Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is generally thought that Roger Bacon, the famous monk of the thirteenth century, was a very great man and that he possessed true knowledge, because he was persecuted and condemned to prison by a set of ignoramuses. It is a great prejudice in his favor, I own. But does it not happen every day that quacks gravely condemn other quacks, and that fools make other fools pay the penalty of folly? This, our world, has for a long time resembled the compact edifices in which he who believes in the eternal Father anathematizes him who believes in the Holy Ghost; circumstances which are not very rare even in these days. Among the things which render Friar Bacon commendable we must first reckon his imprisonment, and then the noble boldness with which he declared that all the books of Aristotle were fit only to be burned and that at a time when the learned respected Aristotle much more than the Jansenists respect St. Augustine. Has Roger Bacon, however, done anything better than the Poetics, the Rhetoric, and the Logic of Aristotle? These three immortal works clearly prove that Aristotle was a very great and fine genius — penetrating, profound, and methodical; and that he was only a bad natural philosopher because it was impossible to penetrate into the depths of physical science without the aid of instruments.

Does Roger Bacon, in his best work, in which he treats of light and vision, express himself much more clearly than Aristotle when he says light is created by means of multiplying its luminous species, which action is called univocal and conformable to the agent? He also mentions another equivocal multiplication, by which light engenders heat and heat putrefaction.

Roger Bacon likewise tells us that life may be prolonged by means of spermaceti, aloes, and dragons’ flesh, and that the philosopher’s stone would render us immortal. It is thought that besides these fine secrets he possessed all those of judicial astrology, without exception, as he affirms very positively in his “Opus Majus,” that the head of man is subject to the influences of the ram, his neck to those of the bull, and his arms to the power of the twins. He even demonstrates these fine things from experience, and highly praises a great astrologer at Paris who says that he hindered a surgeon from putting a plaster on the leg of an invalid, because the sun was then in the sign of Aquarius, and Aquarius is fatal to legs to which plasters are applied.

It is an opinion quite generally received that Roger was the inventor of gunpowder. It is certain that it was in his time that important discovery was made, for I always remark that the spirit of invention is of all times and that the doctors, or sages, who govern both mind and body are generally profoundly ignorant, foolishly prejudiced, or at war with common sense. It is usually among obscure men that artists are found animated with a superior instinct, who invent admirable things on which the learned afterwards reason.

One thing that surprises me much is that Friar Bacon knew not the direction of the magnetic needle, which, in his time, began to be understood in Italy, but in lieu thereof he was acquainted with the secret of the hazel rod and many such things of which he treats in his “Dignity of the Experimental Art.”

Yet, notwithstanding this pitiable number of absurdities and chimeras, it must be confessed that Roger Bacon was an admirable man for his age. What age? you will ask — that of feudal government and of the schoolmen. Figure to yourself Samoyedes and Ostiacs who read Aristotle. Such were we at that time.

Roger Bacon knew a little of geometry and optics, which made him pass for a sorcerer at Rome and Paris. He was, however, really acquainted with the matter contained in the Arabian “Alhazen,” for in those days little was known except through the Arabs. They were the physicians and astrologers of all the Christian kings. The king’s fool was always a native; his doctor an Arab or a Jew.

Transport this Bacon to the times in which we live and he would be, no doubt, a great man. He was gold, encrusted with the rust of the times in which he lived, this gold would now be quickly purified. Poor creatures that we are! How many ages have passed away in acquiring a little reason!

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25