The idea of the quintessence is related to an effort to establish a fifth element (quinta essentia) and relevant for multiple division thinking-in-general. The four classical elements (fire, air, earth, and water) were often insufficient to express total invisibility. All the elements are, to a certain extend, associated with a grade of visibility. Fire is burning, with flames and smoke. Air is visible in mist and clouds. Earth and water are physically present. For the human mind, it is hard to imagine full invisibility. Therefore, some other options were explored.
The Stoics (Zeno of Citium, 335 – 263 BC and Chrysippus (280 – 207 BC) developed, in the aftermath of the Greek cultural dominance, the concept of the ‘pneuma‘ (spiritus) as an all-embracing creative world-power. The (invisible) invisibility is caught in a unity, which can be visualized.
The Greek physician Galen (c. 130 – 200 AD), who practiced his knowledge of medicine on the Roman gladiators, developed a pathology based on the concept of ‘pneuma‘ (SIEGEL, 1968; TEMKIN, 1953; 1973). According to Galen the pneuma is a carrier of life and the power of life. It can be located in the psychicum of the brains, the zoöticum of the heart and the arteries and the phychicum of the liver.
The notice of a fifth element was practically absent in the apogee of European tetradic thinking in the eleventh and twelfth century, but revived in the Renaissance. The need to put something ‘invisible’ against the ‘visible’ elements grew in the rise of oppositional thinking. The quintessence satisfied the need to place something ‘over and above the four elements’ (SHERWOOD TAYLOR, 1953).
Michael Savonarola, the grandfather of Girolamo Savonarola, wrote between 1420 and 1430 a book on the quintessence, which was published in 1532. Raymond Lull (1232 – 1316) had been earlier studying the invisible world under the title ‘De secretis naturae seu de quinta essentia’. The book was printed in 1514, 1518, 1542, 1546 (best edition) and 1567 and proved the popularity of the subject.
The Swiss physician Paracelsus (Philipp Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493 – 1541) developed in the same period a world view where the quintessence took a central stage. His theory was an evocation of the unifications (the ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’), that was postulated by Johannes Scotus Eriugena some seven centuries earlier). Paracelsus visualized an undifferentiated primary condition, from which – by three powers – matter had emerged. These powers were associated with three chemical substances, which could therefore, be found in all natural compounds:
———————— 1. the attracting force – salt
————————- 2. the repulsive force – sulphur
————————- 3. the neutral force – mercury
Illnesses occur, according to Paracelsus, because a chemical equilibrium was disturbed in the balance of these three (material) forces. He also distinguished the four elements (fire, air, earth and water) as representatives of the ‘holy’ four-division. Because the invisibility on the human level and within a dualistic framework – of the (material) elements could not be solved, a fifth element was introduced, the quintessence. ‘There is a force of virtue shut up within things, a spirit of life, in medicine called Quintessence or the spirit of the thing’ (THOMPSON, 1932, p. 170). All ‘invisible’ properties of matter were concentrated in this additional element: the character and all specific features like the color and the curative qualities. A substance could not be effective without the quintessence.
Paracelsus’ merit was the awareness of a connection between health and chemistry (or alchemy, as it was known at that time). He tried to find his way, in a more systematic way, through the entire household remedies and miraculous mixture he did encounter on his travels through Europe. As in alchemy, the quintessence could be manipulated: the color and the healing qualities had to be influenced in a positive way. The modern pharma-ceutical industry is, in that respect, a direct follower of Paracelsus’ ideas.
The thoughts about the quintessence are, in a wider scope, an indication of the state of affairs in division thinking. Because the efforts of man to reach for the next step, after the four-division, is in itself a logical one (even if it turns out to be a disguised form of dualism). The European culture has – in contrast with the Chinese culture – never adopted the five-fold way of thinking as a valuable option for practical use. Only a small number of individuals have ventured on its terrain, both in an exploratory way, without a structural framework in relation to division thinking.
The first was Thomas Browne (1605 – 1682) and his vertiginous book ‘The Garden of Cyrus (or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered)’. The book was published in 1658 and treated the quincunx as the most ideal way to order trees in a plantation (fig. 271): ‘by this way of plantation they increased the number of their trees, which they lost in Quarternio’s, and square-orders, which is a commodity insisted on by Varro…’ (in Varro’s ‘On Agriculture’; PATRIDES, 1977, p. 368).
Fig. 271 – ‘What is more beautiful than the well-known quincunx which, in whatever direction you view it, presents straight lines?” Both diagram and quotation (of Quintilian) are borrowed from Curtius and Della Porta. In: PATRIDES (1977).
The quincunx was, according to Browne, a delight for the eye and everything should be viewed as an ideal ‘Quincunciall Ordination‘. The book was, in essence, a vain display of classical knowledge.
