The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

J. R. Jacob

The Ideological Origins of Robert Boyle’s Natural Philosophy

Journal of European Studies 2, 1972, 1-21

Students of young Robert Boyle have treated the relation between his science and religion from two points of view.*  Some have been primarily interested in the religious motive for his scientific endeavour and have claimed it to derive from his puritan piety. [l]  Others have dealt with another aspect of the question.  According to them, Boyle’s natural theology is largely a response to those who argue that the study of nature leads to a preoccupation with second causes and a consequent neglect or denial even of the first or God. [2]  These two views of Boyle’s understanding of the relationship between science and religion are by no means mutually exclusive.  Nor does the validity of one hang on that of the other.  Each, instead, stands on its own and answers a different set of questions.  The first treats of the problem of motivation: was science fed by the fuel of religion; if so, why and to what degree?  The second treats of the problem of justification: how could the investigation of natural phenomena, once undertaken, be explained in terms consistent with or even convenient to the faith.  So one might hold both views at the same time, and in fact a recent student seems to have done just that. [3]

The fact that these two views of the relation of young Boyle’s science to his religion are separate and independent does not mean of course that in Boyle’s own thought motivation and justification were in fact so isolated and compartmentalized.  On the contrary, I shall argue that they were not - that the source of Boyle’s religious justification of science lay in his religious motivation and that this motivation is revealed in that justification.  In doing so I shall offer a third view.  Against the prevailing view of justification I shall claim that Boyle laid the foundations of his natural religion before he developed his corpuscular philosophy, his distinctive contribution to seventeenth-century science, and

* I thank the American Philosophical Society for a grant from the Penrose Fund making it possible for me to complete the research for this essay.  I wish also to thank the following for their help with the ideas and presentation - Dr M. C. Jacob, Professor J. J. John, Professor F. G. Marcham, Dr J. R. Ravetz, Professor H. R. Trevor-Roper and Dr J. M. Smith.

1. R. K.. Merton, ‘Science, technology’ and society in seventeenth century England’, Osiris, iv, 1938, pp. 441 and 443.

2. Robert Hugh Kargon, Atomism in England from Harriot to Newton, Oxford, 1966, pp.76, 96-97 and 104-5.

3. R. S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England, New Haven, Connecticut, 1958, pp. 2-3 and 7-11.


that this natural religion both helped to shape and determined the significance of his full-blown philosophy of nature.  So in line with the prevailing view of his motivation I shall suggest that his piety did indeed influence the development of his science or, more properly, his natural philosophy.  Against this prevailing view of motivation, however, I shall argue that this piety was not merely puritan - if puritan at all - and that its effect upon Boyle’s natural philosophy was much greater and more specific than has been realized.  I shall do so by tracing this piety to its particular social and ideological roots.  To do this I shall chart the course of Boyle’s life from the mid-1640s through the early 1660s, when the outlines of his mature philosophy of nature begin to emerge.

After having spent the preceding six years on the continent, Boyle returned to England in 1644.  He was seventeen and his future uncertain.  His family, from being one of the richest in the realm, had lost most of their wealth to the Irish rebels in the early 1640s. [4]  As a result Robert had stayed abroad in the care of his tutor in much straitened circumstances. [5]  In 1643, while Boyle was thus occupied, his father Richard, Earl of Cork, died, leaving him the manor of Stalbridge in Dorset and certain lands in Ireland.  Not long after reaching England he was able to take possession of his English inheritance, thanks to his sister Katherine, Viscountess Ranelagh’s connections with influential members of parliament. [6]  Coming into the estate, however, was not enough; he would also have to make it pay.  For someone of Boyle’s youth, inexperience and studious inclinations this would have been difficult at the best of times.  Civil war in England and Ireland made the task still harder.  First he was forced ‘to part with a good share of my land, partly to live here like a gentleman, and partly to perform all that I thought expedient in order to my Irish estate, out of which I never yet received the worth of a farthing’. [7]  Second, the manager of Boyle’s affairs lined his own pockets, until discovered, with some of his master’s income. [8]  Last there was the question of where Boyle’s loyalties lay in the civil conflict.  His handling of the matter was ‘to observe a very great caution, and exact evenness in my carriage... it being absolutely necessary for the preservation of a person, whom the unfortunate situation of his fortune made obnoxious to the injuries of both parties and protection of neither’. [9]  Nor is it clear that he preferred one party to the other.  On the continent he had lived in a political vacuum with respect to issues and events in England.  So when he returned he was committed to neither side.  His family’s principal holdings, moreover, were in Ireland.  As opponents of the rebels there, they were interested in English support for their cause and saw the civil war in England itself more as an obstacle to that end than as an occasion for choosing sides.

Thus when economic exigency dictated that Robert remain at least outwardly neutral in the conflict nothing in his background prevented his doing so.

4 Alexander B. Grosart (ed.), The Lismore Papers (second series), 5 vols., (n.p. 1888), V, 20-22; hereafter cited as Lismore.

5 Ibid., p.72 and, Thomas Birch, ‘The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle,’ in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (Thomas Birch ed.), 5 vols., London, 1744, I, 15; hereafter cited as Birch, Life in Works.

6 Ibid.

7. Quoted ibid., p. 19, Boyle to Isaac Marcombes, London, 22 October 1646.

8. Ibid.

9. Quoted ibid.


The business of negotiating a livelihood was not Boyle’s only concern.  He had always been a serious student, and his prolonged stay on the continent with nothing to do but study must have strengthened this seriousness.  When be returned to Eng1and, he met Samuel Hartlib, John Dury, Benjamin Worsley and others - the first two again probably through his sister. [10]  Their interest in science and its practical applications engaged Boyle’s mind and turned his study in new directions.  They, for instance, probably introduced Boyle to the chemical practice to which he was to be so addicted for many years to come.

Useful intelligence was not all Boyle shared with Hartlib, Dury and their circle.  Dury and Hartlib worked towards bringing in a religious settlement in England and Europe that would inaugurate an age of protestant unity, peace and prosperity after the devastations wrought by the wars of the first half of the century. [11]  Boyle shared their aims in this regard at least where it was a question of achieving them in England. [12]  The establishment of right religion was to Boyle’s mind the key to the solution of’ the country’s contemporary dilemma. It would heal the divisions; it would keep his fellow-countrymen from sinning so far as possible; it would thus give God less cause for punishing them than He had had when He let the current divisions grow among them; [13] and it would provide the greatest opportunity for the growth of wisdom and piety.  What sort of church settlement would it take to accomplish all of these ends?  Boyle was aware of the problem.  Wisdom and piety increase when men are free to seek and disseminate truth.  But because men are sinful, liberty runs to license, and the social order, the basis of all religion, is threatened.  Ample proof of such consequences is there for all to see in contemporary London, ‘which entertains... no less than 200 several opinions in point of religion...’  So obviously some discipline is necessary in order to ‘put a restraint upon the spreading impostures of sectaries, which have made this distracted city their general rendezvous...’  But the discipline must not be too ‘established and strict’.  If it is, the policy will backfire and, like the opposite extreme of too much liberty, frustrate achievement of the very aims that are the hallmarks of right religion - the bridging of divisions, the discovery of truth and the consequent increase in virtue and piety. [14]  Thus Boyle was as sceptical of the settlement of religion along presbyterian lines in 1646 as he was apprehensive about the sects. [15]  He seems to have advocated as an alternative to the excesses of liberty and discipline a comprehensive church in which there would be considerable toleration of divergent opinions.  Men should ‘embrace one another for those many fundamental truths wherein they agree’, [16] but they should also respect one another’s differences. [17]  Boyle did not specify what the limits of

10. R. E. W. Maddison, The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle, London 1969, pp. 61 and 63; cited hereafter as Maddison, Life.

11. Dictionary of.National Biography (DNB).

12. Samuel Hartlib, A Description of the Famous Kingdom of Macaria..., in The Harleian Miscellany. . ., London, 1808, I, 582; and, Birch, Life in Works, I, 23, Boyle to Dury, 3 May 1647.

