1902 Encyclopedia > Alchemy > Alchemy - Cosmogonies and Philosophies

(Part 2)



In India, as is well known, the contempt in which the caste of artisans was held was still farther increased by the tendency of religion to consider birth and life, and the actions and desires which are part and parcel of man's life, as an unmixed evil. Consequently, outside the workshop, practical chemistry can have made but little progress. Nevertheless, among the priests of India, as in later times in Europe, we find the ordeal of fire and of serpents commonly practiced. It follows that the Brahmins must have possessed some chemical secrets to enable them to kill or save those they thought guilty or innocent. These secrets, too, must from time to time have been divulged by indiscretion or perfidy, and spread beyond the temple; for we read of accused persons escaping unharmed from the ordeal, even when their accuser was a Brahmin. But the Mussulman traveler of the 9th century, who has preserved this curious detail, allows that the trial was in his day becoming more elaborate and complicated, and that it was next to impossible for an accused person to escape. However this may be, it is certain that the meditative genius which distinguishes the race had, even before they conquered the yellow and black races, led these first speculators to certain conceptions which have an important bearing on the present subject. Some had conceived ether as composed of distinct atoms, others imagined an ether decomposing itself into atoms by the free play of its own forces. These two theories, the one dualistic, the other Unitarian, strangely foreshadow the discoveries of modern dynamics. We find the speculators of another race indulging the singular fancy that they could observe in atoms what we may call oscultations of the play of forces. This, at any rate, is the most natural explanation of the term nodes by which the Phoenicians designated atoms. The Persians, who considered the first tree and the first bull as the two ancestors of man, discovered in physics generally two antagonistic principles, one male and one female, primordial fire and primordial water, corresponding to the good and bad principles of their religion. Over all creatures and all things there were presiding genii, Tzeds or Feroners. They had already formulated the parallelism between the Sephiroth, the empyrean, the primum mobile, the firmament, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Mercury, Moon, and the parts of the body, the brain, lungs, heart, &c. In this correspondence between the heavenly bodies and the human frame which the ancient Persians laid down, and the Hindu belief in the peregrination of sinful souls through the animal, vegetable, and even the mineral world, till, by these pilgrimages, they at last won absorption into the Deity, or Moncti, we have, in their original form, the two fundamental beliefs of alchemy.

The Greeks, unrivalled as they were in poetry, art, and ethics, made little way in occult philosophy. The Greek intellect, precise and anthropomorphic, with no leaning to transcendentalism, was a protest against the boldness of oriental metaphysics. Thus they contented themselves with inventing a strange gamut of deities corresponding to different types of men. This gamut-Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo, Mercury, Mars, and Venus - was afterwards completed in the cabala by the addition of the moon, typifying the phlegmatic character of northern races, and forms a connecting link between astrology and alchemy, by establishing a double correspondence between planets of the same name and metals. The whole was systematized in the works of Paracelsus and Bohme, and called the theory of signatures. Whether the Greek philosophers taught that the principle of all things was water, like Thales, or air, like Anaximander, or air and water, as Xenophanes, or the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, as the school of Hippocrates, the tendency of Greek speculation was to establish those profound distinction which resulted later in the theory of the four elements, the four humours, &c., which the disciplines of Aristotle held. Hippocrates, for example, thought that if man was composed of a single element, he would never be ill; but as he is composed of many elements, complex remedies are required. Thus Hippocrates may be called an anti-alchemist; and though the theory of the four elements reigned supreme throughout the middle ages, it easily lent itself to the search for the philosopher's stone and the universal panacca, because the oriental idea of the transmutation of elements, from the time when the various systems of the East were syncretised at Alexandria and received their final development in Arabia in the writings of Geber Rhasis and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), was a universal article of belief. But even in the palmist days of Greek anthropomorphism there was a gradual infiltration of Asiatic ideas, partly through the mysteries of Eleusis, partly through the doctrines of certain philosophers, who were by nature susceptive of barbaric influences. For, besides Greece proper, there was a second Greece in Asia Minor and a third in Italy, not to mention the Pelasgic tribes who adhered tenaciously to the primitive ideas of the race.

