Lead to Gold, Sorcery to Science: Alchemy and the Foundations of Modern Chemistry

 

Lead to Gold, Sorcery to Science: Alchemy and the Foundations of Modern Chemistry

Glynis L. Coyne
Published by the PIT Journal: 

Abstract: 

Though the modern world views alchemy as little more than witchcraft and an inherent hindrance to progress, in reality alchemy may have been a precursor to modern chemistry. Alchemy has had an influence on a vast range of scientific discoveries. For example, alchemy’s focus on the transformation of substances informed later studies of chemical reactions. This paper examines the arguments of different historians who studied alchemy. Twentieth century historian E. J. Holmyard posits that early chemistry was not influenced by alchemy whatsoever. In his view, alchemy was an unscientific distraction. On the other hand, there are historians like Bruce T. Morgan, who argues that alchemy was a legitimate discipline at the time, one that had influence on other budding scientific disciplines, and chemistry in particular. Another researcher, William R. Newman, further argues that alchemist Robert Boyle was a notable influence on Isaac Newton. Without the writings of Boyle, Newton may not have discovered the law of universal gravitation. Also, Robert Boyle’s corpuscular theory, which states that matter is made of tiny particles called corpuscles, might have helped along the discovery of atoms. Alchemy in general and Robert Boyle’s work in particular were legitimate intellectual pursuits that informed later scientific work. 

Article: 

Mention the word ‘alchemy’ and certain images spring to mind: the lone sorcerer-scholar poring over ancient manuscripts and combining bubbling flasks by flickering candlelight. The associations to the ancient world, at least, are accurate; alchemy’s roots lie in Alexandria, the heart of Hellenistic Egypt, and its intellectual foundation was in Aristotelian philosophy. Arabic scholars brought alchemy into medieval Europe, where it became part of the scholastic academic mainstream of the time. Traditionally the main goals of the alchemists were to transform other substances, particularly metals, into gold and to create the philosopher’s stone, which was said to grant eternal youth. However, alchemy also had various industrial and commercial applications, particularly in the fields of metallurgy and dye-making. What’s more, alchemy was hardly monolithic; it had many different branches and sub-disciplines. This description of alchemy as a practical and multi-faceted field does not seem to mesh very well with the image of the sorcerer-scientist seeking mystical ends through a misguided exploration of chemical phenomena. Moreover, some of the most important and influential figures in the history of science, including the likes of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, studied alchemical texts and even practiced alchemy. If alchemy had had no legitimacy or valid place in its intellectual context, why would so many scholars have drawn upon its ideas?

In this paper, I hope to demonstrate that alchemy influenced the foundational concepts of chemistry and its theoretical impact can still be observed in the modern field of chemistry. My argument is not that medieval alchemy was ‘scientifically accurate’ or that the alchemists were “on the right track” in all of their pursuits. For example, there is obviously no such thing as a philosopher’s stone. However, modern chemistry has a strong alchemical heritage that should not be ignored or dismissed.

Scholarly Debate: Was Alchemy a Valid Part of Chemistry’s History?

The nature of alchemy’s influence upon modern chemistry has been the subject of much scholarly debate. On the one hand, E. J. Holmyard, an early 20th century historian of alchemy, makes the traditional argument that the foundations of chemistry were completely devoid of any alchemical influence and that alchemy was dispensed of with the advent of the Scientific Revolution. Indeed, according to Lawrence Principe’s historiographical overview of this debate, for a long time, many “early historians of science presented alchemy as […] antiscientific—an obstacle to progress” (307). However, as scholars began rethinking the study of ideas and the history of science, a movement started which aimed to refurbish the place of alchemy in the history of science. The historian Bruce T. Moran, for instance, asserts that alchemy was an intellectually valid discipline in its contemporary context, that alchemy and chemistry were strongly interrelated, and that the exchange of ideas between the two can be seen in the works of figures like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. William R. Newman even argues that alchemy directly influenced chemistry through figures such as Robert Boyle, and that there is a direct line of descent from alchemy to chemistry. Ferdinando Abbri, on the other hand, maintains that while the intellectual role of alchemy in the development of modern chemistry cannot be dismissed, the relationship between the two disciplines is much more complex than the direct line of influence characterized by Newman and his colleagues. My own view is that alchemy provided the intellectual context upon which chemistry was able to develop, as I find the evidence and analysis of Moran, Newman, and even Abbri more convincing than that provided by Holmyard.

