Or Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…. Phlogiston!” (Hearty applause)
“And its creator… Georg Ernst Stahl!” (The house comes down)
It is a shame such a scene never took place, but the world of 18th century science was such a mix of daring, foolishness and showmanship, stranger things might have happened.1
For two millennia, life on Earth was measured in terms of the oligarchy of four: Earth, Air, Water and Fire, as proposed by Empedocles in 5th century BC, though the fifth element or quintessence, Aether, a kind of cosmic glue holding it all together, was considered to circle in the space around the Earth. The 5th element handily took care of the eternal and immovable cosmos, as the other four elements were known to be rather less stable, besides being often uncomfortably hot, cold, wet or dry. The elements were decidedly finicky.
For example, they had a tendency to catch fire.
Fire is, of course, one of the great luxuries and tragedies of mankind, from cooking food and keeping the night at bay to the most memorable conflagrations of history: The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (356 BC, arson by Herostratus, so his name would be remembered; he got his wish: herostratic fame), Persepolis (Alexander the Great, 330 BC, but was it an accident), Alexandria’s library (Julius Caesar, 48 BC, but was it an accident2), Rome (the Magnum Incendium Romae, in 64 AD, which, according to Tacitus, burned for five days; Nero pinned the blame on convenient Christian arsons, and burned a few of those too), Constantinople (at least five times), London (twice in the Middle Ages, and again in 1666, caused by that careless baker in Pudding Lane). But what was fire?
Smoke in the Wings
The stage of mankind’s history always seems to have smoke drifting in the wings.
A & B: Phlogiston from the Heavens; the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, by Benjamin West, 1810, and John Martin, 1840.
C & D. Troy burning, by Johann Georg Trautmann(1713-1769) and Francisco Collantes, 1630
E. Alexander the Great loots and sets fire to Persepolis, anon.
F. Nero testing Christians for their phlogiston content, after pinning the blame on them for burning Rome. The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876.
G & H. London’s Great Fire, which heavily phlogistated the atmosphere for miles around. Contemporary woodcut and engraving by J.C.Stadler, 1799, after the painting by Phillippe de Loutherburg (1740-1812).
I. The dephlogistation of the House of Lords & Commons. Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1834.
Thales of Miletos (624 – 546 BC) followed the Babylonians, professing that the world was created from water, and that all substances were water in varying forms. Water, occurring as vapour, liquid and solid, was deemed to be the source of all life. Anaximander (610 – 545 BC) concurred, but only about the necessity of a principal, primordial constituent, which he called apeiron. Anaximanes (c. 590 – 526 BC) disagreed; according to him, air (pneuma) was the primal substance. Heracleitos (active in 484 BC) begged to differ; everything was composed of fire or some other single substance, and assumed differing forms due to the flux aeterna. Empedocles, however, had a novel idea.
Empedocles, who provided us with our first and curiously enduring definition, was a Greek philosopher, statesman, poet, religious teacher, and physiologist. He was born in Acragas, Sicily, in around 493 BC, and died in the Peloponnese in approximately 433. He also stated that nothing comes into being or is destroyed, but simply transforms. The force behind these transformations was Love and Strife. The former encourages the four elements to mingle, the latter causing them to draw apart into themselves. While none of the four dominate, it wasn’t so at the beginning of the world, when the force of Love held all the elements in a sort of homogenous emulsion. The arrival of Strife separated this original soup into the four elements and combinations of them. Both water and fire are found in the earth, for example, the first emerge as springs, the latter as volcanoes.
Indeed, that soup of harmony may well be what Empedocles’ near-contemporary Pytheas was referring to when he describes the pleumōn thalattios or “sea-lung” (possibly jellyfish) bordering Ultima Thule, six days’ sail north of the north of the British Isles. Much has been written to explain his curious observation, but always in meteorological terms: generally that he is describing a rare type of slush or drift ice. More probably he was describing the edge of the world, six days sail north over Oceanus, at the far edge of the oikoumé.
