- Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature
After throwing light on the history of alchemy per se, recent research (for which we can take as a starting point Robert Halleux's book, Les textes alchimiques ) has begun to study how the alchemical quest interacted with philosophical issues during the past, from late antiquity to modern times. The medieval debate [End Page 678] between philosophers and alchemists on the supposedly infinite possibilities of "ars"(technè) versus the boundaries of nature was perhaps the first issue to be raised, and the author of the book under review has been one of the main contributors to this field of research, with a seminal paper published in 1989 ("Technology and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages," Isis 80). Now he has widened the scope of his research both chronologically, reaching back to the early centuries of the Christian era and further into the seventeenth century and even later, and thematically, adding to the philosophical and theological debate aroused by the work of Avicenna on the possibility of transmutation (Sciant artifices), a consideration of the relationship between nature and ancient mechanics, as well as between nature and Renaissance fine arts, and a discussion of the Paracelsian theme of the homunculus. As a consequence, the book displays a highly original table of contents and seems to be an attempt to cover all fields of the historical development of the nature-art confrontation, with the ambitious aim to contribute to the contemporary bioethical debate, as shown in the introduction and afterword.
The author, however, does not offer a full conceptual treatment of the term "nature" and of its use in the texts examined, ending in such vague statements as these: "all issues that our ancestors found fascinating and at times abhorrent, just as many of us do today . . . it is safe to say that the distinction between art and nature is still with us today. . . . Although it is true in a trivial sense that humans are a part of nature, as are their doings, the fact remains that some aspects of the world can get along without us, while others cannot" (302–04). Indeed, the large amount of scholarship on which the book is grounded seems to lack a clear epistemological focus. The overt opinion, that in our history alchemy has been the main field where human artificial production confronted natural processes, does not lead beyond the acknowledgment of the alchemists' ambiguity (was their art intended to perfect nature, or to win it by creating something thoroughly new?) and their opponents' critiques (alchemy was seen as merely perverting nature by means of man's hubris and, in the theologians' view, with the intervention of demons). There is no hint at the possibility that alchemy did represent an attempt to think of the relationship between mankind and nature as partnership and reciprocal action, as a significant line of alchemical thinking and imaging (and some historians of alchemy) maintain, save for a single awkward observation about "medieval" (really sixteenth and seventeenth century) illustrations (173).
In many previous occasions, indeed, Newman has proclaimed his disdain for the idea that alchemy may be interpreted as a tertium quid between an irrational approach to nature and a representative of the Promethean position of science and technology. Such a dual opposition is, by and large, the most current approach to the elusive, and yet historically inescapable, alchemical wisdom. In a French book published almost contemporarily to Promethean Ambitions (P. Hadot, Le voile d'Isis. Essai sur l'histoire de l'idée de Nature ) this dual opposition also surfaces in the confrontation between a "Promethean" and an "Orphic" view of the art-nature relationship. Neither author seems to remember that the alchemists [End Page 679] themselves used to place a third mythical figure, the Greco-Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistos, at the origin of their art. It is true that the contemporary view of alchemy as a Hermetic art...