The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

John Clay *

Robert Boyle: a Jungian perspective

British Journal of the History of Science, Vol. 32, 1999, 285-98


Privilege brings obligations - noblesse oblige.  Boyle came from a deeply privileged background.  If we are to locate him through twentieth-century eyes in order to rediscover his psychic space, then this background needs to be borne in mind.  It was a constant shaping force for him.  Twentieth-century eyes mean a new perspective.  As Eliot wrote of Pascal, Boyle’s contemporary, every generation sees preceding ones differently.  Pascal is one of those writers who will be, and who must be, studied afresh by men in every generation.  It is not he who changes, but we who change.  It is not our knowledge of him that increases, but our world that alters and our attitudes towards it” [1] - and so it is with Boyle.

Boyle’s childhood was beset by tragedy.  From a psychological point of view, there can be fewer worse tragedies than the premature loss of a mother.  His mother died of consumption when he was three.  She was forty-two and he was her fourteenth and penultimate child.  It seems clear that this early loss haunted him for the rest of his life, its unconscious effect always there.  At some level he may have felt partly responsible for her death - that his birth had helped to wear her out, to finish her off, to consume her.  It would seem that he missed out on mourning in the conventional sense, or rather in the sense that Freud emphasized as being all-important in his paper ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. [2]  Boyle did use, in his autobiographical writing as ‘Philaretus’, the word ‘disaster’ to describe this early tragedy, and it is a powerful enough word in the context. [3]  But what happened to his grief?  Was it worked through?  Was it lived with?  Or was it just sublimated into his work, his wide range of preoccupations?  Was it something that remained as a constant, underlying refrain in his life, that he needed to defend himself against?

As a Jungian, I shall focus on certain Jungian concepts, such as persona, puer, shadow and individuation, to see if these apply to Boyle.  I am aware here of the dangers of too-easy psychobiography, the explanation of all that happened in terms of psychological motives or events in childhood.  Erik Erikson, whom I shall mention later in another context, noted this danger in his preface to Young Man Luther, a psychological study of the Protestant reformer.  He warned against the all-embracing explanation, the ‘habit of

* 17 Aldebert Terrace, London, SW8 18H,

1. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Pensées of Pascal’ (1931) in Selected Essays, 3rd ed,, London, 1951, 402.

2. S. Freud, ‘Mourning and melancholia’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (ed, and trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson), 24 vols,, London, 1953-74, xiv, 139.

3. Robert Boyle, ‘An account of Philaretus during his minority’, in Robefl Boyle by Himself and His Friends, (ed, Michael Hunter), London, 1994, 3.


thinking which reduces every human situation to an analogy with an earlier one’, and to the infantile precursor which is assumed to be its origin’. [4]

‘Persona’ refers to the mask people wear to front the world.  It derives from the name of the device used by actors in Greek theatre.  The word itself derives from the Latin per sonare, i.e. ‘to sound through’, as theatrical masks had a sort of tube in them linked to the actor’s mouth which acted as a kind of megaphone.  Jungians see the persona as a universal usage, as something of an archetype, applicable to most cultures, a social archetype really, facilitating exchange and relationships, dictated partly by the demands of society, partly by one’s fiction of oneself.  It only becomes pathological if people begin to identify too closely with their persona, their front to the world.  From the above and from what we know of Boyle’s life, Boyle often needed something to interpose between the world and himself, to hide his emotions away.  His persona was often in use, and his identification with it led to a certain psychological rigidity in him, a brittleness even, as seen in his later fastidiousness, a sign, as we read it, that the unconscious was intruding into consciousness in an excessive way, rather than emerging in a more manageable fashion.

His persona may have been erected as much as a result of the other disaster of his childhood, his acquisition of a stutter.  He claims he acquired this from mixing with other children, of humbler background than himself but of the same age.  These were the children he met when he was farmed out to a country nurse.  It could therefore have been imitative.  He was clearly a sensitive and anxious child, anxious, one imagines, to fit in, but it could also have been defensive, stuttering can be said to have a psychosomatic origin.  Feelings are held in, held back at the point of expression.  Words become choked upon - the feeling, the emotion is there, underneath, and may well be fully formed, but it does not get out - either for fear of supposed hostile reception, or for fear perhaps that the feelings inside might swell up and overwhelm the speaker, the individual.  Feelings about his mother’s death are likely to have been choked upon, made worse by being in the company of other children far from his home.

A very useful firsthand description of his stuttering is given by Magalotti

he has some impediment in his speech, which is often interrupted by a kind of stammering, which seems as if he were constrained by an internal force to swallow his words again and with the words also his breath, so that he seems so near to bursting that it excites compassion in the hearer. [5]

This is a very vivid description of the actual process, the feeling nearly getting out, but then being swallowed again.  What is of interest is the final comment, it excites compassion in the hearer’ - in other words the need for compassion is being projected into the listener.  By this I mean that Boyle’s own compassionate side is picked up by the hearer instead of being felt by Boyle himself, and about himself.  He would surely have wanted, and needed, compassion for himself, but it was hard for him to get it, or feel it, hence it was projected onto the other person, the listener in this case.  The heart of the listener is tugged in a way that Boyle’s own hidden heart had been tugged by his dreadful loss.  Magalotti

4.  Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther; A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, London, 1959, 16.

5. Hunter, op. cit. (3), p. lxxvi.


wrote this when he met Boyle as an adult at Charles II’s court, so it is interesting to see how this affliction, originating in childhood, had stayed with him throughout his life in our terms it shows that this side of him had never been fully worked through - the persona, in fact, the emphasis on external orientation, remained in place.

John Evelyn, on the other hand, excellent diarist though he was and trusty friend, writes, implying that Boyle had overcome this adversity, ‘he did sometimes hesitate, rather than stammer, or repeate the same word’. [6]  So who is the more reliable?  Evelyn always makes good reading and has the good grace to qualify his statement with the phrase ‘since my remembrance’, indicating that his diary, as with so many, was quite subjective.

We know that Boyle spent the first months of infancy, at his father’s instigation, in the home of a country nurse.  This was designed to toughen him up in fact it was then quite normal for sons of the gentry to be so treated.  Childhood, as the saying goes, was only invented in the nineteenth century.  Yet it must have been confusing, and disorientating, for this sensitive child to be thrust out in such a manner, and the worst outcome was that he never really got to know his mother in person.  ‘He wud ever reckon it amongst the Cheefe Misfortune of his Life, that he did ne’re know her that gave it him’. [7]  The maternal role in his life was therefore a gap, a lack, a hole, a vacuum.

Fresh air, or air, became a leitmotif in his life.  Fresh air has always been beloved by the English.  One has only to look at preparatory schools situated next to invigorating seaside air.  Air became a unifying theme in Boyle’s life, the harnessing of air in his air pump, for example, filling the vacuum mentioned above.  Here we can detect another favourite Jungian principle at work: the transformation and combining of opposites.  In Boyle’s case he was converting a poor, even debilitating, experience as a child, the fresh air away from home, into something valuable and usable he transcended this lack through his scientific enterprises.  The transcendent function is central to the Jungian process.  It represents a linkage between real and imaginary, rational and irrational, or conscious and unconscious.  Jung wrote, “it is a natural process, a manifestation of the energy that springs from the tension of opposites.” [8]  Later I shall speak of Boyle’s interest in alchemy, which is itself another process of transformation.

His childhood, for all its privileges, was attended with other near disasters, natural events such as his carriage nearly being swept away by a flood tide, and wild thunderstorms.  All of this certainly aroused his curiosity about natural phenomena.  He seems to have grown up in a milieu where the world seemed threatening, full of uncertainty both in and out of the home.  His siblings were on the whole more robust than he was and better withstood the shocks to which the flesh is heir.  His sensitivity was both his weakness and his strength.  It led him to pursue interests in his chosen fields of science and intellectual advancement that replicated the uncertainty to some extent, it took him to the leading edge of discovery and exploration.  Had he been living today he might well have been a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

6. John Evelyn, letter to William Wotton, 29 March 1696, Hunter, op. cit. (3), 89.

7. Hunter, op. cit. (3), 3.

8. C, C, Jung, Two Essays on Analytic Psychology, 2nd edn, (1966), in Collected Works (ed, Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham and Gerhard Adler), 20 vols,, London, 1957-79, vii, 80.


Faced with such inner and outer threats, he decided to take more and more charge himself, to be less reliant on others.  For instance during his schooldays he buried himself in his books - his brother commented on how, as a boy, his pockets were stuffed with books and he would read one even while walking downhill.  At Eton the headmaster had almost literally to tear him away and get him to look at other things.  His emotional growth, which we emphasize nowadays as being pre-eminent and the barometer of the person to some extent, with more and more clearly delineated stages, seems to have been rather static.  Attempts were made to give him an all-round education.  As befitted his background, he was given a tutor, Isaac Marcombes, and he went on the Grand Tour, in Switzerland he witnessed the thunderstorm mentioned above, it was to have a lasting effect on him, to be a decisive moment in his life, it made him feel lucky to be alive and determined to put his life to good purpose.

In Florence the recorded sexual encounter was a homosexual approach which he firmly rejected.  It seems to have deterred him from sex for life.  Perhaps he was glad it happened.  He could now safely retreat back into himself and into what was becoming almost a grandiose side to his personality.  By grandiose Ii mean a move towards self-sufficiency, even omnipotence, or omniscience, progressively less modified by contact with others, it is a way of dispensing with reliance on others.  The inner person remains in an ‘archaic’ state, fixed, self-regarding, feeding a need to feel special, needing to be admired.  The penalty of such a stance, of being grandiose, is that one becomes progressively more choosy, fastidious and pernickety.  Idealization replaces ordinary day-to-day living.  As a young man, Boyle started avoiding things.  The army was, in his words, ‘very debaucht’. [9]  Later on, he was drawn to casuistry, the fine splitting of hairs in discussion.  His obsessive side came out with his preoccupation, almost New-Age-like, with the significance, for good or bad, of certain days, 1 May being especially inauspicious, his ‘day fatality’ as it was called. [10]

Yet even grandiosity can have its benefits, it was helping to put him onto the path of another central Jungian concept, the path of individuation, albeit somewhat prematurely.  Individuation refers to the progressive move from the ego towards the Self, ego being the functioning side of the personality, the day-to-day organizer, which gets things done, and the Self (with a capital S), the true, essential person, the potential individual, with all faults and strengths.  Self is thereby linked to destiny.

