Philosophiae naturalis theoria redacta ad unicam legem virium in natura existentium.

Vienna: In Officina Libraria Kaliwodiana, 1758. First edition.

An exceptionally fine copy, in untouched contemporary blind tooled pigskin, of “Boscovich’s masterpiece” (Norman), a work “now recognized as a fundamental influence on modern mathematical physics” (Printing and the Mind of Man), and a notorious rarity. Only two copies of this rare work have appeared at auction: 1. The Honeyman-Garden copy - this lacked the 16-page letter to Scherffer. 2. The Norman-Freilich copy - this had one gathering supplied from another, shorter, copy, and was in a 19th-century binding.

❧PMM 203; Norman 277; Garden Sale 150; Freilich Sale 73; Honeyman Sale 427.

Its impact was felt by such scientific luminaries as Joseph Priestley, Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, J. J. Thompson, and Niels Bohr. Boscovich suggests that a single law is the basis of all natural phenomena and of the properties of matter, and that the multiplicity of physical forces is only apparent and due to inadequate mathematical knowledge, anticipating the modern search for a unified field theory. The chapter ‘De Spatio, & Tempore, ut a nobis cognoscuntur’ (‘Space and Time as They are Perceived by Us’) can be seen as an anticipation of the theory of relativity, and his discussion of cosmology postulates a version of the current ‘many-universes’ scenario. His attempt to explain the structure of matter in terms of ‘point atoms,’ together with a law of force acting between them, anticipates the modern theory of quarks. In 1958, Werner Heisenberg wrote: “Boscovich’s work contains numerous ideas that have found their deserved place only in the modern physics of the past 50 years, proving that Boscovich based his investigations in natural sciences on valid philosophical suppositions.”

OCLC locates US copies at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, Indiana, Oklahoma, & Holy Cross. Of these, the Holy Cross copy is actually of the 1759 reprint and the Yale copy lacks the letter to Scherffer. “The first edition is very rare: there was no copy in Lancelot Law Whyte’s Boscovich collection sold in our London rooms 1964; and indeed only one other copy can be traced in the auction records for more than thirty years” (Garden Sale, Sotheby’s 1989).

“The ‘Theory of Natural Philosophy’ is now recognized as having exerted a fundamental influence on modern mathematical physics. Its author was born at Ragusa (Dubrovnik). He became a Jesuit and spent most of his life in Italy as professor of mathematics at the Collegium Romanum and at Pavia, and as director of the Observatory at Milan, and he also held academic posts in Vienna and Paris.

“Boscovich’s theories are concerned in the first place with the constitution of matter, the behaviour of physical forces, and the nature of atoms and of light. Lucretius’s theory conceived of atoms as hard particles in continual motion in a void, influencing each other by impact. His discussion of their relation to the various substances of nature is of the most general kind. Newton was an atomist with a clear notion of inter-atomic forces. Boscovich’s views are different and come nearer certain ideas of modern physics. As the title of his book implies, he considered that a single law was the basis of all natural phenomena and of the properties of matter; that the multiplicity of physical forces was only apparent and due to inadequate mathematical knowledge.

“These ‘point-atoms’ of Boscovich were deemed to have a position - but no extension - in space, and to possess mass. Boscovich believed that each atom is surrounded by a field of force, alternately positive and negative through a number of cycles. The force exists whether there is at any point another atom for it to act upon, or not. Newton (and every other atomist) could_not believe in the continuity of matter. Descartes did, for he was not an atomist.

“The Theoria had an immediate success in scientific circles, even though it was regarded as no more than speculation. Joseph Priestley read it and a century later Faraday was influenced by it. Clerk Maxwell described its contents in his Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the atom. Lord Kelvin cited Boscovich frequently, and J.J. Thomson referred to him when describing the electron and his own idea of successive rings or shells of electrons in the atom, only the outer ones of which are chemically operative. This in its turn led to the work of Niels Bohr, who showed that the energy of the electron revolving in its fixed orbit was transformed into light energy of a definite frequency” (PMM).

