Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought

Author: Herbert Stanley Redgrove

IX the Quest of the Philosopher’s Stone

THE need of unity is a primary need of human thought. Behind the varied multiplicity of the world of phenomena, primitive man, as I have indicated on a preceding excursion, begins to seek, more or less consciously, for that Unity which alone is Real. And this statement not only applies to the first dim gropings of the primitive human mind, but sums up almost the whole of science and philosophy; for almost all science and philosophy is explicitly or implicitly a search for unity, for one law or one love, one matter or one spirit. That which is the aim of the search may, indeed, be expressed under widely different terms, but it is always conceived to be the unity in which all multiplicity is resolved, whether it be thought of as one final law of necessity, which all things obey, and of which all the various other "laws of nature" are so many special and limited applications; or as one final love for which all things are created, and to which all things aspire; as one matter of which all bodies are but varying forms; or as one spirit, which is the life of all things, and of which all things are so many manifestations. Every scientist and philosopher is a merchant seeking for goodly pearls, willing to sell every pearl that he has, if he may secure the One Pearl beyond price, because he knows that in that One Pearl all others are included.

This search for unity in multiplicity, however, is not confined to the acknowledged scientist and philosopher. More or less unconsciously everyone is engaged in this quest. Harmony and unity are the very fundamental laws of the human mind itself, and, in a sense, all mental activity is the endeavour to bring about a state of harmony and unity in the mind. No two ideas that are contradictory of one another, and are perceived to be of this nature, can permanently exist in any sane man’s mind. It is true that many people try to keep certain portions of their mental life in water-tight compartments; thus some try to keep their religious convictions and their business ideas, or their religious faith and their scientific knowledge, separate from another one—and, it seems, often succeed remarkably well in so doing. But, ultimately, the arbitrary mental walls they have erected will break down by the force of their own ideas. Contradictory ideas from different compartments will then present themselves to consciousness at the same moment of time, and the result of the perception of their contradictory nature will be mental anguish and turmoil, persisting until one set of ideas is conquered and overcome by the other, and harmony and unity are restored.

It is true of all of us, then, that we seek for Unity— unity in mind and life. Some seek it in science and a life of knowledge; some seek it in religion and a life of faith; some seek it in human love and find it in the life of service to their fellows; some seek it in pleasure and the gratification of the senses’ demands; some seek it in the harmonious development of all the facets of their being. Many the methods, right and wrong; many the terms under which the One is conceived, true and false—in a sense, to use the phraseology of a bygone system of philosophy, we are all, consciously or unconsciously, following paths that lead thither or paths that lead away, seekers in the quest of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Let us, in these excursions in the byways of thought, consider for a while the form that the quest of fundamental unity took in the hands of those curious mediaeval philosophers, half mystics, half experimentalists in natural things— that are known by the name of "alchemists."

The common opinion concerning alchemy is that it was a pseudo-science or pseudo-art flourishing during the Dark Ages, and having for its aim the conversion of common metals into silver and gold by means of a most marvellous and wholly fabulous agent called the Philosopher’s Stone, that its devotees were half knaves, half fools, whose views concerning Nature were entirely erroneous, and whose objects were entirely mercenary. This opinion is not absolutely destitute of truth; as a science alchemy involved many fantastic errors; and in the course of its history it certainly proved attractive to both knaves and fools. But if this opinion involves some element of truth, it involves a far greater proportion of error. Amongst the alchemists are numbered some of the greatest intellects of the Middle Ages—ROGER BACON (. 1214-1294), for example, who might almost be called the father of experimental science. And whether or not the desire for material wealth was a secondary object, the true aim of the genuine alchemist was a much nobler one than this as one of them exclaims with true scientific fervour: "Would to God . . . all men might become adepts in our Art— for then gold, the great idol of mankind, would lose its value, and we should prize it only for its scientific teaching."[1] Moreover, recent developments in physical and chemical science seem to indicate that the alchemists were not so utterly wrong in their concept of Nature as has formerly been supposed—that, whilst they certainly erred in both their methods and their interpretations of individual phenomena, they did intuitively grasp certain fundamental facts concerning the universe of the very greatest importance.

[1] EIRENAEUS PHILALETHES: . (See , ed. by A. E. WAITE, 1893, vol. ii. p. 178.)

