Much as I like to think and act exuberantly in the celebration of the abundance of life, I have days where I recognize that I’m 64 years old. Some of those days, I embrace the fact. Some of those days I just feel it.
When I embrace the fact, I also embrace one of the things that the older among us can claim, that our younger brethren can’t yet. I can contemplate not just the present and my plans for the future, though I do that always, but also the legacy that I’d like to provide as I leave my footprints embedded in time.
In the course of mulling this over a few weeks ago, in the midst of recovering from vocal cord surgery, I began to think about something that often comes up from my storehouse of memories – the work I did many years ago on 13th century science and culture and in particular, a medieval friar of the Franciscan Order, Roger Bacon, someone, who when I was writing my varying tomes on the period and the man and on science in general, I began to believe and still do, might have been one of the greatest scientists in the history of our species.
My purpose in writing about this is not to debate with you whether or not he was or is great – or, honestly, even to care what you think about that – or for you to care what I think about it. That is both a debate beyond the scope of this post and beyond any contemporary research anyone reading this (or writing this) is likely to have done. Its also one that regardless of outcome, won’t move the chain in human thinking one iota. So please treat what I’m going to be saying about Roger Bacon and his role instead as a both data point and a metaphor for what I’m want to actually talk about.
All this mulling led me to what I wrote years ago to understand my present behavior. It gave me a little more insight into the legacy that I am trying to leave. But it reminded me of something else too. Something that perhaps we often forget in the course of our very lucky lives as people who have a shot at helping to transform the world we live in.
Here’s what that is:
The very hallmark of continued human social existence has been that each of us as a human, has an infinite capacity to create something that in some way, incrementally and on occasion profoundly impacts the continued existence of society and the human species. It’s happened frequently enough throughout history, with the right combinations of people and resources, to so far, ensure, at least for now, the continued existence and even flourishing of humanity and the cultures and society associated with it, with all their problems, glitches, denial of opportunities, errors of judgment and action, and even criminality. Despite the bad, we survive as a species and grow. Because the good always outweighs the bad, and over time, even if it doesn’t seem so, overcomes the bad. That tells you something – human beings, as a rule, are good, not evil, despite the cynics who would have you think otherwise. Complaining doesn’t solve problems – finding solutions to the problems solve them.
So, in the following paragraphs, please bear with me and take to heart if you can, what Bacon and (if I’m not being too presumptuous) I are saying about invention, the human spirit, the art of science and the abilities of each and every one of us as a human being to transcend and master the course of our own existence in a practical way, not just via some flight of fancy. Please keep in mind, as you read this post, Bacon’s speech is couched in religious terms (e.g. God the Creator etc.) as well they should be since he was a Franciscan friar in the 13th century. But the content and the principles should be taken in a secular light. My voice, on the other hand, is not religious at all.
Here we go.
The 13th Century – Cultural Optimism Drives the….Horse
Throughout his entire adult life at the core of his very being, Roger Bacon (1214-1292) believed that human beings had the ability to not only master the laws of nature but to even change them through invention and creation. His approach though wasn’t something carved from fantasy but was rooted in a rational science that was both derived from universal principles and supported via experimentation. In fact, he’s often called the Father of Experimental Science (a lot more important than the Godfather of CRM. J). This idea, completely radical for the 13th century, was something that is now self-evident to us – the verification of hypotheses through observation, experience, methodological rigor and discovery. You might think “bad start, Paul, what’s the big deal about that?” For the 21st century, thanks to Bacon and his successors, it isn’t a big deal. It’s what especially contemporary scientists do. But in the 13th century, this was revolutionary and would, if it gained popular credence, overturn the bulk of so-called scientific approaches at the time. Science at the time was based more on argument and natural philosophy, rather than a rigorous approach that used the actual practical testing of hypothesis to verify or deny the hypothesis. To super-simplify (again, this post isn’t meant to be a highly detailed post on areas that I’m not an expert in; but I do know something of the era) the accepted approach to science when the 13th century began, it was debating and arguing the hypothesis and the more “rational” argument won. Experimental science changed that.