It has become clear in recent years that the Theoria contains remarkable anticipations of modern theoretical physics and cosmology. “Although best known for its contribution to dynamical atomism and matter theory, the book also included considerations of a cosmological nature. For example, Boscovich imagined that, apart from our space, there might exist other spaces with which we are not causally connected. His conception of the universe was relativistic, such as illustrated by a passage from the end of Theoria, which may bring to mind much later cosmological ideas: ‘If the whole Universe within our sight were moved by a parallel motion in any direction, & at the same time rotated through any angle, we could never be aware of the motion or the rotation ... Moreover, it might be the case that the whole Universe within our sight should daily contract or expand, while the scale of forces contracted or expanded in the same ratio; if such a thing did happen, there would be no change of ideas in our mind, & so we should have no feeling that such a change was taking place.’ Boscovich imagined all matter to consist of point-atoms bound together by Newtonian-like attractive and repulsive forces. If no forces were present, a body might pass freely through another without any collision (after all, points have no extension in space). The possibility led him to a daring cosmological speculation: 'There might be a large number of material 8c sensible universes existing in the same space, separated one from the other in such a way that one was perfectly independent of the other, & the one could never acquire any indication of the existence of the other.' Boscovich did not elaborate. Here we have, in 1758, a new version of the many-universe scenario: not different universes distributed in space and time, but coexisting here and now. It was surely a scenario that harmonized in spirit with ideas that some cosmologists would propose more than two hundred years later” (Kragh, Conceptions of Cosmos, p. 82).

“Boscovich explained all the forms of matter in terms of a single kind of elementary particle, which he supposed to be impenetrable, point-sized, and floating in a vacuum. The varied forms of matter resulted from the relative positions and velocities of these fundamental particles. Boscovich determined that at very small distances these force between the fundamental particles must be repulsive, and that as the distance was reduced to zero the force must increase without limit, so that the particles could never actually touch. At large distances the force was attractive and decreased as the square of the distance, being equivalent to gravitation. At intermediate distances the force was alternately attractive and repulsive. Boscovich’s theory predicts a number of phenomena he could not have anticipated. For example, his particles can never be absolutely motionless, a constraint that applies to real atoms obeying the rules of quantum mechanics. Because the force between particles alternates between attraction and repulsion there are several points of stable equilibrium favoring the creation of bound systems in which the particles can have certain discrete separations. The equilibrium points could be regarded as a crude approximation of the quantized orbitals or energy levels, of electrons in an atom. Phillip M. Rinard, writing in American Journal of Physics in 1976, pointed out that Boscovich’s force law might also describe some of the apparent interactions of quarks. Like the electrons in atoms, quarks bind together in stable, quantized orbitals, which could be interpreted in terms of the equilibrium points intrinsic to Boscovich’s theory. Furthermore, beyond each equilibrium point is a region characterized by an attractive force so that quarks pulled apart would tend to return to their equilibrium configuration. If the attractive potential were large enough (Boscovich did not specify its magnitude), the quarks might be permanently confined” (

The work was edited by the Jesuit Karl Scherffer (1716-83), supervisor of the Observatory at Graz, later Professor of Mathematics in Vienna, where he introduced Newton’s Principia. Scherffer had provided impetus to Boscovich’s work by suggesting that he consider the centre of oscillation, and in gratitude Boscovich appended to his great work a letter to Scherffer in which he extends his important theorem on the equilibrium of three point-atoms to any number of atoms.

On February 13, 1758, Boscovich dedicated his work to Cardinal Migazzi, Archbishop of Vienna. On March 4, with the Theoria still in the hands of the printers, Boscovich travelled back to Italy, arriving in Rome in May. The first copies of the Theoria were sent to protectors and friends in Vienna on August 22; by November 21 the edition was sold out. The work was reprinted at Vienna in 1759, and a revised edition appeared in Venice in 1763.

Riccardi, 1:180; A. de Backer and C. Sommervogel, Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, vol. 1, cols. 1840-41; Lancelot L. Whyte, ed., Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J., F.R.S., 1711-1787: Studies of His Life and Work on the 250th Anniversary of His Birth (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961).

4to (210 x 166 mm), pp. [28], 322 pp., [4] (index and ‘Monitum’), 16 (letter to Scherffer), with 75 diagrams printed on 4 folding engraved plates (old paper repair to folding of the last plate). Title page re-hinged and inner hinges repaired with Japanese paper. Beautiful contemporary blind tolled pigskin with the original brass clasps preserved. Exceptionally rare in such fine condition.

Item #4128

Price: $150,000.00