Newton and Alchemy II: B.J.T. Dobbs’ “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon” and the Jungian Interpretation of Alchemy

Jo Hedesan

The Green Lion as represented in the Rosarium Philosophorum (1550). Image coloured by Jo Hedesan, CC BY-NC 2.0 (Attribution Non-Commercial)

In 1975, the first book-length treatment of Newton and alchemy appeared in print: Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs’ The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon” (Cambridge University Press). Dobbs (1930-1994), a historian of science from the Deep American South, certainly deserves more than a dry Wikipedia stub, for her work marked a new era in the study of Newton and alchemy. The Hunting of the Greene Lyon firmly established the topic as a valid field of scholarly inquiry.  

The book itself, however, is something of an oddity. If the ‘Green Lion’ title promises an engaging read, the reader can only be disappointed by the book’s presentation. The Hunting’s structure is clunky and rigid, more suitable for a PhD dissertation than a published monograph. One can only sigh at the subtitles of the first chapter: ‘Introduction,’ ‘Biographical Sketch,’ ‘The historiography of Newton’s alchemy’ and even ‘Documents and techniques of the present study.’ The second chapter is rather uninspiringly titled ‘Conceptual Background for Seventeenth-Century Alchemy,’ while the third overwhelms with the long and highly pretentious title ‘Seventeenth-Century Alchemy: a Few of its Internal Developments and their Relations to Religion, Philosophy, and Natural Philosophy.’ To top it all off, chapter 3 even has a ‘Mid-century summary and preview’ set, appropriately, right in the middle of it.[1] Yet, in spite of such punctilious scholasticism, the book ends abruptly without a conclusion, with an one-page epilogue that appears to have been jotted down as an afterthought. The text might be rendered as a fine specimen of ‘academic bizarre:’

Chemistry…has achieved in the present century the total integration of alchemy and mechanism that Newton hoped for, with quite real metallic transmutations, a return to the position of ‘One Catholic Matter,’ and some considerable elucidation of the forces acting in its substructure.[2]

We are left scratching our heads. Dobbs seems to be talking about 20th century chemistry here, a subject never actually treated in the book. She is also making some remarkable statements about it: that alchemy has finally been integrated with mechanism, that chemistry now advocates an universal matter and that it performs ‘quite real’ (real, but not quite?) metallic transmutations. Such a sweeping statement about the nature of 20th century chemistry, bearing no citation of any sorts, is at best baffling. Not to leave the matters here, Dobbs suddenly waxes poetic and ends with three verses from an alchemical poem on the green lion.   

Unfortunately, structural problems are not the only issues with this book. Dobbs sets herself the ambitious task of explaining the entirety of seventeenth-century alchemy, not just the alchemy of Newton. This is the same as saying that Newton’s alchemy is read through the lens of Dobbs’ own views of what seventeenth-century alchemy was.

Dobbs’s thesis is built upon the Jungian interpretation of alchemy. The famous and prolific Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung wrote a series of articles and books on the subject of alchemy, particularly in the 1930s. Yet Jung was a psychologist, and The Hunting is a book of history of science. Jung’s take is avowedly unhistorical: his view of alchemy emphasised the existence of a single and coherent worldview that could be called alchemy. Dobbs accepts that ‘Jung was not very historically minded,’ but she seems to fundamentally concur that alchemy could be analysed ‘as a field of human endeavor,’ ‘a way of life,’ thus in ahistorical terms.[3]

Yet there are insurmountable problems in applying an a historical model to history. Dobbs herself is aware of it and tries to justify it by allying herself with a psychologist named Erich Fromm, who tried to explain modernity in terms of increased ‘individuation.’[4] Dobbs explains this Jungian term as ‘a drive toward wholeness and maturity inherent in the human psyche.’[5]

Armed with this concept, Dobbs affirms that the increased search for individuation in the Renaissance led to a heightened interest in ‘spiritual’ growth. Such an argument sounds peculiarly New Age, but Dobbs ties it in with a supposed discontent with post-Reformation religion.[6] According to Dobbs, many individuals turned to alchemy out of frustration with religious squabbling; the result was that the ‘spiritual aspect of alchemy received emphasis during a time of religious unrest and dissatisfaction after the Reformation.’ [7]

But why would alchemy necessarily provide spiritual fulfillment? Dobbs seems to take at face value Jung’s view according to which

the effect of achieving a new level of psychic integration through the exercises of alchemy was roughly equivalent to a religious mystic’s experience of direct union with God.[8]

So, alchemy had a ‘built-in potential for the satisfaction of religious needs.’[9] And yet, Dobbs recognises that high medieval alchemy tended to be void of religious content:

Geber’s work in its naturalistic approach to the nature of metals stands in strong contrast to the mystical literature usually cited by Jung [and]…should be kept in mind as a corrective to his psychological theories.[10]

But this, too, can be explained psychologically, because Dobbs thinks that ‘the older alchemy served a real though largely unconscious religious function for the adepts.’[11] We may note that Dobbs freely mixes ‘religious,’ ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ without no apparent awareness of the difference between such terms.