For Jungians, this lifelong interaction between ego and Self, an ongoing process of ego-Self referral, helps to establish the individuality of a person.  Individuation may never be completed.  Instead one passes staging posts on life’s journey, halts on the way.  Hence the importance of being on the path of individuation.  Boyle’s constant curiosity, inquiry into causes, and his search for meaning, his endless exploration - here I am reminded of his friend John Evelyn’s motto: omnia explorate, meliora retinete, ‘explore everything, keep the best’ - seems to fit in with this.  Jung wrote,

9 Hunter, op. cit. (3), 25.

10 Hunter, op. cit. (3), p. xxvi.


If the unconscious can be recognized as a co-determining factor along with consciousness, and if we can live in such a way that conscious and unconscious demands are taken into account as far as possible, then the centre of gravity of the total personality shifts its position.  It is then no longer in the ego, which is merely the centre of consciousness, but in the hypothetical point between conscious and unconscious. This new centre might be called the Self. [11]

So in Jungian terms, individuation represents to some extent the interplay of things that are archetypally given and what is personally added to that, the ego-Self referral mentioned above.  Archetypes can be seen as inherited, pre-existing structuring patterns in the psyche, that become recognizable in outer behaviour, in the basic and universal experiences of life, such as birth, marriage, motherhood, death and separation.  Archetypal patterns are there waiting to be realized in the personality, and are powerful.  The ability to resist being overpowered by the archetype, by that of the powerful mother, for example, or of archetypes such as envy or rage, depends largely on the individual’s own stage of development and conscious awareness.  Archetypal behaviours tend to become most evident at times of crisis, when the ego is at its most vulnerable.

Jung talks of the process of individuation as a circumambulation of the self.  Circumambulation, a walking around the centre, may be a good word for Boyle.  It manifested itself in his wide range of interests in subjects that mattered to him and to which he kept returning, as though they were still to be worked out.  Jung wrote, “I use the term individuation to denote the process by which a person becomes ‘in-dividual’, that is a separate indivisible unity or whole”. [12]  In other words one becomes no longer a divided self, a concept that pleases me since it links up with my own work on R. D. Laing, based on the divided self.

Individuation represents both a move on from the persona and a way of transcending it.  As Jung said, “The aim of individuation is nothing less than to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona on the one hand, and the suggestive power of primordial images on the other [13] in other words, the archetypes.  Some of Boyle’s ‘primordial images’ would have been those still affecting him in relation to his mother’s death, and his rather static emotional development.  It is interesting that other creative people, writers especially, such as Kipling, Saki and P. G. Wodehouse, were all farmed out as children.  In later life all three had difficulties in forming close relationships, instead they relied on their imagination, both as a retreat from the world, but also, just as importantly, as a way of making their mark upon it - as a means of compensation.  It seems that what enables a person to become a writer is first set in motion by feelings of loss and isolation.

The danger of individuation is that it can become over-preoccupying, a fascination in itself, and the fascinating images it throws up can lead to forms of narcissism.  Perhaps Boyle also went through some of this, and had narcissistic tendencies.  Yet the positive aspect is that individuation essentially represents an acceptance and recognition of responsibility to, and for, oneself, and therefore, by extension, to society.  In Boyle’s case we can see this in his many good works, which both Burnet [14] and Evelyn [15] mention, in his

11. C. G. Jung, Alchemical Studies in Read et al, op. cit. (8), xiii, 45.

12. C, C, Jung, Conscious, Unconscious and Individuation in Read et al, op. cit. (8), ix(i), 275.

13. Two essays in Analytical Psychology, Jung, op. cit, (8), vii, 174.

14. Hunter, op, cit, (3), 28,

15. Hunter, op, cit, (3), 87.


religious and charitable attitudes and ventures such as support for the propagation of the Gospel in New England and the translation of the New Testament into foreign, infidel, languages, and in his status as a landlord with his consideration, mentioned by Dent [16] towards poor tenants on his Stalbridge estate,

Another side effect of individuation is to remain in a puer-like state.  A puer, puer aeternus, is, in Jungian terms, someone who does not fully grow up.  The eternal youth, fearful of renewing himself, prefers to remain in a perpetually evolving state, has difficulty settling down, is impatient, unrelated and idealistic, is always starting anew, seemingly untouched by age, appears to be without guile, is given to flights of imagination and leads a provisional life,  Yet the puer is also somebody special, like the divine child, a carrier of the divine spark, and hence shows us our destiny and where meaning resides, knows more than ordinary mortals and is on the side of Spirit.  There may have been aspects of the puer in Boyle.

As I mentioned above, the maternal role in Boyle’s life was a lack.  The nearest anyone came to filling it for him was his sister, Katherine.  They were in fact the closest of all the fifteen Cork children and gave their ambitious and exacting father the least trouble.  Although she was twelve years his senior, they were alike in many ways: sensitive, interested in ideas, exploration, and becoming part of the emerging climate of opinion of their age.

