Western Alchemy, Science, and Pseudoscience

Western Alchemy, Science, and Pseudoscience

In recent decades, the study of alchemy has
posed a number of complications for historians of science. Among those who wrote as late
as the 1960s, the general perceptions of alchemy had cast it in the mould of a quasi-mystical
philosophy, a decadent obstacle from the Orient which stifled the progress of ‘rational’
chemistry, and some even deemed it an expression of mental illness. Lately, however, this tendency
toward reflexive dismissal has been curtailed as the wider community of medievalists, early
modernists, and historians of science began trying to understand alchemy on its own terms,
having placed it firmly within the context of an ‘alchemical worldview’ (or its own
internally consistent ‘paradigm’). The contemporary dialogue among historians of
Western alchemy has chiefly been directed toward (a) understanding what the word ‘alchemy’
actually meant to the people who lived directly in its midst or even practiced it themselves;
(b) determining to what extent alchemy was interrelated with the religious consciousness
of its practitioners; and most noticeably (c) debunking myths by reconciling a number
of exaggerated, artificial, and misleading dichotomies derived from modern, post-Enlightenment
perceptions of medieval and early modern alchemy. Historians have asked themselves: was European
alchemy a science or a pseudo-science? Was it a theoretical system or a practical art?
Was it chiefly a spiritual or a material pursuit? Was it more so a medicinal or a metallurgical
practice? How and when was alchemy differentiated from chemistry? Were alchemists ‘on the
fringes’ of learned society, or were they ‘at the cutting edge’ of knowledge as
defined by traditional institutions? And lastly, were alchemists outright frauds (Betrüger)
or misguided fools? All of these are questions to which a handful
of historians have recently turned and, ultimately, have demonstrated to be somewhat misguided.
Such dichotomies first arose from a dialogue in recent centuries wherein occultists, historians,
chemists, and theorists from various disciplines began exploring and reconceptualising alchemy
and its history. Each discipline and each perspective offered one or another rather
rigid model for understanding alchemy, and many of these models crystallized into opposing
camps. Nevertheless, the reality is that alchemy has long eluded circumscription by any simple
definitions precisely because, throughout the centuries, it was never a single static
or monolithic pursuit. In response to this problem, it is my aim to flesh out some of
the recent scholarly dialogue – to outline and synthesize the most pertinent points made
in the recent historical literature concerning alchemy, with a particular focus on how alchemy
fits into the narrative of “the Scientific Revolution.” What I hope to demonstrate
is that what today we label broadly as ‘alchemy’ actually comprised of many different pursuits
to many different people at many different junctures in history. With no source of official
authority to standardize and govern alchemy as a clearly delimited branch of knowledge
(such as via the Church or the University), the art was free to take on and accumulate
a number of its practitioners’ idiosyncrasies. Unrestricted as it was in pursuit of understanding
the natural world, western alchemy came to constitute a rich and dynamic body of beliefs
and practices, comfortably encapsulating within itself all of the artificial polarities listed
above. We cannot move forward in fleshing out a historiography
of alchemy without first exploring two major debates from the mid-20th century which would
irrevocably change how we interpret the scientific endeavours of the past, namely i) what is
the difference between ‘science’ and ‘pseudo-science,’ and ii) is there really such a thing as a
scientific revolution? The former question was first addressed by the great Austrian
philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper. Popper began his work in Vienna between the two world
wars, and although he was not a member of the famous Vienna Circle, he did have contact
with the prominent logical positivists of his day. These interactions, nevertheless,
were fraught with disagreement, causing him to develop a personal position, distinguishing
his own empiricism from that of his contemporaries. With the rise of Nazism, Popper fled Europe
along with the other positivists, but eventually returned to a post at the London School of
Economics where he became a famous lecturer. Whereas the logical positivists worked out
their theories of science as part of a broader project to develop a theory of language, meaning,
and knowledge, Popper’s chief aim was ‘merely’ to understand science. In setting out to understand
what science was (i.e. “the problem of demarcation”), he first had to determine what science was
not. This is most relevant to our purposes because the history of the word ‘pseudo-science’
is itself indissolubly bound up with the history of alchemy. In fact, the earliest known use
of the word “pseudo-science,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates back
to 1796 with a reference by the historian James Pettit Andrew who proudly referred to
alchemy as a “fantastical pseudo-science,” with the implication that falsehood is the
sine qua non of alchemy that distinguished it from true chemistry.
Some century and a half later, after much deliberation, Popper would come to establish
that the distinguishing factor between science and “pseudo-science” was falsifiability.
In keeping with David Hume’s radical “inductive scepticism,” Popper’s “falsificationism”
claimed that “a hypothesis is scientific if and only if it has the potential to be
refuted by some possible observation.” Popper looked to the “sciences” which were especially
in vogue during his lifetime, chiefly Marxism and Freudianism, and determined that their
claims about nature were ultimately non-falsifiable. This did not mean he believed these systems
to be useless, he just simply did not consider them to be true “science.” To be scientific,
a theory had to have ‘skin in the game.’ A theory which took no risks at all was deemed
unscientific, because it could be modified to fit any observation (as were Freudian psychoanalytical
theories, or Marxist “laws” about history). No matter the criticism, Popper maintained,
a Freudian or a Marxist could always find a way to make observations fit their theories.
From there, the idea was eventually extended to the claim that all testing in true science
takes the form of trying to disprove a hypothesis by way of observation. Conversely, it was
impossible to confirm or concretely establish a theory by demonstrating that it merely agreed
with observation. Simply put: “Confirmation is a myth.” No matter how much observational
data one had gathered, and no matter how many predictions one’s theory had successfully
made, observational testing could only prove a theory to be false. All we can say is that
a theory might be true (a position which, thanks to C. S. Peirce, became known as fallibilism).
Despite this insistence on the notion that we cannot confirm or even support our theories,
Popper believed science to be a search for true descriptions of the world – what Peter
Godfrey-Smith has called a kind of search for the Holy Grail: “all you can do is reject
grails that are clearly not holy (since they stop glowing at some point) and keep picking
up a new one. You will eventually die… without knowing whether you succeeded.” Popper was
not suggesting we give up searching for true descriptions of the world in a coma of self-induced
‘paralysis by analysis,’ but that humans had to work with what they had. Certainty
was merely provisional. Consequently, insofar as alchemy is remembered as a set of pursuits
for the realization of specific goals rather than the probing of its falsifiability, it
is indeed correct to call alchemy “a pseudo-science.” Nevertheless, as we shall see, our picture
of alchemy would become increasingly complicated when we were faced with the question whether
it was really fair to call natural philosophical endeavours preceding the development of the
modern scientific method as “pseudo-scientific.” Enter the American physicist, historian, and
philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. In his controversial, but ground-breaking
essay The Structure of the Scientific Revolution (1962), Kuhn sought to redress the idea that
scientific endeavours were unscientific (or “pseudo-scientific”) just because they
had found their way into the waste bin of history. Kuhn believed that to emphasize the
dichotomy between “science” and “pseudo-science” too harshly would completely efface the undeniably
cumulative nature of science. In other words, Kuhn’s definition of science was far more
subjective and much less sceptical than Popper’s. It does not serve historians to untangle Ramon
Llull or Roger Bacon’s relationship to modern science; rather, it is better to know about
these men’s accomplishments from within the context of their own [pre]scientific worldviews.
It was this very ‘context-sensitivity’ or historicism which, as a philosopher and
historian, Kuhn was the first to value (a value which did not necessarily sit well with
his era’s generally positivist view of progress). Therefore, in order to clearly discuss the
existence of various blocks of historical context in the study of science, Kuhn appropriated
the term “paradigm.” A paradigm, Kuhn argued, is an accepted scientific worldview
within which exists a pattern he called “normal science.” Scientists acquired such models
of “normal science” through education, and worked at solving various “puzzles”
which arose from within their respective models in their quest to accurately represent or
predict nature for whatever reason. This metaphor dominates Kuhn’s system, with natural laws
acting like the pieces of a grand puzzle that make up a given paradigm. Ultimately, transformations
from one paradigm to another are as much constructive processes as they are deconstructive processes,
and as such, the cracking of puzzles by individuals is typically met with extreme cognitive dissonance
and resistance by the aggregate. The Aristotelian, Ptolemaic, Copernican, Newtonian, Einsteinian
models are all examples of distinct paradigms with their own sets of internal consistencies.
What made these “scientific” to Kuhn is that all of these systems were functional
in their predictive power to some degree or another, and re-tooling only became necessary
when each respective paradigm was faced with a crisis. With the Ptolemaic system, for example,
one did not need to believe the Earth orbited the sun in order to make accurate predictions
about celestial events like eclipses or other planetary conjunctions.
From Kuhn’s perspective, crises arose within a given scientific paradigm when there came
about a great proliferation of differing theories to explain away some given phenomenon by producing
a multitude of exceptions (such as the Ptolemaic system’s use of epicycles and epi-epicycles
to “save the appearances” of the planets’ little retrograde loops, rising and falling
in the sky; or the great multiplicity of phlogiston theories before Lavoisier’s breakthrough
in chemistry, to the point that there were almost as many theories about phlogista as
there were chemical theoreticians). Paradigms shatter when a fundamental “puzzle” is
cracked, leading to a more accurate way of representing what is observed in nature to
take its place. Popper would refer to these as bold conjectures, and to him they also
constituted the mechanism by which science progressed. Once a critical puzzle is solved
by an irrefutable observation, the day-to-day humdrum practices of so-called “normal science”
break down, and those trying to map out nature are forced to construct a new paradigm or
become irreconcilably outmoded and obsolete. Two distinctly puzzle-minded paradigms are
not only incompatible, but incommensurable (i.e., they speak past one another, as the
words they use to describe reality no longer bear the same meaning, and as such they might
as well be speaking a different language). Pre- and post-revolutionary traditions of
observing the natural world therefore were most incommensurable of all. “Mass” for
example, did not mean the same thing to Isaac Newton as it did to Einstein, and if they
were to argue with one another, Newton would be unable to understand Einstein, who was
working from within an entirely different paradigm (i.e. relativity). What challenges
cautious observers of nature then, regardless of their historical context, is bringing their
inherited puzzles and paradigms to completion through the daily grind of “normal science”
until a breakthrough is made (such as Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, or Einstein’s
theory of relativity). Kuhn was accused throughout his life of having
introduced a kind of radical subjectivity to science that undermined or eroded its slow
but sure progress toward an ever clearer and disembodied objectivity. Kuhn’s answer to
this reproach is that he had no intention of weakening or denigrating science with his
idea of internally consistent and subjective paradigmatic worldviews, but rather to strengthen
modern science’s own awareness of how provisional even its own current models of understanding
natural phenomena might be. One never knows when a new puzzle might be solved which could
overturn our entire conception of the universe as it currently stands. From this perspective,
alchemical pursuits like the transmutation of base metals into gold, or the fabled search
for the Elixir of Immortality were indeed the daily strivings of “normal science”
not vain expressions of “pseudo-science.” Kuhn’s suggestions had the effect of opening
up the study of alchemy to move beyond its anachronistic depiction as a pre-corpuscular,
pre-quantum revolution deceit. At last, alchemy could be considered in its own light, as a
paradigmatic worldview unto itself, with its own questions, concerns, values, and interests,
divorced from the unscientific teleology that has plagued most ‘grand narratives’ revolving
around the ideology of scientific progress. Not everyone, however, has been on board with
this idea of reified scientific revolutions. In recent years, Peter Dear (among numerous
others) has written extensively in an effort to dispel the grand triumphalist narratives
which tout the existence of any definite scientific revolutions, let alone “the Scientific Revolution.”
Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences examines to what extent it is fair to talk of medieval
learning as fundamentally different from “post-scientific revolution” or “Age of Reason” thinking.
A revolution implies the overthrow of a previous paradigm and its replacement with a new one,
but Dear questions to what extent can we say that this actually occurred. He argues that
we must speak more of evolution and transformation, of small changes over time, rather than overthrow
and replacement. Thus without denying the realities of change that make up most narratives
in the history of science, Dear emphasizes the continuity in thought from one supposed
era to the next. Galileo, for example, did not wish to do away with the title of “natural
philosopher” – rather, he merely wished to broaden its scope to include the practical
dimensions of “physic-mathematics,” rather than merely Aristotelian logic chopping (as
was still popular among the scholastics of his day). René Descartes wanted to replace
Aristotle as the accepted philosophical authority, but he did not wish to overthrow the educational
structure over which that authority held sway. The triumph of reason over irrationality is