13. Ibid., p. 18, Boyle to Marcombes, 22 October 1646.

14. Ibid., p. 19, Boyle to Marcombes, 22 October 1646.

15. Ibid

16. Ibid., p. 23, Boyle to Dury, 3 May 1647.

17. Ibid., p. 19, Boyle to Marcombcs, 22 October 1646.


toleration might be.  He seems to have thought that each believer should be responsible for setting his own. [18]  Self-control productive of mutual respect in matters of religion is the key then to the proper establishment of the faith.  That is to say, if each man will police his own passions and exercise discretion, all men will benefit.  They will at once avoid the dangers of license and repression and put themselves in the best position for discerning and spreading truths that will make every believer virtuous and reverent.

So the reformation of religion and society will come as much from within as without; its means will be as much self-imposed as imposed by public authority.  Not surprisingly, then, one of Boyle’s preoccupations if not his principal one in this period and for that matter for the rest of his life was his interest in how this reformation within each man can occur.  What, he asked, can a man do to become a true Christian?  Not surprisingly, too, the answers he found in the mid-1640s reflected and were moulded by his other preoccupations during this period as I have sketched them in.  What I wish to do then is to examine these answers and the nature of their connections with the other aspects of his experience - his management of his inheritance, his studies and the religious question.

In 1645 and 1646 Boyle wrote a long treatise, ‘The Aretology or Ethical Elements of Robert Boyle’, which, though it was never published, registers for the first time many of the fundamental moral and religious ideas that appear in his later published work. [19]  In his ‘Aretology’ he considered the typical view of the time that honour and virtue depend upon fortune.  According to this view, a gentleman is expected to live virtuously and honourably because he enjoys the advantages of fortune - breeding, wealth, company and leisure. [20]  To live up to this expectation he must satisfy the terms of a code requiring him to serve his family, caste, church and king.  The measure of his success is the esteem of his peers and the favour of his patron and king.  Such honour is the reward of virtue and therein lies temporal happiness.  This is the ethic in which Boyle had been raised. [21]  But he now claimed that fortune, far from conducing to virtue and happiness, is inimical to both. [22]  If a man is to be happy, Boyle said, he must strive to be virtuous despite fortune.  To be so under such conditions, moreover, is not to conform one’s behaviour to the dictates of the code

18. Ibid

19. The Royal Society of London, MS. 195; hereafter cited as Aretology.  Another manuscript in the same library - MS. 192, ‘The Ethicall Elements’ - appears to be a draft of the first portion of MS. 195.  For the dating of MS. 195, see the title page and Birch, Life in Works, 1, 17 and 20. For the appearance of ideas first expressed in ‘The Aretology’ in Boyle’s later work, compare my consideration of ‘The Aretology’ with, for instance, Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God, Pathetically discoursed of, in a letter to a friend, in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, (Thomas Birch, ed.) 5 vols., London, 1744, I, 163; hereafter cited as Works.

20. Aretology, fol. 31 v; Robert Ashley, Of Honour, V. B. Heltzel (ed.), San Marino, California, 1947, pp. 28, 30, 35 and 51; Ruth Kelso, The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1964, pp. 22, 27 and 29-30; and, Curtis Brown Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor, Princeton, 1960, pp.67 and 91.

21. Chatsworth, Devonshire Collections, Richard, the Earl of Cork’s Letter Book, fol. 142; Chatsworth, Devonshire Collections, Robert Boyle to Richard, the Earl of Cork, i6 November 1640; and, Lismore, V, 114.

22 Aretology, fols. 18 and 22 v.


of a ruling élite.  It is instead to live in face of the world by persevering, even rejoicing, when fortune is harsh, [23] and resisting its blandishments when deceptively benign. [24]  This is to live as if external circumstances exist solely to be defied and so demands an enormous exercise of will in the direction of self-mastery.  Nor does the judgment of one’s success come at the hands of any privileged, earthly authority, whether peers, patron or king.  Rather it comes from on high through the agency of providence - and this in a particular way.  If one has been virtuous enough - that is to say, sufficiently defiant of fortune - providence itself will take one’s part and work one’s eventual reward in both this life and the one to come. [25]

There is an intimate connection between Boyle’s rejection of the inherited wisdom of his caste respecting virtue and happiness, his formulation of his own ethic and his other preoccupations during these same years.  Being the son of a rich and powerful Irish peer, he was born into a world in which fortune was all on his side and brought up to believe that his life would unfold as the conventional wisdom decreed, that is to say, by his serving king and church in ways that would bring honour to himself and his family. [26]  But what hopes Boyle cherished in this regard were dashed by civil war.  The family’s wealth and power had been swept away, and, instead of serving church and king, it was all Boyle could do to keep himself solvent by husbanding what resources had been spared.  Not only did the civil wars alter the course of his life; they also led him to alter his understanding of his own and human destiny.  Forced to take charge of his own affairs in strange and forbidding circumstances, he rejected the conventional wisdom: experience had proved to him that fortune could no longer be trusted to supply the ground of virtue and happiness. [27]  Nor did he stop there.  He set about adopting another understanding that met the demands of his new situation.  In this enterprise he was helped by his success.  In combination with his deep piety it led him to discern a divine pattern in his experiences: he was plunged into successive difficulties, but God made each case, Boyle thought, an occasion for profiting him. [28]  God created such occasions sometimes in order to test and instruct him and so strengthen him to face the future. [29]  From here he went on, by writing ‘The Aretology’, to elevate his response to his own situation into a moral philosophy for which he claimed universal validity: by defying fortune according to his formula, men will attain to virtue, thus bringing their lives into harmony with providence, and providence in return will prosper them in the long run.  What Boyle essentially did then was to turn his inherited view of the relation of virtue to fortune on its head.  According to that view, fortune is a means to virtue by way of providing a setting conducive to its cultivation.  The upshot of Boyle’s view, however, is to make virtue a means to fortune.  This is one measure of

23. Ibid., fol. 179 r.

24. Ibid., fol. 180 v.

25. Ibid., 173 r., and 174-5 r.; and, A Free Discourse Against Customary Swearing, in Works, V, 216-17; cited hereafter as Free Discourse.  Birch claims (Birch, Life in Works, I, 26) to have seen a finished or polished draft of the latter work in Boyle’s own script dated 1647.  This should indicate that its composition was probably contemporary with that of ‘The Aretology’.

26. See note 21 above.

27 Birch, Life in Works, 1,6.

28. Ibid., p. 19, Boyle to Marcombes, 22 October 1646; and, Maddison, Life, pp. 53-4.

29. Birth, Life in Works, I, 19, Boyle to Marcombes, 22 October 1646.


the discrepancy between the inherited wisdom and the new realities brought on by civil war.

But Boyle’s efforts to secure his fortune and their outcome do not by themselves explain why he wrote ‘The Aretology’.  Not only did the moral precepts inscribed therein help him in his own predicament; they also supplied the key, he believed, to the proper settlement of religion.  If each man would follow his advice and pursue virtue in the face of fortune, all men would benefit: providential order and true religion would triumph over their enemies.  Basically, these consist of two groups.  First there are those whom Boyle commonly calls ‘Macchiavillians’.  Rather than resisting fortune as the virtuous do, they exploit circumstances for their own gain and without regard to the consequences. [30]  They will not be bound by moral rules and even go so far as to make religion serve their selfish purposes. [31]  If given a free hand they would reduce human affairs to anarchy.  But providence keeps their activities in check and sees to it that, although they may thrive for a time, in the long run all their efforts founder. [32]  The other group do not go under any particular name.  Sometimes they are called ‘Profane Persons’, [33] sometimes ‘Gallants’, [34] but Boyle includes among them and intends them chiefly to represent a type of gentleman - not all, to be sure, but the indolent and stupid. [35]  They adhere to the old ethic and so continue to seek the old honour and glory in a world where these are as likely the spoils of deceit as the fruits of virtue. [36]  They also pursue ephemeral pleasures and neglect or even disparage religion. [37]  In all of these ways they keep faith with fortune instead of doing as they should and relying upon providence.  What is more they fail to see the precariousness of their position and so leave themselves even more vulnerable to circumstances than ‘the Macchiavillians’, who at least know the game they are playing.

