University of Oxford

Essential Lessons for Today From a 13th Century Friar

by: Geoff Ficke

One of the greatest literary and science works of the ancient world, rarely studied today, was the Opus Majus. The amazingly futuristic content of the Opus Majus was virtually a modern tutorial, written in the 13th century, on an array of literary, scientific and philosophical topics. The writer was the eclectic, brilliant Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon.

Bacon was born to a prosperous English family in the 13th century, attended Oxford University at the age of 13 and soon commenced a career as a teacher at Britain’s most famous university. He lectured on Aristotle and a wide range of philosophical and theological topics. He became a Franciscan friar late in life and a confidant of Pope Clement IV.

His study and observations on astrology, science, alchemy and medicine were advanced for the age, controversial and dangerous. It is widely believed that he was imprisoned for his presumed heresies while in Paris. His discovery of the “visible spectrum”, obtained while viewing a sitting glass of water preceded the discovery and observations of the same by Sir Isaac Newton by some four centuries.

During a long and varied life of study, observation and experimentation Roger Bacon was both adored and pilloried. His work was often under attack from Catholic Church theologians and competitive thinkers vying to supercede his growing reputation for modern, innovative thought. Nevertheless, his writings, lectures and theorems were widely studied and many became the under pilings for more advanced scientific and practical science that would evolve in the future in a more modern world.

If Roger Bacon has produced nothing else, the Opus Majus would have secured his legacy for all time as an innovative, exciting thinker. The work is still considered a primer for inquiring minds seeking guidance in the vast galaxy of experimental science.

For many years we have been reading and hearing that the United States is not producing enough scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technicians. We live in a technological age. These work skills are needed by any economy hoping to stay cutting edge, grow rapidly and provide better living circumstances for all. Certainly the United States requires copious quantities of such skilled workers to maintain our economical edge.

And yet, our educational system is not producing technologically advanced graduates at a rate anywhere near our industrial requirements. Managers at tech giants MicroSoft, Dell, Hewlitt-Packard and Oracle complain loudly, and publicly, that they are hamstrung by the serious decline in the ability of our educational system to train and produce enough engineers to satisfy the demands of a technologically based economy. They must seek candidates for high paying tech centered jobs from India, China and Korea; all countries where mathematics and science courses are pre-eminent in their educational curriculum.

Roger Bacon was predictive of the consequences of a lack of concentration on mathematics and sciences. The following is one of the most famous quotations from Opus Majus:

“Mathematics is the gate and key of the sciences. Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, and he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or things of this world”.

Roger Bacon was a 13th century visionary whose observations are most prescient today. The United States has lost a generation of potential talent in the scientific fields by watering down the curriculum and minimizing the importance of chemistry, calculus, algebra, physics and trigonometry. Our security, both militarily and economically is being imperiled by the lack of importance placed on these essential building blocks of scientific knowledge.

Knowledge of mathematics disciplines is color-blind. Understanding the Pythagorean Theorem is not politically correct or incorrect. It is the same proof in Zimbabwe as in Sacramento, Athens or Beijing. Roger Bacon offers a wonderful reference to one of history’s truisms: He who does not learn the mistakes of history is doomed to repeat those mistakes. Will we learn?

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