a matter of Enlightenment discourse, not necessarily a historical reality. Taking a more radically
nominalist position, Dear sees it as an anachronism to retro-project the idea of “revolution”
past the late 18th century when it was invented, preferring instead to use the verb “revolutionizing”
to soften the hard edges created by the historical periodization of science. Not unlike Kuhn,
however, Dear perceives the central goal of “the history of science” to understand
why people believed what they did within the context of their own times and societies,
and that the historian should have “no stake in adjudicating the truth of past convictions.”
Copernicus believed in a heliocentric model, and it is the historian’s job to find out
the reasons why he believed it, with the currently accepted truth of the matter being entirely
inconsequential. The medieval mind sought to understand the
Truth of the natural world around it, while the modern mind seeks to predict and control
the natural world. The former we call “Natural Philosophy” which was an efflorescence of
medieval university theology and scholasticism, the later we call “science.” As Dear explains,
a major difference between the two is that Aristotelian scholasticism sought to explain
things that were already common knowledge, while modern science sought to make new discoveries
(a concept which often borrowed from the discourse of 15th century explorers and sea navigators)
– this difference, however, came about through a slow process of mutation, not through a
radical reformation in thought. Adherence to Natural Philosophical explanations merely
gradually fell out of fashion, they were not forced out. His argument then is about the
changes in sentiment concerning the knowledge of nature from something to be explained to
something to be used. Dear stresses a process, which began in the 16th century, by which
nature had to be mastered in order to be fully understood; in other words, if one wished
to know about nature, one had to command it, and notable figures like Paracelsus or Francis
Bacon populate his narrative in order to illustrate this idea. According to Bacon, it was only
Aristotle’s lack of the Christian virtue of charity which made him overlook the need
for science to be practical (i.e., to be useful toward altruistic ends). Ultimately, what
Dear leaves out of his continuity-centric breakdown is the fact that evolutionary trajectories
are largely shaped by long periods of stability punctuated by unexpected crises, violent disruptions
of the status quo, and the cumulative effect of ‘evolutionary bottlenecks.’ This is
a fact which I believe Kuhn’s model of paradigms more accurately represents, even if it is
fraught with the complication of essentializing labels.
Most recently, David Wootton wrote his magisterial The Invention of Science to affirm, amidst
the tumult, that there really was a Scientific Revolution. He argues that just because scientific
revolutions take time to unfurl, and just because there are a great multiplicity of
scientific revolutions (the Darwinian revolution, the Quantum revolution, the DNA revolution,
etc.), this should not detract us from the “main event” which was “the invention
of science” itself. Wootton breaks down the term “revolution” into three types
(the political French Revolution, the technological Industrial Revolution, and the scientific
Copernican Revolution), and teases out how the problematic over-application of the term
“revolution” has lent to much confusion and debate. Now, Wootton admits that scientific
and political revolutions only share in common the fact that they both radically change people’s
lives – scientific revolutions, however, are not deliberate acts, and to think of them
as such is misleading. Nevertheless, there were in fact many “rebellions” of iconoclastic
mathematicians against the authority of philosophers and theologians throughout history (and this
in part is responsible for the prestige of “science” over “philosophy” in universities
today). And although Newton did not have such a concept as “revolution” in his own conservative
culture, he did have the concept of a “Reformation” which could just as easily be applied to natural
philosophy. The Protestant Reformation was indeed a vibrant example for demonstrating
how quickly language could be entirely restructured, thus producing new (in this case theological)
paradigms. A “revolution” in science would not come about until Lavoisier’s “revolution
in chemistry” (a term which was most appropriate to late 18th century France), but the idea
hiding behind the word was not necessarily new. Moreover, we cannot dismiss that a revolution
occurred either (e.g. the genetic revolution, the digital revolution) because it cannot
be pinpointed as a single event in time and space. A nebulous and ill-defined cloud is
still a cloud. Likewise, the fact that there is continuity throughout history before and
after a revolution does not negate the element of change. Wootton’s thesis is, ultimately,
that “sometime between the 1600s and the 1680s, science was invented.” Wootton draws
his line in the sand, in spite of all the criticisms levied over recent decades, contending
that that the Scientific Revolution was composed of five distinct, independently developed
events which intersected one another to create an entirely new worldview. These are the discoveries
of Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe, Newton, Boyle, and their natural philosopher contemporaries
whose investigations of the natural world challenged centuries of ideological orthodoxy
deeply entrenched in the places of power. Wootton argues that gunpowder, perspective,
the printing press, the discovery of the New World, the telescope, the idea that there
are “laws of nature,” and the very concepts of “discoveries” or “facts” converged
to create an entirely new system of knowledge based on the values of truth and progress.
Throughout his work, Wootton applies a post-modern lens to engage in a critical analysis of the
very language of science itself and how it has transformed over the last 500 years: how
science understood and defined itself throughout history, from terms like “natural philosophy”
to “science”; or from “physis” forking into “physics” and “physiology”; to
the relationships between astrology, arithmetic, astronomy, and so forth. What we find is that
science is circumscribed by a complicated network of terms and a change in the meaning
of one term changes the meaning in the whole network. The transition from ‘alchemy’
to ‘chemistry’ was also marked precisely by one such process of linguistic change.
Robert Boyle (1627-1691), for example, one of the chief figures of “The Scientific
Revolution,” was totally convinced of the reality of alchemical transmutation. During
his lifetime, those who practiced alchemy did so because they were convinced the philosopher’s
stone had already been successfully produced in the past. Crysopoeia, therefore, was a
self-fulfilling enterprise. When experiments failed to yield results, it was thought to
be because the alchemist failed to follow instructions carefully enough, not necessarily
that the instructions themselves could possibly be misleading. In principle, alchemists had
procedures for verification (e.g. ‘trial by fire’), but verification was not necessarily
valued at the time, and thus was constantly deferred. Moreover, as Wootton tells us: “they
had no procedure for falsification.” Therefore, as new chemical discoveries were increasingly
made through applying methods of falsification, the word ‘alchemy’ became a waste bin
label – a graveyard for observers of nature to deposit failed hypotheses – with the
label ‘chymistry’ stealing away with the worthwhile fruits of alchemy’s historically
cumulative inheritance. From its formative stage in Late Antique Alexandria