What made this so exciting was the 13th century was a century that civilization began to advance with these kinds of ideas in mind for the first time at scale. They were premised on a broad cultural optimism, which when articulated, said that each and every one of us was capable of what was called special revelation – a creative spark that could generate a new idea that could impact the course of things up to and including all civilization. Though God may have gifted us with that creative spark, the idea that was generated was generated via an individual human being’s thinking process. The advocates of experimental science were effectively saying, “Okay, we think that this idea has some merit. Let’s take it, test it and see if it works and if the results have applicable value.” This concept germinated in a Europe that was undergoing what might have been a renaissance before the Renaissance we know in the 15th century. The flowering of the arts and the sciences and desire to discover were given scale and, equally as good, funding, in places like the courts of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, who was the Holy Roman Emperor and his cousin, Alfonso X, also known as Alfonso El Sabio (the Wise) of Castile. These leaders weren’t just conquerors and heads of state; they were patrons who funded scientists, engineers, artists, philosophers and others who were generating new ways of looking at the world and who created new tools and products that would make the world more productive. For example, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen was the sponsor at his court of Salerno, the leading medical school of the 13th century. Alfonso X, not only sponsored original experimentation and research, but also was a hands-on researcher himself. His Libros de saber de Astronomia, which were astronomical tables that he and a research team he led compiled, were the industry-standard until Tycho Brae revised them in the 16th century. In conjunction with this research, scientists and engineers at his court invented a mechanical clock to measure time with more precision.
But the inventions weren’t just for a small group in a royal court. There were practical technologies that were created and applied to the larger world – and, were, in context of their era, far more important to the continuation and evolution of the species that the things that we tend to call “disruptive” or “innovative” today. (On a whole other subject, we throw around the terms “disruptive” and “innovative” far too much for things that are neither) For example, during that time, the leather yoke, far more flexible than the yokes of the past were used to drive horses, rather than the oxen used in the past to do agricultural work. The results were spectacular. Man, doing the agricultural work produced 45 foot-pounds of work per second. Oxen with the rigid yoke produced 288 foot-pounds per second; the horse with the flexible leather yoke produced 432 foot-pounds per second and could work 2 hours longer than an ox – an work efficiency increase of 65% in the fields.
The other agricultural breakthrough of the period was the widespread adoption of three-field crop rotation, a significant change from the centuries old two-field crop rotation. I won’t go into what this is in the interests of space but if you are interested, check the short and sweet explanation given here. Suffice to say, it protected and even replenished nutrients in the soil rather than just drained them.
A third breakthrough, which added to this agricultural boom, was the introduction of hydraulic power via the waterwheel (which also had huge industrial impact, too). For example, in Flanders, sandy marshland became fertile cropland as hundreds of waterwheels irrigated thousands of acres.
The combination of these three breakthroughs, when applied to agriculture, led to grain yields increasing from an 11th century high of 2.5 measures per measure sown to 4.0 measures per measure sown, which amounts to 100% increase in disposable foodstuffs. Talk about disruptive! Many more human beings got to eat more healthily thanks to this technological revolution. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but compare that to what I’ve heard called “disruptive” over the last few years. Uber. Better taxis? Groupon. Delivering discount coupons? Not disruptive. Sorry.
But it wasn’t just the breakthroughs themselves that characterized this era. The 13th century was also a period of self-revelation, when the human species began to realize that it was special. It had the power to transform nature, not just react to it, as most animals do. It also celebrated that special capability.
Let me explain it another way.
I would imagine that many of us, given our somewhat privileged existences and the commoditization of international transportation, have been to Europe and seen in one place or another gothic cathedrals – and if you have any sense of wonder whatever, have been in awe at the size, complexity and sheer magnificence of the creations. Many of these, the first groups of them, were built in the 13th century by cathedral builders who were often called master masons or architect engineers, with the express purpose of celebrating God and Creation. But one thing that may not be as obvious is that in almost all of these timeless magnificent buildings, if you look at them closely, man is placed at the apex of creation. Man is central to the creation of the building and to the celebration of God and capital C Creation. For example, the interior of the Cathedral at Reims was a maze that represented a holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When a visitor to the cathedral solves the maze, they arrive at the center of the cathedral. What that visitor finds at the center of these homages to God and Creation are not the names of any disciples, nor Jesus or Mary, but the names of the master masons that built the cathedral. These architect-engineers saw themselves as central to the creation of this New Jerusalem, this new and refreshed world of invention, celebration and abundance. God, in this central area is portrayed on stained glass windows as an architect engineer with a compass in his hands.
This spirit of creation and invention was infectious among at least a small group of people who had a significant impact on the health and well-being of the world that they lived in. Witness my man Roger Bacon’s inventive mind – and keep in mind this is the 13th century. This is a famous passage of his foresight that comes from his work Opus Tertium.
