Gorlaeus (Van Goorle, Van Gooirle), David

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(b. Utrecht, Netherlands, 15 January 1591; d. Cornjum, Netherlands, 27 April 1612),

natural philosophy, matter theory.

Gorlaeus is counted among the founders of modern atomism, which he proposed as an alternative to Aristotelian matter theory. Because of his notion of atomic compounds, he is also regarded as a contributor to the evolution of chemistry.

Gorlaeus’s Identity . Given his latter-day reputation, Gorlaeus’s biography is rather surprising: He died very young, at age 21, as a student of theology. In fact, his scientific reputation is entirely posthumous, and moreover started with a certain delay. The two manuscripts he composed in Leiden in 1611, the voluminous Exercitationes philosophicae and the succinct Idea physicae, were published in 1620 and 1651, respectively.

From the correspondence of his father, David Gorlaeus Sr., it appears that alchemical interests were being cultivated in his family. Still, the interests of the younger Gorlaeus in natural philosophy had above all philosophical and theological sources. As for philosophy, as an undergraduate student at Franeker between 1606 and 1610, Gorlaeus followed the comparatively innovative natural science course of Henricus de Veno, who incorporated recent developments in the fields of astronomy, meteorology, and natural philosophy into his otherwise Aristotelian framework. By 1610, Gorlaeus had furthermore come under the influence of Julius Caesar Scaliger’s Exercitationes exotericae (1557), which explained a range of natural phenomena in terms of corpuscles and interstitial voids. Scaliger figures as the only recent author in Gorlaeus’s two books and is quoted with great frequency.

Whereas Scaliger depicted himself as an Aristotelian and anti-atomist, Gorlaeus’s strongly anti-Aristotelian physics relied fully on the interaction of atoms. In order to understand why a theology student should have ended up developing such a system, one must consider his circumstances in 1611. A crisis pitting two currents of Calvinism against each other was just then reaching its acme at Leiden University’s theological faculty, where Gorlaeus had recently enrolled. The point of departure for the conflict had been the non-orthodox view of one of the professors, Jacob Arminius, that the election of the faithful to heaven was not predestined by God since eternity, a view that was combated by his colleague Franciscus Gomarus. The so-called Arminian conflict, which quickly turned into a national and indeed international affair, had strong political overtones, but conceptually revolved around such philosophical concepts as the nature of divine and human causality, time and eternity, place and ubiquity, and determinism and free will. When Arminius died in 1609, Conrad Vorstius was chosen to succeed him, but upon his arrival at Leiden in 1611 was expelled speedily on charges of heresy. Some of the alleged heresies, which King James I of England stooped to rebut in person, were said to reside in his physicalist understanding of God, an understanding that had been inspired, it was charged, by the metaphysics of the German professor of medicine Nicolaus Taurellus. The point is that Gorlaeus, who was a partisan of the Arminian cause, quickly acquainted himself with the writings of both Vorstius and Taurellus, and his atomism can be understood as a radicalization of the ontology he had found particularly in Taurellus’s metaphysics.

Gorlaeus’s System . Gorlaeus’s atomism, which took center stage in his Idea physicae, is however more fully embedded in the Exercitationes philosophicae. There, philosophy is defined as “the naked knowledge of entities” and thus identified with ontology. Each discipline, wrote Gorlaeus, tackles one type of entity, whereby physics deals with natural entities. His ontology distinguishes between self-subsisting entities (entia per se), which are defined as numerically unique, fully existing, unchanging, and indivisible, and the accidental compositions (entia per accidens) that are brought about when several entia per se gather. This view of reality is essentially atomistic, although primarily in a metaphysical sense. By denying universals and allowing only for individuals, it is also heavily indebted to medieval nominalism. The only self-subsisting entities are God, angels, souls, and physical atoms, whereas all other entities, including humans, are transitory composites. Gorlaeus’s definition of man as an “accidental being,” which he took from Taurellus, was to be used in a 1641 university disputation by René Descartes’s friend Henricus Regius and triggered the first conflict between Descartes and the Aristotelian university establishment. Since that episode Gorlaeus has, somewhat misleadingly, been seen as a forerunner of Cartesianism.

