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Roger Bacon and the History of Alchemy

by Edmund Brehm

Roger Bacon

Alchemy, throughout its history, has shown a dual nature. On the one hand, it has involved the use of chemical substances and so is claimed by the history of science as the precursor of modern chemistry. Yet at the same time, alchemy has, throughout its history, also been associated with the esoteric, spiritual beliefs of Hermeticism and thus is a proper subject for the historian of religious thought.

The chemical approach is easily understood. As the distinguished historian of alchemy, the late F. Sherwood Taylor, concluded: "The hopeless pursuit of the practical transmutation of metals was responsible for almost the whole of the development of chemical technique before the seventeenth century, and further led to the discovery of many important materials. This is the commonly recognized contribution of alchemy."(1) Mircea Eliade and others, on the other hand, have emphasized the soteriological function of alchemy as working toward the perfection and liberation of the human soul or spirit, a process symbolized in the perfection of metals into gold and of the human body to a state of optimum health and even immortality. Such an approach is complemented by the psychological studies of C. G. Jung, which correlate alchemical symbolism with the development of the psycho-religious life of the individual.

Eliade has conclusively demonstrated the religious nature of alchemy in Eastern cultures, and Jung has discussed the psychological basis of Western alchemy during its later period (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). But European alchemy during the Middle Ages, especially from a religious point of view, has received little attention.  With both points of view in mind, I shall examine here the alchemical ideas of the thirteenth-century natural philosopher, Roger Bacon, and suggest the position he occupies in the history of the "Hermetic Art". There is a large corpus of treatises on alchemy that bear Bacon's name and simply establishing the authenticity of his works has held much scholarly attention. For this study I have relied upon only those works that can with certainty be credited to the Doctor Mirabilis.(2)

Because of Bacon's importance to the development of modern science, he is always mentioned in general histories of alchemy and chemistry. For the most part, however, historians have not clarified Bacon's place in these developments. Considering his alchemical writings from the chemical point of view, there is little material that would justify many of the claims that have been made over the years about his importance to that science This opinion agrees with that of Robert P. Multhauf, one of the more recent scholars who discusses this question. He points out that such a judgment was also shared by the famous alchemical "editors" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who seldom mention Bacon in their discussions of the great alchemists, or include works attributed to him in their printed collections.(3)

Bacon's chemistry is generally derivative and superficial. As one example, he reports a recipe at the beginning of his Opus Minus that, he says, is guaranteed to produce the "elixir". He first cites several works by Aristotle and Avicenna, then explains:

First there is pulverization, then solidification, then solution with ascension and depression [i.e., distillation], and a melting and mixing together. And afterwards there is sublimation with attrition and mortification; then follows the corruption of the oil, that is, it is separated from spirit so that afterwards the fiery power may be increased. After this, we consider the "proposition of lime", the distillation of oil, and the evaporation of water, so that we may finally obtain the solution from the first [metal?] into the seventh, and a contention with acute fever. Truly, whoever knows how to do these things would have the perfect medicine, which the philosophers call the Elixir, which immerses itself in the liquefaction as it is consumed by the fire and does not flee [i.e., evaporate].(4)

Taylor, after discussing such recipes, concluded that efforts to correlate such vague descriptions with actual chemical processes are futile.(5) Yet the lack of any demonstrable contribution to chemical technique in Bacon s work was characteristic of his time, a period that was, as John Read described it, "redolent of the lamp rather than of the laboratory".(6)

Nevertheless, Bacon's theoretical ideas are equally unimpressive. His writings contain a great deal of unfounded criticism of other alchemists, much discussion of the importance of maintaining secrecy, and vague references to how very useful the Art is to theology, to medicine, to the state, and -- he emphasizes for Clement IV -- to the papacy. When Bacon discloses various "enigmas" to the Pope in his Opus tertium they turn out to be rather banal bits and pieces of alchemical lore, which most educated people of the time must have known, such as the correspondence between the seven metals and the seven celestial bodies, or the sulfur-mercury theory of metal formation. Bacon's division of alchemy into "speculative" and "practical" seems to me to have been overrated. In the first place, Bacon divided many branches of knowledge into speculative and practical aspects. Secondly, a dichotomy between the theoretical and practical aspects of alchemy had been recognized by adepts since Greek times.(7)