In personal terms his relationship with her was all-important.  It kept him going - from an early age they corresponded frequently and he ended up living in her house for the last twenty or so years of his life.  It also provided, in psychological terms, a defensive prop for him.  By being close to her, he was able to avoid confronting his own sexual identity.  In its place he developed this quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister.  This gave him closeness and security and meant that he could remain, puer-like, in the status quo, in what we might call an early and undifferentiated state.  There would be little zonal, sexual, development for him.

As I have said, having lost his mother at such an early age, he probably became wary of too close an attachment to anyone else, lest the loss be repeated.  Instead he stayed as he was, isolated but omnipotent.  It was a safe place to be, even though he missed out on the hurly-burly of everyday human relationships, the give and take of marital, or sexual, intercourse.  What did happen to his erotic relationships?  Was his erotic side sublimated into his laboratory, where he could indulge in fantasy and experimentation?  Or were there other sexual outlets?  What was the role of his assistants?  Or did he simply use them to maternalize them, a well-known device for compensating for maternal loss by becoming maternal oneself.  His assistants, once his eyesight had deteriorated, would be much needed by him and make a fuss over him, and he over them.

His sister Katherine was a remarkable woman in her own right.  Good-looking, she was high-spirited, intelligent and handsome, Sir John Leeke, a contemporary, praised her many qualities.  He called her “a more brawnie wench”, a high compliment, “or a Braver spirit

16. Hunter, op, cit, (3), 105,


you have not often mett withal” and praised her memory, which enabled her to hear a sermon “and go home and pen it after dinner verbatim.” [17]

Gilbert Burnet, in his funeral oration, commented favourably on this brother/sister relationship and spoke of them both as being “pleasant in their lives”.  He emphasized her importance as a long-time public figure, calling her the “greatest figure in all the Revolutions of these Kingdoms for above Fifty years, of any woman of our Age”.  He stressed her

doing good to others, in which she laid out her Time, her Interest, and her Estate, with the greatest Zeal and the most Success that I have ever known.  She was indefatigable as well as dextrous in it and as her great Understanding, and the vast Esteem she was in, made all Persons in their several turns of Greatness, desire and value her Friendship. [18]

He remarked too on her generosity – “the labour of Love in which she spent her life” and “her universal Affability and Easiness”.  Boyle was certainly fortunate to have her as a sister, and I think an understanding of her is important for an understanding of Boyle.

She had to contend with a bad marriage, arranged by her ambitious, dynastically minded father.  The same Sir John Leeke termed her husband the “foulest churle in the world he hath only one vertu that he seldom cometh sober to bedd”. [19]  It cannot have been much fun for her.  After the predictable collapse of her marriage, she left Athlone Castle in Ireland, and moved to London, where she lived for thirty-three years in a house, no longer standing, on Pall Mall, on the south and west side towards St James’s Palace.

The closeness of her relationship with her brother clearly served them both and worked both ways.  He may have replaced her husband to some extent, and she may have been keen to keep him for herself.  She was probably not excessively disconsolate when he failed to place his affections elsewhere.  In a letter ‘consoling’ him about a lost love, who had married, she wrote, “you are now very near the hour, wherein your mistress is, by giving herself to another, to set you at liberty from all the appearances you have put on of being a lover which though they cost you some pains and use of art, were easier, because they were but appearances.” [20]  It is interesting here that she stresses the appearances that Boyle put on.  Putting on appearances is very much a persona trait.  Elsewhere she talks of his “untamed heart” as being “insensible to the thing itself called love”.  She, who knew him best, was probably best placed to judge this.  The evidence suggests that Boyle defended himself against adult love, just as he had defended himself as an adolescent against what he called ‘Goatish Heates’ such as might be found in Florence. [21]

His close friend John Evelyn, in his letter to William Wotton, wrote ‘that he [Boyle] Courted a beautiful & ingenious Daughter of Carew, Earle of Monmouth: to which is owing the Birth of his Seraphic Love [22] and that this explains the ring Boyle wore on his

17. F, P. and M, M, Verney, Memoirs of the Verney Family during the Seventeenth Century, 2nd edn,, 2 vols, London, 1904, i, 123,

18. Gilbert Burnet’s funeral sermon on Lady Ranelagh, 1692, Hunter, op, cit, (3), 52,

19. Verney, op. cit, (12), i, 124-5.

20. R, F. W, Maddison, Iife of the Hon. Robert Boyle, London, 1969, 55-6.

21. Boyle, op. cit, (3), 20.

22. Evelyn’s letter to Wotton, Hunter, op. cit, (3), 88.


left hand all his life, which he left in his will to his sister, Katherine, “for a particular reason, not unknown to my said sister, the Lady Ranelagh”.  Here clearly is the familiar story of missed love, but why did it never go further?

This relationship with his sister, platonic and spiritual, served as a classic defence against loss, and, moreover, against the exploration of feelings surrounding loss.  Mutual idealization took place instead, a protective device for both of them.  When Boyle lived with her, they began each day with meditations and private devotions, the religious dimensions important for both of them, and then Boyle would retire for the morning to his laboratory, sometimes working far into the night.  Her Pall Mall house became a meeting place for eminent scientists, scholars and other virtuosi of the day, the founder members of the Royal Society.  Boyle was happy among them, it meant he was literally at home there, or, rather, had found again his long lost home.  He rarely visited Stalbridge again.

Stalbridge in fact had been the nearest he had got to an outpouring of emotion, with his ‘ravings’, as he called them, in the woods there when an adolescent.  Excessive feelings, a surplus of emotion, forced their way out at this time, but it had all happened in the safety of the woods and fields around Stalbridge, far away from human contact, or human judgement.

Since he never seems to have embarked on a sexual life, his homosexual encounter in Florence may have been a blessing in disguise, putting him off sex for life.  We can detect almost a note of triumph in his description of this Florence episode in his Philaretus account.  Triumph is just that, exaltation - the thrill of overcoming adversity, but also the sense of relief at not having to go into all those difficult complexities (“the fury and mire of human veins”, as Yeats called them [28]), not having to dirty the hands - to use Sartre’s phrase, les mains sales.  Such a triumph was something of a Pyrrhic victory and meant his emotional ties stayed at a rather shallow level, lacking in real intimacy.

Jungians - particularly Neumann in The Great Mother [24] - use the idea of the uroboros to represent this position.  It originates with the experience of the mother as abandoning, which can lead to only patchy psychosexual development.  The individual finds the best way to defend himself against this loss is in fantasies of uroboric omnipotence.  The uroboros is the snake which bites its own tail and is therefore self-sufficient.  It thereby does everything for itself, it kills, weds and impregnates itself at one and the same time, it is thus man and woman, begetting and conceiving, devouring and giving birth, active and passive, all rolled up into one.

At a psychological level, it can also represent the regressive longing for death, for extinction, for what was before, the desire to merge again, to fuse with the lost but creative mother.  Hence the lifetime search for individual powerfulness, so that this blissful state might be regained and maintained. Neumann writes, “The infant is trying to deal with his fear of nothingness by establishing a oneness or state of identity with the most rich and powerful entity of all - the great mother.” [25]  The infant seeks to achieve this state of

23. W, B, Yeats, ‘Byzantium’ in ‘The Winding Stair and Other Poems’, W, B, Yeats, The Collected Poems, London, 1950, 280.

24. E, Neumann, The Great Mother, Bollingen Series 47, Princeton, 1963.

25. Neumann, op. cit. (24), 18.


oppositionless unity, a paradisical state.  Boyle may symbolically have come closest to this in his laboratory.

Boyle was sixteen and abroad when in 1643 his beloved father, aged seventy-seven, died.  He had been his favourite son.  Unable to be at his father’s bedside when he died, he had missed out again, just as he had with his mother.  We can imagine his pain at hearing about this at second hand.  Another key life event had been missed.  For his father, a nouveau riche, thrusting, ambitious, riding roughshod over his contemporaries, his youngest son, our Boyle, would have represented the desired next generation down - cultured, refined, sophisticated, fulfilling the Jungian notion of ‘living the unlived life of the parents’.

In 1644 Boyle returned to England, now aged seventeen but already, by the reckoning of those days, an adult.  He went to stay with his sister Katherine in London for four months – “the joy & tendernes of a most affectionate sister”. [26]  Then he went down to Stalbridge, in Dorset, to look after the estate left to him by, and full of memories of, his father.  He was coming back to claim his estate, man’s estate.  The death of a father often has this effect.  The son becomes next in line, next to die, and realizes he must make his mark and prove himself.  Freud felt the death of his father to be the most significant event in his life, it produced in Boyle, too, a flurry of activity.  He set about writing, putting something down, getting it out, getting it outside of himself.  He started with ethics, then began to experiment with other literary genres.  He dedicated these Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects (published later in 1665) to ‘Sophronia’, his much-beloved sister Katherine, in them he describes his carefree days in Dorset at Stalbridge, how he rose early on a ‘fair morning’, looked up at the ‘variously coloured clouds’, listened to the lark’s song overhead, then went out and watched young people playing at their games, or went riding on his horse along the undulating Dorset lanes, with his beloved spaniel at his heels, philosophizing as he went along, observing at all times.

A year later in 1649 he set up his own laboratory at Stalbridge, his life becoming more active.  Here he began his alchemical trials.  Alchemy interested Boyle at various stages of his life as offering some sort of bridge between the natural and supernatural worlds.  Jungians have always taken an interest in alchemy both as a model of the therapeutic process, and as something that Jung was strongly interested in.

