John Maynard Keynes famously remarked that Newton was the last of the magicians. He was referring to Newton’s fascination with alchemy and the book of Revelations. Keynes was, of course, wrong – there were certainly magicians after Newton. But he was right in the most important respect, which was that the Whiggish history of science, in which Newton figured as a hero of positivism, was founded on a fiction. And it was not an unimportant glossing over of minor Newtonian penchants – according to Dobbs in The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought, one of the great books in the science wars, Newton took his notion of force from the alchemists. In fact, although the positivists still seem not to recognize this, the father of positivistic physics, quite purged of alchemical crap, is Descartes. The only problem with Descartes notion of vortices is that they are, mathematically, crap, as Newton proved. In place of the vortices – which at least adhere to the old materialist image of one thing causing another by means of contact – we have the mathematically proven magic of attraction at a distance.
When Goethe started reading the alchemists in the 1770s, preparting to write Faust, alchemy was good and dead – but only in the sense that psychoanalysis is good and dead. While alchemy seemed, especially to the 19th century positivists, to have been overthrown as a rational task by scientist, in reality its concepts became part of the background of natural philosophy, aka science.
Which brings us to the homunculus. Goethe’s critics claim that Goethe first read about the artificial manniken in a dialogue written by a Dr. Johannes Praetorius, a prolific seventeenth century popularizer of wonders, against Paracelsus. Gerhild Williams, in his book on Praetorius, summarizes it as a very curious dialogue, in that Paracelsus never claimed to have made a homunculus. Like Praetorius, Paracelsus believed in the elemental spirits literally. Praetorius, however, claims he instructed his disciples in how to create chymische Menschen – literally, “chemical people”. You needed wine, yeast, sperm, blood and horse dung to do the deed. ‘When he is done, you have to watch him very diligently. Though no one will have taught him, he will be among the wisest of men; he will know all the occult arts because he has been created with the greatest of skill.”
In one way, we are the children of the homunculus. We are certainly chemical people. Our environments consist of synthetics absolutely unknown in this solar system before we began to produce them – and now, of course, they wrap about us, a giant oil-n-corn slick, and we rarely touch dirt, or unprocessed wood. If by some magic I waved a wand and wished away all the synthesized chemical products in my nearest neighborhood, the stools on the sidewalks outside of the cafes would collapse, the cars would vanish, the plants would wither (fertilizers gone), the food in the grocery store, what was left of it, would immediately start to grow rapidly stale.
None of which were things foreseen by Goethe, Newton’s fiercest enemy, in 1769.