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Alchemical Theories of Matter

Alchemical Theories of Matter

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Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci.,
28, No. 2, pp. 369-375, 1997
Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. Printed in Great Britain0039-3681/97 $17.00+0.00
Alchemical Theories ofMatter
Antonio Clericuzio *
William R. Newman,
Gehennical Fire. The Lives of George Starkey, anAmerican Alchemist in the ScientiJc Revolution
(Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 1994), xiv+348 pp., ISBN O-674-34171-6, Hardback $59.95/g39.95.The search for van Helmont’s universal solvent, namely, the
or the
Gehennical Fire,
dominated the activities of a considerable number of chemistsin the 17th century. The unmatched popularity of van Helmont was partly dueto the extraordinary power he ascribed to his solvent, which was supposed toreduce all substances into their prime matter (which for van Helmont waswater). It was regarded as necessary for the transmutation of metals and for thepreparation of a variety of chemical medicines, and in addition, it wasconsidered by Robert Boyle as a substance which, by analyzing bodies with-out transforming their components, could provide better insights into theconstitution of mixed bodies than did ordinary fire analysis.Immediately after arriving in England in 1650 George Starkey-whoseextraordinary knowledge of van Helmont’s works gained him the reputation ofa skilled chemist-was introduced by Robert Child to Robert Boyle, withwhom he collaborated for several years. Starkey also became associated withthe Hartlib circle, whose members were already engaged in the preparation ofvan Helmont’s ‘immortal liquor’ (i.e. the
in 1648, the very year of thepublication of van Helmont’s
Ortus Medicinae.
In the ‘Ephemerides’ for 1650Hartlib reported that Starkey had discovered the recipe for the
whichin fact Starkey searched for in vain throughout his life.Also in 1648, Starkey had access, in New England, to van Helmont’s
Opuscula Medica Znaudita (1644),
which he borrowed from John Winthrop Jr,who owned a remarkable alchemical and iatrochemical library. It is also very
*Dipartimento di Filologia e Storia, Universita di Cassino, via Zamosh 1, 03043 Cassino. Italy.‘R. Boyle,
Experiments and Notes about the Producibleness of Chymical Principles
(Oxford, 1680),reprinted in T. Birch (ed.),
The Works of the Honourabfe Robert Boyle
(London. 1772), Vol. I,pp. 59&59 1.
370Studies in History und Philosophy of
likely that young Starkey’s interest in chemistry was stimulated by JohnWinthrop Jr and by Robert Child, both of them interested in the applicationsof chemistry to medicine, agriculture and industry. As Charles Webster hasshown, North America was regarded by the Hartlibians as a suitable locationfor their utopian projects.* It is therefore apparent that the Hartlibians were tobe Starkey’s main interlocutors once he settled in England.Starkey’s
and his studies at Harvard are investigated in details in thefirst chapter of the present book, where Newman also examines the Harvardcurriculum in natural philosophy, paying special attention to the theories ofmatter. The main focus of the book is in fact on the alchemical theories ofmatter and their relationship to corpuscular philosophy. It is the author’s mainthesis that, following the path of Geber’s
Summa Perfectionis,
a number ofalchemists developed a particulate theory of matter which was to play animportant role in the development of corpuscular philosophy. This was the casewith the alchemical writings of the American alchemist, Philalethes, nowidentified as George Starkey.3 The natural philosophy Starkey was taught whenhe was a student at Harvard College-and was to influence his alchemy andiatrochemistry throughout his career-included some kind of corpuscularphilosophy, namely the doctrine of
minima naturalia,
which flourished withinthe Aristotelian tradition.According to Averroes,
minimum naturale
is the smallest particle into whicha substance can be divided without losing its form. Throughout the middle agesand the renaissance, when discussing the presence of elements in the mixtion, anumber of philosophers had recourse to the notion of
i.e. a particlewhich was not endowed with specific sizes and forms, but with elementalqualities. I agree with Newman’s emphasis on the importance of the notion of