Traditionally, science historians were dismissive of alchemy, asserting that it had died out in favor of the modern sciences. E. J. Holmyard demonstrates this typical approach: in the epilogue of Alchemy, his history of the subject, he asserts that “the basic conceptions and theories of alchemy had no part” in modern chemistry, and that Boyle’s “rational system” in his work the Sceptical Chymist [sic] “struck at the root of all alchemical speculation” (Holmyard 273). Holmyard is arguing that, in setting forth the principles of his empirical mechanical system and criticizing those aspects of alchemy which clashed with his system, Boyle singlehandedly destroyed alchemy’s credibility and legitimacy as a discipline. Although dealt with in a very short chapter, Holmyard’s view encapsulates the traditional opinion of alchemy’s relation to chemistry; he is entirely dismissive of alchemy’s relevance to history after the Scientific Revolution.

William R. Newman takes the opposite stance from Holmyard and the traditional scholars. In Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry & the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution, Newman argues that Robert Boyle represented a major connection between chemistry and alchemy. Newman even goes so far as to say that, in his earlier works, Boyle “borrowed heavily, and without acknowledgement, from the works of Daniel Sennert [an alchemical scholar]” (160). According to Newman, Boyle himself was a part of the alchemical intellectual tradition and, as a result, alchemy influenced the development of modern chemistry.

Bruce T. Moran’s arguments align closely with Newman’s. In Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution, Moran argues that alchemy played an important role in the history of chemistry. He cites not only Boyle’s involvement with alchemy, but also demonstrates that alchemical ideas influenced an inspired Isaac Newton and the law of universal gravitation. Moran’s main point is that it is inaccurate to dismiss alchemy’s role in the Scientific Revolution since alchemy and chemistry were very closely related in this time period.

Ferdinando Abbri takes issue with certain aspects of Newman’s arguments, but overall he opposes the traditional view espoused by Holmyard.  In his article “Alchemy and Chemistry: Chemical Discourses in the Seventeenth Century,” Abbri responds directly to some of Newman’s earlier work with Lawrence Principe, in which they argue for the unbroken continuity between alchemy and chemistry; Abbri claims that they are oversimplifying matters.  In Abbri’s view, “[this] topic […] is very complex and cannot be clarified simply by postulating a sort of identity between alchemy and chemistry in the seventeenth century” (Abbri 214). Abbri concludes that there was, indeed, a great deal of overlap between alchemy and chemistry represented by the “fluidity of terms such as ‘alchemy’ and ‘chemistry’ […] which was the result of the absence of a rigid and defined space for chemistry” (225). He rejects the idea of a clear and direct line of descent, while still leaving open the idea that alchemy, with all of its various branches, morphed into chemistry.

Moran and Newman seem to be in agreement overall; Newman, however, has focused specifically on Boyle and his relationship to alchemy, whereas Moran covers a broader overview of alchemy and its many branches. Both Moran and Newman’s arguments directly oppose the kind of viewpoint typified by Holmyard. Abbri, meanwhile, moves from a direct response to Newman’s arguments into a broader discussion. As his argument develops, he seems to agree for the most part with Newman’s overall intentions, but with the provision that the historical situation was much more complex than Newman and Principe portray. Abbri is thus working in opposition to Holmyard and his ilk. Abbri’s viewpoint is closer to Moran’s than Newman’s, since Moran explores the complexities of the relationship between alchemy and chemistry.

Overall, Holmyard’s characterization of alchemy is representative of a view that is outdated and inaccurate because it relies on an oversimplified understanding of history and the formation of ideas. On the whole, Newman, Moran, and Abbri offer convincing support for the claim that alchemy did indeed influence the formation of chemistry. In a critique of Holmyard’s notions, Newman demonstrates very clear parallels between the work of Boyle and earlier alchemists. Furthermore, Abbri’s insistence on the complexity of the historical situation is also an effective counter to the idea that alchemy was wholesale replaced by chemistry. My own view, however, probably aligns most closely with Moran’s, as his argument serves as a foundation for my own. However, while Moran’s overall focus is on establishing the validity and importance of alchemy, I examine the influence that alchemy had upon chemistry.

