Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe

Seeds (semina) in Early Modern Natural Philosophy

  • Hiro HiraiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_484-1

Related Topics

Scientific 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).

Major Trends

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).



Primary Literature

  1. Croll O (1611) Basilica chymica. Johannes Hartmann, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  2. Du Chesne J (1604) Ad veritatem hermeticae medicinae. Abraham Saugrain, ParisGoogle Scholar
  3. Fernel J (2005) Jean Fernel’s on the hidden causes of things: forms, souls, and occult diseases in Renaissance medicine. Brill, LeidenGoogle Scholar
  4. Ficino M (2001–2006) Platonic theology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  5. Gassendi P (1658) Syntagma philosophicum. Laurent Anisson, LyonGoogle Scholar
  6. Paracelsus (1922–1933) Sämtliche Werke, Abteilung 1. Oldenbourg, Munich/Berlin.Google Scholar
  7. Severinus P (1571) Idea medicinae philosophicae. Sixtus Henricpetri, BaselGoogle Scholar
  8. Van Helmont JB (1648) Ortus medicinae. Ludovic Elzevier, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar

Secondary Literature

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  8. 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
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  14. 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

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Science and SocietyColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Hiro Hirai
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Science and SocietyColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA