New Platonism and Alchemy by Alexander Wilder

Alchemy or the Hermetic Philosophy

A century has passed since the compilers of the French Encyclopaedia infused skepticism into the blood of the civilized world, and made it disreputable to believe in the actual existence of anything that cannot be tested in crucibles or demonstrated by critical reasoning. Even now, it requires candor as well as courage to venture to treat upon a subject which has been for many years discarded and contemned, because it has not been well or correctly understood. The person must be bold who accounts the Hermetic philosophy to be other than a pretense of science, and, so believing, demands for its enunciation a patient hearing. Yet its professors were once the princes of learned investigation, and heroes among common men. Besides, nothing is to be despised which men have reverently believed; and disdain for the earnest convictions of others is, itself the token of ignorance, and of an ungenerous mind.

The opinion has become almost universal that Alchemy was a pretended science, by which gold and silver were to be produced by transmutation of the elements of the baser metals; and its professors are at this day regarded as the dupes of imposture, and as having been themselves impostors and charlatans. In these classes they are placed by the writers of books; and the prejudice has been so long cherished, that, for the present, there is small ground for hope of its uprooting. The peculiar language employed by the alchemists is now commonly denominated "jargon," and this epithet appears to be conclusive logic with those whose convictions are chiefly produced by the employment of opprobrious names.

Yet a candid and critical examination of the Hermetic writers, we think, will entirely disabuse the mind of any intelligent person. It is plain enough, that their directions in relation to transmuting metals are scarcely at all to be connected with any known manipulations now known as chemical. Yet it would be presumptuous to vilify such men as Roger Bacon, Boerhave, and Van Helmont, as ignorant, or to accuse them of imposture. We propose, therefore in this essay, to direct inquiry in another quarter for the purpose of indicating what was really the scope of the science or philosophy, formerly extant under the name of Alchemy.

The first appearance of this system is not known. Some writers declare that Adam was the first adept; others, that the "sons of God," spoken of in the sixth chapter of Genesis, who took wives of the daughters of men, communicated to them the knowledge of the strange mysteries of the created world. Moses and Solomon are also assigned the first rank in the knowledge of Hermetic learning -- the former, because he has learned "all the wisdom of the Egyptians:" and the other, as being the wisest of men, and able, by his mystic seal and pass-word, to command spirits. We find expressions in ancient writers indicating the existence of such science. "Its cradle," says Olaus Borrichius, "is to be sought in the most distant times," Clement of Alexandria makes mention of it. Democritus of Abdera was also a Hermetic philosopher. But it is hardly necessary to quote at greater length.

Under the old title of magic, a Persian term signifying knowledge, was included every science, natural or metaphysical, which was cultivated. The sacerdotal and learned class were styled magians or magicians. We find them also called Chaldeans. The patriarch Abraham, it will be remembered, was said to be a Chaldean or Casdean: and according to Josephus, he taught mathematics, or esoteric knowledge in Egypt. Astral literature was also cultivated as a part of the ancient learning: and the magian was probably an astrologer also.

Alchemy, however, can hardly be regarded as a part of the old learning of the Magians and Chaldeans. It seems rather to have succeeded to their inheritance. William Godwin, the author of the celebrated treatise on "Political Justice," and father of the late Mrs. Shelley, has given an outline of its earlier history.

"Among the different pursuits," says he, "which engaged the curiosity of active minds in these unenlightened ages, was that of the transmutation of the ordinary metals into gold and silver. This art, though not properly of necromantic nature, was, however, elevated by its professors, by means of an imaginary connection between it and astrology, and even between it and an intercourse with invisible spirits. They believed that their investigations could not be successfully prosecuted but under favorable aspects of the planets, and that it was even indispensable to them to obtain supernatural aid." "The first authentic record on this subject is an edict of Dioclesian, about three hundred years after Christ, ordering a diligent search to be made in Egypt for all the ancient books which treated of the art of making gold and silver, that they might, without distinction, be consigned to the flames. This edict, however, necessarily presumes a certain antiquity to the pursuit; and fabulous history has recorded Solomon, Pythagoras and Hermes among its distinguished votaries. (8)

"From this period the study seems to have slept till it was revived among the Arabians, after a lapse of five or six hundred years. It is well known, however, how eagerly it was cultivated in various countries of the world after it was divulged by Geber. Men of the most wonderful talents devoted their lives to the investigation, and in multiplied instances the discovery was said to have been accomplished."

