The Man who Hated the Antichrist
The Man Who Hated the Antichrist Among the figures influenced by both the 12th century Calabrian Abbot Joachim of Fiore alongside of all manner of contemporary Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical currents was the 13th century Franciscan scholar, Roger Bacon, a man who lived from about 1214-1292, and who chiefly became famous for his thoughts on the scientia experimentalis. This was a man who truly truly hated the Antichrist. But he was also one of the first men to teach Aristotelian natural philosophy at the University of Paris, and a man notoriously opposed to many superstitious attitudes he observed in his peers. Bacon has become one of the single most influential figures in the history of Western occult philosophy thanks to his influence on men like Ramon Llull, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and John Dee. Bacon’s role as the poster boy of English experimental science began in the late 16th century with the works of John Dee, who borrowed extensively from Bacon’s physics, geometry, optics, magic, natural philosophy, and of course, his reinterpretations of many ideas derived from his reading of Arabic authors, including ideas about astrology and demonology.
From the 17th century onward, interest in Bacon focused on his fascination with curious technologies like gunpowder and telescopes, and from there became known chiefly as a forerunner to post-Enlightenment rationalism and 19th century science, a stalwart defender of reason against the dark tides of irrationality and religious ignorance. In reality, however, Bacon’s #1 allegiance during his own lifetime was not to “science” or “natural philosophy” but to the principles espoused by the Order of Friars Minor (that is, his brothers who comprised the Franciscan Order – a group of men dedicated to apostolic poverty and inner-city preaching). This aspect of Bacon’s thought has been discussed in good detail by scholars like Mark Abate, Zachary Matus, and Amanda Power whose arguments about Bacon’s science are briefly summarized here in order to demonstrate some of the interconnectivity of occult, linguistic, apocalyptic, and historical research within the context of 13th century mendicant spirituality.
For the apocalyptically-minded men and women of the early medieval Christian world, for whom material existence was nothing more than a fleeting shade, neither nature nor history were seen in general as significant sources of knowledge. The world was old and fallen and would soon be swept away to make way for a new one. Most texts were not copied, most monuments were not preserved. Nevertheless, beginning from the 12th century onwards, with the rise of what scholars have called “optimistic” apocalypticisms overriding older fatalistic models in line with the anti-millenarian teachings of St. Augustine, the study of nature – in parallel with the study of history – finally began to take form as a significant source of knowledge. This was a very gradual process, but it is one which in part emerged from increased travel, trade, missionary activity, and from a long series of polemics and apologetics of Latin Christians being forced to reckon with the material contained within freshly translated Arabic texts.
It was in the 12th century that the crusader’s conquest of Constantinople and their wars to regain Jerusalem caused Latin Christians to become involved more than ever in the societies of the Eastern Mediterranean. To the people of the Latin West, the Islamic world was widely considered an aspect of Antichrist – that is to say, the “instead of Christ,” not necessarily the “against-Christ” – and if they wished to be prepared against what they perceived to be the coming armies of Gog and Magog, they would have to find a way to use their enemies’ own tools against them, but not at the expense of losing their souls in the process. By the 13th century, Christian lands, and as such Christian intellectual horizons had expanded significantly, and Roger Bacon was one such figure who’s scientific or ‘natural philosophical’ career stood to benefit. During the 13th century, the various so-called “occult sciences” were not necessarily practiced in spite of the Church, but rather, in many cases, were practiced from within, and on behalf of the Church, in what Richard Kieckhefer most succinctly called the “clerical underground.”
