Top banner


Boyle Reborn

Mordechai Feingold

The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest. Lawrence M. Principe. Princeton University Press, 1988. xiv+ 339 pp. $45.

Two days after Robert Boyle's funeral on January 7, 1692, Samuel Pepys invited his fellow diarist, John Evelyn, to his house for a social gathering, the purpose of which was to symbolically anoint the new leader of English science, and the person chosen was Isaac Newton. The episode—of which nothing else is known—shows how late-17th century savants were unanimous in their coupling of Boyle and Newton as the two great icons of early-modern English science.

Nevertheless, Boyle and Newton shared something else. Both were deeply immersed in chemical and religious studies, to the chagrin of their respective editors, who found it embarrassing to account for the massive bulk of material attesting to such preoccupations. Unlike Newton, however, Boyle made no contribution to mathematics and physics, and, consequently, the need to dissociate him from the domain of alchemy—if he were to be considered the "father of modern chemistry"—was more acute than in the case of Newton.

Consequently, from the early 18th century Boyle's editors and commentators initiated a process that aimed at suppressing, or at least marginalizing, the role of alchemy in shaping his thought and scientific career. And the trend persisted well into the 20th century.

Lawrence Principe's book goes a long way toward recovering the complexity of Boyle's mind and work, without necessarily diminishing his contribution to modern science.

The task of retrieving the true Boyle is fraught with difficulties. On the one hand, alchemy is notoriously difficult to penetrate by virtue of its recondite nature and the heavy veil of secrecy that most of its practitioners have habitually cloaked it in. On the other hand, not only did Boyle's editors destroy a considerable body of the relevant material, but Boyle himself resorted to a host of strategies intended to conceal his labors from the prying eyes of real or imaginary spies. Given such circumstances, Principe's ability to reconstruct Boyle's laboratory practices, ascertain the relations between Boyle and a large community of like-minded practitioners, and retrieve, fully or partially, some of Boyle's alchemical writings is even more remarkable. (Principe provides in his appendixes some of these reconstructed texts.)

Principe's success in unraveling the depth of Boyle's commitment to alchemy derives from the author's uncommon knowledge of medieval and early modern alchemical literature and practices—conspicuously absent among most other Boyle scholars, who have approached him from the vantage point of modern chemistry. With fine archival skills, Principe has been thus able to piece together loose fragments pertaining to larger projects and ascertain that Boyle's various investigations were firmly embedded in the quest for the philosopher's stone.

To better comprehend Boyle's activity, Principe insists on precise terminology. Rather than employ the vague term "alchemy," Principe argues that "Chrysopoeia" and "argyropoeia" (the processes of transmuting base metals into noble ones) and "spagyria" (the method by which substances are separated into their constitutive elements, purged, and then recombined into a more purified form) far better capture the essence of Boyle's quest. Once such precision and specificity is successfully put into play in capturing Boyle's goals and research practices, Principe is able to document the manner in which Boyle went far beyond simply availing himself of alchemists' experiments, as historians have traditionally assumed. In fact, Boyle appropriated the terminology and the theories of the alchemists and shared with them the goal of discovering the philosophers' stone.

Having thus clarified such congruity between Boyle's activities and those of the alchemists, Principe is also able to better interpret the identity of Boyle's targets in his writings. Contrary to perceived views, Boyle was not singling out for censure the true alchemical adepts—among whom he numbered himself—but rather the cheats and those smatterers in alchemy who cared little about alchemical theories and less about broader connections to natural philosophy.

But Principe goes further than just situating Boyle firmly within an active and continuous alchemical tradition. Deep spirituality, he argues, pervaded Boyle's alchemical studies. Drawing on his own research as well as on that of scholars such as Michael Hunter, William Newman and Antonio Clericuzio, Principe points out that Boyle's research was imbued with both private and public religious concerns, as he strove to mobilize both rational arguments and supernatural aspects of alchemy in his devotional practices as well as in his public efforts in the defense of Christianity.

Such a condensed summary cannot do justice to the richness of Principe's book and to the new Boyle here unearthed. It is a major contribution to the burgeoning field of Boyle studies as well as to our understanding of the relation between traditional modes of thought and the new philosophies of the early modern period.—Mordechai Feingold, History,Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner