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Revival Of Aristotelian Botany

( Originally Published 1912 )

The subject of Aristotelian botany scarcely comes within the scope of a book on Herbals, but, at the same time, it cannot be sharply separated from the botany of the herbalists. It therefore seems desirable to make a brief reference at this point to its chief sixteenth-century exponent, the Italian savant, Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), and to one or two other writers whose point of view was similar. We have already shown that, in the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus carried on the tradition of Aristotle and Theophrastus. At the time of the Renaissance, there was again a revival of this aspect of the study, as well as of the branch with which we are here more immediately concerned, that, namely, which deals with plants from the standpoint of medicine and natural history. Cesalpino (Plate X IV), it is true, was largely concerned, like the herbalists, with the mere description of plants, but the fame of his great work, ` De plantis libri X V I ' (1583), rests upon the first book, which contains an account of the theory of botany on Aristotelian lines.

Cesalpino's strength lay in the fact that he took a remarkably broad view of the subject, and approached it as a trained thinker. He had learned the best lesson Greek thought had to offer to the scientific worker—the knowledge of how to think. He had, however, the defects of his qualities, and his reverence for the classics led him into an inelastic and over literal acceptance of Aristotelian conceptions. The chief tangible contribution, which Cesalpino made to botanical science, was his insistence on the prime importance of the organs of fructification. This was the idea on which he chiefly laid stress in his system of classification, to which we shall return in a later chapter.

A botanist who had something in common with Cesalpino was the Bohemian author, Adam Zaluziansky von Zaluzian (1558-1613). His most important work was the ` Methodi herbarić libri tres,' published at Prague in 1592. As a herbal it does not rank high, since Zaluziansky neither recorded any new plants, nor gave the Bohemian localities for those already known. But it opens with a survey of botany in general, which is of interest as showing an approach to the modern scientific standpoint, in so far as the author pleads for the treatment of botany as a separate subject, and not as a mere branch of medicine. His remarks on this point may be translated as follows :—" It is customary to connect Medicine with Botany, yet scientific treatment demands that we should consider each separately. For the fact is that in every art, theory must be disconnected and separated from practice, and the two must be dealt with singly and individually in their proper order before they are united. And for that reason, in order that Botany (which is, as it were, a special branch of Physics) may form a unit by itself before it can be brought into connection with other sciences, it must be divided and unyoked from Medicine."

Guy de la Brosse, a French writer of the seventeenth century, discusses the souls of plants and related topics, quite in the manner of the Aristotelian school. In his book ` De la Nature, Vertu, et Utilité des Plantes,' dedicated to " Monseigneur le tres-illustre et le tres-reverand Cardinal Monseigneur le Cardinal de Richelieu," he treats of variation within single species, the sensitiveness of plants, their chemistry and properties, and many other topics. His work is full of interest, but a discussion of it would lead us beyond the bounds of our present subject.

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