Boyle’s ethic would overcome the threat from both ‘Macchiavillians’ and indolent gentry.  In spelling out how it would work in this regard he did more than urge men to defy fortune by internalizing the moral life.  He went on to tell them how they can do this on a daily basis.  First he invoked the doctrine of the calling.  Its message is particularly important to the indolent aristocrat whose leisure is an invitation to sin.  ‘An honest Calling is an Academy of Virtue...’  It keeps a man too busy to sin; it ‘gives Occasion both to acquire those Good qualitys that we want and Exercise and improve those we possess’; and it contributes to the public good.  A man who subjects himself to the moral

30. The Royal Society of London, MS. 196, ‘Of Piety’, fols. 54 v.-55; cited hereafter as Of Piety; its contents and handwriting suggest that it was written in the late 1640s (in this connection see also Maddison, Life, p. 33).

31. Aretology, fol. 170 r.

32. Ibid., fols. 211 V. - 212 r.

33. Of Piety, fols. 54 V. - 55.

34. The Royal Society of London, The Boyle Papers (hereafter cited as The Boyle Papers), ‘Of Time and Idleness’, Theology, XIV, fol. 20 r.; this piece was probably written in the late 1640s or the early 1650s (see Maddison, Life, 64).

35. Aretology, fols. 225 and 227 v. - 228 r.

36. Ibid., fols. 15 r. and 22 v. - 23 r.; and, The Royal Society of London, MS. 196, ‘Of Valour’, fols. 64 v. - 65 r. (for the dating of this piece see note 30 above).

37. Of Piety, fols. 54 V. - 55; and, Free Discourse, in Works, V, 216 -17.


discipline of honest work, moreover, is enriched by providence ‘with temporal blessings’. [38]  Second, Boyle recommended as especially beneficial a particular kind of work, the labour of study.  It furnishes means to virtue in addition to those inherent in all labour. [39]  Study of God and his ways instil a desire to be worthy of Him and of his ‘no les Boundles then undeserved Bounty...’ [40]  And study of nature offers an instructive comparison:

how... can he [man] consider the Ruf Draughts and Images of Virtue in the Very Brutes; without a Noble Scorn that he shud make himself inferiour to them by his Actions, that God made so much superior to them by his Birth; and that while all the Creatures unanimously conspire, to attaine in their particular Conditions, the End of their Creation; man alone, shud strive to frustrate his by his Actions, and be the onely jarring Voice to spoile the Harmonius Concert of so numerous a Set of wel-tun’d Creatures; making use of his Reason, to becom the more unreasonable. [41]

The message is clear: nature presents to the student a model of harmony with God’s purpose that man would do well to emulate.  Each creature functions in such a way as to conduce to the end of all.  If ‘the Very Brutes’ can do this, how much better able should men be to do the same?  The study of nature then is not an end in itself.  Nor was Boyle interested here in science in a modern sense.  He believed such study to contribute to man’s moral, civic and religious enterprise.  All knowledge ultimately becomes ethical knowledge, teaching men to live more virtuously, and the pursuit of knowledge an ethical pursuit.  Boyle has now shown how through defiance of fortune, an honest calling and the study of nature a man can achieve virtue and happiness.  The individual, moreover, is not the only one who stands to gain.  There is also a social dividend.  The ethic answers the threat to religion and society posed by the cunning and the indolent.  To the extent that men put Boyle’s formula into practice they tune their lives to providence and so contribute to the universal harmony just as ‘the Very Brutes’ do and teach them to.  Thus, as the indolent are reformed, the ranks of the virtuous swell; harmony will then come to pervade human affairs as it does all else, and ‘the Macchiavillians’, dependent as they are upon fortune, will no longer have any room to machinate because fortune will have been swallowed up in the rule of providence.

In his ‘Aretology’ Boyle answered the two imperatives in terms of which he lived during the civil wars - the demands of his economic predicament and those of right religion; the compulsion to secure his fortune and the necessity of securing the proper establishment of the faith.  Boyle’s ethic would produce men of consummate self-control.  This would not only serve them in their conduct of affairs; it would also have a crucial ecclesiastical function.  Only such men, avoiding the hazards of licence and repression, would strike the right balance between liberty and discipline, and so bring in the proper settlement of religion.  Thus if Boyle’s ethic reflects his adjustment to circum-

38. Aretology, fols. 224 V. - 225 F.

39. Ibid., fol. 191 V.

40. Ibid., fol. 192 r.

41. Ibid., fol. 192 V.


stances, it also represents an answer to the sell out to circumstances on the part of the indolent, the ruthless and the cunning if Boyle’s economic security depended upon his own adjustment to circumstances, the institution of true religion, he thought, depended upon a collective adjustment to these same circumstances - and in precisely the manner that he practiced and prescribed.  What Boyle did in his ‘Aretology’ then was to provide ideological - social and religious - grounds, growing out of his experience of and response to events, for a theory of self-interest.  He assumed that providence works in a certain fashion.  When a man defies fortune through an internalization of the moral life, pursues an honest calling and goes to nature for moral and religious instruction, he is not the only one who benefits.  These actions, undertaken in private independently of what anyone else may or may not be doing, contribute mysteriously to the comnonweal.  The process is hidden; an invisible hand forges a secret identity between individual purposes and the public good.

During the period 1647-1649 Boyle wrote ‘An Invitation to a free and generous Communication of Secrets and Receits in Physick’. [42]  There he attacked the attitude widely current among gentry and aristocracy that the value of knowledge lies not in its practical application but in its significance as a mark of the intellectual distinction of the possessor and so as still further evidence of gentle status.  Hence cures and alchemical formulae were not to be spread abroad but hoarded up - one’s merit depending upon the rarity of his specimens. [43]  This attitude was another aspect of the conventional wisdom respecting virtue and happiness against which young Robert in consequence of his experience had revolted.  Boyle’s attack rested in part upon his assumption of the identity between public and private interest.  He attempted to persuade his readers to give up their attitude by arguing that in communicating useful secrets they serve both the public and themselves.  First their possession of their own secrets depends upon such communication.  Where would they be, he asked, if everyone had always refused to tell? [44]  Second, where there are no barriers to the communication of medical knowledge, not only does the number of available remedies increase but the good drive out the false.  Everything is tested by experiment and the genuine alone survives.  Both the public and the honest empiric are served, and the charlatan is the only loser.  The empiric especially benefits.  By making the results of his experiments public he gets the praise he deserves and is provided with the opportunity ‘to reform his errors’ and so win new honour by making further advances for the public good. [45]  According to Boyle’s ethic, virtue conduces to private and public advantage alike.  In his ‘Invitation’, written within two or three years after ‘The Aretology’, the communication of remedies does the same.  Here again providence is the

42. Margaret E. Rowbottom, ‘The earliest published writing of Robert Boyle’, Annals of Science, VI (21 November 1950), 376; and, R. E. W. Maddison, ‘The earliest published writing of Robert Boyle’, Annals of Science, XVII (1961), 165-168.

43. Walter E. Houghton, Jr., ‘The English virtuoso in the seventeenth century’, Journal of the History of Ideas, III (January 1942), ~ and (April 1942), 190-219; and, Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, Oxford, 1965, p. 717.

