The common perception of alchemists, the practitioners of alchemy, is that they were pseudo-scientists who attempted to turn lead into gold, believed all matter was composed of the four elements earth, air, fire, and water, and dabbled around the edges of mysticism and magic. From today's perspective, these perceptions have some validity, but if we are to be objective we should judge them in the context of the times they lived in. They were attempting to explore and investigate nature before many of the most basic scientific tools and practices were available, relying instead on rules of thumb, traditions, basic observations, and mysticism to fill in the gaps. In a sense, alchemists can be regarded as proto-scientists applying a fusion of science, art, and religion applied to chemical physics, and alchemy can be regarded as the precursor of the modern science of chemistry prior to the formulation of the scientific method.
To understand the alchemists it is helpful to consider how wonderfully magical the conversion of one substance into another would seem in a culture with no formal understanding of physics or chemistry. The transmutation of base metals into gold symbolized an endeavour toward perfection or the highest heights of actual existence, and the division of the world into four basic elements was as much a geometric principle as a geological one. The literal interpretations of the alchemists' uninitiated contemporaries, or the fraudulent hopes fostered by some of their colleagues should not diminish the undertakings of the more sincere alchemists.
Further, the field of alchemy evolved greatly over time, beginning as a metallurgical/medicinal arm of religion, maturing into a rich field of study in its own right, devolving into mysticism and outright charlatanism, and in the end providing some of the fundamental empirical knowledge of the fields of chemistry and modern medicine.
In alchemy, the chemical, elemental or material dimension was not kept distinct from the interpretive, symbolic or philosophical one: a physics devoid of metaphysical insight was as partial and incomplete as a metaphysics devoid of physical manifestation.
The origins of alchemy lie in Ancient (Pharaonic) Egypt and Ancient (Hellenic) Greece, and we can trace its onward development from there outward through India and the Middle East. Metallurgy and mysticism were inexorably tied together in the ancient world, as the techniques of converting ores into an almost holy metal seemed to be a priestly art. Alchemy in Ancient Egypt was the domain of the priestly class.
Legend has it that the founder of alchemy was Thoth or the Thrice-Great Hermes (Hermes-Thoth, or Hermes Trismegistus). According to Egyptian legend, Thoth wrote what were called the forty-two Books of Knowledge, covering law, medicine, alchemy, and everything (all knowledge). Legend suggests these books were lost in the flames of Alexandria or some other disastrous fate. Hermes is associated with the Caduceus, which became one of many of alchemy's principal symbols.
The "Emerald Table" (the Hermetica) of Thrice-Greatest Hermes, which seems to have survived fires and other disasters in its translated versions (thanks to vigilant Arabic scribes) is generally understood to form the basis for alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by the early alchemists.
The first point of the "Emerald Tablet" tells the purpose of hermetical science: "in truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing." (Burckhardt, p. 196-7)
This is the macrocosm-microcosm[?] belief central to the hermetic philosophy. In other words, the human body (the microcosm) is affected by the exterior world (the macrocosm), which includes the heavens through astrology, and the earth through the elements. (Burckhardt,p. 34-42)
The Greeks appropriated the hermetical beliefs and melded with them the philosophies of Pythagoreanism, ionianism[?], and gnosticism. Pythagorean philosophy is, essentially, the belief that numbers rule the universe, originating from the observations of sound, stars, and geometric shapes like triangles, or anything from which a ratio could be derived. Ionian thought was based on the belief that the universe could be explained through concentration on natural phenomena; this philosophy is believed to have originated with Thales and his pupil Anaximander, and later developed by Plato and Aristotle, whose works came to be an integral part of alchemy. According to this belief, the universe can be described by a few unified natural laws that can be determined only through careful, thorough, and exacting philosophical explorations. The third component introduced to hermetical philosophy by the Greeks was gnosticism, a belief prevalent in the pre-Christian and early post-Christian Roman empire, that the world is imperfect because it was created in a flawed manner, and that learning about the nature of spiritual matter would lead to salvation. They further believed that God did not "create" the universe in the classic sense, but that the universe was created "from" him, but was corrupted in the process (rather than becoming corrupted by the transgressions of Adam and Eve, i.e. original sin). According to Gnostic belief, by worshipping the cosmos, nature, or the creatures of the world, one worships the True God. Gnostics do not seek salvation from sin, but instead seek to escape ignorance, believing that sin is merely a consequence of ignorance.
