Alchemy and the Alchemists, article in the National Quarterly Review 1873
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Of the amount of misapprehension and derision which present achievement is ever ready to bestow upon past preparation, alchemy has always received its full share. We can imagine the glittering butterfly saying, as it hovers over the remains of its chrysalis, "What an unsightly, shapeless thing indeed! I certainly can have no connection with it, much less be its offspring." So modern chemistry, in the plenitude of its importance and certainty of its methods, disdains descent from groping alchemy. The chemist in his spacious laboratory, aided by all the apparatus suggested by ages of experience, performs his operations, sure to yield him a rich return, smiles to think of the poor alchemist, toiling in his smoky cell, lured by the hope of securing a substance which can transmute base metals into gold. The present is eminently a practical age. The philosopher's stone is sought not in the crucible and retort, but in the feverish marts of trade. No romance clings now to its pursuit. Midas has more followers than ever, notwithstanding the length of his ears. The sands of Pactolos have long since been scraped up, and converted into solid ingots.
This spirit, that would "coin one's heart-blood into drachmas," is not more justly chargeable to the age characterized by the "delusion" of alchemy than to the present. That the search for the lapis philosophorum as a means of acquiring wealth, or for the elixir vitae as the renewer of life, was the main object of the alchemist, is, to say the least, doubtful. We cannot thus explain this enthusiastic and indefatigable pursuit, extending through many centuries, and attracting all the minds of greatest energy, piety and learning, including such men as Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. Nor was the search for such a stone or substance so chimerical as is often represented. The testimony of Lord Bacon is highly important if not conclusive upon this point, whose marvellous insight and wisdom such a subject could not escape nor deceive. He says: "The work itself I judge to be possible, for we can conceive that a perfect good concoction or digestion or maturation of metals will produce gold." A delusion that has embraced centuries, and deceived all the leading minds of those centuries, must be the most remarkable on record. A pursuit which reached its acme in Egypt in a state of civilization not inferior to any the world has ever seen, to which state it contributed as much as even modern chemistry has done to the present, and which has brought us from the "dark ages" such discoveries as Greek fire, gunpowder, nitric and sulphuric acids, and the art of distillation, certainly deserves to be ranked as a science. Many writers, struck by the absurd pretensions of some of the votaries of the hermetic art, the imposture of others, and the apparently meaningless jargon of some of their writings, have found subject only for amusement and ridicule in the whole affair, and have thus contributed much to the existing state of misapprehension. Thus they find some of the more enthusiastic devotees of the art claiming for it an origin coeval with man. Tubal-cain, "an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron," is numbered by them among its founders. The theory is also found of the propagation of metals by male and female, after the analogy of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Mercury is regarded as the seed of the metal which, deposited in the earth, in a period of 1550 years, produces gold, or in a less time cheaper metal According to Sandivogius, water is the primitive source of the metals. He says: "The first matter of metals is humidity of the air mixed with heat. The generation of metals is this: the four elements, in the first operation of nature, do by the help of the archeus of nature distill into the centre of the earth a ponderous or heavy vapor of water, which is the seed of metals." We read of the seductive amours of the metals under the symbols of Sol and Venus, for instance, meaning simply a union of copper and gold.
If the object of language be to conceal thought, many of those writers succeeded admirably. If they did not possess the philosopher's stone, they certainly possessed the faculty of writing volumes upon it without disclosing the secret. It has also been found that those who claimed to have amassed wealth by the aid of the mystic art, as Jacques Coeur, minister of finance to Charles III., were open to the charge of having debased the gold currency. The same was suspected of kings John, Philip the Fair, and Edward IL of England. Hoefer remarks: "It was in those epochs in which this pretended science most nourished in certain states that the most numerous frauds upon the coinage were discovered." In other words, these unscrupulous men had recourse to the popular faith in alchemy only to hide their avaricious schemes, and had not the least claim to be ranked among its disciples. To form an opinion of the science from such facts as these is to take a narrow view of the whole subject. The truth lies deeper. It is easv to collect a dish of the beautiful foam, but the first breath of inquiry dispels it to nothingness. To find the pearl which is hidden beneath is a sterner as well as more remunerative task.
All authorities point to Egypt as the birthplace of alchemy, where, under the denomination of the Sacred Art, it achieved its first and grandest triumphs. The invention of the art is ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-great), and hence it is called the Hermetic art. He is supposed to have been one of the first kings of the ancient Egyptians and inventors of the useful arts, hence deified and worshipped as Thoth, or the Ibex-headed Hermes. He is also represented upon their monument with a human body surmounted by a head of the sacred bird. He afterwards became an object of veneration to the Greeks under the name of Mercury Trismegistus. He was also regarded by the alchemists as the author of the Smaragdine table, which they supposed to have been graven upon a plate of emerald with a point of a diamond, and concealed in the depths of the great pyramid of Gizeh. But Cuvier is of opinion that it was composed as late as the 7th century. The term sacred art describes its character as possessed and practised only by the priests and initiates of Thebes and Memphis, to whom was confined all the knowledge of the age. Their operations were shrouded in the deepest mystery, and conducted only in profound secrecy, in the recesses of the temples and depths of the pyramids. The initiate pursued his researches in silence and darkness through the colonnades of the temples, with his finger upon his mouth, and pronounced the terrible vow of secrecy under penalty of death.