44. Rowbottom, op.cit., pp. 380-1.

45. Ibid., p. 383.


mysterious agent of this occult harmony: ‘... careful providence forseeing how inclinable frail men would be to selfishness in. the dispensation of such goods as these, hath most wisely provided, that the parting with these goods should not prejudice their possession, nor liberality impoverish him that uses it’.  Such a man is one ‘Whom the Nature of the riches he disperses, resembles to the Sun, who though so bountifully he bestoweth his Beams on the whole universe never findeth a scarcity of them in himself…’ [46]

We have traced the origins of Boyle’s ethic to his experience of and reflection upon events.  Some of his ideas in. this regard are similar to the contemporary opinions of Samuel Hartlib, John Dury and John Milton, [47] who at the time both knew Hartlib and was a friend of Lady Ranelagh, Boyle’s sister, to whom he was especially close. [48]  In addition he addressed his ‘Invitation’ to Hartlib, who eventually published it. [49]  This is all evidence for a community of opinion of which Boyle was a part.  But whether he borrowed from any of these sources or from similar ones is not known.

As the ‘Invitation’ suggests, Boyle continued to elaborate the ideas first expressed in. ‘The Aretology’.  Between 1648 and 1655 he modified ideas born of his earlier situation to meet the challenge of his new one.  His pivotal concern was still the question of how men can become true Christians and so bring in the reformation or proper settlement of religion.  Likewise, the answer he gave - more definitively this time, to be sure - was again the result of his experience of and. reflection upon events.

The execution of the king and the proclamation of the republic in January 1649 forced Boyle to decide whether he would acquiesce in the new government or not.  Previously he had tried for economic reasons to remain neutral.  But this was no longer possible.  His brother Roger, Baron Broghill, who had fought in Ireland to defeat the rebels, now determined to go to the continent to serve Charles I’s son. [50]  In Roger’s effort to get safely out of England now that he had thrown his support to the royalist cause Robert was an accomplice. [51]  But the plan came to naught Broghill was apprehended by Cromwell and made to choose between the Tower and a fresh command in Ireland in the service of the new regime.  This settled the matter for Roger [52] and Robert alike.  Later in. 1649 Broghill went off to Ireland to join in. Cromwell’s campaign.  As the rebels were reduced, the Boyles took possession of their patrimony, and Robert,

46. Ibid.

47. Hartlib, op. cit., pp. 580-5; Birch, Life in Works, I, 23, Boyle to Dury, 3 May 1647; and, Milton, Areopagitica, in Complete Prose Works of John Milton (New Haven and London 1959), II, 565 and 567-8.

48. In 1644 Milton addressed his treatise Of Education to Hartlib; and Leslie Stephen, DNB, XXXVIII, 31.

49. Rowbottom, op. cit., pp. 378-9.

50. Thomas Morrice, ‘The life of the Earl of Orrery’, in A Collection of the State Letters of the Right Honourable Roger Boyle, the First Ear1 of Orrery.., London, 1742, pp. 9-10.

51. Historical Library, Medical Library, Yale University, a draft letter written by Robert Boyle and addressed to an unidentified lady, requesting her aid in securing a pass for Roger from the French Ambassador, Marston Bigot, 26 March 1649.

52. Morrice, op. cit., p. 11 also Edward Hyde, Earl.of Clarendon, State Papers, Oxford, 1773, II, 501, ‘The Lord Inchiquin to the Marquis of Ormond’, Kilmallock, 9 December 1649, which tends to confirm Morrice’s account.


having acquiesced in the Commonwealth, went to Ireland three times between mid’1652 and mid-1654 to see to his share. [53]

The family Boyle thus came to have a substantial stake in. the republic, and Robert, no doubt as a result, defended it against those whom he regarded as its foes.  These were of two kinds.  There were the ‘Macchiavillians’ again and ‘the vulgar’ or ‘the Giddy Multitude’, [54] by which in the context of the 1650s Boyle was probably referring to the sectaries.  The workings of providence eventually remove the threat of the first. [55]  But the second, it seems, were not to be so easily undone.  Boyle’s apprehension in this regard is not difficult to understand, given his stake in a republic rendered unstable by continual radical, sectarian activity.  He agreed with ‘the vulgar’ that the right to or possession of power does not necessarily confer the ability to use it with wisdom.  But he also believed that it is better to trust the one or the few who hold power than for every man to claim, as ‘the vulgar’ themselves do, that he alone can exercise it to best effect. [56]  Boyle thought that this is so because he assumed that each man acts as a ‘free agent’ and as such, unless otherwise instructed, pursues his own interests whether consistent with those of the whole or not.

Thus, when ‘the vulgar’ take issue with the government, they do so for utterly selfish reasons.  Limited in their vision by the blinders of untutored self-interest, they rush on unable to tell whether their aims serve the public good or not - and, naked self-interest being what it is, they probably do not. [57]  The government having been thus challenged or subverted, if men discover, and they probably will, that their interests have not been served, the situation will continue to deteriorate.  Those who feel their interests threatened by this initial challenge or subversion will themselves undertake to challenge or subvert and so on to chaos.  Not content to rest his acquiescence in the republic merely upon the grounds of his analysis of what would happen if ‘the Giddy Multitude’ prevailed, Boyle gave the government the sanction of religion by suggesting that when men obey, they become eligible to receive ‘divers peculiar blessings, that God oftentimes vouchsafes to our obedience to his vicegerents, and his institutions’. [58]  Here, as in ‘The Aretology’, the motive of conduct is the opportunity not of spiritual but of material reward.  This, however, is not the same for Boyle as the self-interest of the sectaries.  Theirs is reckless, offends providence and is punished.  But the pious and hence certain way of realizing one’s interests is, Boyle suggests, by an effort of calculated obedience.  Contemporaneously Boyle pursued his studies, biblical and scientific.  These he regarded as complementary.  Like Sir Francis Bacon, [59] Boyle held that both God’s word and his works, when properly studied, reveal the same

53. R.. E. W. Maddison, ‘Studies in the life of Robert Boyle, F.R.S. Part VI. The Stalbridge Period, 1645-1655, and the Invisible College’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, XVIII (December 1963), pp. 116 and 117; hereafter cited as Maddison, Studies.

54. B.M. Add. MS. 32093, fol. 293, Boyle to John Mallet, 2 March 1652.

55. Works, II, 199, in a dialogue that ‘treats of Angling improved to spiritual uses’ (ibid., 182), written some time between the regicide and the restoration (ibid., 181).

56. Ibid., pp. 196-7.

57. Ibid., pp. 195-6.

58. Ibid, pp. 196-197.

59. Boyle knew Bacon’s Advancement of Learning by this time and accepted his sense expressed therein of the complementarity of theology and natural philosophy; see Some Considerations [touching the Usefulness of experimental natural philosophy, Part I, in Works, I, 458; cited hereafter as Considerations, Part I.  These were written between 1649 and 1654; see R. S. Westfall, ‘Unpublished Boyle papers relating to scientific method’, Annals of Science, XII (March 2956), p. 65; hereafter cited as Westfall, Boyle Papers.]

HHC - [bracketed] displayed on p. 11 of original.


truths. [60]  Once more, as we shall see, the significance of Boyle’s studies derives from their social and ideological context because once more the truths thus revealed reflect his response to events.  As such these truths, he believed, answered the challenge to the republic with whose interests, as we have just seen, he identified his own.  Furthermore, these truths, by answering these challenges, prepared the way for true religion, which he held to be his central concern. [61]  In Boyle’s mind events, studies and the reformation thus came for a second time to be intimately related.

What are the truths in which nature and scripture are so rich, and, once discovered and applied, how do they work to produce virtue and piety?  On 31 August 1649, Boyle wrote to Lady Ranelagh :[62]

I will not now presume to entertain you with those moral speculations, with which my chemical practices have entertained me; but if this last sickness had not diverted me, I had before this presented you with a discourse... of the theological use of natural philosophy, endeavouring to make the contemplation of the creatures contributory to the instruction of the prince, and to the glory of the author of them...