Two noticeable circumstances are indicated in this brief sketch: that alchemy had pretensions to a great antiquity, and that it was to be traced to those countries where the new Platonic philosophy had flourished. Added to these is the remarkable fact, that the students in alchemy professed to be disciples of the same great masters, of Apollonius, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, and to believe the same doctrines. As the mythical personage, Hermes, (9) "the three times greatest," whom we suppose, from his Egyptian name Thoth (an assembly), to be but the embodiment of the collective voice of the sacerdotal caste of Egypt, is regarded by alchemists to be one of their original teachers, it requires no great stretch of imagination to presume that there was a close relationship between the two, and perhaps an actual identity. Certain is it that the mystic, the philosopher, the so-called magician, the astrologist and the alchemist, during the middle ages, appear to have occupied the same field of thought, to have held very similar opinions, and to have employed a form of speech very similar, although differing in technology.

Snidas, in his Lexicon, thus expounds the Golden Fleece: "Deras -- the golden fleece, which Jason and the Argonauts, after a voyage through the Black Sea to Colchis, took, together with Medea, daughter of Aetes, the King. But this is not what the poets represent, but a treatise written on skins ([[deiomasi]]), teaching how gold might be prepared by chemistry. Probably it is called golden by those who lived at that time, on account of its great importance."

The Three Alchemic Agents.

The agents sought for and praised by all true alchemists were three, namely: first, the Philosopher's Stone, by which metals were said to be transmuted; second, the Alcahest, or universal solvent; and third, the Elixir Vitae, by which human life was capable of being prolonged indefinitely.

The possibility of reducing the elements to their primal form, as they are supposed to have existed in the igneous mass from which the earth-crust is believed to have been formed, is not considered by physicists to be so absurd an idea as has been intimated. There is a relationship between metals often so close as to indicate an original identity. Persons called alchemists may, therefore, have devoted their energies to investigations into these matters as Lavoisier, Davy, Faraday, and others of our day have explained the mysteries of chemistry.

But Alchemy, we apprehend, was a different affair; its professors and adepts only employed the peculiar dialect or "jargon" as a species of figurative language, to cover an esoteric meaning of a far different character. The philosopher's stone, the alcahest and the elixir were names of one and the same thing, and were supposed to accomplish an identical operation. Baptista Porta, in his treatise on Natural Magic, declares as much: "I do not promise any golden mountains, nor yet that philosopher's stone which the world hath so great an opinion of, which hath been bragged of in so many ages and happily attained unto by some; neither yet do I promise here that golden liquor, whereof if any man do drink, it is supposed that it will render him immortal. But it is a mere dream; (10) for, since the world is mutable and subject to alterations, therefore whatsoever the world produceth is subject to destruction."

Such was the real belief of all genuine alchemists.

The reason for the employment of a peculiar mystic form of speech was the great peril which was incurred for religious dissent. Learned men, generally, who were imprudent in the expression of their convictions, were punished during the middle ages, as in the case of Galileo, Copernicus and numerous others. They were all classed by the ignorant, among dealers in the "black art," having intercourse with spirits and demons; and were, as occasion served, burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, or disjointed on the rack, for disregarding the current belief and endeavoring to instruct the common people. Like the nahash or serpent of Eden, for showing men how to be as the Aleim, they were "cursed above all cattle," and doomed to "eat dust" -- suffer abuse -- all the days of their life; because, in the language of Goethe,

"Out of their heart's pulses they needs must gabble,
And show their thoughts and feelings to the rabble."

Hence Irenaeus Philaletha Cosmopolita, an English alchemist, or Hermetic writer, in his book published in 1659, makes the following allusion to persecutions:

"Many who are strangers to the art believe that if they should enjoy it, they would do such and such things; so also even we did formerly believe, but being grown more wary, by the hazard we have run, we have chosen a more secret method. For whosoever hath escaped imminent peril of his life, he will become more wise for the time to come."

It was very likely, when a man, for differing in religious faith, was branded as an infidel and punished as an outlaw; when scientific knowledge was stigmatized as witchcraft, that men cultivating ideas out of the common order would invent a dialect of symbols and passwords by which to communicate with one another, and yet remain unknown by their bloodthirsty adversaries. Besides, there was another reason, the one adopted by the psalmist, who "opened his mouth in a parable and uttered dark sayings of old," and imitated by Jesus, Geber, the Arabian, thus discloses it:

"If we have concealed anything, ye sons of learning, wonder not; for we have not concealed it from you, but have delivered it in such language as that it may be hid from evil men, and that the unjust and vile might not know it. But, ye sons of truth, search and you shall find this most excellent gift of God, which he has reserved for you. Ye sons of folly, impiety and profanity, avoid you the seeking after this knowledge; it will be destructive to you, and precipitate you into contempt and misery."