Suppose, however, that the theories of the alchemists are entirely erroneous from beginning to end, and are nowhere relieved by the merest glimmer of truth. Still they were believed to be true, and this belief had an important influence upon human thought. Many men of science have, I am afraid, been too prone to regard the mystical views of the alchemists as unintelligible; but, whatever their theories may be to us, these theories were certainly very real to them: it is preposterous to maintain that the writings of the alchemists are without meaning, even though their views are altogether false. And the more false their views are believed to be, the more necessary does it become to explain why they should have gained such universal credit. Here we have problems into which scientific inquiry is not only legitimate, but, I think, very desirable,—apart altogether from the question of the truth or falsity of alchemy as a science, or its utility as an art. What exactly was the system of beliefs grouped under the term "alchemy," and what was its aim? Why were the beliefs held? What was their precise influence upon human thought and culture?

It was in order to elucidate problems of this sort, as well as to determine what elements of truth, if any, there are in the theories of the alchemists, that The Alchemical Society was founded in 1912, mainly through my own efforts and those of my confreres, and for the first time something like justice was being done to the memory of the alchemists when the Society’s activities were stayed by that greatest calamity of history, the European War.

Some students of the writings of the alchemists have advanced a very curious and interesting theory as to the aims of the alchemists, which may be termed "the transcendental theory". According to this theory, the alchemists were concerned only with the mystical processes affecting the soul of man, and their chemical references are only to be understood symbolically. In my opinion, however, this view of the subject is rendered untenable by the lives of the alchemists themselves; for, as Mr WAITE has very fully pointed out in his (1888), the lives of the alchemists show them to have been mainly concerned with chemical and physical processes; and, indeed, to their labours we owe many valuable discoveries of a chemical nature. But the fact that such a theory should ever have been formulated, and should not be altogether lacking in consistency, may serve to direct our attention to the close connection between alchemy and mysticism.

If we wish to understand the origin and aims of alchemy we must endeavour to recreate the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, and to look at the subject from the point of view of the alchemists themselves. Now, this atmosphere was, as I have indicated in a previous essay, surcharged with mystical theology and mystical philosophy. Alchemy, so to speak, was generated and throve in a dim religious light. We cannot open a book by any one of the better sort of alchemists without noticing how closely their theology and their chemistry are interwoven, and what a remarkably religious view they take of their subject. Thus one alchemist writes: "In the first place, let every devout and God-fearing chemist and student of this Art consider that this arcanum should be regarded, not only as a truly great, but as a most holy Art (seeing that it typifies and shadows out the highest heavenly good). Therefore, if any man desire to reach this great and unspeakable Mystery, he must remember that it is obtained not by the might of man, but by the grace of God, and that not our will or desire, but only the mercy of the Most High, can bestow it upon us. For this reason you must first of all cleanse your heart, lift it up to Him alone, and ask of Him this gift in true, earnest and undoubting prayer. He alone can give and bestow it."[1] Whilst another alchemist declares: "I am firmly persuaded that any unbeliever who got truly to know this Art, would straightway confess the truth of our Blessed Religion, and believe in the Trinity and in our Lord JESUS CHRIST.[2]

[1] . (See , vol. i. pp. 74 and 75.)

[2] PETER BONUS: (trans. by A. E. WAITE, 1894), p. 275.

Now, what I suggest is that the alchemists constructed their chemical theories for the main part by means of reasoning, and that the premises from which they started were (i.) the truth of mystical theology, especially the doctrine of the soul’s regeneration, and (ii.) the truth of mystical philosophy, which asserts that the objects of Nature are symbols of spiritual verities. There is, I think, abundant evidence to show that alchemy was a more or less deliberate attempt to apply, according to the principles of analogy, the doctrines of religious mysticism to chemical and physical phenomena. Some of this evidence I shall attempt to put forward in this essay.

In the first place, however, I propose to say a few words more in description of the theological and philosophical doctrines which so greatly influenced the alchemists, and which, I believe, they borrowed for their attempted explanations of chemical and physical phenomena. This system of doctrine I have termed "mysticism"—a word which is unfortunately equivocal, and has been used to denote various systems of religious and philosophical thought, from the noblest to the most degraded. I have, therefore, further to define my usage of the term.