To increase the mystery with which all the experiments of the alchemists were enveloped, a symbolic language was employed to represent all substances and operations. These symbols are believed to be the origin of the hieroglyphic writings of the Egyptians, some of which came down to us, somewhat altered, as the signs of the seven planets. They were also engraven upon the fronts and painted upon the windows of the religious edifices of the middle ages, remains of which may yet be seen in Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame.
In the first outlook upon the science we see it marked by two strikingly opposite characteristics which it retains to the last, viz.—the wonderful value of the facts and discoveries, and the complete worthlessness of the theories. There can be distinguished three kinds of research—the philosopher's stone, the elixir vitae, and a sort of spiritual philosopher's stone—the soul of the world. The term philosopher's stone does not apply to a material entity, but on the one hand it emanates from supernatural power and operates under the most mystic influences; on the other it is a simple body endowed with one fundamental property. The search for the elixir vitae was a natural corollary of that for the philosopher's stone, for wealth without health is of little value. In order to increase the pleasures and length of life they sought the panacea or universal elixir of life; or, in other words, the liquid philosopher's stone. This arose from the high conception which they had formed of that agent in supposing it capable of separating the pure metal from its alloy, and hence inferring that it ought to have the same property in regard to the morbific agents which affect the human organism.
Undismayed by such researches, the enthusiasm of some of the devotees of the art led them to seek to penetrate still farther into the arcana of nature, like her to become the medium of divine agency, and like Prometheus to bring down the fire of the gods from heaven. Spurning their habiliments of clay they strove to enter into communication with spirits, good or bad, according as piety or perversity predominated, and to identify themselves with the "Soul of the world."
The science of the Egyptian priests was not confined alone to the operations of metallurgy, but was a universal science, embracing within its compass all the practices of mysticism, yet having for its point of departure facts and observations. The Chaldeans, the Magi of the East, from whom the Greeks derived the term "magic," and by whom they were instructed, were among the earliest possessors of the art. It also holds a prominent place in the traditions of the Hebrews. Many of its secrets were doubtless communicated to Moses by Pharoah's daughter and the priests of Egypt. The Vades also contain many magical writings, and the practice of magic was known to the Druids of Great Britain, and to Odin and the priests of Scandinavia at an earlier period than to the Greeks and Romans.
The universality and antiquity of the practice of magic, or the occult science, is ably illustrated by Salverte, by a large number of interesting facts drawn from a great variety of sources, and arranged mainly to maintain this thesis—that all their apparent miracles which cannot be referred to adroitness or imposture are facts of this secret science—real experiments in physics.
The sole aim of the Thaumaturgists, or wonder-workers, being to gain power and retain their influence over the people, they also added artifice and incantations to their real knowledge, in order to excite the imagination and divert attention from their secret processes; a practice connected with oracles, enchantments, and impositions in all ages of the world. Yet in the remarkable trials of skill between the Thaumaturgists themselves, these evidently could have had no place. In the disappointment of defeat and exultation of victory they were alike sure to conceal their secrets from the astonished spectators. Death to one or both of the parties was the inevitable result of disclosure, or of interference by one of the initiated with the works of another. In that immortal collection of Eastern tales,f which cannot entirely be attributed to the workings of an uncontrolled and fervid imagination, we read of a female magician, who interfering with the enchantments of one of the evil genii, a terrible conflict ensues, in which al? though the enchanter is finally destroyed, the maiden also falls a victim to his arts. The fact that the alchemists always chose their own location for the exhibition of their powers is evidence of their dependence upon mechanical contrivances and chemical preparations.
Possessing no comprehensive theories by means of which to associate their experiments, each was an isolated fact, which could be performed only by repeated reference to their books of prescriptions, and by extended secret preparations. At length, all being in readiness, the populace were admitted to the temples to an entertainment unrivalled by modern exhibitors. Greeted with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, followed by darkness and silence, the spectators were suddenly raised to a giddy height, and as suddenly sunk to gloomy depths, while about them appeared fiery serpents and grim monsters, followed by the shades of departed ancestors; shrieks and moans resounded in their ears, dying gradually away in the distance; voices addressed them from the solid walls and columns, and these withdrawing disclosed, in distant perspective, gorgeous palaces and gardens filled with moving figures of awful aspect, the very dwellings of the gods.
