The Doctrine, Life, and Roman Trial of the Frisian Philosopher Henricus De Veno (1574?-1613) *

By Luthy, Christoph; Spruit, Leen | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Doctrine, Life, and Roman Trial of the Frisian Philosopher Henricus De Veno (1574?-1613) *


Luthy, Christoph, Spruit, Leen, Renaissance Quarterly


INTRODUCTION

Among the key elements that separate the scholastic understanding of nature from that of modern science, our history books routinely single out matter theory for its importance. The difference between the two views of nature lies in this: According to Aristotelian hylemorphism, natural substances are in the last analysis understood as composites of prime matter and of substantial forms, where the latter inhere in the former only transitorily. When, for example, the element water (which is characterized by cold and wet) loses its wetness and becomes instead hot, it simply transmutes into air. Elements as well as all higher substances are thus exclusively defined by their (transient) qualities. By contrast, the atomic and corpuscular models that have been developed from the late sixteenth century onward suggest something very different, namely the existence of immutable physical corpuscles the properties of which remain intact even when they enter into higher-order molecular structures.

Although the hylemorphic and the atomic understanding of matter are diametrically opposed to one another, it would be misleading to assume--as has sometimes been done--that there was a precise moment in the history of early modern science when a paradigm shift from the first model to the second occurred. (1) Three different reasons militate against such an assumption. First, the atomic theory never entirely replaced hylemorphism, some version of which survived in chemistry (and also in natural philosophy) until the end of the nineteenth century. (2) Second, beginning in fifteenth-century Italy there existed some currents within Aristotelianism itself which took chemical mixtures to possess a corpuscular structure and which therefore combined atomic and hylemorphic notions. (3) Finally, early modern atomic and corpuscular modeling was a phenomenon of such heterogeneity that it would be quite implausible to call it a paradigm. Giordano Bruno's ensouled monads, Rene Descartes' (divisible) particles of res extensa, Pierre Gassendi's (indivisible) atoms with their hooks and eyes, and the chemical atoms and corpuscles that were proposed in the period between Daniel Sennert and Robert Boyle have very little in common with one another.

Already Kurd Lasswitz, whose Geschichte der Atomistik of 1890 remains to this day the standard work on the topic, has drawn attention to the heterogeneity of the atomic revival and the motives that lay behind it. One of the figures that most puzzled him was a Dutch author by the name of David Gorlaeus (vulgo David van Goorle), of whose identity Lasswitz was completely in the dark. All he knew were the two posthumously published books by this author, the anti-Aristotelian Exercitationes philosophicae (1620) and the Idea physicae (1651). Both works contain a fully worked-out atomist doctrine, which according to Lasswitz's chronology makes Gorlaeus the earliest professing atomist after Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). What intrigued Lasswitz about Gorlaeus' atomism was that its foundations were metaphysical and quite unlike anything he had found in the writings of either Bruno or such other early modern atomists as Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Daniel Sennert (1572-1636), or Joachim Jungius (1587-1657). Unable to obtain any information about this author, Lasswitz made an appeal to future historians: "A monograph on Gorlaeus and on this important decade would be most desirable." (4)

Such a monograph has recently been published. (5) However, its findings render Gorlaeus (1591-1612) by no means a less mysterious figure, chiefly because it shows that this pioneering atomist was a theology student who died at age twenty-one. These findings obviously implode the distinction drawn by the historian of chemistry J.R. Partington between the philosophical "speculations" of Giordano Bruno and the "scientific" atomism of David Gorlaeus. (6) They also make it inevitable to look over the shoulders of this very young author so as to verify whether he was not simply following in the footsteps of a more mature thinker whose theory he copied.

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