1902 Encyclopedia > Alchemy > Alchemy - Introduction

(Part 1)


ALCHEMY, CHEMY, or HERMETICS. Considering the present state of the science and the advance of public opinion, the old definition of alchemy as the pretended art of making gold is no longer correct or adequate.

Modern science dates from three discoveries - that of Copernicus, the effect of which (to borrow St Simon's words) was to expel the astrologers from the society of astronomers; that of Torricelli and Pascal, of the weight of the atmosphere, a discovery which was the foundation of physics; lastly, that of Lavoisier, who, by discovering oxygen, destroyed the theory of Stahl, the last alchemist who can be excused for not being a chemist.

Before these three grand stages in the progress of science, the reign of astrology, magic, and alchemy was universal and almost uncontested. Even a genius like Kepler, who by his three great laws laid the foundations for the Copernican system, was guided in his investigations by astrological and cabalistic consideration. Hence it follows that a philosophical history of modern science is certain to fall into the opposite superstition of idolizing abstract reason, if it does not do full justice to this long and energetic intellectual struggle which began in India, Greece, and Egypt, and, continuing through the dark ages down to the very dawn of modern enlightenment, preceded and paved the way for the three above-mentioned discoveries, which inaugurated a new era.

It was the alchemists who first stated, however confusedly, the problems which science is still engaged in solving; and to them, in conclusion, we owe the enormous service of removing the endless obstructions which a purely rationalistic method, born before its time and soon degenerating into verbal guibbles and scholastic jargon, had placed in the path of human progress,

Alchemy was, we may say, the sickly but imaginative infancy through which modern chemistry had to pass before it attained its majority, or, in other words, became a positive science. The search for gold was only one crisis in this infancy. This crisis is over, alchemy is now a thing of the past. There is no longer any need to exhort adventures spirits, who hope to find Golconda at the bottom of their crucibles, to leave such visions and turn to the safer paths of science or industry. The battle has been fought and won, the problem of the unity of chemical elements or simple bodies belongs rather to the province of metaphysics than to that of experimental science. If here and there an honest student of the black art still survives, he is regarded as a mad but harmless enthusiast; and as for the pretended searchers for the philosopher's stone, they are, if possible, less interesting objects than the dupes they still continue to cheat. Thus the full time is come for applying to the occult sciences the same searching analysis to which the other myths of prehistoric times have been so rigorously subjected. To race its earliest beginnings, to investigate its development by the aid of modern criticism, is the province of physical science, no less than of the sister science of morals. Nay, more, we shall find that both had a common origin. Those ancient cosmogonies, those poetical systems which the genius of each nation and race has struck out to solve the problem of the universe and of the destiny of mankind, were the germs of science no less than of literature, of philosophy as well as of religion. And as in the infancy of science its various branches were confused and confounded, so in a like stage of society we often find the same person uniting the parts of philosopher, savant, and priest. Besides this, it is evident that in the absence of all scientific apparatus or instrument, the ancients, if they had limited themselves to the exercise of their reason, must have remained observers and nothing more. It is true they did observe, and that widely and well; but observation alone, even when aided by the strongest and subtlest reason, can lead to nothing but contradictory theories, irreconcilable, because they cannot be verified. And it is not in human nature to remain a simple spectator. Curiosity was first excited by fancy (and the fancy of primitive man, we must remember, was far more active and vigorious than ours), and when it found itself baffled by a natural reaction, it had recourse to divination.