The second explorer in the quincuncial world was Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778). He lived about a century after Thomas Browne, but the subject of the ‘numero quinario’ was still alive and kicking. Linnaeus wrote, after his initial masterpieces on the description of plants, some visionary books, which are little known and forgotten. His books ‘Politia naturea’, ‘Clavis Medicinae‘ (LINNE, 1766/2011) and ‘Metamorphosis Humana’ (1766/1767) dealt with speculative subjects. The ‘Clavis Medicinae’ was an overview of the fundamental pathologic-therapeutic therapies in medicine, which was (partly) based on a five division. These ‘weird’ characteristics were interpreted by Tore FRÄNGSMYR (1983) as a sign of his dementia, which was his fate later in life.
The English botanist Richard Pulteney (1730 – 1801), who studied the writings of Linnaeus in the eighteenth century, gave a different opinion of the small booklet ‘Clavis Medicinae‘ (31 pp). The results of his research were edited and published after his death by William George Maton (PULTENEY/MATON, 1805/1806). Pulteney was firmly of the opinion that Linnaeus understood and practiced the conviction that ‘nature is balanced by contraries and acted upon ‘numero quinario’. The ‘Vitia corporea’ were only five in number.
Linnaeus introduced in the division schemes of the ‘Clavis Medicinae’ the thought that a good diet (dietetics) and hygiene were important ingredients to stay healthy. These notions were visionary rather than a sign of dementia. Linnaeus pointed in his medical theories – given in books such as ‘Genera Morborum’ (1763) and the highly esteemed ‘Materia Medica’ (1749) – to the ‘exanthemata viva’ (DeLACY & CAIN, 1995) and the possibility that contagious diseases depended upon the entrance of small living animals in the body. Ludvig HEKTOEN (1902) emphasized Linnaeus’ achievements in medicine once again.
The five-fold division got a further boost in the quintenary classiﬁcation system of William Sharp MacLeay (1792 – 1865). He expressed in his books ‘Horae Entomologicae’, and ‘Essays on the Annulose Animals’ (1819 – 1821) a system of circular sets of five taxa. These taxonomic circles were held together by affinities and by functional analogies.
The English naturalist George Montagu (1753 – 1815) criticized in his ‘Ornithological Dictionary of British Birds’ (1831) the ‘quinary system’. He rejected the existence of a ‘natural’ five-fold structure in a mild but decisive exposé. He said that the ideas of MacLeay ‘exhibit a tone of religious sentiment, sound, lofty, and enthusiastic, (but) they seldom fail to follow it up’. He was aware that ‘analogy is perhaps more liable to be abused than any other means of investigations’ (XLVI). Montagu was even prepared to furnish a five-fold system of the birds himself, because ‘after all, I confess I think the Quinary system furnishes so far as birds are concerned, a neat, pretty, and elegant mode of arranging the specimens in a circular cabinet’ (LV)’. In the end, he decided not to follow the spirit of the times.
Macleay’s contemporary Robert Chambers (1802 – 1871) advocated the quintenarian systematization further in his popular book ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ (1844). The highlights of the circular and quintenarian approach took place some fifteen years before the publication of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ (1859). Darwin was familiar with William Sharp MacLeay’s work and Chambers’ bestseller, but did not follow their course. In stead, Darwin’s book virtually put the quintenarian ideas to rest for the remainder of the European cultural history…
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HEKTOEN, Ludvig (1902). Linnaeus As A Physician. Pp. 593 – 598 in: Journal of the American Medical Association XXXIX (11)/Angus & Robertson. ISBN 9781149751015
DeLACY, M.E. & CAIN, A.J (1995). A Linnaean thesis concerning Contagium vivum: the ‘Exanthemata viva‘ of John Nyander and its place in contemporary thought. Dept. of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, University of Liverpool, UK. Pp. 59–185 in: Med. Hist. 1995, April; 39(2). PMCID: PMC1036973
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SHERWOOD TAYLOR, F. (1953). The Idea of the Quintessence. Pp. 247 – 265 in: ASHWORTH UNDERWOOD, E. – Science, Medicine and History. Essays on the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice written in honour of Charles Singer. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
SIEGEL, Rudolph E. (1968). Galen’s System of Physiology and Medicine: An Analysis of His Doctrines and Observations on Bloodflow, Respiration, Humors and Internal Disease. S. Karger, Basel/New York.
TEMKIN, Owsei (1953). Greek Medicine as Science and Craft. Pp. 213 – 225 in: ISIS, 44.
– (1973). Galenism. Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy. Ithaca University Press, Ithaca and London. ISBN 0 8014 0774 5
THOMPSON, C.J.S. (1932). The Lure and Romance of Alchemy. George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., London.