Alchemy is said to derive from Hermes Trismegistus, who in Ancient Egypt inscribed the origins of all metals on a giant emerald slab for the benefit of his initiates.  From his name it is known as a hermetic art.  Alchemists believed that there was a unity to all matter, that metals were built of the same stuff, constructed in different arrangements and proportions.  Alchemists aimed to separate out the cloying attributes of lead or tin and convert, or rather transmute, them into gold.  We can see the obvious appeal of these unifying, transforming principles to therapy, as well as the fact that alchemists aimed to gain as much out of this process themselves,

This was what interested Jung.  Jung hoped that his study of alchemy would tell him about unconscious thought processes.  In his autobiographical Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he explains how, as he entered the second half of his life, he embarked on a lengthy ‘confrontation with the contents of his unconscious’. [27]  This happened after his

26. Hunter, op. cit. (3), 25.

27. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, London, 1963, 192.


break with Freud in 1913.  For Jung it was an extremely long-drawn-out affair: about twenty years passed before he reached ‘some degree of understanding’ of his unconscious.  His encounter with alchemy was decisive in this respect, as it provided him with the ‘historical basis’ which he had hitherto lacked.  He first studied Gnostic writers, as they too had confronted the ‘primal world of the unconscious’ and had emphasized the importance of the spirit, but for a long time Jung had been unable to find a bridge from Gnosticism - or neo-Platonism - to his own contemporary world.  Alchemy made that link for him.

His study of alchemy was preceded by a series of dreams which repeated a similar theme: another house stood alongside his own house, like a wing or annex, in each dream he wondered why he did not know this house.  Finally he had a dream in which he went into this adjoining house and discovered an incredible library within, dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with large, folio volumes along the walls.  Among them were a number of books embellished with strange copper engravings, and illustrations containing curious symbols, such as he had never seen before.  At the time he did not know what they referred to only later did he recognize them as alchemical symbols.  He was fascinated by his series of dreams and interpreted them as follows: the unknown wing of the house was a part of his personality, an ‘aspect of himself’ of which he was not yet conscious, it is interesting that fifteen years later he had assembled a library very like the one in the dream.

He then commissioned a Munich bookseller to send him any alchemical texts he had, and soon received a 1593 text called Artis Auriferae, full of Latin treatises on alchemy.  He let this book lie around for two years, occasionally looking at the pictures but finding it hard to decipher the text.  One night while he was studying the pictures he suddenly recalled the dream of being caught in the seventeenth century and made the connection.  The sixteenth-century Rosarium Philosophorum became his main text - it is this text with its illustrations which is discussed at great length in his volume on alchemy in his Collected Works.  To begin with, Jung compiled a lexicon of phrases with endless cross-references.  Gradually it yielded its meaning, even though the work took him over a decade.  Once completed, he felt sure of the connection between analytical psychology and alchemy.  As he commented:

The experiences of the alchemists were, in a sense, my experiences, and their world was my world.  This was of course a momentous discovery: I had stumbled upon the historical counterpart of my psychology of the unconscious.  When I pored over these old texts, everything fell into place the fantasy-images, the empirical material I had gathered in my practice, and the conclusions I had drawn from it.  I now began to understand what these psychic contents meant when seen in historical perspective.  My understanding of their typical character, which had already begun with my investigation of myths, was deepened.  The primordial images and the nature of the archetype took a central place in my researches, and it became clear to me that without history there can be no psychology and certainly no psychology of the unconscious. [28]

Jung elaborated on the process of alchemy itself and its relationship with therapy in his essay on Faust and alchemy:

At the beginning of the process, he [the alchemist, or therapist] is in the massa confusa, the chaos or negrido [blackness].  In this condition, the elements are fighting each other.  Here Mercurius plays the role of the prima materia, the transforming substance.  He corresponds to the Nous or

28 Jung, op. cit. (27), 196-7.


Anthropos, sunk in Physis, of Greek alchemy.  In later days he is also called the ‘world soul in chains’, ‘a system of the higher powers in the lower’, etc.  This depicts a dark [‘unconscious’] condition of the adept or a psychic content.  The procedures in the next phase have the purpose of illuminating the darkness by a union of the opposed elements.  This leads to the albedo (whitening), which is compared to the sunrise or to the full moon.  The white substance is also conceived as a pure body which has been refined by the fire but which still lacks a soul.  It is considered to be feminine and is therefore called sponsa [bride], silver, or moon.  Whereas the transformation of the darkness into light is symbolized by the theme of the fight with the dragon, it is the motif of the hierosgamos (sacred marriage of sister and brother or mother and son) which appears in this phase.  The quaternity (quaternio) of the elements here becomes a duality (binarius).  The reddening (rubedo) follows the whitening.  By means of the coniunctio the moon is united with the sun, the silver with the gold, the female with the male.

The development of the prima materia up to the rubedo…, depicts the conscious realization (illuminato) of an unconscious state of conflict… During this process, the scum (terra dammata) which cannot be improved must be thrown out.  The white substance is compared to the corpus glorificationis, and another parallel is the ecclesia , The feminine character of the lapis albus corresponds to that of the unconscious, symbolized by the moon…

Becoming conscious of an unconscious content amounts to its integration in the conscious psyche and is therefore a coniunctio Solis et Lunae.  This process of integration is one of the most important, helpful factor in modern psychotherapy, which is pre-eminently concerned with the psychology of the unconscious, for both the nature of consciousness and that of the unconscious are altered by it.  As a rule the process is accompanied by the phenomenon of the transference, that is, of the projection of unconscious contents on to the doctor [therapist].  We also meet this phenomenon in alchemy, where a woman adept often plays the part of the soror mystica…

