In Renaissance and early modern “chymistry” (alchemy/chemistry) and biomedical sciences, ideas derived from “seeds” (semina) were frequently used: “seeds of things” (semina rerum), “seeds of reasons” (semina rationum), “seminal reasons” (rationes seminales), “seminary” (seminarium), and “seminal principle” (principium seminale). These notions can be grouped together under the name of the “concept of seeds.” Widely diffused under the authority of the “Platonists,” this concept aimed to explain the formation and organization of natural bodies and even the origin of their forms in matter. It first took shape in the cosmological metaphysics of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and then was developed by physician philosophers such as Jean Fernel (1497–1558), Paracelsus (1593/1594–1541), and Petrus Severinus (1540/1542–1602) during the sixteenth century. It was finally reinterpreted in a corpuscular perspective, culminating in the notion of “molecule” (molecula) as the “seeds of things” (semina rerum) by French atomist Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). The concept of seeds can be regarded as a missing link in the chain which bridged between the medieval scholastic doctrine of substantial forms and the mechanistic corpuscular theories of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Closely connected to Renaissance chymical philosophy, it played a significant role in the rise of early modern science.
KeywordsSubstantial Form Natural Body Favorite Expression Natural Thing Late Seventeenth
Innovative and Original Aspects
In his philosophical works, Marsilio Ficino adopted various terms derived from the seed so as to designate the formative cause in the sensible world: “seeds of reasons” (semina rationum), “seminal reasons” (rationes seminales), “seminary” (seminarium), and “seminary reason of the world” (ratio seminaria mundi).
Following Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Proclus, Ficino elaborated the theory of hypostatical substances in his interpretation of Plato’s works (Allen 1982). According to the version developed in his Commentary on Plato’s Symposium (written before 1482), the divine “mind” (mens) derives from the good, which is the preeminent being of God, in the concentric metaphysical universe. It is followed by the “soul” (anima) of the universe, then “nature” (natura), and finally “matter” (materia). Nature is an intermediate hierarchy between the soul and matter. Ficino attributes “divine species” (species divinae) to each of these five hypostases: “ideas” (ideae) to the mind, “reasons” (rationes) to the soul, “seeds” (semina) to nature, and “forms” (formae) to matter. Ideas turn around God and connect Him with the mind. Reasons gravitate around the mind and communicate it with the World-Soul. Seeds revolve around the soul and link it to nature. Finally forms turn around nature and make the bridge between nature and matter. Forms in matter are the ultimate vestiges of the divine species, all of which are incorporeal and spiritual. Thus seeds share the same source with superior species (ideas and reasons) and inferior species (forms). Beauty, regarded as the ray emanating from God, embellishes the divine mind with ideas, fills the soul with reasons, impregnates nature with seeds, and dresses matter with forms (Ficino 1956).
Ficino further identified nature with the “power of generation” (potentia generandi). He also qualified as “seminary” or “seedbed” (seminarium) the vivifying power, which is diffused in the whole world. Comparing the emanation of these hypostases with the sun’s rays, Ficino connected nature with “heat” (calor), which is responsible for the generation of bodies. Generation is linked to a biological notion of fertility. This fecundity is introduced into nature through the invisible ray of the World-Soul, which conveys the spiritual seeds. Ficino thus incorporated the concept of seeds as the integral part of his metaphysical universe. For him, these invisible and spiritual seeds are the vestiges of forms, which were introduced in formless matter so as to generate diverse beings in the sensible world (Ficino 1956).
In his masterpiece, Platonic Theology (Theologia Platonica) (Florence 1482), Ficino even went further by combining the Thomistic doctrine of substantial forms to his concept of seeds. According to him, nature encloses the invisible and spiritual seeds, endowed with the power to extract the substantial forms of the elements from the depth of matter. These seeds are superior to the elemental forms, and under their control, the elemental qualities bring about properties such as colors in natural things. Ficino’s seeds were, therefore, able to make Aristotelian physics subordinate to Platonic metaphysics and are not identical with the seminal reason principles of the ancients (Stoics, Neoplatonists, and Augustine) (Ficino 2001; Hirai 2002).
Jean Fernel of Paris was the first academic physician to introduce Ficino’s teachings into the foundation of learned medicine. In his major philosophical dialogue, On the Hidden Causes of Things (De abditis rerum causis) (Paris 1548), calling upon the belief in the “ancient theology” (prisca theologia), Fernel established the basis of his natural and medical philosophy through the harmonization of ancients such as Plato and Aristotle. In doing so, he adopted Ficino’s concept of seeds. According to Fernel, the seeds of the forms of natural things were sown by God at the moment of the creation of the world. Now these seeds fall from heaven, being carried by the World-Spirit diffused everywhere in the universe. Fernel connected Ficino’s theory of the universal spirit with the Biblical idea of the spirit (breath) sent from God’s mouth as is seen in Psalm 32 (33). Fernel thus tried to place his concept of seeds in a Christian perspective (Fernel 2005).
