Alchemy Defined

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The Philosophy of Alchemy


Alchemy is the quest for an agent of material perfection, produced

through a creative activity (opus), in which humans and nature

collaborate. It exists in many cultures (China, India, Islam; in the

Western world since Hellenistic times) under different

specifications: aiming at the production of gold and/or other

perfect substances from baser ones, or of the elixir that prolongs

life, or even of life itself. Because of its purpose, the alchemists’

quest is always strictly linked to the religious doctrine of redemption

current in each civilization where alchemy is practised.


In the Western world alchemy presented itself at its advent as a

sacred art. But when, after a long detour via Byzantium and Islamic

culture, it came back again to Europe in the twelfth century, adepts

designated themselves philosophers. Since then alchemy has

confronted natural philosophy for several centuries.


In contemporary thought the memory of alchemy was scarcely

regarded, save as protochemistry or as a branch of esotericism,

until interest in it was revived by C.G. Jung. Recent research is

increasingly showing the complexity of alchemy and its multiple

relation to Western thought.


1 Name and definition

The name ‘alchemy’ appeared in Islamic culture, whence it passed to

Latin. It evolved (apparently) from the Greek ‘chemèia’ (art of melting

metals) or ‘chymos’ (juice). An alternative etymology, supported by the

Hermetic tradition, indicates ‘kemi’ (black clay), the ancient name of

Egypt, pointing to the mythological link with the god Hermes-Thoth.


Initially alchemy denoted both the art and its product; this latter use,

however, is rare in the Western tradition. As a name indicating the art or

opus, its meaning varies depending on the period referred to: originally it

designated the practical and theoretical search for transmutation,

whereas in contemporary esotericism it indicates the concrete

achievement(s) associated with a pre-eminently spiritual quest.


Accordingly, the decision about what is an alchemical text or an

alchemical image may differ: we distinguish a historical, an esoteric and

a psychological approach. Historians consider written tradition

(manuscript and printed texts and images) the one and only testimony of

a doctrine evolving in time. For esotericists, this same tradition is nothing

but the surface of a secret, immutable knowledge, often deliberately

disguising its truth. For depth psychology alchemy encompasses virtually

every kind of symbolic production.


The definition given by H.J. Sheppard (1986), currently the most widely

accepted, takes into account all approaches: ‘ Alchemy is the art of

liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving

perfection which, for metals, is gold, and for man, longevity, then

immortality and, finally, redemption’.


2 Epistemological structure

The association of practice and theory characterizes alchemy from its

very beginning and distinguishes it from other symbolic lore. Archaic

metallurgy, in its connection with religious rites, is generally considered

the cradle of alchemy: this opinion has accounted for the religious and

even mystical elements in alchemy since the work of Zosimus of

Panopolis (c.3-4 AD). Yet the earliest acknowledged alchemical text

(Bolus of Mende, pseud. Democritus, Physikà kai mystikà c.1 AD)

shows that just those metallurgical practices imbued with religious

significance were the basis on which a theory of matter was beginning to

be built: a theory derived from practice, not the contrary.


Indeed, the dependence of theory on practice marks the whole history of

alchemy. For its theoretical content, Western alchemy was called ‘the

child of Greek philosophy’, but we cannot accept such a genealogy

without remembering that there was also another ‘parent’, namely,

concrete work on matter. In the Middle Ages, as practical alchemy

interacted with the development of techniques and craftmanships

(metallurgy, goldsmith, dyeing, pharmacology), it was first considered an

‘ars mechanica’, but soon its theoretical meaning became clear to

philosophers like Albert the Great and Roger Bacon, and the close

connection between alchemical practice and religious-philosophical

speculation continued with Paracelsus and the Rosicrucians, with

Newton and Goethe (see Paracelsus §3).


Therefore we cannot speak of alchemy proper where we find only a

practice, be it metallurgy, distillation or whatever else: the dyeing recipes

of medieval painters, or distillation among Renaissance physicians.

However, we must be equally careful not to speak of alchemy too

readily whenever alchemical symbolism is used for other purposes: for

example, by mystics.

The connection between practice and theory accounts for, and delimits,

the contribution of alchemy to the birth of chemistry. Like ancient artisans, who owned secret

techniques transmitted through apprenticeship, alchemists were secretely

initiated to the opus. The secrecy of alchemy is a major point of

divergence from chemistry, which, like all modern sciences, is

characterized by public discussion and teaching. Moreover, although

alchemists for centuries worked with metals and minerals, invented

techniques (for example, distillation), designed and used laboratory

apparatus that chemists would inherit, they never relinquished their

original religious attitude; as a consequence of this, theoretical

developments were radically different from those of modern chemistry.