The study of nature offers insight by turns into morals, politics and divinity.  This assumption is reminiscent of what Boyle had said in this regard in ‘The Aretology’.  For the source of Boyle’s belief in the existence of instructive relations between different orders of being, moreover, one need scarcely look further than to his reading of the Bible.  To Boyle, as to many others in the seventeenth century, the scriptures demonstrated how God used events, natural and political, to teach men their duty and presage the future. [63]  Augmenting Boyle’s scriptural sense of the relations between things was his contemporary interest in astrology, [64] the cabala [65] and indeed, as his remarks to Katherine and elsewhere [66] show, alchemy itself.  From these too flowed the sense that human destiny is bound up with the order of nature and that the latter properly approached will reveal something of the former.  Boyle’s belief in the existence of these relationships is one thing; his understanding of their nature, of the

60. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 430, 431 and 433.

61. Ibid, pp. 439, 440 and 461.

62. Works, V, 238.

63. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 433 and 439-440; Bacon, The Advancement of Learning; and, M. C. Jacob, The Church and the Boyle Lectures: The Social Context of the Newtonian Natural Philosophy, (unpublished PhD thesis; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1969).

64. ‘Of Celestial Influences or Effluviums in the Air’, in Works, V, 124-7 (for dating sec Westfall, Boyle Papers, 65).

65. Works, V, 236, Robert Boyle to Lady Elizabeth Russey, 6 June 1648.

66. H. Fisch, ‘The scientist as priest: a note on Robert Boyle’s natural theology’, Isis, XL (1953) p. 256, referring to certain of Boyle’s Occasional Reflections pertaining to alchemy, written in the late 1640 or the 1650s.


unifying factor or connecting principle, is quite another—and the subject to which we shall now turn.

Between 1649 and 1654 or 1655 Boyle wrote five essays that are perhaps as close as he ever came to the ‘discourse. ... of the theological use of natural philosophy’ mentioned in the letter of the late summer of 1649.  These were published in 1663 as ‘Part I’ of Some Considerations touching the Usefulness of experimental natural philosophy. [67]  In these five essays Boyle set out to refute those who claimed that study of the created order leads to preoccupation with second causes to the neglect or exclusion from consideration of the first, the Creator himself. [68]  On the authority of the Bible, Plutarch, Cicero, Macrobius, Seneca, Philo, [69] Galen [70] and Clement of Alexandria, [71] Boyle asserted that nature is a temple and man the priest.  All creatures embody evidence of God’s glory.  But man alone among them enjoys reason enough to witness this evidence and ‘return thanks and praises to his Maker’, which he does ‘not only for himself; but for the whole creation’. [72]  God thus accomplishes one of the two ends of the creation, the manifestation of his glory.  So the study of nature, far from being irreligious, is man’s primary duty to God and ‘the homage we pay for the privilege of reason’. [73]  Through such study man also benefits himself:  Not only does nature supply his wants and appetites; it teaches him virtue and piety.  The benefit of man being God’s other aim in the creation, He accomplishes both of his ends at once. [74]  In Boyle’s hands the doctrine of God’s two purposes in the creation acquired a particular ideological significance.  To the extent that man plays his part in fulfilling these purposes, Boyle argued, he will answer the four real enemies of true religion - indolent gentry, ‘Macchiavillians’, sectaries and philosophical heretics.  Boyle thus turned the case of the detractors of natural philosophy on its head.  Not only is the study of nature not irreligious; it is itself the best defence against irreligion.  Wherein does this study consist and how would it overcome the fourfold threat to true religion?

First there was the problem of the indolent gentry.  Boyle claimed them to be ‘lulled asleep by custom and sensuality’. [75] ‘Custom’ had restricted their ‘...Acts of Devotion to the Begging of Blessings from God, and returning them to Him in the Person of one’s Neighbor’. [76]  This was acceptable as far as it went.  But God’s mercy is not his only perfection - far from it.  There are also his wisdom and power, ‘for whose Manifesting he was pleased to construct this vast Fabricke’. [77]  These attributes had ‘exacted both Men and Angell’s

67. See note 59 above.

68. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 425, 429-30, 440, 442, 443 and 453.

69. Ibid., p. 441; and, The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, VIII, 226 r. (The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, VIII, fols. 223-38 were probably written during the same period as ‘Part I’ of Considerations; compare, for instance, Works, I, 424 and 426, and fol. 229; Works, I, 430, and fol. 224 v.; Works, I, 432, and fol. 227 v.; Works, I, 433 and 439, and fol. 138r.; and, Works, I, 441-443, and fols. 125 r. 128 v.).

70. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 454.

71. The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, VIII, 226 r.

72. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 441.

73. Ibid., p.461.

74. Ibid., pp. 441-2.

75. Ibid., pp. 425-6.

76. The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, Viii, 125 r.; and, Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 442.

77. The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, Viii, 125 V.


Adoration, before they needed’ his mercy.  To Boyle ‘it appeares something selfish and to imply an injurious Disparity betwixt Perfections, all equall because all Infinite, to let God’s Mercy... engrosse our Thoughts’, to the neglect of his other attributes. [78]  Men should thus also worship Him through the contemplation of his creatures.  Boyle went on to suggest that gentlemen should do as he did and devote a portion of the Sabbath to such contemplation, supporting his case by an appeal to Mosaical authority. [79]  Besides the impediment of ‘custom’, there was that of ‘sensuality’.  Left to themselves, men take the line of least resistance.  Because of their superior faculties they can delight in observing the created order without the slightest exertion. ‘... The bare beholding of this admirable structure, is capable of pleasing men...’ [80]  Anything more requires application.  At this point ‘sensuality’ takes over in many, and they refuse to make the effort.  Boyle replied, ‘… if we (contenting ourselves with the superficial account given us of things by their obvious appearances and qualities) are beholden for that we know, to our nature, not our industry, we faultily lose both one of the noblest imployments, and one of the highest satisfactions of our rational faculty’. [8l]

In the study of the creatures Boyle found an alternative to indolence.  Second he provided the same alternative to the pursuits of ‘the Macchiavillians’.  As he had shown in his ‘Aretology’, their preoccupation was with the acquisition of fame and power regardless of the consequences.  Boyle now claimed that if they were successful, it was due not to their knowledge but to their birth and fortune.  Such success could give them neither honour nor contentment - not honour because their positions rested less upon anything they themselves had designed and accomplished than upon circumstances beyond their control, and not contentment because circumstances change and foil the successful; knowing this, they could not possibly enjoy any peace of mind.  In essence they could take satisfaction neither in what had already happened nor in what was going to.  True honour and contentment come then, Boyle suggested, not from the pursuit of fame and power but from study and knowledge of the creatures. [82]  This is so because, as we have seen, Boyle believed that natural philosophy teaches men the ways of God and how to live according to them.  So Boyle’s answer to the threat of ‘the Macchiavillians’ was the same as his advice to the indolent - to apply oneself to the investigation of the world, to the performance of one’s priestly function, the role to which God has assigned man, in the temple of nature.  The reward will follow - a life proportioned to divine providence and a deep and permanent happiness as distinct from the one, hollow and tenuous, that fortune holds out.

Third there was the problem of the sectaries.  They believed, Boyle held, that learning is a ‘Profane Thing’. [83]  They also claimed that God speaks directly to his saints and thus reveals to them the truths of things.  So divine illumination, not human learning, should be man’s guide.  Such a view makes

78. Ibid., p. 128.

79. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 442-3; and, The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, VIII, 128.

80. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 424.