“Machines of navigation can be constructed without rowers, as great ships for river or ocean which are borne under the guidance of one man at a greater speed than if they were full of men. Also a chariot that can be constructed that will move at incalculable speed without any draught animals…also flying machines may be constructed so that man may sit in the midst of the machine turning a certain instrument by means of which wings artificially constructed would beat the air after the manner of a bird flying. Also a machine of small size may be made for raising and lowering weights of almost infinite amounts – a machine of the utmost utility.
Machines may be also made for going in sea or river down to the bed without bodily danger…and there are countless other things that can be constructed such as bridges over rivers without pillars or any such support.”
What’s utterly fascinating is, in his “Letter Concerning the Marvelous Power of Art and Nature and the Nullity of Magic” Bacon claims to have seen all of them, except the flying machine, which of course shows up 300 years later in Da Vinci’s Notebooks. Is that the case? I don’t know and I doubt anyone ever will. But what makes this incredible regardless is that even if he didn’t see them as a realized work, each of these imagined (or real) inventions has a practical purpose aimed at the betterment of the lot of humans on the planet at that time and in the future. In other words, he was applying a scientific method to providing invention that was practical i.e. of real applicable value to the advance of society. Utility in the service of knowledge is essential. There has to be some actual purpose to the creation of knowledge and for its verification. It isn’t created for its own sake.
But you might argue, what about brand new fresh ideas? Aren’t they sometimes valuable and yet, unique and new so their application isn’t so apparent?
The answer to this is well put indirectly, by the poet, Charles Simic, in a recent New York Review of Books article entitled “The Prisoner of History”
“I live between two worlds, the one I see with my eyes open and the one I see with my eyes closed. Unlike other people, I regard the two as equals and trust my eyes as much as I trust my imagination.”
In other words, of course we have to continually try to imagine the new but it has to be in context – the context of the world as it is and as we imagine it to be with the realization of those new ideas. The key is “realization” – the practical application of verified ideas to solving a problem or advancing something in the real world.
This could easily characterize Roger Bacon, or any of the visionary thinkers of the 13th century. Or any of us, regardless of era, who want to make what we imagine we can do, real, rather than just continue to imagine it. This is vision and imagination applied to real world problems and needs.
All of this – agricultural advances, cathedral building, Roger Bacon’s vision, reflected a broad cultural optimism. This optimism, a transformation of thinking about the place of humanity and individuals in the grandest scheme of all – the evolution of life, and the universe, drove a 13th century technological revolution that increased the capacity of the human species to grow more safely and to utilize its gift more actively in a way that was unmatched until the Renaissance.
Roger Bacon’s contribution to this was the creation and initial application of scientific method to the evolution of science.
Roger Bacon, labored through life as an almost heretical Franciscan friar, persecuted by his own order, and died in 1292 at age 78, despite being imprisoned for a while by his own order. I’m not going to go into the politics of that or the life of Bacon per se, but instead focus on what he said and saw. Because what he did, reflects what each of us as an individual has the capability to do in his or her life. Personally, it affects how at least I’m thinking about what I might leave behind, even as I continue to concern myself, as most of us do, with my present and future. I think it’s important because I also think we underestimate exactly who we are and what we are capable of because we get caught up in the minutiae of our everyday existence. We often forget not just the nobility of our own capacity but the actual tools and practices that are there to effect those proficiencies and possibilities.
We are armed with:
- The knowledge of what the human species is
- Who we are as individuals
- The existence of a philosophical framework that gives us some context to work within,
- The ability to reason and
- Tools and practices,
Having all this makes us responsible at some point in our life to choose a way to use all of this amazing potential and engage with the world to realize that potential and benefit more than just ourselves. We are each at different levels in our journey to figure this out and each at different degrees of commitment to actually trying to benefit others, rather than just intend to.
I’ve reached the age where at least for me, I know what I want to do and how I want to do it and am beginning to consider what kind of memory it will leave when my time on earth ends. It’s a bit frightening to be honest, because I don’t want to consider it, but considering it I am.
In that consideration, Roger Bacon has been a paradigm for me, because of how he thinks about knowledge, science and execution.