The influence of these spectacles in riveting that of the priesthood upon an ignorant populace is incalculable. These effects, and many others even more marvellous, are attributed by Salverte, with great accumulation of evidence, to the knowledge which the ancients possessed of what are so often regarded as the achievements of modern mechanics, optics, chemistry, etc. That their mechanism was carried to a point of perfection not attained in modern times is shown by the difficulty experienced in raising one of the Egyptian monolithes, which they erected in vast numbers. Modern travellers have remarked in the remains of the temple of Ceres the grooves and niches for pulleys by which the movable floors were transferred, with their occupants, to different portions of the temple "as if by magic."
The wooden dove of Archytas, a flying chariot capable of being directed at will by the inventor, and a balloon, carrying a man, are ancient inventions in the art of flying, which has never ceased to be an aspiration of man, and which we are certainly not nearer realizing than the ancients. In later times, speaking heads were invented by Albertus Magnus, and a brazen automaton, in the form of a man, which his pupil, Thomas Aquinas, destroyed in his astonishment. Pope Sylvester II., who occupied the papal chair from 991 to 1003, was also accused of magic for having made a speaking head of brass. And the accusation was just if we consider magic as the result of science concealed from the multitude. The famous statue of Memnon, breathing melodious sounds when struck by the beams of the rising sun, is spoken of by the historians of the period as the result of pure science.
In optics we find the so-called miraculous effects produced in the temples, the result of the use of mirrors throwing magnified and reversed images, and in certain positions intercepting the light, in a manner analogous to polarized light. Thus they produced the wonderful effects of the phantasmagoria, and the diorama, and, by the use of the concave mirror and double lenses, of the magic lantern. It is easy to imagine the effects of these appearances upon the minds of those unacquainted with the means by which they were produced, especially when accompanied by the tricks of ventriloquism in which the performers were expert. Buffon admits the probability of mirrors being used in the port of Alexandria to discern distant ships, but they were doubtless employed long in the temples before they were devoted to this practical use, for nothing was expected from the occult science but the art of working miracles.
These explain also the Nekyomantion to which the bereaved repaired in order to behold the shades of the departed. Here also notice the fact that this could be done only in a certain locality devoted to the purpose of recalling the dead. It is related of the Emperor Basil of Macedon that, grieving for his lost son, he was permitted to see him fully arrayed upon horseback, but when he rushed to embrace him the apparition vanished. We read in the Arabian Nights of a tube about a foot long and an inch in diameter with a glass in one end, and whoever looked into it could see whatever he pleased. Allowing for the exaggeration of the eastern imagination, have we not the germ of the telescope or the opera-glass at least? When Xerxes opened the tomb of Belus at Babylon, he found the body of the king inclosed in a glass case partly filled with oil into which however much was poured it uever rose above a certain level. The principle of hydrostatics are also applied to perpetual lamps.
The use of alcohol extends to the remotest times. In an ancient sacred book of the Hindoos, in which are collected the doctrines of remotest ages under the name of Kea-soum, mention is made of the distillation of spirits. Aristotle remarks that art had procured oil from common salt, which may easily imply hydrochloric acid, as sulphuric acid still is known under the more common name of oil of vitriol.
The ordeal of fire is known to be most ancient and universal. Sita, wife of Rama, the sixth incarnation of Vishur, walked upon red hot iron. "The foot of Sita," says the Hindoo historian, "being clothed in innocence, the devouring heat was to her as a bed of roses." Zoroaster attested his mission by allowing melted lead to be poured upon him, after he had been well rubbed with certain drugs. This indicates the manner in which the priests, by the use of their preparations for resisting the action of fire, were able to deliver or destroy whom they pleased. There is evidence that they were also acquainted with the power of fine wire gauze to resist heat, afterwards utilized by Davy, and that by these means they effected those wonderful transformations into real or apparent flames, which have been deemed utterly incredible. The science of meteorology was also carried to a high degree of perfection by the Egvptian priests, and thus being able to predict the state of the weather, were readily regarded as being instrumental in causing such weather as pleased them. Salverte is of opinion that it was thus Joseph was enabled to predict and provide for the seven years of famine. It is little imagined how much the ancients were acquainted with electricity. There is abundant evidence that they were familiar with the means of drawing it from the clouds and of protecting buildings from lightning.
The reason why so much of this knowledge is now included in the lost or rediscovered arts is obvious. Each fact held an isolated position, and ran the risk of being altogether lost. This is also seen in the empirical character of alchemy. "The priests," says Salverte, "searched after and sometimes produced astonishing results; but, neglecting the theory of the processes and preserving no record of the means employed, they rarely succeeded in twice obtaining the same result. * * * * Sometimes the facts were only committed to the memory of the priests, and transmitted by oral tradition from age to age. * * * * They were scarcely heard of beyond the precincts of the temples, for the development of the secrets involved the unveiling of the mysteries of religion. The doctrines of the Thaumaturgists were reduced by degrees to a collection of processes which were liable to be lost as soon as they ceased to be habitually practised."
