Friar Roger Bacon

The natural philosophers of the late middle ages would not have turned the tables on the ecclesiastic parent culture so determinedly if they had not felt so alienated from it. Most fascinating is the career of Roger Bacon, scholar and churchman, who lived from 1214 to 1294 A.D. He was one of the first to advocate experimentation, empirical observation, and mathematical quantification for scientific knowledge, publishing a compendium of all sciences, the Opus Maius (1267). He studied machine design and predicted flying devices, steamships, microscopes, telescopes and other devices, that were made centuries later: *

    There may be made instruments of navigation without men to row in them; as huge ships to brooke the sea with only one man to steer them, which shall sail far more swiftly than if they were full of men, and chariots that will move with an unspeakable force, without any living creature to stir them… yea instruments to fly withal, so that one sitting in the middle of the instrument and turning about an Engine by which the wings being artificially composed may beat the air after the manner of a flying bird.

Roger Bacon, a Franciscan, was one whose knowledge would have been drawn from the ancient sources that arrived in Europe by means of Arabian scholars. What was then considered most valuable, in the scientific sense, was Aristotelian reasoning, with the ability it gave churchmen to construct irrefutable defenses of religious doctrine. This discipline was Scholasticism, and Duns Scotus was a leading proponent. Even though Roger Bacon's intended purpose was to strengthen the church by including science in ecclesiastical study, his proposals represented a shift of focus, using reason to promote something not exclusively religious, and at age seventy he landed in prison, one of his works being considered heretical by his own monastic order.

In fact the Church was becoming entangled in its own intellectual expertise. The medieval clergy had enjoyed power in most of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire, about 900 years. Its origins were humble, to say the least. From a simple faith it evolved into a far-reaching religious, political and social institution. With Scholasticism, it made a science out of faith. Its focus was so exclusively on religious ideas that the natural world, and empirical facts, were neglected or actively suppressed. When the very techniques the Church had used to become such a powerful institution were used to undermine its foundations, collapse was more swift, and greater than it would have been if it had respected reformers like Roger Bacon. Indeed his great work was commissioned in 1266 by Pope Clement IV, keenly aware of the need for Church reform, in order to gain from Bacon's insight into its weaknesses. Bacon felt that change was the key to survival:

    some bear witness that a use of this science, which illustrates its nature, is in the change of a region in order that the customs of the people may be changed. In connection with which Aristotle, the most learned of philosophers, when Alexander asked of him concerning some tribes that he had found, whether he should kill them on account of their barbarity or let them live, responded in the Book of Secrets if you can change their air let them live; if not, kill them. He wished that their air could be altered usefully, so that the complexion of their bodies could be changed, and finally the mind aroused through the complexion should absorb good customs from the liberty of their environment; this is one use of this science. **

It is surely one of history's quirks that Pope Clement died without implementing any of Roger Bacon's ideas on reform. *** Another is that Bacon has been forgotten as a champion of science. Society might have been spared the convulsive decline of the Church as a great power, and we may have been spared the ascent of science and technology as a non-spiritual, equally unyielding force. As it happened, after Bacon's predictions of motorized transport, almost 500 years were to pass before a steam engine was made: by that time its purpose was material gain, literally, as it powered textile mills. We must also bear in mind that the ancient Greeks knew of steam power but did not exploit it for industrial production. ****

References:

    * Roger Bacon, De mirabili potestate artis et naturæ et de nullitate magiæ, Paris, 1542.

    ** Roger Bacon, "On Experimental Science" Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1901), Vol. V: The Early Medieval World, pp. 369-376.

    *** The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII, 1912 by Robert Appleton, Online Edition, s.v. "Roger Bacon."

    **** R. Livingstone, ed., The Pageant of Greece, Oxford University Press, London, 1968, p. 434.


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"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)