THE STORY OF ALCHEMY AND THE BEGINNINGS OF CHEMISTRY
M. M. PATTISON MUIR, M.A.
Fellow and Formerly Praelector in Chemistry of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
With Eighteen Illustrations
New and Enlarged Edition
Hodder and Stoughton London, New York, Toronto
"It is neither religious nor wise to judge that of which you know nothing."
A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby, by PHILALETHES (17th century)
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THE USEFUL KNOWLEDGE SERIES
Cloth, One Shilling net each
List of the first thirty-four volumes issued in the new style with Pictorial Wrappers:—
WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY. By ALFRED T. STORY.
A PIECE OF COAL. By K.A. MARTIN, F.G.S.
ARCHITECTURE. By P.L. WATERHOUSE.
THE COTTON PLANT. By F. WILKINSON, F.G.S.
PLANT LIFE. By GRANT ALLEN.
WILD FLOWERS. By REV. PROF. G. HENSLOW, F.L.S., F.G.S.
THE SOLAR SYSTEM. By G.F. CHAMBERS, F.R.A.S.
ECLIPSES. By G.F. CHAMBERS, F.R.A.S.
THE STARS. By G.F.CHAMBERS, F.R.A.S.
THE WEATHER. By G.F. CHAMBERS, F.R.A.S.
ANIMAL LIFE. By B. LINDSAY.
GEOGRAPHICAL DISCOVERY. By JOSEPH JACOBS.
THE ATMOSPHERE. By DOUGLAS ARCHIBALD, M.A.
ALPINE CLIMBING. By FRANCIS GRIBBLE
FOREST AND STREAM. By JAMES RODWAY, F.L.S.
FISH LIFE. By W.P. PYCRAFT, F.Z.S.
BIRD LIFE. By W.P. PYCRAFT, F.Z.S.
PRIMITIVE MAN. By EDWARD CLODD.
ANCIENT EGYPT. By ROBINSON SOUTTAR, M.A., D.C.L.
STORY OF LOCOMOTION. By BECKLES WILLSON.
THE EARTH IN PAST AGES. By H.G. SEELEY, F.R.S.
THE EMPIRE. By E. SALMON.
KING ALFRED. By SIR WALTER BESANT.
LOST ENGLAND. By BECKLES WILLSON.
ALCHEMY, OR THE BEGINNINGS OF CHEMISTRY. By M.M. PATTISON MUIR, M.A.
THE CHEMICAL ELEMENTS. By M.M. PATTISON MUIR, M.A.
THE WANDERINGS OF ATOMS. By M.M. PATTISON MUIR, M.A.
GERM LIFE: BACTERIA. By H.W. CONN.
LIFE IN THE SEAS. By SIDNEY J. HICKSON F.R.S.
LIFE'S MECHANISM. By H.W. CONN.
REPTILE LIFE. By W.P. PYCRAFT, F.Z.S.
THE GRAIN OF WHEAT. By WILLIAM C. EDGAR.
THE POTTER. By C.F. BINNS.
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The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry is very interesting in itself. It is also a pregnant example of the contrast between the scientific and the emotional methods of regarding nature; and it admirably illustrates the differences between well-grounded, suggestive, hypotheses, and baseless speculations.
I have tried to tell the story so that it may be intelligible to the ordinary reader.
M.M. PATTISON MUIR. CAMBRIDGE, November 1902.
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NOTE TO NEW EDITION.
A few small changes have been made. The last chapter has been re-written and considerably enlarged.
M.M.P.M. FARNHAM, September 1913.
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I. THE EXPLANATION OF MATERIAL CHANGES GIVEN BY GREEK THINKERS
II. A SKETCH OF ALCHEMICAL THEORY
III. THE ALCHEMICAL NOTION OF THE UNITY AND SIMPLICITY OF NATURE
IV. THE ALCHEMICAL ELEMENTS AND PRINCIPLES
V. THE ALCHEMICAL ESSENCE
VI. ALCHEMY AS AN EXPERIMENTAL ART
VII. THE LANGUAGE OF ALCHEMY
VIII. THE DEGENERACY OF ALCHEMY
IX. PARACELSUS, AND SOME OTHER ALCHEMISTS
X. SUMMARY OF THE ALCHEMICAL DOCTRINE—THE REPLACEMENT OF THE THREE PRINCIPLES OF THE ALCHEMISTS BY THE SINGLE PRINCIPLE OF PHLOGISTON
XI. THE EXAMINATION OF THE PHENOMENA OF COMBUSTION
XII. THE RECOGNITION OF CHEMICAL CHANGES AS THE INTERACTIONS OF DEFINITE SUBSTANCES
XIII. THE CHEMICAL ELEMENTS CONTRASTED WITH THE ALCHEMICAL PRINCIPLES
XIV. THE MODERN FORM OF THE ALCHEMICAL QUEST OF THE ONE THING
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
AN ALCHEMICAL LABORATORY (Frontispiece)
1. THE MORTIFICATION OF METALS PRESENTED BY THE IMAGE OF A KING DEVOURING HIS SON
2 and 3. THE MORTIFICATION OF METALS PRESENTED BY IMAGES OF DEATH AND BURIAL
4 and 5. TWO MUST BE CONJOINED TO PRODUCE ONE
6. HERMETICALLY SEALING THE NECK OF A GLASS VESSEL
7. SEALING BY MEANS OF A MERCURY TRAP
8. AN ALCHEMICAL COMMON COLD STILL
9. A BALNEUM MARIAE
10. ALCHEMICAL DISTILLING APPARATUS
11. A PELICAN
12. AN ALCHEMIST WITH A RETORT
13. AN ALCHEMIST PREPARING OIL OF VITRIOL
14. ALCHEMICAL APPARATUS FOR RECTIFYING SPIRITS
15. PURIFYING GOLD PRESENTED BY THE IMAGE OF A SALAMANDER IN THE FIRE
16. PRIESTLEY'S APPARATUS FOR WORKING WITH GASES
17. APPARATUS USED BY LAVOISIER IN HIS EXPERIMENTS ON BURNING MERCURY IN AIR
THE EXPLANATION OF MATERIAL CHANGES GIVEN BY THE GREEK THINKERS.
For thousands of years before men had any accurate and exact knowledge of the changes of material things, they had thought about these changes, regarded them as revelations of spiritual truths, built on them theories of things in heaven and earth (and a good many things in neither), and used them in manufactures, arts, and handicrafts, especially in one very curious manufacture wherein not the thousandth fragment of a grain of the finished article was ever produced.
The accurate and systematic study of the changes which material things undergo is called chemistry; we may, perhaps, describe alchemy as the superficial, and what may be called subjective, examination of these changes, and the speculative systems, and imaginary arts and manufactures, founded on that examination.
We are assured by many old writers that Adam was the first alchemist, and we are told by one of the initiated that Adam was created on the sixth day, being the 15th of March, of the first year of the world; certainly alchemy had a long life, for chemistry did not begin until about the middle of the 18th century.
No branch of science has had so long a period of incubation as chemistry. There must be some extraordinary difficulty in the way of disentangling the steps of those changes wherein substances of one kind are produced from substances totally unlike them. To inquire how those of acute intellects and much learning regarded such occurrences in the times when man's outlook on the world was very different from what it is now, ought to be interesting, and the results of that inquiry must surely be instructive.
If the reader turns to a modern book on chemistry (for instance, The Story of the Chemical Elements, in this series), he will find, at first, superficial descriptions of special instances of those occurrences which are the subject of the chemist's study; he will learn that only certain parts of such events are dealt with in chemistry; more accurate descriptions will then be given of changes which occur in nature, or can be produced by altering the ordinary conditions, and the reader will be taught to see certain points of likeness between these changes; he will be shown how to disentangle chemical occurrences, to find their similarities and differences; and, gradually, he will feel his way to general statements, which are more or less rigorous and accurate expressions of what holds good in a large number of chemical processes; finally, he will discover that some generalisations have been made which are exact and completely accurate descriptions applicable to every case of chemical change.
But if we turn to the writings of the alchemists, we are in a different world. There is nothing even remotely resembling what one finds in a modern book on chemistry.
Here are a few quotations from alchemical writings :
 Most of the quotations from alchemical writings, in this book, are taken from a series of translations, published in 1893-94, under the supervision of Mr A.E. Waite.
"It is necessary to deprive matter of its qualities in order to draw out its soul.... Copper is like a man; it has a soul and a body ... the soul is the most subtile part ... that is to say, the tinctorial spirit. The body is the ponderable, material, terrestrial thing, endowed with a shadow.... After a series of suitable treatments copper becomes without shadow and better than gold.... The elements grow and are transmuted, because it is their qualities, not their substances which are contrary." (Stephanus of Alexandria, about 620 A.D.)
"If we would elicit our Medecine from the precious metals, we must destroy the particular metalic form, without impairing its specific properties. The specific properties of the metal have their abode in its spiritual part, which resides in homogeneous water. Thus we must destroy the particular form of gold, and change it into its generic homogeneous water, in which the spirit of gold is preserved; this spirit afterwards restores the consistency of its water, and brings forth a new form (after the necessary putrefaction) a thousand times more perfect than the form of gold which it lost by being reincrudated." (Philalethes, 17th century.)
"The bodily nature of things is a concealing outward vesture." (Michael Sendivogius, 17th century.)