Alchemy’s Influence on Chemistry through the Works of Robert Boyle

In order to understand alchemy’s relevance to, and possible influence on, modern chemistry, it is useful to see how Robert Boyle demonstrates the interaction between these two fields.  Robert Boyle, often called the “Father of Chemistry” (Greenberg 200), is an important figure in the history of chemistry. He advocated for concise experimentation and empirical observation, which are the foundations of the modern scientific method, and developed a key piece of the Ideal Gas Law (Greenberg 200; Moran 137, 147). Furthermore, he is known for his “mechanical philosophy,” a rationalist and empirical system of understanding the universe that became widely influential (Moran 137, 147). On top of all that, Boyle studied, and was influenced by, alchemy.

The influence of alchemy can clearly be seen in Boyle’s “corpuscular” theory – a kind of proto-atomic theory that posited that matter was composed of “corpuscles” or tiny particles, as opposed to the ancient and Aristotelian views of matter (Moran 139; Newman 224). Moran claims that Boyle’s corpuscular theory was “tied […] to a corpuscularian tradition in alchemy stemming from the speculations of the medieval author Geber” (146); in fact, according to Newman, this theory’s relationship to alchemy was even more direct. Newman asserts that “Boyle borrowed heavily, and without acknowledgement, from the works of Daniel Sennert,” an earlier scholar whose “corpuscular theory stemmed from an alchemical tradition extending back […] to at least the thirteenth century” (160, 24). Newman cites as evidence, first, the “generally close parallelism between” Sennert’s work and Boyle’s early, unpublished “essay Of the Atomicall Philosophy” which “contains his first unequivocal statement of adherence to a corpuscular theory of matter grounded on chymical experiment.” (168, 160) Second, Newman points to Boyle and Sennert’s mutual use of “two [identical] examples […] in the same order and without any break” (168). Sennert and Boyle both used the same central piece of experimental evidence for corpuscular theory: the “reduction to the pristine state,” an experiment that stemmed from the “Geberian tradition” in which metals are dissolved by acids and then reconstituted (Newman 42, 35, 159). Boyle directly used alchemical theory – this “reduction to the pristine state” experiment – to make his argument.

Rather than just copying Sennert’s work, Boyle built off of these arguments to create new ideas and further the intellectual discourse. Although “Boyle borrowed Sennert’s decisive experiment for the existence of atoms” in order to support his own theory, there was still a “remarkable divergence” between the two authors (Newman 42, 35, 159). Where Sennert had tried to bolster the old theory of “substantial forms,” a medieval Scholastic idea first advanced by Thomas Aquinas, which posited that different things got their identity from the presence of this unspecified “substantial form,” Boyle strove to “debunk [these] theoretical entities” (Newman 35, 159). Clearly, Boyle was using Sennert’s work, the product of long-standing alchemical tradition, as the basis for his own theory, but he also developed his own conclusion. Some may argue that Boyle’s divergence discredits the influence of alchemy and is proof of Boyle “striking at the root” of alchemy, as Holmyard would put it, but that argument misses the significance of what Boyle was trying to accomplish. Even though Boyle’s conclusion moves in a different direction, he was still engaging in dialogue with his intellectual predecessors for all their associations to alchemy, in the same way that modern scholars participate in academic discourse.

Indeed, it makes perfect sense that Boyle, a scholar and quintessential "man of science," would have worked with alchemical sources. For all that alchemy seems fantastical to the modern mind, it “followed naturally from an intellectual context that was securely anchored to” the worldview, assumptions, and beliefs of its society (Moran 25). In fact, even as early as the latter Middle Ages, alchemists worked to fit their ideas into the prevailing intellectual structures and academic mainstream of the day – hardly the isolated occultists of legend (Newman 25-26). Boyle was a scholar of his time, and so he would have availed himself of the contemporary body of intellectual work – including alchemy. His study of alchemy demonstrates its legitimacy and relevance as a field of study during the early Scientific Revolution, cementing its role as the intellectual precursor of, and foundation for, the field of modern chemistry.  

Boyle’s alchemical work had a lasting impact on the field he helped to create. “Father of chemistry” as he was, Boyle was influenced and aided by alchemical ideas in the development of his theory of matter. Alchemy was an “essential factor in the development and transmission of experimental corpuscular theory from the High Middle Ages up until the time of Boyle” (Newman 223). By perpetuating this “corpuscular” tradition, Boyle helped to lay the groundwork for the development of the modern atomic theory of matter (Newman 222-224), which is essential to all of the modern sciences, including chemistry.

