Seeds (semina) in Early Modern Natural Philosophy
- 9 Downloads
Related TopicsScientific Revolution Renaissance Platonism Atomism Chemistry Alchemy Matter and Form Matter theories Paracelsianism
The concept of “seeds” (semina) was developed in the stream of Renaissance Platonism and “chymical” (alchemical/chemical) philosophy from the late fifteenth century onward. Along with its related ideas such as “seminal principle” (principium seminale), it became in vogue during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This concept was employed to explain the origin of forms in the complex organization of natural bodies (not only animals and plants but also minerals and metals). It was a missing link between the medieval theory of “substantial form” (forma substantialis) and the modern mechanistic notion of “molecule” (molecula).
The genesis of the early modern concept of seeds owes much to the Florentine Platonist, Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). He elaborated it on the basis of diverse currents of ancient philosophy. In his metaphysical universe, “nature” (natura) was located between the soul and the body of the world and was full of spiritual and invisible “seeds” (semina). These seeds resulted from the “reason-principles” (rationes) residing in the World-Soul. They had the power to give birth to forms in matter. To Ficino these seeds were not completely identical to the seminal reason-principles of the ancients (Stoics, Neoplatonists, or Augustine). Dividing nature into two types, Ficino regarded particular nature as a “seminary power” (virtus seminaria) and universal nature as the great universal “seedbed” (seminarium). Taking the idea as an integral part of Plato’s own philosophy, Ficino’s followers such as the French physician Jean Fernel (1494–1558) of Paris introduced the concept of seeds into the field of natural philosophy and medicine (Fernel 1548) (Ficino 2001–2006; Fernel 2005; Hirai 2002, 2005).
The Paracelsian movement also played an important role in the evolution of the concept. By its radical Christianization, Paracelsus (1493/94–1541) placed it at the core of his natural philosophy and theology. According to him, in the biblical Creation story, the Word of God “Fiat” at the beginning of the world was the primordial seed of everything. This seed enclosed all the particular seeds of creatures. The particular seed was the prime matter, the first stage of development for each natural thing and contained the three principles (Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury). Each individual of natural things was the ultimate matter, the last stage of progress from their particular seed (Paracelsus 1922–1933; Hirai 2005).
The Danish physician, Petrus Severinus (1540/42–1609), was the first to understand the essential point of Paracelsus’s teachings and established a synthesis also using Ficino’s ideas promoted by Fernel. His major work Idea medicinae philosophicae (Basel 1571) was the most important vehicle of the concept of seeds (Severinus 1571). For him invisible and spiritual seeds enclosed the “mechanical spirits” (spiritus mechanici) as inner craftsmen along with the Paracelsian three principles. Severinus regarded the generation of natural things as “seminal flow” from unity to multiplicity, and corruption as “seminal ebb” from multiplicity to unity. This tide-like circular image fascinated a number of influential chymical philosophers (Severinus 1571; Debus 1977; Clericuzio 2000; Shackelford 2004; Hirai 2005).
Severinus’s synthesis exerted a considerable impact on the next generation of physicians and natural philosophers. In the early seventeenth century, French physician Joseph Du Chesne (1546–1609) adopted the concept of seeds at the core of his system in his very influential work For the True Hermetic Medicine (Paris, 1604). In Germany, his friend Oswald Croll (ca. 1560–1608) especially advocated for the ideas of Paracelsus systematized by Severinus in his major work Basilica chymica (Frankfurt, 1609) (Du Chesne 1604; Croll 1611; Debus 1977; Hirai 2005, 2010, 2016).
Although Daniel Sennert (1572–1637), the professor of medicine at the University of Wittenberg, criticized the concept advanced by these chymical philosophers, he integrated it into his notion of “seminal principle” (principium seminale). Following Sennert, a number of natural philosophers and physicians in the seventeenth century, including the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) and Robert Boyle (1627–1691) of the Royal Society, amply discussed the chymical concept of seeds along with the formative plastic principle of nature (Clericuzio 1990; Anstey 2002; Hirai and Yoshimoto 2005; Hirai 2007, 2011, 2015).
The concept of seeds was ultimately the common source of two giants of the Scientific Revolution: the chymical philosopher Jan Baptista Van Helmont (1580–1644) (see “Van Helmont, Jan Baptista”) and the French atomist Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) (see “Gassendi, Pierre”). Heavily influenced by Severinus in his youth, Van Helmont long struggled to establish his own system of the seminal principle. Gassendi also considerably relied on Severinus for his notion of “molecules” (moleculae), identified with the “seeds of things” (semina rerum). Although their perspectives seem to have diverged enormously, these figures actually shared the same source for their own concepts of seeds and their respective matter theories. Thus the concept of seeds bears witness to the lively impacts exerted by chymical philosophy on the emergence of new matter theories during the Scientific Revolution (Van Helmont 1648; Gassendi 1658; Hirai 2003, 2005).
- Croll O (1611) Basilica chymica. Johannes Hartmann, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
- Du Chesne J (1604) Ad veritatem hermeticae medicinae. Abraham Saugrain, ParisGoogle Scholar
- Fernel J (2005) Jean Fernel’s on the hidden causes of things: forms, souls, and occult diseases in Renaissance medicine. Brill, LeidenGoogle Scholar
- Ficino M (2001–2006) Platonic theology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
- Gassendi P (1658) Syntagma philosophicum. Laurent Anisson, LyonGoogle Scholar
- Paracelsus (1922–1933) Sämtliche Werke, Abteilung 1. Oldenbourg, Munich/Berlin.Google Scholar
- Severinus P (1571) Idea medicinae philosophicae. Sixtus Henricpetri, BaselGoogle Scholar
- Van Helmont JB (1648) Ortus medicinae. Ludovic Elzevier, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
- Debus AG (1977) The chemical philosophy. Science History Publications, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Hirai H (2002) Concepts of seeds and nature in the work of Marsilio Ficino. In: Marsilio Ficino: his theology, his philosophy, his legacy. Brill, Leiden, pp 257–284Google Scholar
- Hirai H (2003) Le concept de semence de Pierre Gassendi entre les théories de la matière et les sciences de la vie au XVIIe siècle. Med Secoli 15:205–226Google Scholar
- Hirai H (2005) Le concept de semence dans les théories de la matière à la Renaissance. Brepols, TurnhoutGoogle Scholar
- Hirai H (2007) Athanasius Kircher’s Chymical interpretation of the creation and spontaneous generation. In: Chymists and chymistry: studies in the history of alchemy and early modern chemistry. Science History Publications, Segamore Beach, pp 77–87Google Scholar
- Hirai H (2010) The world-spirit and quintessence in the chymical philosophy of Joseph Du Chesne. In: Chymia: science and nature in medieval and early modern Europe (1450–1750). Cambridge Scholars Press, Cambridge, pp 247–261Google Scholar
- Hirai H (2015) Mysteries of living corpuscles: atomism and the origin of life in Sennert, Gassendi and Kircher. In: Early modern medicine and natural philosophy. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 255–269Google Scholar
- Hirai H (2016) The Word of God and the universal medicine in the chemical philosophy of Oswald Croll. In: Alchemy and Rudolf II. Artefactum, Prague, pp 381–385Google Scholar
- Shackelford J (2004) A philosophical path for Paracelsian medicine: the ideas, intellectual context, and influence of Petrus Severinus, 1540–1602. Museum Tusculanum Press, CopenhagenGoogle Scholar