"Nothing of true value is located in the body of a substance, but in the virtue ... the less there is of body, the more in proportion is the virtue." (Paracelsus, 16th century.)
"There are four elements, and each has at its centre another element which makes it what it is. These are the four pillars of the world.... It is their contrary action which keeps up the harmony and equilibrium of the mundane machinery." (Michael Sendivogius.)
"Nature cannot work till it has been supplied with a material: the first matter is furnished by God, the second matter by the sage." (Michael Sendivogius.)
"When corruptible elements are united in a certain substance, their strife must sooner or later bring about its decomposition, which is, of course, followed by putrefaction; in putrefaction, the impure is separated from the pure; and if the pure elements are then once more joined together by the action of natural heat, a much nobler and higher form of life is produced.... If the hidden central fire, which during life was in a state of passivity, obtain the mastery, it attracts to itself all the pure elements, which are thus separated from the impure, and form the nucleus of a far purer form of life." (Michael Sendivogius.)
"Cause that which is above to be below; that which is visible to be invisible; that which is palpable to become impalpable. Again let that which is below become that which is above; let the invisible become visible, and the impalpable become palpable. Here you see the perfection of our Art, without any defect or diminution." (Basil Valentine, 15th century.)
"Think most diligently about this; often bear in mind, observe and comprehend, that all minerals and metals together, in the same time, and after the same fashion, and of one and the same principal matter, are produced and generated. That matter is no other than a mere vapour, which is extracted from the elementary earth by the superior stars, or by a sidereal distillation of the macrocosm; which sidereal hot infusion, with an airy sulphurous property, descending upon inferiors, so acts and operates as that there is implanted, spiritually and invisibly, a certain power and virtue in those metals and minerals; which fume, moreover, resolves in the earth into a certain water, wherefrom all metals are thenceforth generated and ripened to their perfection, and thence proceeds this or that metal or mineral, according as one of the three principles acquires dominion, and they have much or little of sulphur and salt, or an unequal mixture of these; whence some metals are fixed—that is, constant or stable; and some are volatile and easily changeable, as is seen in gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead." (Basil Valentine.)
"To grasp the invisible elements, to attract them by their material correspondences, to control, purify, and transform them by the living power of the Spirit—this is true Alchemy." (Paracelsus.)
"Destruction perfects that which is good; for the good cannot appear on account of that which conceals it.... Each one of the visible metals is a concealment of the other six metals." (Paracelsus.)
These sayings read like sentences in a forgotten tongue.
Humboldt tells of a parrot which had lived with a tribe of American Indians, and learnt scraps of their language; the tribe totally disappeared; the parrot alone remained, and babbled words in the language which no living human being could understand.
Are the words I have quoted unintelligible, like the parrot's prating? Perhaps the language may be reconstructed; perhaps it may be found to embody something worth a hearing. Success is most likely to come by considering the growth of alchemy; by trying to find the ideas which were expressed in the strange tongue; by endeavouring to look at our surroundings as the alchemists looked at theirs.
Do what we will, we always, more or less, construct our own universe. The history of science may be described as the history of the attempts, and the failures, of men "to see things as they are." "Nothing is harder," said the Latin poet Lucretius, "than to separate manifest facts from doubtful, what straightway the mind adds on of itself."
Observations of the changes which are constantly happening in the sky, and on the earth, must have prompted men long ago to ask whether there are any limits to the changes of things around them. And this question must have become more urgent as working in metals, making colours and dyes, preparing new kinds of food and drink, producing substances with smells and tastes unlike those of familiar objects, and other pursuits like these, made men acquainted with transformations which seemed to penetrate to the very foundations of things.
Can one thing be changed into any other thing; or, are there classes of things within each of which change is possible, while the passage from one class to another is not possible? Are all the varied substances seen, tasted, handled, smelt, composed of a limited number of essentially different things; or, is each fundamentally different from every other substance? Such questions as these must have pressed for answers long ago.
Some of the Greek philosophers who lived four or five hundred years before Christ formed a theory of the transformations of matter, which is essentially the theory held by naturalists to-day.
These philosophers taught that to understand nature we must get beneath the superficial qualities of things. "According to convention," said Democritus (born 460 B.C.), "there are a sweet and a bitter, a hot and a cold, and according to convention there is colour. In truth there are atoms and a void." Those investigators attempted to connect all the differences which are observed between the qualities of things with differences of size, shape, position, and movement of atoms. They said that all things are formed by the coalescence of certain unchangeable, indestructible, and impenetrable particles which they named atoms; the total number of atoms is constant; not one of them can be destroyed, nor can one be created; when a substance ceases to exist and another is formed, the process is not a destruction of matter, it is a re-arrangement of atoms.
Only fragments of the writings of the founders of the atomic theory have come to us. The views of these philosophers are preserved, and doubtless amplified and modified, in a Latin poem, Concerning the Nature of Things, written by Lucretius, who was born a century before the beginning of our era. Let us consider the picture given in that poem of the material universe, and the method whereby the picture was produced.
 The quotations from Lucretius are taken from Munro's translation (4th Edition, 1886).
All knowledge, said Lucretius, is based on "the aspect and the law of nature." True knowledge can be obtained only by the use of the senses; there is no other method. "From the senses first has proceeded the knowledge of the true, and the senses cannot be refuted. Shall reason, founded on false sense, be able to contradict [the senses], wholly founded as it is on the senses? And if they are not true, then all reason as well is rendered false." The first principle in nature is asserted by Lucretius to be that "Nothing is ever gotten out of nothing." "A thing never returns to nothing, but all things after disruption go back to the first bodies of matter." If there were not imperishable seeds of things, atoms, "first-beginnings of solid singleness," then, Lucretius urges, "infinite time gone by and lapse of days must have eaten up all things that are of mortal body."
The first-beginnings, or atoms, of things were thought of by Lucretius as always moving; "there is no lowest point in the sum of the universe" where they can rest; they meet, clash, rebound, or sometimes join together into groups of atoms which move about as wholes. Change, growth, decay, formation, disruption—these are the marks of all things. "The war of first-beginnings waged from eternity is carried on with dubious issue: now here, now there, the life-bringing elements of things get the mastery, and are o'ermastered in turn; with the funeral wail blends the cry which babies raise when they enter the borders of light; and no night ever followed day, nor morning night, that heard not, mingling with the sickly infant's cries, the attendants' wailings on death and black funeral."
Lucretius pictured the atoms of things as like the things perceived by the senses; he said that atoms of different kinds have different shapes, but the number of shapes is finite, because there is a limit to the number of different things we see, smell, taste, and handle; he implies, although I do not think he definitely asserts, that all atoms of one kind are identical in every respect.
We now know that many compounds exist which are formed by the union of the same quantities by weight of the same elements, and, nevertheless, differ in properties; modern chemistry explains this fact by saying that the properties of a substance depend, not only on the kind of atoms which compose the minute particles of a compound, and the number of atoms of each kind, but also on the mode of arrangement of the atoms. The same doctrine was taught by Lucretius, two thousand years ago. "It often makes a great difference," he said, "with what things, and in what positions the same first-beginnings are held in union, and what motions they mutually impart and receive." For instance, certain atoms may be so arranged at one time as to produce fire, and, at another time, the arrangement of the same atoms may be such that the result is a fir-tree. The differences between the colours of things are said by Lucretius to be due to differences in the arrangements and motions of atoms. As the colour of the sea when wind lashes it into foam is different from the colour when the waters are at rest, so do the colours of things change when the atoms whereof the things are composed change from one arrangement to another, or from sluggish movements to rapid and tumultuous motions.
 See the chapter Molecular Architecture in the Story of the Chemical Elements.
Lucretius pictured a solid substance as a vast number of atoms squeezed closely together, a liquid as composed of not so many atoms less tightly packed, and a gas as a comparatively small number of atoms with considerable freedom of motion. Essentially the same picture is presented by the molecular theory of to-day.
To meet the objection that atoms are invisible, and therefore cannot exist, Lucretius enumerates many things we cannot see although we know they exist. No one doubts the existence of winds, heat, cold and smells; yet no one has seen the wind, or heat, or cold, or a smell. Clothes become moist when hung near the sea, and dry when spread in the sunshine; but no one has seen the moisture entering or leaving the clothes. A pavement trodden by many feet is worn away; but the minute particles are removed without our eyes being able to see them.
Another objector urges—"You say the atoms are always moving, yet the things we look at, which you assert to be vast numbers of moving atoms, are often motionless." Him Lucretius answers by an analogy. "And herein you need not wonder at this, that though the first-beginnings of things are all in motion, yet the sum is seen to rest in supreme repose, unless when a thing exhibits motions with its individual body. For all the nature of first things lies far away from our senses, beneath their ken; and, therefore, since they are themselves beyond what you can see, they must withdraw from sight their motion as well; and the more so, that the things which we can see do yet often conceal their motions when a great distance off. Thus, often, the woolly flocks as they crop the glad pastures on a hill, creep on whither the grass, jewelled with fresh dew, summons or invites each, and the lambs, fed to the full, gambol and playfully butt; all which objects appear to us from a distance to be blended together, and to rest like a white spot on a green hill. Again, when mighty legions fill with their movements all parts of the plains, waging the mimicry of war, the glitter lifts itself up to the sky, and the whole earth round gleams with brass, and beneath a noise is raised by the mighty tramplings of men, and the mountains, stricken by the shouting, echo the voices to the stars of heaven, and horsemen fly about, and suddenly wheeling, scour across the middle of the plains, shaking them with the vehemence of their charge. And yet there is some spot on the high hills, seen from which they appear to stand still and to rest on the plains as a bright spot."
