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Art versus Nature

Peter Dear

Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. William R. Newman. xvi + 333 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2004. $30.

The difference between the natural and the artificial is a ubiquitous theme in modern life. The label "natural" on a foodstuff invariably serves as an assertion of superiority, even though the grounds for making that claim are not always clear. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has, notoriously, proved unable to come up with a solid, workable definition of natural, one that is not susceptible to easy counterexamples. Nonetheless, all of us believe that we know the difference between the natural and the artificial, and most people think the former is somehow better.

William Newman's Promethean Ambitions is about how these categories were discussed and contested in the ancient, medieval and early-modern periods of Western history, and how they came to hold the ambiguous status with which we are uneasily familiar. Central to the story is the role of alchemy as a focus of this debate over artifice and nature.

It is well known that Isaac Newton spent a great deal of his time in alchemical pursuits, as did other luminaries of the period, such as Robert Boyle and John Locke. What is less recognized is that those figures inherited a centuries-old literature on art and nature that is rich with passionately argued characterizations of the meaning and legitimacy, and even the possibility, of alchemy. Newman describes in clear and fascinating detail the diatribes both for and against the "chrysopoetic art" of creating gold from base metals.

In the 16th century...Click to Enlarge Image

A recurring theme in the book is what Aristotle called "perfective" art—artifice (medicine provides a good example) that is intended to perfect, or accomplish, the expression of nature by removing obstacles. In the Middle Ages, alchemy was justified on the grounds that it too was a perfective art, one that sought to replicate nature's ideals. Alchemy had been invented in late antique Greco-­Roman Egypt from various indigenous decorative techniques that already had a long history. It emerged as a way not just of imitating the appearance of gold, but of making real gold from other, less valued metals. Using Aristotelian arguments of his own, the Persian philosopher Avicenna (who died in 1037) criticized alchemy, maintaining that it was not possible to create a new "species" from a previous one; in his view, entities such as gold or lead were natural kinds—that is, they each had a unique essence, and they were quite distinct kinds of things in the world, which only God could create. The clear implication was that alchemists were blasphemous in trying to rival the Creator. When Avicenna's argument became known in the Latin High Middle Ages, 13th-century Latin commentators were quick to pick up on charges that alchemy was both impious and impossible. It was in this context that medieval alchemical writers sometimes defended themselves by representing their craft as being a perfective art.

Newman shows that in Renaissance Italy, alchemy was championed by some as being superior to painting or sculpture on the grounds that it produced a genuine imitation of nature rather than simply creating a (literally) superficial appearance. Once again, the precise relationship between art and nature was being contested on the grounds of how much art could do to achieve nature's goals.

Perhaps most pertinent to the overall theme of Newman's book, alchemy challenged the boundary between art and nature most spectacularly with the idea of the homunculus, a "little man" generated artificially in a glass vessel by the knowing alchemist. Newman shows that related stories date from late antiquity and came into the Latin West via Arabic sources. But it was the German physician and mystic Paracelsus who in the 16th century definitively created the idea of the homunculus as a feature of species-creating alchemy, which now transcended the making of gold.

Paracelsus, like earlier writers, including Aristotle, thought that male semen was the central ingredient for generating offspring; the mother only contributed the matter from which the young were made. So, he theorized, the alchemist should be able to cultivate human semen in a flask, keeping it warm and providing it with appropriate nutrients as it developed into a person. This rather disturbing proposal became widely known in Europe and was given a fair degree of credence in the 17th century. But the theological problems with artificially made human life were immediately obvious: Where would the creature's soul come from, and could God be obliged to provide one on demand? Designer babies have never been unproblematic.

Newman concludes with a discussion of the origins of experimental science in the 17th century—the period of the Scientific Revolution. His main argument is that alchemical discussions of the admissibility of interventionist approaches to nature set the terms for the new advocates of experimentation, such as Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Alchemical arguments about art and nature, together with the idea of perfective art, legitimated a new kind of natural inquiry that differed markedly from the long-­established natural philosophy of Aristotle. This chapter is especially directed against the positions of other scholars (including me) and raises many issues on which not all specialists will agree. These include early-modern ideas of the proper goals of inquiry into nature, and consequently the different kinds of "interventions" that were or were not seen as legitimate in pursuing those inquiries.

For anyone interested in learning about a long-standing tradition of debate on the relation between art and nature, and the implications of differing ways—intellectual, moral and religious—of defining art and nature, Newman's book will be indispensable. The continuities down to the present of these medieval and early-modern concerns shed much light on our own assumptions and their origins.—Peter Dear, Science and Technology Studies and History, Cornell University

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