Alchemy, therefore, we believe to have been a spiritual philosophy, and not a physical science. The wonderful transmutation of baser metals into gold was a figurative expression of the transformation of man from his natural evils and infirmities into a regenerate condition, a partaker of the divine nature. The philosopher's stone is well enough indicated by Aristotle, in his address to Alexander; "It is no stone; it is in every man and in every place, and at all seasons, and is called the end of all philosophers." The alcahest is but the al-geist, or divine spirit, which removes every grosser nature, that its holier principles may be removed. The elixir vitae is accordingly the water of life, which is, to borrow the language of Godwin, "a universal medicine, have the quality of renewing the youth of man, and causing him to live forever."

Doctor Kopp, of Germany, who published a "History of Chemistry" a quarter of a century ago, after alluding to alchemy in its peculiar character of precursor to that science, made use of this significant expression, which the Pythagorean and Platonist will instantly comprehend: "If by the world is understood the microcosm which man represents, the interpretation will be easy of the writings of alchemists."

The Hindu story relates that Chrisna commanded his fostermother to look into his mouth. She did so, and beheld there the whole universe. This was a figure of speech, indicating that in man the microcosm, or little world, is mirrored all things pertaining to the entire creation. The alchemist denominated the philosopher's stone microcosmos, and Weidenfield declares as follows: "The Most High God hath made us partakers of all the blessings contained in the greater world, for which reason man is called microcosm; for it has been revealed to us by divine inspiration, that the virtues and potencies of all things animal, vegetable and mineral, are in man."

Irenaeus Philaletha declares: "Our stone is the representative of the great world (or macrocosm), and hath the virtues of that great fabric, comprised or collected in this little system. In it there is a virtue magnetical, attractive of its like in the whole world. It is a celestial virtue, expounded universally in the whole creation, but epitomised in this small map or abridgment."

In a book; purporting to be a translation of the writings of Alipili, the following passage occurs:

"He that hath the knowledge of the microcosm, cannot long be ignorant of the knowledge of the macrocosm. This is that which the Egyptian industrious searchers of nature so often said and loudly proclaimed, that every one should know himself. This speech, their dull disciples, the Greeks, took in a moral sense, and in ignorance affixed it to their temples. But I admonish thee, whosoever thou art, that desirest to dive into the inmost parts of nature, if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee. He who desires the first place among the students of nature, will nowhere find a greater or better field of study than himself. Therefore, will I here follow the example of the Egyptians, and from my whole heart, and certain true experience proved by me, speak to my neighbor in the words of the Egyptians, and with a loud voice do now proclaim: Oh, man, know thyself; for in thee is hidden the treasure of treasures."

Cornelius Agrippa, perhaps the most generally known of the magicians and alchemists, carries this idea further, and says:

"There is one thing by God created, the subject of all wonderfulness in earth and in heaven; it is actually animal, vegetable and mineral; found everywhere, known by few, by none expressed by his proper name, but hid in numbers, figures and riddles, without which neither alchemy nor natural magic can attain their perfect end."

George Ripley, a monk, who wrote of alchemy, thus explains the philosopher's stone:

"For as of one mass was made all thing,
Right so must it in our practice be;
All our sects of one image must spring:
In philosophers' books, therefore, who wishes may see,
Our stone is called the less-world, one and three."

In a dialogue published in the Alchemist's Enchiridion, in 1672, the matter is made more distinct:

"Now, in this discourse I will manifest to thee the natural condition of the stone of the philosophers, appareled with a triple garment, even this stone of riches and charity, the strong relief from languishment, in which is contained every secret; being a divine mystery and gift of God, than which there is nothing in this world more sublime. Therefore, diligently observe what I say, namely that 'tis appareled with a triple garment, that is to say, with a body, soul and spirit."

Moses, the great Hebrew law-giver, differed not widely from these mystics when he enunciated: "The word, or ineffable Name, is not in heaven nor beyond the sea, that thou shouldst send messengers to seek it; it is very nigh thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart."

The peculiar diction of the alchemical writers occasioned much of the general misunderstanding of their teachings. They treated of salt, sulphur mercury, lead, antimony, and the transmutation of metals; and probably large number of persons, not comprehending them aright, attempted to follow out their instructions literally, in quest of a fortune by the production of gold. Paracelsus, who does not seem to be well comprehended by contemporaries or posterity, declaring himself a student of alchemy, ventured to employ the substance named to cure diseases. But it is plain that alchemists themselves did not regard the knowledge of the material substances as a part of their science. Espagnet declares as follows: "A studious tyro of a quick wit, constant mind, inflamed with the love of philosophy, of a pure heart, perfect in morals, mightily devoted to God -- even though ignorant of practical chemistry, may with confidence enter the highway of nature, and peruse the books of the best philosophers."