The idea of a tangible, palpable edge to the world is a popular one (as well as being a much-popularised one, to poke gentle –or les gentle – fun at our ancestors and their unscientific notions). The idea that we might crawl to the edge of the world and lift the sky-curtain to peek under (like children outside a circus tent) is a tempting one, but little more satisfying than the ridiculous notion that ancient and medieval sailors lived in terror of falling off the edge of the world.
The sky as a tent is a Biblical notion, exemplified by Cosmas Indicopleustes’ so-called “Tabernacle Universe”, outlined in his “Christian Topography” in 6th-century Alexandria.3 (Cosmas also provided solid geographical information about India and Sri Lanka, but historians prefer to remember his rectangular world with the sun circling a sky-high central mountain.) Such a view is a comfortable one to explain what we see as the inherent contradictions in the medieval world-view, in turn exemplified, albeit gently, and with a clear focus on the marvellous, by Camille Flammarion’s extraordinary and much-reproduced image of “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”. The Flammarion woodcut is an enigmatic engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire” (1888). The image depicts a man peering through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it were a curtain to look at the inner workings of the universe, comprising the classical “Seven Heavens” of diverse tradition and literature. (For my sins – and I should have known better – I had always assumed the image was a medieval one. The artist who Flammarion commissioned is anonymous, the image is now quite famous.)
The Flammarion Woodcut
The Flammarion woodcut is an enigmatic engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire” (1888). The image depicts a man peering through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it were a curtain to look at the inner workings of the universe, comprising the classical “Seven Heavens” of diverse tradition and literature. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”
We have a tendency of poking fun at what we perceive to be conflicting concepts, but while we would no more envisage a 747 making a wrong turn and emerging in Heaven or an oil rig finding it had drilled into Hell, we still conceive of the former as being “up there” and the latter as being “down below”. Although admittedly we no longer try to pinpoint their geographical locations, we still happily entertain what some future age might qualify as curious notions.
Influenced by the Pythagoreans, Empedocles also believed in the transmutation of souls; in his view metempsychosis was a long and arduous process, especially for those who had sinned, who would spend thirty thousand seasons tossed about between the four elements before achieving purification. Aristotle considered Empedocles to be the inventor of rhetoric, Galen as the founder of medicine in Italy. Nothing of his writing remains except a few hundred verses (he was also the last of the Greek philosophers to record his thoughts in verse).
According to Lucian, he cast himself into the crater of Etna, that people might believe he was returned to the gods; but Etna threw out his sandal and destroyed the illusion. (Horace, Ars Poetica.404.)
Matthew Arnold recounts his death in philosophical terms in “Empedocles on Etna”:
To the elements it came from
Everything will return.
Our bodies to earth,
Our blood to water,
Heat to fire,
Breath to air.
Milton puts it rather more poetically:
“ …he who to be deemed
a god, leaped fondly into Etna flames.
Milton. Paradise Lost. Book III. line 469.
An aside: we in the West are rather an ethnocentric lot, as other ancient cultures had their own perfectly logical lists of elements: the Babylonians had four: Earth Sky, Sea and Wind; Hinduism and Buddhism grouped the same four elements around the Akasha or aether, which basically held together the world. Japan had the same elements, Earth, Fire, Air, Water, held together by Kū or sora, the energy and spirit that maintain a coherent universe. In Chinese Wu Xing, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood revolve in a continuous transmutational dance, the five elements reflecting the five cardinal points – the four we know, plus the center. (Once again, apologies for shoehorning concepts into such a tight-fitting nutshell, they are all fascinating and deserve much more space.)
The Stoics aligned fire with the animus, the spark-like component of life inserted like a wedge (coelum) into passive matter. The concept elaborated by Leucippos, that the universe was composed of an infinite variety of small particles, was taken further by Democritos, who invented atoms, and considered the space between them to be empty, a void. Obviously, such a ridiculous notion didn’t really catch on. Four elements made much more sense (and likely much prettier diagrams) and when Aristotle ignored Democritos’ theory in favour of Empedocles, the four elements endured for nearly two millennia.
