Don Paterson, Rilke and attention
Online/Office 2007


Before I forget … Last Tuesday, passing en route Lincoln's Inn — looking beautiful on what we might soon come to call an unseasonably cold night, I went to the Royal College of Surgeons for a Royal Institution Lecture: 'Alchemy, the occult beginnings of science: Paracelsus, John Dee and Isaac Newton' Dr Phillip Ball, freelance writer and consultant editor, Nature; Dr Peter Forshaw, British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of London; Professor William Newman, Chair of Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University, USA.

Alchemy first came across my path back in my teens (again), reading Jung and then discovering the bizarre Helios bookshop at Toddington in rural Gloucestershire. A chance to attend a Jungian therapists' informal conference quickly brought all this to a close: I was taken aback at their anti-scientific attitude, but I continued to be fascinated by alchemy, the origins of science … and, later, the NeoPlatonism of the Renaissance.

We arrived a tad late at the RCS, courtesy of the warmth and cheer of the Seven Stars, to find Philip Ball already in full spate, rushing through the life of Paracelsus, his extraordinary travels (Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Scotland), his aspiration to devise the first "theory of everything", his rootedness in NeoPlatonism, the doctrine of signatures, chemical medicine, the tria prima (sulphur, mercury, salt), macrocosm and microcosm

Cornelius Agrippa and Marsilius Ficino investigated occult (hidden) forces and Paracelsus brought alchemy to this table. Philip Ball suggests that Paracelsus is important in the history or development of science — he worked from one observation to explain others and made central to his work the very idea of explaining the observed. Philip Ball's book, The Devil's Doctor, appeared earlier this year. The man was clearly extraordinary. From the Guardian review:

His stay in Basle [1527] had started out well. Many students had attended his unofficial courses. He told them that doctors didn't need "eloquence or knowledge of language and books", but "profound knowledge of Nature and her works". His own wisdom was, he told them, based "upon the foundation of experience, the supreme teacher of all things". 

… medicine in the early Renaissance had advanced little since Roman times. For instance, physicians did not think it necessary to examine patients, relying instead on a urine sample for diagnosis. "All they can do is to gaze at piss," said Paracelsus scornfully. He accused them of "villainy and knavery" and said that if people realised how they were being deceived, medics would be stoned in the street. They, in turn, accused him of drunkenness, and it's true that Paracelsus did prefer to expound his wisdom in taverns than in university lecture halls.

His written works, most of which were only published posthumously, could be "paranoid, repetitive, vain and self-aggrandising". But beneath the bluster and posturing were genuine insights. Giordano Bruno said of him: "Seeing how much this inebriate knew, what should I think he might have discovered had he been sober?" Paracelsus turned his back on Aristotle and Galen and embraced experience as his mentor. He taught that "every land is a leaf of the Codex of Nature, and he who would explore her must tread her books with his feet". Paracelsus brought "a new, questing spirit" to natural philosophy. He investigated the plague at considerable risk to himself, devised a "chemical diagnosis of madness" and, although celibate, wrote about "the diseases of women" at a time when medics turned a blind eye to their suffering.

… For Paracelsus, alchemy was not merely about the creation of gold, but was a medical and mystical philosophy that explained the functioning of the body (the transformation of food into flesh, blood and excrement) as well as the more general principles that revealed the mysteries of the earth. "Alchemy becomes so powerful and so beautiful in Paracelsus's hands," writes Ball, "because it is a part of a greater system: a magical vision of the universe distilled in the overheated alembic of a feverishly imaginative mind." Paracelsus saw the "great art of transformation" - alchemy - as the key to understanding man and nature. It was "a reflection of the natural art that makes a flower grow, that stores up metals in the earth, and brings wind and rain. By taking alchemy out of the smoky laboratory and setting it free in wild nature, Paracelsus stakes his claim to genius."

… writers from Blake to Borges have been captivated by his words …

Peter Forshaw took over, to speak at an equally fast pace about John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I on matters astrological and scientific, a mathematician and a 'converser with angels'. A keen advocate of colonisation, he was the first man to use the term 'the British Empire'. Through the Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558) to Monas Hieroglyphica (1564; Dee's glyph, right, is "explained" in this work), alchemy figures. Owner of the largest private library in England at the time, his marginalia indicate he interrogated the alchemical texts he read, testing, checking weights, recording the time taken for experiments to run and results to be achieved. His reading of Pantheus' Voarchadumia, as revealed in his marginalia to that work, was mentioned, and this is the abstract to Hilde Norrgrén's article, 'Interpretation and the Hieroglyphic Monad: John Dee's Reading of Pantheus's Voarchadumia':

John Dee's marginalia in his copy of Johannes Pantheus's Voarchadumia (now in the British Library) are an interesting source of information about the development of Dee's scientific ideas in the period between the Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558) and the Monas Hieroglyphica (1564). In reading the book, Dee has systematically compared the text with Pantheus's earlier work, the Ars Metallicae, and noted any differences between the two largely identical works. Therefore, most of Dee's comments are not indications of his own interests, as has previously been assumed. Only the marginalia that are not concerned with comparing the two texts can be taken to express Dee's own views. These marginalia, probably written in 1559, provide evidence that Dee had already at this time a strong interest in cabbalistic methods as a means of gaining knowledge about natural substances. Cabbalistic speculation was to be central to Dee's thought in the Monas Hieroglyphica, and has previously been taken to indicate a dramatic change in Dee's scientific outlook, towards a spiritual quest. In his marginalia in the Voarchadumia, however, Dee appears to be using cabbalistic methods to gain information on wholly material, non-spiritual matters. The abundant use of the symbol of the hieroglyphic monad in the marginalia provides a further source of insight into the alchemical import of the symbol, five years before the publication of the Monas Hieroglyphica.

Finally, William Newman, author of Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution, and currently engaged in 'deciphering Isaac Newton's chymical laboratory notebooks and manuscripts' (read more at Newton's Alchemy, recreated). Boyle, Locke, Newton all believed in the possibility of transmutation. Professor Newman demonstrated some alchemical experiments performed by Newton: the "silica garden" (Newton's Alchemy, recreated: 'a 17th century version of a silica garden, made with potassium silicate and ferric chloride. In the 17th century, it was thought to confirm the fact that metals can be made to "vegetate"; 'Newton wrote an unpublished treatise about such metallic trees - for him they were an indication that metals had their own sort of life, and hence could, it was hoped, be made to multiply'); the apparent transmutation of silver into gold, as performed originally by Wenceslas Seiler (I think I have this name right) in 1677 at the Court of Leopold I; the "transmutation" of iron into copper, by immersing an iron nail in copper sulphate. (Inadequate cameraphone pics follow.)



Check out The Newton Project:

Although Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is best known for his theory of universal gravitation and discovery of calculus, his interests were much broader than is usually appreciated. In addition to his celebrated natural philosophical writings and mathematical works, Newton also wrote many theological texts and alchemical tracts. We already have texts and images of many of these works on offer on our site and our goal is to make all Newton's writings freely available online.

And the RCS needs an early re-visit …