Roger Bacon epitomized this fact most singlehandedly, being an expert not only in Franciscan theology and philosophy, but likewise an expert in the study of languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic) ; mathematics; calendrical reform; the study of light and the optics of al-Kindī, al-Haytham, and Robert Grosseteste; and of course, alchemy, astrology, and magic. In his annotations to the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum, the Secret of Secrets, Bacon wrote to convince his contemporaries that natural philosophers were not just interpreters of nature, but also wonder-workers whose souls could tap into the divine realm while locked in contemplation of the harmonies which comprised it. In studying optics specifically, a tangent to his study of experience as it related to epistemology, Bacon synthesized a full corpus of translated Greek and Arabic works, including Plato’s Timaeus with its discussion of light and vision, Euclid’s Optica and Catoptrica (translated as De visu or De aspectibus), and al-Kindī’s De aspectibus – sources which enabled him to become an important teacher in the Latin West for all matters pertaining to light, vision, force, and the influence of the heavenly bodies upon the world. Though some might consider it a stretch to paint Bacon with the label of “Joachimite” – that is, a follower of the theology of Joachim of Fiore – and in doing so, eclipse the countless other intellectuals who influenced him, one outgrowth of Bacon’s specifically Joachimite sympathies can be found in his discussions of world history and geography and in his equation of the intellectus spiritualis, the spiritual understanding, with the agent or active intellect of the Arabic philosophers.
In a work entitled Roger Bacon and the Rage of Antichrist, Mark Abate argued that the depth of Bacon’s apocalyptic views - and how “Joachimite” they were - had for not been properly appreciated because historians had never bothered to try and apply Bacon’s own scientific theories in an attempt to understand them. Rather, they examined them from within their own paradigms instead of trying to understand them from within the 13th century friar’s own. Once Bacon’s apocalypticism and scientific theories were viewed together, however, Abate argued that the two seemingly distinct facets merged to produce a veritable “physics of the Apocalypse”: Central to Bacon’s apocalyptic vision was his belief that a secret science was divinely revealed to humanity during the antediluvian period. Due to human abuses it was retracted by God but would reappear in the last days. The apocalyptic dramatis personae, all humans, would utilize it to harness hidden natural forces and transform prophetic potentialities into physical realities. Bacon transformed all the figures of the Apocalypse into good or evil natural philosophers… the ancient science which all apocalyptic figures would use was a blending of astrology and alchemy that permitted its practitioners to “force nature to obey their will,” and this science was a re-articulation of astral magic purged of demonic incantations.”
While this purging of astral magic into something which might be more palatable to orthodox Christian theologians may have begun in Bacon’s lifetime, the process took centuries to unfold and the issue continued to be debated well into the Renaissance, usually with Christian Kabbalah or pseudo-Dionysian mysticism as its foil. Our friar’s solution to the problem of a rising Antichrist was to ‘fight fire with fire,’ or as already mentioned, to use his opponent’s weapons against them. The imminent Antichrist would rage as Scripture foretold, but his rage would manifest through the channels of natural causation.
These were channels which had been discovered through a diligent study of Aristotelian science, and as such, the ‘fire of the antichrist’ so to speak was replicable via natural experimentation. Bacon had become a Franciscan Friar by about 1257, and throughout this period on through the 1260s, debates were being fought out at the University of Paris not only over the so called Gerardo affair of the “Eternal Evangel” – when an obscure friar proposed that there ought to be a third testament comprised of the works of Joachim of Fiore which might be used to bind together the old and new testaments for the third age of the Holy Spirit – but more importantly, there were debates over the role which Islamic and Aristotelian philosophical novelties were going to play in the curriculum. During this time, Bacon carried out a propaganda war for the improvement of the medieval quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) as it was taught at the universities across Europe.
Just like Petrus Alfonsi before him, Bacon believed that putting too much emphasis on grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and not enough on the discoveries of the Arabic Aristotle and his commentators created an atmosphere which stifled the application of science and mathematics on a practical level, and that this was causing the Latin West to lag behind its hostile neighbours in terms of scientific and technological development. Perhaps even more importantly than this, Bacon spent enormous amounts of energy learning Greek and Hebrew and proselytizing their utility insofar as he believed that it was impossible to interpret the Old and New Testaments correctly without such knowledge. When combined together, Bacon’s two-fold stress on Greco-Arabic philosophy and on the learning of ancient or foreign languages paved the way for a novel mode of education. Though Bacon never expressly took up the Joachimite doctrine of the three status (that is, that history was divided into three periods, the age of the Father, the Age of the Son, and the Age of the Holy Spirit), in the exhortations of his Opus maius – written at the request of Pope Clement IV to explain his worldview – he nevertheless hinted at the importance of Joachim’s particular brand of spiritualis intelligentia, the true spiritual or mystical meaning of scripture, which itself was one with the highest level of spiritual and intellectual attainment. The friar believed that knowledge of space and time was meaningless without a mind adequately developed to find further signification in them. Anything less was the sign of a deficient mind, unable to rise to the highest levels of understanding both the book of nature and the book of the law.