which has often been dismissed as a merely qualitative view ofmatter. If one considers the diffusion of this concept in the first half of the 17thcentury (mainly in J. C. Scaliger’s version of the doctrine), as attested forinstance by Daniel Sennert and by a number of Wittenberg theses, one has toconclude that Harvard was by no means atypical. The only version ofcorpuscular philosophy students could read in 17th-century universities was thetheory of
minima naturalia,
while atomism, or the Cartesian theory of matterhad to await the end of the century before entering the curriculum. However,what appears to be rather original at Harvard is that, as Newman claims, theCollege provided Starkey with the rudiments of alchemical theories.
‘C. Webster,
The Great Instauration. Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660
(London:Duckworth, 1975), p. 46.‘This identification has been proposed by R. S. Wilkinson: ‘Further Thoughts on the Identity ofEirenaeus Philalethes’,
Ambix 19 (1972), 204208,
and confirmed by W. R. Newman: ‘TheAuthorship of the
Introitus Apertus ad Occlusum Regis Pahiium’,
in Z. R. W. M. von Martels (ed.),
Alchemy Revisited: Proceedings of the International Conference on the History of Alchemy at theUniversity of Leiden
(Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 139-144.
Alchemical Theories of Matter 371
In a chapter devoted to the background to Starkey’s alchemy and chemistry,Newman engages in a stimulating analysis of alchemical theories of matter. Asfar as the theory of matter is concerned, according to Newman, alchemyunderwent a substantial transformation with the translation of Arabic alchemi-cal works into Latin and the consequent reinterpretation of doctrines containedtherein in the light of scholastic philosophy. A result of this transformation wasthe
Summa Perfectionis,
written around the end of the 13th century by aFranciscan, but ascribed to ‘Geber’. This work, which Newman has recentlyedited, plays a central role in the present book: it is the ultimate source of thecorpuscular alchemy which we find in the writings of Philalethes.4 Geberinterpreted the mercury-sulphur theory in corpuscular terms: the philosophersstone is to be produced by means of mercury only, which is to be purified, i.e.freed of ‘burning sulphur’ and of ‘filthy earth’. Since mercury, like otherminerals, is conceived as a substance composed of ‘minimal parts’, the work ofthe alchemist is that of making mercury homogeneous-by removing itsimpurities and making its particles closely packed. The transmutation of metalsis achieved when the tiny corpuscles of purified mercury penetrate the metal andfill its pores, bringing it to the weight of gold and rendering it incorruptible. Inthe alchemical works of ps-Lull and Bernardus Trevisanus which, according toNewman, were influenced by Geber’s corpuscular alchemy, the transmutationof metals is described as a process involving the reduction of the transmutativeagents into their minimal parts and their entering the pores of metals. InBernardus the corpuscular theory is combined with hylozoic concepts, likethose of
the masculine agents, and water and earth, the feminine.Bernardus’s alchemy is also remarkable for the explicit adoption of a vacuistview, as he states that metals contain empty pores. Newman’s survey of thedevelopment of alchemical corpuscular ideas moves from Trevisanus toParacelsus and then to van Helmont. According to Newman, Paracelsus’s viewthat minerals have an internal kernel and external shells has paved the way tothe interpretation of corpuscles composed of an internal kernel and externalshells. To my mind, such a conclusion oversimplifies Paracelsus’s polarity ofinternal/external, occult/manifest, which can hardly be expressed in terms of aspatially determined particle. The internal active substance has for Paracelsus(and for his followers) an incorporeal, spiritual nature: ‘God, at the beginningof the Creation of all things created no body whatever without its own spirit,which spirit it contains within itself after an occult manner.‘5 For Paracelsusthe visible equals the corporeal and the invisible the spiritual. The work of thealchemist is described as the making corporeal what is incorporeal and as the‘spiritualization’ of what is corporeal. This view is by no means original with
“W. R. Newman (ed.),
Summa Perfectionis
(Leiden: Brill, 1991).‘Paracelsus,
De Natura Rerum,
in K. Sudhoff and W. Matthiessen (eds), Paracelsus,
(Munich and Berlin, 1928), Part I, Vol. XI,

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