That this art was not only interwoven with the religion and symbolic writings of the Egyptians, but was of the greatest value, is beyond question. Although their writings are lost, their works speak for them. Their monuments, and the discoveries made amid the debris of their antique civilization, attest their wide acquaintance with practical chemistry.
The priests of Egypt having been for ages the sole depositories of the practice of the sacred art, were finally dispersed, and their writings destroyed by order of Diocletian, who conceived that the frequent insurrections in that country were sustained by the gold fabricated in the temples. Suidas states that the celebrated fleece of gold was only one of their writings upon skins describing the process of making the precious metal.
Dispersed into all countries, the Egyptian priests carried their science with them, and gradually such as was not lost became known to the European nations. The art was next cultivated with great ardor and success by the Greeks, who, in turn, consigned it to the Arabs, and they finally introduced it into the rest of Europe. It was in the tenth century, according to Thompson, that it appeared in Europe, and there, under the name of alchemy, it flourished chiefly from the eleventh to the fifteenth century.
Nothing so truly depicts the spirit of the age—the reign of the imagination. It is this spirit of enthusiasm which alone can explain the crusades and alchemy—the search for the true cross and for the philosopher's stone. Both emanated from the same principle and engrossed all minds, according as the religious or philosophical fervor predominated in individuals. Here the art assumes a new form, reflecting the occupations and manners of the middle ages. In the hands of the monks of the lower empire the practical science of the priest of Thebes and Memphis is transformed into alchemy. Yet all the labors of the Byzantine school served to add but little to the amount of practical knowledge which had descended from antiquity. They could only collect the knowledge of the science into one body of doctrine, and thus open a new path for human inquiry in establishing the first basis of theoretic chemistry. Towards the end of the seventh century all the savans of the schools had embraced the pursuit with enthusiasm, yet Egypt was regarded as the birthplace of the sciences. Its gigantic monuments and inexplicable hieroglyphics struck the mind with astonishment, and persuaded all that they could only be the loftiest expression of human genius. If, as we must admit, many of the discoveries of modern times be but the recovery of lost arts, yet we must notice in this grand transformation of alchemic science the direction of mental progress not so much toward higher achievement as toward broader comprehension and more general possession. It was no longer a sacred art confined to a close corporation of priests under terrible penalties, but was known to the whole body of monks and all other men of learning and ability who chose to devote themselves to it Still it was far from being a popular science. It remained for the final transformation.into modern chemistry to accomplish that. To the Byzantine school and their experiments in alchemy are due two important discoveries already alluded to—Greek fire and gunpowder. The former was certainly regarded as the palladium of Constantinople. Before its terrible ravages the Arabs were twice compelled to raise the siege of the city. Its use and effects are matters of history, and that its composition was principally of naptha and bitumen is generally known. Constantine Porphyogenetas pretends that the secret of its composition was communicated to Constantine the Great by an angel, and there is an order from that emperor forbidding its being communicated to foreign nations. According to Hoefer, the discovery of gunpowder was made in the eighth century, and the first description of it is found in the work of Marcus Grecos, entitled, "Art of exterminating enemies by fire." Although written in Latin, it is supposed to be a version of an earlier Greek writing. Its composition is also given in the works of Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon; hence they have each been regarded as having made the discovery. But it is evidently far more ancient.
These two facts are alone sufficient to redeem the alchemists of the middle ages from the ridicule so often cast upon them. The remaining important discoveries are due to the Arabs, without mention of whom no sketch of the history of alchemy can be complete. They furnished a great number of most zealous devotees to the science, first among whom stands Geber, probably born in the ninth century, from whose name and writings Dr. Johnson pretends to derive the origin of the term gibberish. Being regarded as the founder of the Arabic school of philosophy and alchemy, the enthusiasm of his followers extended to other nations, and he became the oracle of the alchemists of the middle ages. Roger Bacon justly gave him the title of magister magistorum for his twenty-five volumes upon the hermetic art form an encyclopedia of the scientific knowledge of antiquity. To him is ascribed the discovery of nitric acid (that most indispensable agent in all laboratories), aqua regia, and corrosive sublimate. By many this Arab is also regarded as the discoverer of sulphuric acid, and as acquainted with the facts of the augmentation of the weight of metals during the process of calcination. To this illustrious name we must add that of Rhages, who first wrote upon the extraction of sulphuric acid, and Albrucasis, whose description of the alembic in connection with the Arabic etymology of the word has led some to consider him as the inventor of the art of distillation, Arteifus, who described the preparation of soap, Cahil and Bechil, whom Hoefer regards as having been acquainted with phosphorus.