Above all, Bacon’s Joachimite sensibilities according to Zachary Matus “placed a premium on conversion of heathens prior to the battle with Antichrist”. And in this spirit, he was famously inspired by the letters sent back by the Franciscan papal legate William of Rubruck during his missions to the non-Christians peoples of the Mongol East. In his Compendium studii, Bacon further revealed his Joachimite sympathies by echoing the prophetic claim that the work of a “most blessed pope” would be needed to bring about the “fullness of nations” under the dominion of the Church. “It is necessary,” he said, “that evil be stamped out so that God’s elect plainly appear. A very holy pope will first come who will remove all the corruptions in education and the Church and all the rest.
Then the world will be renewed and the fullness of peoples will enter in; even the remnants of Israel will be converted to the faith." Again in the Opus tertium, Bacon spoke of this Holy Pope and his apocalyptic implications: Forty years ago it was prophesied, and there have been many visions to the same effect, that there will be a pope in these times who will purify Canon Law and the Church of God from the sophistries and deceits of the jurists so that justice will reign over all without the rumbling of lawsuits. Because of the goodness, truth, and justice of this pope the Greeks will return to the obedience of the Roman Church, the greater part of the Tartars will be converted to the faith, and the Saracens will be destroyed.
There will be one flock and one shepherd, as the prophet heard. One who saw these things through revelation has spoken of them, and he said that he would see these marvels in his own time. Certainly, if God and the pope so wished, they could happen within the space of a single year, or even in less time. They could happen in your reign.
Accordingly, again in his Opus tertium, Bacon made a sevenfold argument for the necessity of geography and for the making of accurate maps to further fuel Franciscan missionaries with accurate information in their future missions to hostile lands like Egypt, Morocco, and those under the control of the Mongol Khans. Bacon’s support for Joachim, albeit timid considering the time and place he was writing, was made explicit in the claim that: If the Church should be willing to consider the sacred text and prophecies, also the prophecies of the Sibyl and of Merlin, Aquila, Seston, Joachim, and many others, moreover the histories and the books of the philosophers, and should order a study of the paths of astronomy, [then] it would gain some idea of greater certainty regarding the time of Antichrist. Here one sees how, for Bacon, the study of prophecy, the study of philosophy, the study of the heavens, and the study of history were all united to create one apocalyptically charged worldview wherein the Church was ultimately responsible for its own embattlement against the rise of an impending enemy foretold by the prophets, both recent and ancient. From within the context of this peculiar scientific paradigm, geography was bound up with the idea drawn from ancient Greek medicine that different places and peoples were unique on account of their “complexions” (that is, humoural balances resulting from the variegated influences of astral bodies). While cartography could determine the relationship of one place to another, astrology was needed to determine a given location’s nature and qualities, such as weather its climate would be hot, cold, wet, or dry.
Despite the fact that this science’s roots lay in texts transmitted via the Islamicate world, this was the kind of astrological knowledge which particularly interested Bacon in regards to planning out missionary activity, since one could use it to predict the character of a region with just the knowledge of its latitude and longitude. Matus tells us: It was not enough, in Bacon’s opinion, merely to reach out to neighbouring regions. His goal of bringing the whole world under the spiritual dominion of the pope and Latin Christendom would require the church to know thoroughly the places and peoples they will encounter.