down to the present, alchemy evolved in a variety of independent, though eventually
convergent, cultural and intellectual milieus. Since then, untold numbers of practitioners
pursued the ‘art’ for various reasons and in pursuit of various goals. The fact
that it was a nebulous collection of ideas from different places and different times
which came to constitute what we today call ‘alchemy’ means there can exist no simple
response in answering the question: “what was alchemy?” Nevertheless, in spite of
having such disparate roots, some rather stable unifying features of the ‘Great Work’
have been pinned down by historians: alchemy was, as Lawrence Principe puts it,
…an endeavour of both head and hand. It was both theoretical and practical, textual
and experimental, and these two aspects constantly interacted. Theories about matter and its
composition… undergirded alchemical aims and directed practical laboratory endeavours.
In the form alchemy reached the Latin Middle Ages, however, it was the “philosophical
search for the agent of material perfection by means of the manipulation of base materials.”
By Paracelsus’ time in the 16th century, the term’s usage had broadened to cover
all manner of practices relating to the manipulation of the natural world.
Understanding the interpenetration of theory and practice (or of “science” and “technology”)
dispels the notion that alchemy was purely a wild-eyed haphazard and trial-and-error
probing of chemical processes. This does away with the 19th century Romantic vision and
retro-projection of the armchair ‘spiritual alchemists’ who inhabit an entirely speculative
world and have fundamentally no material aim in mind, seeking rather to perfect their souls
by achieving ever subtler levels of observation. This idea emerged from an equivocation of
the aspirations of ceremonial magicians with those of natural philosophers (though these
groups were admittedly not mutually exclusive). Throughout history there were of course individuals
who leaned further on one end of the ‘theory vs. practice’ spectrum than the other, but
the core feature of historical alchemy has been the consistent interaction of the theoretical
and the artisanal elements. Alchemy, therefore, was a productive endeavour concerned with
the manufacturing of everything from simple jewellery, coins, cosmetics, dyes, gems, tinctures,
and pharmaceutical drugs, all the way to mysterious Elixirs, Universal Panaceas, and Philosophers’
Stones. In their variegated pursuits, alchemists gradually accumulated centuries’ worth of
knowledge on how to produce, identify, preserve, catalogue, categorize, and manipulate countless
material substances, laying down much of the practical groundwork for modern chemistry.
Opposite to the literary musings of reactionary post-Enlightenment Victorian occultists (such
as Thomas South, Anne Atwood, Ethan Allan Hitchcock, and William Wynn Wescott) who each
tried to redeem alchemy by recasting it through a spiritualist interpretation that had not
necessarily existed in the Middle Ages (i.e. alchemy as ancient hermetic mystery chiefly
concerned with self-transformation), many 21st century historians of science have worked
to break down alchemy’s history into successive phases, chart the changes in it over time,
and try to see alchemy through the eyes of its own practitioners rather than those of
the 19th century imagination. Modern scholarship has thus been concerned with redefining the
language that historians should use in order to prevent any confusion that might arise
when discussing a term as misunderstood and as vague as ‘alchemy.’ Throughout the
literature one finds a number of terms employed to distinguish one form of alchemy from another,
especially across centuries of change (i.e. ‘chemeia’ or pre-Arabic chemistry, ‘crysopoeia’
or transmutational gold-making, ‘iatrochemistry’ or medicinal alchemy, ‘chymistry’ or Early
Modern chemistry, etc.). In spite of this increasing specification of language, historians
like Lawrence Principe, William Newman, Tara Nummedal, and Leah DeVun have all sought to
varying degrees to also maintain the level of ambiguity which a word like ‘alchemy’
actually had to the societies within which it was practiced. Nummedal suggests that “it
is essential that we preserve this messiness, rather than trying to oversimplify alchemy
or, worse, anachronistically privileg[ing] one kind of alchemy over others based on our
modern categories.” In this approach we can see how the long-term impact of Thomas
Kuhn’s acute sense of historicism and context-sensitivity has helped steer the dialogue surrounding
an alleged pseudo-science back into the light of honest historical inquiry.
Openly sharing one’s discoveries with a larger scientific community for universal
recognition and admiration did not emerge as value until at least the 17th century.
As early as its formative period in Late Antique Alexandria, western alchemy (or perhaps more
appropriately, ‘chemeia,’ from the word χέω, “I pour, cast, smelt, dissolve”)
began as a lucrative practice of making tinctures and dyes which served to stain metals and
luxury goods. While being committed to writing, such artisanal practices and materials were
encrypted as religious and philosophically-inspired ‘Decknamen’ (code names) as a means of
safeguarding their authors’ precious trade secrets. Centuries after Zosimos of Panopolis’s
time, following the Arab conquest of Egypt and their amalgamation into its learned upper
class, transmutational crysopoeia (the practice of refining base metals into more perfect
forms) began to gain popularity among small circles of Ismaili Shiites who further impregnated
alchemy with its seemingly initiatory character. Once introduced into Europe around the mid-12th
century, a period of newfound literary prosperity thanks to the proliferation of monasteries
and schools, alchemy was split up into numerous disparate yet mutually influential branches:
chrysopoetic branches, iatrochemical branches, and other more theoretically-oriented branches
concerned with questions of natural philosophy dating back to pre-Socratic philosophers.
From this point on historians of science can see no clean break between alchemy and modern
chemistry. Throughout the 20th century, one hypothesis proposed by Mircea Eliade gained
widespread popularity as he argued that modern chemistry had been “born from the disintegration
of the ideology of alchemy… Alchemy posed as sacred science, whereas chemistry came
into its own when substances had shed their sacred attributes.” Though Eliade overemphasized
the spiritual dimensions of alchemy, he was not altogether wrong insofar as he linked
alchemy’s decline into disrepute with the slowly unfurling “disenchantment of Europe”
hypothesis. The key to studying the paradigm within which
alchemists themselves operated – nebulous though it was – is that they perceived the
natural world in a manner which differs fundamentally from our own. Medieval and Early Modern people
in general (let alone the alchemists) did not neatly demarcate ‘the sacred’ and
‘the secular’ as most modern westerners do today. As such, what we would currently
consider the ‘spiritual’ element of alchemy developed in tandem with, not in spite of,
its fundamental materiality. The world of the alchemist was one in which science, magic,
the imagination, the natural world, and God were all inextricably interwoven into one
seamless tapestry. It was in this ‘alchemical worldview’ or ‘paradigm’ that all of
our aforementioned modern dichotomies were dissolved and united. Before our modern obsessions
with taxonomy and categorization, people did not draw up distinct boundaries between mundane
and spiritual matters; everything ran seamlessly. Whether for the Gnostic Zosimos of Panopolis,
the Ismaili writers under the name of Jābir ibn Hayyān, the Franciscan Spiritual John
of Rupescissa, or the Renaissance occultist Paracelsus, spirituality coloured everyone’s