81. Ibid., p. 426.

82. Ibid., p. 429.

83. B. M., Harley 7003, fol. 279, Boyle to Mallet, November 1651.


each man’s private vision the measure of wisdom.  The political and social implications of this view were what disturbed Boyle in his defence of the republic against ‘the vu1gar’, already examined. [84]  In the early 1650s when he wrote the essays in hand, these implications were anything but academic.  On the basis of their claims to divine inspiration many sectaries, some in high places, preached an imminent millennium. [85]  This situation posed a threat to the existing order.  So Boyle’s judgment and interests, realized under and protected by that order, led him to oppose the sectaries.  He said to them as to the indolent and ‘the Macchiavilliains’ that knowledge is the product of industry, of the sustained exertion of intelligence, of the application of reason to the observation of the creatures.  Visions, he suggested, generate an excitement in their subject detrimental to his understanding. [86]  Boyle also enlisted the hermetic tradition in support of his position. [87]  According to seventeenth-century legend, Hermes Trismegistus was an ancient whose knowledge had come straight from God.  All subsequent philosophies were supposed to have been derivative of this source and as such to have been nothing better than pale copies and partial glimpses of the divinely-revealed wisdom of Hermes.  Boyle assumed in his use of the tradition that the early Hebrews possessed something like the complete hermetic wisdom. [88]  The ancient Egyptians, according to Josephus, learned true ‘astronomy and philosophy’ from Abraham.  Later, Aristotle, according to other ‘Jewish authors’, borrowed from Solomon’s ‘matchless records of nature’.  Since then much of Aristotle’s natural philosophy had been lost.  Boyle offered an explanation.  The missing Aristotle is what he took from Solomon and as such represents the true philosophy of nature revealed by God to the leaders of his chosen people.  He may have caused such wisdom to be lost as a part of his conscious design.  Boyle wrote:

Providence perhaps deprived the world..., upon such a score, as it did the Jews of the body of Moses, lest men should idolise it, or as some Rabbies are pleased to inform us, lest vicious men should venture upon all kinds of intemperance, out of confidence of finding out by help of those excellent writings the cure of all the distempers their dissoluteness should produce. [89]

Neither visions nor revelations from on high, therefore, would bring knowledge befitting a true Christian: visions impair understanding, and divine revelation,

84. See notes 56 and 57 above.

85. H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘Oliver Cromwell and his Parliaments’, in Religion, the Reformation and Social Change, London 1967, pp. 362-72; and Austin Woolrych, ‘The calling of Barebones Parliament’, The English Historical Review, CCCXVI (July 1965), pp. 494-98 and 512-13.

86. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 424.

87. Fisch, op. cit., pp. 252-65, treats of Boyle’s appropriation of hermetic doctrines and claims that they served as the basis of ‘the integration’ of his science and religion, to which his natural philosophy in turn ‘owes its dynamism...’ (ibid., pp. 253-4).  But according to Fisch, Boyle’s reasons for appropriating hermetic doctrines were ‘metaphysical and psychological’ (ibid., p. 254), whereas I shall argue that they were social and ideological.

89. The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, 227 v.; and, Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 441.

89. Ibid., 429.


though affording complete comprehension, would for that very reason tempt men to lives of sin.  Boyle’s way, on the other hand, the way of reason and industry, is not open to attack upon either of these grounds.  To quite the contrary.  First the man who conditions himself to Boyle’s way will be less given to excitement than the visionary and so less susceptible of any impairment of his understanding.  Second the sustained application of intelligence to a searching inquiry into nature will itself make a man virtuous.  Negatively the very labour of the search will keep a man from vice.  Positively the inquiry will reveal more and more evidence of God in the creatures and so cannot help but have a morally and spiritually beneficial effect.  A man will thus grow so piously conditioned that when he makes discoveries, such as cures, he will regard them not as inducements to vice wherewith to patch up ‘all distempers’ that future ‘dissoluteness should produce’ but instead as gifts of God or at most rewards of virtue.  It is curious that Boyle used the hermetic tradition to support his position because certain sectaries did the same. [90]  It was obviously capable of various, even contrary interpretations.  In this regard Boyle may have appropriated the tradition to his own purposes partly in an effort to steal the sectaries’ hermetic thunder. [91]  It is interesting to note in this connection that one of Boyle’s chief sources for the tradition was The Divine Pymander, translated by John Everard and published in London in 1650: [92] Everard’s view of the relative merits of learning and divine inspiration as means to truth was precisely that of the sectaries which Boyle was attacking, [93] Everard himself having been ‘haled before High Commission in 1639 for familism, antinominism and anabaptism and fined a thousand pounds’. [94]

A sectary might have argued that Boyle’s way to knowledge makes a man rely for understanding upon himself alone and that therefore his own way was more godly because he depended, instead, upon divine illumination.  Boyle’s position, however, precluded such a case being made against it: just as natural philosophy can deepen piety, so God can reward such piety in a man by furthering his understanding of nature.  God’s contribution, to be sure, does

90. Geoffrey Nuttali, “Unity with the Creation”: George Fox and the hermetic tradition’, in The Puritan Spirit, London, 1967, pp. 194-203; and, John Webster, Academiarum Examen, London, 1654, pp. 26-32.

91. This sort of motive almost certainly whetted his interest in rabbinnical studies in this period.  In 1651 he knew that the Jews might shortly win legal toleration in England and was apprehensive about the consequences.  He feared that if the Jews were free to practice their faith, ‘it may seduce many of those numerous Unprincipled (and consequently) Unstable Soules, who having never been solidly or settledly grounded in the Truth, are equally obnoxious to all sorts of Errors…’  In part, it seems, because of this project he went to ‘a very learned Amsterdam’ Jew visiting in London in order to ‘inform’ himself ‘of the true Tenets and Rites of the Moderne Jewes...’ (RM., Harley 7003, fol. 179).  An adequate defence of the true faith would lie partly in knowledge of the false - or the devil can quote Scripture to his own purposes.

92. Compare The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, VIII, 127 V., and Everard’s translation, p. 2; and, The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, VIII, 128 v., and Everard, p. 1 and ‘To the Reader’; see also Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 441 and 458.

93. William Hailer, The Rise of Puritanism, New York, 1938, pp. 211-12.  For Everard’s contribution to Quakerism see R. M. Jones, Mysticisin and Democracy in the English Commonwealth, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1932, p. 69 ff.; and, Nuttall, op.cit., p. 195.

94. Hailer, op.cit., p. 208.


not come in the form of a sudden and. total. revelation of nature’s secrets - as this, as we have seen, might produce undesirable consequences.  Boyle wrote, for instance, ‘... I dare not affirm, with some of the Helmontians and Paracelsians, that God discloses to men the great mystery of chymistry by good angels, or by nocturnal visions…’ [95]  Boyle said ‘some’, not all, ‘Helmontians and Paracelsians’ because he, too, used the work of Paracelsus and J. B. van Helmànt in his own chemical studies. [96]  Who then were the ones from whom Boyle was here dissociating himself?  They would seem to have been the sectaries again whose view that knowledge is a matter of visions and divine revelations derived from, among other sources, the works of Paracelsus and van Helmont. [97]  Evidence suggests that in taking this position Boyle was answering Thomas Vaughan, a contemporary hermetist who believed that through divine illuinination men can arrive at a complete comprehension of the universe. [98]  Vaughan himself was not a sectary. [99]  But his views were similar to those of some sects, and Henry More, for instance, attacked Vaughan’s works in order ‘to admonish others of their fanaticalness and folly’. [100]  So God does not furnish synoptic visions of the nature of all reality but does contribute in less direct and immediate ways, by protecting men’s experiments from ‘unlucky accidents’ and by providing shortcuts and ‘pregnant hints’ leading to fruitful conclusions, to a proper inquiry into nature. [101]  These divine services do not so much supplant as foster Boyle’s way of proceeding in the study of nature via reason and industry.  How can God do otherwise, when reason and industry, not visions and revelations, are what make and keep men virtuous?

The fourth threat was that of philosophical heretics who might be either Aristotelian or Epicurean.  Boyle undertook to answer them in ‘Essay IV.  Containing a requisite Digression concerning those, that exclude the Deity from inter-meddling with Matter.’  The answer represents his first unequivocal affirmation of the ideas that were to be the basis of his scientific work.  These consisted of a particulate theory of matter that was treated as an hypothesis to be tested by experiment. [102]  The strictly technical and intellectual origins and aspects of these ideas, Boyle’s so-called corpuscular philosophy, have been

95. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 460.