The coniunctio produces the /apis philosophorum [philosopher’s stone], the central symbol of alchemy.  This lapis has innumerable synonyms.  On the one hand, its symbols are quaternary or circular figures and, on the other, the rebis or the hermaphroditic Anthropos who is compared to Christ.  He has a trichotomous form (habat corpus, animam et spiritum) and is also compared to the Trinity (trinus et unus). The symbolism of the lapis corresponds to the mandala (circle) symbols in dreams etc., which represent wholeness and order and therefore express the personality that has been altered by the integration of the unconscious.  The alchemical opus portrays the process of individuation but in a projected form because the alchemists were unconscious of this psychic process. [29]

So for Jung the link between the process of alchemy and therapy was particularly useful.  Modern Jungians often use the alchemical model as a paradigm in their work, particularly as it emphasizes the notion that both parties get something out of the process, that there is a mutual transformation, therapist or analyst standing to gain as much as the patient.  Some go further and see things in alchemical guise.  James Hillman, in Revisioning Psychology, writes, “Personality is a specific combination of dense depressive lead, with inflammable aggressive sulphur, with bitterly wise salt, with volatile evasive mercury.” [30]

Alchemy links up with the shadow, very much a central Jungian concept - in personal terms the shadow means those parts of ourselves that we feel are inferior, that we dislike, our darker side, the part not kept in the light.  One of the main goals of Jungian analysis is to recognize and hopefully integrate the shadow, to bring it in and link it up with the rest of the personality, thus combining opposites again.  Boyle’s shadow side was probably his fussiness, his obsessive qualities, his fastidious nature, these resulting, perhaps, from his

29. C, C, Jung, ‘Faust and Alchemy’ in Read et al, op. cit. (8), xviii, 752.

30. James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, New York, 1975, 86.


underlying depression, consequent on his mother’s death.  But it could be said that this side of him, the shadow side, became subsumed in his relationship with his sister Katherine.

In 1654, aged twenty-seven, he fell quite seriously ill with dropsy - his health appears to have been quite delicate throughout his life, Evelyn spoke of him as ‘emaciated’. [31]  Did this illness too, like his stutter, have a psychosomatic origin?  He was young to have had a midlife crisis, but may have been heading that way.  What now lay ahead for him?  Dropsy affected his eyesight, which remained weak from then on.  Eyesight was all-important to him.  He needed it for his work, which was as much visual as mental.  Was this illness designed to slow him up?  Or did it mean he would have to reach out for others?  He would now need someone to read to him. Was there a hidden, unconscious motive in this?  Or was it a slowing-down process?  Was he fearful of pushing himself too far, too quickly?  Was he fearful of risking the wrath of Providence again, as with all those natural disasters that befell him, nearly drowning, or his carriage being swept away or mighty thunderstorms?  Or had he already seen too much?  Were his eyes racing ahead of him?  Or, indeed, was self-regulatory nature at work, seeking to balance things out - a Jungian notion, Per Hultberg, a Jungian writer, in his paper ‘”Success, retreat, panic: over-stimulation and depressive defence”, talks of the fear of being overwhelmed, of being suddenly flooded by too much emotion, the defences unable to cope with this excess, this inflation. [32]  Could this have been Boyle’s case?

This is obviously speculation, but his illness did have an effect: it provided him with an amanuensis.  Jung has a phrase: “if you are not interested in your fate, your unconscious is”.  Here, then, was a means of acquiring someone he could dictate his thoughts to, the ‘other’ that he always seemed to need, a mirror image for himself, not just to redeem solitude, but to reflect things back to him, a way to see himself mirrored back, and a helping hand.

In 1655/6 Boyle moved from Stalbridge to Oxford, the main centre of learning, where he joined a gathering of natural philosophers, and participated in group activity.  His sister Katherine had found rooms for him there - exercising her maternal function again.  The late 1650s became for him an intense period, a path to individuation again.  His sense of identity was growing all the time, sharpened by his awareness of who he was not and of who his enemies were, Hobbes for example.  In his writings he now sought to build a bridge between the two worlds that interested him most - science and religion.  This bridge-building can be seen as an outer manifestation of an attempt at inner cohesion.  We see this in his corpuscularian approach - a linking of opposites, air and body.

In 1661 his well-known work The Sceptical Chymist appeared.  Scepticism can be seen as a healthy, open-minded approach.  He was now, in the 1660s, in his mid-thirties, a true midlife point.  Erik Erikson has defined a life cycle with specific tasks for each stage, the midlife task being generativity versus stagnation.  By generativity, Erikson means giving out to others, embarking on new ventures in an altruistic way, helping one’s fellow men, giving

31 Evelyn’s letter to Wotton, Hunter, op. cit. (3), 89.

32 Per Hultberg, ‘Success, retreat, panic: over-stimulation and depressive defence’, Journal of Analytical Psychology (1985), 30, 73-93, reprinted in A, Samuels (ed,), Psycho pathology and Contemporary Jungian Perspectives, London, 1991, 45-70.


something back to them.  Latterday teaching would be a good example of this. , We can see this happening with Boyle’s developing interest in evangelism, spreading the Christian doctrine among the American Indians, for example.  In 1662 he became Governor of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England.