Viewed from the point of view of soteriology, Bacon's alchemical writings, taken by themselves, do not suggest a deep relationship between alchemy and religious experience. His idea that alchemy is useful to theology because it can determine the physical composition of the bodies of Adam and Eve may be curious, but it is not profound. His works lack the allegorical and symbolic elaboration, called in alchemy the amplification, which is the starting point of Jung's analysis of alchemical symbolism. Yet placed within the context of Bacon's entire conception of science and salvation, the soteriological nature of his alchemical ideas can be appreciated. His conception of science constitutes the amplification of his alchemy, and it implicitly links the alchemical process that produces the elixir of life to the soteriological path that leads through Christian morality to eternal salvation.

In all of Bacon's later works, he attempted to integrate all knowledge into a scientia integralis, an integrated, universal science. His vision of this universal science had its roots in his study around 1247 of The Secrets of Secrets, a book that spuriously purports to be the occult and most profound teachings of the philosopher Aristotle. Prior to 1247, Bacon's interests focused on the traditional topics of scholastic learning upon which he lectured at the University of Paris. There he showed no tendency toward his later concern with science, astrology, alchemy, or magic. In fact, in his lectures on the Pseudo-Aristotelian treatise, De Plantis, Bacon even seems to deny the validity of alchemy, maintaining on philosophical grounds that transmutation of metals per speciem is impossible.(8) But all of Bacon's interests change after he discovered The Secret of Secrets: the work inspired Bacon's study of medicine and alchemy, and it was the seed for his vision of a universal science. "It cannot be emphasized too strongly," Steward C. Easton writes, "that the enormous difference between what Bacon now learns from the book of Secrets and all that he had previously studied was that the knowledge now acquired is practical. . . . His whole later life and the emotional intensity with which he pursued it can be traced to the impact of this book."(9) Bacon set off studying medicine, the chief subject suggested by the Secrets, and around 1250 wrote a treatise on the retardation of old age in which two-thirds of the quotations are from this spurious work.(10) In the next few years Bacon wrote a commentary to the Secrets; he studied astrology and alchemy, and he perhaps began the study of ancient languages, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. The one thing that now set Bacon apart from the other men of his time -- if, perhaps, only in Bacon's mind -- was his intuitive vision that all this knowledge is marvelously interrelated. Thus, Bacon learned from the Secrets that medicine is very useful because it provides a regimen for health, and combined with alchemy, it teaches how to prolong human life. Astrology is also most useful in this regard because of the complexional correspondences of the stars, humors, qualities, elements, and metals. And all these sciences are most useful, utilissimae, for theology because they can explain the composition of the bodies of Adam and Eve before the Fall.

One can almost become caught up by Bacon's obvious enthusiasm, until he gets down to specific examples, and then one is struck by how vague everything is. Bacon's "gift for systematic analysis is greatly inferior to his imagination and vision", Easton observes.(11) Such a state of mind led to "an indiscriminating eclecticism detrimental to logical unity and harmony"'.(12) Yet clear in Bacon's mind was an intuitive vision of universal science, a vision that rests at the center of his work. Around it cluster his thoughts on revelation, astrology, morality, alchemy, salvation, the prolongation of life, and the other sciences. Some parts of his system, such as optics, are more fully thought out and developed than others, but their one unifying aspect, Bacon believed, is that they make up the scientia integralis.