The first principle of knowledge in the mind of Bacon was virtue. That, translated into 21st century lingo is that we have to be good human beings. Bacon understood that there is a clarity that goodness provides that allows one to understand truths – not necessarily or only big universal truths but scientific truths. A good person, because their intent is good, is prone to knowledge, because they are emotionally connected to doing good things. His way of putting it:
“For it is not possible that the soul should rest in the light of truth, while it is stained with sins…Virtue therefore clarifies the mind so that man may comprehend more easily not only moral but scientific truths.” (From his 1268 Opus Majus).
But it goes further than that. None of us, and, I fervently believe this, are devoid of the potential for creativity. We all have an infinite capacity to create and for applying that creativity in beneficial ways, what Bacon calls “special revelation” or what the incredibly underrated philosopher Philo Judaeus calls “a miniature heaven” in his “On Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses.”
In Bacon’s Opus Tertium:
“...Therefore, this way, which precedes special revelation is the wisdom of philosophy and this wisdom alone is in the power of man, yet supplemented by some divine enlightenment which in this part is common to all, because God is the intelligence active in all our souls in all cognition.”
Bacon is saying what I said – each of us has that divine spark, the potential to create but it also is a potential that has to be realized by the individual. God will not do it for you. God grants you the capability and the broad opportunity to act on it. You are responsible to realize your potential and then put it into action in a way that is beneficial. Again, Opus Tertium:
As God wishes all men to be saved and no man to perish and his goodness is infinite, He always leaves some way possible for man through which he may be urged to seek his own salvation…For this reason, the goodness of God ordained that revelation should be given the world so that the human race may be saved. But this way, which precedes revelation, is given to man so that if he does not wish to follow it, nor seek a fuller truth, he may be justly damned at the end.
Putting it simply, it would be a horrible waste of each of our lives if we don’t apply this gift in a way that benefits each of and all of us.
I know that this may be arcane for some of you (though, those that it is arcane for probably have stopped reading), waxing too philosophical for others, and maybe you think this is self-indulgent, which, admittedly, it might be. But, aside for what I’m wrestling with as I enter the last third or, with a LOT of luck (and working out and eating right) 40% of my life, what Roger Bacon established in the 13th century via his philosophical framework and the creation of experimental science and what the application of practical science led to with the technological breakthroughs and conjoined cultural optimism of the era, is one of the reasons we are able to continue to claim innovation and disruption and technological breakthrough and scientific achievement in the 21st century.
So with that in mind, I’m going to go through one more thing (there is SO much more that I’m leaving out) about Roger Bacon concerning experimental science and then close this out with some of why this impacts me so, so much and how it has impacted what we all do, so that we can see things in perspective – or in the context of the biggest picture of all – the continuation of the human species for the sake of its own growth.
Roger Bacon and the Integritas Sapientiae
Roger Bacon’s approach to experimental science was driven by a framework and a methodology grounded in a deeply rooted philosophy that was verifiable through research and testing – or disproven as such.
In Bacon’s case the philosophy was defined by the concept of God as the Creator of all things in an orderly fashion. What that implied was that all things were related in some way via the laws that governed them. That meant that while God created the heavens, earth, man and woman, the trees and the fruit that grew on them – all of which were different in visible ways and fashioned for different reasons, they were related to each by the universal laws of creation and the Creator and governed by those same laws.
To Bacon, this translated to eight clearly definable branches of science; the laws of each of them were discoverable with a single, universal method. The sciences (for those of you interested) were:
- Common principles of natural sciences and philosophy
- Barology (science of weight and its relation to gravity)
- Alchemy (actually chemistry not magic)
- Experimental science
Bacon called these sciences the integrated sciences. Each of the eight had a unique position in the pantheon of science but at the same time all eight played a central role in the body of principle and practice that gave the human species hegemony over nature – the ability to alter it to their benefit.
What in the name of … do I mean by this? (Hey, don’t shoot the messenger). For example, to understand agriculture, you had to know botany, soil testing, animal husbandry and horticulture. Your knowledge as an agricultural scientist had to span the interactions between climate, vegetation and animal populations. This allowed you to figure out how to improve the conditions that would benefit organic life. Think about the example earlier of the leather yoke, horses, waterwheels, and three-crop rotation that disrupted all previous models for growing food and improved the lives of people everywhere by providing more food. This was a systematic, practical, applicable science.
Science had a timely prudence too. For example, he was a strong advocate of military research because of the imminent threat of the Mongol Empire and Genghis Khan who he saw as the Anti-Christ. By 1241, they had reached the Danube in Europe, so researching war weapons became paramount. Based on both the Opus Majus and another of his works, De Secretus Operibus, there is evidence that he invented gunpowder (according to arguments made by several scholars). He didn’t envision it as needed for bombs or bullets per se, but he did see it as something that would defeat the Anti-Christ, Genghis Khan.
