Art versus Nature
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.
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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