Monday, March 28, 2011

Calder on John Dee's alchemical language

some side lights on Dee's more strictly chemical theories are provided by his copy of Pantheus' Voarchadumia, a work he commends to the emperor in the Prefactory letter to the Monas, and of which later, the angels, through the mouth of Kelly expressed their high approval (199). This little work attacks the methods of tinting, etc., usually employed by the alchemists as "sophistic," for they leave the basic substance of the materials they are applied to unchanged (200). It sets out to explore the principles of chemistry from a more fundamental point of view. In order to do this it employs an extensive artificial vocabulary which has been constructed after tha manner of word building recommended in the Cratylus, Pantheus apologising for the necessity of this, says the justification for it will be apparent to the intelligent reader "Cui (sane) veritati aptissimo astipulatur illa peripateticorum Principia doctrina edocentis (ingenere relationes) oportere aliquando pro explicandis rerum proprietatibus nomina cofingere."(201) The chief instrument employed throughout is the Cabalah - an examination of the construction and numerical values of the Hebrew characters revealed by God to Moses (202), and an analysis of Hebrew words and phrases made after this fashion. At the same time it aims at being a practical handbook and has many full-page illustrations of laboratory equipment and machines for use in the Work, showing complex arrangements of gears, rollers, and presses, with instructions for their use. Dee has interleaved his copy with manuscript, containing comment often fuller than the text, sometimes merely extracts from it. Going back beyond the hypostatised qualities of moist, dry, heat and cold, and the conventional four elements, Dee interprets these as affections of matter resulting from its organisation, and seems to approach a corpuscularian point of view, as quantitative indivisibility seems the one characteristic he allows to the concept of Element declaring "Elementa minima particula corporis est."(203) Discussing "corruption" as produced by alchemical processes he declares it is not of matter, for that is indestructible, in itself, by natural or artificial powers, but of the substantial form which is a result of the proportion and arrangement of "elements" - "Sed Essentia et forma qua ex mixtione susceperant bene pentus annihilatur" (a statement which conforms with the long directios he gives for arithmetically determining "the newe Forme resulting" when compounding a medicine when the exact proportions and the specific qualities quantitatively represented - of the ingredients are known, in the Preface (204)); a whole, Dee continues, is an integration of parts, a house may be taken to pieces, in which case the "house" is destroyed but the wood and stone from which it was built remain. He interprets various natural processes on this model. Water in a vessel stood upon a fire will evaporate. Has not, he asks, the fire destroyed the moistness so that nothing remains? and answers that the water has taken on another form, and is now steam - it has assumed the form of air, which is generated by heat and dampness, as a consequence of rarefaction. Thus, he says, clouds ascend by virtue of fire against "Nature," since water is heavier than air in its normal "form"; "et cum venit ad locu perpetui frigorus, in quo frigidatas superat caliditate tunc Nubes converitur in aqua; virtute sua frigidatus inspissantias" and rain results (205). (His treatment of the four qualities as effects of varieties of motion with a body is reminiscent of Urac's theories previously noted.) He attempts to explain standard alchemical processes such as putrefaction interms of the rearrangement of parts that is taking place internally to the substance. As far as possible he employs numbers in his descriptions, but while his notes have many observations and calculations, of proportions by weight and measure of the possible constitution of various substances, he, like the text, derives most of this data from Cabalistic exercises; thus (206) he writes "Primu ergo principium naturale, est materia, seu causa materilis terrae aquae, Ignia et aeris, sub Nutu Dei, vel Marthek: quod graece neusi theu dicitur, et Hebraici rec on Heloim positio in literis et numeris: notatis per Linea perpendiculario; ut infra ac divisis ot aequales et inequales pertes tali videlicet modo." There follow tables which set out Nuta Dei, and Marthek, in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, turn them into numbers, and combine these in turn, in various manners, and apply the totals to "Putrefactic," "Generatio," "Alteratus" etc.(207)

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