The atomic theory of the Greek thinkers was constructed by reasoning on natural phenomena. Lucretius constantly appeals to observed facts for confirmation of his theoretical teachings, or refutation of opinions he thought erroneous. Besides giving a general mental presentation of the material universe, the theory was applied to many specific transmutations; but minute descriptions of what are now called chemical changes could not be given in terms of the theory, because no searching examination of so much as one such change had been made, nor, I think, one may say, could be made under the conditions of Greek life. More than two thousand years passed before investigators began to make accurate measurements of the quantities of the substances which take part in those changes wherein certain things seem to be destroyed and other totally different things to be produced; until accurate knowledge had been obtained of the quantities of the definite substances which interact in the transformations of matter, the atomic theory could not do more than draw the outlines of a picture of material changes.
A scientific theory has been described as "the likening of our imaginings to what we actually observe." So long as we observe only in the rough, only in a broad and general way, our imaginings must also be rough, broad, and general. It was the great glory of the Greek thinkers about natural events that their observations were accurate, on the whole, and as far as they went, and the theory they formed was based on no trivial or accidental features of the facts, but on what has proved to be the very essence of the phenomena they sought to bring into one point of view; for all the advances made in our own times in clear knowledge of the transformations of matter have been made by using, as a guide to experimental inquiries, the conception that the differences between the qualities of substances are connected with differences in the weights and movements of minute particles; and this was the central idea of the atomic theory of the Greek philosophers.
The atomic theory was used by the great physicists of the later Renaissance, by Galileo, Gassendi, Newton and others. Our own countryman, John Dalton, while trying (in the early years of the 19th century) to form a mental presentation of the atmosphere in terms of the theory of atoms, rediscovered the possibility of differences between the sizes of atoms, applied this idea to the facts concerning the quantitative compositions of compounds which had been established by others, developed a method for determining the relative weights of atoms of different kinds, and started chemistry on the course which it has followed so successfully.
Instead of blaming the Greek philosophers for lack of quantitatively accurate experimental inquiry, we should rather be full of admiring wonder at the extraordinary acuteness of their mental vision, and the soundness of their scientific spirit.
The ancient atomists distinguished the essential properties of things from their accidental features. The former cannot be removed, Lucretius said, without "utter destruction accompanying the severance"; the latter may be altered "while the nature of the thing remains unharmed." As examples of essential properties, Lucretius mentions "the weight of a stone, the heat of fire, the fluidity of water." Such things as liberty, war, slavery, riches, poverty, and the like, were accounted accidents. Time also was said to be an accident: it "exists not by itself; but simply from the things which happen, the sense apprehends what has been done in time past, as well as what is present, and what is to follow after."
As our story proceeds, we shall see that the chemists of the middle ages, the alchemists, founded their theory of material changes on the difference between a supposed essential substratum of things, and their qualities which could be taken off, they said, and put on, as clothes are removed and replaced.
How different from the clear, harmonious, orderly, Greek scheme, is any picture we can form, from such quotations as I have given from their writings, of the alchemists' conception of the world. The Greeks likened their imaginings of nature to the natural facts they observed; the alchemists created an imaginary world after their own likeness.
While Christianity was superseding the old religions, and the theological system of the Christian Church was replacing the cosmogonies of the heathen, the contrast between the power of evil and the power of good was more fully realised than in the days of the Greeks; a sharper division was drawn between this world and another world, and that other world was divided into two irreconcilable and absolutely opposite parts. Man came to be regarded as the centre of a tremendous and never-ceasing battle, urged between the powers of good and the powers of evil. The sights and sounds of nature were regarded as the vestments, or the voices, of the unseen combatants. Life was at once very real and the mere shadow of a dream. The conditions were favourable to the growth of magic; for man was regarded as the measure of the universe, the central figure in an awful tragedy.
Magic is an attempt, by thinking and speculating about what we consider must be the order of nature, to discover some means of penetrating into the secret life of natural things, of realising the hidden powers and virtues of things, grasping the concealed thread of unity which is supposed to run through all phenomena however seemingly diverse, entering into sympathy with the supposed inner oneness of life, death, the present, past, and future. Magic grows, and gathers strength, when men are sure their theory of the universe must be the one true theory, and they see only through the glasses which their theory supplies. "He who knows himself thoroughly knows God and all the mysteries of His nature," says a modern writer on magic. That saying expresses the fundamental hypothesis, and the method, of all systems of magic and mysticism. Of such systems, alchemy was one.
A SKETCH OF ALCHEMICAL THEORY.
The system which began to be called alchemy in the 6th and 7th centuries of our era had no special name before that time, but was known as the sacred art, the divine science, the occult science, the art of Hermes.
A commentator on Aristotle, writing in the 4th century A.D., calls certain instruments used for fusion and calcination "chuika organa," that is, instruments for melting and pouring. Hence, probably, came the adjective chyic or chymic, and, at a somewhat later time, the word chemia as the name of that art which deals with calcinations, fusions, meltings, and the like. The writer of a treatise on astrology, in the 5th century, speaking of the influences of the stars on the dispositions of man, says: "If a man is born under Mercury he will give himself to astronomy; if Mars, he will follow the profession of arms; if Saturn, he will devote himself to the science of alchemy (Scientia alchemiae)." The word alchemia which appears in this treatise, was formed by prefixing the Arabic al (meaning the) to chemia, a word, as we have seen, of Greek origin.
It is the growth, development, and transformation into chemistry, of this alchemia which we have to consider.
Alchemy, that is, the art of melting, pouring, and transforming, must necessarily pay much attention to working with crucibles, furnaces, alembics, and other vessels wherein things are fused, distilled, calcined, and dissolved. The old drawings of alchemical operations show us men busy calcining, cohobating, distilling, dissolving, digesting, and performing other processes of like character to these.
The alchemists could not be accused of laziness or aversion to work in their laboratories. Paracelsus (16th century) says of them: "They are not given to idleness, nor go in a proud habit, or plush and velvet garments, often showing their rings on their fingers, or wearing swords with silver hilts by their sides, or fine and gay gloves on their hands; but diligently follow their labours, sweating whole days and nights by their furnaces. They do not spend their time abroad for recreation, but take delight in their laboratories. They put their fingers among coals, into clay and filth, not into gold rings. They are sooty and black, like smiths and miners, and do not pride themselves upon clean and beautiful faces."
In these respects the chemist of to-day faithfully follows the practice of the alchemists who were his predecessors. You can nose a chemist in a crowd by the smell of the laboratory which hangs about him; you can pick him out by the stains on his hands and clothes. He also "takes delight in his laboratory"; he does not always "pride himself on a clean and beautiful face"; he "sweats whole days and nights by his furnace."
Why does the chemist toil so eagerly? Why did the alchemists so untiringly pursue their quest? I think it is not unfair to say: the chemist experiments in order that he "may liken his imaginings to the facts which he observes"; the alchemist toiled that he might liken the facts which he observed to his imaginings. The difference may be put in another way by saying: the chemist's object is to discover "how changes happen in combinations of the unchanging"; the alchemist's endeavour was to prove the truth of his fundamental assertion, "that every substance contains undeveloped resources and potentialities, and can be brought outward and forward into perfection."
Looking around him, and observing the changes of things, the alchemist was deeply impressed by the growth and modification of plants and animals; he argued that minerals and metals also grow, change, develop. He said in effect: "Nature is one, there must be unity in all the diversity I see. When a grain of corn falls into the earth it dies, but this dying is the first step towards a new life; the dead seed is changed into the living plant. So it must be with all other things in nature: the mineral, or the metal, seems dead when it is buried in the earth, but, in reality, it is growing, changing, and becoming more perfect." The perfection of the seed is the plant. What is the perfection of the common metals? "Evidently," the alchemist replied, "the perfect metal is gold; the common metals are trying to become gold." "Gold is the intention of Nature in regard to all metals," said an alchemical writer. Plants are preserved by the preservation of their seed. "In like manner," the alchemist's argument proceeded, "there must be a seed in metals which is their essence; if I can separate the seed and bring it under the proper conditions, I can cause it to grow into the perfect metal." "Animal life, and human life also," we may suppose the alchemist saying, "are continued by the same method as that whereby the life of plants is continued; all life springs from seed; the seed is fructified by the union of the male and the female; in metals also there must be the two characters; the union of these is needed for the production of new metals; the conjoining of metals must go before the birth of the perfect metal."
"Now," we may suppose the argument to proceed, "now, the passage from the imperfect to the more perfect is not easy. It is harder to practise virtue than to acquiesce in vice; virtue comes not naturally to man; that he may gain the higher life, he must be helped by grace. Therefore, the task of exalting the purer metals into the perfect gold, of developing the lower order into the higher, is not easy. If Nature does this, she does it slowly and painfully; if the exaltation of the common metals to a higher plane is to be effected rapidly, it can be done only by the help of man."
So far as I can judge from their writings, the argument of the alchemists may be rendered by some such form as the foregoing. A careful examination of the alchemical argument shows that it rests on a (supposed) intimate knowledge of nature's plan of working, and the certainty that simplicity is the essential mark of that plan.