By mystical theology I mean that system of religious thought which emphasises the unity between Creator and creature, though not necessarily to the extent of becoming pantheistic. Man, mystical theology asserts, has sprung from God, but has fallen away from Him through self-love. Within man, however, is the seed of divine grace, whereby, if he will follow the narrow road of self-renunciation, he may be regenerated, born anew, becoming transformed into the likeness of God and ultimately indissolubly united to God in love. God is at once the Creator and the Restorer of man’s soul, He is the Origin as well as the End of all existence; and He is also the Way to that End. In Christian mysticism, CHRIST is the Pattern, towards which the mystic strives; CHRIST also is the means towards the attainment of this end.

By mystical philosophy I mean that system of philosophical thought which emphasises the unity of the Cosmos, asserting that God and the spiritual may be perceived immanent in the things of this world, because all things natural are symbols and emblems of spiritual verities. As one of the attributed to PYTHAGORAS, which I have quoted in a previous essay, puts it: "The Nature of this Universe is in all things alike"; commenting upon which, HIEROCLES, writing in the fifth or sixth century, remarks that "Nature, in forming this Universe after the Divine Measure and Proportion, made it in all things conformable and like to itself, analogically in different manners. Of all the different species, diffused throughout the whole, it made, as it were, an Image of the Divine Beauty, imparting variously to the copy the perfections of the Original."[1] We have, however, already encountered so many instances of this belief, that no more need be said here concerning it.

[1] HIEROCLES PYTHAGORAS (trans. by N. ROWE, 1906), pp. 101 and 102.

In fine, as Dean INGE well says: "Religious Mysticism may be defined as the attempt to realise the presence of the living God in the soul and in nature, or, more generally, as ."[2]

[2] WILLIAM RALPH INGE, M.A.: (the Bampton Lectures, 1899), p. 5.

Now, doctrines such as these were not only very prevalent during the Middle Ages, when alchemy so greatly flourished, but are of great antiquity, and were undoubtedly believed in by the learned class in Egypt and elsewhere in the East in those remote days when, as some think, alchemy originated, though the evidence, as will, I hope, become plain as we proceed, points to a later and post-Christian origin for the central theorem of alchemy. So far as we can judge from their writings, the more important alchemists were convinced of the truth of these doctrines, and it was with such beliefs in mind that they commenced their investigations of physical and chemical phenomena. Indeed, if we may judge by the esteem in which the Hermetic maxim, "What is above is as that which is below, what is below is as that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing," was held by every alchemist, we are justified in asserting that the mystical theory of the spiritual significance of Nature— a theory with which, as we have seen, is closely connected the Neoplatonic and Kabalistic doctrine that all things emanate in series from the Divine Source of all Being— was at the very heart of alchemy. As writes one alchemist: " . . . the Sages have been taught of 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 celestial archetype; and that God has created it in imitation of the spiritual and invisible universe, in order that men might be the better enabled to comprehend His heavenly teaching, and the wonders of His absolute and ineffable power and wisdom. 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; he jealously conceals it from the sinner and the scornful, lest the mysteries of heaven should be laid bare to the vulgar gaze."[1]

[1] MICHAEL SENDIVOGIUS (?): . (See , vol. ii. p. 138.)

The alchemists, I hold, convinced of the truth of this view of Nature, . that principles true of one plane of being are true also of all other planes, adopted analogy as their guide in dealing with the facts of chemistry and physics known to them. They endeavoured to explain these facts by an application to them of the principles of mystical theology, their chief aim being to prove the truth of these principles as applied to the facts of the natural realm, and by studying natural phenomena to become instructed in spiritual truth. They did not proceed by the sure, but slow, method of modern science, . the method of induction, which questions experience at every step in the construction of a theory; but they boldly allowed their imaginations to leap ahead and to formulate a complete theory of the Cosmos on the strength of but few facts. This led them into many fantastic errors, but I would not venture to deny them an intuitive perception of certain fundamental truths concerning the constitution of the Cosmos, even if they distorted these truths and dressed them in a fantastic garb.