96. Works, I, 167; Maddison, Studies, VI; and, J. J. O’Brien, ‘Samuel Hartlib’s Influence on Robert Boyle’s scientific development.  Part I. The Stalbridge Period’, Annals of Science, XXI (March 1965), pp. 1-14.

97. P. M. Rattansi, ‘Paracelsus and the Puritan Revolution’, Ambix, XI (1964), pp. 24-32; P. M. Rattansi, ‘The intellectual origins of the Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, XXIII (December 1968), pp. 136-7; and, Webster. op. cit., pp. 74-6, and pp. 106-7.

98. Compare, for example, Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 461, and Thomas Vaughan., Magia Adamica: or the Antiquitie of Magic, in A. E. Waite (ed), The Magical Writings of Thomas Vaughan, London, 1888, pp. 103-4; see also G. H. Turnbuil, ‘George Stirk, philosopher by fire (1628?-1665), Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, XXXVIII.  Transactions 1947-1951, Boston 1959, p. 238; R. S. Wilkinson, ‘The Hartlib papers and seventeenth-century chemistry. Part I’, Ambix, XV (1968), pp. 62-3; and, Maddison, Life, p. 79

99. Thomas Vaughan, Anthroposophia Theomagica, in Waite (ed.), op.cit., p. 38.

100. M. H. Nicholson (ed.), The Conwav Letters, London, 1930, p. 75.

101. Considerations, Part I, in Works, 1,460.

102. Ibid., pp. 446 and 450.


dealt with elsewhere. [103]  But the full story of his adoption of these ideas has not been told because it has not been seen how they comported with his contemporary religious and ideological position.  How then did Boyle’s corpuscular philosophy not only explain the phenomena but do so in such a way as at least at the outset to serve an ideological function?  An answer to this question emerges from ‘Essay IV’ where Boyle treated of contemporary Aristotelians and Epicureans who claimed ‘to be able to explicate the first beginning of things and the world’s phenomena, without taking in, or acknowledging any divine Author of it’. [104]

Those who followed Aristotle in this regard said ‘that if a man put one end of a long reed into a vessel full of water, and suck at the other end, the suction drawing the air out of the cavity of the reed, the water must necessarily succeed in the place deserted by the air, to prevent a vacuity abhorred by nature’. [105]  This explanation, Boyle said, ‘supposes that there is a kind of anima mundi, furnished with various passions, which watchfully provides for the safety of the universe; or that a brute and inanimate creature, as water, not only has a power to move its heavy body upwards, contrary (to speak in their language) to the tendency of its particular nature, but knows both that unless it succeed the attracted air, there will follow a vacuum; and that this water is withal so generous, as by ascending, to act contrary to its particular inclination for the general good of the universe, like a noble patriot, that sacrifices his private interests to the publick ones of his country’. [106]  But to claim that irrational creatures are capable of such reason and virtue is, Boyle said, to put them on a par with man. [107]  Worse than this, since such creatures are not possessed of rational and hence immortal souls and yet can do everything that man is supposed to be able to do by reason of his, the implication is that he does not have one either. [108]  So Boyle objected to this Aristotelian position in the last analysis because it leads logically to a denial of the immortality of the human soul as conventionally understood.  No doubt his objection was whetted by the fact that such a denial based upon arguments like those of the Aristotelians here was current among religious and political radicals during the 1640s and 1650s, the obvious examples being Milton and Richard Overton, the Leveller leader. [109]  Neither Milton nor Overton was an atheist.  But less radical thinkers saw a threat of atheism or at least of disorder in the mortalist’s position.  If men came to believe that the soul is mortal, conventional religion would lose one of its strongest sanctions.  What difference does it make what one does in this life, if the individual soul does not survive intact into the next, there to receive its just deserts?  This attitude would leave the door open to every form of vice and rebellion.  Of course Boyle would

103. For instance, Marie Boas, ‘Boyle as theoretical scientist’, Isis, XL (1950), pp. 261-8; Westfall, Boyle Papers, pp. 63-73 and 103-17; Kargon, op. cit., pp. 93-105; and, Laurans Laudan, ‘The clock metaphor and probabi1ism: the impact of Descartes on English methodological thought, 1650-65’, Annals of Science, XII (June 1966), pp. 73-104.

104. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, ~

105. Ibid., p. 445.

106. Ibid.

107. Ibid., pp. 445 and 446-7.

108. Ibid., p. 447.

109. Denis Saurat, Milton, Man and Thinker, 1944, p. 278; and, Richard Overton, Mans Mortalitie, Amsterdam, 1644, pp. 27-29.


oppose a view that would undermine as this did his ethic of rewards and punishments and so give ‘Macchiavillians’ and sectaries a free hand.  Thus when before the restoration he heard the younger Sir Henry Vane preach to his followers on a biblical text suggestive of mortalism, Boyle spoke up and made it clear that he countenanced nothing but a strictly orthodox exegesis of the passage. [110]  Thus too his corpuscular philosophy offered an alternative, avoiding any mortalistic implications, to Aristotelian explanations.  The rising of fluid in a tube when one end is sucked and the other immersed in the liquid is due not to ‘nature’s detestation of a vacuity’ but to strictly material factors - ‘the pressure of the air (against the liquors and the sucker’s chest) and their respective measures of gravity and lightness compared to that pressure...” [111]  This and similar explanations of other phenomena led Boyle in the same essay to adopt his corpuscular theory of matter : [112]

… methinks we may, without absurdity, conceive, that God,... having resolved before the creation, to make such a world as this of ours, did divide (at least if he did not create it incoherent) that matter, which he had provided, into an innumerable multitude of very variously figured corpuscles, and both connected those particles into such textures or particular bodies, and placed them in such situations, and put them into such motions, that by the assistance of his ordinary preserving concourse, the phaenomena, which he intended should appear in the universe, must as orderly follow, and be exhibited by the bodies necessarily acting according to those impressions or laws, though they understand them not at all, as if each of those creatures had a design of self-preservation, and were furnished with knowledge and industry to prosecute it; and as if there were diffused through the universe an intelligent being, watchful over the publick good of it, and careful to administer all things wisely for the good of the particular parts of it, but so far forth as is consistent with the good of the whole...

The creatures behave ‘as if each... had a design of self-preservation, and were furnished with knowledge and industry to prosecute it...”  But it is really God who makes them do so, and the immortality of the human, soul is thus preserved.

By making God the origin of motion in ‘(most of) the... phaenomena of nature’ excluding man, Boyle also answered ‘the modern admirers of Epicurus’.  Although he had adopted their atomic conception of matter, he refused to accept their view, which excluded God from the creation and government of the world, that motion is inherent in the atoms. [113]

The proper study of nature, according to Boyle, would diminish if not eliminate all threats.  But more positively what sort of order would this study produce, while counteracting the enemy?  Boyle suggested that the creatures teach men the same lessons as the Bible.  ‘This is so because [114]

110. Birch, Life in Works, I, 88.

111. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 445.

112. Ibid, p. 446.

113. Ibid., pp.447-9, and 455-2.

114. Ibid., p. 439.


not content to have provided him [man] all, that was requisite either to support or accommodate him here, he [God] hath been pleased to contrive the world so, that... it may afford him not only necessaries and delights, but instructions too.  For each page in the great volume of nature is full of real hieroglyphicics, where (by an inverted way of expression) things stand for words, and their qualities for letters.

In fact a knowledge of God’s works is in some cases necessary to a proper understanding of his word, ‘the Scripture being so full of allusions to and comparisons borrowed from the properties of the creatures, that there are many texts not clearly intelligible without some knowledge of them… [115]  The most important instance to Boyle’s mind of the function of the creatures in this regard is the light they shed for man upon divine providence and human prudence.  Indeed the Scriptures themselves tell man to go to nature for instruction in both of these crucial matters. [116]

Christ commands his disciples to learn of serpents and pigeons prudence and inoffensiveness.  The same divine teacher enjoins his apostles to consider the lilies, or (as some would have it) the tulips of the field, and to learn thence that difficult virtue of a distrustless reliance upon God.

