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William Harvey, Aristotle and astrology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2013

Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK. Email:


In this paper I argue that William Harvey believed in a form of astrology. It has long been known that Harvey employed a macrocosm–microcosm analogy and used alchemical terminology in describing how the two types of blood change into one another. This paper then seeks to examine a further aspect of Harvey in relation to the magical tradition. There is an important corollary to this line of thought, however. This is that while Harvey does have a belief in astrology, it is strongly related to Aristotle's views in this area and is quite restricted and attenuated relative to some contemporary beliefs in astrology. This suggests a more general thesis. While Harvey was amenable to ideas which we associate with the natural magic tradition, those ideas had a very broad range of formulation and there was a limit to how far he would accept them. This limit was largely determined by Harvey's adherence to Aristotle's natural philosophy and his Christian beliefs. I argue that this is also the case in relation to Harvey's use of the macrocosm–microcosm analogy and of alchemical terminology, and, as far as we can rely on the evidence, this informs his attitudes towards witches as well. Understanding Harvey's influences and motives here is important in placing him properly in the context of early seventeenth-century thought.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2013 

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1 Whitteridge, Gweneth, William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood, London: McDonald, 1971Google Scholar.

2 Pagel, Walter, William Harvey's Biological Ideas, Basel: Karger 1967Google Scholar; Pagel, , New Light on William Harvey, Basel: Karger 1976Google Scholar; Debus, Allen, ‘Harvey and Fludd: the irrational factor in the rational science of the seventeenth century’, Journal of the History of Biology (1970) 3, pp. 81105CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

3 Wear, Andrew, ‘The heart and the blood from Vesalius to Harvey’, in Olby, Robert et al. (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 568582Google Scholar. Cunningham, Andrew, ‘Harvey’, in Porter, Roy (ed.), Man Masters Nature, London: BBC Books, 1987, pp. 6576Google Scholar. French, Roger, William Harvey's Natural Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994Google Scholar. Rossi, Paulo, The Birth of Modern Science, Oxford: Blackwell 2000Google Scholar. Frank, R.G., Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists, Berkeley: California University Press, 1990Google Scholar. Fuchs, Thomas, The Mechanization of the Heart: Harvey and Descartes, Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2001Google Scholar. Compare with McMullen, Ernan, William Harvey and the Use of Purpose in the Scientific Revolution, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998Google Scholar, on Harvey and purpose; and Lesky, Erna, ‘Harvey und Aristoteles’, Sudhoffs Archiv (1957) 41, pp. 289311, 349–378Google Scholar.

4 ‘Rational’ and ‘irrational’ being their terms, not mine.

5 William Harvey, Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium, Section 50 heading. References are to Whitteridge's, Gweneth translation, Disputations Touching the Generation of Animals, Oxford: Blackwell, 1981Google Scholar.

6 Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 50, p. 232; see also Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 50, p. 238: ‘The Sun by his approach is the beginning of motion and transformation in the provision of fruits, and the end too when he becomes the author of the fertility of their seeds’; and Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 50, p. 239: ‘It is certain that there is in the egg (as well as in every conception and first rudiment), an operative power which is infused into it not only from the female, but which is also communicated to it first by the male in coitus through his geniture, and that this was first of all given to the male by the heavens or the sun or the Almighty Creator’; and Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 50, p. 235: ‘As if the Sun, or the Heavens, or Nature, or the Soul of the Universe, or Almighty God (for all these words represent the same thing) were a superior and more divine cause in generation than they’.

7 Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 50, pp. 234–235, quoting Aristotle, On Generation and Destruction II/10.

8 Aristotle, On Generation and Destruction II/10, 336b7–14: ‘It [the sun] generates by approaching and being near, it destroys by withdrawing and being far away … Therefore the lifespan of each living thing has a number and is determined. There is an order for all things and all lifespans have a measurable period’. All translations from Aristotle are my own and page numbers refer to the standard Bekker edition.

