« AnteriorContinuar »
make a most hideous noise and coruscation." In another place he ventures so far as to intimate, that the preparation in question is a compound of “nitre, or saltpetre, and other ingredients.” In one passage only, however, and that in a chapter thrown in by way of appendix at the end of one of his works, does he actually record the names of these other ingredients. And even on this occasion, instead of declaring them plainly and at once, he wraps them up in a mysterious anagram, or series of syllables formed by an intricate transposition of the letters of which the words meant to be understood are composed.
« The substance is prepared,” says he," from the luru mope can ubre, of saltpetre, and of sulphur.” The sentence, of course, is in Latin; and the letters in italics, when restored to their proper order, make exactly the words pulvere carbonum, in English, the powder of charcoal ; so that the meaning of the whole is, that the composition is formed by mixing together the powder of charcoal, of saltpetre, and of sulphur, the very three ingredients, as is well known, from which gunpowder is generally made. This curious passage proves incontestably Bacon's possession of the secret; but it is not at all probable that it is to him or his writings that the world at large has been indebted for the knowledge of it; for it is singular enough, that the barbarous syllables to which he thus confided it, retained their trust so faithfully, that they continued an unexplained riddle for nearly five hundred years. It may be added, that this mode of recording scientific discoveries was common long after the time of Bacon, as might be proved by many examples which it would be easy to cite. Newton himself first announced an important portion of his doctrine of fluxions by an anagram.
Bacon's renown as a mighty magician, however, was the part of his fame that lived longest in the
popular memory. It is entirely in this character that he figures in a very curious production, which appears to have been a great favourite with our ancestors about the beginning of the seventeenth century, entitled “The famous History of Friar Bacon, containing the wonderful things that he did in his life; with the lives and deaths of the two conjurers, Bungey and Vandermåst; very pleasant and delightful to be read.” This veracious chronicle gives a most minute account of his fabrication of the marvellous brazen head, of which we read so much in all the old histories of the philosopher and his inventions. This fabrication of a brazen head, we may remark, is a feat which we find attributed to most of the few other individuals who were distinguished as cultivators of science in those times. William of Malmesbury, among the other wonders he relates of the famous Gerbert, who became pope under the title of Sylvester II., in the year 999, mentions such an image of his constructing, which was in the habit of answering many difficult ques. tions. We may also mention the complete man of brass, made by the famous Albertus Magnus, or Albert the Great, of which it is recorded that it was 80 fond of talking, that Thomas Aquinas, while a pupil of Albert's, one day knocked it to pieces as a disturber of his studies.
Attached as Friar Bacon was to those vain speculations known under the names of the sciences of astrology and alchymy, he was so far from ever pretending to operate by supernatural means, that one of his works, his “ Treatise on the Miracles of Art and Nature,” to which we have already referred, is written principally for the purpose of proving the nullity or absurdity of what is called the Art of Magic, and exposing the tricks of its professors. In the beginning of this little work, after enumerating the various methods by which these impostors pretended to perform their wonders, he affirms that
“no true philosopher did ever regard to work by any of these ways." And immediately after, nothing can be more sensible than the manner in which he expresses himself on the subject of charms, spells, &c.
“Without doubt,” says he, “there is nothing in these days of this kind but what is either deceitful, dubious, or irrational, which philosophers formerly invented to hide their secret operations of nature and art from the eyes of an unworthy generation.”
The domination which he imagined the heavenly bodies to possess over human affairs, was certainly an absurd dream; and so was his other favourite fancy about the tincture which possessed the power of curing all diseases, and turning everything into gold: but neither of them proceeded upon the idea of anything like supernatural or magical agency. The moral influence which he attributed to the stars, he conceived to be as truly a law of nature as that which directed their motions or retained them in their orbits, and one, the operation and effects of which equally admitted of being made matter of calculation and science. In the same manner, his universal solvent was merely one of the yet undiscovered essences or compounds of natural chymistry, the expectation of ever finding which might be wild and unwarrantable enough, and the property ascribed to it such, in fact, as nothing existing did actually possess : but still there was not necessarily anything magical, either about the supposed nature of the substance itself, or the manner in which it was to be applied, or even the processes and experiments by which it was sought to be discovered. It is quite true that some of the other cultivators of these visionary sciences professed to avail themselves of the aid of spells or spirits, or rather supernatural means, in prosecuting their researches; but Bacon never did. "The worst that can be said of him is, that his language, when he is speaking of the subject, is occasionally some
what mystical; which arises, in a great part, it is but fair to observe, merely from his employment of the peculiar and technical phraseology of which the sciences in question, as well as all others, have their share. Nothing, therefore, could be more undeserved than the opprobrium to which he was exposed as a student of necromancy, or as one who ever even professed to work enchantments. It has been said that this calumny only arose many years after his death, and that he himself never was annoyed by it; but both his history and his writings, we cannot help thinking, prove the contrary. In his book on Old Age, he distinctly complains of being hindered from making such experiments as he would have wished, by “the rumours of the vulgar.” And in various other passages we find him alluding to the difficulties and dangers which philosophy had to encounter from the same cause. It is gratifying, however, to observe, that in whatever spirit this accusation may have been originally brought against him, and with however much affected horror his name may have long been regarded by his brother churchmen, who used to nail his books, we are told, to the shelves of their libraries, and to allow them to remain in that state covered with dust, and a prey to the moths and worms, he seems even in his character of a magician to have been a favourite with the people in general. In "The famous History of Friar Bacon," instead of being represented as in league with the powers of evil, we find him, on various occasions, opposing and foiling them in a style that would do honour to any legendary saint in the calendar; and when his fellow-conjurers, Bungey and Vandermast, are consigned, at the close of their career, to the usual fate of persons of their craft, he is, by an extraordinary piece of indulgence on the part of the chronicler, released from the dread. ful penalty by being made, in a fit of repentance, to burn his books of magic and to turn anchorite. Everything that is told of him, too, speaks in favour of the kind and generous manner in which he used to dispense his enchantments; and, upon the whole, he is represented to us in point of moral character very much in the same light in which his own writings, so evidently the produce of a simple, benevolent, and philosophic spirit, would lead us to regard him. He was, indeed, a genuine lover of knowledge and philosophy, for which he was ever ready to suffer all things; preferring them infinitely to all things. He unfolds to us, in short, very clearly what manner of man he must have been, by a single remark: when speaking of one of his projects or contrivances, he calls it, with delightful enthusiasm, “an invention of more satisfaction to a discreet head than a king's crown.”
Professors of Optical Discovery.—Dollond ; Herschel.
The truth, as we have already remarked, with regard to many of the inventions mentioned' by Friar Bacon, probably is, that he had rather deduced them as possibilities from the philosophical principles in which he believed, than actually realized ihem experimentally. Among others, certain optical instruments to which he attributes very wonderful powers existed merely, there can be little doubt, as conceptions of his mind, and had never been either fashioned or handled by him.
The invention of spectacles, however, may be considered as having been traced, on evidence of unusual clearness in such matters, to about the time of the death of Bacon. By the testimony of more