Irenaeus Philaletha also remarks: "In the world our writings shall prove as a curious-edged knife; to some they shall carve out dainties, but to others they shall only serve to cut their fingers: yet we are not to be blamed, for we do seriously admonish all who shall attempt this work that they undertaketh the highest piece of philosophy in Nature: and though we write in English, yet our matter will be hard as Greek to some, who will think, nevertheless, that they understand as well, when they misconstrue our meaning most perversely; for is it imaginable that they who are fools in nature should be wise in books, which are testimonies unto Nature?"

Espagnet also gives this caution: "Let a lover of truth make use of but a few authors, but of best note and experienced truth; let him suspect things that are quickly understood, especially in mystical names and secret operations; for truth lies hid in obscurity; nor do philosophers ever write more deceitfully than when plainly, nor ever more truly than when obscurely."

Roger Bacon, in his Treatise on the Admirable Force of Art and Nature, devotes the first part of his work to natural facts. He gives us hints of gunpowder, and predicts the use of steam as a propelling power. The hydraulic press, the diving bell and kaleidoscope are all described; and he foretells the making of "instruments to fly withal, so that one sitting in the midst of the instrument and turning about an engine by which the wings, being artificially composed, may beat the air after the manner of a flying bird." He then defends himself and other alchemists for using secret writing. "The cause of this concealment among all wise men is the contempt and neglect of the secrets of wisdom by the vulgar sort, who know not how to use those things that are most excellent, or if they do conceive any worthy thing, it is altogether by chance and fortune, and they do exceedingly abuse their knowledge, to the great damage and hurt of many men, yea, even of whole societies; so that he is worse than mad that publisheth any secret, unless he conceal it from the multitude, and in such wise deliver it that even the studious and learned shall hardly understand it." "Some have hidden their secrets by their modes of writing; as namely, by consonants only: so that no man can read them unless he knows the signification of the words; and this is usual among the Jews, Chaldeans, Syrians and Arabians, yea, and the Grecians too; and, therefore, there is great concealing with them, but especially with the Jews."

The elixir was supposed, according the Hermetic belief, to have not so much the power of transmuting specifically base metals into gold and silver, as the power generally of bringing to its highest perfection any substance to which it was applied; indeed, the philosopher's stone was itself the universal medicine -- the all-geist or all-pervading spirit. Ashmole says:

"Unless the medicine be qualified as it ought, it is death to taste the least atom of it, because its nature is so highly vigorous and strong above that of man; for if its least parts are able to strike so fiercely and thoroughly into the body of a base and corrupt metal as to tinge and convert it into so high a degree as perfect gold, how less able is the body of man to resist such a force when its greatest strength is far inferior to the weakest metal? I do believe that many philosophers, having a desire to enjoy perfect health, have destroyed themselves in attempting to take the medicine inwardly ere they knew the true use thereof, or how to qualify it to be received by the nature of man without destruction."

The Conclusion

The problem of alchemy, therefore, was, but in another form, the riddle of the Sphinx: and the answer is the same: "That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been is named already -- and it is known that it is man." The real mystery, most familiar and at the same time most unfamiliar to every man, into which he must be initiated or perish as an atheist, is himself. For him is the elixir of life, to quaff which before the discovery of the philosopher's stone, is to drink the beverage of death, while it confers on the adept and the epopt the true immortality. He may know truth as it really is [[Aleteia]], the breath of God.

This is the alcahest which dissolves all things.

There have doubtless been charlatans who pretended to be alchemists, as there have been impostors professing the gift of prophecy, and quacks claiming knowledge beyond others of the healing art; but that is not superior ken which therefore declares all physicians, sages and gifted men to be but quacks and mountebanks. In the end, Wisdom is justified of her children.