9 Aristotle, Metaphysics XII/5.

10 See, for example, Harvey op. cit. (5), Exercise 11, p. 65: ‘It is a common error of those who in these days spin philosophies, to seek the causes of diversity of parts in diversity of matter whence they were framed … Nor are those any less at fault who make all things out of atoms, like Democritus, or out of elements, like Empedocles’.

11 Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 71, pp. 379–380; cf Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 71, p. 382: ‘Truly no otherwise than the superior luminaries, the Sun and the Moon, give life to this inferior world by their continuous circular motions’.

12 Aristotle, Meteorology I/2: ‘The entire terrestrial realm is composed of these bodies [earth, water, air, fire], and as we have said it is the processes which affect them that concern us here. This realm is of necessity contiguous with the upper motions, which means that all of the motions here are steered [kubernasthai] by the upper motions. As the source of all motion, the upper motions must be accounted as the primary cause. These are eternal, unlimited with respect to place, but are always complete. In distinction, all of the other bodies comprise separate regions from each other. The result of this is that fire, earth and their kindred must be accounted as the material reason for coming to be, while the ultimate reason for their motion is the motive ability of the eternally moving things'.

13 Harvey, On Parturition, p. 524; compare with Harvey, On Parturition, p. 525: ‘There are other animals also on whom the course of the moon has an influence, and which consequently copulate and bring forth their young at certain periods of the year’; and also On Parturition, p. 396, where Harvey quotes Plutarch: ‘The moon, when she is half full, assists in hastening labour for she mitigates the pains by releasing the waters’. The Plutarch source is Table Talk III/10. References to On Parturition are to Willis's, Robert translation, The Works of William Harvey, Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1989Google Scholar.

14 Aristotle, Generation of Animals II/4: ‘The period is not accurately defined in women, but tends to return during the waning of the moon. This we should expect, for the bodies of animals are colder when the environment happens to become so, and the time of change from one month to another is cold because of the absence of the moon, whence also it results that this time is stormier than the middle of the month’. Aristotle, Investigation of Animals VII/2: ‘The onset of the catamenia in women takes place towards the end of the month; and on this account the wiseacres assert that the moon is feminine, because the discharge in women and the waning of the moon happen at one and the same time, and after the wane and the discharge both one and the other grow whole again’. Aristotle, Investigation of Animals V/12: ‘As a general rule, the testaceans are found to be furnished with their so-called eggs in spring-time and in autumn, with the exception of the edible urchin; for this animal has the so-called eggs in most abundance in these seasons, but at no season is unfurnished with them; and it is furnished with them in especial abundance in warm weather or when a full moon is in the sky’. Compare with Aristotle, Generation of Animals IV/10: ‘The moon is a first principle because of her connexion with the sun and her participation in his light, being as it were a second smaller sun, and therefore she contributes to all generation and development. For heat and cold varying within certain limits make things to come into being and after this to perish, and it is the motions of the sun and moon that fix the limit both of the beginning and of the end of these processes'.

15 See Augustine, City of God V, Literal Interpretation of Genesis II; Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III, 84–88. Aquinas' position is a little more complex than this, allowing astrological influence over the lower parts of the soul, which can then be overcome by the will.

16 Aristotle says, ‘The problem some see arising here is now solved, that is how each of the bodies (i.e. earth, water, air, fire) travelling to their own places have not, in an unlimited amount of time, become separated from the other bodies. The reason for this is that they change into each other. If each had remained in is own place without change they would have separated long ago. They are, though, changed due to the double motion and because they are changed none is able to remain in any ordered place’. Aristotle, op. cit. (8), 337a8–16.

17 Aristotle, op. cit. (8), 337a2–7.

18 Aristotle, op. cit. (12), I/3, 340b12; cf On the Heavens II/7 on the nature of the heavenly bodies.

19 See Gregory, Andrew, ‘Plato and Aristotle on eclipses’, Journal for the History of Astronomy (2000) 31, pp. 245259Google Scholar.