Among the Greek philosophers, then, who appreciably influenced physics, chemistry, and physiology (the three sciences were then one), we may notice in particular-1. Heraclitus of Ephesus, surnamed the "Obscure." Maintaining that fire alone was the principle of all things, he regarded generation as an ascending road, i.e., a voltatilisation; and decomposition as a descending road, i.e., aa fixation. Here we have the first idea of Jacob's ladder of "Homer's Chain" of the alchemists. 2. Empedocles, who is indeed the first who mentions the four elements; but he subordinates them as complex products to his primordial indestructible atoms, which were animated by love and hatred. 3. Democritus, who, investing these atoms with a movement of their own, proceeds to construct the universe by shocks and harmonies of shocks or vortices. 4. Anaxagoras, who saw "the all-in-all" (Aristotle, Met 4,5), the infinitely great universe in the infinitely small atom, and ingeniously applied the principle of analogy to unravel the tangled skein of ancient science. 5. Aristotle, who added to the four elements a fifth, ether, eternal and unchangeable, itself the primum mobile (Arist., De Coelo, 1,2). In the 4th century A.D., Nemesius, bishop of Emesa (the modern Homs, on the east bank of the Orontes), is one of the most distinguished representatives of Alexandrian syncretism. A single quotation will suffice to show that the idea of the transmutation of metals, from the time when Platonism, magic, and neo-Christianity were combined in a species of eclectic mysticism, was regarded as an article of orthodox belief: - "To prevent the destruction of elements, or things which are compounded of elements, the Creator has wisely ordained that elements should be capable of transmutation one into the other, or into their component parts, or that their component parts should be resolved again into their original elements. Thus the perpetuity of things is secured by the continual succession of these reciprocal generations." This statement of the pious bishop is all the more weighty, inasmuch as the author of The nature of Man was only treating of psychology and physiology. The study of gnosticism would carry us too far; and one more quotation from this work, which has long fallen into unmerited oblivion, will prove to what an extent the most scientific theories of this day were tinged and vitiated by mysticism: - "Porphyry, in this treatise on sensation, tells us that vision is produced neither by a cone nor an image, nor any other object, but that the mind, being placed en rapport with visible objects, only sees itself in these objects, which are nothing else than itself, seeing that the mind embraces everything, and that all that exists is nothing but the mind, which contains bodies of all kinds." Another step, and we are landed in realism. It is not surprising, then, to find that the alchemists, while working in the laboratory, aspired at the same time to find the moral quintessence and verify the doctrines of revealed religion. For mysticism in theory is nothing but a reaction against the positivism of reason and science: the mystic, dissatisfied with these, seeks in nature a reflection of his innerfeelings. And in practice mysticism rests on confusions or exaggerations, like those of Porphyry, or some such dictum as the one which Nemesius quotes with the following uncritical comment: - "Now, since Porphyry asserts that there is but one reasoning soul for all things, he is right in saying that the soul sees itself everything."

Such visionaries, though they may be to a certain extent have observed, were not likely to experiment. Thus, at Babylon, where similar theories prevailed, the college of philosophers was divided into three classes, the "Hhartumin," or soothsayers; the "Asaphim," who were more agriculturists than zoologists, more zoologists than physicists, more physicists than chemists; the "Mechasphim," or doctors, who were consulted by the great, as often to rid them of their enemies as to cure, their families and dependants; lastly, the "Chasedim" or Chaldeans, properly so called; i.e. the astronomers or astrologers. In this classification of sciences as pursued at Babylon by a peculiar caste, chemistry was little regarded. Science was the mnonopoly of a privileged class before it became the common property of the human race. A class is sure to cling to a monopoly; an individual is obliged by his feebleness to impart his knowledge to others.

In Egypt the doctrine of the Palingenesis was symbolized by the Scarabeaus, which suggested to St Augustine the following strange comparison: "Jesus Christus bonus ille scarabaeus meus, non ea tantum de causa unigenitus, quod, ipsement sui auctor mortalium speciem induxerit, sed quod in fac faece nostra sese volutarit et ex ipsa nasci homo voluerit."

These ideas, which St Augustine borrowed from the religious beliefs of Egypt, were adopted by certain alchemists; and Egypt, which saw in the Scarabaeus" the Father, Man, a world of trial, a ladder whereby fallen souls may rise," justly claimed to be the birthplace of ancient chemistry, to which it assigned a peculiar rank, calling it the "sacfred art. But although certain Egyptian priests may have spread the report that they owed their enormous fortunes to their knowledge of chemical secrets, this veneration produced but few practical results. It was, however, this report which made the emperors Severus and Diocletian issue an edict that all their magical books should be burned.

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