That the alchemists were satisfied of the great simplicity of nature, and their own knowledge of the ways of nature's work, is apparent from their writings.
The author of The New Chemical Light (17th century) says: "Simplicity is the seal of truth.... Nature is wonderfully simple, and the characteristic mark of a childlike simplicity is stamped upon all that is true and noble in Nature." In another place the same author says: "Nature is one, true, simple, self-contained, created of God, and informed with a certain universal spirit." The same author, Michael Sendivogius, remarks: "It may be asked how I come to have this knowledge about heavenly things which are far removed beyond human ken. My answer is that the sages have been taught by God that this natural world is only an image and material copy of a heavenly and spiritual pattern; that the very existence of this world is based upon the reality of its heavenly archetype.... Thus the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals."
The Only True Way advises all who wish to become true alchemists to leave the circuitous paths of pretended philosophers, and to follow nature, which is simple; the complicated processes described in books are said to be the traps laid by the "cunning sophists" to catch the unwary.
In A Catechism of Alchemy, Paracelsus asks: "What road should the philosopher follow?" He answers, "That exactly which was followed by the Great Architect of the Universe in the creation of the world."
One might suppose it would be easier, and perhaps more profitable, to examine, observe, and experiment, than to turn one's eyes inwards with the hope of discovering exactly "the road followed by the Great Architect of the Universe in the creation of the world." But the alchemical method found it easier to begin by introspection. The alchemist spun his universe from his own ideas of order, symmetry, and simplicity, as the spider spins her web from her own substance.
A favourite saying of the alchemists was, "What is above is as what is below." In one of its aspects this saying meant, "processes happen within the earth like those which occur on the earth; minerals and metals live, as animals and plants live; all pass through corruption towards perfection." In another aspect the saying meant "the human being is the world in miniature; as is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm; to know oneself is to know all the world."
Every man knows he ought to try to rise to better things, and many men endeavour to do what they know they ought to do; therefore, he who feels sure that all nature is fashioned after the image of man, projects his own ideas of progress, development, virtue, matter and spirit, on to nature outside himself; and, as a matter of course, this kind of naturalist uses the same language when he is speaking of the changes of material things as he employs to express the changes of his mental states, his hopes, fears, aspirations, and struggles.
The language of the alchemists was, therefore, rich in such expressions as these; "the elements are to be so conjoined that the nobler and fuller life may be produced"; "our arcanum is gold exalted to the highest degree of perfection to which the combined action of nature and art can develop it."
Such commingling of ethical and physical ideas, such application of moral conceptions to material phenomena, was characteristic of the alchemical method of regarding nature. The necessary results were; great confusion of thought, much mystification of ideas, and a superabundance of views about natural events.
When the author of The Metamorphosis of Metals was seeking for an argument in favour of his view, that water is the source and primal element of all things, he found what he sought in the Biblical text: "In the beginning the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Similarly, the author of The Sodic Hydrolith clenches his argument in favour of the existence of the Philosopher's Stone, by the quotation: "Therefore, thus saith the Lord; behold I lay in Zion for a foundation a Stone, a tried Stone, a precious corner Stone, a sure foundation. He that has it shall not be confounded." This author works out in detail an analogy between the functions and virtues of the Stone, and the story of man's fall and redemption, as set forth in the Old and New Testaments. The same author speaks of "Satan, that grim pseudo-alchemist."
That the attribution, by the alchemists, of moral virtues and vices to natural things was in keeping with some deep-seated tendency of human nature, is shown by the persistence of some of their methods of stating the properties of substances: we still speak of "perfect and imperfect gases," "noble and base metals," "good and bad conductors of electricity," and "laws governing natural phenomena."
Convinced of the simplicity of nature, certain that all natural events follow one course, sure that this course was known to them and was represented by the growth of plants and animals, the alchemists set themselves the task, firstly, of proving by observations and experiments that their view of natural occurrences was correct; and, secondly, of discovering and gaining possession of the instrument whereby nature effects her transmutations and perfects her operations. The mastery of this instrument would give them power to change any metal into gold, the cure of all diseases, and the happiness which must come from the practical knowledge of the supreme secret of nature.
The central quest of alchemy was the quest of an undefined and undefinable something wherein was supposed to be contained all the powers and potencies of life, and whatever makes life worth living.
The names given to this mystical something were as many as the properties which were assigned to it. It was called the one thing, the essence, the philosopher's stone, the stone of wisdom, the heavenly balm, the divine water, the virgin water, the carbuncle of the sun, the old dragon, the lion, the basilisk, the phoenix; and many other names were given to it.
We may come near to expressing the alchemist's view of the essential character of the object of their search by naming it the soul of all things. "Alchemy," a modern writer says, "is the science of the soul of all things."
The essence was supposed to have a material form, an ethereal or middle nature, and an immaterial or spiritual life.
No one might hope to make this essence from any one substance, because, as one of the alchemists says, "It is the attribute of God alone to make one out of one; you must produce one thing out of two by natural generation." The alchemists did not pretend to create gold, but only to produce it from other things.
The author of A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby says: "We do not, as is sometimes said, profess to create gold and silver, but only to find an agent which ... is capable of entering into an intimate and maturing union with the Mercury of the base metals." And again: "Our Art ... only arrogates to itself the power of developing, through the removal of all defects and superfluities, the golden nature which the baser metals possess." Bonus, in his tract on The New Pearl of Great Price (16th century), says: "The Art of Alchemy ... does not create metals, or even develop them out of the metallic first-substance; it only takes up the unfinished handicraft of Nature and completes it.... Nature has only left a comparatively small thing for the artist to do—the completion of that which she has already begun."
If the essence were ever attained, it would be by following the course which nature follows in producing the perfect plant from the imperfect seed, by discovering and separating the seed of metals, and bringing that seed under the conditions which alone are suitable for its growth. Metals must have seed, the alchemists said, for it would be absurd to suppose they have none. "What prerogative have vegetables above metals," exclaims one of them, "that God should give seed to the one and withhold it from the other? Are not metals as much in His sight as trees?"
As metals, then, possess seed, it is evident how this seed is to be made active; the seed of a plant is quickened by descending into the earth, therefore the seed of metals must be destroyed before it becomes life-producing. "The processes of our art must begin with dissolution of gold; they must terminate in a restoration of the essential quality of gold." "Gold does not easily give up its nature, and will fight for its life; but our agent is strong enough to overcome and kill it, and then it also has power to restore it to life, and to change the lifeless remains into a new and pure body."
The application of the doctrine of the existence of seed in metals led to the performance of many experiments, and, hence, to the accumulation of a considerable body of facts established by experimental inquiries. The belief of the alchemists that all natural events are connected by a hidden thread, that everything has an influence on other things, that "what is above is as what is below," constrained them to place stress on the supposed connexion between the planets and the metals, and to further their metallic transformations by performing them at times when certain planets were in conjunction. The seven principal planets and the seven principal metals were called by the same names: Sol (gold), Luna (silver), Saturn (lead), Jupiter (tin), Mars (iron), Venus (copper), and Mercury (mercury). The author of The New Chemical Light taught that one metal could be propagated from another only in the order of superiority of the planets. He placed the seven planets in the following descending order: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercury, Luna. "The virtues of the planets descend," he said, "but do not ascend"; it is easy to change Mars (iron) into Venus (copper), for instance, but Venus cannot be transformed into Mars.
Although the alchemists regarded everything as influencing, and influenced by, other things, they were persuaded that the greatest effects are produced on a substance by substances of like nature with itself. Hence, most of them taught that the seed of metals will be obtained by operations with metals, not by the action on metals of things of animal or vegetable origin. Each class of substances, they said, has a life, or spirit (an essential character, we might say) of its own. "The life of sulphur," Paracelsus said, "is a combustible, ill-smelling, fatness.... The life of gems and corals is mere colour.... The life of water is its flowing.... The life of fire is air." Grant an attraction of like to like, and the reason becomes apparent for such directions as these: "Nothing heterogeneous must be introduced into our magistery"; "Everything should be made to act on that which is like it, and then Nature will perform her duty."
Although each class of substances was said by the alchemists to have its own particular character, or life, nevertheless they taught that there is a deep-seated likeness between all things, inasmuch as the power of the essence, or the one thing, is so great that under its influence different things are produced from the same origin, and different things are caused to pass into and become the same thing. In The New Chemical Light it is said: "While the seed of all things is one, it is made to generate a great variety of things."
It is not easy now—it could not have been easy at any time—to give clear and exact meanings to the doctrines of the alchemists, or the directions they gave for performing the operations necessary for the production of the object of their search. And the difficulty is much increased when we are told that "The Sage jealously conceals [his knowledge] from the sinner and the scornful, lest the mysteries of heaven should be laid bare to the vulgar gaze." We almost despair when an alchemical writer assures us that the Sages "Set pen to paper for the express purpose of concealing their meaning. The sense of a whole passage is often hopelessly obscured by the addition or omission of one little word, for instance the addition of the word not in the wrong place." Another writer says: "The Sages are in the habit of using words which may convey either a true or a false impression; the former to their own disciples and children, the latter to the ignorant, the foolish, and the unworthy." Sometimes, after descriptions of processes couched in strange and mystical language, the writer will add, "If you cannot perceive what you ought to understand herein, you should not devote yourself to the study of philosophy." Philalethes, in his Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby, seems to feel some pity for his readers; after describing what he calls "the generic homogeneous water of gold," he says: "If you wish for a more particular description of our water, I am impelled by motives of charity to tell you that it is living, flexible, clear, nitid, white as snow, hot, humid, airy, vaporous, and digestive."