Although his atomism is primarily metaphysical, Gorlaeus spent much time and effort to apply it to the realms of physics and chemistry. Rejecting Aristotle’s concept of place, he maintained that atoms move in an absolute space, which does not necessarily have to be filled. Possessing quantity, atoms are furthermore extended, and they come in two types, namely dry (as earth atoms) and wet (as water atoms). All natural bodies can be resolved into these two types of atoms. Fire is explained in terms of the friction of closely packed atoms, while air is defined as a real, but non-elementary substance, which fills all voids and which is capable of transmitting celestial heat, but not of combining into compounds. When bodies rarefy, this is due to the entrance of air between the atoms; air itself cannot be rarefied or condensed. The emergent physical and chemical properties of higher-level compounds are due to the mixing of the elementary qualities of wet and dry with the so-called “real accidents” of warm and cold, which are communicated to the elementary atoms from the ambient air. Within this framework, Gorlaeus explained the most common physical and chemical properties of substances as a “temperament” created by the interacting atoms under the influence of ambient heat or cold. Although he demonstrated a certain ingenuity in this enterprise, he was yet forced to introduce additional elements such as heaviness, which is a divinely “impressed downward force.” Divine providence is also responsible for the aggregation of atoms into the more complex bodies.

Although never truly influential, Gorlaeus’s views were received in Arminian circles, both in the Low Countries and in England, where the implications of his “composite ontology” for both the explanation of the relationship between the divinity and mankind and the behavior of natural bodies was appreciated. His Idea physicae, which from a scientific point of view is more straightforward and forceful, had the misfortune of being published too late, and worse yet, in the heyday of Cartesianism. The small number of extant copies testifies to its low circulation.



Exercitationes philosophicae quibus universa fere discutitur philosophia theoretica et plurima ac praecipua Peripateticorum dogmata evertuntur. Leiden, Netherlands: In Bibliopolio Commeliano sumptibus viduae Iannis Comelini, 1620.

Idea physicae, cui adjuncta est Epistola cujusdam Anonymi de terrae motu. Utrecht, Netherlands: Johannes a Waesberge, 1651.


Gregory, Tullio. “Studi sull’atomismo del Seicento. II. David van Goorle e Daniel Sennert,” Giornale critico della filosofia italiana 45 (1966): 44–63. Provides a good analysis of Gorlaeus’s nominalism.

Jaeger, F. M. “Over David van Goorle als atomist, en over het geslacht van Goorle in Noord-Nederland,” Oud-Holland 36 (1918): 205–242. Discovered the main biographical data of the life of Gorlaeus and of his family.

Lasswitz, Kurd. Geschichte der Atomistik vom Mittelalter bis Newton. 2 vols. Hamburg: Leopold Voss, 1890, repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1984, vol. I, 333–335; 455–463. Still a valid summary of Gorlaeus’s atomism.

Lüthy, Christoph. “David Gorlaeus’ Atomism, or: The Marriage of Protestant Metaphysics with Italian Natural Philosophy.” In Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories, edited by Christoph Lüthy, John E. Murdoch, and William R. Newman, 245–290. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001. Analyzes Gorlaeus’s philosophy through the lens of his education and the Arminian crisis.

———, and Leen Spruit. “The Doctrine, Life, and Roman Trial of the Frisian Philosopher Henricus de Veno (1574?–1613).” Renaissance Quarterly 56 (2003): 1112–1151. Describes life and doctrine of Gorlaeus’s teacher and the roots of Gorlaeus’s own mixture of Italian natural philosophy and Protestant metaphysics.

Verbeek, Theo. “Ens per accidens. Le origini della Querelle di Utrecht.” Giornale critico della filosofia italiana, sixth series, 71 (1992): 276–288. Retraces the role of Gorlaeus’s most famous thesis in the Cartesian controversies of 1641 to 1642.

Christoph Lüthy