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The Sceptical Chymist
The Classic 1661 Text
By Robert Boyle
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
I AM (says Carneades) so unwilling to deny Eleutherius anything, that though before the rest of the company I am resolved to make good the part I have undertaken of a sceptic, yet I shall readily, since you will have it so lay aside for a while the person of an adversary to the peripatetics and chymists; and before I acquaint you with my objections against their opinions, acknowledge to you what may be (whether truly or not) tolerably enough added, in favour of a certain number of principles of mixt bodies, to that grand and known argument from the analysis of compound bodies, which I may possibly hereafter be able to confute.
And that you may the more easily examine and the better judge of what I have to say, I shall cast it into a pretty number of distinct propositions, to which I shall not premise anything; because I take it for granted, that you need not be advertised that much of what I am to deliver, whether for or against a determinate number of ingredients of mixt bodies, may be indifferently applied to the four peripatetic elements, and the three chymical principles, though divers of my objections will more peculiarly belong to these last named, because the chymical hypothesis seeming to be much more countenanced by experience than the other, it will be expedient to insist chiefly upon the disproving of that; especially since most of the arguments that are imployed against it, may, by a little variation, be made to conclude, at least as strongly, against the less plausible, Aristotelian doctrine.
To proceed then to my propositions I shall begin with this, that—
PROPOSITION I.—It seems not absurd to conceive that at the first production of mixt bodies, the universal matter whereof they among other parts of the universe consisted, was actually divided into little particles of several sizes and shapes variously moved.
This (says Carneades) I suppose you will easily enough allow. For besides that which happens in the generation, corruption, nutrition, and wasting of bodies, that which we discover partly by our microscopes of the extream littleness of even the scarce sensible parts of concretes, and partly by the chymical resolutions of mixt bodies, and by divers other operations of spagirical fires upon them, seems sufficiently to manifest their consisting of parts very minute and of differing figures. And that there does also intervene a various local motion of such small bodies, will scarce be denied; whether we chuse to grant the origine or concretions assigned by Epicurus, or that related by Moses. For the first, as you well know, supposes not only all mixt bodies, but all others, to be produced by the various and casual occursions of atomes, moving themselves to and fro by an internal principle in the immense or rather infinite vacuum. And as for the inspired historian, he, informing us that the great and wise Author of things did not immediately create plants, beasts, birds, etc., but produced them out of those portions of the pre-existent, though created, matter, that he calls water and earth, allows us to conceive that the constituent particles whereof these new concretes were to consist, were variously moved in order to their being connected into the bodies they were, by their various coalitions and textures, to compose.
But (continues Carneades) presuming that the first proposition needs not be longer insisted on, I will pass on to the second, and tell you that—
PROPOSITION II.—Neither is it impossible that of these minute particles divers of the smallest and neighbouring ones were here and there associated into minute masses or clusters, and did by their coalitions constitute great store of such little primary concretions or masses as were not easily dissipable into such particles as composed them.
To what may be deduced, in favour of this assertion from the nature of the thing itself, I will add something out of experience, which though I have not known it used to such a purpose, seems to me more fairly to make out that there may be elementary bodies, than the more questionable experiments of peripatetics and chymists prove that there are such. I consider then that gold will mix and be colliquated not only with silver, copper, tin and lead, but with antimony, regulus martis and many other minerals, with which it will compose bodies very differing both from gold, and the other ingredients of the resulting concretes. And the same gold will also by common aqua regis, and (I speak it knowingly) by divers other menstruums, be reduced into a seeming liquor, insomuch that the corpuscles of gold will, with those of the menstruum, pass through cap-paper, and with them also coagulate into a crystalline salt. And I have further tried, that with a small quantity of a certain saline substance I prepared, I can easily enough sublime gold into the form of red crystals of a considerable length; and many other wayes may gold be disguised, and help to constitute bodies of very differing natures both from it and from one another, and nevertheless be afterward reduced to the self-same numerical, yellow, fixt, ponderous, and malleable gold it was before its commixture. Nor is it only the fixedst of metals, but the most fugitive, that I may employ in favour of our proposition: for quicksilver will with divers metals compose an amalgam, with divers menstruums it seems to be turned into a liquor, with aqua fortis it will be brought into either a red or white powder or precipitate, with oil of vitriol into a pale yellow one, with sulphur it will compose a blood-red and volatile cinaber, with some saline bodies it will ascend in form of a salt which will be dissoluble in water; with regulus of antimony and silver I have seen it sublimed into a kinde of crystals, with another mixture I reduced it into a malleable body, into a hard and brittle substance by another: and some there are who affirm, that by proper additaments they can reduce quicksilver into oil, nay into glass, to mention no more. And yet out of all these exotic compounds, we may recover the very same running mercury that was the main ingredient of them, and was so disguised in them. Now the reason (proceeds Carneades) that I have represented these things concerning gold and quicksilver, is, that it may not appear absurd to conceive, that such little primary masses or clusters as our proposition mentions, may remain undissipated, notwithstanding their entering into the composition of various concretions, since the corpuscle of gold and mercury, though they be not primary concretions of the most minute particles of matter, but confessedly mixt bodies, are able to concure plentifully to the composition of several very differing bodies, without losing their own nature or texture, or having their cohesion violated by the divorce of their associated parts or ingredients.