Now, as I hope to make plain in the course of this excursion, the alchemists regarded the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone and the transmutation of "base" metals into gold as the consummation of the proof of the doctrines of mystical theology as applied to chemical phenomena, and it was as such that they so ardently sought to achieve the , as this transmutation was called. Of course, it would be useless to deny that many, accepting the truth of the great alchemical theorem, sought for the Philosopher’s Stone because of what was claimed for it in the way of material benefits. But, as I have already indicated, with the nobler alchemists this was not the case, and the desire for wealth, if present at all, was merely a secondary object.

The idea expressed in DALTON’S atomic hypothesis (1802), and universally held during the nineteenth century, that the material world is made up of a certain limited number of elements unalterable in quantity, subject in themselves to no change or development, and inconvertible one into another, is quite alien to the views of the alchemists. The alchemists conceived the universe to be a unity; they believed that all material bodies had been developed from one seed; their elements are merely different forms of one matter and, therefore, convertible one into another. They were thoroughgoing evolutionists with regard to the things of the material world, and their theory concerning the evolution of the metals was, I believe, the direct outcome of a metallurgical application of the mystical doctrine of the soul’s development and regeneration. The metals, they taught, all spring from the same seed in Nature’s womb, but are not all equally matured and perfect; for, as they say, although Nature always intends to produce only gold, various impurities impede the process. In the metals the alchemists saw symbols of man in the various stages of his spiritual development. Gold, the most beautiful as well as the most untarnishable metal, keeping its beauty permanently, unaffected by sulphur, most acids, and fire—indeed, purified by such treatment,—gold, to the alchemist, was the symbol of regenerate man, and therefore he called it "a noble metal". Silver was also termed "noble"; but it was regarded as less mature than gold, for, although it is undoubtedly beautiful and withstands the action of fire, it is corroded by nitric acid and is blackened by sulphur; it was, therefore, considered to be analogous to the regenerate man at a lower stage of his development. Possibly we shall not be far wrong in using SWEDENBORG’S terms, "celestial" to describe the man of gold, "spiritual" to designate him of silver. Lead, on the other hand, the alchemists regarded as a very immature and impure metal: heavy and dull, corroded by sulphur and nitric acid, and converted into a calx by the action of fire,—lead, to the alchemists, was a symbol of man in a sinful and unregenerate condition.

The alchemists assumed the existence of three principles in the metals, their obvious reason for so doing being the mystical threefold division of man into body, soul (. affections and will), and spirit (. intelligence), though the principle corresponding to body was a comparatively late introduction in alchemical philosophy. This latter fact, however, is no argument against my thesis; because, of course, I do not maintain that the alchemists started out with their chemical philosophy ready made, but gradually worked it out, by incorporating in it further doctrines drawn from mystical theology. The three principles just referred to were called "mercury," "sulphur," and "salt"; and they must be distinguished from the common bodies so designated (though the alchemists themselves seem often guilty of confusing them). "Mercury" is the metallic principle , conferring on metals their brightness and fusibility, and corresponding to the spirit or intelligence in man.[1] "Sulphur," the principle of combustion and colour, is the analogue of the soul. Many alchemists postulated two sulphurs in the metals, an inward and an outward.[1b] The outward sulphur was thought to be the chief cause of metallic impurity, and the reason why all (known) metals, save gold and silver, were acted on by fire. The inward sulphur, on the other hand, was regarded as essential to the development of the metals: pure mercury, we are told, matured by a pure inward sulphur yields pure gold. Here again it is evident that the alchemists borrowed their theories from mystical theology; for, clearly, inward sulphur is nothing else than the equivalent to love of God; outward sulphur to love of self. Intelligence (mercury) matured by love to God (inward sulphur) exactly expresses the spiritual state of the regenerate man according to mystical theology. There is no reason, other than their belief in analogy, why the alchemists should have held such views concerning the metals. "Salt," the principle of solidity and resistance to fire, corresponding to the body in man, plays a comparatively unimportant part in alchemical theory, as does its prototype in mystical theology.

[1] The identification of the god MERCURY with THOTH, the Egyptian god of learning, is worth noticing in this connection.

[1b] Pseudo-GEBER, whose writings were highly esteemed, for instance. See R. RUSSEL’S translation of his works (1678), p. 160.