This period, the 1660s, produced a veritable torrent of works corresponding to the alchemical stage of massa confusa, or nigredo, which precedes the refining process.  It was an exciting era, a time of real intellectual ferment, in 1660 the Royal Society was founded, with Boyle present at its inaugural meeting.  In 1668 he left Oxford for London and spent the rest of his life in London with his sister Lady Ranelagh, as has been mentioned, in 1670, aged forty-three, he suffered a severe stroke, which brought him near to death’s door.  Once again was there a psychosomatic component to this?  Was there still too much emotion bottled up, was his heart almost literally having to burst?

Now his output fell and he kept more to himself, valuing solitude.  He continued with experimental work, for instance that on the vacuum pump - which itself could stand as a metaphor for what was going on inside him, the hole, the empty emotions.  Later, in 1678, his interest in alchemy revived when he became involved with a ‘shadowy’ circle of French alchemists who had witnessed alchemical processes.  Was he too looking for something elsewhere, outside of himself, in the unconscious, close to the mystery of things, the mysterium coniunctionis that Jungians describe?

As Boyle aged, so he became more fastidious and scrupulous.  There was a narrowing of his emotional range.  In 1689 he resigned his governorship of the Society in New England, and for the next two years or so, now in his early sixties, his awareness of death seemed to be growing.  He took steps to accommodate this. He apologized for the imperfections of his publications.  He published his strange and convoluted Advertisement about the loss of his papers - a querulous note there.  In 1691 he drew up an elaborate will and kept adding codicils - his obsessive side again.  He started cataloguing his papers and seemed to be making full preparations for his death. , At the end of 1691 his beloved sister Katherine died on 23 December, and he died on 31 December, eight days later, closely following her as if they were an old and close married couple.



Here I have viewed Boyle’s life from the perspective of a Jungian, and I want to stress that any proposals I have made are merely suggestions, not affirmations.  We contributors to this special issue of BIHS are like people walking around a statue, each making comments on what they see.  How far we can get inside the statue is another matter.  Psychohistory is bound to be tentative, especially concerning figures who lived so long ago.  Biographers of contemporary subjects may fare better - there are accessible letters and diaries (now likely to be superseded by the fax and telephone), and, most valuable of all, people to talk to.  Certainly with my R. D. Laing biography [88] I felt I had enough firsthand material to hazard a few psychobiographical guesses.  I think there is justification for this kind of

33. J, Clay, K, 0, Laing; a Divided Self, London, 1996,


writing, but we need to tread carefully.  I find I use my psychotherapeutic knowledge to provide insight into character which I then try and weave into my text, if I am lucky, it becomes imperceptible, on the iceberg principle - a small amount shows on the surface but there is much hidden away underneath, it is the interplay between these two disciplines that is interesting, a repeat, perhaps, of the ego-Self referral mentioned above.

Boyle can be said to have fulfilled some of the major tasks that Jungians hold to be important.  I have mentioned the path of individuation and the reconciling of opposites as two of these, and in both those areas Boyle seems to have achieved much.  It is always dangerous to talk of a fully individuated person.  I do not know whether they really exist.  I am not sure I have met any - and in the past this would be true as well.  Look at Mozart, for example, producing divine music, but still a child at heart.

To speak of the ‘Divine’ brings up the Jungian notion of puer in its double-edged aspect -  remaining young at heart, even rather shallow emotionally, but carrying spirit and the divine spark that creates original work.  Certainly Boyle’s work had this at times, it has lasted and will continue to last - why else are we discussing his work today?  That his emotional life may not have been ‘sorted out’, in twentieth century terms, is another issue.  We put quite a high premium on such things nowadays, certainly in my profession we do.  But not everyone wants to get sorted out. The poet Rilke refused therapy as he feared it might interfere with his creative processes.  Boyle can be seen an example of someone who, granted the confusing circumstances under which he was brought up and lived, made the most of what was available to him, and in the public arena his contribution was considerable.  His place in intellectual history is assured and these papers serve to shed some light on the more hidden recesses of his person.

As I prepared this paper, I found I had grown to like Boyle.  I studied the portraits I could find of him, intrigued by them.  He becomes elusive at times.  There is the Kerseboom portrait in the Royal Society, where he has almost feminine features, a distinct sensibility and a delicacy in his features - we can see glimpses of his fastidious side here, a hesitancy too, as though he is not quite sure about looking the painter squarely in the eye, showing a hint of the valetudinarian.  Evelyn wrote of him: “in his diet, (as in habite) he was extreamely Temperate & plaine nor could Ii ever discerne in him the least Passion, transport or censoriousnesse, whatever Discourse, or the Times suggested all was tranquill, easy, serious, discreete & profitable.” [34]  That was the surface at any rate, the persona again.  Gilbert Burnet, too, in his memorandum noted that there was more below the surface than met the eye.  Boyle ‘inclined’, he wrote, “to be cholerick but Governed it so that it never appeared except in his looks a little when much provoked.” [35]  Was this the suppressed rage from early childhood?  We shall never know, and the questions still proliferate, reminding us of Boyle himself, the endless enquirer, never settling for premature conclusions.

34. Evelyn’s letter to Wotton, Hunter, op. cit. (3), 88.

35 ‘The Burnet Memorandum’, Hunter, op. cit. (3), 28.