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Basso, Sebastian

Basso, Sebastian

(fl. second half of the sixteenth century)

natural philosophy.

Although Basso was famous as a reviver of the atomic philosophy, and was mentioned by Descartes, Gassendi, and Jungius, there is little biographical information about him. He is known only as the author of Philosophiae naturalis adversus Aristotelem, which tells us that he was a physician and had studied at the new Academia Mussipontana (Pont à Mousson).

In the choice and arrangement of topics, Basso follows the Aristotelian tradition of the sixteenth century. The authors most discussed are Scaliger, Toletus, Piccolomini, Zabarella and the Conimbricenses. But Basso’s aim is to oppose Peripatetic opinions, and to prove that many puzzling problems in natural philosophy can be solved satisfactorily only by reviving the doctrines of such pre-Aristotelian thinkers as Empedocles, Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Plato. Basso’s central doctrines are that all matter consists of very small atoms of different natures and that a very fine, corporeal ether extends throughout the universe and fills the pores between the atoms. The atomic doctrine is invoked, in a sustained polemic with Scaliger, to prove that the forms of the constituents really persist in the compound. Particles of the four elements combine into groupings of the second order, third order, and so on, and produce the characteristic properties of a specific body. The predominant element determines whether an inorganic, compound body is solida, liquida, fusilia, or meteoria. Transmutation of the elements is held to be impossible, since the ultimate particles are immutable. When water evaporates, it turns into steam, not air: the fiery particles penetrate the water, and drive the watery particles farther apart and into the air.

The ether, or spiritus, which Basso likens to the universal ether of the Stoics, governs the motion and arrangement of the atoms, and is responsible for all material change. The immediate instrument of God in moving and directing all things, it is different from fire, which consists of spiritus plus very fine and sharp corpuscles. Basso is convinced that the vacuum of Democritus signifies nothing but the ether of the Stoics. He attempts to explain a wide range of phenomena by assigning to the ether the function of bringing together likes and driving apart unlikes. He opposes Zabarella’s opinions when discussing the acceleration of falling bodies and the motion of projectiles: Acceleration of falling bodies is due to increasing pressure from the air above and diminishing resistance of the air beneath.

Basso considers such traditional questions as the influence of the planets on men, especially of the moon on critical days and tides, and tries to explain them (like Pomponazzi and Fracastoro, among the Aristotelians) in terms of contact-action: very fine and fiery spirits emanate from the planets. Their action begins at birth; before that the body of the mother shields the fetus from their influence.

In attacking Aristotelian philosophy, reviving the pre-Socratics and atomists, and offering corpuscular explanations of physical change, Basso was seen as a precursor by some of the founders of the mechanical philosophy in the seventeenth century.


Basso’s only printed work is Philosophiae naturalis adversus Aristotelem libri XII. In quibus abstrusa veterum physiologia restauratur, & Aristotelis errores solidis rationes refelluntur (Geneva, 1621; Elzevir ed., Amsterdam, 1649). It has not been possible to trace a 1574 edition that Jöcher claims was published at Rome.

Works on Basso are I. Guareschi, “La teoria atomistica e Sebastiano Basso con notizie e considerazioni su William Higgins,” in Memoria della Regale Accademia dei Lincei, Classe di Scienze Fisiche, Matematiche e Naturali, 11 (1916), 289–388; Kurt Lasswitz, Geschichte der Atomistik vom Mittelalter bis Newton, 1 (Hamburg–Leipzig, 1890), 467–481, and Vierteljahrschrift für wissenschaftlichen Philosophie, 8 (1884), 18–55; Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, VI (New York, 1941), 386–388; and J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 387–388.

P.M. Rattansi

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