worldview unequivocally. Alchemy everywhere was imprinted with the spirituality of its
practitioners not in so far as alchemy was in and of itself a spiritual practice, but
because its practitioners could not conceive nor communicate things about their world outside
the language and symbolism of their paradigmatically spiritual and/or religious worldview. We can,
therefore, still agree in a sense with the theory offered up by Eliade as to why alchemy
slowly vanished into chemistry: the gradual secularization of the western worldview during
the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment had a direct impact
on alchemy in their concomitant desacralisation of science’s language and symbolism. Thus
ensued the gradual decline and death of the ‘alchemical worldview’ as its commensurable
technical accomplishments were swept off to serve as tools in the new paradigm, while
its incommensurable aspects were left behind to be forever scorned as monuments for mankind’s
credulous delusions. One object of persistent debate in the historical
literature of alchemy pertains to the importance of alchemical cryptonyms (or “Decknamen”
as they are most often called). These code-names were used as early as Late Antiquity to disguise
the material components and transmutational processes alchemists could perform with mystical
language and symbols. Complex and inconsistently used code-names such as “the marriage of
the Sun and Moon,” or of the “King and Queen” saturate western alchemical literature.
Perhaps one of the best known collections of examples for these chemical allegories
is contained in the so-called Emerald Tablet of Hermes. For much of the 20th century, over-speculation
and the confusion generated by these Decknamen sat at the heart of the debates as to whether
alchemy was primarily a spiritual or material practice. At one extreme, scholars like William
Newman have interpreted the Decknamen as mere “mystical flavour,” used to cover up chemical
substances, practices, and processes, while at the other extreme, generalists like Mircea
Eliade overreached and fell more in line with the global and ahistorical interpretations
of Carl Jung, who ultimately was more interested in what alchemical symbolism could tell him
about the alchemists’ collective unconscious. Instead of trying to understand the alchemists
on their own terms, within the context of their own secluded paradigms, Eliade was more
interested in mapping out a cross-cultural “magico-religious experience” of mankind
in relation to matter. Standing apart from both these extremes, Leah DeVun has forcefully
argued that spiritual imagery (i.e. as used by John of Rupescissa) was neither trivial
“flavour” nor the product of some ahistorical and cross-cultural ‘unconscious’ phenomenon.
Rather, spiritual imagery was central to the way Christian alchemists formulated and communicated
alchemical theories with one another in 14th century Europe.
DeVun argues that, whether or not we realize it, modern science also operates on an allegorical
level. We discuss the “orbit of electrons,” “greenhouse gases,” “hydrophilic molecules,”
etc., and despite being mere labels, such kinds allegories define how we construct our
maps of scientific understanding. Although these maps are socially constructed, they
are indispensible to science’s utility. Medieval alchemists were likewise influenced,
even more so than modern chemists, by the language which they used to describe chemical
processes. Whereas moderns look back to nature to elucidate the features of analogous natural
processes, alchemists made use of religious or spiritual allegories.
The encoded imagery used by John of Rupescissa, a Franciscan Spiritual who lived through years
of torture and incarceration, the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Avignon Papacy,
served three functions: i) to provide his practice with a theoretical basis (which ran
parallel to the soul’s journey through corruption, purgation, and salvation); ii) to act as an
explanatory heuristic to make hard-to-grasp chemical processes clear to contemporary readers
(by linking them to spiritual concepts such as heaven, Christ, and resurrection); and
iii) to serve as a rhetorical device which imbued Rupescissa’s work with the weight
and significance of impending apocalypse. DeVun’s focus on Rupescissa’s imagery,
therefore, holds the Decknamen neither as Jungian symbols bubbling up from the collective
unconscious, nor as mere aesthetic veneers, but rather as an integral system of language
used to theorize, communicate, and compel others to understand and share in his alchemical
worldview/paradigm. Zachary Matus argues along similar lines in a recent article, claiming
that although the vibrant code-names and images might have obscured the minutiae of alchemical
processes, for Christians, they re-articulated the natural world in terms consistent with
the principles of a Christian cosmos and gave a directed purpose to scientific inquiry.
For a radical Franciscan friar like John of Rupescissa, alchemy was simultaneously a pharmaceutical
(iatrochemical) and natural philosophical pursuit for the quinta essentia/aqua ardens
(i.e. alcohol distilled via alchemical means). This he perceived as water which easily turned
into fire, which quickly evaporated into thin air, and which preserved all earthly matter.
He thus understood this ‘fifth element’ to be a celestial or ‘superlunary’ substance
which was both perfect and immutable, just as the heavens themselves had long been believed
to be, being entirely set apart from the traditional four elements that comprised terrestrial matter
in various configurations according to the Aristotelian paradigm. Rupescissa’s alchemy
then was an attempt to isolate and extract the ‘incorruptibility’ of heaven and make
it accessible for human use. The Franciscan alchemist was convinced that the product of
his ‘Great Work’ would ultimately serve to defend and heal the physical bodies of
individual Christians in the face of the impending rise of the Anti-Christ. In a man like John
of Rupescissa, therefore, all of the artificial dichotomies plaguing the study of alchemy
are reconciled. For him, alchemy was a practical endeavour with theoretical underpinnings,
aimed at a material transformation in the physical health of the Church in order that
they might prevail in the face of spiritual conflicts. His art unified sources of knowledge
from within the university (medicine, natural philosophy, and astrology/astronomy) and from
without (alchemical literature ‘at the fringes’). “In his writings,” DeVun remarks “transmutation,
cosmology, and therapeutics all coexisted, subjugated to the service of one transcendent
goal – the end of the age and the revelation of the meaning of human history.” In this
way we also see how to judge all of alchemy as a pseudo-science is to judge it according
to values of an entirely different paradigm, despite the fact that it still delivered results
relative to the goals of individual practitioners. For Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus
von Hohenheim (1493-1541), more commonly known as Paracelsus, alchemy was likewise indissolubly
linked with every other intellectual discipline he practiced. Paracelsus would ultimately
become famous because he stood against the universities of his times on matters of medicine,
iatrochemistry, and alchemy much in the way Martin Luther stood against the universities
in matters of theology (incidentally around the same place and time). Though Paracelsus
was often ‘wrong,’ having contributed no lasting scientific discovery we still carry
on with us today, what mattered was that he was “wrong and reasonable,” and thereby
helped to dismantle an inherited paradigm which had long overrun its course. Tara Nummedal
writes that: Paracelsus’ place in the pantheon of alchemical
