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Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci., Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 369-375, 1997 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. Printed in Great Britain 0039-3681/97 $17.00+0.00
ESSAY REVIEW Alchemical Theories of Matter
Antonio Clericuzio *
William R. Newman, Gehennical Fire. The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the ScientiJc Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University 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 Alkahest or the Gehennical Fire, dominated the activities of a considerable number of chemists in the 17th century. The unmatched popularity of van Helmont was partly due to the extraordinary power he ascribed to his solvent, which was supposed to reduce all substances into their prime matter (which for van Helmont was water). It was regarded as necessary for the transmutation of metals and for the preparation of a variety of chemical medicines, and in addition, it was considered by Robert Boyle as a substance which, by analyzing bodies without transforming their components, could provide better insights into the constitution of mixed bodies than did ordinary fire analysis.’ Immediately after arriving in England in 1650 George Starkey-whose extraordinary knowledge of van Helmont’s works gained him the reputation of a skilled chemist-was introduced by Robert Child to Robert Boyle, with whom he collaborated for several years. Starkey also became associated with the Hartlib circle, whose members were already engaged in the preparation of van Helmont’s ‘immortal liquor’ (i.e. the Alkahest) in 1648, the very year of the publication of van Helmont’s Ortus Medicinae. In the ‘Ephemerides’ for 1650 Hartlib reported that Starkey had discovered the recipe for the Alkahest, which in 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.
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likely that young Starkey’s interest in chemistry was stimulated by John Winthrop Jr and by Robert Child, both of them interested in the applications of chemistry to medicine, agriculture and industry. As Charles Webster has shown, North America was regarded by the Hartlibians as a suitable location for their utopian projects.* It is therefore apparent that the Hartlibians were to be Starkey’s main interlocutors once he settled in England. Starkey’s Bildung and his studies at Harvard are investigated in details in the first chapter of the present book, where Newman also examines the Harvard curriculum in natural philosophy, paying special attention to the theories of matter. The main focus of the book is in fact on the alchemical theories of matter and their relationship to corpuscular philosophy. It is the author’s main thesis that, following the path of Geber’s Summa Perfectionis, a number of alchemists developed a particulate theory of matter which was to play an important role in the development of corpuscular philosophy. This was the case with the alchemical writings of the American alchemist, Philalethes, now identified as George Starkey.3 The natural philosophy Starkey was taught when he was a student at Harvard College-and was to influence his alchemy and iatrochemistry throughout his career-included some kind of corpuscular philosophy, namely the doctrine of minima naturalia, which flourished within the Aristotelian tradition. According to Averroes, minimum naturale is the smallest particle into which a substance can be divided without losing its form. Throughout the middle ages and the renaissance, when discussing the presence of elements in the mixtion, a number of philosophers had recourse to the notion of minimum, i.e. a particle which was not endowed with specific sizes and forms, but with elemental qualities. I agree with Newman’s emphasis on the importance of the notion of minimum, which has often been dismissed as a merely qualitative view of matter. If one considers the diffusion of this concept in the first half of the 17th century (mainly in J. C. Scaliger’s version of the doctrine), as attested for instance by Daniel Sennert and by a number of Wittenberg theses, one has to conclude that Harvard was by no means atypical. The only version of corpuscular philosophy students could read in 17th-century universities was the theory of minima naturalia, while atomism, or the Cartesian theory of matter had 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, the College 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 of Eirenaeus Philalethes’, Ambix 19 (1972), 204208, and confirmed by W. R. Newman: ‘The Authorship 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 the University of Leiden (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 139-144.