In trying to understand the personality behind Bacon's vision, we need not go as far as David Knowles, who asserts that Bacon's ideas "seem to have been vitiated by some deep psychological flaw, and by a restlessness and lack of control that prevented his brilliant talents and intuitive genius from attaining full realization".(13) Yet the picture of Bacon which emerges from his writings is of a man who was moved by a highly-cathected emotional drive. It was this drive that gave Bacon the feeling of power and righteousness that carried him throughout his difficult career. The subjective reality of such a drive may also have lent experiential substance to his ideas on revelation, which Bacon believed to be the ultimate source of science. This revealed wisdom was in turn linked to human salvation:

And 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 would be given to the world that the human race might be saved. . . . And it is not surprising that the wisdom of philosophy is of this kind since this wisdom is only a general revelation made to all mankind because all wisdom is from God. (14)

Scientific knowledge may lead to salvation, but the prerequisite for this revealed wisdom of science is Christian morality. Bacon explains in his commentary to the Secrets that Moses, Abraham, and the other Hebrew patriarchs were the original founders of science, which was revealed to them by God because of their great sanctity. Even the ancient pagans -- Aristotle, of course, and Plato, Avicenna, and others -- by their exemplary lives, "arrived at the secrets of wisdom and acquired all the sciences. But we Christians," Bacon continues, "discover nothing worthy, the reason for which is that we do not have their morals. For it is impossible that wisdom stand with sin, but perfect virtue is required by her. "(15) This wisdom of philosophy, Bacon maintained, is not just the traditional studies of physics and metaphysics; it is all the sciences which make up the scientia integrsalis. And not a single piece of the whole can be omitted, he insists. In an attack upon Albertus Magnus, for example, Bacon writes that this master knows nothing of the science of perspective, which is necessary in order to know the whole, "and therefore, he can know nothing of the wisdom of philosophy". Then, moving on to alchemy, Bacon declares, "Indeed, he who has composed so many and such great volumes on natural matters . . . is ignorant of these fundamentals [of alchemy], and so his building cannot stand" -- et ideo suum aedificium stare non potest! (16) Thus, one must know the secrets of alchemy in order to complete that edifice of wisdom that is so important for the salvation of man.

Alchemy is linked to salvation by another pillar in Bacon's intellectual structure: his medical ideas on the elixir of life. The alchemical "medicine" not only procures gold, he writes, but "what is infinitely more [important], it will prolong life''.(17) The prolongation of life, furthermore, is in turn closely tied up with morality. Bacon explains to the Pope that there are two reasons for the premature onset of old age: the first is a lack of the proper regimen of health, which includes the use of alchemically concocted drugs and elixirs; the second reason is the decline of morality.(18) Thus, a good Christian life allows one to receive the revelation of the universal science, which can be used in man's quest for salvation. It also helps to prolong his life, as was the case among the saintly patriarchs before the Flood.(19) This prolongation of life in itself is a kind of proto-salvation, for just as the elixir works by bringing the elements and humors of the body into as perfect a harmony as is possible in this life, so at the Resurrection, the bodies of the saints will be brought into perfect harmony, while the damned will be tormented in hell by an eternal affliction of the bodily humors. (20)

Here we can see implicit in Bacon's system an intimate interrelationship between alchemcy, morality, the prolongation of life, and salvation. This matrix of ideas can be summarized most clearly in a diagram:

Roger Bacon's philosophy


Such a set of relationships is strikingly similar to the symbiosis of tantric yoga and alchemy discussed by Eliade. In the Indian system, the spiritual development of the individual to liberation not only parallels, but is causally interrelated to the production of the elixir through alchemy and the attainment of physical immortality. Roger Bacon was not a medieval yogi, to be sure; but his system is consistent with the spirit of the fourteenth-century Tantrist, Madhava, who taught that alchemy "is not to be looked upon as merely eulogistic of the metal, it being immediately, through the conservation of the body, a means to the highest end, liberation."(21)

One should not exaggerate the importance of alchemy for Bacon; the other sciences were equally important to him. However, of all the components of the universal science, only alchemy and the elixir are integrated by Bacon so closely with his ideas on Christian morality and salvation. Bacon's formulation of this relationship, no matter how incompletely or even unconsciously developed, is an important link between the ancient soteriological tradition of alchemy and the first blossoming of the Art in Europe during the fourteenth century. Such a view of the underlying structure of Bacon's ideas relating to alchemy also agrees with the thesis of Jung and Eliade that the most significant, the most useful -- utilissima -- approach that we can take to alchemy is by way of the deeper psychological and religious pathways of the human mind and soul.

