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source:zoptime:2023-12-05 00:56:38

Such are the facts from which I think we are justified in concluding, as I have said, "that the alchemists constructed their chemical theories for the main part by means of _a priori_ reasoning, and that the premises from which they started were (i.) the truth of mystical theology, especially the doctrine of the soul's regeneration, and (ii.) the truth of mystical philosophy, which asserts that the objects of nature are symbols of spiritual verities."[1]

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[1] In the following excursion we will wander again in the alchemical bypaths of thought, and certain objections to this view of the origin and nature of alchemy will be dealt with and, I hope, satisfactorily answered.

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It seems to follow, _ex hypothesi_, that every alchemical work ought to permit of two interpretations, one physical, the other transcendental. But I would not venture to assert this, because, as I think, many of the lesser alchemists knew little of the origin of their theories, nor realised their significance. They were concerned merely with these theories in their strictly metallurgical applications, and any transcendental meaning we can extract from their works was not intended by the writers themselves. However, many alchemists, I conceive, especially the better sort, realised more or less clearly the dual nature of their subject, and their books are to some extent intended to permit of a double interpretation, although the emphasis is laid upon the physical and chemical application of mystical doctrine. And there are a few writers who adopted alchemical terminology on the principle that, if the language of theology is competent to describe chemical processes, then, conversely, the language of alchemy must be competent to describe psychological processes: this is certainly and entirely true of JACOB BOEHME, and, to some extent also, I think, of HENRY KHUNRATH (1560-1605) and THOMAS VAUGHAN (1622-1666).

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As may be easily understood, many of the alchemists led most romantic lives, often running the risk of torture and death at the hands of avaricious princes who believed them to be in possession of the Philosopher's Stone, and adopted such pleasant methods of extorting (or, at least, of trying to extort) their secrets. A brief sketch, which I quote from my _Alchemy: Ancient and Modern_ (1911), SE 54, of the lives of ALEXANDER SETHON and MICHAEL SENDIVOGIUS, will serve as an example:--

"The date and birthplace of ALEXANDER SETHON, a Scottish alchemist, do not appear to have been recorded, but MICHAEL SENDIVOGIUS was probably born in Moravia about 1566. Sethon, we are told, was in possession of the arch-secrets of Alchemy. He visited Holland in 1602, proceeded after a time to Italy, and passed through Basle to Germany; meanwhile he is said to have performed many transmutations. Ultimately arriving at Dresden, however, he fell into the clutches of the young Elector, Christian II., who, in order to extort his secret, cast him into prison and put him to the torture, but without avail. Now it so happened that Sendivogius, who was in quest of the Philosopher's Stone, was staying at Dresden, and hearing of Sethon's imprisonment obtained permission to visit him. Sendivogius offered to effect Sethon's escape in return for assistance in his alchemistic pursuits, to which arrangement the Scottish alchemist willingly agreed. After some considerable outlay of money in bribery, Sendivogius's plan of escape was successfully carried out, and Sethon found himself a free man; but he refused to betray the high secrets of Hermetic philosophy to his rescuer. However, before his death, which occurred shortly afterwards, he presented him with an ounce of the transmutative powder. Sendivogius soon used up this powder, we are told, in effecting transmutations and cures, and, being fond of expensive living, he married Sethon's widow, in the hope that she was in the possession of the transmutative secret. In this, however, he was disappointed; she knew nothing of the matter, but she had the manuscript of an alchemistic work written by her late husband. Shortly afterwards Sendivogius printed at Prague a book entitled _The New Chemical Light_ under the name of `Cosmopolita,' which is said to have been this work of Sethon's, but which Sendivogius claimed for his own by the insertion of his name on the title page, in the form of an anagram. The tract _On Sulphur_ which was printed at the end of the book in later editions, however, is said to have been the genuine work of the Moravian. Whilst his powder lasted, Sendivogius travelled about, performing, we are told, many transmutations. He was twice imprisoned in order to extort the secrets of alchemy from him, on one occasion escaping, and on the other occasion obtaining his release from the Emperor Rudolph. Afterwards, he appears to have degenerated into an impostor, but this is said to have been a _finesse_ to hide his true character as an alchemistic adept. He died in 1646."

However, all the alchemists were not of the apparent character of SENDIVOGIUS--many of them leading holy and serviceable lives. The alchemist-physician J. B. VAN HELMONT (1577-1644), who was a man of extraordinary benevolence, going about treating the sick poor freely, may be particularly mentioned. He, too, claimed to have performed the transmutation of "base" metal into gold, as did also HELVETIUS (whom we have already met), physician to the Prince of Orange, with a wonderful preparation given to him by a stranger. The testimony of these two latter men is very difficult either to explain or to explain away, but I cannot deal with this question here, but must refer the reader to a paper on the subject by Mr GASTON DE MENGEL, and the discussion thereon, published in vol. i. of _The Journal of the Alchemical Society_.

In conclusion, I will venture one remark dealing with a matter outside of the present inquiry. Alchemy ended its days in failure and fraud; charlatans and fools were attracted to it by purely mercenary objects, who knew nothing of the high aims of the genuine alchemists, and scientific men looked elsewhere for solutions of Nature's problems. Why did alchemy fail? Was it because its fundamental theorems were erroneous? I think not. I consider the failure of the alchemical theory of Nature to be due rather to the misapplication of these fundamental concepts, to the erroneous use of _a priori_ methods of reasoning, to a lack of a sufficiently wide knowledge of natural phenomena to which to apply these concepts, to a lack of adequate apparatus with which to investigate such phenomena experimentally, and to a lack of mathematical organons of thought with which to interpret such experimental results had they been obtained. As for the basic concepts of alchemy themselves, such as the fundamental unity of the Cosmos and the evolution of the elements, in a word, the applicability of the principles of mysticism to natural phenomena: these seem to me to contain a very valuable element of truth-- a statement which, I think, modern scientific research justifies me in making,--though the alchemists distorted this truth and expressed it in a fantastic form. I think, indeed, that in the modern theories of energy and the all-pervading ether, the etheric and electrical origin and nature of matter and the evolution of the elements, we may witness the triumphs of mysticism as applied to the interpretation of Nature. Whether or not we shall ever transmute lead into gold, I believe there is a very true sense in which we may say that alchemy, purified by its death, has been proved true, whilst the materialistic view of Nature has been proved false.