Partly carried by the Moors by way of Africa, and partly borne by current of returning crusaders, Arabian chemistry was brought into Europe. The earliest authentic works of Europe on alchemy are those of Roger Bacon, the physician, chemist astronomer and antiquary. Little is known of his outward life; the people suspected, dreaded and slandered him, but his writings breathe the spirit of inductive philosophy, truly prophetic of that of his great namesake. They display a degree of knowledge and extent of thought scarcely credible when we consider the time when he wrote—the darkest period of the dark ages. We have seen that he was acquainted with gunpowder although he was not the inventor. The camera obscura, burning glasses, and the powers of the telescope were known to him. His writings upon chemistry alone number eighteen volumes, the prevailing spirit of which is eminently practical. He appears to have believed in the convertibility of the inferior metals into gold, but does not profess to have effected it.
The next great name in the authentic history of alchemy is Albertus Magnus, the learned and pious Dominican, born in Suabia in 1198. A physician, logician, astronomer, magician, and man of the world, he wrote with particular emphasis on the polypharmacy of the time. His style is generally plain and intelligible. He describes the chemical water baths, the alembic, the aludel, and various lutes, and shows himself acquainted with alum, caustic alkali, and the purification of the royal metals by means of lead. St. Thomas Aquinas, who was a pupil of Albrecht's, wrote a treatise upon the "Secrets of Alchemy," and first employed the term "amalgam." The eccentric Raymond Lully is said to have been a pupil of Friar Bacon's, and has been variously considered as an impostor and as a martyr to religion. The story of his having made six million pieces of gold, which he gave to Edward, king of England, to enable him to make war upon the Saracens, is shown by Thompson to be unfounded. His unintelligible writings present a great contrast to those of Roger and Albrecht, yet he was the first to introduce the use of chemical symbols. They also contain observations upon the distillation of cream-tartar, the deliquescence of the alkalies, the preparation of aqua regia, and the white and red mercurial precipitates. "Restless, intelligent and inventive, he was not without a great degree of utility in his day and generation." His followers were afterward united in an extensive guild or secret fraternity, and known as Lullistins.
One of the most celebrated of all the alchemists was Basil Valentine, a Benedictine monk of Erfret. He introduced antimony into medical use, and his great work, Currus Triumphalis Antimonii, is almost a model of positive observation. He was acquainted with arsenic and some of its properties, with many of the preparations of lead, the red oxide of mercury, and all the preparations of antimony mentioned in modern pharmacopoeias. In fine, he may be characterized as the founder of analytical chemistry. The last and most prominent figure, one which stands at the point of division between alchemy and chemistry, is Paracelsus. Beginning his career as professor of chemistry at Bale, in 1527, the earliest chair of chemistry ever established, by burning the books of all the authorities before the crowd of students, he ended it in an obscure tavern at Salzburg, at forty-eight years of age. Ambition, vanity, and habits of intoxication were his ruin. Yet he was a vigorous thinker, and originated a practical movement in science which certainly brought mere alchemy to an end. It was he that set in motion that prosecution of the active principles of mixed or complicated medicaments which has ended in the extraction of quinine, morphia, veratria, theine, and a multitude of valuable proximates. Paracelsus also began that tendency to mingle chemical considerations with the physiology of the human body in health with its pathology in disease, and with the practice of the art of healing: a tendency which is still far from being exhausted. It was he also who introduced the word alchehast into alchemy, the term usually applied to the universal solvent, by some supposed to be composed of the two German vocables, alle geist, all spirit . After Paracelsus, the constituent elements of the genuine alchemist seem to have fallen asunder—the practical element being represented by a class of men like Van Helmont, Libarius, Glauber, and Agricola, who devoted themselves with infinite labor to the discovery of new compounds and reactions. The other, the fantastical element, was represented by a host of imitators and impostors, incapable on the one hand of understanding its true spirit, and on the other of any higher motive than that of gain. It was this epoch that produced the mystical trash and absurd compilations of the wildest passages of the old masters, without any of their real knowledge and practical observations, which, being the more accessible literature upon the subject, have been, as Brown justly remarks, the source from which opinions of alchemical science have been largely drawn.
This brief sketch is sufficient to show that the alchemists were a class of men comprising all the commanding intellect of the age reviewed, animated by an indefatigable zeal in the pursuit of a lofty ideal, which, if they did not attain, led them to make many discoveries and inventions of incalculable value to mankind. This ideal was something far higher than any material substance, or spiritual power, capable of transmuting base metals into gold, or of prolonging human life. We have seen a work in which the author argues with great ingenuity and ability that the subject of alchemy was man, and its object the perfection of man, by means of the conscience—the true philosopher's stone; that these terms, salt, sulphur, gold, etc., have reference always to this subject; and that the purification of these metals symbolized the regeneration of man. It is true that with this key many of their writings are made much more intelligible, and that their philosophical spirit— that which takes nothing upon authority—was in so strong contrast to the spirit of the age that they were obliged to employ symbolic expressions.