Isaac Newton: Alchemy’s Influence on the Creation of the Theory of Universal Gravitation

Robert Boyle was not the only great man of early science to have engaged in the study of alchemy. Isaac Newton, famous for discovering the law of universal gravitation and renowned as one of the inventors of Calculus, left behind a “vast collection of alchemical writings” which indicated that he “had spent more of his life intensely involved with alchemy” than he did with what the modern mind would consider ‘science’ (White 3, 2). Indeed, Newton was “firmly committed to […] belief […] in the existence of a prima sapientia (a pure, ancient wisdom) [that had been] bestowed on human beings by God at the outset of human existence,” and that this “ancient wisdom” had been handed down by the alchemists through the ages (Moran 167). For Newton, a deeply spiritual man, alchemy was an important source of knowledge – divine knowledge – and studying the universe was a way of getting closer to God. According to Moran, “several historians have noted a link between certain parts of Newton’s understanding of nature and alchemical opinions expressed in texts to which he had access” (168). In other words, some of Newton’s most famous scientific ideas may have been inspired by alchemy – in particular, his groundbreaking law of universal gravitation, which, in turn, would lay the groundwork for some of the most crucial concepts of modern chemical theory.

The seeds of the idea of a universal attractive force almost certainly did not come to Newton from contemporary scholarly thought. In Newton’s time, the intellectual discourse was widely influenced by Boyle’s mechanical philosophy, which was “fundamentally Cartesian” (Moran 171). In other words, , it was a philosophy following in the tradition of Rene Descartes, a view which advocated “the strict reduction of phenomena to the primary qualities of inert matter or […] the transmission of motion between bodies” (Newman 179), and one in which “[p]articles of bodies would adhere to one another […] because of their relative shapes” (Moran 171). The widespread form of his mechanical philosophy left no room for any force of attraction between objects – a force such as gravity.

In fact, Newton was most likely inspired by alchemical ideas, especially since these ideas fit well with his personal beliefs. Newton was not disposed to agree with the Cartesian mechanical philosophy; as he saw it, the intellectual practice of “treating bodies only as something filling space,” which was the Cartesian view, “led ultimately to atheism” (Moran 171). He could not adhere to a description of the universe as merely a mechanical and deistic clockwork in which God had no direct role. By the same token, Moran argues Newton could not take the view that matter itself had any “inherent (occult) qualities” since that would “imply another kind of heresy, namely that God was nature itself” (171). Newton found a middle ground in his alchemical studies: he “adopted the alchemical notion of active principles […] that accounted for attractions and affinities between bodies,” a concept which clearly set the groundwork for the idea of universal gravitation (Moran 170). For Newton, this attractive force was God’s role in the universe –in Newton’s worldview “[t]hat which was called universal attraction was the physical action of God” (Moran 171). Newton’s universe was no Cartesian machine, but rather one in which God was an active participant.

Of course, alchemy’s influence upon Newton’s thinking does not undermine his originality, nor does it discredit what he achieved on the strength of his own genius; in the end, the “concept of universal gravitation and the calculations that disclosed nature’s design” were “the inventions of a brilliant mathematician” (Moran 172). Newton alone had made the leap from these alchemical ideas of attraction to the actual law for which he is rightly renowned. Nevertheless, while Newton did not use alchemy to create the actual equation itself, his alchemical studies helped to develop the concept in his mind and may even have served as the “genesis of the idea of universal attractive force” (Moran 172). Clearly, alchemy did not pollute or hinder Newton’s genius, nor his ability to discover truths about the universe. Newton’s legacy is still very much a part of modern science, and alchemy had an important role in developing those ideas in the first place.