So far, Dobbs has argued for the flowering of a ‘mystical’ alchemy in the early modern world by means of a lack of religious satisfaction. Yet she also maintains that there was a parallel development in alchemy which involved mechanical explanations and experimentation. This latter version she names ‘chemical alchemy,’[12] a rather grating term that, unsurprisingly, inspired no one.  The ‘chemical alchemy,’ she argues, would eventually evolve into chemistry.

We are firmly out of the Jungian framework here, but Dobbs seems to try to ‘psychologise’ the two alchemies she identified in the early modern period. She does so by affirming that, according to Jung, there was a balance between secret knowledge and practical laboratory work in the ‘older’ alchemy. But, as some alchemists leaned toward the ‘spiritual’ side of alchemy, the balance was upset, so other alchemists apparently responded by focussing on laboratory work only.[13] The result was a contrary pull that led to ‘an irreversible disintegration of the older alchemy.’[14] This in turn led to the separation of the spiritual part of alchemy, which  ‘degenerated’ into theosophy and the laboratory one, which ‘became a rational study of matter for its own sake.’[15]

We may be excused if we find this grand attempt at explaining around two centuries of alchemy through a tortuous bit of psychology confusing and unconvincing. Her attempt at dividing alchemy into two different strands, one of which was a ‘school of mysticism’ in Germany and the other a ‘more chemical’ alchemy is similarly difficult to digest. This is particularly so as she admits that the ‘school of mysticism’ was connected to the ‘chemical alchemy’ of (eminently) the Hartlib Circle. Still in psychological mode, she explains the process by stating that

the reforming movement which was originally closely associated with alchemy and relied upon the most mystical and spiritual variety…came under the calming and rationalizing influence of the new mechanical philosophers.[16]

In other words, thank goodness for the infiltration of some ‘calm’ and ‘rational’ individuals amongst the exalted ones!

But, you may ask, where is Newton in all this? Dobbs already knows, before she even starts delving into Newton, that he was a ‘scientific’ alchemist.[17] Apparently, by Newton’s time, the two alchemies had parted ways and nothing spiritual exists in his alchemical work. It may be a rather shocking surprise to discover that Dobbs later changed her mind and claimed that in fact religion had a huge bearing for Newton’s alchemy!

That being said, Dobbs’s contribution to the history of alchemy and Newton is important. She carried out the first serious spade work of trying to identify Newton’s sources (such as Sendivogius, Monte-Snyders and d’Espagnet) and the nature of Newton’s alchemical practice. She  attempted to order Newton’s manuscripts chronologically, and also laid the groundwork to an open-minded and experimental approach to alchemy. As she puts it, the tree-like formations of gold Newton and Boyle saw in the flask may be real, just unusual to think of in terms of modern chemistry: 

There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of their descriptions. But the theories of alchemy that underlay their experiments have been extirpated from chemical thought and practice so thoroughly that now no one considers doings such an experiment, and one is inclined to reject the fact because he rejects the theory. [18]

The ‘philosophical tree’ was later reproduced in the laboratory by Professor Lawrence Principe. Thus, Dobbs’s call for challenging the paradigm of chemistry in order to understand alchemy was eventually answered by a new generation of historians. It is striking that Dobbs presents the alchemy of Newton’s time as ‘normal science’ in accordance with the Kuhnian model. 

Still, she seems to find it difficult to accept that Newton pursued alchemy for its own sake as well.  She gives credence to the rather apologetic account of William Stukeley that Newton’s alchemical studies were actually intended to inform his natural philosophy, and were not meant at transmutation in itself. [19] Newton, the giant of science, could not have looked for such a preposterous thing; instead, he ‘had a larger philosophical goal’, which was to understand the smallest parts of matter.

To understand alchemy in and of itself required a new type of thinking, which developed in the 1990s and rose to prominence after the millennium. This ‘new historiography of alchemy’ as it is called was less interested in finding the religious drive of alchemy or its mandatory contribution to the Scientific Revolution. This new historiography has recently given to us a new look at Newton’s alchemy originating from of one of its pioneers, William R. Newman.

If you wish to participate to a discussion on Newton and alchemy, the Philosophical Cafe will be hosting Professor William R. Newman on 6 November 2020, at 6pm GMT (UK),  7pm GMT+1 (Central Europe), 8pm GMT+2 (Eastern Europe), 1pm Eastern (US). The YouTube preview is available here. Join us live on Zoom or YouTube!  


[1] Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy or “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 80.

[2] Dobbs, 233.

[3] Dobbs, 26.

[4] Dobbs, 42.

[5] Dobbs, 29.

[6] Dobbs, 91.

[7] Dobbs, 80.

[8] Dobbs, 34.

[9] Dobbs, 48.

[10] Dobbs, 42.

[11] Dobbs, 80.

[12] Dobbs, 62.

[13] Dobbs ,20.

[14] Dobbs, 29.

[15] Dobbs, 29.

[16] Dobbs 63.

[17] Dobbs, 127.

[18] Dobbs, 187.

[19] Dobbs, 94.

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