Nor were they absent from myth. Bulfinch’s Mythology has this to say of Virgil’s Aeneas, when the Sibyll has led Aeneas through the infernal regions hear what Anchises has to say:
“The Creator, he told him, originally made the material
of which souls are composed, of the four elements, fire, air,
earth, and water, all which, when united, took the form of the
most excellent part, fire, and became FLAME. This material was
scattered like seed among the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and
stars. Of this seed the inferior gods created man and all other
animals, mingling it with various proportions of earth, by which
its purity was alloyed and reduced. Thus the more earth
predominates in the composition, the less pure is the individual;
and we see men and women with their full-grown bodies have not
the purity of childhood. So in proportion to the time which the
union of body and soul has lasted, is the impurity contracted by
the spiritual part. This impurity must be purged away after
death, which is done by ventilating the souls in the current of
winds, or merging them in water, or burning out their impurities
by fire. Some few, of whom Anchises intimates that he is one,
are admitted at once to Elysium, there to remain. But the rest,
after the impurities of earth are purged away, are sent back to
life endowed with new bodies, having had the remembrance of their
former lives effectually washed away by the waters of Lethe.
Some, however, there still are, so thoroughly corrupted, that
they are not fit to be entrusted with human bodies, and these are
made into brute animals, lions, tigers, cats, dogs, monkeys, etc.
This is what the ancients called Metempsychosis, or the
transmigration of souls; a doctrine which is still held by the
natives of India, who scruple to destroy the life, even of the
most insignificant animal, not knowing but it may be one of their
relations in an altered form.”4
Four is also a harmonious number: the four seasons, the four rivers of Paradise, the four ages of man and humors of his body, the four cardinal points, winds and corners of the world, the tetramorph and the four virtues of the soul, the four Heavenly Kings and the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and many more; four is a number that squares the circle, defines the world in the image of man. In fact, mystic arithmetic was the way of linking the whole universe together. Add together the four sciences of the Quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy) plus the three liberal arts of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and you have seven, magical sum of two already potent numbers. There were seven planets, seven virtues and deadly sins, seven sacraments; even the Gregorian chant had seven tones. The distance from the earth to each of the seven planets, which were contained each within a sphere, was equated with the seven strings of the lyre or harp – each note intoned by a siren to create the perfect harmony. Perfect geometry and harmony governed not only the universe, but also man, who was a simply a microcosmic reflection of the same mathematical perfection, albeit earthbound and mortal, human proportions were thought of in geometric terms.
According to Aristotle in his On Generation and Corruption, air was primarily wet and secondarily hot, fire hot and dry, earth dry and cold and water primarily cold and secondarily wet. Greek philosopher and physician Galen (AD 129 – 199), credited Hippocrates for describing the human body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water).
The medical views of Avicenna (980 – 1037 AD) were based on similar principles: hot and cold, wet and dry, to explain the complex equilibrium of the human body. (The ancient mania for bleeding, or bloodletting, which endured centuries beyond all logic, up until the late 19th century, was destined to restore the equilibrium of the four humors.)