20 Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos I/1. All translation from Ptolemy are my own and references are to the organization of the Loeb edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

21 Ptolemy, op. cit. (20), I/2; cf ibid.: ‘A certain natural power emanates from the eternal aether and affects the entire region of the earth, subjecting at all to change’.

22 Aristotle, op. cit. (8), II/10, 336b16: ‘It would seem that the empirical evidence agrees with our theory, as we see generation with the approach of the sun and destruction with its withdrawal’.

23 Bok, Bart, Kurtz, Paul and Jerome, Lawrence, with 186 signatories, ‘Objections to astrology: a statement by 186 leading scientists’, (the American) Humanist (1975) 35, pp. 46Google Scholar, reprinted in the New Humanist (1975) 91, pp. 154–155; compare with Jerome, Lawrence E., ‘Astrology: magic or science?’, in Jerome, Lawrence E. and Kurtz, Paul, Objections to Astrology, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1975, pp. 3762, 46Google Scholar: ‘astrology is false because it is a system of magic’.

24 I do not take the term ‘astrologer’ to be pejorative.

25 One might also note the fiercely deterministic astrology of the Stoics and the important idea that the heavens are signs of what will happen but not causes of what will happen.

26 See Gregory, Andrew, ‘Harvey, Aristotle and the weather cycle’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2001) 32, pp. 153168Google Scholar, for more detail on these issues.

27 See Basalla, George, ‘William Harvey and the heart as a pump’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1962) 36, pp. 467470Google Scholar; Webster, Charles, ‘Harvey's conception of the heart as a pump’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1965) 39, pp. 508517Google Scholar. Pagel, William Harvey's Biological Ideas, op. cit. (2), p. 213.

28 The Anatomical Lectures of William Harvey (ed. Gweneth Whitteridge), London: published for the Royal College of Physicians, by Livingstone, 1964, p. 272.

29 Aristotle, De Respiratione, 480a20–23; cf 478a10. Galen also frequently likens the heart to a forge bellows.

30 Harvey, Exertationes de Motu Cordis et Sanguis in Animalium. References are to The Anatomical Excercises of Dr. William Harvey, Harvey's 1653 English version of Exertationes de Motu Cordis et Sanguis in Animalium, Yale University Medical Library reprint, 1989.

31 Aristotle, op. cit. (12) 349b16 ff.

32 See Harvey, op. cit. (30), Chapters 9 and 10.

33 Harvey, op. cit. (30), Chapter 8.

34 Harvey, op. cit. (30), Chapter 8.

35 Harvey, op. cit. (30), Chapter 7.

36 von Lowenheim, Philipp Sachs, Oceanus macro-microcosmicus, seu dissertatio epistolica de analogo motu aquarum ex & ad oceanum, sanguinis ex & ad cor, Vratislaviae, 1664Google Scholar; Highmore, Nathaniel, Corporis humani disquisitio anatomica: in qua sanguinis circulationem in quavis corporis particula plurimis typis novis, Hagae-Comitis: Ex officina Samuelis Broun bibliopolæ Anglici, 1651Google Scholar.

37 Aristotle, Physics VIII/2, 252b24–7.

38 Compare with Plato in the Timaeus, who developed what would later be understood by the Neoplatonic tradition as a macrocosm–microcosm analogy between the heavens and the human mind, without using the macrocosm–microcosm terminology.

39 Fludd's conception of the relations between microcosm and macrocosm are many and complex, certainly involve sympathy, harmony and atunement, and can perhaps best be quickly gauged by looking at the frontispiece and various other illustrations in Fludd's Utriusque Cosmi Historia.

40 See Debus, Alan, ‘Robert Fludd and the circulation of the blood’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (1961) 16, pp. 374393Google Scholar.

41 Robert Fludd, De Pulsuum Mysterio, p. 11, compare with Fludd, Anatomiae Amphithea, p. 166.

42 Perhaps best seen in Fludd, Answer Unto M. Foster, Chapter 7.

43 ‘The Heart of creatures is the foundation of life, the Prince of all, the Sun of their Microcosm, on which all vegetation does depend, from whence all vigor and strength does flow. Likewise, the King is the foundation of his Kingdoms, and Sun of his Microcosm, the Heart of his commonwealth, from whence all power and mercy precedes'. Harvey, op. cit. (30), preface.