Basically, for alchemists, matter was no inert object but the body of their

own Mother Nature. So there is no epistemological continuity between

alchemy and chemistry; protochemical features may be disentangled only

a posteriori from a doctrinal whole owing its orientation to totally

different ideas and purposes.

3 Features of the alchemical literature

The initiatory character of alchemical teaching accounts for the most

striking feature of the language of alchemists, that is, the use of a rich

symbolism. Metaphorical names for substances and processes were

used from the beginning, an attitude reinforced by Arab alchemists and

complicated by the obvious difficulties of Latin translators. The use of

metaphors met the need for secrecy and facilitated the merging of

operative and religious meaning; but it also prevented the creation of a

technical vocabulary (another major difference from chemistry) and

fostered the transformation of alchemy into an occult art.

This retreat into the occult, accompanied by the development of

alchemical imagery, began at the end of the Middle Ages, when

metallurgical alchemy was defeated by the denunciation of alchemists as

forgers and the idea of the medical elixir began to be associated with the

prophetic and visionary mood of the Spirituals. So, while many medieval

texts were written in a clear language and even, sometimes, in a truly

philosophical style, the number of obscure writings playing with symbols

and visions increased steadily from the fourteenth century. Later

alchemists went further, explicitly linking their art to ancient mythology

and eventually wholly replacing words with images.

Thus the main difference inside alchemical literature is between clear

and obscure texts. Various genera belong to the first group: recipes,

practical treatises, theory and practice texts, commentaries, veritable

summae; rarely does their ‘clear’ character match our modern demands

for clarity. Obscure texts comprise mainly visions, riddles, and poems.

A relevant feature of the alchemical literature, since its very origin, is its

pseudoepigraphical character, often connected to the creation of legends

concerning the supposed authors of alchemical writings. By means of

pseudoepigraphy alchemists clearly attempted to enrol themselves in the

philosophical tradition, albeit awkwardly. Texts were attributed to pagan

gods, mythological and biblical figures, ancient and medieval

philosophers. Such attributions assured secrecy, while raising the prestige

of writings of obscure authors; they might even be a subtle indication of


4 Alchemical doctrines

The basic idea of alchemy is the identity of nature and first matter as a

dynamic unity: elements can pass one into another, in a circular

movement that alchemists reproduced in their vessels. No theory of

natural loci (low and high are interchangeable, according to the Tabula

smaragdina c.9 AD), no dualism of matter and spirit exists, as first

matter is the all-embracing source of change. The alchemist, who can

obtain first matter by means of the dissolution of natural bodies, is almost

a new creator who makes a new reality come out of the artificially

produced chaos ‘putting nature into nature’, that is, cultivating the seeds

of perfection existing in nature (perfect metals) according to natural

rules, and ‘awaiting nature’s time of delivery’. (R. Llull, Testamentum

c.14 AD).

This structure is first seen as continuity inside the inanimate field of

metals, and as analogy between metals and planets: all metals are

nothing but imperfect gold (like embryos at various stages), and the

alchemist accomplishes nature’s work outside the womb of earth in a

shortened time, possibly within an astrological framework. Some

alchemists viewed the process as a victory over nature and time,

foreshadowing the Promethean developments of modern science and

technology: there are some hints that medieval theologians rebuked

alchemy for this claim. Yet the relation between alchemical art and

nature’s work was generally considered in a more subtle and complex

way, especially in the theoretical attempts made by fourteenth-century

alchemists who developed the idea of elixir. Continuity from inanimate

matter to human beings was explicitly or implicitly affirmed, and the

alchemists were conscious of themselves as a part of the matter/nature

that they manipulated in order to perfect, not to dominate. This

consciousness preserved their attitude of religious reverence for nature,

whose abandonment was a major feature of modern science.

5 Alchemy and Western philosophy

Discussing matter and its transformations, alchemists encountered

philosophical themes from the beginning. There have even been attempts

to trace back alchemy to Aristotle’s idea of change in material

substances (see Matter §1), but actually alchemy (practice plus theory)

was not yet born. In later Antiquity an especial relationship existed

between alchemy and Hermetic thought (see Hermetism): the unity of

first matter, the principle of sympathy, the doctrine of occult virtues, all

are behind Bolus’ axiom that ‘Nature is charmed by nature, nature

prevails over nature, nature rules nature’. The Stoic doctrine of pneuma

lingers on in the search for material essences through distillation, a

practice that goes back to Maria the Jewess (c.3 AD) (see Stoicism §4).

