‘Whom Priest Mercury does firmly bind’ – Newton and Alchemical Secrecy

It won’t come as a surprise for those who’ve listened to my talks at Imperial College in December last year (see the previous post for a link to the recording) and Leeds earlier this month, but I have of late become very intrigued by the connections between Newton’s alchemy and his reluctance to publish. I’m currently working on a paper exploring this relation in more depth; in this blog post I want to shed some light on Newton’s alchemical practices and his attitude towards the dispersal of alchemical knowledge.

Alchemy as such was and has always been a rather private affair, with the alchemist’s laboratory as the locus where theory meets experiment. Both the study of alchemical theory, with its cryptic and emblematic language, and, once deciphered, the performance of the related experiments, required patience, discipline and perseverance. From the many draft manuscripts and notes Newton left on alchemy (see The Chymistry of Isaac Newton) we know he spent much time and effort decoding the mystery language of many an obscure alchemical tract.

For instance, take the following excerpt from a manuscript that bears the heading
Verses at the end of B. Valentines mystery of the Microcosm:

Basil Valentine
Basil Valentine

“Bright glorious king of all this world, o Sun,
Whose progeny’s upholder is the Moon,
Both whom Priest Mercury does firmly bind,
Unles Dame Venus favour you do find,
Who for her spous Heroic Mars hath ta’ne.
Without her aid what ere you do’s in vain.
Jove’s grace neglect not. Saturn old & grey,
In various hews will them himself display
From black to white from white again to red
Mounting on stilts he’el walk till he be dead.
And streight returning into life again
Henceforth in quiet rest he shall remain…”

… which is actually an alchemical recipe, only to be understood by the initiates.

Humphrey Newton (not related) served for a number of years as Newton’s amanuensis at Trinity College, where the latter had an alchemical laboratory. In a letter to John Conduitt, written shortly after Newton’s death, Humphrey writes:

“About 6 weeks at Spring & 6 at the ffall the fire in the Elaboratory scarcely went out, which was well furnished with chymical Materials, as Bodyes, Receivers, ffends, Crucibles &c, which was made very little use of, the Crucibles excepted, in which he {fused} his Metals: He would sometimes, thô very seldom,) look into an old mouldy Book, which lay in his Elaboratory, I think it was titled, – Agricola de Metallis, The transmuting of Metals, being his Chief Design, for which Purpose Antimony was a great Ingredient.”

The book he is referring to is almost certainly book XII of De re metallica by the German physician, mineralogist and mining expert Georgius Acricola aka Georg Bauer (1494-1555), which was in Newton’s library and is an early chemistry book. Though it treats techniques that were also employed by alchemists, like the liquefaction of metals, it’s not about ”the transmuting of Metals” as Humphrey suspected. He may however be forgiven for not understanding what Newton was up to, for although employing his amanuensis in the often laborious practice, Newton did not discuss alchemical matters freely:

“..he siting up one Night, as I did another till he had finished his Chymical Experiments, in the Performances of which he was the most accurate, strict, exact: What his Aim might be, I was not able to penetrate into but his Paine, his Diligence at those sett times, made me think, he aim’d at somthing beyond the Reach of humane Art & Industry.”

Nor did he disclose to Humphrey whether the results of his experiments were in any way satisfactory: “Nothing extraordinary, as I can Remember, happen’d in making his Experiments, which if there did, He was of so sedate & even Temper, that I could not in the least discern it,” but he noted that Newton enjoyed it all the same, “employ[ing] himself in [his Elaboratory], with a great deal of satisfaction & Delight.”

It’s evident that Newton took this careful attitude towards alchemical knowledge very serious. In a letter written in 1686 to Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, Newton forcefully criticizes fellow natural philosopher and alchemist Robert Boyle for the apparent public disclosure of alchemical practises:

“But yet because the way by wch [Mercury] may be so impregnated, has been thought fit to be concealed by others that have known it, & therefore may possibly be an inlet to something more noble, not to be communicated wthout immense damage to ye world, therefore I question not but that ye great wisdom of ye noble Authour will sway him to high silence till he shall be resolved of what consequence ye thing may be either by his own experience, or ye judgmt of some other that througly understands what he speaks about, that is of a true Hermetic Philosopher, … there being other things beside ye transmutation of metalls … wch none but they understand.”

Lawrence Principe and William Newman, two of the world’s leading scholars in the history of alchemy in general and Newton’s alchemy in particular, have argued that Newton’s interest in alchemy was non-spiritual: he was solely interested in the chemical side of alchemy. For fear of sounding Whiggish, this attitude fits the Newton we have come to know in the past decades. His spirituality was of a profound Christian nature, albeit heterodox, without any traces of mysticism. So then, what sort of “immense damage to the world” did Newton envisage?

If only we knew…

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