The Thin Tweed Line
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Roger Bacon; Master of the Arts, including, but not limited to, grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy, is not very widely know in today's society. To scholars, Bacon is known for his many works, mainly written under duress, which address how he wanted the world to be. While he may have been inspired by the works of Aristotle and Grosseteste, without his work, which expounded upon those of Aristotle’s and Grosseteste’s, the higher education system would be more like what it was when Bacon was alive, based on scholastic philosophy, instead of where it is today, based on the scientific method.

Roger Bacon's birth date is controversial. There were not birth certificates back in the 1200s so his birth date has been estimated using what people wrote. In 1267 Bacon himself wrote that he had labored in sciences and languages and forty years had passed since he first learned the alphabet (O'Connor 2005). It is assumed that he meant that forty years had passed since he had begun University studies. While education at the university level in modern times starts, on average, when a student is 18 or 19 years old, depending on the date of their birth, back in the 1200’s, students, including Bacon, began their study at the age of 13. Thus it can be deduced that Bacon was born in the year 1214 (O’Connor 2005).

Since Bacon was not the oldest of his parent’s sons, and did not inherit the family estates and wealth, it is likely that he was expected to become a priest. According to an article by JJ O’Connor and EF Robertson, Bacon was likely “taught Latin and arithmetic by the local priest to prepare him for university studies” (O’Connor 2005). O'Connor also explains that Bacon's father paid for his attendance at Oxford University at the age of thirteen. Something to consider is the fact that universities in the 1200s were different from today's universities in more than just how the students learned, mainly scholastic versus dynamic learning. Another important distinction between modern day and 13th century universities is how long the students studied. Modern students study for typically four or five years, whereas students such as Bacon studied until they received their Master’s Degree. This course of study spanned about eight years. After completing his studies, Bacon began teaching and continued to teach at Oxford University until around 1241 (O'Connor 2005).

Looking closer at Bacon’s family it is clear just how important they were to his research. According to John Henry Bridges in his book, “The Life & Work of Roger Bacon,” Bacon’s “family was one of some wealth, since he himself had been able to spend much money on experimental research” (Bridges 16). This implies that his family paid for his education and the beginnings of his research. However, this did not last as his family had taken the royal side, that of King Henry, against his barons, and suffered not only pecuniary loss but also exile due to their loyalty to the losing side. This led to some distress for Bacon as he spent “more than two thousand pounds in (training young men in languages, geometrical figures, numbers, the construction of tables, the use of instruments, and many other things) and in the purchase of books and instruments” (Bridges 16-17). Bacon took education seriously, which is why he found all of these wise men, including Robert Grosseteste, one of his biggest influences other than Aristotle, and spent so much of his own money to educate them. This need to inspire other bright minds to educate themselves further than expected stems from the failure of learning he was noticing around him.

According to an article written by Jeremiah Hackett simply titled “Roger Bacon,” Francis Bacon, born over three hundred years after Roger Bacon, was recorded to have characterized Roger Bacon as an exceptional figure among the schoolmen and as having set aside the scholastic disputations of his times and engaging in the mechanical understanding of the secrets of nature (Hackett 2007.) Francis studied from the works of Roger Bacon and as such built off of the research that Roger Bacon had already begun. In an article on Francis Bacon, LeAnn J. Williams discusses the difference between Scholastic learning and Dynamic learning which, while Bacon did not phrase it in this way, these terms summarize where Bacon was heading.

Scholastic learning is static, it is what is already known; there is no research or questioning, it is what it is. Dynamic learning takes place when students question and research, which advances their learning; they have to prove what is instead of accepting it at face value, through this true learning occurs. This is (Francis) Bacon’s method, and part of his theory. One can tell, through Bacon’s life, that he is frustrated with the learning system of his time, and set out to change it (Williams 2012.)

When Bacon attended the University of Paris around 1240, he discovered what is now referred to as the scholastic philosophy. The two most prominent representative of this philosophy were Alexander of Hales and William of Auvergne. Bacon, in his thirst for knowledge, made himself a master of the methods and controversies current in this philosophy, but while doing so Bacon perceived that these men who taught this philosophy were destitute of positive knowledge. They only knew Latin, they were ignorant of mathematics, and their philosophy was “a tangle of barren controversies reducible… to verbal disputes” (Bridges 20). As Bacon was aware that the Catholic Church was facing dangers of an appalling magnitude, namely losing her authority over the world, he knew that this philosophy, with its lack of relation to real life facts, held no hope of raising the Church “to the position of intellectual domination needed for establishing her authority over the Asiatic world” (Bridges 20). Thus apart from simply acquiring knowledge Bacon was concerned for the welfare of the Church in his search for better education.

One area of Bacon’s life that caused him much grief was his time spent as a Friar. In a book titled “Roger Bacon and His Search For a Universal Science” by Steward C. Easton, it is explained that Bacon was acutely depressed by the disorders around him when he joined the spiritual group, the Franciscan Order. Easton also notes that Bacon was mistreated while part of the Franciscan Order (Easton 125). It seems that Bacon was even restrained because of his thirst for knowledge. His persistent outspokenness on matters outside of his professional work annoyed his fellow friars enough to provoke them to discipline him. Luckily for Bacon he received a request for "his opinions and suggestions on what ailed society" from the Pope, the highest authority in Christendom (Easton 144).

Bacon was concerned, as he perceived a crisis in Christendom, which he indicated in his response to the request from Pope Clement IV. In a book by Timothy J Johnson titled, “Preaching Precedes Theology: Roger Bacon On The Failure Of Mendicant Education,” Johnson discusses Bacon’s wide-reaching, well-intended proposal for educational reform in the “Opus Majus,” “Opus Minus,” and “Opus Tertium” (Johnson 85). These are the books Bacon wrote and sent to the Pope in secret in hope that the Pope would be able to use. Unfortunately, the Pope died three months after they arrived in Rome. Then, after three years without a Pope, Pope Gregory X was elected in 1271. Pope Gregory, being a Franciscan was unlikely to show favor on a suspected member of his own Order and as such dismissed the works entirely. Even with this set back Bacon "plunged into stronger invective against the intellectual and moral vices of his time than he had ever used before" (Bridges 30).

The election of Pope Gregory X may not have stopped Bacon from writing his strongest piece on the intellectual and moral vices of his time, including the moral corruption of the Church (Bridges 30) but it did kill “Bacon's dreams of a radical curriculum renewal that would guide the way the Church and Commonwealth govern, secure the conversion of unbelievers, and defeat those opposing the faith without shedding blood” (Johnson 85). Even with this turn of events Bacon continued to push for a better educational system. He began to channel his focus to preaching and how poor preaching, which characterized most preaching of his time, demonstrated a failed educational system. This terrible preaching is even worse given his belief, which he stated in “Opus Tertium,” that “the principle intention and ultimate goal of the Church is found in the work of preaching (which) leads unbelievers to the faith and preserves believers in their faith and moral life” (Johnson 86). To Bacon, proper preaching focuses on persuading believes and unbelievers alike with regards to virtues and vices, punishment and Glory, and faith and morals. As Bacon saw the end of the preaching process as producing something of the poorest quality, to him the entire process, including the educational system was wrong (Johnson 88). Bacon’s critique on this matter, as well as his proposed wisdom curriculum, did not lead to a radical reappraisal of education within the Church at that time. Indeed, it may even have gotten him condemned and placed under house arrest as previously stated (Johnson 93).

Given what happened during Bacon’s life and even following his death, it appears as though he failed in all of his endeavors. Yet, in Brian Clegg’s book “The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon” some of Bacon’s influences on modern life are discussed and explained. Roger Bacon is not a very well known name and one reason for this is that his goals were not achieved during his lifetime; one such goal being calendar reform. “Bacon’s efforts to revise the calendar, which by his time was ten days out of synchronization with reality, were unsuccessful in his own lifetime, but in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a reform which adopted the measures Bacon had suggested” (Clegg 2). Another area he influenced was optics. "Bacon’s understanding and imagination enabled him to foresee and describe instruments such as telescopes and microscopes" (Clegg 3), which were not invented until several hundred years later. Further evidence that Bacon influenced those that came after him is the fact that Newton, Descartes, Huygens, and others who transformed the science of light in the seventeenth century would have known of Bacon’s optical theories (Clegg 2).

Despite all of Bacon’s remarkable, and mostly overlooked, contributions, the most significant of them all was Bacon’s development of the principle of experimental science.

For thousands of years before Bacon, and as far ahead as Newton’s time, it was normal practice to accept the word of authorities rather than to observe anew, frame hypotheses, and test them using scientific principles, But Bacon, like the modern scientists who followed him, rejected this ‘natural philosophy.’ He would not accept pure argument; everything should be subjected to experiment (Clegg 3).

The Scientific Method, what we now call this philosophy, is crucial in modern society. Without this method, society would either progress at a snail's pace or not at all. This may have been fine for the thirteenth century but the modern world is an extremely competitive place where whoever succeeds the fastest and uses the least amount of money typically wins. If no one tried to argue their point and simply agreed with everything they were told, not only would we be a very gullible world, but society would fail to advance. This may seem rather extreme but where would society be if it did not challenge what it was told to be true. Questioning our world is a trait that is inherently human. Without the drive to question and improve upon the current state the world would be a very dull place.

In 1210, before Bacon was born, the works of David of Dinant had been burned along with the prohibition of the metaphysical and natural scientific works of Aristotle in lecture courses (Easton 35). This tragedy does not take away from their influence on Bacon or the world today. Using the same reasoning, it is justified to say that although Bacon did not get to see the fruits of his labors, their importance to modern society is not negated. Although there have been complaints about the method by which high school students are taught, in a scholastic fashion, it is important to realize that because of Bacon, and those that came after him, students have the opportunity to learn more efficiently under the principle of the scientific method. Without Bacon, the University and higher education would not be what it is now.


Roger Bacon’s Influence on Modern Society


Page Author: Sarah Noteboom

19-Jan-2013 19:21



Bridges, John Henry. The Life & Work of Roger Bacon. Merrick, New York: Richwood Publishing Company, 1976. Print.

Clegg, Brian. The First Scientist: A Life Of Roger Bacon. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003. Print.

Easton, Stewart C. Roger Bacon And His Search For A Universal Science. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952. Print.

Hackett, Jeremiah. "Roger Bacon." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 19 Apr. 2007. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.

Johnson, Timothy J. "Preaching Precedes Theology: Roger Bacon On The Failure Of Mendicant Education." Franciscan Studies 68.(2010): 83-95. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.

O'Connor, J J, and E F Robertson. "Roger Bacon." Bacon Biography. The School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, Aug. 2005. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.

Williams, LeAnn J. "The Thin Tweed Line." The Thin Tweed Line. The Thin Tweed Line, 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.


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