What is most interesting and significant is the lesson Boyle learned from ‘serpents and pigeons’, when he supposedly did go to nature and observe them.  The serpent is wise, the dove ‘harmless’ or innocent.  The serpent’s wisdom consists in ‘a serpentine wariness in declining dangers’; the dove’s innocence, in ‘not alone an inoffensivess towards others... but also as harmless a way of escaping the dangers they are actually ingaged in, as that of doves, who being pursued by birds of prey, endeavour to save themselves not by fight, but only by flight.’ [117]  The serpent’s wisdom, in other words, amounts to the same thing as the dove’s harmlessness.  Where the dove’s harmlessness is wise, the serpent’s cunning is innocent.  Both creatures act out of an instinct for self-preservation, when it comes to ‘declining dangers’.  The dove especially manifests to man the value of rational calculation.  Against fierce ‘birds of prey’ the gentle dove is not a match.  So in such a case the creature endeavours to save itself ‘not by fight, but only by flight’.  The dove and serpent then are images or types of prudence.  As such, Boyle said, ‘our great Master’ recommends them ‘to his disciples’. [118]

Well might Boyle have made the instance of ‘serpents and pigeons’ the most important light that nature sheds upon Scripture.  The biblical lesson that Boyle claimed the dove and serpent teach is precisely the conclusion to which he had already come as a result of his experience of an reflection upon events; men need only make rational calculations on the basis of what they take to be their long-run interests, act accordingly and trust in providence to do the

115. Ibid., p. 433.

116. Thi4., p. 439.

117. Ibid., p. 433.

118. The Boyle Papers, Philosophy, VIII, fol. 138 r., written during the same period as the passages I have just quoted (note 68 above), confirms the point of this paragraph and the following paragraph of my text.


rest.  Men will then be like the dove and serpent, at once wise and innocent, and as such will follow the surest path towards reformation, the best possible order upon earth, wherein providential harmony in human affairs will prevail. [119]

The other virtue that nature can teach preparatory to the establishment of a Christian commonwealth is ‘a provident industry’ [120] something which ‘The Aretology’ had also prescribed.  Certain of the creatures display a diligence that man would do well to imitate. [121]  The proper study of the creatures also, as we have seen, demands industrious application.  Such efforts in these directions as man chooses to expend will indeed be highly ‘provident’.  The upshot of Boyle’s ethic is a ‘provident’ meliorism: a man who pursues his aims with industry and prudence and entrusts the outcome to providence can be certain of the ultimate success of his venture.  In the specific case of an industrious inquiry into nature there is a threefold reward.  There is first an increase in useful knowledge. [122]  Second there is an improvement in man’s moral and spiritual condition because, as we have seen, such an inquiry enhances piety by revealing to man evidence of God and how to bring human affairs into harmony with the natural and providential order of things.  Third and finally, Boyle suggested that the proper study of nature bridges religious and political divisions among men.  It knows no boundaries and draws support, as Boyle showed in his treatment of the hermetic tradition, from all religions. [123]  And because ‘it is the first act of religion, and equally obliging in all religions’, performance of this obligation should take precedence over that of any other.  Too often, however, the reverse is the case, [124]

Which makes me somewhat angry with them, who so busy themselves in the duties and imployments of their second and superinduced relations, that they will never find the leisure to discharge that primitive and natural obligation, who are more concerned as citizens of any place, than of the world; and both worship God so barely as Catholick or Protestants, Anabaptists or Socinians, and live so wholly as lords or counsellors,

119. B.M. Add. MS. 32093, fol. 293, Boyle to Mallet, 2 March 1651; B.M.,. Harley 7003, fol. 180 r., Boyle to Mallet, November 1651; and, Some Considerations. Touching the style of the Holy Scriptures, written in 1651 or 1652 (Works, II, 90; and, Birch, Life in Works, I, 28); in Works, II, 129, for Boyle’s sense of the coming of such a reformation.  What its precise conclusion would be Boyle does not say in his letters to Mallet.  In this same period, however, Boyle and his sister Katherine shared belief in an imminent apocalypse, when, as she wrote to him, ‘all this old frame of heaven and earth must pass and a new one be setup in its place...’  In the same letter she wrote of new ‘signs’ of the coming millennium and revealed that Robert himself believed at the time that it would happen some seven years hence (Works, V, 565, ‘K.R.’ to Robert Boyle, 14 September).  Although the year of the letter is not recorded, evidence indicates that it was written in the early 1650s [ibid., pp. 564-5; Mary E. Paigrave, Mary Rich; Countess of Warwick (1625-1678), London, 1901, p. 537; and, Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick Autobiography, (T. Crofton Croker, ed.), London, 5842, pp. 24-5].  Could apocalypse and millennium have been what Boyle had in mind as the culmination of his reformation?  If so, one thing is certain from what we know: his version of the new heaven and earth would have been quite different from that of the sectaries whom he was attacking.

120. Considerations, Part I, in Works, I, 439. 

121. Ibid.

122. Ibid., pp. 429, 460.

123. Ibid., p. 457.

12.4 Ibid., p. 462.


Londoners or Parisians, that they will never find the leisure, or consider not, that it concerns them to worship and live as men...

The suggestion is that what men have in common in the way of this primary obligation to acknowledge God’s glory through the proper study of nature is much more conducive to their happiness both here and hereafter than the things that divide them - perhaps because such study is what overcomes these divisions.  Boyle was true in the early 1650s to the irenic aim that he had shared with Dury and Hartlib in the 1640s.  Only now he saw a new means to religious unity and harmony in the proper study of nature.  Now too one of his closest associates in this aim was his brother Roger, to whom he dedicated his own contribution to irenic literature, Some considerations touching the style of the Holy Scriptures, when it was published in 1661. [125]  This was in consequence of the permission for him to do so that Roger had given in 1653 or 1654, [126] a year or so after the treatise was written. [127]  At this time Broghill was one of the chief parliamentary advocates of ecclesiastical comprehension. [128]  It is also interesting that Dr James Usher, Archbishop of Armagh, figured in the irenic efforts of both brothers.  Usher’s model of church government seems to have served as a basis of Roger’s own schemes. [129]  And the Archbishop’s encouragements, Robert said, ‘much engaged me to the study of the holy tongues’, [130] a task that, aimed as it was at an accurate rendering of biblical literature, was not without its irenic uses. [131]  Thus Robert’s philosophy of nature and Roger’s ecclesiastical politics seem to have emerged out of a mutual commitment and to have represented two aspects of a single effort.

When Boyle wrote in answer to Aristotelian heretics that God causes irrational creatures to behave ‘as if each... had a design of self-preservation, and were furnished with knowledge and industry to prosecute it…’, there was more in what he said than his object in this instance, which was to counter the mortalists, would indicate.  God makes the creatures act as he would have man also do, and nature through her signal examples of prudence and industry can show him the way.  The outcome should be the same for man as it is in nature: ‘... as if there were diffused through the universe an intelligent being watchful to administer all things wisely for the good of the particular parts of it, but so far forth as is consistent with the good of the whole...’  If there is no ‘intelligent being’ ‘diffused through the universe’ such as the Aristotelian position suggested, there is providence and this is enough, enough to guarantee that private interests piously pursued will conduce to the public good.  This is the conclusion to which Boyle came as a result of his experience of and response to events.  With the help of the Bible and its commentators, alchemy, astrology and hermetic lore Boyle read this conclusion into nature and saw it refracted out again as a universal truth, the sum of revealed wisdom, and the road to reformation.

125. Works, 11, p. 107.

126. Ibid., p. 88.

127 Ibid., p. 90; and, Birch, Life in Works, I, 28.

128. George R. Abernathy, Jr., ‘The English Presbyterians and the Stuart Restoration, 1648-1663’, in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N.S., LV, part 2 (May 1965), 11-12.

129. Ibid., pp. 11-12, and 13-14.

130. Quoted in Birch, Life in Works, I, 29.

131. Works, II, 107.