In order to accomplish this, Bacon’s project, again, was to use the science of Christ’s enemies against them. Knowledge was power, and power was good insofar as it was wielded in service of the universal Church. Despite their suspicious origins, astrology, alchemy, and the interpretation of prophecy were all worthwhile pursuits so long as they stood in service of Christ, did not involve commerce with demons – such as in the use of talismanic magic - and were sanctioned by the Pope. Bacon himself argued: Once subjected and laid at the feet of the Roman Church, [these magnificent sciences] must work on behalf of great utility according to papal command, so that the Church may have recourse during all its tribulations to these things so that in the end it may be met by the Antichrist and his followers, as they perform through their faith similar works, it will be shown that he is not a god, and his persecution will be impeded in many ways and lessened through works of this kind being done. And therefore if the Church would arrange their study, good and holy men could toil on the magical sciences under the special authority of the Pope. Magic was not an ill per se so long as its aims were well defined and sanctioned with papal approval.
It is on account of ideas such as these, however, that Bacon eventually found himself suspected of practicing sorcery. This led him to argue in works such as the Tractatus brevis that prefaced his edition of the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum (Sirr al-Asrar) that there existed a distinction between natural and demonic magics. One can see a similar theme – that of ‘two magics’ - discussed in Maimonides’ reactions to talismanic magic, such as the kind used by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān Al-Ṣafā), from whom such ideas gained traction throughout the Islamicate world before reaching the universities of the Latin West where they were then picked up and reiterated by both Ficino’s Apologia for his De vita libri tres and in Pico della Mirandola’s Oratio, 900 Conclusiones, and Heptaplus. Bacon believed in the efficaciousness of words of power uttered at the correct astrological hours, or in the harnessing of natural virtues such as those of the lodestone in attracting iron, but he argued vociferously against the use of idols, magic symbols, invocations, and talismans to communicate with demons. This was the essence of his anti-magical polemic: magic per se – that is, the production of wondrous or miraculous effects - was a perfectly legitimate pursuit so long as it relied on natural means and did not involve idolatry or demonology. Under the influence of authors like Abu Ma‘Shar (787-886), Bacon in no way denied that the arrangement of the heavenly bodies conditioned the world below, predisposing individuals to act in foreseeable ways, but through the power of simple prayers, he maintained that “even a poor little old woman… if the kindness of God is at her side, is able to change the order of nature.”
Matus emphasises that Bacon’s theories on magic – not just his theories on science - had an apocalyptic dimension too. He highlights the friar’s claim that he was “writing these facts not only for scientific consideration, but because of the perils which happen and will happen to Christians and the church of God through unbelievers, and most of all through Antichrist, because he himself will employ the potency of science.” Here the rise of Antichrist was no simple spiritual problem. It was part and parcel with physical existence and the realities of military resistance during the era of the Crusades, and such anxieties well outlived Bacon, ever fuelling further discoveries in the pursuits of occult philosophy, that is, research into that which is hidden, whether in the book of nature, or in the book of the Law. In Roger Bacon was the first marriage – albeit a tenuous one – between the prophetic scripturally-grounded hermeneutic/semiological model of history as embodied by Joachim’s figurae and the scientific/causal model of history as embodied by the peripatetic astrology of Abū Ma‘Shar.
In developing a model of world history as part of his wider eschatological speculations, Bacon was not only interested in forbidden Joachimite historical schemes, but also in the cutting edge science of his day, which is to say the astro-historical theory of “Great Conjunctions.” This idea, originally conceived by Masha Allah, but for bacon taken straight from Latin translations of Abū Ma‘Shar, comprised a grand scale narrative of world history as being the product of astral causation. Here history was inseparable from all the nuts-and-bolts concepts inherent to astrology. The Great Conjunction theory held that since all things of this world below were the result of various planetary conjunctions, then all the peoples, empires, and religions of this world – even Christianity itself – could have their histories gleaned from the calculation of the cycles of long-passed planetary alignments. If astrology could be used to predict the future, or understand the present, one simply had to reverse one’s calculations in order to use it to shine light on the past.
