Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

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

Becher, Johann Joachim

  • Amadeo MuraseEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_485-1

Related Topics

Chymistry (alchemy/chemistry) Iatrochemistry Lavoisier, Antoine-Laurent Mercantilism Paracelsus and Paracelsianism Phlogiston theory Stahl, Georg Ernst Zincke, Georg Heinrich 


Best known for his influences on the theory of phlogiston, Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682) was a seventeenth-century polymath whose works embraced diverse fields such as medicine, chemistry, philology, pedagogy, economical politics, ethics, and theology (Hassinger 1951; Debus 1970; Haltung 2001; Smith 2008). In service to German territorial princes impoverished by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), Becher pursued empirical study of nature and its practical application in favor of the state economy. His mercantilist politics and activities represented a court culture of that age where natural philosophy – outside of academic institutions – found shelter under the princely patronage, serving its practical and commercial objectives (Frühsorge and Strasser 1993; Smith 1994, 2000).


The son of a Lutheran pastor in Speyer, Becher had little formal education in his formative years. After wandering in Europe to acquire mechanical and chemical expertise, followed by conversion to Roman Catholicism, he was appointed in 1660 to a court physician and mathematician by the Archbishop and Elector Johann Philipp von Schönborn (1605–1673) in Mainz. After receiving a doctorate of medicine at the local faculty in 1661, he succeeded the professorship from Ludwig von Hörnigk (1600–1667) in 1663, whose daughter, Maria Veronika, Becher had married in 1662. During the Mainz period, his early works were published, including his metallurgical one, Naturkündingung der Metallen (Becher 1661b), and the tract on the universal language, Character pro Notitia Linguarum Universali (Becher 1661a). His interests in alchemical medicine (iatrochemistry) appeared in his Parnassus Medicinalis Illustratis (Becher 1662).

As early as in 1664, he left Mainz. After serving briefly in Mannheim, Becher arrived in Munich to serve the Bavarian Elector Ferdinand Maria (1636–1679) as his medicus et mathematicus until 1670. One of his most influential works in natural philosophy, Actorum Laboratorii Chymici Monacensis, seu Physicae subterraneae, was devoted to the elector who provided him with one of the most distinguished laboratories in Europe (Becher 1669). In his Methodus didactica, Becher appeared as reformer of pedagogy, calling for civil education on behalf of the absolute sovereign (Becher 1668a). His Politischer Discurs offers his mercantilist ideas, expounding an ideal society where the “merchant-manufacturer“(Verläger) should play a central role for the absolute monarchy (Becher 1668b; Teich 1990).

Eager to realize his mercantilist projects, Becher was engaged in developing domestic manufacturing (silk) and foreign trade in his Munich years. Although his ambitious project of organizing a colonial trade in South America remained unrealized, Becher was successful in drawing attention from the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Leopold I (1640–1705), in Vienna. There he had established as early as in 1666 a collegium commercium, a body for managing commerce and trades in the Habsburg territories. From 1670, as Kommerzienrat (commercial councilor) and alchemical adviser to the emperor (Smith 1990), Becher endeavored to found the Kunst- und Werckhauß (art- and workhouse): his project on a manufactory equipped with chemical laboratory, in which commercial, educational, and research activities should be combined, remained incomplete because of the lack of financial sustenance (Teich 1988). After a series of failures in trade politics, Becher left Vienna in 1677.

Through Mecklenburg-Güstrow and Holland, Becher finally found in 1680 his last foothold in England. He was involved in a survey on mines in Cornwall and tried to enter the Royal Academy in vain. Becher died in London in 1682. His lifelong activities and speculations were summarized in his late works such as his Chymischer Glücks-Hafen, a collection of alchemical recipes and plans (Becher 1682a), as well as Närrische Weißheit und Weise Narrheit, an inventory of his inventions and projects (Becher 1682b). His epistemological speculations and utopian ideas resulted in his Psychosophia (Becher 1678), while some of his alchemical treatises were published posthumously in Tripus Hermeticus Fatidicus (Becher 1689).


Becher’s active and inventive life and character found admirers in later ages (Bucher 1722). He exerted historical impacts especially on two disciplines: economy and chemistry. After it was republished by the German cameralist Georg Heinrich Zincke (1692–1769) in 1754, his Politischer Discurs was renowned as essential literature in the Kameralwissenschaft (cameral science) of the eighteenth century, establishing Becher’s profile as an early modern exponent of mercantilism (Steinhüser 1931; Dittrich 1974; Brückner 1977).

Meanwhile his name was also settled in the history of chemistry. In 1703 the medical professor in Halle, Georg Ernst Stahl (1660–1734), republished Becher’s Physica Subterranea by adding his own treatise Specimen Beccherianum (Becher 1703). Drawing on Becher’s speculation of three earths (terra lapidea, terra fluida, and terra pinguis), which had been derived from the matter theory (tria prima) of Paracelsus (1493/1494–1541), Stahl interpreted Becher’s notion of terra pinguis (fatty earth) into an element essential for combustion, named phlogiston (Partington 1961; Meinel 1983; Clericuzio 2000). As this theoretical construct became influential through the century, Becher became renowned as an original contributor to the phlogiston theory, which later, however, gave way to the oxygen theory developed by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794).



Primary Literature

  1. Becher JJ (1661a) Character pro Notitia Linguarum Universali. Johann W Ammon & Wilhelm Serlin, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  2. Becher JJ (1661b) Natur=Kündingung der Metallen. Johan W Ammon and Wilhelm Serlin, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  3. Becher JJ (1662) Parnassus Medicinalis Illustratis, Pars Tertia, Mineralogia. Johann Görlin, UlmGoogle Scholar
  4. Becher JJ (1668a) Methodus didactica. Maria M Schellin, MunichGoogle Scholar
  5. Becher JJ (1668b) Politischer Discurs. Johann D Zunner, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  6. Becher JJ (1669) Actorum Laboratorii Chymici Monacensis, seu Physicae Subterraneae libri duo. Johann D Zunner, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  7. Becher JJ (1678) Psychosophia, das ist Seelen=Weiszheit. Christian Scheippel, GüstrowGoogle Scholar
  8. Becher JJ (1682a) Chymischer Glücks=Hafen Oder Grosse Chymische Concordantz und Collection. Johann G Schiele, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  9. Becher JJ (1682b) Närrische Weißheit und Weise Narrheit. Johann P Zubrodt, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  10. Becher JJ (1689) Tripus Hermeticus Fatidicus, Pandens Oracula Chymica. Johann G Schiele, FrankfurtGoogle Scholar
  11. Becher JJ (1703) Physica Subterranea. Johann L Gleditsch, LeipzigGoogle Scholar

Secondary Literature

  1. Brückner J (1977) Staatswissenschaften, Kameralismus und Naturrecht. C. H. Beck, MunichGoogle Scholar
  2. Bucher UG (1722) Das Muster eines Nützlich=Gelehrten in der Person Herrn Doctor Johann Joachim Bechers. Johann Daniel Sauber, Nuremberg and AltdorfGoogle Scholar
  3. Clericuzio A (2000) Elements, principles and corpuscles: a study of atomism and chemistry in the seventeenth century. Kluwer, DordrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Debus AG (1970) Becher, Johann Joachim. In: Gillispie CC (ed) Dictionary of scientific biography, vol 1. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, pp 548–551Google Scholar
  5. Dittrich E (1974) Die deutschen und österreichischen Kameralisten. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, DarmstadtGoogle Scholar
  6. Frühsorge G, Strasser GF (eds) (1993) Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682). Otto Harrasowitz, WiesbadenGoogle Scholar
  7. Haltung G (2001) Johann Joachim Becher. In: Holzhey H, Schimdt-Biggemann W (eds) Die Philosophie des 17. Jahrhunderts, Bd. 4. Das heilige römische Reich deutscher Nation, Nord- und Ostmitteleuropa. Schwabe & Co AG, Basel, pp 190–199Google Scholar
  8. Hassinger H (1951) Johann Joachim Becher, 1635–1682: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Merkantilismus. Adolf Holzhausen, ViennaGoogle Scholar
  9. Meinel C (1983) Theory or practice? The eighteenth-century debate on the scientific status of chemistry. Ambix 30:121–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Partington JR (1961) A history of chemistry, vol 2. Macmillan, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. Smith PH (1990) Consumption and credit: the place of alchemy in Johann Joachim Becher’s political economy. In: von Martels ZRWM (ed) Alchemy revisited: proceedings of the international conference on the history of alchemy at the University of Groningen, 17–19 April 1989. Brill, Leiden et al, pp 215–221Google Scholar
  12. Smith PH (1994) The business of alchemy: science and culture in the Holy Roman Empire. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  13. Smith PH (2000) Becher, Johann Joachim (1635–1682). In: Applebaum W (ed) Encyclopedia of the scientific revolution from Copernicus to Newton. Garland, New York, pp 77–78Google Scholar
  14. Smith PH (2008) Becher, Johann Joachim. In: Koertge N (ed) New dictionary of scientific biography, vol 1. Charles Scribner’s Sons, Thomson Gale, Detroit, pp 229–232Google Scholar
  15. Steinhüser FA (1931) Johann Joachim Becher und die Einzelwirtschaft. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Einzelwirtschaftslehre und des Kameralismus. Verlag der Hochschulbuchhandlung Krische, NurembergGoogle Scholar
  16. Teich M (1988) Interdisciplinarity in J. J. Becher’s Thought. Hist Eur Ideas 9:145–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Teich M (1990) J. J. Becher and Alchemy. In: von Martels ZRWM (ed) Alchemy revisited: proceedings of the international conference on the history of alchemy at the University of Groningen, 17–19 April 1989. Brill, Leiden et al, pp 222–228Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.European-American Culture DepartmentSeigakuin UniversitySaitamaJapan

Section editors and affiliations

  • Hiro Hirai
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for the History of Philosophy and ScienceRadboud Universiteit NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands