BMCR 2006.03.47

L’Alchimie et ses racines philosophiques: La tradition grecque et la tradition arabe

, L'alchimie et ses racines philosophiques : La tradition grecque et la tradition arabe. Histoire des doctrines de l'Antiquité classique, 32. Paris: Vrin, 2005. 242 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2711617548 €28.00 (pb).

[Table of contents at the end of the review.]

Alchemy is one of the more fascinating subjects, but also one of the most difficult. The first difficulty to be confronted is its categorization: are we dealing here with the history of science, or the history of religion? Should we view alchemy as genre of allegory, or as proto-chemistry? The book under review here approaches alchemy as a science of matter. Specifically, it seeks to flesh out the different theories developed by the Greeks down to and including the Stoics in order to explain how matter transforms, and then to explore the application and further development of these theories in Greek (mainly Byzantine and South Italian) alchemy. Since the Arabic tradition in alchemy has roots in Greek science, studies on Arabic alchemy are included as well. Six of the studies included were already published in Chrysopoeia 7 (2000-2003). All of the papers are in French.

After surveying the different terms for “matter”, Luc Brisson argues that it is chora (the “receptacle” of the Timaeus) that ties in best to the concept at play in alchemy. Every sensible object is an image of a form; but that form must be located in something, which is neither form nor the object, but rather a “place” wherein images make their appearance, and from which they depart.

Jean-Baptiste Gourinat argues that the Stoics were not “materialists”, since that term implies monism, but rather “corporealists”, since their divine, active principle is material, just as worldly matter is. In particular, Gourinat presents Zeno’s physics as a critical response to the Timaeus, and the Stoic deity as in internal demiurgic principle whose action is like fire.

Denis O’Brien tackles the complex puzzle of the origin of matter in Plotinus. Taking his cue from some disagreements between the Plotinus’ two editors, Schwyzer and Henry, O’Brien decisively states that emanated beings gaze back at the One, rather than engaging in self-reflection; but matter, being lifeless, cannot do this, and therefore must be issued from Soul. Plotinus also picks up a weak point in Aristotle, which he exploits in order to prove that desire, or privation, remains even after form sets in; hence matter remains in a sense non-being even after joined to form.

Cristina Viano calls attention to a number of specific teachings of the Timaeus that proved to be important for later developments in alchemy, e.g., the two “states” of elemental water — liquid (hugron) and fusible (chuton), or the image of the demiurge as metallurgist (citing 41 D 4). She follows these and other ideas through a number of thinkers, up to and including Stephanos of Alexandria.

In a very short note, Henri-Dominique Saffrey suggests emending, in one of Zosimus’ Hypomnemata, (ekhontos), for which no one has found a satisfactory explanation, to (akontos), “against one’s will, involuntarily”, so that the passage (Mertens, vol. 4 part 1, 31:128-130) now means, “Every time that, before expressing herself in a foreign [barbarian] language, she [Nature] involuntarily imitates, for example, Hebrew [the language of the Jews]…”. In fact, Saffrey’s suggestion was adopted by Viano in her contribution to the volume (p. 99).

Maria Papathanassiou finds a very rich combination of classical source materials in the writings of Stephanos; most prominent among them are the Timaeus and the Stoics. However, she also finds connections to contemporaneous Byzantine spirituality. I would like to draw attention to a passage in which Stephanos draws an analogy between alchemy and the action of poisons (cited on p. 126). One of the roots of Islamic alchemy, as it seems to me, is to be found in toxicology. It is no coincidence that the enigmatic Jâbir authored a book on poisons.

Andrée Colinet’s article, a meticulous study of an anonymous manuscript dating roughly to 1300, differs in its focus on chemistry rather than on philosophy. She emphasizes the important connections between alchemy and medicine; alchemists in a sense sought to cure “sick” metals that have been poorly digested by the earth. Colinet argues that the text is based mainly on Arabic sources (at times by way of Latin translations), compiled in the South Italian Greek dialect. This is thus an important testimony to the endurance of Greek alchemy in Italy well into the Middle Ages. Ulrich Rudolph examines three doxographies that survive in Arabic alone and present pre-Socratic materials. While he claims that these were most likely written originally in Arabic, and are not translations, Rudolph nonetheless finds the details presented therein to be for the most part correct, and thus, with all due caution, these doxographies can be exploited by historians. Empedocles and Pythagoras emerge as the two most interesting figures. One should add that there is little alchemy in this otherwise useful study.

Paolo Carusi emphasizes the importance of Aristotelian embryology — rather than other, competing theories deriving from the Greek medical tradition — in Islamic alchemy. It is in the main Aristotle’s teachings — themselves a reworking of pre-Socratic ideas — concerning generation in nature that the alchemists will seek to imitate in the laboratory. Carusi has a section on Islamic alchemy and the Qur’anic accounts of the generation of Adam. Their relevance here is questionable, and even more so, the reliance upon the commentaries of al-Râzî (d. 1209) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Both were extremely learned and thoughtful scholars, but I wonder how much one can learn from their writings about the state of Islamic alchemy in the tenth century.

Yves Marquet scours the corpus of short essays or epistles attributed to the “Brethren of Purity”, a Shi’ite fraternity thought to have flourished in tenth century Iraq. The catch is meager indeed; the epistles contain no essay or even sustained discussion devoted to alchemy. Though Marquet does find a possible trace of a polemic against “Jâbir”, he backs off from claims that he made in earlier publications, and concludes that, for all practical purposes, the authors of the epistles have no real interest in alchemy.

The final study, by Pierre Thillet, examines the pseudo-Platonic Liber Quartorum (Kitâb al-rawâbi’), which exists in different Arabic and Latin versions, accompanied by a commentary. Eschewing any deep study, for which he repeatedly confesses his lack of expertise, Thillet offers instead a series of comments and suggestions concerning some problematic words and expressions, supplemented by very extensive indices of Latin and Arabic names and terms in the texts.

Thillet’s lack of expertise is indeed evident, and his contribution is open to a long list of criticisms. I will limit myself to two issues that are of wide import. First, on the topic of Platonica and Pseudo-Platonica in Arabic, to which we should add writings in Hebrew, Latin, and other medieval scholarly languages: it is not as neglected as Thillet (pp. 204-5) would have us think. A quick search on the on-line Index Islamicus yields over forty studies, and that is certainly far from complete. Among the scholars to have contributed to this field of studies in recent years we may mention Felix Klein-Franke, Dimitri Gutas, and, above all, Franz Rosenthal. If I were pressed to recommend a single study to classicists interested in exploring this rich topic, it would certainly be Rosenthal’s masterful “On the Knowledge of Plato’s Philosophy in the Islamic World,” originally published in Islamic Culture, vol. 14 (1940), pp. 387-422. Just why should Muslims have been interested in Plato? Which few and select parts of the Platonic corpus were translated into Arabic, or otherwise transmitted (and transformed)? Can one ever hope to identify genuine Platonic fragments from among the huge corpus of gnomons attributed to Plato in Arabic collections? These are some of the key questions which Rosenthal takes up.

The Liber Quartorum takes the form of concise statements or “lemmata” followed by a relatively extensive commentary. Relying upon the authority of Gutas, Thillet (p. 208 and note 33) remarks the conspicuous absence of the commentary as genre in Arabic occult writings. This is simply not true. Two of the more prominent counter-examples are Ibn Umayl’s al-Mâ’ al-waraqî, one of the most important Arabic alchemical texts, which is a commentary to the same author’s own alchemical poem, and a key astrological text, pseudo-Ptolemy’s Centiloquium, to which Abu Ja’far Ahmad ibn Yusuf Ibn Daya (d. ca. 941) wrote extensive glosses, later translated into Hebrew and Latin as well. Richard Lemay has suggested that Abu Ja’far is the author not only of the commentary, but also of the Centiloquium itself. [Richard Lemay, “Origin and Success of the Kitab Thamara of Abu Ja’far ibn Yusuf ibn Ibrahim,” Proceedings of the First International Symposium for the History of Arabic Science (Aleppo, 1978), 91-107]. Not only is the commentary as genre well-established in Arabic occult literature: we also just exhibited one or two cases where the author of the commentary himself penned the “original” in order to stimulate, or legitimize, his commentary. Given this situation — and there are other examples of an author commenting upon his own book — I would suggest that the author of the commentary to the Liber Quartorum may well have invented the Platonic text that he wishes to explicate. As to the identity of this writer, I do not see why the great polymath Thâbit bin Qurra must be dismissed out of hand, as Thillet does on p. 204, even though, of course, doubts remain.

All in all, this is a useful collection of essays and a welcome contribution to the scholarship on alchemy. One drawback is the lack of any indices.


Luc Brisson, “La théorie de la ‘matière’ dans le Timée de Platon et sa critique par Aristote dans la Physique”;

Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, “La théorie stoicienne de la matière: entre la matérialisme et une relecture ‘corporaliste’ du Timée”;

Denis O’Brien, “Matière et émanation dans les Ennéades de Plotin”;

Cristina Viano, “Les alchimistes gréco-alexandrins et le Timée de Platon”;

Henri Dominique Saffrey, “Mort et transformation de la matière: A propos d’un locus desperatus des Mémoires authentiques de Zosime de Panopolis (X 6.130)”;

Maria K. Papathanassiou, “L’oeuvre alchimique de Stéphanos d’Alexandrie: structures et transformations de la matière, unité et pluralité, l’énigme des philosophes”;

Andrée Colinet, “L”Anonyme de Zuretti: Un traité alchimique italo-grec de 1300”;

Ulrich Rudolph, “La connaissance des Présocratiques à l’aube de la philosophie et de l’alchimie islamiques”;

Paola Carusi, “Génération, corruption et transmutation. Embryologie et cosmologie dans l’alchimie islamique au 10 e siècle”;

Yves Marquet, “La place de l’alchimie dans les Epîtres des Frères de la Pureté (Ikhwân al-Safâ’)”;

Pierre Thillet, “Remarques sur le Liber Quartorum du pseudo-Platon (Kitâb al-rawâbi’ li-Aflâtun)”.