It is also true that many, misled by a literal interpretation of these writings and their own cupidity, possessed with the gold fever which darkened their senses, sought for wealth where none was promised but "the riches of wisdom and the knowledge of God." No true alchemist sought for himself riches or honor. Inspired by the loftiest ideals, and goaded to the solution of all the great problems which have tormented mankind, they sought to reveal the secrets of nature and of man. Yet they were tireless in their investigations into the most minute and often most repulsive substances, resulting in those grand discoveries, the full value of which they could not have known. Their enthusiasm has no parallel, unless in the religious fervor of the crusaders. The term alchemist is but a synonym for patience, while he himself was the living emblem of perseverance, carried even beyond the limits of the tomb.
It was this spirit of self-abnegation which led the alchemists to spend toilsome days and anxious nights over their smoky furnaces, and weary years in the preparation of their works. It was they who kept alive the torch of learning through the darkness which followed its removal from the throne of Rome. The theories of the leading writers are not surpassed in grandeur, and often are remarkable anticipations of those adopted under the accumulated light of the nineteenth century. One of these fundamental theories was that the primitive molecules are under the control of spiritual agency. Creation was the determination of these by certain laws. The grand secret was by investigating these laws to ascertain the features of their primitive organization, and thus to imitate nature by the perfection of art.
They reasoned that whereas every variety of character from imperfection to purity exists in nature, it is her aim to attain perfection, and they were but imitating her in striving to convert the base metal into pure. Assuming that gold exists in all the metals, they concluded that it could be extracted from them all. The alchemic theories of Geber contain nothing of absurdity, for they consist in this: that the metals are composed of two or three elements of a particular nature, and that whoever is able to isolate these has the power to transfer the metallic substance at will. Artifius, in his Key to Wisdom, writes:
"Minerals proceed from the first elements; plants come from animals, and animals from plants. And as each body is resolved in another of an immediately inferior order, animals come from vegetables, and vegetables from minerals."
These lines, written under a vague inspiration, are no less the'expression of a grand and luminous verity. Paracelsus says, "Philosophy is nothing but the study of wisdom considered in created nature."
Roger Bacon, in his small treatise, Dochirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae, begins by pointing out the absurdity of believing in magic, necromancy, charms, or any of those similar opinions which were at that time universally prevalent. He points out the various ways in which mankind are deceived by jugglers, ventriloquists, etc.; mentions the advantages which physicians may derive from acting on the imaginations of their patients by means of charms, amulets, and infallible remedies; he affirms that many of those things which are considered as supernatural, are merely so because mankind in general are unacquainted with natural philosophy. He also points out the causes of the slow diffusion of science:—1. Too much confidence in and submission to authority. 2. Too great regard for custom and popular prejudice. 3. Personal conceit and selfishness, which we judge have not been confined to the age of Bacon. "There is, indeed, no room for national or epochal vanity in the study of the history of science; there is rather occasion for humility and emulation; for those old men worked, with grand ideals and small means, upon an obdurate and unbroken soil, while we stand on fields which they have ploughed, armed with an elaborate instrumentation, and too often guided by ideals which savor more of the shop than of the universe." Exalted piety and deep humility were also characteristics of the true alchemist. His labors always began and ended with an invocation to the Supreme Being. Sandivogius has this address to the reader:
"Thou, therefore, that desirest to attain to this art, in the first place, put thy whole trust in God thy Creator, and urge him by thy prayers, and then assuredly believe that he will not forsake thee; for if God shall know that thy heart is sincere, and that thy whole trust ia put in him, he will, by one means or another, show thee a way and assist thee in it, and thou shalt obtain thy desire. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Pray, but yet work. God, indeed, gave understanding, but thou must know how and when to use it."