Originally published in AMBIX Vol. 23, Part I, March 1976


1.The Alchemists, New York, 1949, ix-x.
2.The published editions of these works are: Opus Majus, ed. J. H. Bridges, 3 vols., London, 1900; Eng. trans. Robert Burke, 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1928; Opera quaedam hactenus inedita Fr. Rogeri Bacon, ed. J. S. Brewer, Roll Series, no. 15, London, 1859, hereafter cited as "Brewer"; Part of the Opus Tertium of Roger Bacon, ed. A. G. Little, Aberdeen, 1912; Secretum Secretorum cum Glossis et Notulis Rogori Baconi, Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi, fasc. 5, ed. Robert Steele, Oxford, 1920 -- this collection hereafter cited as "O.H.I.", De Erroribus Medicorum, in O.H.I., fasc. 9, ed. A. G. Little and E. Withington, Oxford, 1928, I50-79. Cf. A. G. Little, "Roger Bacon's Works", in Roger Bacon, Essays Contributed by Various Authors on the Occasion of the Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of his Birth, ed. A. G. Little, Oxford, 1914, 395-8, and D. W. Singer, "The Alchemical Writings of Roger Bacon", Speculum, 7 (1932), 80-6.
3.The Origins of Chemistry, London, 1966, 191-2.
4.Opus minus (Brewer), 314: Prius est pulverisatio cum congelatione, deinde resolutio, cum ascensione, et depressione, et incarceratione, et mixtione. Et postea est sublimatio cum attritione et mortificatione, deinde sequitur corruptio olei, vel separatur a spiritu, ut post intendatur virtus ignea. Nam post haec intendimus calcis propositionem, et olei distillationem, et aquae exaltationem, ut ultimo quaeramus resolutionem a primo in septimum, et contentionem cum febre acuta. Qui vero haec sciret adimplere haberet medicinam perfectam, quam philosophi vocant Elixir, quae immergit se in liquefacto, ut consumeretur ab igne, nec fugeret.
5.Alchemists ( I ), 115.
6.Prelude to Chemistry, London, 1939, 43.
7.Wilhelm Ganzenmüller, L'Alchimie au moyen âge, trans. G. Petit-Dutaillis, Paris, 1940, 161-2.
8.Quaestiones supra librum de plantis, O.H.I., fasc. II, ed. Robert Steele, Oxford, 1932, 251-2.
9.Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science, New York, 1952, 80-1, 86.
10.De Retardatione Accidentium Senectutis cum aliis opusculis de rebus medicinalibus, O.H.I., fasc. 9, ed. A. G. Little and E. Withington, Oxford, 1928, I-83.
11.Roger Bacon (9,) 168
12.Theodore Crowley, Roger Bacon: The Problem of the Soul in his Philosophical Commentaries, Louvain, 1950, 167.
13.The Religious Orders in England, Cambridge, 1960, iii, 215.
14.Opus Tertium, ed. Little, 64-5 et passim, quoted in translation by Easton, Roger Bacon (9), 75.
15.Compendium Studii Philosophiae (Brewer), 410-2.
16.Opus Tertium (Brewer), 37.
17.Opus Majus (Burke trans.), 627.
18.Ibid., 617-18.
19.Opus minus (Brewer), 373.
20.Ibid., 367-74.
21.Saravadars anasamgraha, trans. E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough, 2nd ed., London, 1894, 140, quoted by Mircea Eliade, Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask, 2nd ed., Princeton, 1969.


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