8 - The study of alchemy, whatever it was, was even more universal than the several writers upon it appear to have known, and was always the auxiliary, if not identical, with the occult sciences of magic, necromancy and astrology, probably from the same fact that they were originally but forms of a spiritualism which was generally extant in all ages of human history. In October, 1868, at the meeting of the Oriental Society, at New Haven, Connecticut, Rev. William A. P. Martin, of Peking, read a paper on the "Study of Alchemy in China," After tracing briefly the connection between alchemy and chemistry, the paper proceeded to its main object, namely, to demonstrate that the origin of European alchemy was to be sought in China. In support of this view the following considerations were adduced, and illustrated by citations from Chinese and other works:

1. The study of alchemy had been in full vigor in China for at least six centuries before it made its appearance in Europe. It did not appear in Europe until the fourth century, when intercourse with the far East had become somewhat frequent. It appeared first at Byzantium and Alexandria, where the commerce of the East chiefly centered, and was subsequently revived in Europe by the Saracenus, whose most famous school of alchemy was at Bagdad, where intercourse with Eastern Asia was frequent.
2. The objects of pursuit in both schools were identical, and in either case twofold -- immortality and gold. In Europe the former was the less prominent, because the people, being in possession of Christianity, had a vivid faith in a future life to satisfy their longings on that head.
3. In either school there were two elixirs, the greater and the less, and the properties ascribed to them closely correspond.
4. The principles underlying both systems are identical the composite nature of the metals and their vegetation from a seminal germ. Indeed, the characters tsing for the germ, and t'an for the matrix, which constantly occur in the writings of Chinese alchemists, might be taken for the translation of terms in the vocabulary of the Western school, if their higher antiquity did not forbid the hypothesis.
5. The ends in view being the same, the means by which they were pursued were nearly identical -- mercury and lead being as conspicuous in the laboratories of the East as mercury and sulphur were in those of the West. It is of less significance to add that many other substances were common to both schools than to note the remarkable coincidence that in Chinese, as in European alchemy, the names of the two principal re-agents are used in a mystical sense.
6. Both schools, or at least individuals in both schools held the doctrine of a cycle of changes, in the course of which the precious metals revert to their base elements.
7. Both are closely interwoven with astrology.
8. Both led to the practice of magical arts and unbounded charlatanism.
9. Both deal, in language of equal extravagance and the style of European alchemists, so unlike the sobriety of thought characteristic of the Western mind, would, if consider alone, give us no very uncertain indication of its origin in the fervid fancy of the Orient. (return to text)

9 - Hermes Trismegistus is the celebrated personage of Egyptian and Phoenician story, to whom is attributed the preservation of the remains of the old religion. Several treatises are imputed to him, among them the Smaragdine Tablet -- which Avicenna declares was taken from his dead body at Hebron by Sarah, the wife of the Patriarch Abraham. The following is a translation:

1. I speak not fictitious things, but what is true and most certain.
2. As is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below to accomplish the wonders of one thing.
3. As all things are produced by the mediation of one being, so all things were produced from this one thing by adaptation.
4. Its father is the Sun: its mother is the moon.
5. It is the cause of all perfection throughout the whole earth.
6. Its power is perfect if it is changed into earth.
7. Separate the earth from the fire, the subtile from the gross, acting prudently and with judgment.
8. Ascend with the greatest sagacity from the earth to heaven, and then descend again to earth, and unite together the power of all things inferior and superior; thus you will possess the light of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly away from you.
9. This thing has more fortitude than fortitude itself, because it will overcome every subtile thing and penetrate every solid thing.
10. By it the world was formed.
11. Hence proceed wonderful things, which in this manner were established.
12. For this reason, I am called Hermes the thrice greatest, because I possess those parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
13. What I had to say about the operation of the Sun is completed. (return to text)

10 - The Memoire Historiques, printed in 1687, contain the following tale: "In the year 1681, a stranger, who called himself Signor Gauldi, went to reside in Venice, and there attracted attention by his apparently universe knowledge, his beautiful and valuable collection of paintings, and the singular circumstance that he was never known to write or receive a letter, to desire credit, or to make use of notes or bills in exchange. He paid for everything in ready money, and lived in a very respectable style. A nobleman, who was a remarkable good judge of pictures, applied for permission to see the collection of Signor Gauldi, which request was at once complied with. Over the door hung a portrait of Gauldi himself. The nobleman remarked:

"This picture is a portrait of yourself.'

Gauldi bowed assent.

" 'You look, sir, to be no more than fifty; but I know that painting to be by the hand of Titian, who has been dead one hundred and thirty years. How is this possible?'

"'It is not easy to know all things that are possible,' replied Gauldi, 'but there is certainly no crime in the fact that I am like a picture by the hand of Titian.'

"The nobleman forebore to speak more on the subject; but afterward, mentioning the circumstance to several of his acquaintances, they determined to examine the picture the next day. Before they could put their design into execution, Signor Gauldi had removed to Vienna." (return to text)