The work of Cahil on the "Secret of Alchemy" closes with these words: "Eternal praise be to God alone!" Whether Arab, Pagan, or Christian, they all proclaim one article of faith—the supremacy of spirit over matter. To them truth was an axiom. With the alchemist, in Christian countries, the doctrines of Christ were received as true in themselves, or in the nature of things, and, therefore, were believed to have been announced by Christ; but they were not regarded as true simply upon the ground that Christ announced them. "With them the wisdom of the doctrine established the truth of Christianity, and not miracles." Although not entirely free from the tendency of the age, and of all ages, to attribute all understood effects to the intervention of a spiritual agency (either independent of or residing in the atoms of matter), as we see to-day in regard to mesmerism, spiritualism, etc., yet they were far superior to the dwarfing submission to authority which characterized the dark ages. From the cell of the monk and retreat of the hermit went out an uncontrolled spirit of inquiry, which could be stayed only by the limits of the universe. So far from being impostors or deluded enthusiasts were they, that they may justly be regarded as the reformers of the age; for while seeking for the transmutation and purification of the metals, they none the less sought the purification of man from the dross of this sensual life. In the security of their gloomy laboratories they nourished that liberty of thought which at last rushed forth to tear the mask from the veiled prophets of spiritual authority. Yet spiritual power, sustained by popular prejudice, held its terrors over their heads and compelled the use of their enigmatical and symbolic writings. What with the priests of Egypt was a matter of choice, to the monks of Europe was a necessity. To the popular mind the least acquaintance with or control over the power of nature was prima facie evidence of magic, and of a league with demons. Every event which struck the senses, and which was not capable of an immediate explanation, was attributed to the agency of supernatural powers. Everything was under control of these intelligences. The earth had its gnomes; the air, its sylphs; water, its ondineg; and fire, its salamanders. In connection with this belief sprang up anew the practice of magic, known as the occult or cabalistic science. In ruling over the elemental genii of the globe, the cabalist accomplished all his desires. In intercourse with the sylphs and other supernatural intelligence of the material world the adept sought to obtain ineffable joys unknown to the majority of men.
Agrippa claims for the occult science the highest rank, and defines it as "the perfection and accomplishment of all the natural sciences." In the universities of the thirteenth century there were professors and courses of magic. Although these evidently had little faith in their own pretensions, they studiously concealed the fact from the public, and by them were regarded as veritable enchanters. In addition, a cloud of quacks still further deluded the people by their charlatanism.
Hence we see the danger of the alchemist being confounded with the magician in case of his revealing the least of his knowledge. Friar Bacon, than whom no truer scientist ever lived, was in his day regarded as a sort of Dr. Faust, and was brought upon the stage of the period as a personification of magic. The story of his long imprisonment and sufferings, under the charge of being in league with the devil, although he published a book on the nullity of magic, is familiar to all.
To see the necessity of esoteric writings, it is only necessary to look at the fate of Vanini Bruno, and thousands of others burned at the stake or otherwise cruelly destroyed. Said Bruno, in his last work:
"If I had held the plough, or fed a flock, or cultivated a garden, or mended old clothes, none would distinguish and few regard me. But now for describing the field of nature; for being solicitous about the posture of the soul; for being curious about the improvement of the understanding, and for some skill about the faculties of the mind, am I treated in this manner."
Bacon himself gives the reasons for this enigmatic style: "induced," as he tells us, "partly by the conduct of other philosophers, partly by the propriety of the thing, and partly by the danger of speaking too plainly" The symbols themselves are curious and interesting; and, as the philosopher suggests, not without propriety. The earth, air, fire, and water of Empedocles and the Greek philosophers, which result from the chemical process of burning wood, were generalized by the Greek mind to represent what in modern science are known as the four forms of matter—the imponderables, gases, liquids, and. solids. These are the salt, sulphur, and mercury of the later alchemists, which also symbolize the body, soul, and spirit of man. Geber reduced the elements to two, sulphur and mercury. The striking transformation which takes place in these substances when mercury is thrown upon melted sulphur, and the subsequent change from black to red, was, as Hoefer remarks, peculiarly adapted to excite the imagination of the ancient artist. "Black and red are nothing less than the symbols of darkness and light, of the bad and good principles; and the reunion of the two principles represent, in the moral order, the universal God. This pantheistical idea has, without doubt, contributed much to establish this famous principle, adopted by the alchemists, that all bodies have for their elements sulphur and mercury." The apparent restoration of lead from the ashes which remain after the "death of the metal," by grains of wheat, caused them to become the symbol of life, and by extension, of resurrection and eternal life. The heating of argentiferous lead in a cupel of pulverized bone—the disappearance of the lead, and the button of silver found at the end of the operation—contributed, not a little, to establish the theory that lead could be transmuted into silver. Animals, as we have seen, were extensively employed in the symbolism of the Egyptians. Thus, the "yellow lion" represents sulphur; the "red lion," cinnabar; the "green lion," the salt of iron or copper; and the "black eagle," the compound of sulphur with mercury. The transformation of this compound into cinnabar, the adepts expressed by saying that the black eagle is transferred into the red lion. The triple influence of matter, of life, and of intelligence, they symbolized by the equilateral triangle. The alchemists called the fire of the furnace simply "the dragon," as its nature was to devour the corruptible elements of a body. The "flying dragon " signified mercury, on account of its power of being volatalized. The dragon guarding the fleece of gold was mercury, which is so difficult to be confined or to sleep. The "dragon put to sleep by Jason" was mercury, fixed by the operations of the adepts. The "dragon devouring his tail" was the symbol of any solid that absorbs water. Human blood was pyroacetic acid. The sun and moon were the emblems respectively of gold and silver. A work of peculiar difficulty was denominated the "labors of Hercules"; and "to gather the apples of Hesperides" was to reap the fruits of the philosopher's stone.