authorities was always ambiguous for those who prized alchemy primarily for its promise
to transmute metals… He sought to reorient the art away from the production of gold and
toward medicine, disparaging alchemists who sought only to transmute metals. Although Paracelsus did not deny the possibility
that crysopoeia could work, he was more focused on the new dimension of iatrochemistry, exploring
its ‘practical,’ ‘theoretical,’ ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ dimensions – not as
a replacement, but as an extension to the older astrological, natural-magical, and alchemical
traditions. By the 16th century, students of alchemy had an astonishingly diverse yet
paradigmatically consistent textual tradition to which they could turn. Medieval authors
had provided them with a sophisticated theoretical groundwork toward alchemy’s more practical
applications, while a revival of hermetic literature and philosophy by Renaissance humanists
stressed an element of Neoplatonic ‘spiritual’ theory which was in turn applied to elaborate
new pieces of alchemical artwork and Decknamen. Where John of Rupescissa had seen Christ’s
death and resurrection take place in the crucible and the alembic, Paracelsus saw God as the
supreme alchemist at the beginning and end of time who, by “his creation of an ordered
world out of primordial chaos was akin to the chymist’s extraction, purification,
and elaboration of common materials into chymical products, and His final judgement of the world
by the fire [was] like the chymist using fire to purge impurities from precious metals.”
In a cosmological model such as this one, in this alchemical paradigm, the individual
alchemist perceived himself as working alongside of God and hastening His work of perfecting
nature along the Great Chain of Being. In his recent biography of Paracelsus, Philip
Ball confirms our observations in his insistence that modern readers must come to terms with
the fact that in the philosophy of Paracelsus, science and rationalism did not contend with
mysticism and superstition; rather, they were all fused together, producing a world that
only now seems fantastic and bizarre. Now let us compare these two exemplary alchemists
(John of Rupescissa and Paracelsus) with Philipp Sömmering, the main character of Tara Nummedal’s
monograph Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Sömmering had arrived at the
court of a duke in Northern Germany in 1571 claiming the ability to transmute base metals
into gold and silver. The alchemist also claimed to have knowledge on how to improve the productivity
of tapped out local silver mines, to design gun barrels which could shoot straight, and
even to offer religious advice on the political problems posed by the Reformation. The duke
admired this amalgamation of “intellectual, religious, medicinal, technical, and economic
skills that alchemists had to offer” and he quickly negotiated a formal employment
contract with Sömmering and his assistants. While employed, Sömmering faced heavy opposition
from other members of the duke’s court who would ultimately denounce him as a fraud for
making too many promises and failing to deliver the desired results. Fearing that these denunciations
by local notables might persuade the duke against him since he had taken too long to
produce the results he had guaranteed, Sömmering attempted to flee and was caught and thrown
in prison. Over the course of a yearlong trial, the alchemist was not simply put on trial
for fraud; he was accused of adultery, murder, attempted poisoning, sorcery (including the
fabrication of charms and a love potion), copying keys illicitly, stealing state papers,
and even fabricating an imaginary consultant. Sömmering and his assistants were condemned
to die by being drawn and quartered after having their skin ripped off with hot iron
tongs as an example to others who might seek to profit by defrauding authorities.
Nummedal uses Sömmering’s story to illustrate how alchemists as late as the 16th and 17th
centuries were no mere ‘one-trick ponies,’ having had a hand in everything from intelligence
operations, to technological innovations, arms manufacturing, land speculation, and
medicinal cures. A surprising number of people from various disciplines became associated
with the title of ‘alchemist.’ Whether in mining towns or imperial cities, they could
be found taking on contracts to transmute precious metals in privately-funded laboratories,
or acting as consultants for survey operations; they might survive by producing medicines,
or even by making artificial jewels, glasses, and pearls. And while some like Paracelsus
could practice their art with great success and still be considered ‘alchemists,’
others like Sömmering entered into bargains they could not fulfill (whether wittingly
or not). Throughout the Holy Roman Empire, men like these were labeled fraudulent imposters
(Betrüger) and dealt with forcefully, but this was not the reality which every alchemist
necessarily faced. If we return to our above-mentioned dichotomies, we see that the question of whether
alchemists were outright ‘frauds’ or merely ‘fools’ is misguided. Standing from within
their respective worldviews or scientific paradigms, few alchemists doubted that lead
could truly be transmuted into gold, but many were extremely wary of the fantastic claims
of those who professed the ability to do so without first offering evidence. Since there
were never any ‘alchemical authorities’ throughout European history – no place for
alchemy amid the Seven Liberal Arts as upheld by the old universities – the validity of
each alchemist’s claims had to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Some men like Paracelsus
and Rupescissa actually produced what they set out to produce, while other alchemists
made promises which, whether or not they believed they could fulfill them, would eventually
fail to produce the advertised results and ultimately find themselves in trouble. For
as long as “head and hand” alchemy was practiced, there was never a time when the
discipline as a whole was deemed inherently fraudulent. While certain alchemical pursuits
(i.e. crysopoeia) were gradually eclipsed by others (i.e. iatrochemistry or geological
surveying), the art as a whole, so loosely defined as it was, was never so monolithic
that the failures of individual alchemists need discredit all of them.
In his recent monograph, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment,
Paul Kléber Monod stresses the fact that so-called “occult” beliefs and practices
waxed and waned non-uniformly in response to the Enlightenment’s broader scientific
and cultural developments. Here he wisely defines ‘the occult’ not as a reified
tradition or static set of doctrines passed down through centuries, but as a continuously
negotiated body of discourse or hallway of mirrors formed by the given culture, religion,
politics, and professions of each individual ‘occultist’ (i.e. one who probes the world
to reveal hidden phenomena). In some instances occult pursuits competed against the new experimentalism
of the 17th and 18th centuries, but in general, they simply operated in distinct realms of
inquiry, within their own respective paradigms, unaffected by the fortunes of modern science.
In his own words, Monod concludes that “the occult was not killed off by science or the
Enlightenment [thinkers]” but instead “coexisted with them [and] borrowed from them.” In
other words, the idea that ‘the modern’ was born out of esotericism’s clear-cut
demise in the 18th century at the hands of mechanism, empiricism, and rationality has
largely been exaggerated. Though the formal dialogue died out, there were no institutions
by this point which actually had the power to consistently enforce occult philosophers
(including the alchemists) to relinquish their pursuits. Moreover, it was precisely in this
