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Robert Boyle

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The Sceptical Chymist

‘… it will not perhaps be now unseasonable to let our Carneades warne Men, not to subscribe to the grand Doctrine of the Chymists touching their three Hypostatatical Principles, till they have a little examin’d it, and consider’d how they can clear it from his Objections, divers of which ‘tis like they may never have thought on; since a Chymist scarce would, and none but a Chymist could propose them.’

Robert Boyle, The sceptical chymist (London, 1661), Sig S2v.

Sceptical1
Robert Boyle, The sceptical chymist (London, 1661), titlepage 1.

In the introduction we are introduced to five voices: the host, Carneades, is a sceptic, Themistius is an aristotelian, Philoponus is a chymist, Eleutherius is a judge, and, finally, the narrator himself. The dialogue format, undertaken as the author says as a means to ensure ‘Disputes with Civility’, is quite obviously a tropological nod to the great renaissance dialogues, which in turn were a reflection of ancient dialogues. The format allows Boyle to play with his audience: as the introduction makes clear, Boyle is careful to leave his options open by declaring that ‘I meant not to declare my own Opinion of the Arguments propos’d, much lesse of the whole Controversy it self otherwise than as it may, by an attentive Reader be guessed at by some Passages of Carneades: (I say, some Passages, because I make not all that he says, especially in heat of Disputation, mine)…’ As a result, The Sceptical chymist is perhaps Boyle’s most difficult book to decode. Without doubt Carneades is the central figure with others missing in action for lengthy periods of time (Themistius and Philoponus are silent for much of the work and, as Principe (1998) points out, Philoponus is given very little opportunity to defend the ‘Hermetic philosophy’. As Clericuzio (1994) suggests, this may be a result of the hasty publication of the text.

Worth’s copy of the first edition of The Sceptical Chymist has two title pages: the first (above), draws attention to what appears to be an attack on ‘the spagryrist’s principles … proposed and defended by the generality of Alchymists’, while the second (below)  narrows the focus to ‘the experiments whereby vulgar Spagyrists are wont to Endeavour to Evince their Salt, Sulphur and Mercury to be the True Principle of Things’. Exactly who and what Boyle was attacking has been a matter of debate for some time. Earlier writers took the text (and first titlepage) at face value, insisting that The Sceptical chymist marked a watershed between ‘alchemy’ and ‘chemistry’ but more recently Principe (1998) has rightly challenged this as an oversimplication of what Boyle was attempting to do. As Boyle says himself in his introduction to the work: ‘I distinguish betwixt those Chymists that are either Cheats, or but Laborants, and the true Adepti’.

Sceptical2
Robert Boyle, The sceptical chymist (London, 1661), titlepage 2.

But who were the ‘true Adepti’? As Newman and Principe argue (1998b and 2006), there is no conflict in Boyle’s texts between the terms ‘alchemy’ and chymistry’. We are not being presented with a castigation of out-dated ‘alchemists’ versus modern ‘chemists’ but with a call for a chymistry which would be based on experiment rather than on un-verified theory. The use of the word ‘Adept’ is deliberate here. As Principe (1998) suggests, ‘Boyle does not direct the Sceptical Chymist against ‘alchemical adepts’ but rather calls them to be his teachers’. Hunter reminds us (1990), that Boyle displayed interest in one of the core areas of alchemical research, the transmutation into metals, throughout this career and indeed was the author of a dialogue on ‘the Generation and Transmutation of Metals’, a work dating from the 1670s and therefore well after his publication of The Sceptical Chymist. Even his famed corpuscularian  philosophy, outlined in The Sceptical Chymist, owed much to the alchemical corpuscular theory of the Summa perfectionis of ‘Geber’, and Daniel Sennert at Wittenberg (see Newman (1996)).

But if Boyle wasn’t attacking ‘alchemy’ per se, who and what was he attacking in The Sceptical Chymist? The second titlepage makes clear who were the principal targets: paracelsians sympathizers whose ‘hypostatic principles’ refer to the tria prima of salt, sulphur and mercury. Along the way Boyle also castigates writers who delight in confusing the reader with their arcane terminology, arguing that what is needed is a clear exposition of experiments and terms. Principe (1998) suggests that Chymical textbook writers likewise come in for sustained attack for veering too far in the opposite direction: their narrow focus on practical chemistry omits any attempt at a creation of a ‘philosophical status for chymistry’.

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Boyle portrait
Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

‘And Lastly, Carneades hopes, he shall doe the Ingenious this Piece of service, that by having Thus drawn the Chymists Doctrine out of their Dark and Smokie Laboratories, and both brought it into the open light, and shewn the weakness of their Proofs, that have hitherto been wont to be brought for it, either Judicious men shall henceforth be allowed calmly and after due information to disbelieve it, or those abler Chymists, that are zealous for the reputation of it, will be oblig’d to speak plainer then hitherto has been done, and maintain it by better Experiments and Arguments then Those Carneades hath examin’d: so That he hopes, the Curious will one Way or other Derive either satisfaction or instruction from his endeavours.’

  Robert Boyle, The sceptical chymist (London, 1661), Sig A5r-v.

 

Sources

Boas, Marie, ‘An Early Version of Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist’, Isis 45, no.2, 153-68.

Clericuzio, Antonio (1993), ‘From van Helmont to Boyle. A Study of the Transmission of Helmontian Chemical and Medical Theories in Seventeenth-Century England’, The British Journal for the History of Science 26, no. 3, 303-334.

Clericuzio, Antonio (1994), ‘Carneades and the chemists: a study of The Sceptical Chymist and its impact on seventeenth-century chemistry’, in Michael Hunter (ed.) Robert Boyle Recosidered (Cambridge), pp 79-90.

Hirai, Hiro and Yoshimoto, Hideyuki (2005), ‘Anatomizing the Sceptical Chymist: Robert Boyle and the Secret of His Early Sources on the Growth of Metals’, Early Science and Medicine 10, no. 4, 453-77.

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