This great achievement, the beginnings of a rigorous method for experimental science, was first proposed in both his greatest work, Opus Majus (translates to Great or Big Work, ironically), and in his less well known, Communia Naturalium. While its true value wasn’t realized until the 17th century really, its seeds were planted in the 13th century’s cultural optimism.
There is so much more to Bacon’s experiments. There is some evidence that he invented a telescope and a compound microscope hundreds of years before the accepted dates of their invention. He did what can be seen as seminal work in optics and in light and radiation. I could go on. But, to close this out, I want to focus on something I think even more important – his passion for finding the truth – in things, in laws, in natural law, in the universe and in life – and the lessons that I’ve learned at least in the search that he has helped guide me on for my life.
Roger Bacon, on truth and humility.
Bacon understood that truth wasn’t only the property of the renowned – all humans were possessors of truth and thus deserved the respect of their peers. Without that humility, not only weren’t you acting as a human being according to what God provided to you, but you also were denying yourself the opportunity for learning some of the truths that are being made available to you. Look at these passages in Opus Majus:
- “The wiser men are, the more humbly will they submit to learn from others; they do not disdain the simplicity of those who teach them.”
- “Just as man’s conduct towards God is regulated by the reverence required, so is his conduct toward his neighbor regulated by justice and peace and his duty to himself by integrity of life.”
- “It comes to pass that he who ceases to be a man by the loss of his goodness is turned into a beast.”
So, what does all this rambling on about Roger Bacon mean – at least to me? Let’s bring it in.
Since I found out about Roger Bacon and was drawn to him, he has been a guidepost for my life – a hero that framed much of what I’ve done with my life. He’s given me guidance in how be what I hope is a good person, a practical foresighted thinker, and someone who will accomplish something of value on the planet to be remembered by.
- The universe is governed by a natural law that affects all things regardless of apparent differences.
- It is the continuous discovery of that universal natural law and how it works that drives and sustains the human species, whether or not its conscious goal.
- Each human being on this planet, each of us, regardless of life’s station, has been granted an infinite capacity to create and is a possessor of truths that each of us can learn from. Titles and position don’t matter.
- With that creative capacity, comes to the responsibility to actively seek to use it in a practical way to benefit others – either the species as a whole or groups or individuals. We are granted the gift; doing something with it is up to us.
- We each are able to gain more and greater knowledge if our purpose for gaining it is good (virtuous). That means that we are best served as people if we are driven to do good for more than ourselves.
- There is a rigorous method of going about applying that creative gift – proving what you think, regardless of where you apply it. Bacon’s desire to prove what he supposed and the method he developed, can appropriated by how we produce content, develop technology, and do anything else with our lives. For example, when I write, I am always able to defend what I say. I’ve counseled those of my younger brethren who tend to be strong-willed and opinionated that they can write whatever they want, but they need to be prepared to defend whatever they say, which, to be blunt, many times they can’t. You have to be able to show that what you say is defensible by its truths. If it isn’t or you can’t verify the argument, then don’t say it.
Our lives today were nourished in the wellsprings of prior centuries and the prior achievements of our forebears. On the one hand, we should respect that past, but we should never live in it. Because if there is one other thing we learned, it is that our wonderful species is constantly evolving and changing and we have to both drive that change in order for the species to continue and respect that change as it occurs.
Roger Bacon was a major influence in teaching me all these things. I don’t know if any of this resonated with you. I don’t know if this was an exercise in sheer self-indulgence. I do know that the impact on me has been to make me think about what I do and who it impacts, act in a fashion that supports reason and truth as best as the flawed creature I am knows how, and at the same time, provides me with a moral compass. I hope that when I finally go, my epitaph does not read, “he was #1 in CRM” or “He was the Godfather of CRM” but instead it says, “He was a good person” or “He did good.” Then I’ve fulfilled my life’s purpose and what has been my dream for many years.
For an interesting look at the recent biographical material on Roger Bacon, take a look at this 2013 work that is fairly simple and probably a bit too speculative but good enough to give you a decent idea of who the man was. The book is “Roger Bacon, The First Scientist” by Brian Clegg. (The link is for the Kindle version) For anyone interested in Roger Bacon at all, it’s worth the read.