Alchemy is one of the most fascinating and mysterious subjects in the world, and one which has had a truly profound impact on human thought and progress. It is also one of the most misunderstood.

When we think about alchemy and alchemists today we think of superstitious and greedy men wasting their lives (and often poisoning themselves) by spending their days and nights in crude workshops trying to manufacture gold from lead. Attempts to ‘transmute’ lead into gold were a mainstay of alchemical literature, and today this naive quest is all most people know about the subject.

I always think that the best way to introduce someone to the true glory and wonder of alchemy, and to cut through the fog of derision defamation that has been aimed at alchemists over the years, is with this one simple fact – according to modern science it is indeed possible to turn lead into gold.

Atomic Theory and the Birth of Chemistry

Not only is it possible to ‘transmute’ one metal into another, including turning lead into gold, from a cosmological perspective this process is as common as these metals themselves – perhaps even more so as the vast majority of metals have been ‘transmuted’ many times over the aeons. All the gold which exists in the universe was created through alchemical transmutation taking place inside stars. The only reason why we don’t have ‘gold factories’ dotted around the world, manufacturing gold from other metals, is because the amount of energy and sophisticated equipment which would be required to do it would make this process massively more expensive than simple digging a hole and pulling out free gold (gold is actually not as rare as you might think, and mining is relatively inexpensive – the only reason the ‘precious metal’ is so expensive is because people have decided it should be, and so hoarded large amounts of it).

One of the key breakthroughs made by alchemists was the revival and further development of an ancient Greek idea, now known as atomic theory. Up until that point it had been assumed that pieces different materials, such as lead and gold, or granite and water, were made up from completely different substances. Alchemists, however, knew different. They pioneered the idea that apparently different materials are actually made up from common building blocks – which the ancient Greeks had already named ‘atoms’, and the alchemists themselves often labelled as the 'prima materia' (first material).

Of course we now know that all matter is made up from the same electrons, protons and neutrons, and that these fundamental building blocks are combined in different ways to form the basic units of each material, which we have come to know ourselves as atoms.

Based on this atomic theory, the alchemists taught that a person with the necessary knowledge and skills could cause any material to be converted into another material. They taught that this would primarily be achieved through the addition of heat, pressure, and water, and through the (al)chemical reactions between various combinations of materials. This is all perfectly correct, of course, and these profound breakthroughs provided the foundations for a new field of human discovery called chemistry, whose name is clearly derived from the older term ‘alchemy’. All of the earliest chemists were actually alchemists.

Sir Isaac Newton and the Puffers and Blowers

Despite the profound impact that alchemy had on early science, there is strong evidence that this was not actually the primary concern of the most famous and respected alchemists. Sir Issac Netwton, for example, was one of the last famous alchemists - and a man who developed the theory of gravity in the space of a couple of months, after a friend begged him to take some time out from his alchemical work to help with a difficult problem which nobody else could solve. Like Newton, the practice of what we now call science seems to have been something of a side-line for the early alchemists; it was something they did to pay the bills and win the protection of powerful patrons, so that they could remain free to continue their real work.

These ‘real’ alchemists had a derogatory term for the naive men who spent their days indulging their obsession with the possibility of getting rich by making gold – they called them ‘puffers and blowers’. To these men alchemy was a quest for knowledge, understanding and transcendence, and crude material ambitions were regarded at best as a necessary evil.

Jung’s Alchemy

If you read old alchemical texts it is immediately clear that the majority of them were not meant to be literal instruction manuals. Books on alchemy are full of esoteric symbolism and metaphorical stories. When they talk about mixing various elements or substances together to produce part of the ‘great work’ through experiments, which are today simply discounted as crazy ramblings because they wouldn’t work if you tried to follow them like recipe books, they generally take great care to make clear that they are not talking about regular mercury, for example, but ‘our mercury’. Some texts, like the Book of Lambspring1) for example, did not contain instructions or references to metals or elements at all, but were instead composed entirely of symbolic images and short poetic verses.

It must be remembered that at this time many metals and other elements, and in fact most things in the world, had well-defined spiritual associations. My example of mercury is, of course, named after a Greek god. Many modern alchemical scholars believe that when the alchemists wrote about mercury, they were not writing about the metal but rather the psychological and philosophical characteristics and spiritual principles usually associated with the God mercury.

This interpretation of Alchemy as primarily a set of psycho-spiritual teachings was most fully developed by the early twentieth century psychologist Carl Jung. Jung was a student of the famous Sigmund Freud, who went on to develop the theory of the unconscious mind (distinct from Freud’s ‘subconscious’, which is primarily made up from repressed sexual feelings) as well as a popular form of psychotherapy which is still commonly used today. Jung himself was an avid student of alchemy, and wrote volumes of work describing how his own theories were simply modern re-inventions of old alchemical teachings. The link between alchemy and Jung’s psychological work was so strong, in fact, that alchemical symbolism is still often used by modern students of Jungian psychotherapy in, for example, the interpretation of dreams.

Medical Alchemy

In addition to chemistry, philosophy, psychology and spirituality, one of the main interests of the alchemists was medicine. The link between alchemy and medicine was always strong, and it is through this, and the quest for the ‘elixir of life’ that western alchemy came to be associated with a set of Chinese teachings which are now sometimes known as ‘eastern alchemy’. Whilst some alchemists were primarily concerned with the ‘perfection’ of lead to create gold, and others were concerned with the perfection of the human spirit to create spiritual gold, yet others concerned themselves with the perfection of the human body; this quest for perfect health and longevity was symbolized by the attempt to create the elixir of life, in the same way that the physical and spiritual goals of alchemists were symbolized by the attempt to create the ‘philosopher’s stone’.

