[Leyden]: in bibliopolio Commeliniano sumptibus viduae Joannis Comelini, 1620.
First edition, extremely rare, of one of the earliest modern works on atomism. “Gorlaeus is counted among the founders of modern atomism, which he proposed as an alternative to Aristotelian matter theory. Because of his notion of atomic compounds, he is also regarded as a contributor to the evolution of chemistry” (DSB). “When David Gorlaeus (1591-1612) passed away at 21 years of age, he left behind two highly innovative manuscripts. Once they were published [as the present work, and as Idea physicae (1610), his work had a remarkable impact on the evolution of seventeenth-century thought. However, as his identity was unknown, divergent interpretations of their meaning quickly sprang up. Seventeenth-century readers understood him as an anti-Aristotelian thinker and as a precursor of Descartes. Twentieth-century historians depicted him as an atomist, natural scientist and even as a chemist. And yet, when Gorlaeus died, he was a beginning student in theology. His thought must in fact be placed at the intersection between philosophy, the nascent natural sciences, and theology” (Lüthy). This is a very rare book. In his review of Lüthy’s book in 2012, Henri Krop wrote: “until now Gorlaeus’s life and ideas have remained basically unknown because both his elaborate Exercitationes philosophicae and his Idea physicae are extremely rare and copies were unavailable in Dutch public libraries. (However since 1986 the libraries of both Leiden and Leeuwarden have acquired copies of the former.)” We have been unable to locate any copies in auction records.
“Gorlaeus’s atomism, which took center stage in his Idea physicae, is however more fully embedded in the Exercitationes philosophicae. There, philosophy is defined as “the naked knowledge of entities” and thus identified with ontology. Each discipline, wrote Gorlaeus, tackles one type of entity, whereby physics deals with natural entities. His ontology distinguishes between self-subsisting entities (entia per se), which are defined as numerically unique, fully existing, unchanging, and indivisible, and the accidental compositions (entia per accidens) that are brought about when several entia per se gather. This view of reality is essentially atomistic, although primarily in a metaphysical sense. By denying universals and allowing only for individuals, it is also heavily indebted to medieval nominalism. The only self-subsisting entities are God, angels, souls, and physical atoms, whereas all other entities, including humans, are transitory composites. Gorlaeus’s definition of man as an “accidental being,” which he took from Taurellus, was to be used in a 1641 university disputation by René Descartes’s friend Henricus Regius and triggered the first conflict between Descartes and the Aristotelian university establishment. Since that episode Gorlaeus has, somewhat misleadingly, been seen as a forerunner of Cartesianism.
“Although his atomism is primarily metaphysical, Gorlaeus spent much time and effort to apply it to the realms of physics and chemistry. Rejecting Aristotle’s concept of place, he maintained that atoms move in an absolute space, which does not necessarily have to be filled. Possessing quantity, atoms are furthermore extended, and they come in two types, namely dry (as earth atoms) and wet (as water atoms). All natural bodies can be resolved into these two types of atoms. Fire is explained in terms of the friction of closely packed atoms, while air is defined as a real, but non-elementary substance, which fills all voids and which is capable of transmitting celestial heat, but not of combining into compounds. When bodies rarefy, this is due to the entrance of air between the atoms; air itself cannot be rarefied or condensed. The emergent physical and chemical properties of higher-level compounds are due to the mixing of the elementary qualities of wet and dry with the so-called “real accidents” of warm and cold, which are communicated to the elementary atoms from the ambient air. Within this framework, Gorlaeus explained the most common physical and chemical properties of substances as a “temperament” created by the interacting atoms under the influence of ambient heat or cold. Although he demonstrated a certain ingenuity in this enterprise, he was yet forced to introduce additional elements such as heaviness, which is a divinely “impressed downward force.” Divine providence is also responsible for the aggregation of atoms into the more complex bodies” (DSB).
Gorlaeus’ contributions are the more remarkable given his short life (1591-1612). When he died, at age 21, he was a student of theology. “From the correspondence of his father, David Gorlaeus Sr., it appears that alchemical interests were being cultivated in his family. Still, the interests of the younger Gorlaeus in natural philosophy had above all philosophical and theological sources. As for philosophy, as an undergraduate student at Franeker between 1606 and 1610, Gorlaeus followed the comparatively innovative natural science course of Henricus de Veno, who incorporated recent developments in the fields of astronomy, meteorology, and natural philosophy into his otherwise Aristotelian framework. By 1610, Gorlaeus had furthermore come under the influence of Julius Caesar Scaliger’s Exercitationes exotericae (1557), which explained a range of natural phenomena in terms of corpuscles and interstitial voids. Scaliger figures as the only recent author in Gorlaeus’s two books and is quoted with great frequency.
“Whereas Scaliger depicted himself as an Aristotelian and anti-atomist, Gorlaeus’s strongly anti-Aristotelian physics relied fully on the interaction of atoms. In order to understand why a theology student should have ended up developing such a system, one must consider his circumstances in 1611. A crisis pitting two currents of Calvinism against each other was just then reaching its acme at Leiden University’s theological faculty, where Gorlaeus had recently enrolled. The point of departure for the conflict had been the non-orthodox view of one of the professors, Jacob Arminius, that the election of the faithful to heaven was not predestined by God since eternity, a view that was combated by his colleague Franciscus Gomarus. The so-called Arminian conflict, which quickly turned into a national and indeed international affair, had strong political overtones, but conceptually revolved around such philosophical concepts as the nature of divine and human causality, time and eternity, place and ubiquity, and determinism and free will. When Arminius died in 1609, Conrad Vorstius was chosen to succeed him, but upon his arrival at Leiden in 1611 was expelled speedily on charges of heresy. Some of the alleged heresies, which King James I of England stooped to rebut in person, were said to reside in his physicalist understanding of God, an understanding that had been inspired, it was charged, by the metaphysics of the German professor of medicine Nicolaus Taurellus. The point is that Gorlaeus, who was a partisan of the Arminian cause, quickly acquainted himself with the writings of both Vorstius and Taurellus, and his atomism can be understood as a radicalization of the ontology he had found particularly in Taurellus’s metaphysics” (ibid.).
Christoph Lüthy, David Gorlaeus (1591-1612): An Enigmatic Figure in the History of Philosophy and Science, Amsterdam, 2012.
8vo (154 x 89 mm), pp. [xxviii], 352. Contemporary half vellum, manuscript title on spine, some worming to lower and upper parts of the spine, internally fine and clean.