Now, as I have pointed out already, the central theorem of mystical theology is, in Christian terminology, that of the regeneration of the soul by the Spirit of CHRIST. The corresponding process in alchemy is that of the transmutation of the "base" metals into silver and gold by the agency of the Philosopher’s Stone. Merely to remove the evil sulphur of the "base" metals, thought the alchemists, though necessary, is not sufficient to transmute them into "noble" metals; a maturing process is essential, similar to that which they supposed was effected in Nature’s womb. Mystical theology teaches that the powers and life of the soul are not inherent in it, but are given by the free grace of God. Neither, according to the alchemists, are the powers and life of nature in herself, but in that immanent spirit, the Soul of the World, that animates her. As writes the famous alchemist who adopted the pleasing pseudonym of "BASIL VALENTINE" (. 1600), "the power of growth . . . is imparted not by the earth, but by the life-giving spirit that is in it. If the earth were deserted by this spirit, it would be dead, and no longer able to afford nourishment to anything. For its sulphur or richness would lack the quickening spirit without which there can be neither life nor growth."[1a] To perfect the metals, therefore, the alchemists argued, from analogy with mystical theology, which teaches that men can be regenerated only by the power of CHRIST within the soul, that it is necessary to subject them to the action of this world-spirit, this one essence underlying all the varied powers of nature, this One Thing from which "all things were produced . . . by adaption, and which is the cause of all perfection throughout the whole world."[2a] "This," writes one alchemist, "is the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot comprehend without the interposition of the Holy Ghost, or without the instruction of those who know it. The same is of a mysterious nature, wondrous strength, boundless power.... By Avicenna this Spirit is named the Soul of the World. For, as the Soul moves all the limbs of the Body, so also does this Spirit move all bodies. And as the Soul is in all the limbs of the Body, so also is this Spirit in all elementary created things. It is sought by many and found by few. It is beheld from afar and found near; for it exists in every thing, in every place, and at all times. It has the powers of all creatures; its action is found in all elements, and the qualities of all things are therein, even in the highest perfection . . . it heals all dead and living bodies without other medicine . . . converts all metallic bodies into gold, and there is nothing like unto it under Heaven."[1b] It was this Spirit, concentrated in all its potency in a suitable material form, which the alchemists sought under the name of "the Philosopher’s Stone". Now, mystical theology teaches that the Spirit of CHRIST, by which alone the soul of man can be tinctured and transmuted into the likeness of God, is Goodness itself; consequently, the alchemists argued that the Philosopher’s Stone must be, so to speak, Gold itself, or the very essence of Gold: it was to them, as CHRIST is of the soul’s perfection, at once the pattern and the means of metallic perfection. "The Philosopher’s Stone," declares "EIRENAEUS PHILALETHES" (. 1623), "is a certain heavenly, spiritual, penetrative, and fixed substance, which brings all metals to the perfection of gold or silver (according to the quality of the Medicine), and that by natural methods, which yet in their effects transcend Nature.... Know, then, that it is called a stone, not because it is like a stone, but only because, by virtue of its fixed nature, it resists the action of fire as successfully as any stone. In species it is gold, more pure than the purest; it is fixed and incombustible like a stone [. it contains no outward sulphur, but only inward, fixed sulphur], but its appearance is that of a very fine powder, impalpable to the touch, sweet to the taste, fragrant to the smell, in potency a most penetrative spirit, apparently dry and yet unctuous, and easily capable of tingeing a plate of metal.... If we say that its nature is spiritual, it would be no more than the truth; if we described it as corporeal the expression would be equally correct; for it is subtle, penetrative, glorified, spiritual gold. It is the noblest of all created things after the rational soul, and has virtue to repair all defects both in animal and metallic bodies, by restoring them to the most exact and perfect temper; wherefore is it a spirit or `quintessence.’ "[1c]

[1a] BASIL VALENTINE: . (See , vol. i. pp. 333 and 334.)

[2a] From the "Smaragdine Table," attributed to HERMES TRISMEGISTOS (. MERCURY or THOTH).

[1b] HERMES, THEOPHRASTUS PARACELSUS, . (See BENEDICTUS FIGULUS, , trans. by A. E. WAITE, 1893, pp. 36, 37, and 41.)

[1c] EIRENAEUS PHILALETHES: . (See , vol. ii. pp. 246 and 249.)