Alchemical Theories of Matter
In a chapter devoted to the background to Starkey’s alchemy and chemistry, Newman engages in a stimulating analysis of alchemical theories of matter. As far as the theory of matter is concerned, according to Newman, alchemy underwent a substantial transformation with the translation of Arabic alchemical works into Latin and the consequent reinterpretation of doctrines contained therein in the light of scholastic philosophy. A result of this transformation was the Summa Perfectionis, written around the end of the 13th century by a Franciscan, but ascribed to ‘Geber’. This work, which Newman has recently edited, plays a central role in the present book: it is the ultimate source of the corpuscular alchemy which we find in the writings of Philalethes.4 Geber interpreted the mercury-sulphur theory in corpuscular terms: the philosophers’ stone 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 other minerals, is conceived as a substance composed of ‘minimal parts’, the work of the alchemist is that of making mercury homogeneous-by removing its impurities and making its particles closely packed. The transmutation of metals is achieved when the tiny corpuscles of purified mercury penetrate the metal and fill its pores, bringing it to the weight of gold and rendering it incorruptible. In the alchemical works of ps-Lull and Bernardus Trevisanus which, according to Newman, were influenced by Geber’s corpuscular alchemy, the transmutation of metals is described as a process involving the reduction of the transmutative agents into their minimal parts and their entering the pores of metals. In Bernardus the corpuscular theory is combined with hylozoic concepts, like those of semina, the masculine agents, and water and earth, the feminine. Bernardus’s alchemy is also remarkable for the explicit adoption of a vacuist view, as he states that metals contain empty pores. Newman’s survey of the development of alchemical corpuscular ideas moves from Trevisanus to Paracelsus and then to van Helmont. According to Newman, Paracelsus’s view that minerals have an internal kernel and external shells has paved the way to the interpretation of corpuscles composed of an internal kernel and external shells. To my mind, such a conclusion oversimplifies Paracelsus’s polarity of internal/external, occult/manifest, which can hardly be expressed in terms of a spatially determined particle. The internal active substance has for Paracelsus (and for his followers) an incorporeal, spiritual nature: ‘God, at the beginning of 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 Paracelsus the visible equals the corporeal and the invisible the spiritual. The work of the alchemist 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.), The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber (Leiden: Brill, 1991). ‘Paracelsus, De Natura Rerum, in K. Sudhoff and W. Matthiessen (eds), Paracelsus, Siimtliche Werke (Munich and Berlin, 1928), Part I, Vol. XI, p. 329.
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Paracelsus, as it originated from Greek and Arabic alchemical texts (the Turba Philosophorum, for instance) from which it entered Latin alchemy. It proved to be a powerful tradition in renaissance and early modern alchemy, one which was not less influential than the Geberian particulate theory. It was central to the works of many Paracelsians as well as of van Helmont. It is no surprise that Helmontian ideas are discussed in various chapters of the present book. In the chapter devoted to the background to Starkey’s alchemy, van Helmont’s alchemical and chemical views of matter are discussed in detail. Following Lasswitz’s view, Newman maintains that a corpuscular theory (of Geberian origin) is to be found in van Helmont’s writings.6 For van Helmont, water corpuscles are composed of sub-particles of mercury, salt and sulphur. The passage from vapour to ‘Gas’ is described as a change in the position of the three principles within the water corpuscles. This process we could interpret as a change in the texture of the corpuscle-a notion, which however does not occur in van Helmont’s works. By saying this I do not want to deny that in van Helmont’s works we find some kind of corpuscularianismand I agree with Newman that the Summa Perfectionis might have been van Helmont’s source. But if one tries to assess van Helmont’s theory of matter as a whole, one necessary concludes that the role of the corpuscular theory is altogether marginal. In van Helmont’s natural philosophy, the main agents are spiritual substances: spirits, semina and ferments. Van Helmont’s active principles are to be interpreted in terms of spiritual, incorporeal substances. The fact that many Helmontians adopted a corpuscular theory of matter, as happened in England in the second half of the 17th century, is in my view to be explained as the outcome of a combination of Helmontianism with Robert Boyle’s corpuscularianism, rather than a direct legacy of van Helmont.7 As Newman points out, Philalethes’s alchemical works betray Starkey’s debt to the minima naturalia tradition as well as to Geberian and Helmontian doctrines. Transmutation is operated by active particles, semina, contained within the substance of gold. According to Philalethes corpuscles of metals are complex corpuscles which contain an internal kernel (mercury) and external layers (sulphur). It is apparent that Philalethes reinterpreted Paracelsian semina as corpuscles-a reinterpretation that is to be found in Gassendi and in Robert Boyle’s early writings.8 The proportion of particles and pores is particularly relevant in Philalethes: the pure, homogeneous mercury, the kernel of metals, is described as a packed, particularly dense particle, while the external impurities
‘K. Lasswitz, Geschichte der Atomistik, vom Mittelalter bis Newton (Hamburg and Leipzig, 1890) 2 vols, pp. 343-351. ‘A. Clericuzio, ‘From van Helmont to Boyle. A Study of the Transmission of Helmontian Chemical and Medical Theories in Seventeenth-Century England’, &iris/r Journalfix rhe History cf Science 26 (1993), 303-334. “This is apparent in an MS which can be considered as a first draft of the Sceptical Chymist: see Marie Boas, ‘An Early Version of Boyle’s Sceptical Chymid, Isis 45 (1954), 153-168.
Alchemical Theories of Matter
are loosely packed particles. Equally important is the dimension of the particles: the size of the microscopic particles is in fact what differentiates one element from the other. It is in fact apparent that, although the four Aristotelian elements and qualities are still adopted by Philalethes, they are reinterpreted in corpuscular terms: along with Scaliger, he asserts that the particles (minima) of each element have specific size: those of earth are the biggest and those of fire the smallest. While reducing wet, dry and hot to external causes, Philalethes considers cold as a primary quality-a solution which is not so backward as it would seem, since, contrary to the standard view of lllth-century atomism, the status of the qualities was far from being conclusively settled. Like Gassendi, who explained a number of phenomena by having recourse to ‘atomi caloriJicae’ and ‘atomi frigorificae’, many corpuscular philosophers were reluctant to reduce all sensible qualities to matter and motion.9 Boyle, for instance, did not reduce the chemical qualities of bodies to the mechanical affections of insensible corpuscles. He rather employed corpuscles endowed with specific chemical qualities. The relationship between Starkey and Boyle is of course crucial to assess the role played by the American alchemist in England. The main source Newman uses are Starkey’s letters to Boyle of 1651/2 which testify to Starkey’s collaboration with Boyle in alchemical and iatrochemical experiments. This collaboration was not, however, easy, since Starkey-whose finances were in such a bad state that he was also imprisoned for debtsdertainly needed Boyle’s patronage, but did not want to become one of Boyle’s operators. Starkey, as Newman shows, struggled to differentiate himself from the ‘vulgar chemists’, operators and laborants and portrayed himself as the ‘silent searcher into nature’s secrets’ (p. 79, but ended up being engaged in practical chemistry, i.e. distilling perfumes for John Dury. Boyle might have not shared Hartlib’s dismissal of Starkey when the latter was imprisoned (1654), since it is apparent that the two collaborated after Starkey’s release. It was, however, a peculiar collaboration, as Boyle seems to have looked on Starkey as a kind of assistant. In the works where Boyle refers to Starkey or even to their collaboration he carefully avoids mentioning his name, using locutions like ‘an industrious chemist’. Apart from obvious social reasons which might have prompted Boyle to underestimate Starkey’s contribution to his chemical researchers, there are other reasons which might have made Boyle somewhat cautious about Starkey. The latter was involved with the Society of Chemical Physicians, a project in which some Helmontians tried to involve Boyle, who wanted to maintain some sort of via media between the two parties (the Galenists and the Helmontian chemical physicians). In addition it would seem that there was also some degree of elusiveness on Starkey’s part when collaborating with Boyle-a behaviour