Medieval developments were considerable, as scholastic philosophers

and alchemists compared alchemy to the Aristotelian philosophical

concepts. According to Albert the Great (De mineralibus c.13 AD)

alchemy helped to complete the Aristotelian science of metals. Roger

Bacon showed a broader concern, viewing alchemy as the general

theory of generation and corruption of all natural beings. Some

alchemists even tried to translate into Aristotelian language their

experience, identifying form with the purest and thinnest substance

(quintessence) resulting from sublimation or distillation. How much of

Stoic natural philosophy intermingled with Aristotelian ideas in this

attempt is unclear. Form was also identified with the soul, so that all

material bodies, metals included, were considered endowed with a soul;

body and soul were kept united by spirit, an idea which the alchemists

could also find in medical literature, and developed into that of the

universal ‘medium’ that gives unity and life to the created world.

The Hermetic elements had never disappeared from Western alchemy,

as the central role of the Tabula smaragdina shows; during the

Renaissance, they became prevalent. Alchemical doctrines were known

to virtually every Renaissance philosopher, discussed by most of them,

accepted by many. The relation between Renaissance Platonism and

alchemical thought might be considered afresh, as alchemy is a project to

obtain on earth the stability and perfection that characterize the Platonic

world of ideas, manipulating the universal spirit that mediates between

matter and the divine world. The most significant development, however,

can be found in Paracelsus, whose idea of ‘making visible the

invisible’ rests on the alchemical assumption that the quintessence of

material bodies can be revealed through the opus. So, Paracelsian

alchemy aimed at revealing the secret of life and putting it to work for

the spiritual and bodily health of humans. More definitely, the idea of an

alchemical remedy or elixir crystallized in that of potable gold, which

interested Ficino and Francis Bacon among others.

In the seventeenth century, Francis Mercurius van Helmont turned the

idea of the universal spirit into that of alkahest, the basis for subsequent

chemical developments which ultimately led to the discovery of oxygen.

Newton’s alchemical and cosmological speculation about the creative,

non-mechanical spirit animating matter is at the core of the debate about

the role of Hermetism in the Scientific Revolution. The re-emergence of

Stoic ideas concerning first matter and mixed bodies in

seventeenth-century alchemy has recently been considered to establish it

as part of the normal science of that epoch. Even after the birth of

modern chemistry, alchemy maintained its appeal to speculative spirits:

Goethe apart, we have the clear instance of the subsequent development

of Naturphilosophie in nineteenth-century Germany (see

Naturphilosophie), with alchemical doctrines flowing into the mainstream

of vitalism (see Vitalism). More surprising perhaps is to find alchemy

defined in the Encyclopédie as chemistry brought to the highest degree

of perfection and therefore capable of operating marvellous effects, ‘la

chimie sublime, la chimie par excellence’.

6 Alchemy and the present

Nineteenth-century scholarly research on protochemistry overlapped

with the latest development of esoterical alchemy (hyperchemistry).

Historians of chemistry judged alchemy a mix of positive empirical data

about chemical matter with obscure mystical speculation. An echo of

their attitude is still felt in the consideration of alchemy as an error in the

history of science, indeed, according to Bachelard, ‘the first error’ in the

scientific approach to the problem of matter.

Alchemy attracted the attention of C.G. Jung as a historical testimony of

the dynamics of the unconscious. Jung’s deep study of alchemy led him

first to conceive of it as the projection upon matter of the unconscious

tendency to individuation; but he also saw in alchemy the expression of a

more complex relation between humanity and nature, where matter is

recognized as the feminine counterpart of the divine, and human

knowledge is fostered by the very light of nature (a Paracelsian idea),

comparable to the light of Revelation. Thus Jung gave a positive value to

the link between religious attitude and empirical research in alchemy. On

the other hand, the idea of the alchemists as forerunners of the modern

ideal of the scientist who overcomes nature and time is at the core of M.

Eliade’s (1956) view of alchemy as an intermediate stage between

archaic metallurgy and modern technology.

Recent proposals from within French esotericism bear on epistemology

and aesthetics: A. Faivre’s (1971a) conception of the non-dualistic logic

of alchemy links it to the most advanced results in the epistemology of

physics, while F. Bonardel (1993) defines the alchemist’s attitude as

taking charge of the created world. She opposes the

Promethean-Faustian view of alchemy, and deplores its gradual fall from

the original position of the art of Hermes, proposing its identification with

poetry. Another contemporary way of stressing the Hermetic meaning of

alchemy is that of focusing on its figurative symbolism, not only in the

images linked to alchemical texts or in the alchemical interpretation of

artists of the past, but even in defining the creative process of

contemporary art as alchemy.


Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge

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