In other accounts the Philosopher’s Stone, or at least the of which it is compounded, is spoken of as a despised substance, reckoned to be of no value. Thus, according to one curious alchemistic work, "This matter, so precious by the excellent Gifts, wherewith Nature has enriched it, is truly mean, with regard to the Substances from whence it derives its Original. Their price is not above the Ability of the Poor. Ten Pence is more than sufficient to purchase the Matter of the Stone. . . . The matter therefore is mean, considering the Foundation of the Art because it costs very little; it is no less mean, if one considers exteriourly that which gives it Perfection, since in that regard it costs nothing at all, in as much as . . . so that . . . it is a constant Truth, that the Stone is a Thing mean in one Sense, but that in another it is most precious, and that there are none but Fools that despise it, by a just Judgment of God."[1] And JACOB BOEHME (1575—1624) writes: "The is a very dark, disesteemed stone, of a grey colour, but therein lieth the highest tincture."[2] In these passages there is probably some reference to the ubiquity of the Spirit of the World, already referred to in a former quotation. But this fact is not, in itself, sufficient to account for them. I suggest that their origin is to be found in the religious doctrine that God’s Grace, the Spirit of CHRIST that is the means of the transmutation of man’s soul into spiritual gold, is free to all; that it is, at once, the meanest and the most precious thing in the whole Universe. Indeed, I think it quite probable that the alchemists who penned the above-quoted passages had in mind the words of ISAIAH, "He was despised and we esteemed him not." And if further evidence is required that the alchemists believed in a correspondence between CHRIST—"the Stone which the builders rejected"—and the Philosopher’s Stone, reference may be made to the alchemical work called , a tract included in , in which this supposed correspondence is explicitly asserted and dealt with in some detail.

[1] . See (1723), pp. 101 and 102.

[2] JACOB BOEHME: (trans. by J. E., 1649, reprinted 1886), Ep. iv., SE III.

Apart from the alchemists’ belief in the analogy between natural and spiritual things, it is, I think, incredible that any such theories of the metals and the possibility of their transmutation or "regeneration" by such an extraordinary agent as the Philosopher’s Stone would have occurred to the ancient investigators of Nature’s secrets. When they had started to formulate these theories, facts[1] were discovered which appeared to support them; but it is, I suggest, practically impossible to suppose that any or all of these facts would, in themselves, have been sufficient to give rise to such wonderfully fantastic theories as these: it is only from the standpoint of the theory that alchemy was a direct offspring of mysticism that its origin seems to be capable of explanation.

[1] One of those facts, amongst many others, that appeared to confirm the alchemical doctrines, was the ease with which iron could apparently be transmuted into copper. It was early observed that iron vessels placed in contact with a solution of blue vitriol became converted (at least, so far as their surfaces were concerned) into copper. This we now know to be due to the fact that the copper originally contained in the vitriol is thrown out of solution, whilst the iron takes its place. And we know, also, that no more copper can be obtained in this way from the blue vitriol than is actually used up in preparing it; and, further, that all the iron which is apparently converted into copper can be got out of the residual solution by appropriate methods, if such be desired; so that the facts really support DALTON’S theory rather than the alchemical doctrines. But to the alchemist it looked like a real transmutation of iron into copper, confirmation of his fond belief that iron and other base metals could be transmuted into silver and gold by the aid of the Great Arcanum of Nature.

In all the alchemical doctrines mystical connections are evident, and mystical origins can generally be traced. I shall content myself here with giving a couple of further examples. Consider, in the first place, the alchemical doctrine of purification by putrefaction, that the metals must die before they can be resurrected and truly live, that through death alone are they purified—in the more prosaic language of modern chemistry, death becomes oxidation, and rebirth becomes reduction. In many alchemical books there are to be found pictorial symbols of the putrefaction and death of metals and their new birth in the state of silver or gold, or as the Stone itself, together with descriptions of these processes. The alchemists sought to kill or destroy the body or outward form of the metals, in the hope that they might get at and utilise the living essence they believed to be immanent within. As PARACELSUS put it: "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." It seems to me quite obvious that in such ideas as these we have the application to metallurgy of the mystic doctrine of self-renunciation— that the soul must die to self before it can live to God; that the body must be sacrificed to the spirit, and the individual will bowed down utterly to the One Divine Will, before it can become one therewith.