Alchemy began by asserting that nature must be simple; it assumed that a knowledge of the plan and method of natural occurrences is to be obtained by thinking; and it used analogy as the guide in applying this knowledge of nature's design to particular events, especially the analogy, assumed by alchemy to exist, between material phenomena and human emotions.
THE ALCHEMICAL CONCEPTION OF THE UNITY AND SIMPLICITY OF NATURE.
In the preceding chapter I have referred to the frequent use made by the alchemists of their supposition that nature follows the same plan, or at any rate a very similar plan, in all her processes. If this supposition is accepted, the primary business of an investigator of nature is to trace likenesses and analogies between what seem on the surface to be dissimilar and unconnected events. As this idea, and this practice, were the foundations whereon the superstructure of alchemy was raised, I think it is important to amplify them more fully than I have done already.
Mention is made in many alchemical writings of a mythical personage named Hermes Trismegistus, who is said to have lived a little later than the time of Moses. Representations of Hermes Trismegistus are found on ancient Egyptian monuments. We are told that Alexander the Great found his tomb near Hebron; and that the tomb contained a slab of emerald whereon thirteen sentences were written. The eighth sentence is rendered in many alchemical books as follows:
"Ascend with the greatest sagacity from the earth to heaven, and then again descend to the earth, and unite together the powers of things superior and things inferior. Thus you will obtain the glory of the whole world, and obscurity will fly away from you."
This sentence evidently teaches the unity of things in heaven and things on earth, and asserts the possibility of gaining, not merely a theoretical, but also a practical, knowledge of the essential characters of all things. Moreover, the sentence implies that this fruitful knowledge is to be obtained by examining nature, using as guide the fundamental similarity supposed to exist between things above and things beneath.
The alchemical writers constantly harp on this theme: follow nature; provided you never lose the clue, which is simplicity and similarity.
The author of The Only Way (1677) beseeches his readers "to enlist under the standard of that method which proceeds in strict obedience to the teaching of nature ... in short, the method which nature herself pursues in the bowels of the earth."
The alchemists tell us not to expect much help from books and written directions. When one of them has said all he can say, he adds—"The question is whether even this book will convey any information to one before whom the writings of the Sages and the open book of Nature are exhibited in vain." Another tells his readers the only thing for them is "to beseech God to give you the real philosophical temper, and to open your eyes to the facts of nature; thus alone will you reach the coveted goal."
"Follow nature" is sound advice. But, nature was to be followed with eyes closed save to one vision, and the vision was to be seen before the following began.
The alchemists' general conception of nature led them to assign to every substance a condition or state natural to it, and wherein alone it could be said to be as it was designed to be. Each substance, they taught, could be caused to leave its natural state only by violent, or non-natural, means, and any substance which had been driven from its natural condition by violence was ready, and even eager, to return to the condition consonant with its nature.
Thus Norton, in his Ordinal of Alchemy, says: "Metals are generated in the earth, for above ground they are subject to rust; hence above ground is the place of corruption of metals, and of their gradual destruction. The cause which we assign to this fact is that above ground they are not in their proper element, and an unnatural position is destructive to natural objects, as we see, for instance, that fishes die when they are taken out of the water; and as it is natural for men, beasts, and birds to live in the air, so stones and metals are naturally generated under the earth."
In his New Pearl of Great Price (16th century), Bonus says:—"The object of Nature in all things is to introduce into each substance the form which properly belongs to it; and this is also the design of our Art."
This view assumed the knowledge of the natural conditions of the substances wherewith experiments were performed. It supposed that man could act as a guide, to bring back to its natural condition a substance which had been removed from that condition, either by violent processes of nature, or by man's device. The alchemist regarded himself as an arbiter in questions concerning the natural condition of each substance he dealt with. He thought he could say, "this substance ought to be thus, or thus," "that substance is constrained, thwarted, hindered from becoming what nature meant it to be."
In Ben Jonson's play called The Alchemist, Subtle (who is the alchemist of the play) says, " ... metals would be gold if they had time."
The alchemist not only attributed ethical qualities to material things, he also became the guardian and guide of the moral practices of these things. He thought himself able to recall the erring metal to the path of metalline virtue, to lead the extravagant mineral back to the moral home-life from which it had been seduced, to show the doubting and vacillating salt what it was ignorantly seeking, and to help it to find the unrealised object of its search. The alchemist acted as a sort of conscience to the metals, minerals, salts, and other substances he submitted to the processes of his laboratory. He treated them as a wise physician might treat an ignorant and somewhat refractory patient. "I know what you want better than you do," he seems often to be saying to the metals he is calcining, separating, joining and subliming.
But the ignorant alchemist was not always thanked for his treatment. Sometimes the patient rebelled. For instance, Michael Sendivogius, in his tract, The New Chemical Light drawn from the Fountain of Nature and of Manual Experience (17th century), recounts a dialogue between Mercury, the Alchemist, and Nature.
"On a certain bright morning a number of Alchemists met together in a meadow, and consulted as to the best way of preparing the Philosopher's Stone.... Most of them agreed that Mercury was the first substance. Others said, no, it was sulphur, or something else.... Just as the dispute began to run high, there arose a violent wind, which dispersed the Alchemists into all the different countries of the world; and as they had arrived at no conclusion, each one went on seeking the Philosopher's Stone in his own old way, this one expecting to find it in one substance, and that in another, so that the search has continued without intermission even unto this day. One of them, however, had at least got the idea into his head that Mercury was the substance of the Stone, and determined to concentrate all his efforts on the chemical preparation of Mercury.... He took common Mercury and began to work with it. He placed it in a glass vessel over the fire, when it, of course, evaporated. So in his ignorance he struck his wife, and said: 'No one but you has entered my laboratory; you must have taken my Mercury out of the vessel.' The woman, with tears, protested her innocence. The Alchemist put some more Mercury into the vessel.... The Mercury rose to the top of the vessel in vaporous steam. Then the Alchemist was full of joy, because he remembered that the first substance of the Stone is described by the Sages as volatile; and he thought that now at last he must be on the right track. He now began to subject the Mercury to all sorts of chemical processes, to sublime it, and to calcine it with all manner of things, with salts, sulphur, metals, minerals, blood, hair, aqua fortis, herbs, urine, and vinegar.... Everything he could think of was tried; but without producing the desired effect." The Alchemist then despaired; after a dream, wherein an old man came and talked with him about the "Mercury of the Sages," the Alchemist thought he would charm the Mercury, and so he used a form of incantation. The Mercury suddenly began to speak, and asked the Alchemist why he had troubled him so much, and so on. The Alchemist replied, and questioned the Mercury. The Mercury makes fun of the philosopher. Then the Alchemist again torments the Mercury by heating him with all manner of horrible things. At last Mercury calls in the aid of Nature, who soundly rates the philosopher, tells him he is grossly ignorant, and ends by saying: "The best thing you can do is to give yourself up to the king's officers, who will quickly put an end to you and your philosophy."
As long as men were fully persuaded that they knew the plan whereon the world was framed, that it was possible for them to follow exactly "the road which was followed by the Great Architect of the Universe in the creation of the world," a real knowledge of natural events was impossible; for every attempt to penetrate nature's secrets presupposed a knowledge of the essential characteristics of that which was to be investigated. But genuine knowledge begins when the investigator admits that he must learn of nature, not nature of him. It might be truly said of one who held the alchemical conception of nature that "his foible was omniscience"; and omniscience negatives the attainment of knowledge.
The alchemical notion of a natural state as proper to each substance was vigorously combated by the Honourable Robert Boyle (born 1626, died 1691), a man of singularly clear and penetrative intellect. In A Paradox of the Natural and Supernatural States of Bodies, Especially of the Air, Boyle says:—"I know that not only in living, but even in inanimate, bodies, of which alone I here discourse, men have universally admitted the famous distinction between the natural and preternatural, or violent state of bodies, and do daily, without the least scruple, found upon it hypotheses and ratiocinations, as if it were most certain that what they call nature had purposely formed bodies in such a determinate state, and were always watchful that they should not by any external violence be put out of it. But notwithstanding so general a consent of men in this point, I confess, I cannot yet be satisfied about it in the sense wherein it is wont to be taken. It is not, that I believe, that there is no sense in which, or in the account upon which, a body may he said to be in its natural state; but that I think the common distinction of a natural and violent state of bodies has not been clearly explained and considerately settled, and both is not well grounded, and is oftentimes ill applied. For when I consider that whatever state a body be put into, or kept in, it obtains or retains that state, assenting to the catholic laws of nature, I cannot think it fit to deny that in this sense the body proposed is in a natural state; but then, upon the same ground, it will he hard to deny but that those bodies which are said to be in a violent state may also be in a natural one, since the violence they are presumed to suffer from outward agents is likewise exercised no otherwise than according to the established laws of universal nature."