period that the volume of printed alchemical treatises reached its apex, despite how older
historical narratives make it seem as if the practice of alchemy was then in steep decline.
Monod lays out how this proliferation of texts was facilitated by the collection, preservation,
translation, and publications of figures like the royalist lawyer Elias Ashmole or the book
merchant William Cooper (publisher of the 1684 Collectanea Chymica). Isaac Newton here
acts as a kind of poster boy for the message Monod’s book elucidates: that cold hard
‘science’ and ‘the occult’ were simultaneously employed without conflict throughout most
of the 17th century. Though it is true many avoided all things occult during this era,
it was not because they were skeptics, but rather because they were afraid of the hidden
dangers intrinsic to the summoning of spirits or tampering with the fabric of reality. Ultimately,
occult philosophers were fine with accommodating new scientific discoveries, but it was the
experimentalists who – having birthed a new paradigm with its own set of values and
puzzles – largely rejected occultism and its inability to reliably reproduce results
for the scrutiny of others, a value which had not yet existed among the secretive and
individualist practitioners of pre-modern science.
Lastly, we cannot end this historiographical discussion without mentioning Mark Morrisson’s
Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory which frames the rise of
atomic theory as a kind of “revenge of the alchemists” against the mechanistic, corpuscular
worldview of the 18th century rationalists who dismissed chrysopoetic alchemy and its
underlying paradigm. As late as the early 20th century, alchemy was vindicated in a
most unexpected arena when chemist Frederick Soddy and physicist Ernest Rutherford, working
in a lab at McGill University in 1901, discovered that radioactive thorium was transforming
into an inert gas. Immediately, Soddy realized with a sense of exhilaration that what they
were performing was “a transmutation.” “For Mike’s sake,” Rutherford snapped
back in a hushed tone, “don’t call it transmutation, they’ll have our heads off
as alchemists!” For indeed, at that time the emerging science of radioactivity had
frequently provoked comparisons to alchemy in the popular imagination; some even imagined
Marie and Pierre Curies’ radium to be a modern-day philosophers’ stone. By the 1920s,
atomic physics and radiochemistry were being frequently referred to as “modern alchemy”
in the press. While Rutherford had first had an instinctively cautious reaction to this
comparison, in the end even he eventually gave into the popular appeal and published
his last book in 1937 under the title The Newer Alchemy.
Morrisson explores the many ways in which the most cutting edge discoveries of early
20th century science were being cast in the discourse of an ostensibly outmoded and discredited
“pseudo-science.” In part, this was on account of the perceived analogy between the
worldview of the atomic theorists and the unrealized dream of the medieval alchemists
who tortured lead into gold to ultimately prove the Neoplatonic doctrine of the fundamental
interconnectivity of all things at the basest level of reality (ἓν τὸ πᾶν, “the
all is one”). This doctrine had been thrown to the wayside by the mechanists of the 18th
and 19th centuries with their corpuscular, ‘billiard ball-like’ conception of matter,
and their discovery of many new individual and ‘indivisible’ chemical elements. Leading
up to Soddy and Rutherford’s discovery (let alone the Quantum revolution), ceremonial
magician and Golden Dawn founder Wynn Westcott prophetically wrote, restating the purported
theoretical goals of the ‘alchemical worldview’: The discovery of the Elements has been THE
grand achievement of modern chemistry… but if we may trust one of the most eminent chemists
of the day, Professor Crookes, the future will change all this system, and a niche in
the Temple of Fame will in the future be allotted by preference to one who succeeds in dividing
one of our present elements into its constituents. The Chemistry of the Future is to destroy
the present theory, and to gain the power of reducing all compounds, and all the Elements
to one primordial matter, to be named PROTYLE. In other words, the most ancient chemical
doctrine of the… FIRST MATTER, is to become paramount. This then is the reconciliation
of the future. No sooner is the modern doctrine of elements laid aside than the discoveries
of the Primordial Matter, the transmutation of Metals… reappear and once more enter
the range of the possible. As we can see, one component which went into
the alchemical conceptualization of atomic science was the prevalent fin-de-siècle revival
of interest in alchemy as esoteric religion. This occult efflorescence actually had an
impact on how scientists understood and portrayed their research, and fed back into the language
of the emerging science of radioactive transformation. Modern Alchemy then is not saying that atomic
theory arose directly out of 19th century alchemy or occultism, but that widespread
interest in alchemy gave chemistry a trope with which to influence “public reception
and its sense of its own identity,” and incidentally, the trope contributed to the
early phases of understanding of radioactivity’s significance.
In conclusion, we have seen how the most recent dialogue among historians has been directed
toward understanding what historical alchemy really meant to the people who practiced it;
on defining to what degree alchemy was interconnected with spirituality; and on reconciling a number
of extreme polarities which arose from a dualistic approach to the various debates surrounding
the nature of alchemy. We have seen how European alchemy was simultaneously a ‘practical’
art with a ‘theoretical’ foundation. It was a ‘material’ pursuit defined and given
meaning by ‘spiritual’ worldviews. It could be both, or neither an entirely ‘pharmaceutical’
and ‘metallurgical’ art. We have seen that there was no clean break between ‘alchemy’
and ‘chemistry,’ and therefore how alchemy was both a legitimate science and a “pseudo-science”
depending on who we ask and what results we are expecting it to deliver. We have seen
how even in the 17th century, the title of ‘alchemist’ did not intrinsically denote
either a ‘fraud’ or ‘fool’ to the society in which he lived and worked; rather
these labels depended on whether individual alchemists could live up to the promises they
made to wealthy and irascible patrons. The breaking up of alchemy’s history into phases
has – I hope – helped us to dispel some of the more monolithic, cross-cultural, and
ahistorical interpretations which historians have constructed in the past. Taking the spiritual
element of alchemy seriously, we have seen how its religiously inspired language and
symbolism was no simple “mystical flavour” but served formative, heuristic, and hortatory
functions. Christian themes in European alchemy, for example, rendered chemical processes meaningful
and thus more intelligible to a wider audience. Not only was western alchemy expressed in
spiritual nomenclature, but it was defined within the bounds of Christian cosmology,
an entirely distinct paradigm from the one with which we use to interpret the natural
world today. The wholesale rejection of alchemy as an obstacle to scientific inquiry is ultimately
a relatively modern reaction, but among the societies wherein alchemists lived, legitimacy
was determined on an ad hoc basis. If we may draw only one conclusion from the foregoing,
it is that no branch of historical inquiry should operate by projecting rigid categories
and modern definitions onto the past to explain amorphous phenomena; rather, historians (and
especially historians of science) should strive to let bygone societies speak to the present
from within the context of their own paradigms.

