Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont

Helmont, Franciscus Mercurius van (1614–98)

Although he lived in the seventeenth century, van Helmont belongs more to late Renaissance than to modern intellectual culture. He was a larger-than-life figure who, in his prime, had an international reputation as an alchemist and a physician. His metaphysical interests came increasingly to the fore, however, and he became particularly associated with Kabbalistic doctrines. A friend of Locke and Henry More, he was also closely connected with Anne Conway and Leibniz, with whom he shared many intellectual affinities. It is these connections that make his philosophy – in particular, his theodicy and his monadology – of enduring interest.

Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont was born at Vilvoorde, near Brussels. His father, Jean-Baptiste van Helmont, was a famous Paracelsian medic who made a significant contribution to the history of chemistry, especially to the theory of gases. Like his father, Francis became famous as both doctor and alchemist. He too was harassed by the Inquisition, from whom he escaped only by giving up the estate he had inherited. Later, in the freer context of the Protestant Netherlands, he was able to publish many of his father’s writings that had been previously suppressed. Indeed he became a publisher of many religiously heterodox works and, with characteristic courage, allowed his name to be associated with some whose actual author was anonymous. For this reason a number of works were mistakenly attributed to him. Even those of which he was the author were often produced by collaboration, or written up by others on the basis of conversations with him.

Van Helmont’s first book was concerned with developing the idea of an alphabet of nature, a natural rather than a conventional language originally spoken by Adam. He made practical proposals arising from his theory for teaching those born deaf to speak and to understand speech, which some implemented with success. Over time, however, he became less interested in experiments and more metaphysical than his father had ever been, partly through the influence of Knorr von Rosenruth with whom he collaborated on a German translation of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae. He also assisted him in collecting together the mostly Hebrew texts made available for the first time in the Latin Kabbala denudata in 1677 and 1684, to which he contributed writings which include his Cabbalistical Dialogue, a classic defence of Kabbalistic metaphysics.

Van Helmont was physician to Lady Anne Conway from 1670 until her death in 1679. They came to share not only a commitment to Kabbalistic metaphysics and Biblical interpretation but also an involvement with the Quaker movement. He saw to the publication of her Platonic/Kabbalist Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Although outside the mainstream of Modern philosophy, he became a good friend of Locke whom he met at the Lantern Club in Rotterdam and with whom he spent the winter of 1693–4 during his last visit to England. Like van Helmont, Locke was also a physician, but the bond between them seems to have been a sceptical and liberal attitude concerning speculative matters of religious importance.

Of greater philosophical significance was his friendship with Leibniz, with whom he was associated in the early 1670s and again in the late 1690s. The extent to which they belonged to the same intellectual tradition is shown by their accounts of evil and of matter. For van Helmont and others there is a puzzle as to how God, a wholly perfect being, could have created pain and suffering, supposing these to be evils. There is also a problem of how, if God is pure spirit, he could have produced something as alien to himself as matter. Van Helmont’s solution to the first problem lay in a form of optimism in which God is claimed to allow no more suffering than is necessary. As to belief in hell, all punishment is ‘medicinal’ and no soul is ultimately lost. His opposition to the arbitrary and vindictive god of some of the major Christian denominations is reflected in this view. He also followed the Lurianic Kabbalah in adopting the doctrine of the evolution of human souls through twelve lives, linked to belief in the eventual progress of every soul to eternal happiness. He managed to secure quite a following for this view among the English Quakers, until it was quashed in a revival of orthodoxy in the early 1690s.

Van Helmont’s solution to the problem of the existence of matter is analogous to his treatment of the problem of evil, with the counterpart to optimism being a form of idealism, that is an affirmation that only spirit is ultimately real. Matter, being antithetical to God’s nature, cannot result from that nature, and so is not so much a reality as a privation. A philosophy, such as Aristotelianism, that affirms the reality of matter must, he thought, deny the existence of a spirit creator. According to van Helmont’s Neoplatonic-Kabbalistic theory, the monads emanate as pure spirits from the divinity. But these sparks of divinity eventually become ‘dull’ and ‘sluggish’, coalescing to form what is called matter. Yet the monads, though they are in a degenerate state of ‘privation’, do not entirely lose their individual or spiritual character, which ‘fundamentally and radically’ they retain. Their material state is only transitory, according to van Helmont, and they will eventually return ‘to a more loose and free state’.

Leibniz’s solutions to these problems, though they have affinities, are more complex and less obviously open to objection (see Leibniz, G.W. §§2–6). Between the early 1670s, when van Helmont impressed Leibniz in long and deep discussions, and the 1690s, when he visited Hanover as an old man, Leibniz himself had changed. He had become too much of a Modern not to be embarrassed by van Helmont. The work published in his friend’s name often lacked rigour, sophistication and paid no attention to recent developments in the sciences. Van Helmont was fluent in Dutch and German but not in Latin or English, and so could only produce works in these languages by recruiting the support of people whose versions of his thought did not, in Leibniz’s view, do him justice. This may be partly why Leibniz himself was willing to help in the production of van Helmont’s last Kabbalistic work on the Book of Genesis, being entirely responsible for the Latin and even being to some extent a co-author. It was shortly after this collaboration that van Helmont returned to the Brabant to settle his affairs. After his death his niece turned to Leibniz for an epitaph, but appears to have ignored his plea to publish some of her uncle’s literary remains.


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