The epitome of this form of alchemy was a German alchemist called Paracelsus. Paracelsus was one of the first to teach the importance of experiment and observation over adherence to doctrine, is credited with naming the element zinc, is considered the first to have observed an association between certain psychological disorders and physical illness, and was the founder of the modern discipline of toxicology.

Obscurum Per Obscurius: The Hermetic Renaissance

In order to understand alchemy you need to understand the nature of the age in which it was developed. This was the middle ages, a conflicted and contradictory age which is famous for both the renaissance and the emergence of Europe from dark ages, as well as the Spanish Inquisition.

During the middle ages the invention of the printing press and the re-discovery and dissemination of classical thought from places like ancient Greece led to a great explosion in the intellectual frontiers of the people of Europe. It was an age of discovery and rediscovery. At the same time, it was also an age in which religious persecution was common. The church and its doctrines, which extended way beyond the Christian doctrines of today, were all powerful and extended into all aspects of human life and thought. Suggesting that the earth orbited around the sun, rather than the other way around, was a serious crime during these times, and heresy – a broad crime which encompassed any challenge to the far-reaching doctrines of the church – was punishable by some of the most horrific tortures ever devised, followed by a brutal public execution.

The diverse symbolism of alchemical texts suggests that their writers were at the very forefront of the renaissance. It is clear that the authors of these books were well read in a wide range of classical philosophies from across the world and throughout the ages, and many modern commentators have suggested that the alchemists must have been privy to the secrets of the mystery traditions of Europe, whose existence has been well documented but whose private teachings have now been lost to the sands of time.

Given that these writers were collating and disseminating at least part of the teachings from such a diverse range of cultures and times, it is clear that they were also taking great risks. Other early leaders of renaissance thought had to be careful to present anything outside of church doctrine only as historical curiosity rather than truth, and to omit anything too controversial.

One of the most popular explanations for why books on alchemy seem so impenetrable and wilfully obscure (the so-called alchemical motto ‘obscurum per obscurius’ means to explain the obscure by the even more obscure) is that they were spreading teachings, and presenting them as factual, which would have been considered heretical if they were more explicit.

Throughout the middle ages many of the most famous philosophers and early scientists, who pushed the boundaries of human thought, were heavily involved in alchemy – from Francis Bacon to Paracelsus to Sir Isaac Newton and many others. It is easy to see how alchemical symbolism provided a way for them to share their most controversial ideas with their peers, without fear of being tortured and killed by the church (although actually, that did still happen to many of them). Playing up the possibility of making valuable gold from cheap lead – which I have already explained is a natural consequence of atomic theory - also allowed many alchemists to win the protection of wealthy and powerful (as well as greedy) royals and other aristocrats, allowing them to further push the boundaries beyond that which would be allowed to ordinary citizens.

Based on these things, as well as looking at the identities of the people involved, there is a strong argument to be made that alchemy was one of the main driving forces behind the renaissance.

Syncretism: Alchemy and the Perennial Philosophy

One of the most confusing things about alchemy, as well as one of the most intriguing, is the fact that the many different interests and goals of the alchemists, from chemistry and fundamental science, to medicine, to psychology to spirituality (and more) are not presented as distinct and differentiated topics within the literature itself. Alchemy is almost universally presented as a single unified subject with a singular core teaching – the ‘great work’. This great work of the alchemists is expressed metaphorically as the quest for the creation of the philosopher’s stone, the name of which may simply be a relatively opaque self-reference to the philosophy of alchemy itself.

The idea that alchemy contains a fundamental philosophy from which the basic tenets of a diverse range of academic disciplines can be derived – similar to the idea of the perennial philosophy (the postulation of a single underlying strand of spiritual truth which finds different culturally defined expressions in the main religions of the world) – seems to be borne out in the most common descriptions of the philosopher’s stone itself. This is especially true if you accept that the symbol of the philosopher's stone is simply a reference to the core philosophy of the alchemists. For example:

“And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation” – extract from Newton’s translation of the Emerald tablet2)

The same sentiments can also be found in the classical texts which provided much of the inspiration for alchemy, such as Heraclitus’s 10th fragment: “The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.”

From this perspective alchemy can be seen as a form of syncretic philosophy. Its proponents collected together the wisdom of the ages, the teachings of the great sages and philosophers of all the cultures of the world throughout all of recorded history, and sought to combine them together into a single unified and holistic philosophy. An early version of the 'theory of everything', if you like.

Since much of the body of alchemical literature remains largely impenetrable to this day we cannot be sure of the extent to which they were able to succeed in this enterprise. What we can be sure of, however, is that the great work formed the foundation of large parts of modern science and medicine, inspired many of the greatest thinkers throughout the centuries during which it was practised, and helped to free the minds of Europe from the pervasive clutches of the church. Personally I am also of the opinion that alchemy still has much to teach us today, if you can look past the puffers and the blowers and stretch your mind enough to unlock the meaning behind the eclectic and obscure symbolism which encodes this beautiful philosophy.

Categories: Science | Chemistry | Medicine | Psychology | Philosophy | Perennial Philosophy | Science in Society

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