Reputed to have performed miraculous feats in New England—restoring the hair and teeth to an aged lady, bringing a withered peach tree to fruit—Eirenaeus Philalethes was also rumored to be an adept possessor of the alchemical philosophers’ stone. That the man was merely a mythical creation didn’t diminish his reputation a whit—his writings were spectacularly successful, read by Leibniz, esteemed by Newton and Boyle, voraciously consumed by countless readers. Gehennical Fire is the story of the man behind the myth, George Starkey.
Though virtually unknown today and little noted in history, Starkey was America’s most widely read and celebrated scientist before Benjamin Franklin. Born in Bermuda, he received his A.B. from Harvard in 1646 and four years later emigrated to London, where he quickly gained prominence as a “chymist.” Thanks in large part to the scholarly detective work of William Newman, we now know that this is only a small part of an extraordinary story, that in fact George Starkey led two lives. Not content simply to publish his alchemical works under the name Eirenaeus Philalethes, “A Peaceful Lover of Truth,” Starkey spread elaborate tales about his alter ego, in effect giving him a life of his own.
[An] impressive book… Newman has pulled off two remarkable achievements in a single book—and one of modest size at that. To begin with, he has reconstructed the career of an intellectual adventurer whose talents for investigating the natural world and for promoting his own fame were equally outsized… [Starkey] was not only a medical reformer, he was also one of the most ingenious and prolific of those strange figures, half con man and half high-tech entrepreneur, who were known at the time as projectors… This story of a forgotten career, though told with much learning and occasional wit, forms only one strand in the double helix of Newman’s book. He also seeks to identify the sources and explain the contents of Starkey’s chemical thought and practice. The obstacles to such a project that the historian of alchemy confronts would daunt most scholars… By painstaking and meticulous analysis [Newman] establishes the exact chemical experiments that Starkey had devised, identifying their ingredients in both seventeenth-century and modern terms… The dark language of alchemy emerges as an early form of scientific notation: precise, rigorous, inaccessible to the outsider but clear to the expert. Considered simply as a piece of historical craftsmanship, Newman’s efficient decoding and partial rehabilitation of these rebarbative texts compels admiration… Gehennical Fire deserves to reach a wide public. It helps to revise a revisionist historiography of science which has become something of an orthodoxy in its own right… The boundaries between Aristotelianism and alchemy, establishment science and reform, traditional natural philosophy and the Scientific Revolution emerge from his analysis as permeable, even fluid: territories long described as separate turn out to overlap. Above all, Newman offers powerful evidence that the dark science of alchemy formed part of the high intellectual tradition in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Neither the alchemists’ alembics not their lives will ever look quite the same.
To recover the worldview of alchemists is no easy matter and demands the disciplined use of the historical imagination: [Newman’s] style, confident, spirited and ironic, and his evident knowledge and enthusiasm carry us back into another world… To this hermeneutics, Newman is an excellent guide… Newman shows how studying an obscure and ambiguous figure can bring the science of the period to life. And he shows that alchemy can be studied like more mainstream science, given the effort required to penetrate its language, verbal and visual. Because his remedies were used by Boyle and his writings studied by Boyle, G. W. Leibniz and George Stahl as well as by Newton, Starkey was clearly not an insignificant figure. He makes us think again about the ‘Scientific Revolution.’
Colonial America was not immune to alchemy’s charms. The Harvard physics curriculum introduced George Starkey (1627–65) to the art, and upon immigration to England, he won acclaim as an alchemical savant. There he constructed the mythical personality of Eirenaeus Philalethes, a mysterious American adept to whom he alone had access. His pseudonymous works became clinical classics, admired by Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, and Goethe, making Starkey/Philalethes the most widely read American scientist before Benjamin Franklin. Besides telling a practically unknown tale of American alchemy, this book is now the best history of alchemy in English.
The deep scholarship of this book is presented to the nonexpert reader with exemplary lucidity… It should lead to a rethinking of the role of alchemy in the Scientific Revolution.
The book, which contains a bibliography of the printed works and manuscripts of Starkey, stands out as a major contribution to the understanding of early modern alchemy, as well as a stimulating investigation of seventeenth-century corpuscular theories of matter.
Although the reader little familiar with alchemy will find Newman’s study difficult going in places, there is no second guessing its value to historians of varied intellectual interests. The author has composed a unique and probing study in the history of ideas, a work of definitive merit that will likely remain the standard for decades to come.
This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary topic… Newman discusses the contortions and convolutions of European alchemical theory and practice with a mastery rarely if ever equaled. And he does it with grace and somehow conveys the assurance that the reader can understand it.
Gehennical Fire is not only a well researched study of the life and thought of Starkey, but is also a learned and insightful contribution to the history of early modern alchemy and chemistry.
Newman has written a definitive and impeccably scholarly account of the short but turbulent life of Starkey.
The deep scholarship of this book is presented to the nonexpert reader with exemplary lucidity. Newman steers a middle course between dismissing and romanticizing alchemy; he establishes Starkey’s importance without overinflated claims on Starkey’s behalf… [His] book should lead to a rethinking of the role of alchemy in the scientific revolution—a term that, finally, in my judgment, Newman does well to retain.
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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