There must be something very fascinating and comforting in the alchemical view of nature, as a harmony constructed on one simple plan, which can be grasped as a whole, and also in its details, by the introspective processes of the human intellect; for that conception prevails to-day among those who have not investigated natural occurrences for themselves. The alchemical view of nature still forms the foundation of systems of ethics, of philosophy, of art. It appeals to the innate desire of man to make himself the measure of all things. It is so easy, so authoritative, apparently so satisfactory. No amount of thinking and reasoning will ever demonstrate its falsity. It can be conquered only by a patient, unbiassed, searching examination of some limited portion of natural events.
THE ALCHEMICAL ELEMENTS AND PRINCIPLES.
The alchemists were sure that the intention of nature regarding metals was that they should become gold, for gold was considered to be the most perfect metal, and nature, they said, evidently strains after perfection. The alchemist found that metals were worn away, eaten through, broken, and finally caused to disappear, by many acid and acrid liquids which he prepared from mineral substances. But gold resisted the attacks of these liquids; it was not changed by heat, nor was it affected by sulphur, a substance which changed limpid, running mercury into an inert, black solid. Hence, gold was more perfect in the alchemical scale than any other metal.
Since gold was considered to be the most perfect metal, it was self-evident to the alchemical mind that nature must form gold slowly in the earth, must transmute gradually the inferior metals into gold.
"The only thing that distinguishes one metal from another," writes an alchemist who went under the name of Philalethes, "is its degree of maturity, which is, of course, greatest in the most precious metals; the difference between gold and lead is not one of substance, but of digestion; in the baser metal the coction has not been such as to purge out its metallic impurities. If by any means this superfluous impure matter could be organically removed from the baser metals, they would become gold and silver. So miners tell us that lead has in many cases developed into silver in the bowels of the earth, and we contend that the same effect is produced in a much shorter time by means of our Art."
Stories were told about the finding of gold in deserted mines which had been worked out long before; these stories were supposed to prove that gold was bred in the earth. The facts that pieces of silver were found in tin and lead mines, and gold was found in silver mines, were adduced as proofs that, as the author of The New Pearl of Great Price says, "Nature is continually at work changing other metals into gold, because, though in a certain sense they are complete in themselves, they have not yet reached the highest perfection of which they are capable, and to which nature has destined them." What nature did in the earth man could accomplish in the workshop. For is not man the crown of the world, the masterpiece of nature, the flower of the universe; was he not given dominion over all things when the world was created?
In asserting that the baser metals could be transmuted into gold, and in attempting to effect this transmutation, the alchemist was not acting on a vague; haphazard surmise; he was pursuing a policy dictated by his conception of the order of nature; he was following the method which he conceived to be that used by nature herself. The transmutation of metals was part and parcel of a system of natural philosophy. If this transmutation were impossible, the alchemical scheme of things would be destroyed, the believer in the transmutation would be left without a sense of order in the material universe. And, moreover, the alchemist's conception of an orderly material universe was so intimately connected with his ideas of morality and religion, that to disprove the possibility of the great transmutation would be to remove not only the basis of his system of material things, but the foundations of his system of ethics also. To take away his belief in the possibility of changing other metals into gold would be to convert the alchemist into an atheist.
How, then, was the transmutation to be accomplished? Evidently by the method whereby nature brings to perfection other living things; for the alchemist's belief in the simplicity and unity of nature compelled him to regard metals as living things.
Plants are improved by appropriate culture, by digging and enriching the soil, by judicious selection of seed; animals are improved by careful breeding. By similar processes metals will be encouraged and helped towards perfection. The perfect state of gold will not be reached at a bound; it will be gained gradually. Many partial purifications will be needed. As Subtle says in The Alchemist—
'twere absurd To think that nature in the earth bred gold Perfect in the instant; something went before, There must be remote matter.... Nature doth first beget the imperfect, then Proceeds she to the perfect.
At this stage the alchemical argument becomes very ultra-physical. It may, perhaps, be rendered somewhat as follows:—
Man is the most perfect of animals; in man there is a union of three parts, these are body, soul, and spirit. Metals also may be said to have a body, a soul, and a spirit; there is a specific bodily, or material, form belonging to each metal; there is a metalline soul characteristic of this or that class of metals; there is a spirit, or inner immaterial potency, which is the very essence of all metals.
The soul and spirit of man are clogged by his body. If the spiritual nature is to become the dominating partner, the body must be mortified: the alchemists, of course, used this kind of imagery, and it was very real to them. In like manner the spirit of metals will be laid bare and enabled to exercise its transforming influences, only when the material form of the individual metal has been destroyed. The first thing to do, then, is to strip off and cast aside those properties of metals which appeal to the senses.
"It is necessary to deprive matter of its qualities in order to draw out its soul," said Stephanus of Alexandria in the 7th century; and in the 17th century Paracelsus said, "Nothing of true value is located in the body of a substance, but in the virtue ... the less there is of body the more in proportion is the virtue."
But the possession of the soul of metals is not the final stage: mastery of the soul may mean the power of transmuting a metal into another like itself; it will not suffice for the great transmutation, for in that process a metal becomes gold, the one and only perfect metal. Hence the soul also must be removed, in order that the spirit, the essence, the kernel, may be obtained.
And as it is with metals, so, the alchemists argued, it is with all things. There are a few Principles which may be thought of as conditioning the specific bodily and material forms of things; beneath these, there are certain Elements which are common to many things whose principles are not the same; and, hidden by the wrappings of elements and principles, there is the one Essence, the spirit, the mystic uniting bond, the final goal of the philosopher.
I propose in this chapter to try to analyse the alchemical conceptions of Elements and Principles, and in the next chapter to attempt some kind of description of the Essence.
In his Tract Concerning the Great Stone of the Ancient Sages, Basil Valentine speaks of the "three Principles," salt, sulphur, and mercury, the source of which is the Elements.
"There are four Elements, and each has at its centre another element which makes it what it is. These are the four pillars of the earth."
Of the element Earth, he says:—"In this element the other three, especially fire, are latent.... It is gross and porous, specifically heavy, but naturally light.... It receives all that the other three project into it, conscientiously conceals what it should hide, and brings to light that which it should manifest.... Outwardly it is visible and fixed, inwardly it is invisible and volatile."
Of the element Water, Basil Valentine says:—"Outwardly it is volatile, inwardly it is fixed, cold, and humid.... It is the solvent of the world, and exists in three degrees of excellence: the pure, the purer, and the purest. Of its purest substance the heavens were created; of that which is less pure the atmospheric air was formed; that which is simply pure remains in its proper sphere where ... it is guardian of all subtle substances here below."
Concerning the element Air, he writes:—"The most noble Element of Air ... is volatile, but may be fixed, and when fixed renders all bodies penetrable.... It is nobler than Earth or Water.... It nourishes, impregnates, conserves the other elements."
Finally, of the element Fire:—"Fire is the purest and noblest of all Elements, full of adhesive unctuous corrosiveness, penetrant, digestive, inwardly fixed, hot and dry, outwardly visible, and tempered by the earth.... This Element is the most passive of all, and resembles a chariot; when it is drawn, it moves; when it is not drawn, it stands still."
Basil Valentine then tells his readers that Adam was compounded of the four pure Elements, but after his expulsion from Paradise he became subject to the various impurities of the animal creation. "The pure Elements of his creation were gradually mingled and infected with the corruptible elements of the outer world, and thus his body became more and more gross, and liable, through its grossness, to natural decay and death." The process of degeneration was slow at first, but "as time went on, the seed out of which men were generated became more and more infected with perishable elements. The continued use of corruptible food rendered their bodies more and more gross; and human life was soon reduced to a very brief span."
Basil Valentine then deals with the formation of the three Principles of things, by the mutual action of the four Elements. Fire acting on Air produced Sulphur; Air acting on Water produced Mercury; Water acting on Earth produced Salt. Earth having nothing to act on produced nothing, but became the nurse of the three Principles. "The three Principles," he says, "are necessary because they are the immediate substance of metals. The remoter substance of metals is the four elements, but no one can produce anything out of them but God; and even God makes nothing of them but these three Principles."
To endeavour to obtain the four pure Elements is a hopeless task. But the Sage has the three Principles at hand. "The artist should determine which of the three Principles he is seeking, and should assist it so that it may overcome its contrary." "The art consists in an even mingling of the virtues of the Elements; in the natural equilibrium of the hot, the dry, the cold, and the moist."
The account of the Elements given by Philalethes differs from that of Basil Valentine.
Philalethes enumerates three Elements only: Air, Water, and Earth. Things are not formed by the mixture of these Elements, for "dissimilar things can never really unite." By analysing the properties of the three Elements, Philalethes reduced them finally to one, namely, Water. "Water," he says, "is the first principle of all things." "Earth is the fundamental Element in which all bodies grow and are preserved. Air is the medium into which they grow, and by means of which the celestial virtues are communicated to them."
According to Philalethes, Mercury is the most important of the three Principles. Although gold is formed by the aid of Mercury, it is only when Mercury has been matured, developed, and perfected, that it is able to transmute inferior metals into gold. The essential thing to do is, therefore, to find an agent which will bring about the maturing and perfecting of Mercury. This agent, Philalethes calls "Our divine Arcanum."
Although it appears to me impossible to translate the sayings of the alchemists concerning Elements and Principles into expressions which shall have definite and exact meanings for us to-day, still we may, perhaps, get an inkling of the meaning of such sentences as those I have quoted from Basil Valentine and Philalethes.