Opera Omnia (Lyon,
1658). 6 vols, Vol. I, pp. 394-401
374 which Boyle on one occasion described
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As we know from L. Principe’s work, Boyle himself was far from banishing secretiveness in his chemical (and alchemical) writings and he expected to face secretiveness from adepts, but evidently not from the ‘laborious chemist’. l l I believe that there was also a substantial difference between Starkey’s and Boyle’s view of alchemy-a difference which has nothing to do with secretiveness, but is about the very source of alchemical knowledge. On this topic I do not agree with Newman, who makes the following statement:
as ‘ungrateful’.1e Starkey genuinely believed himself to be a recipient of divine intelligence: his natural secrets were the immediate gifts of a godly largesse. This belief forms the primary justification of his many comments about natural secrets made to members of the Hartlib circle. The young Boyle, who was also a follower of van Helmont, cannot have been untouched by Starkey’s oneiric epistemology (p. 67). The reference is to Starkey’s report of an angelic apparition in a dream, who the young Boyle was in I believe that he did not share the
revealed him the formula of the Alkahest. Although
many ways influenced by van Helmont, Helmontian theory of illumination as the source of knowledge, and, as far as
alchemical revelations in dreams are concerned, his position was unambiguous. In a passage of The Usefulness, which evidently refers to Starkey, Boyle states:
I dare not affirm, with some of the Helmontians and Paracelsians, that God discloses to men the great mystery of chymistry by good angels, or by nocturnal visions . . yet persuaded I am, that the favour of God does (much more than most men are aware of) vouchsafe to promote some men’s proficiency in the study of nature, partly by protecting their attempts from those unlucky accidents, which often make ingenuous and industrious endeavours miscarry; and partly by making them dear and acceptable to the possessors of secrets, by whose friendly communication they may often learn that in a few moments, which cost the imparters many a year’s toil and study.12 As an Helmontian iatrochemist, Starkey faced a two-fold the advocates of the Galenical medicine and from empirics gives a detailed had usurped a major threat account of Starkey’s unsuccessful certainly his discoveries Helmontians and who vulgarized met and chemical Starkey opposition: from as well. Newman who This was the only
fights with practitioners medicines. was not
iatrochemist to fight empirics-his friend George Thomson, for instance, engaged in similar fights against ‘pseudo-chymists’. Although the author devotes an entire chapter to Philalethes’s context, I find him more accurate when dealing with the sources of Starkey/Philalethes’s
“This is apparent from a passage of Boyle’s Producibleness of Chymical Principles, where Starkey is not expressly mentioned, but is to be identified as the ‘laborious chymist of my acquaintance’ who died in the Plague. Boyle reports that Starkey failed to bring him some mercuries of metals he had obtained thanks to Boyle’s instructions, see R. Boyle, op. cit., note 1, Vol. I, p. 633. “L M Principe, ‘Robert Boyle’s Alchemical Secrecy: Codes, Ciphers, Concealment’s’, Ambix 39 (1992;, 6;-74. r2Boyle, Some Considerutions touching the Usejklnesse qf Experimental NaturalI Philosophy (Oxford, 1663). reprinted in op. cit., note I, Vol. II, p. 61.
Alchemical Theories of Matter
works, than when dealing with his contemporaries. One can find a long section devoted to a comparison between Philalethes’s and Thomas Vaughan’s alchemy, but the relationship of Starkey’s alchemical and chemical pursuits with the Hartlib circle (in particular with Sir Cheney Culpeper and Benjamin Worsley) are only touched upon. In addition, after reading the final chapterwhere Newman convincingly shows Newton’s debts to Philalethes-one wonders why there is not a chapter specifically devoted to Philalethes’s and Boyle’s alchemy. In the present review I have dealt with a number of themes which might appear somewhat tangential to the biography of Starkey. This is in fact inevitable as Gehennical Fire is not only a well researched study of the life and thought of Starkey, but is also a learned and insightful contribution to the history of early modern alchemy and chemistry.
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