We see, then, that this symbolism was employed from the most ancient period of the art; that it was a necessity to the alchemists of the middle ages; that by it they communicated with each other in a sort of freemasonry; and by its intentional vagueness they not only saved their lives, but escaped being ridiculed. It is also evident that in a period in which there existed no scientific nomenclature, it was impossible otherwise to communicate with each other. Many of those great minds, under a strong but vague inspiration, broke away from the trammels of so inadequate a language into expressions often grand and lofty, but to us, at present, almost unintelligible. It is, doubtless, in a large degree due to this ancient symbolism that chemistry possesses the most exact and convenient nomenclature of any of the sciences. It is the possession of this instrument, an adequate and exact language drawn from the body of classic literature, that constitutes the chief advantage of modern over ancient science. This must be added to the invaluable results which alchemy has bequeathed to modern times.
The true alchemists then, while they were diligent experimentists in pharmaceutical and other practical chemistry, cherished three objects of enthusiastic hope. 1. They believed in the transmutability of metals: it has already been seen on what grounds. The idea of transmutation is as old as Thebes, and as recent as Davy. In one shape or another it is ineradicable from the instincts of the science. 2. The European alchemists also believed in the elixir of life, or universal medicine, capable of curing all curable diseases, and of prolonging life far beyond its present average duration. It was not until the dotage of alchemy that the conception of an elixir of immortality amused the world. In connection with this unattainable ideal of theirs, it is just to add that Lord Bacon and Descartes were quite as much bent upon the invention of means for the prolongation of life as any alchemist. Worn and exhausted by his constant labors over his furnace and alembic, it is not strange that the alchemist sought therein the means of restoring his wasted health and energies. 3. They believed in the alcahest, or universal solvent. Modern chemistry has realized it in the discovery of fluorine. Lavoisier once expressed his surprise that it should never have occurred to the masters that no vessel on earth could contain this universal solvent, because it would solve the vessel too. As is well known, this was precisely the difficulty with fluorine, until it was suggested that the vessel should be cut out of fluorspar itself, seeing it is a substance already saturated with fluorine.
The question now arises why, with all these grand ideals, their wonderful patience, and incalculable amount of labor, their success was not greater still. The answer readily presents itself. 1. They sought too much. They demanded not only the art of making gold and a universal panacea— riches and health—but the aid of a supernatural power capable of dominating spirit and matter, which opened the door to the realms of mysticism and those inextricable problems before which the most robust reason was obliged to succumb. They placed no limit to the human reason, and were not able to obey their own precepts in addition. "Know thyself," "know nothing too much." They attempted, as it were, at one effort to overleap the whole intermediate chain of links that lead to the primal cause. They also were not aware of the source of error which their lamentable failures have so signally pointed out to all coming generations. 2. They lived in what has been characterized as the "theological period" of science, in which man, reasoning from the analogy of his own will and variableness, ascribed the same attributes to nature and her laws. Ages passed before her invariableness and orderliness could be impressed upon his mind. Her operations were supposed from this analogy to be the result of the volition of a spiritual agency, at first considered independent of matter, and afterward as residing in its molecules. By the simple elimination of this agent, leaving still the forces in the atoms themselves, we have the modern theory complete. Lastly, they accomplished all that the human mind is capable of, unaided by instruments and a vast amount of accumulated knowledge. We have seen their great want of the instrument of a precise and universal language. We know the defects of the Aristotelian method, the orthodox philosophy of the middle ages; we have seen them hampered upon every side by spiritual power and popular prejudice. We have observed the century growth of rude apparatus in their tireless hands, the gradual wrenching from the arcana of nature of those powerful acids without which the chemist toils in vain. But there is a more comprehensive cause for their slow advancement It is found in the paradoxical fact that the true methods of discovery were themselves first to be discovered. Or, in other words, "The appropriate ideas said to determine this progress are themselves perfected—brought into distinctness—during the progress of discovery, and cannot be applied as instruments until some progress has been achieved." The interconnection of all the sciences necessitate a simultaneous and slow growth. "It was impossible for any mind, however great, to give a scientific explanation of any phenomenon. He could only suggest an hypothesis or work out a point." By this false method they were unable to increase their knowledge, and through their imperfect knowledge they failed to detect the falsity of their methods. The wonder is not that they accomplished so little, but that they achieved so much. Our sole superiority consists in our ampler basis of facts, knowledge of the source of error, and the application at every step of the test of verification.
Until we are assured that we shall leave posterity no statements to be corrected, no theories to be adjusted, no truths to be realized, let us not imagine that we have given "the last word in science," or be in haste to forget the labors of the past. The search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life—the desire for riches and health—is older than the alchemists, as universal as man, and as lasting as human nature.
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