- Brian Vickers on Alchemy and the Occult: A Response
Vickers on the “Apologetic” Character of the “New Historiography” of Alchemy
From the publication of his 1984 Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance if not before, Brian Vickers has vigorously maintained that “the occult sciences,” in which he includes alchemy, astrology, and natural magic along with several other fields, were distinct from and at best orthogonal to the advances in experiment and theory that characterized the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century.1 At worst, in Vickers’ view, the occult sciences were outright hindrances to the Scientific Revolution. It is no surprise, therefore, that Vickers would take umbrage at the “New Historiography” of alchemy, which has shown in the last two decades that the aurific art was integral both to the Scientific Revolution and to the nascent science of modern chemistry. In his recent essay review, “The ‘New Historiography’ and the Limits of Alchemy” (2008), Vickers devotes well over half of his thirty-page review to a hostile critique of my 2004 book Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. His review of Promethean Ambitions is marked by an inordinate number of distortions and outright fallacies, and I will provide my response to these in the third part of this essay. One recurring theme in Vickers’ review needs to be met immediately, however, namely his claim that I, along with others in the “New Historiography,” have become apologists for alchemy.
The historical treatment of alchemy was long dominated by the Enlightenment rejection of chrysopoeia (transmutation of base metals into [End Page 482] gold). A contemptuous view of the subject as nothing but the province of charlatans and cheats, broadcast by the French academicians Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Etienne-François Geoffroy among others in the early eighteenth century, became a foundational element of the historiography of science that was still widely parroted by historians of the Scientific Revolution up until the 1970’s (Principe and Newman 2001). Hence we find A. Rupert Hall, a widely respected historian of seventeenth-century science, not only denying in 1962 that alchemy was a forerunner of chemistry, but even going so far as to describe it as “the greatest obstacle to the development of rational chemistry” (Hall 1962, p. 310). Similarly, E. J. Dijksterhuis would describe alchemy tout court in his 1961 Mechanization of the World Picture as an example of “the pathology of thought,” and would go on to say that Robert Boyle’s chrysopoetic endeavors were “a mysterious trifling with impure substances, guided by mystical conceptions and hazy analogies” (Dijksterhuis 1961, pp. 160, 440). These remarkably comprehensive denunciations ignore the fact that Enlightenment chemistry before Lavoisier still employed the apparatus, materials, theories, and practices provided to it by centuries of alchemists. Long before the “New Historiography” made its appearance, historians were pointing to the fact that Georg Ernst Stahl’s influential phlogiston theory, for example, derived from Johann Joachim Becher’s adaptation of the Paracelsian theory that metals and minerals were composed of mercury, sulfur, and salt (Metzger 1930, pp. 159–88). It is true that Stahl became an outspoken opponent of Goldmacherei during the last quarter of his life, but to deny the influence of alchemical theory and practice on him or other eighteenth-century chemists is to turn the historical evidence on its head.
To read Vickers’ essay review is to find oneself suddenly back in the world of Rupert Hall and E. J. Dijksterhuis in the 1960’s. Unlike Hall, who later modified his views, Vickers is still able to say of the colonial American alchemist George Starkey that “the early modern alchemist’s life, like his day-to-day operations, are to be seen not as a forerunner of industrial or pharmaceutical chemistry (although Starkey did produce medicine and cosmetics) but as a narrative of quests for revelation” (Vickers 2008, p. 136). It is amusing to learn that spending one’s life doing chemistry (or as I prefer, “chymistry”) and even teaching Robert Boyle the foundations of the discipline as Starkey did, does not make one a chemist or even a forerunner of chemistry. Upon what evidence does...