It is true of all of us, then, that we seek for Unity-- unity in mind and life. Some seek it in science and a life of knowledge; some seek it in religion and a life of faith; some seek it in human love and find it in the life of service to their fellows; some seek it in pleasure and the gratification of the senses' demands; some seek it in the harmonious development of all the facets of their being. Many the methods, right and wrong; many the terms under which the One is conceived, true and false--in a sense, to use the phraseology of a bygone system of philosophy, we are all, consciously or unconsciously, following paths that lead thither or paths that lead away, seekers in the quest of the Philosopher's Stone.
Let us, in these excursions in the byways of thought, consider for a while the form that the quest of fundamental unity took in the hands of those curious mediaeval philosophers, half mystics, half experimentalists in natural things-- that are known by the name of "alchemists."
The common opinion concerning alchemy is that it was a pseudo-science or pseudo-art flourishing during the Dark Ages, and having for its aim the conversion of common metals into silver and gold by means of a most marvellous and wholly fabulous agent called the Philosopher's Stone, that its devotees were half knaves, half fools, whose views concerning Nature were entirely erroneous, and whose objects were entirely mercenary. This opinion is not absolutely destitute of truth; as a science alchemy involved many fantastic errors; and in the course of its history it certainly proved attractive to both knaves and fools. But if this opinion involves some element of truth, it involves a far greater proportion of error. Amongst the alchemists are numbered some of the greatest intellects of the Middle Ages--ROGER BACON (_c_. 1214-1294), for example, who might almost be called the father of experimental science. And whether or not the desire for material wealth was a secondary object, the true aim of the genuine alchemist was a much nobler one than this as one of them exclaims with true scientific fervour: "Would to God . . . all men might become adepts in our Art-- for then gold, the great idol of mankind, would lose its value, and we should prize it only for its scientific teaching." Moreover, recent developments in physical and chemical science seem to indicate that the alchemists were not so utterly wrong in their concept of Nature as has formerly been supposed--that, whilst they certainly erred in both their methods and their interpretations of individual phenomena, they did intuitively grasp certain fundamental facts concerning the universe of the very greatest importance.
 EIRENAEUS PHILALETHES: _An Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King_. (See _The Hermetic Museum, Restored and Enlarged_, ed. by A. E. WAITE, 1893, vol. ii. p. 178.)
Suppose, however, that the theories of the alchemists are entirely erroneous from beginning to end, and are nowhere relieved by the merest glimmer of truth. Still they were believed to be true, and this belief had an important influence upon human thought. Many men of science have, I am afraid, been too prone to regard the mystical views of the alchemists as unintelligible; but, whatever their theories may be to us, these theories were certainly very real to them: it is preposterous to maintain that the writings of the alchemists are without meaning, even though their views are altogether false. And the more false their views are believed to be, the more necessary does it become to explain why they should have gained such universal credit. Here we have problems into which scientific inquiry is not only legitimate, but, I think, very desirable,--apart altogether from the question of the truth or falsity of alchemy as a science, or its utility as an art. What exactly was the system of beliefs grouped under the term "alchemy," and what was its aim? Why were the beliefs held? What was their precise influence upon human thought and culture?
It was in order to elucidate problems of this sort, as well as to determine what elements of truth, if any, there are in the theories of the alchemists, that The Alchemical Society was founded in 1912, mainly through my own efforts and those of my confreres, and for the first time something like justice was being done to the memory of the alchemists when the Society's activities were stayed by that greatest calamity of history, the European War.
Some students of the writings of the alchemists have advanced a very curious and interesting theory as to the aims of the alchemists, which may be termed "the transcendental theory". According to this theory, the alchemists were concerned only with the mystical processes affecting the soul of man, and their chemical references are only to be understood symbolically. In my opinion, however, this view of the subject is rendered untenable by the lives of the alchemists themselves; for, as Mr WAITE has very fully pointed out in his _Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers_ (1888), the lives of the alchemists show them to have been mainly concerned with chemical and physical processes; and, indeed, to their labours we owe many valuable discoveries of a chemical nature. But the fact that such a theory should ever have been formulated, and should not be altogether lacking in consistency, may serve to direct our attention to the close connection between alchemy and mysticism.
If we wish to understand the origin and aims of alchemy we must endeavour to recreate the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, and to look at the subject from the point of view of the alchemists themselves. Now, this atmosphere was, as I have indicated in a previous essay, surcharged with mystical theology and mystical philosophy. Alchemy, so to speak, was generated and throve in a dim religious light. We cannot open a book by any one of the better sort of alchemists without noticing how closely their theology and their chemistry are interwoven, and what a remarkably religious view they take of their subject. Thus one alchemist writes: "In the first place, let every devout and God-fearing chemist and student of this Art consider that this arcanum should be regarded, not only as a truly great, but as a most holy Art (seeing that it typifies and shadows out the highest heavenly good). Therefore, if any man desire to reach this great and unspeakable Mystery, he must remember that it is obtained not by the might of man, but by the grace of God, and that not our will or desire, but only the mercy of the Most High, can bestow it upon us. For this reason you must first of all cleanse your heart, lift it up to Him alone, and ask of Him this gift in true, earnest and undoubting prayer. He alone can give and bestow it." Whilst another alchemist declares: "I am firmly persuaded that any unbeliever who got truly to know this Art, would straightway confess the truth of our Blessed Religion, and believe in the Trinity and in our Lord JESUS CHRIST.