Jan Baptist van Helmont was perhaps the only successor to the medical reformer Paracelsus who developed a sufficiently distinct iatrochemistry to be remembered in his own right. The designation ‘Helmontian’ is almost as common as ‘Paracelsian’ among historians of early modern science and medicine. For a while, mostly in the second half of the seventeenth century, Van Helmont was recognised as an important thinker, and he engaged the attention of a number of prominent contemporaries. In spite of this historical importance, however, he has not attracted detailed scholarly attention. Although mentioned frequently in passing, or even at greater length, in secondary works on the history of early modern natural philosophy, chemistry and medicine, Van Helmont has only once received book-length treatment in English, prior to the appearance of this new monograph by Georgiana D. Hedesan. Accordingly, this second book on Van Helmont will henceforth be an obvious starting point for all those seeking to understand the baffling complexities of this Flemish iatrochemist. Divided into two parts, the first, ‘Van Helmont in Context’, is the most useful. Here the reader is provided with a sketch of the historical background to Van Helmont’s work in medical alchemy, including discussions of Paracelsus, and some of his leading followers: Petrus Severinus, Joseph Du Chesne and Oswald Croll. This is followed by as full a biography of Van Helmont as is possible. It concludes with a very useful account of the nature of Van Helmont’s major work, the Ortus medicina, which is revealed here to be a collection of unfinished, or poorly developed, works compiled after his death by his son from highly disordered papers. This in itself helps to explain the frustratingly incoherent nature of Van Helmont’s work. Although acknowledging that a proper edition of his manuscript remains ‘would have been a huge task’, Hedesan does not consider the distinct possibility that making sense of his papers would have been an impossible undertaking for the principal reason that they do not make any sense. In spite of a historically fleeting reputation as a great thinker, Van Helmont seems to have been one of those, like Giordano Bruno or Paracelsus, whose reputations are not based on the undeniable power and fruitfulness of their ideas, and their revelatory insights, but on a complex nexus of accidental historical factors. This comes across all too clearly—in spite of Hedesan’s claim that Van Helmont’s philosophy can be seen ‘as a coherent worldview, impaired only by its mildly sometimes confusing presentation in the Ortus medicinae’ (p. 199)—in the second part of this book. Seeking to present ‘The Principles of Van Helmont’s “Christian Philosophy”’ in chapters on God, Nature, Man and ‘Applied Philosophy: Alchemy and Medicine’, this part only succeeds in showing that Van Helmont’s thought was anything but coherent. Part of the problem here is that Hedesan seems to have taken the stricture (one might almost say the shibboleth) against whiggism, or presentism, among professional historians of science to mean that any critical assessment of a past thinker is inappropriate. Historians of science are right to reject an approach which, for example, applauds Galileo for his discovery of the law of free fall (which is still held to be scientifically correct), while passing in silence over his theory of the tides (which was an embarrassment then and now). But this does not mean we have to discuss the law of free fall and the theory of the tides in the same neutral terms—the historian of science should not simply be concerned with reportage, rather than critical engagement. Hedesan is so far astray here that she even accuses Walter Pagel, author of the only previous book-length treatment of Van Helmont (Joan Baptista van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine, 1982), of presentism and an ‘overall intention … to emphasise Van Helmont’s contribution to modern medicine and science’ (p. xi). In fact, Pagel was almost a lone voice, when the history of science first emerged as a professional sub-discipline, in insisting upon understanding early ‘scientists’ in their own terms. He even responded to presentist critics of his approach in a short article called ‘A Vindication of “Rubbish”’ (1945, reprinted in his Religion and Neoplatonism in Renaissance Medicine, 1985). It seems that Hedesan has mistaken Pagel’s often critical assessment of Van Helmont as presentism—but he never took Van Helmont to task for not being modern, only for not being logical, consistent or comprehensible. Hedesan’s determination to deal with Van Helmont on his own terms means that she summarises for us what he says about the multiplicity of factors he discerned at work in nature: blas, gas, spirit, seeds, ferments, odours, the Archeus, vital or formal lights, magnale and more besides. She offers the reader no help, however, in understanding just how these all fit together, assuming they do (which seems doubtful). Nor does she reassure the reader that each of these is held to perform distinct and necessary functions and are, therefore, all defined by nature, and are not merely invoked to solve a problem of Van Helmont’s own making. Many contradictions are passed over unnoticed. We are told that matter is passive (p. 75), but that self-love is ‘natural in matter’ (p. 87). Van Helmont rejected the mutability of the elements (p. 91), but he believed ‘water can become earth’ (p. 91), and that fire can transform matter (p. 100). Seeds are said to be incorporeal on page 106 and corporeal on page 108. There are countless examples like this, and if Hedesan notices them she does so only to dismiss them (e.g. ‘This may seem an inconsistency, but it is not necessarily so…’, p. 101). In the end, then, Hedesan’s book, in spite of its favourable intentions towards its subject, simply serves to reveal that Van Helmont’s philosophy was bafflingly over-complicated and fundamentally incoherent. If Robert Boyle, John Locke, Isaac Newton and others interested in the possibilities of alchemy looked to Van Helmont, they were not taken in for long. A more enlightening book would have considered why an inadequate thinker such as Van Helmont made such an impact at a time when really ground-breaking thinkers, from Descartes to Newton, were changing our understanding of the natural world. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 3, 2018
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