Comments (35)

  1. Don't forget to like and subscribe and all that other nonsense. If there's demand for it, I can put out an 'audio only' version without music/visuals; just let me know if that's something I should do.

  2. Good lord, what a great, in-depth and sophisticated look at alchemy.

    Hitting it out of the park as usual.

  3. Alchemy is equally physical & ethereal. Alchemy is a mirror image. Alchemy is a representation of the macrocosm, reflected through the microcosm. As with all thing in this simulation, the computer created a convoluted cornucopia of conundrums such as this. All things experienced, explain both the outer & inner realities by reflection. Meditation on this is required to penetrate deeply enough to witness both the simultaneous duality & non-duality, that is inherent in all existence. Rocks into bread, & gold from lead. Allegory so intricate, that it reveals the truth upon further inspection. Good luck. 🍀

  4. Come on man, this is when science lost its way. Eliminating the very consciousness ,affecting all that is done in this realm, performing the work, results are skewed to worthless. You can't pretend half of existence doesn't exist, if that makes any sense.

  5. I am appreciating and looking for the historical approach , now because of your efforts and your lectures here. Thanks 🙂🙂🙂

  6. A book that I read that honored the historical approach was Edmund de Waal's The White Road. He is a Potter who works with porcelain, and did research to find the history of the making of porcelain. I think it is relevant, and perhaps similar to Alchemy. The details are fascinating: you get into the rooms of hot suffocating ovens, and etc.

  7. My initial exposure to Alchemy was thru Carl Jung… But now I am studying the field of chemistry. Just studying chemistry is a feeling of clarity, and I daresay, ethereal elevation. So that's kind of interesting to note, as a sidebar💜

  8. Zionist propaganda alert 🚨
    (These are the jokes. Too soon?)

  9. Thank you for all your hard work, you’re the best

  10. This was magnificent. So glad I found your channel.

  11. Man your presentations are getting better and better, and some of that artwork……yeah I'm gonna need you to go ahead and source all of that stuff.

  12. So how can you say that science doesn’t prove anything as true? I understand that we can actively disprove ideas, but how are you able to say that determinism isn’t achievable?

  13. this is one of the most open, consistent, fair and thorough essays on the history, developments, and limitations of Science. Completely devoid of either acrimony or fanaticism, it's done with a lot of care and intelligence. Can't really expect anything less from this channel.

  14. I’m still listening, but everything I’ve read suggests to me it was a spiritual system that used the metals as symbols of spiritual energies, or aspects of God if you like. Nice to have this opportunity to learn more though!

  15. I'm really intrigued by this subject matter, so thanks for this! I'm sort of using your video as a jumping-off point before I read Jung's Psychology and Alchemy, which is quite an intimidating book.

  16. Thank you for sharing Dan. Our upcoming feature can be found here and may interest you.

  17. I can't afford a donation now. If ever you visit South Africa, you have a place to stay. For as long as you like. For two of you.
    It's the least I can do to thank you.
    These talks are life changing. 🙇🙇

  18. Can you make a video on Kitab al Kanuz?

  19. Really enjoyed this, thanks.

  20. brilliant channel

  21. I would like to see whom knows about the how & why Elixir's of Alchemy actually can help in one's life! Spiritually Alchemy is a new found luv & desire to learn all that I can!

  22. Dear Modern Hermeticist, I'd like to send you a personal message. How could I do this? Thank you very much for all the hard work!

  23. A compliment to the influence of your channel in my journey. I have written several books on Christianity. Because of the nomenclature involved in Christian apologetics over the last 20 years it is very common to blame "secular humanism" as a blanket term for many ills. Because of what I have learned from you I have revised new additions of all the books I have written on Christianity and removed the word humanism from all of them in places where distinctions are made or the term viewed negatively in relation to the church. I now understand in many ways thinking of humanism and various points advanced the church in some ways. I have narrowed my definitions down in a much clearer way to secularism, moral relativism, naturalistic materialism, etc. and I no longer use the term humanism as an undefined boogie man. Thank you for being such a great teacher.

  24. More relevant than ever IMHO

  25. At 40:22 , it's the statue of liberty!! In some weird form>

  26. In the “beginning “ there was The I. Alchemy and science are the I.

  27. Science is Alchemy colonizing it’s own Mind and also becoming conscious

  28. There is no science. It’s a Conscious Digital Universe in alchemical Patterns

  29. Why are you comparing froid to marx? 😂

  30. I eas tsught that alchemy ,simply put, is the science of change.

  31. Dan Attrell, is my hierophant. The bridge from my curiosity to the most hygienic and groomed truths

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