A. The Alchemist, engraving by Pieter Breughel the Elder, (1525-1569)
B. An Alchemist’s Laboratory, by Eugène Isabey, 1841.
C. The Alchemist, by Cornelis Pietersz Bega, (Haarlem, 1631/1632 – 1664).
D. The Alchemist, by Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685)
E. The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771
F. The Alchemist, by Sedziwoj Matejko (1838–1893)
G. The Alchemist, by David Teniers, circa 1645.
H. The Explosion in the Alchemist’s laboratory by Justus Gustave van Bentum (1670-1727).
I. Alchemist, by Johannes Moreelse, Utrecht, circa 1630
J. The Alchemist (also entitled The Philosopher in Meditation) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1632
K. The Alchemist, by Edmund Dulac
The medieval period generally saw the classical quartet endure, with the addition of a few more elements such as sulphur, mercury and salt. Fire, while it played an essential, even primordial, alchemical role, was primarily the agent of transmutation; few pondered on the actual mechanics of fire. (That is putting alchemy in a rather tiny nutshell – or alembic, if you wish – but a proper exploration of medieval alchemy is as far beyond my modest means as transforming lead into gold.) Fire, though, remained the most troublesome and volatile of the foursome and demanded more attention be accorded.
Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (his full name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bomblast von Hohenheim, which he rather understandably shortened to Paracelsus; choosing a Latin-derived name was very much à la mode du temps) took a rather more holistic, and, as befits an alchemist, a decidedly esoteric stance. He stated: “Medicine rests upon four pillars—philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and ethics. The first pillar is the philosophical knowledge of earth and water; the second, astronomy, supplies its full understanding of that which is of fiery and airy nature; the third is an adequate explanation of the properties of all the four elements—that is to say, of the whole cosmos—and an introduction into the art of their transformations; and finally, the fourth shows the physician those virtues which must stay with him up until his death, and it should support and complete the three other pillars.”
He added, not without perspicacity: “Man is a microcosm or a little world, because he is an extract from all the stars and planets of the whole firmament, from the earth and the elements, and so he is their quintessence.”5
The Classical Elements: Representations and Allegories
A. De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), Bartholomeus Anglicus, France, 15th century.
B. Les elements et les humeurs, from the Livre des proprietes des choses, Maitre d’Antoine de Bourgogne, Bruges, 1467-75(?)
C. Detail from the Bestiaire d’Amour. Four elements: Bird (plover) against blue background; salamander against red background; mole against black background; and fish (herring) against blue background, representing air, fire, earth and water, Lombardy, 1285-95.
D. Plato’s Four Elements. 15th century.
E. The Four temperaments of the human body.
F. Alchemical figure of a mermaid or siren, with earth, air, water and fire. 17th century.
A –D. The Four Elements, by Joachim Beuckelaer, circa1530-73.
Air: Poultry Market, 1570.
Fire: Christ in the House of Mary & Martha, 1570.
Earth: Vegetable Market with the Flight into Egypt, 1569.
Water: Fish Market with the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1569.
E. Allegory of the Four Elements, by Cornelis Delff, circa1600. Earth is represented by vegetables, water by fish, air by birds, and fire by the forged metallic cooking pots.
F. Allegory of the Four Elements, by Louis Finson, 1611
Left: Guiseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93)
The Earth, 1570; The Air; The Fire, 1566; The Water, 1563-4.
Right: Jan Breughel II (Antwerp, 1601-1678) and Frans Francken II (Antwerp, 1581-1642) The Four Elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
The new science of chemistry narrowed its pursuit of knowledge to the purely physical, leaving aside the philosophical concerns of alchemy. (Chemistry as a science per se is often considered to date from 1661, when natural philosopher Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chymist, the first critical work to truly distinguish between chemists and alchemists, although scientia experimentalis, or a scientific approach, had already been proposed by the English Franciscan Roger Bacon fully three centuries earlier in his work Epistola de secretis operibus artis et naturae, circa 1260, though admittedly Roger did include “salamander skin” amongst the substances impervious to flame.)
The notion of four elements was cast aside and a new approach began to wonder just what things were composed of. And what exactly that obsolete but unavoidable fourth element, fire, really was.
Back to fire.
German philospher Johann Joachim Becher was first to evoke the notion of a flammable substance common to all materials that burned. In his treatise Physica subterranea, published in 1669, Becher recomposed the quartet of elements, eliminating air and water, which he considered not elements, but simply ingredients in the cosmic mix, replacing them with three elemental earths: terra lapidea or fusilis (vitreous earth), terra fluida (mercurial earth) and terra pinguis. Terra pinguis (dense, or thick) was the oily, sulphurous and at any rate flammable substance that was released during combustion. (Becher, like all those inquisitive spirits who straddled the transition between alchemy and chemistry, entertained all manner of theories. He believed in spontaneous generation and the transmutation of metals, but also that coal could be distilled to produce tar, and that sugar and air were necessary for fermentation. Notably, he also proposed a 10,000-word vocabulary for a universal language.)
Becher’s idea was expounded by German chemist Georg Ernst Stahl, who changed the name of the mysterious flammable element, and published his theory of combustion in 1697. Phlogiston was born.
Stahl himself was born at Ansbach in 1659. He graduated in medicine at the University of Jena in 1683, becoming court physician to Duke Johann Ernst of Sachsen Weimar in 1687. From 1694 to 1716 he held the chair of medicine at Halle, and was then appointed physician to King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. He died in Berlin on May 24, 1734. His theory was universally accepted by the late 1700’s.
In keeping with scientific tradition, Stahl went back to Greek for the source of his neologism. The river Phlegethon (or Pyriphlegethon) was, with the Styx, Lethe, Cocytus and Acheron, one of the five rivers of Hades. Plato describes the Phlegethon as a stream of fire encircling Tartarus, the deepest region of Hades, where the souls of the evil are condemned to dwell in torment. (Dante describes it, rather poetically, as a river of blood where souls are immersed to simmer until done.) Phlogiston: neut. of phlogistos “burnt up, inflammable,” from phlogizein “to set on fire, burn,” from phlóx (gen. phlogos) “flame, blaze”.
It’s only fair to put Stahl’s theory in context. The nature of the elements was undergoing serious scrutiny, but even in the late 17th century, at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment (Romanticism was just around the corner, as was the industrial Revolution), many curious ideas persisted. Scandinavian geologist Henrick Steffens propounded with an equal dose of both gravity and lyricism that lowly substances aspired to better themselves: “The diamond is a piece of carbon that has come to its senses.” (To which Scottish geologist John Playfair corrosively and famously replied “Then a quartz, therefore, must be a diamond run mad”.) Giovanni Aldini, a proponent of the galvanizing and restorative effects of electricity, tried to jolt animal and human cadavers to life in public displays of such distressing nature he was forced to put a stop to them. (He was eventually forced to leave England in 1805, which must have been something of a shock.)
Phlogiston is what made things combustible, objects that are inflammable are rich in Phlogiston; burning them releases the substance into the air. Wood, when it burns, releases all its Phlogiston, leaving ash, which is emptied of the substance; rusting metal also releases Phlogiston into the air, leaving calx or oxide, the only difference residing in the speed of the process.
Once a material was “dephlogistated”, it would no longer burn, and fires that burned in enclosed spaces would be smothered because the air was fully saturated or “phlogistated” and could hold no more phlogiston. Phlogistated air could not support life because the role of air in respiration was to remove the phlogiston from the body by respiration. (Yes, it is a little confusing.)
Concerning the smelting of metals, ore (poor in Phlogiston) when heated with Charcoal (rich in the same), the Phlogiston passes from the charcoal to the ore. The Charcoal becomes ash, its Phlogiston depleted, while the Phlogiston-poor ore is converted to Phlogiston-rich metal.
Air was the vehicle for all these transactions. Plants absorbed Phlogiston from the air; animals acquired it by eating plants. Phlogiston was continually on the move. The intrepid brothers Montgolfier, whose careers were upheld by hot air, believed that lighter-than air Phlogiston, trapped in their balloons, raised them into the air.
To explain the apparent discrepancy hinted at by those with better instruments of measure – that a substance gained weight when it burned – Gabriel Venel responded with the Positive Lightness Theory. “Phlogiston is not attracted towards the centre of the earth but tends to rise; thence comes the increase in weight in the formation of metallic calces and the diminution of weight in their reduction.” In other words, phlogiston was an anti-gravity substance.
Basically, Stahl had discovered oxygen backwards, as French scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, armed with far more dependable measuring devices, was able to conclusively prove. (His Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry), published in 1789, is now considered the first modern chemistry textbook.) Lavoisier also coined the word “oxygen” (oxus: sharp, acid + geneo: I beget), and defined the process of oxidation. It took a while, though: oxygen thought to be completely “dephlogisticated” air, able to absorb more phlogiston than ordinary air and therefore allowing more intense combustion.
British natural philosopher Joseph Priestly, despite isolating oxygen several years before Lavoisier, managed some complex reasoning to explain the apparent contradictions, and assumed his regrettable role as the last famous proponent of a theory based on hot air, by explaining that while iron gains weight as it binds with oxygen to form rust, it loses “the basis of inflammable air, and this is the substance or principle, to which we give the name phlogiston.” Priestley described phlogiston as the alkaline principle which complemented Lavoisier’s oxidizing principle. Priestly eventually became a convert, and Phlogiston was abandoned. In 1796, he stated: “There have been few, if any, revolutions in science so great, so sudden, and so general, as the prevalence of what is now usually termed the new system of chemistry, or that of the Antiphlogistians, over the doctrine of Stahl, which was at one time thought to have been the greatest discovery that had ever been made in the science. I remember hearing Mr. Peter Woulfe, whose knowledge of chemistry will not be questioned, say, that there had hardly been any thing that deserved to be called a discovery subsequent to it. Though there had been some who occasionally expressed doubts of the existence of such a principle as that of phlogiston, nothing had been advanced that could have laid the foundation of another system before the labours of Mr. Lavoisier and his friends, from whom this new system is often called that of the French.” (One wonders if his reluctance to admit the demise of Phlogiston was largely due to the fact that the new theory came from south of the English Channel.)
While proving that burning objects actually gain weight, Lavoisier nevertheless did not avoid a now-obsolete hypothesis of his own: the Caloric Theory. According to his hypothesis, “caloric” was a fluid that flowed from hot to cold bodies. This “subtle fluid” was proposed as the “substance of heat”, being present in bodies depending on their temperature. It was quietly discarded in favour of theories we are now familiar with, as well as leaving us the handy unit calorie.
As for the “father of modern chemistry”, he lost his head during the French Revolution. Accused of treason, he was guillotined in May 1794. (He may have fallen foul of Marat, who himself met with a sticky end at the hands of Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday. Jacques-Louis David famously immortalized the scene in his painting The Death of Marat. Marat’s wife later sold the bathtub.) One of his contemporaries, on whose behalf Lavoisier had intervened when a mandate was proposed to strip all foreigners on French soil of possessions and freedom, Italian-born astronomer and mathematician Joseph-Louis LaGrange, wistfully remarked: “It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.” One and a half years later, Lavoisier was rehabilitated by the French government, who returned his private belongings to his widow with this brief note: “To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted.”
Phlogiston conveniently marks the end of the long night of alchemy and the dawn of modern chemistry, but I think it’s overdue for a little rehabilitation.
Phlogiston: The Cast
A. Empedocles, a portrait from The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.
B. Aristotle (Roman marble bust after a Greek bronze original sculpted by Lysippus circa 330 BC. The mantle is a modern addition.)
C. Portrait presumed to be of Paracelsus by Quentin Metsys.
D. Physicae Subterraneae, by Johann Joachim Becher.
E. Georg Ernst Stahl (1660–1734), German chemist, physician, metallurgist and inventor of Phlogiston.
F. Joseph Priestly, pastel by Ellen Sharples, 1794.
G. The intrepid Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, inventor, along with his equally intrepid brother Joseph-Michel, of the “globe aerostatique” or hot-air balloon.
H. Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, by engraver Pierre-Michel Alix, 1795-96.