Take the terms Fire and Water. In former times all liquid substances were supposed to be liquid because they possessed something in common; this hypothetical something was called the Element, Water. Similarly, the view prevailed until comparatively recent times, that burning substances burn because of the presence in them of a hypothetical imponderable fluid, called "Caloric"; the alchemists preferred to call this indefinable something an Element, and to name it Fire.
We are accustomed to-day to use the words fire and water with different meanings, according to the ideas we wish to express. When we say "do not touch the fire," or "put your hand into the water," we are regarding fire and water as material things; when we say "the house is on fire," or speak of "a diamond of the first water," we are thinking of the condition or state of a burning body, or of a substance as transparent as water. When we say "put out the fire," or "his heart became as water," we are referring to the act of burning, or are using an image which likens the thing spoken of to a substance in the act of liquefying.
As we do to-day, so the alchemists did before us; they used the words fire and water to express different ideas.
Such terms as hardness, softness, coldness, toughness, and the like, are employed for the purpose of bringing together into one point of view different things which are alike in, at least, one respect. Hard things may differ in size, weight, shape, colour, texture, &c. A soft thing may weigh the same as a hard thing; both may have the same colour or the same size, or be at the same temperature, and so on. By classing together various things as hard or soft, or smooth or rough, we eliminate (for the time) all the properties wherein the things differ, and regard them only as having one property in common. The words hardness, softness, &c., are useful class-marks.
Similarly the alchemical Elements and Principles were useful class-marks.
We must not suppose that when the alchemists spoke of certain things as formed from, or by the union of, the same Elements or the same Principles, they meant that these things contained a common substance. Their Elements and Principles were not thought of as substances, at least not in the modern meaning of the expression, a substance; they were qualities only.
If we think of the alchemical elements earth, air, fire, and water, as general expressions of what seemed to the alchemists the most important properties of all substances, we may be able to attach some kind of meaning to the sayings of Basil Valentine, which I have quoted. For instance, when that alchemist tells us, "Fire is the most passive of all elements, and resembles a chariot; when it is drawn, it moves; when it is not drawn, it stands still"—we may suppose he meant to express the fact that a vast number of substances can be burnt, and that combustion does not begin of itself, but requires an external agency to start it.
Unfortunately, most of the terms which the alchemists used to designate their Elements and Principles are terms which are now employed to designate specific substances. The word fire is still employed rather as a quality of many things under special conditions, than as a specific substance; but earth, water, air, salt, sulphur, and mercury, are to-day the names applied to certain groups of properties, each of which is different from all other groups of properties, and is, therefore, called, in ordinary speech, a definite kind of matter.
As knowledge became more accurate and more concentrated, the words sulphur, salt, mercury, &c., began to be applied to distinct substances, and as these terms were still employed in their alchemical sense as compendious expressions for certain qualities common to great classes of substances, much confusion arose. Kunckel, the discoverer of phosphorus, who lived between 1630 and 1702, complained of the alchemists' habit of giving different names to the same substance, and the same name to different substances. "The sulphur of one," he says, "is not the sulphur of another, to the great injury of science. To that one replies that everyone is perfectly free to baptise his infant as he pleases. Granted. You may if you like call an ass an ox, but you will never make anyone believe that your ox is an ass." Boyle is very severe on the vague and loose use of words practised by so many writers of his time. In The Sceptical Chymist (published 1678-9) he says: "If judicious men, skilled in chymical affairs, shall once agree to write clearly and plainly of them, and thereby keep men from being stunned, as it were, or imposed upon by dark and empty words; it is to be hoped that these [other] men finding, that they can no longer write impertinently and absurdly, without being laughed at for doing so, will be reduced either to write nothing, or books that may teach us something, and not rob men, as formerly, of invaluable time; and so ceasing to trouble the world with riddles or impertinences, we shall either by their books receive an advantage, or by their silence escape an inconvenience."
Most of the alchemists taught that the elements produced what they called seed, by their mutual reactions, and the principles matured this seed and brought it to perfection. They supposed that each class, or kind, of things had its own seed, and that to obtain the seed was to have the power of producing the things which sprung from that seed.
Some of them, however, asserted that all things come from a common seed, and that the nature of the products of this seed is conditioned by the circumstances under which it is caused to develop.
Thus Michael Sendivogius writes as follows in The New Chemical Light, drawn from the fountain of Nature and of Manual Experience (17th century):—
"Wherever there is seed, Nature will work through it, whether it be good or bad." "The four Elements, by their continued action, project a constant supply of seed to the centre of the earth, where it is digested, and whence it proceeds again in generative motions. Now the centre of the earth is a certain void place where nothing is at rest, and upon the margin or circumference of this centre the four Elements project their qualities.... The magnetic force of our earth-centre attracts to itself as much as is needed of the cognate seminal substance, while that which cannot be used for vital generation is thrust forth in the shape of stones and other rubbish. This is the fountain-head of all things terrestrial. Let us illustrate the matter by supposing a glass of water to be set in the middle of a table, round the margin of which are placed little heaps of salt, and of powders of different colours. If the water be poured out, it will run all over the table in divergent rivulets, and will become salt where it touches the salt, red where it touches the red powder, and so on. The water does not change the 'places,' but the several 'places' differentiate the water. In the same way, the seed which is the product of the four Elements is projected in all directions from the earth-centre, and produces different things, according to the quality of the different places. Thus, while the seed of all things is one, it is made to generate a great variety of things.... So long as Nature's seed remains in the centre it can indifferently produce a tree or a metal, a herb or a stone, and in like manner, according to the purity of the place, it will produce what is less or more pure."
 The author I am quoting had said—"Nature is divided into four 'places' in which she brings forth all things that appear and that are in the shade; and according to the good or bad quality of the 'place,' she brings forth good or bad things.... It is most important for us to know her 'places' ... in order that we may join things together according to Nature."
THE ALCHEMICAL ESSENCE.
In the last chapter I tried to describe the alchemical view of the interdependence of different substances. Taking for granted the tripartite nature of man, the co-existence in him of body, soul, and spirit (no one of which was defined), the alchemists concluded that all things are formed as man is formed; that in everything there is a specific bodily form, some portion of soul, and a dash of spirit. I considered the term soul to be the alchemical name for the properties common to a class of substances, and the term spirit to mean the property which was thought by the alchemists to be common to all things.
The alchemists considered it possible to arrange all substances in four general classes, the marks whereof were expressed by the terms hot, cold, moist, and dry; they thought of these properties as typified by what they called the four Elements—fire, air, water, and earth. Everything, they taught, was produced from the four Elements, not immediately, but through the mediation of the three Principles—mercury, sulphur, and salt. These Principles were regarded as the tools put into the hands of him who desired to effect the transmutation of one substance into another. The Principles were not thought of as definite substances, nor as properties of this or that specified substance; they were considered to be the characteristic properties of large classes of substances.
The chemist of to-day places many compounds in the same class because all are acids, because all react similarly under similar conditions. It used to be said that every acid possesses more or less of the principle of acidity. Lavoisier changed the language whereby certain facts concerning acids were expressed. He thought that experiments proved all acids to be compounds of the element oxygen; and for many years after Lavoisier, the alchemical expression the principle of acidity was superseded by the word oxygen. Although Lavoisier recognised that not every compound of oxygen is an acid, he taught that every acid is a compound of oxygen. We know now that many acids are not compounds of oxygen, but we have not yet sufficient knowledge to frame a complete definition of the term acid. Nevertheless it is convenient, indeed it is necessary, to place together many compounds which react similarly under certain defined conditions, and to give a common name to them all. The alchemists also classified substances, but their classification was necessarily more vague than ours; and they necessarily expressed their reasons for putting different substances in the same class in a language which arose out of the general conceptions of natural phenomena which prevailed in their time.
The primary classification of substances made by the alchemists was expressed by saying; these substances are rich in the principle sulphur, those contain much of the principle mercury, and this class is marked by the preponderance of the principle salt. The secondary classification of the alchemists was expressed by saying; this class is characterised by dryness, that by moisture, another by coldness, and a fourth by hotness; the dry substances contain much of the element Earth, the moist substances are rich in the element Water, in the cold substances the element Air preponderates, and the hot substances contain more of the element Fire than of the other elements.
The alchemists went a step further in their classification of things. They asserted that there is One Thing present in all things; that everything is a vehicle for the more or less perfect exhibition of the properties of the One Thing; that there is a Primal Element common to all substances. The final aim of alchemy was to obtain the One Thing, the Primal Element, the Soul of all Things, so purified, not only from all specific substances, but also from all admixture of the four Elements and the three Principles, as to make possible the accomplishment of any transmutation by the use of it.
If a person ignorant of its powers were to obtain the Essence, he might work vast havoc and cause enormous confusion; it was necessary, therefore, to know the conditions under which the potencies of the Essence became active. Hence there was need of prolonged study of the mutual actions of the most seemingly diverse substances, and of minute and patient examination of the conditions under which nature performs her marvellous transmutations. The quest of the One Thing was fraught with peril, and was to be attempted only by those who had served a long and laborious apprenticeship.
In The Chemical Treatise of Thomas Norton, the Englishman, called Believe-me, or the Ordinal of Alchemy (15th century), the adept is warned not to disclose his secrets to ordinary people.