In the second place, consider the directions as to the colours that must be obtained in the preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone, if a successful issue to the Great Work is desired. Such directions are frequently given in considerable detail in alchemical works; and, without asserting any exact uniformity, I think that I may state that practically all the alchemists agree that three great colour-stages are necessary—(i.) an inky blackness, which is termed the "Crow’s Head" and is indicative of putrefaction; (ii.) a white colour indicating that the Stone is now capable of converting "base" metals into silver; this passes through orange into (iii.) a red colour, which shows that the Stone is now perfect, and will transmute "base" metals into gold. Now, what was the reason for the belief in these three colour-stages, and for their occurrence in the above order? I suggest that no alchemist actually obtained these colours in this order in his chemical experiments, and that we must look for a speculative origin for the belief in them. We have, I think, only to turn to religious mysticism for this origin. For the exponents of religious mysticism unanimously agree to a threefold division of the life of the mystic. The first stage is called "the dark night of the soul," wherein it seems as if the soul were deserted by God, although He is very near. It is the time of trial, when self is sacrificed as a duty and not as a delight. Afterwards, however, comes the morning light of a new intelligence, which marks the commencement of that stage of the soul’s upward progress that is called the "illuminative life". All the mental powers are now concentrated on God, and the struggle is transferred from without to the inner man, good works being now done, as it were, spontaneously. The disciple, in this stage, not only does unselfish deeds, but does them from unselfish motives, being guided by the light of Divine Truth. The third stage, which is the consummation of the process, is termed "the contemplative life". It is barely describable. The disciple is wrapped about with the Divine Love, and is united thereby with his Divine Source. It is the life of love, as the illuminative life is that of wisdom. I suggest that the alchemists, believing in this threefold division of the regenerative process, argued that there must be three similar stages in the preparation of the Stone, which was the pattern of all metallic perfection; and that they derived their beliefs concerning the colours, and other peculiarities of each stage in the supposed chemical process, from the characteristics of each stage in the psychological process according to mystical theology.

Moreover, in the course of the latter process many flitting thoughts and affections arise and deeds are half-wittingly done which are not of the soul’s true character; and in entire agreement with this, we read of the alchemical process, in the highly esteemed "Canons" of D’ESPAGNET: "Besides these decretory signs [. the black, white, orange, and red colours] which firmly inhere in the matter, and shew its essential mutations, almost infinite colours appear, and shew themselves in vapours, as the Rainbow in the clouds, which quickly pass away and are expelled by those that succeed, more affecting the air than the earth: the operator must have a gentle care of them, because they are not permanent, and proceed not from the intrinsic disposition of the matter, but from the fire painting and fashioning everything after its pleasure, or casually by heat in slight moisture."[1] That D’ESPAGNET is arguing, not so much from actual chemical experiments, as from analogy with psychological processes in man, is, I think, evident.

[1] JEAN D’ESPAGNET: , canon 65. (See , ed. by W. WYNN WESTCOTT, vol. i., 1893, pp. 28 and 29.)

As well as a metallic, the alchemists believed in a physiological, application of the fundamental doctrines of mysticism: their physiology was analogically connected with their metallurgy, the same principles holding good in each case. PARACELSUS, as we have seen, taught that man is a microcosm, a world in miniature; his spirit, the Divine Spark within, is from God; his soul is from the Stars, extracted from the Spirit of the World; and his body is from the earth, extracted from the elements of which all things material are made. This view of man was shared by many other alchemists. The Philosopher’s Stone, therefore (or, rather, a solution of it in alcohol) was also regarded as the Elixir of Life; which, thought the alchemists, would not endow man with physical immortality, as is sometimes supposed, but restore him again to the flower of youth, "regenerating" him physiologically. Failing this, of course, they regarded gold in a potable form as the next most powerful medicine—a belief which probably led to injurious effects in some cases.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Chicago: Herbert Stanley Redgrove, "IX the Quest of the Philosopher’s Stone," Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought, trans. Benson, Vincent in Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024,

MLA: Redgrove, Herbert Stanley. "IX the Quest of the Philosopher’s Stone." Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought, translted by Benson, Vincent, in Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Redgrove, HS, 'IX the Quest of the Philosopher’s Stone' in Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought, trans. . cited in , Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from