In a word, the ambition of these earliest philosophers was more intense, because its sphere was narrower. In the first stages of civilization the magician was the man of science. The mysteries of this magic art being inseparable from those of religion and philosophy, were preserved, as it were, hermetically sealed in the adyta of the temple. Its philosophy was the cabala. We must consequently look on the various cabalas or oral traditions, transmitted from age to age as the oracles of various faiths and creeds, as constituting the elements of that theory which the Jewish cabala promulgated some centuries later in a condensed and mutilated form. Astrology and magic were the efforts made in various ways to verify apply this theory; magic, indeed, or rather magic all power, was at starting purely cosmogonic, i.e. regarded as an attribute of God or nature, before it was counterfeited by the magicians of various countries. But, as St Simon has well observed, chemical phenomena are much more complicated than astronomical-the latter requiring only observation, the former experiment-and hence astrology preceded alchemy. But there was then no hard and fast line between the several branches of science, and hence the most opposite were united, not, as now, by a common philosophical or philanthropical object, but by reason of their common theological origin. Thus alchemy was the daughter of astrology, and it was not till the end of the 16th century A.D. that she passed from a state of tutelage. Just in the same way medicine as a magical or sacred art was prior to alchemy; for, as was natural, before thinking of forming new substances, men employed already existing herbs, stones, drugs, perfumes, and vapours. The medical art was indissolubly bound up with astrology, but, judging from the natural inventiveness of the ancients, we should have expected beforehand that chemical preparations would have played a more important part among the instruments of priestly thaumaturgy.

As in the middle ages invention busied itself with instruments of torture, and as in our days it is taken up almost as much with the destructive engines of war as with the productive arts of peace, so in those early ages it applied itself to the fabrication of idols, to the mechanism and theatrical contrivances for mysteries and religious ceremonies. There was then to desire to communicate discoveries; science was a sort of freemasonry, and silence was effectually secured by priestly anathemas; men of science were as jealous of one another as they were of all other classes of society. If we wish to form a clear picture of this earliest stage of civilization, an age which represents at once the naivete or childhood and the suspicious reticence of senility, we must turn our eyes to the priest, on the one hand, claiming as his own all art and science, and commanding respect by his contemptuous silence; and, on the other hand, to the mechanic plying the loom, extracting the Tyrian dye, practicing chemistry, though ignorant of its very name, despised and oppressed, and only tolerated when he furnished Religion with her trappings of War with arms. Thus the growth of chemistry was slow, and by reason of its backwardness it was longer than any other art in ridding itself of the leading strings of magic and astrology. Practical discoveries must have been many times without science acquiring thereby any new fact. For to prevent a new discovery from being lost there must be such a combination of favourable circumstances as was rare in that age and for many succeeding ages. There must be publicity, and publicity is of quite recent growth; the application of the discovery must be not only possible but obvious, as satisfying some want. But wants are only felt as civilisation progresses. Nor is this all; for a practical discovery to become a scientific fact, it must serve to demonstrate the error of one hypothesis, and to suggest a new one, better fitted for the synthesis of existing facts. But old beliefs are proverbially obstinate and virulent in their opposition to newer and truer theories which are destined to eject and replace them. To sum up, even in our own day chemistry rests on a less sound basis than either physics, which had the advantage of originating as later as the 17th century, or astronomy, which dates from the time when the Chaldean shephered had sufficiently provided for his daily wants to find leisure for gazing into the starry heavens.

After this general introduction we may now proceed to consider the subject in detail under the following heads: - First, we will cast a rapid glance at certain cosmologies and philosophical, systems, in order to bring prominently before the reader those points which throw light on chemical theories. Secondly, we will consider Alchemy at the moment when it ceased to be purely religious and began an independent existence; that is to say, during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. and in that city which was the battlefield on which the various philosophical and religious creeds of the east met. In the fierce struggled which ensued, in the strange alliances which they there made, we shall find them, by their mutual recriminations, involuntarily revealing to us their hidden secrets. As the darkness of the middle ages approaches, we shall follow our science in its journey to Arabia; from Arabia we shall trace it back to Europe, and hear it taught with stammering lips and feeble tongue by subtile or solem doctors. We shall attempt to analyse its ambitious aspirations and its barren performances. During the Renaissance we shall see it at its zenith, inspired by a mad enthusiasm which was near akin to genius, an enthusiasm which gave birth to medicine and modern chemistry. Lastly, in the 17th and 18th centuries we shall see it degenrate into pure charlatanism. In conclusion, we shall attempt to recover the few grains of pure ore which may be extracted from its broken alembics.

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Alchemy - Table of Contents

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