I propose Phlogiston as the mysterious substance that fires the imagination. Artist: a spontaneously combustible being consumed by an inner fire while remaining relatively intact. Phlogiston neatly sums up whatever mysterious substance fuels creativity: lighter than air, impossible to define, subject to being consumed in its entirety without noticeably altering the physiognomy of the artist. (An artist can be completely dephlogistated, though his or her existence, to all appearance, continues nonetheless.)
Much empirical research has been done into the conditions best suited for a steady burning of phlogiston; curiously, it seems to burn best in the small hours of the morning; possibly caffeine is a catalyst. Phlogiston can suddenly burst into flame while the subject is asleep, but will usually extinguish itself on waking, nor does it burn at a predictable rate.
Measurements have determined that no loss of weight occurs as phlogiston is burned, confirming Gabriel Venel’s theory, and a certain contagiousness of creativity supports Lavoisier’s Caloric Theory.
Phlogiston is transferred into the artist’s work as well as being released into the air. Or more exactly, into the Aether, which could be rehabilitated as well, as the invisible substance that conducts creativity, an able carrier of great quantities of phlogiston. Imagination, like light was once thought to do, travels effortlessly and almost instantaneously through the aether.
Archetypes? Primarily composed of apeiron, of course, the purer the apeiron, the closer to true archetypal status the being or idea is. Continuous dilution with other substances can lead to the archetype being lost entirely.
Empedocles might well recognize his four elements in the primary colours: cyan, magenta and yellow, (to which one needs add black or key to complete the quarto of colours of offset printing) permutations of which comprise every painter’s palette. Empedocles also correctly guessed that the universe is governed by Love and Strife, clearly evidenced by the eternal exertions of creators, pinned like so many entomologist’s catches in the temporal and energetically fluttering their wings in the atemporal.
Naturally, alchemy is heavily involved. The transmutation of elements is indeed the goal, transforming humbler materials in to gold, while lending an eager ear to the music of the spheres in the hopes of catching even just a snippet of the melody.
There are so few decent words for art. Perhaps it’s because philosophy and art make such poor travelling companions, both preferring the high road, but never voyaging in tandem. Perhaps it’s because those who create speak with their eyes and hands, and not with words.
“And thus, ladies and gentlemen, let us thank Mr. Stahl and his illustrious predecessors, not for their contribution to science, but to art!” (The crowd applauds. Warmly)
1. Actually, a goodly number did, but that’s a subject for another newsletter.
2. In all fairness, there are other candidates for the burning of the world’s greatest ancient library. Besides Caesar, the lineup includes Aurelian (around 270 AD), Theodosius (391 AD) and the Arab conquest of 624. For a succinct résumé: The Burning of the Library of Alexandria
3. The ms.VAT.GR.699 is preserved in the Vatican Library. Cosmas was scornful of Ptolemy and others who held that the World was spherical. Cosmas wished to oppose pre-Christian geographers, modeling his concept on the Tabernacle, the house of worship to Moses by God Described During the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Because he was a Nestorian Christian, his view, though inspired by the Bible, was judged as heretical. Poor Cosmas, not only was he wrong about the sphericity of the earth, he was roundly dismissed by other contemporary Christian philosophers.
4. Excerpt from BULFINCH’S MYTHOLOGY ~ The Age Of Fable; Chapter XXXII, The Infernal Regions, the Sibyl. Subtitle : The Infernal Regions.
5. From Vas Buch Paragranum (c.1529-30), in J. Jacobi (ed.), Paracelsus: Selected Writings (1951), 133-4. Paracelsus was near the truth. Carbon 14 is not produced by nature, but is a product of the cosmos; we each have a personalized portion of the essence of the universe within us.
Special thanks to Ann Carling and Irene Fanizza
A LITTLE TIME OFF
Going to sign off for 2010, and wishing all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. There will be no newsletter in mid-January (unless a sudden and unexpected combustion of phlogiston occurs).