Give me leave to add (says Eleutherius) on this occasion, to what you now observed, that as confidently as some chymists, and other modern innovators in philosophy are wont to object against the peripatetics, that from the mixture of their four elements there could arise but an inconsiderable variety of compound Bodies; yet if the Aristotelians were but half as well versed in the works of nature as they are in the writings of their master, the proposed objection would not so calmly triumph, as for want of experiments they are fain to suffer it to do. For if we assigne to the corpuscles, whereof each element consists, a peculiar size and shape, it may easily enough be manifested, that such differingly figured corpuscles may be mingled in such various proportions, and may be connected so many several ways, that an almost incredible number of variously qualified concretes may be composed of them. Especially since the corpuscles of one element may barely, by being associated among themselves, make up little masses of differing size and figure from their constituent parts; and since also to the strict union of such minute bodies there seems oftentimes nothing requisite, besides the bare contact of a great part of their surfaces. And how great a variety of phænomena the same matter, without the addition of any other, and only several ways disposed or contexed, is able to exhibit, may partly appear by the multitude of differing engins which by the contrivances of skilful mechanilians, and the dexterity of expert workmen, may be made of iron alone. But in our present case being allowed to deduce compound bodies from four very differently qualified sorts of matter, he who shall but consider what you freshly took notice of concerning the new concretes resulting from the mixture of incorporated minerals, will scarce doubt but that the four elements managed by nature's skill may afford a multitude of differing compounds.
I am thus far of your minde (says Carneades) that the Aristotelians might with probability deduce a much greater number of compound bodies from the mixture of their four elements, than according to their present hypothesis they can, if instead of vainly attempting to deduce the variety and proprieties of all mixt bodies from the combinations and temperaments of the four elements, as they are (among them) endowed with the four first qualities, they had endeavoured to do it by the bulk and figure of the smallest parts of those supposed elements. For from these more catholic and fruitful accidents of the elementary matter may spring a great variety of textures, upon whose account a multitude of compound bodies may very much differ from one another. And what I now observe touching the four peripatetic elements, may be also applied, mutatis mutandis (as they speak), to the chymical principles. But (to take notice of that by the by) both the one and the other must, I fear, call in to their assistance something that is not elementary, to excite or regulate the motion of the parts of the matter, and dispose them after the manner requisite to the constitution of particular concretes. For that otherwise they are like to give us but a very imperfect account of the origine of very many mixt bodies, it would, I think, be no hard matter to persuade you, if it would not spend time, and were no digression, to examine, what they are wont to alledge of the origine of the textures andqualitiesof mixt bodies from a certain substantial form, whose origination they leave more obscure than what it is assumed to explicate.
But to proceed to a new proposition.
PROPOSITION III.—I shall not peremptorily deny, that from most of such mixt bodies as partake either of animal or vegetable nature, there may by the help of the fire be actually obtained a determinate number (whether three, four, or five, or fewer or more) of substances, worthy of differing denominations.
Of the experiments that induce me to make this concession, I am like to have occasion enough to mention several in the prosecution of my discourse. And therefore, that I may not hereafter be obliged to trouble you and myself with needless repetitions, I shall now only desire you to take notice of such experiments when they shall be mentioned, and in your thoughts referre them hither.
To these three concessions I have but this fourth to add, that—
PROPOSITION IV.—It may likewise be granted, that those distinct substances, which concretes generally either afford or are made up of, may without very much inconvenience be called the elements or principles of them.
When I said, without very much inconvenience, I had in my thoughts that sober admonition of Galen, Cum dere constat, de verbis non est litigandum. And therefore also I scruple not to say elements or principles, partly because the chymists are wont to call the ingredients of mixt bodies, principles, as the Aristotelians name them elements; I would here exclude neither. And, partly, because it seems doubtful whether the same ingredients may not be called principles: as not being compounded of any more primary bodies: and elements, in regard that all mixt bodies are compounded of them. But I thought it requisite to limit my concession by premising the words very much to the word inconvenience, because that though the inconvenience of calling the distinct substances, mentioned in the proposition elements or principles, be not very great, yet that it is impropriety of speech, and consequently in a matter of this moment not to be altogether overlooked, you will perhaps think, as well as I, by that time you shall have heard the following part of my discourse, by which you will best discern what construction to put upon the former propositions, and how far they may be looked upon as things that I concede as true, etc., how far as things I only represent as specious enough to be fit to be considered.
And now, Eleutherius (continues Carneades), I must resume the person of a sceptic, and as such, propose some part of what may be either disliked, or at least doubted of in the common hypothesis of the chymists; which if I examine with a little the more freedom, I hope I need not desire you (a person to whom I have the happiness of being so well known) to look upon it as something more suitable to the employment whereto the company has, for this meeting, doomed me, than either to my humour or my custom.
Now though I might present you many things against the vulgar chymical opinion of the three principles and the experiments wont to be alleged as demonstrations of it, yet those I shall at present offer you may be conveniently enough comprehended in four capital considerations; touching all which I shall only premise this in general, That since it is not my present task so much to assert an hypothesis of my own, as to give an account wherefore I suspect the truth of that of the chymists, it ought not to be expected that all my objections should be of the most cogent sort, since it is reason enough to doubt of a proposed opinion, that there appears no cogent reason for it.
To come then to the objections themselves; I consider in the first place, that notwithstanding what common chymists have proved or taught, it may reasonably enough be doubted, how far, and in what sense, fire ought to be esteemed the genuine and universal instrument of analysing mixt bodies.
This doubt, you may remember, was formerly mentioned, but so transiently discoursed of, that it will now be fit to insist upon it, and manifest that it was not so inconsiderately proposed as our adversaries then imagined.
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