44 Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 12.

45 Hall, Marie, The Scientific Renaissance, London: Collins, 1962, p. 285Google Scholar.

46 On this see Field, J.V., Kepler's Geometrical Cosmology, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988Google Scholar; Westman, Robert, ‘Nature, Art and Psyche: Jung, Pauli and the Kepler–Fludd polemic’, in Vickers, Brian (ed.), Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 177230CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Judith Field, ‘Kepler's rejection of numerology’, in Vickers, op. cit., pp. 273–296. See also Huffman, William, Robert Fludd and the End of the Renaissance, London: Routledge, 1988Google Scholar.

47 Gassendi, Pierre, Epistolica exercitation in qua principia philosophiae Rob. Fludd reteguntur, p. 132Google Scholar.

48 See Kassell, Lauren, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005, p. 5Google Scholar.

49 Kassell, op. cit. (48), p. 139.

50 Forman, from Kassell, op. cit. (48), p. 139.

51 Kassell, op. cit. (48), p. 5.

52 See Pagel, New Light, op. cit. (2), p. 192.

53 Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 71, p. 380.

54 Walleus, De Motu Chyli et Sanguinus, in Anatomia ad sanguis circulationem reformata, Hagae-Comitis, 1655, p. 790, Pagel's translation.

55 John Aubrey, Brief Lives, on Harvey, from Keynes's, Geoffrey transcription, The Life of William Harvey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 435Google Scholar.

56 See, for example, Meteorologica I/3, 339a37 ff.; cf On the Heavens III/6 and III/7; On Generation and Corruption II/4 and II/5 and, in relation to the weather cycle, II/10, 337a2–7.

57 See Meteorologica III/6, 378a17 ff., IV/8 384b24 ff. and IV/10 388a10 ff. on the constitution of gold and other metals.

58 See Aquinas, Commentary on Boethius' De Trinitate, pp. 532–536, vol. IV opera omnia.

59 Keynes, op. cit. (55), Chapter 26, pp. 206–215.

60 Key biblical passages asserting either the existence and efficacy of witchcraft or severe sanctions against it are 1 Samuel 28:8–26; Exodus 7:8–12 (‘You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live’), 22:18; Numbers 22:7, 23:23; Deuteronomy 18:10–15; Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 20:27.

61 Stewart, James, Daemonologie in the form of a Dialogue, 1597Google Scholar.

62 James Stewart, op. cit. (61), p. 1.

63 Kramer, Heinrich and Sprenger, Jacob, Malleus Maleficarum, 1487Google Scholar.

64 See Keynes, op. cit. (55), p. 212.

65 Quoted from Keynes, op. cit. (55), p. 214.

66 Quoted from Keynes, op. cit. (55), p. 215.

67 Keynes, op. cit. (55), p. 215.

68 This was not an issue for the older Harvey historiography, which largely ignored Harvey's thought in these areas.

69 Rossi, op. cit. (3), p. 159.

70 Rossi, op. cit. (3), p. 159.

71 Plato, Timaeus and a Hippocratic author, On Regimen I/10.

72 Though not all – when the egg is seen as a microcosm in EGA Exercise 11, it is simply that earth is central, followed by water and then by air (yolk, albumen, air sac).

73 See Aristotle, Meteorologica I/3 and I/9; and compare with De Generatione et Corruptione II/10.

74 Harvey, op. cit. (30), Chapter 8; Harvey, op. cit. (5), Exercise 50.

75 Harvey, op. cit. (30), Chapter 8. See Aristotle, De Generatione et Corruptione II/10; De Anima, 415b3–8; De Mundo, 399a20–35 for the Aristotelian background here. For Aristotle it is the sun that is the cause of the weather cycle – this is in the very strong Aristotelian sense of being both efficient and final cause. See Meteorologica, 346b20 ff.