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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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EPILOGUE

If the chemical philosophy seemed a plausible alter-
native to the work of the mechanical philosophers in
the middle decades of the seventeenth century, this
alternative did not remain a viable one for long. The
impressive results of the mechanists—culminating in


033

the Principia mathematica of Isaac Newton
(1687)—stamped on “respectable” natural philosophy
the mathematical abstraction of the new physics. And
yet, this is not to say that alchemical thought died after
a final flowering in the sixteenth and the seventeenth
centuries. The collection of manuscripts at King's Col-
lege, Cambridge leaves little doubt that Isaac Newton
was passionately concerned with the traditional prob-
lems of transmutation. Furthermore, recent research
indicates that Newton's alchemical speculations may
have been instrumental in the crystallization of some
of his more acceptable concepts of physics. Similarly,
Robert Boyle was influenced by alchemical thought.
He published on the degradation of silver and his
theoretical views were strongly influenced by his early
reading of van Helmont. However, it is possible to go
beyond these examples. Alchemical works were written
by the important practical chemist, Johann Rudolf
Glauber and the medical chemistry of the Renaissance
alchemists found a new proponent in the revision of
Franciscus Sylvius de la Böe whose work went through
numerous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century edi-
tions. In like manner many elements of Paracelsian
chemistry were retained in somewhat altered form in
the texts of the eighteenth-century phlogiston chemists.
At the same time the German revival of alchemy and
Rosicrucianism stimulated a new interest in earlier
interpretations of a vitalistic and mystically oriented
universe. The impact of this on the growth of the
nineteenth-century Naturphilosophie has yet to be as-
sessed.

Many characteristic themes of alchemical thought
and style are present in the earliest texts that have
survived. Both the secrecy and the practical recipes
of the metallic craft tradition are evident in the works
of the late Hellenistic authors dating from the late third
and the fourth centuries A.D. The allegorical and sym-
bolical style of later alchemical works is also present
here, and this is a reflection of the mystical tenor of
the current philosophies and religions of the late Em-
pire. The medical theme is absent in the Greek tradi-
tion and this seems to have been derived from Eastern
sources. First found in Chinese alchemical works em-
phasizing the lengthening of life and the search for
immortality, medical alchemy was integrated first into
Islamic and then into Western alchemy and medicine.

There is little doubt that alchemy, understood in its
broadest sense as a chemical key to nature, played a
significant role in the development of the Scientific
Revolution. The claim that this mystical science should
replace the Aristotelianism and Galenism of the schools
was looked on with dismay by early seventeenth-
century mechanists who were forced to clarify their
own views in their attacks on authors such as Paracelsus
and Robert Fludd. At the same time, however, the
chemical and alchemical call for a new science based
on new observations in nature was important in a
period that witnessed an ever-lessening adherence to
scholastic authority. Finally, the Paracelsian and iatro-
chemical adoption of the primary goal of the medical
alchemy of the Middle Ages resulted in the permanent
acceptance of chemistry as a legitimate tool of the
physician and the pharmacist.