Now, the law of universal gravitation is not, strictly speaking, part of chemistry, the field which I have been focusing on, but rather falls under the jurisdiction of physics. However, Newton’s law of gravity is so fundamental to modern science that it would be ridiculous for me to omit a discussion of alchemy’s influence on such a monumental idea just because I have elsewhere focused on chemistry. What’s more, the concept of an attractive force is profoundly important to modern chemistry. In working against the prevailing Cartesian philosophy, Newton set the stage for the idea of various other attractive forces. From a modern perspective, the idea of gravity seems obvious, so Newton’s main achievement seems to be that he was the first one to do the actual calculations. However, for Newton, the prevailing intellectual worldview – Boyle’s Cartesian mechanical philosophy – had no room for attractive forces. If Newton had worked exclusively within what we might now consider to be ‘science’, he might not have thought of any concept to displace the “atheism” to which he objected (Moran 171). However, Newton was an avid student of alchemy and so he encountered ideas such as the alchemical “active principles” of attraction (Moran 170), which must have informed his view of the universe and laid the groundwork for the concept of one of his most important calculations. Newton proposed that “chemical qualities themselves [could be] treated as special instances of universal forces” and urged his scientific community to apply his ideas to chemistry – which they did (Moran 172). We now know, for example, that most of the properties of various substances are dictated by the attractive forces between their component particles (Brown et al. 290-318, 426-508). Although the attractive forces between particles, of course, are not the same as Newton’s gravity, he laid the foundation for the idea of attractive forces between bodies. Without the idea of such attractive forces, there would be no understanding of anything from ionic bonds to inter-molecular attractions – concepts that are taught in every “Introduction to Chemistry” class everywhere. Without Newton’s study of alchemy, then, we might never have moved past basic chemistry.

Echoes of Alchemy’s Influence in Modern Chemistry

The problem with pinpointing specific details which result from alchemy’s influence on modern chemistry is, of course, that it is impossible to categorically prove these declarations true or false. Until I have the ability to glimpse into an alternate Earth in which alchemy never existed and compare notes, all I can offer is speculation. However, my speculation is grounded in what is a fairly solid argument for alchemy’s importance to, and influence upon, the development of early modern science. Between Boyle’s theory of matter and Newton’s law of gravity, I hope I have demonstrated some clear connections between alchemical study and specific ideas of modern chemistry. Still, perhaps alchemy has had a more abstract influence upon modern science, and chemistry in particular.

Throughout its long history, alchemy has long shared traits with modern science. In the Middle Ages, the universities were run by the Scholastics; for Scholastics, education was an intellectual discussion about arguments that had already been made by important scholars. While alchemy was indeed a part of that scholastic mainstream, it always had much more of an active, indeed experimental, aspect. Alchemists did not just discuss ideas; they performed their procedures with a clear goal in mind, whether that was the production of gold or the creation of the philosopher’s stone. Moran’s characterization of alchemical procedures as “produc[ing] effects and [leading] to the analysis of various parts of the natural world” (2) sounds remarkably similar to a description of the aims of modern scientific inquiry. Alchemists manipulated nature and sought after change and transformation. Thus in retrospect, it might seem obvious that this would be the discipline that would play a key role the Scientific Revolution.

Indeed, perhaps the very concept of chemistry is a legacy of alchemy. For all that alchemy shifted to encompass different areas at different times, one of its central tenets was always chrysopoeia – the transformation of base metals into gold – and indeed the idea of transformation in general. We can see echoes of this idea in modern chemistry; after all, chemistry is centered on the idea of the chemical reaction, and a reaction is, essentially, the transformation of one or more substances into another. Of course, this is not a claim that can be conclusively proven one way or another, but to my mind it seems to follow that alchemy, as the intellectual precursor of chemistry, could easily have been the source of this concept in the new science. After all, fields like physics do not focus nearly so much on the change in the identity of a substance; perhaps this idea of transformation, the legacy of alchemy, is integral to the definition of chemistry as a field. Alchemy, then, deserves more credit as the true ancestor of modern chemistry.

Conclusion

Alchemy was an important part of the intellectual discourse during the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution and had a major impact on the development of modern chemistry. This relationship can be seen in specific examples of scientific ideas that were influenced by alchemical tradition. Boyle’s “corpuscular” theory of matter and the genesis of Newton’s law of universal gravitation are specific examples of science springing from alchemical thought. Furthermore, the fact that such influential figures as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton participated in alchemy demonstrates its validity in its contemporary intellectual context. Above all, alchemy made chemistry what it is today. Alchemy’s legacy includes the idea of manipulating nature in order to learn more about it, as well as the idea of transforming a substance to produce something more; upon examination, the medieval sorcerer and the modern chemist begin to look a lot alike. In the end, it may be impossible to comprehensively demonstrate all the areas of modern chemistry which descend from alchemy, but alchemy must be given due credit as the foundation of the modern sciences. If we explore the modern discipline for what it is – a product of its history – then perhaps we might come to a better understanding of where we are today.

 

Works Cited

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About the Author(s)
Glynis L. Coyne
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