Parallel to Fernel, Paracelsus also contributed much to the elaboration of the concept of seeds. Although he might initially have been inspired by the ideas of Ficino, he radically Christianized its contents. According to him, God sowed the archetypal word “fiat” as the primordial seed of the universe in the creation of the world. This divine seed enclosed within itself the seeds of the four elements (Paracelsus 1922-1933, XIII: 9, 12–13). Paracelsus did not see the elements as the material causes of natural bodies but as their cosmological receptacles, called “mothers” (müter). These matrices contain all natural beings under the form of particular seeds and foster them until their maturation as “fruits” (früchte) (Paracelsus III: 32–33). Thus all creatures are born from their own spiritual seeds. Each being in nature lives its biological time and grows toward its definite end according to the “predestination” (praedestinatio) which was determined by God. At the time of “harvest,” natural things are consumed by human beings as food or medicine (Paracelsus III: 34–35).
In Paracelsus, universal nature is depicted as the divine Sower’s enormous bag, which contains the spiritual seeds of all natural beings mixed together. Each seed encloses the three principles (salt, sulfur, and mercury). These are not the natural substances bearing these names but the symbolical denominations based on their functions. They should not be understood as the material causes from an Aristotelian perspective. These three principles in the spiritual seed determine the development (life) of each individual through the intervention of administrator “workers,” conceived in the guise of internal alchemists. Paracelsus referred to them as “vulcanus” when they are in nature and as “archeus” when inside the human body (Paracelsus III: 35 and XI: 187–88).
Under the influence of Ficino, Fernel, and Paracelsus, Petrus Severinus established his unique system, which can be qualified as the “philosophy of seeds.” Indeed the concept of seeds occupied the central place of his natural and medical philosophy. In his masterpiece, The Idea of Philosophical Medicine (Idea Medicinae Philosophicae), he built a synthesis upon the prisca theologia belief so as to defend the teachings of Paracelsus. Among his immediate forerunners besides Paracelsus, he owed much to Fernel although he tried to eclipse the Frenchman’s name by that of Paracelsus (Severinus 1571; Shackelford 2004; Hirai 2005).
Severinus’s theory of the four elements largely depends on that of Paracelsus. They are not conceived as the material causes of natural bodies but as the cosmological receptacles of all creatures. According to Severinus, God implanted future fruits under the form of invisible and spiritual seeds in these matrices. The elements foster these seeds in their bosom so as to produce their fruits and nourish them. This process is programed according to a determined delay for each individual. The spiritual seeds assure the presence of life’s vestige everywhere in the world and guarantee the continuity of natural species. They are the source of all kinds of action in nature since they provide all the properties of sensible things. In Severinus’s favorite expression, everything in nature is regulated by the seeds’ tide-like ebb and flow.
Severinus placed the “principles of the bodies” (principia corporum) in the invisible and spiritual seeds. Identified with Paracelsus’s salt, sulfur, and mercury, these principles are subordinated to the seeds’ incorporeal components: “reasons” (rationes), “knowledge” (scientia), and “gifts” (dona). These components regulate the flows of the seeds in the world to produce corporeal bodies in the process of generation with the help of inner instrumental agents. Severinus called these agents the “mechanical spirits” (spiritus mechanici), the invisible and spiritual workers or craftsmen conceived upon the model of Paracelsus’s archeus. They produce individuals thanks to the scientia given to the seeds. According to Severinus, the spirits deprived of scientia are merely sterile vapors, while the mechanical spirits endowed with scientia are fertile and productive. If they have the scientia of the heart, they construct the heart; if they possess the scientia of the brain, they build the brain (Severinus 1571; Hirai 2005).
Severinus’s work was venerated by many physician philosophers of the turn of the century and exerted a considerable impact on the matter theories of the next generations. His fervent followers included Joseph du Chesne (1546–1609), Oswald Croll (ca. 1560–1608), and Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579–1644). Especially under the influence of du Chesne, the concept of seeds became widespread in the early seventeenth century to explain the generation of living beings (animals and plants) and the formation of nonliving things (stones, minerals, and metals) (Hirai 2005; 2010). Heavily influenced by Severinus in his youth, van Helmont long struggled to establish his own system of the seminal principle. Pierre Gassendi also considerably relied on Severinus’s theory for his concept of molecules, identified with the “seeds of things” (semina rerum) (Hirai 2003). These figures, whose perspectives seem to diverge, shared the same source for their own concepts of seeds and their respective matter theories. Other prominent figures such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626) came to know this concept developed in the steam of chymical philosophy. Although Daniel Sennert (1572–1637) himself preferred forms and souls to spiritual seeds, Severinus’s ideas led him to develop the notion of the “seminal principle” (principium seminale), to which the young Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and others were to pay considerable attention in the late seventeenth century (Clericuzio 1990; Anstey 2002; Hirai 2011). 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.
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