savelli, who took the name of Honoring IV. in the year 1285. Both reigns were full of troubles and very short so that in all this time our author could find no opportunity of applying to the holy see for the mitigation of the sentence pronounced against him- But when he had been ten years | in prison, Jerom de Ascoli, who had condemned his doctrine, was chosen pope, and assumed the name of Nicholas IV. As he was the first of the Franciscan order that had ever arrived at this dignity, was reputed a person of great probity and much learning, our author, notwithstanding what had before happened, resolved to apply to him for his discharge and in order to pacify his resentment, and at the same time to shew both the innocence and the usefulness of his studies, he addressed to him a very learned and curious treatise, “On the means of avoiding the infirmities of Old Age,” printed first at Oxford, 1590, and translated and published by Dr. Richard Browne, under the title of “The cure of Old Age and preservation of Youth,London, 1683, 8vo. It does not appear, however, that his application had any effect on the contrary, some writers say that he caused him to be more closely confined. But towards the latter end of his reign, Bacon, by the interposition of some noblemen, obtained his release, and returned to Oxford, where, at the request of his friends, he composed “A compendium of Theology,” which seems to have been his last work, and of which there is a copy in the royal library. He spent the remainder of his days in peace, and dying in the college of his order, on the 11th of June 1292, as some say, or in 1294, as others assert, was interred in the church of the Franciscans. The monks gave him the title of “Doctor Mirabilis,” or the Wonderful Doctor, which he deserved, in whatever sense the phrase is taken.

He was certainly the most extraordinary man of his time. He was a perfect master of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and has left posterity such indubitable marks of his critical skill in them, as might have secured him a very high character, if he had never distinguished himself in any other branch of literature. In all branches of the mathematics he was well versed, and there is scarcely any part of them, on which he has not written with a solidity and clearness, which have been deservedly admired by the greatest masters in that science. In mechanics particularly, the learned Dr. Freind says, that a greater genius had not arisen since the days of Archimedes. He understood likewise the whole science of optics, with accuracy and is very justly allowed to have understood, both the theory and practice of those discoveries, which have bestowed such high reputation on those of our own and of other | nations, who have brought them into common use. In geography also he was admirably well skilled, as appears from a variety of passages in his works, which was the reason that induced the judicious Hackluyt to transcribe a large discourse out of his writings, into his Collection of Voyages and Travels. But his skill in astronomy was still more remarkable, since it appears, that he not only pointed out that error which occasioned the reformation in the calendar, and the distinction between the old stile and the new, but also offered a much more effectual and perfect reformation, than that which was made in the time of pope Gregory XIII. There are also remaining some works of his relating to chronology, which would have been thought worthy of very particular notice, if his skill in other sciences had not made his proficiency in this branch of knowledge the less remarkable. The history of the four great empires of the world, he has treated very accurately ind succinctly, in his great work addressed to pope Clelent IV. He was so thoroughly acquainted with Cheistry at a time that it was scarcely known in Europe, id principally cultivated among the Arabians, that Dr. Freind ascribes the honour of introducing it to him, who speaks in some part or other of his works, of almost every operation now used in chemistry. Three capital discoveries lade by him deserve to be particularly considered. The first is, the invention of gun-powder, which, however confidently ascribed to others, was unquestionably known to him, both as to its ingredients and effects. The second is that which commonly goes under the name of alchemy, or the art of transmuting metals, of which he has left many treatises, some published, and some still remaining in ms. which, whatever they may be thought of now, contain a multitude of curious and useful passages, independently of their principal subject. The third discovery in chemistry, not so deserving of the reader’s attention, was the tincture of gold for the prolongation of life, of which Dr. Freind says, he has given hints in his writings, and has said enough to shew that he was no pretender to this art, but understood as much of it as any of his successors. That he was far from being unskilled in the art of physic, we might rationally conclude, from his extensive knowledge in those sciences, which are connected with it: but we have a manifest proof of his perfect acquaintance with the most material and useful branches of physic, in his Treatise of Old | Age, which, as Dr. Freind, whose authority on that subject cannot well be disputed, observes, is very far from being ill written; and Dr. Brown, who published it in English, esteemed it one of the best performances that ever was written. In this work he has collected whatever he had met with upon the subject, either in Greek or Arabian writers, and has added a great many remarks of his own. In logic and metaphysics he was excellently well versed, as appears by those parts of his works, in which he has treated of these subjects; neither was he unskilled in philology and the politer parts of learning. In ethics, or moral philosophy, he has laid down some excellent principles for the conduct of human life. But, as his profession required a particular application to theology, it appears, that he made all his other studies subservient thereto. He had the highest deference for the Holy Scriptures, and thought that in them were contained the principles of true science, and of all useful knowledge. He therefore pressed the study of them in their original languages, and an assiduous application to the several branches of learning, which he thought necessary for the thorough understanding of them,

As to the vulgar imputation on his character, of his leaning to magic, it was utterly unfounded and the ridiculous story of his making a brazen head, which spoke and answered questions, is a calumny indirectly fathered upon him, having been originally imputed to Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln. That he had too high an opinion of judicial astrology, and some other arts of that nature, was not so properly an error of his as of the age in which he lived and considering how few errors, among the many which infected that age, appear in his writings, it may be easily forgiven. As his whole life was spent in labour and study, and he was continually employed, either in writing for the information of the world, or in reading and making experiments, that might enable him to write with greater accuracy; so we need not wonder his works were extremely numerous, especially when it is considered, that on the one hand his studies took in the whole circle of the sciences, and that on the other, the numerous treatises ascribed to him, are, often in fact, but so many chapters, sections, or divisions and sometimes we have the same pieces under two or three different names so that it is not at all strange before these points were well examined, that the accounts | we have of his writings appeared very perplexed and confused. But notwithstanding this seeming perplexity and confusion, it is not a very difficult thing, to give a distinct account of his writings, the greater part of which are extant, and catalogued in the Biographia Britannica, and it were to be wished, that they were also made public. He was very far from being a hasty, incorrect, or desultory writer; on the contrary, all his works have a just reference to one great and general system, which he has executed in all its parts to a much greater degree of perfection, than has been hitherto supposed. 1


Biog. Brit. Tanner’s Bibl. Pegge’s Life of Grosseteste. Fuller’s Worthies. Wood’s Hist, and Antiquities of Oxford, Gutch’s edition. —Leland. Bale. Fitts. The Biog. Brit, erroneously ascribes to him an intimacy with bishop Grosseteste, which, Dr. Pegge has clearly proved, belonged to Robert Bacon, the subject of the preceding article.