"You should carefully test and examine the life, character, and mental aptitudes of any person who would be initiated in this Art, and then you should bind him, by a sacred oath, not to let our Magistery be commonly or vulgarly known. Only when he begins to grow old and feeble, he may reveal it to one person, but not to more, and that one man must be virtuous.... If any wicked man should learn to practise the Art, the event would be fraught with great danger to Christendom. For such a man would overstep all bounds of moderation, and would remove from their hereditary thrones those legitimate princes who rule over the peoples of Christendom."
The results of the experimental examination of the compositions and properties of substances, made since the time of the alchemists, have led to the modern conception of the chemical element, and the isolation of about seventy or eighty different elements. No substance now called an element has been produced in the laboratory by uniting two, or more, distinct substances, nor has any been separated into two, or more, unlike portions. The only decided change which a chemical element has been caused to undergo is the combination of it with some other element or elements, or with a compound or compounds.
But it is possible that all the chemical elements may be combinations of different quantities of one primal element. Certain facts make this supposition tenable; and some chemists expect that the supposition will be proved to be correct. If the hypothetical primal element should be isolated, we should have fulfilled the aim of alchemy, and gained the One Thing; but the fulfilment would not be that whereof the alchemists dreamed.
Inasmuch as the alchemical Essence was thought of as the Universal Spirit to whose presence is due whatever degree of perfection any specific substance exhibits, it followed that the more perfect a substance the greater is the quantity of the Essence in it. But even in the most perfect substance found in nature—which substance, the alchemists said, is gold—the Essence is hidden by wrappings of specific properties which prevent the ordinary man from recognising it. Remove these wrappings from some special substance, and you have the perfect form of that thing; you have some portion of the Universal Spirit joined to the one general property of the class of things whereof the particular substance is a member. Then remove the class-property, often spoken of by the alchemists as the life, of the substance, and you have the Essence itself.
The alchemists thought that to every thing, or at any rate to every class of things, there corresponds a more perfect form than that which we see and handle; they spoke of gold, and the gold of the Sages; mercury, and the mercury of the Philosophers; sulphur, and the heavenly sulphur of him whose eyes are opened.
To remove the outer wrappings of ordinary properties which present themselves to the untrained senses, was regarded by the alchemists to be a difficult task; to tear away the soul (the class-property) of a substance, and yet retain the Essence which made that substance its dwelling place, was possible only after vast labour, and by the use of the proper agent working under the proper conditions. An exceedingly powerful, delicate, and refined agent was needed; and the mastery of the agent was to be acquired by bitter experience, and, probably, after many disappointments.
"Gold," an alchemist tells us, "does not easily give up its nature, and will fight for its life; but our agent is strong enough to overcome and kill it, and then it also has the power to restore it to life, and to change the lifeless remains into a new and pure body."
Thomas Norton, the author of The Ordinal of Alchemy, writing in the 15th century, says the worker in transmutations is often tempted to be in a hurry, or to despair, and he is often deceived. His servants will be either stupid and faithful, or quick-witted and false. He may be robbed of everything when his work is almost finished. The only remedies are infinite patience, a sense of virtue, and sound reason. "In the pursuit of our Art," he says, "you should take care, from time to time, to unbend your mind from its sterner employments with some convenient recreation."
The choice of workmen to aid in the mechanical parts of the quest was a great trouble to the alchemists. On this subject Norton says—"If you would be free from all fear over the gross work, follow my counsel, and never engage married men; for they soon give in and pretend they are tired out.... Hire your workmen for certain stipulated wages, and not for longer periods than twenty-four hours at a time. Give them higher wages than they would receive elsewhere, and be prompt and ready in your payments."
Many accounts are given by alchemical writers of the agent, and many names are bestowed on it. The author of A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby speaks thus of the agent—"It is our doorkeeper, our balm, our honey, oil, urine, maydew, mother, egg, secret furnace, oven, true fire, venomous dragon, Theriac, ardent wine, Green Lion, Bird of Hermes, Goose of Hermogenes, two-edged sword in the hand of the Cherub that guards the Tree of Life.... It is our true secret vessel, and the Garden of the Sages in which our sun rises and sets. It is our Royal Mineral, our triumphant vegetable Saturnia, and the magic rod of Hermes, by means of which he assumes any shape he likes."
Sometimes we are told that the agent is mercury, sometimes that it is gold, but not common mercury or common gold. "Supplement your common mercury with the inward fire which it needs, and you will soon get rid of all superfluous dross." "The agent is gold, as highly matured as natural and artificial digestion can make it, and a thousand times more perfect than the common metal of that name. Gold, thus exalted, radically penetrates, tinges, and fixes metals."
The alchemists generally likened the work to be performed by their agent to the killing of a living thing. They constantly use the allegory of death, followed by resurrection, in describing the steps whereby the Essence was to be obtained, and the processes whereby the baser metals were to be partially purified. They speak of the mortification of metals, the dissolution and putrefaction of substances, as preliminaries to the appearance of the true life of the things whose outward properties have been destroyed. For instance, Paracelsus says: "Destruction perfects that which is good; for the good cannot appear on account of that which conceals it." The same alchemist speaks of rusting as the mortification of metals; he says: "The mortification of metals is the removal of their bodily structure.... The mortification of woods is their being turned into charcoal or ashes."
Paracelsus distinguishes natural from artificial mortification, "Whatever nature consumes," he says, "man cannot restore. But whatever man destroys man can restore, and break again when restored." Things which had been mortified by man's device were considered by Paracelsus not to be really dead. He gives this extraordinary illustration of his meaning: "You see this is the case with lions, which are all born dead, and are first vitalised by the horrible noise of their parents, just as a sleeping person is awakened by a shout."
The mortification of metals is represented in alchemical books by various images and allegories. Fig. I. is reduced from a cut in a 16th century work, The Book of Lambspring, a noble ancient Philosopher, concerning the Philosophical Stone.
The image used to set forth the mortification of metals is a king swallowing his son. Figs. II. and III. are reduced from Basil Valentine's Twelve Keys. Both of these figures represent the process of mortification by images connected with death and burial.
In his explanation (?) of these figures, Basil Valentine says:—
"Neither human nor animal bodies can be multiplied or propagated without decomposition; the grain and all vegetable seed, when cast into the ground, must decay before it can spring up again; moreover, putrefaction imparts life to many worms and other animalculae.... If bread is placed in honey, and suffered to decay, ants are generated ... maggots are also developed by the decay of nuts, apples, and pears. The same thing may be observed in regard to vegetable life. Nettles and other weeds spring up where no such seed has ever been sown. This occurs only by putrefaction. The reason is that the soil in such places is so disposed, and, as it were, impregnated, that it produces these fruits; which is a result of the properties of sidereal influences; consequently the seed is spiritually produced in the earth, and putrefies in the earth, and by the operation of the elements generates corporeal matter according to the species of nature. Thus the stars and the elements may generate new spiritual, and ultimately, new vegetable seed, by means of putrefaction.... Know that, in like manner, no metallic seed can develop, or multiply, unless the said seed, by itself alone, and without the introduction of any foreign substance, be reduced to a perfect putrefaction."
The action of the mineral agent in perfecting substances is often likened by the alchemists to the conjoining of the male and the female, followed by the production of offspring. They insist on the need of a union of two things, in order to produce something more perfect than either. The agent, they say, must work upon something; alone it is nothing.
The methods whereby the agent is itself perfected, and the processes wherein the agent effects the perfecting of the less perfect things, were divided into stages by the alchemists. They generally spoke of these stages as Gates, and enumerated ten or sometimes twelve of them. As examples of the alchemical description of these gates, I give some extracts from A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby.
The first gate is Calcination, which is "the drying up of the humours"; by this process the substance "is concocted into a black powder which is yet unctuous, and retains its radical humour." When gold passes through this gate, "We observe in it two natures, the fixed and the volatile, which we liken to two serpents." The fixed nature is likened to a serpent without wings; the volatile, to a serpent with wings: calcination unites these two into one. The second gate, Dissolution, is likened to death and burial; but the true Essence will appear glorious and beautiful when this gate is passed. The worker is told not to be discouraged by this apparent death. The mercury of the sages is spoken of by this author as the queen, and gold as the king. The king dies for love of the queen, but he is revived by his spouse, who is made fruitful by him and brings forth "a most royal son."
Figs. IV. and V. are reduced from The Book of Lambspring; they express the need of the conjunction of two to produce one.
After dissolution came Conjunction, wherein the separated elements were combined. Then followed Putrefaction, necessary for the germination of the seed which had been produced by calcination, dissolution, and conjunction. Putrefaction was followed by Congelation and Citation. The passage through the next gate, called Sublimation, caused the body to become spiritual, and the spiritual to be made corporal. Fermentation followed, whereby the substance became soft and flowed like wax. Finally, by Exaltation, the Stone was perfected.
The author of The Open Entrance speaks of the various stages in the perfecting of the agent as regimens. The beginning of the heating of gold with mercury is likened to the king stripping off his golden garments and descending into the fountain; this is the regimen of Mercury. As the heating is continued, all becomes black; this is the regimen of Saturn. Then is noticed a play of many colours; this is the regimen of Jupiter: if the heat is not regulated properly, "the young ones of the crow will go back to the nest." About the end of the fourth month you will see "the sign of the waxing moon," and all becomes white; this is the regimen of the Moon. The white colour gives place to purple and green; you are now in the regimen of Venus. After that, appear all the colours of the rainbow, or of a peacock's tail; this is the regimen of Mars. Finally the colour becomes orange and golden; this is the regimen of the Sun.