To demonstrate how Bacon incorporated the theory of Great Conjunctions into his own historical schemes, one can look at the Opus maius, wherein he cites the following excerpt that was taken almost word-for-word from Abū Ma‘Shar: The philosophers want Jove, in his conjunction with the other planets, to signify religions and faith… And because there are six planets with which he can come into conjunction, they maintain that there should be six principal religions (sectas principales) in the world… if he comes into conjunction with Saturn, it means the holy books, that is Judaism, which is older than the others just as Saturn is the father of the planets… If Jupiter comes into conjunction with Mars it means the Chaldean ‘law,’ which teaches the worship of fire… if it is with the Sun it means the Egyptian ‘law,’ which means that one worships the celestial army led by the Sun. If with Venus, it means the ‘law’ of the Saracens which is pleasure-loving and lascivious… if it is with Mercury, the Mercurial ‘law’ which is Christianity… until, at last, the ‘law’ of the Moon will come to disturb it and that is the sect of the Anti-Christ. Here one sees how astrology served as a map of history that was altogether different from the histories envisioned by an Augustine or a Joachim of Fiore: it was the six conjunctions of Jupiter that were believed formative in the development of the six religions of the world – not the ever-unfolding providence of a Trinitarian Godhead as seen in the Joachimite dispensational model.
In spite of this, one can see how Bacon modified this history made up of astrological correspondences to be reconciled with alternative modes of reckoning the past, thereby suiting the needs of his specifically Christian audience. This is evident in Bacon’s premonition about the rise of the Antichrist looming in the immediate future with his ‘law of the Moon.’ While the astrological model of history was in theory a competing mode of temporalization to Augustine’s seven ages or Joachim’s three status, mendicant occult philosophers looked for ways to bridge the gaps between causal and hermeneutic/semiological historical paradigms, thus leading to a much more complex picture of world history.
Bacon believed all of these phenomena could be born out in specific dates. According to his calculations, the sect of Mohammed was only to last for 693 years following its establishment, and since he was writing in the 665th year, the end of Islam was at hand, only to be followed up by the appearance of the sect of the Antichrist. Bacon supposed that, by shoring up the support of the ideas presented in Abū MaʿShar’s Arabic texts, he might apply their calculations to justify his own intellectual campaign against the philosophers outside of Christendom and provoke in them a change of heart. Above all, if the philosophers of the Islamic world could be convinced to convert, they might create a chain reaction of conversions throughout the known world.
In such a fashion, the calculation of eschatological dates for evangelical purposes became a favourite pastime of occult scientists in the Latin West, and for centuries would become a recurring pattern in much of their polemical writings, at least until the time of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who infamously developed his own reputation for engaging in a ‘peculiar type of historiography rooted in the book of Daniel,’ even at the very height of the Scientific Revolution. The details about the end of Bacon’s life are murky. The Chronicle of the 24 Generals of the Order of the Friars Minor, whose historical accuracy is not necessarily to be trusted, tells us that the Minister General from 1274-1279, Girolamo Masci (later to become the first Franciscan Pope, Nicholas IV, 1288-1292), condemned the teaching of his sacrae theologiae magister on the basis that his teachings contained “a few suspect novelties.”
Bacon was confined and friars were ordered to disregard his ideas. A late tradition maintains that Raymond Gaufridi (d. 1310), the Minister General from 1289 to 1295, released him from prison.
Though most accept that Bacon was subjected to some form of confinement, scholars are of mixed opinion regarding the reasons for his punishment. The famous Lynn Thorndyke for example, in his monumental History of Magic and Experimental Science, argued that there was no evidence Bacon was persecuted by his contemporaries, and that such a reputation was purely derived from, as Amanda Power tells us, “extrapolations from his boastful account of his own merits and his criticisms of his contemporaries.” One thing is for sure, however, and that is that through all of his scientific endeavours, Bacon was ultimately determined to provide logistical support for winning over souls to the Church. His love of science was all a means to an end, not an end in and of itself as it so often became portrayed during and after the Enlightenment.
Among Bacon’s chief concerns was preparing for the impending rise of Antichrist in history, and finding whatever ways he could to avert or mitigate the violence which he predicted would soon be unleashed upon the Latin West by the forces of Gog and Magog, having long ago been locked away behind the Caspian gates by Alexander the Great. As such, when we consider Roger Bacon’s programs of scientific and educational reform in general, we need to remember to do so not from the perspective of a man who quote-unquote “f*@#ing loved science,” so to speak, but a man who truly, truly hated the Antichrist, and was willing to resort to anything to defang the Beast.