By the end of the Roman empire these philosophies had been joined to the hermetical philosophies of the Egyptians. (Lindsay)
Parallel to these developments, however, came a contrary line of thinking, stemming from Augustinian, an early Christian philosopher who wrote of his beliefs shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire. In essence, he felt that reason and faith could be used to understand God, but experimental philosophy[?] was evil: "There is also present in the soul, by means of these same bodily sense, a kind of empty longing and curiosity which aims not at taking pleasure in the flesh but at acquiring experience through the flesh, and this empty curiosity is dignified by the names of learning and science." (Augustine, p. 245)
Augustinian ideas were decidedly anti-experimental, yet when Aristotelian experimental techniques were made available to the West they were not shunned. Still, Augustinian thought was well ingrained in medieval society[?] and was used to show alchemy as being un-Godly. Ultimately, by the high middle ages, this line of thought created a permanent rift separating alchemy from the very religion that had fostered its birth.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Middle East. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented. In Alexandria, the centre of alchemical studies in the Roman Empire, the art was mainly oral and in the interests of secrecy little was committed to paper. (Whence the use of "hermetic" to mean "secretive".) (Lindsay, p. 155) It is possible that some writing was done in Alexandria, and that it was subsequently lost or destroyed in fires and the turbulent periods that followed. In any case, most of the earliest writings that have come down through the years were preserved in Islamic texts. (Burckhardt p. 46)
The Arab and Persian world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into hermetical science, continued to be assimilated. One very important Aristotelian idea originated by Empedocles was that of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed. (Lindsay, p. 16)
Alchemists adapted this a little: The four elements were really qualitative aspects of matter, not quantitative, as our modern elements are. "...true alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form." (Hitchcock, p. 66) Platonic and neo-Platonic theories about universals and the omnipotence of God were also absorbed.
Of the many Arab hermetic philosophers, Jabir ibn-Hayyn (Geber) of the eighth century was the most noteworthy. To Aristotelian physics he added the four properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. (Burkhardt, p. 29) Each element was characterized by these qualities: Fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. In metals two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was cold and dry and gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. (Burckhardt, p. 29)
Among the greatest alchemists who lived in the eighth century was Iranian polymath Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi , who also contributed much in the field of medicine. He classified minerals and substances and described there physical properties in a manner that remains in use today. He is also credited for making discoveries in medicine and chemistry.
By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to the west. The search for the stone, or grand elixir, had originated from China, most scholars believe, and was supposed to have the added effect of being able to make one immortal. (Edwards, p. 38) It is not known how much Chinese alchemy was added to the Islamic version of the Art, but that Chinese theories influenced Arabic scientists has been commonly accepted. (Edwards pp. 33-59; Burckhardt, p. 10-22)
Likewise, Hindu learning was assimilated into Islamic alchemy, but again the extent and effects of this are not well known. An eleventh century Iranian alchemist named al-Biruni testified to the existence of Hindu alchemy saying that they "have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them. They call it Rasayana[?]. It means the art which is restricted to certain operations, drugs, compounds, and medicines, most of which are taken from plants. Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age." Islamic numerology was also taken by the Arabs, but assimilation of this into alchemy was left for the European alchemists of the Renaissance. (Lindsay p. 87-8; Edwards, p. 28)
Arabic and Persian beliefs were intrinsically tied to Islamic alchemy, and when Europeans appropriated the philosophies of the Arabs and Iranians, alchemy came along for the ride, so to speak. Because these beliefs had originated from a Christian society[?] they were not difficult to adapt to Christian theology. Gerbert of Aurillac, who was later to become Pope Silvester II, (d. 1003) was among the first to bring Islamic science to Europe from Spain. Later men such as Adelard of Bath, who lived in the 12th century, brought additional learning. But until the thirteenth century the moves were mainly assimilative. (Hollister p. 124, 294)
There were some exceptions to this trend. Saint Anselm (1033-1109) was an Augustinian who believed faith must precede rationalism, as Augustine and most theologians prior to Anselm had believed, but Anselm put forth the opinion that faith and rationalism were compatible and encouraged rationalism in a Christian context. His views set the stage for the philosophical explosion to occur. Saint Abelard[?] followed Anselm's work, laying the foundation for acceptance of Aristotelian thought before the first works of Aristotle reached the West. His major influence on alchemy was his belief that Platonic universals did not have a separate existence outside of man's consciousness. Abelard also systematized the analysis of philosophical contradictions. (Hollister, p. 287-8)
Robert Grosseteste (1170-1253) was a pioneer of the scientific theory that would later be used and refined by the alchemists. he took Abelard's methods of analysis and added the use of observations, experimentation, and conclusions in making scientific evaluations. Grosseteste also did much work to bridge Platonic and Aristotelian thinking. (Hollister pp. 294-5)
Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) were both Dominicans who studied Aristotle and worked at reconciling the differences between philosophy and Christianity. Aquinas also did a great deal of work in developing the scientific method. He even went as far as claiming that universals could be discovered only through logical reasoning[?]: this ran contrary to the commonly held Platonic belief that universals were found through divine illumination[?] alone. Magnus and Aquinas were among the first to take up the examination of alchemical theory, and could be considered to be alchemists themselves, except that these two did little in the way of experimentation. One major contribution of Aquinas was the belief that since reason could not run in opposition to God, reason must be compatible with theology. (Hollister p. 290-4, 355)
The first true alchemist in Medieval Europe was Roger Bacon. His work did as much for alchemy as Robert Boyle's did for chemistry and Galileo's did for astronomy and physics. Bacon (1214-1294) was an Oxford Franciscan who explored optics and languages in addition to alchemy. The Franciscan ideals of taking on the world rather than rejecting the world led to his conviction that experimentation was more important than reasoning: "Of the three ways in which men think that they acquire knowledge of things - authority, reasoning, and experience[?] - only the last is effective and able to bring peace to the intellect." (Bacon p. 367) "Experimental Science[?] controls the conclusions of all other sciences. It reveals truths which reasoning from general principles would never have discovered." (Hollister p. 294-5) Roger Bacon has also been attributed with originating the search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life: "That medicine which will remove all impurities and corruptibilities from the lesser metals will also, in the opinion of the wise, take off so much of the corruptibility of the body that human life may be prolonged for many centuries." The idea of immortality was replaced with the notion of long life; after all, man's time on Earth was simply to wait and prepare for immortality in the world of God. Immortality on Earth did not mesh with Christian theology. (Edwards p. 37-8)
Bacon was not the only alchemist of the high middle ages, but he was the most significant. His works were used by countless alchemists of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Other alchemists of Bacon's time shared several traits. First, and most obviously, nearly all were members of the clergy. This was simply because few people outside the parochial schools had the education to examine the Arabic-derived works. Also, alchemy at this time was sanctioned by the church as a good method of exploring and developing theology. Alchemy was interesting to the wide variety of churchmen because it offered a rationalistic view of the universe when men were just beginning to learn about rationalism. (Edwards p. 24-7)
So by the end of the thirteenth century, alchemy had developed into a fairly structured system of belief. Most importantly, the alchemists were all true Christians. They believed in the macrocosm-microcosm theories of Hermes, that is to say, they believed that processes that affect minerals and other substances could have an effect on the human body (e.g., if one could learn the secret of purifying gold, one could use the technique to purify the human soul.) These men believed the philosophers' stone was a substance that was capable of purifying base metals (and thereby transmuting them to gold) as well as purifying the soul. They believed in the four elements and the four qualities as described above, and they had a strong tradition of cloaking their written ideas in a labyrinth of coded jargon set with traps to mislead the uninitiated. Finally, the alchemists practiced their art: they actively experimented with chemicals and made observations and theories about how the universe operated. Their entire philosophy revolved around their belief that man's soul was divided within himself after the fall of Adam. By purifying the two parts of man's soul, man could be reunited with God. (Burckhardt p. 149)
But in the fourteenth century, all this was to change. William of Ockham, an Oxford Franciscan who died in 1349, attacked the Thomist[?] view of compatibility between faith and reason. His view, widely accepted today, was that God must be accepted on faith alone; He could not be limited by human reason. Of course this view was not incorrect if one accepted the postulate of a limitless God versus limited human reasoning capability, but it virtually erased alchemy from practice in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Hollister p. 335) Pope John XXII in the early 1300s issued an edict against alchemy, which effectively removed all church personnel from the practice of the Art. (Edwards, p.49) The climate changes, Black plague, and increase in warfare and famine that characterized this century no doubt also served to hamper philosophical pursuits in general.
Alchemy was kept alive by men such as Nicolas Flamel, who was noteworthy only because he was one of the few alchemists writing in those troubled times. Flamel lived from 1330 to 1417 and would serve as the archetype for the next phase of alchemy. He was not a religious scholar as were many of his predecessors, and his entire interest in the subject revolved around the pursuit of the philosopher's stone, which he is reputed to have found; his work spends a great deal of time describing the processes and reactions, but never actually gives the formula for carrying out the transmutations. Most of his work was aimed at gathering alchemical knowledge that had existed before him, especially as regarded the philosophers' stone. (Burckhardt pp.170-181)
Through the high middle ages (1300-1500) alchemists were much like Nicolas Flamel: they concentrated on looking for the philosophers' stone and the elixir of youth (now believed to be separate things.) This had only one possible consequence; the cryptic allusions and symbolism led to wide variations in interpretation of the art and, while many "true", that is, inducted, alchemists existed, many new alchemists interpreted the purification of the soul to mean the transmutation of lead into gold and pursued this track. These men came to be viewed as magicians and sorcerers by the common people, and were often persecuted for their practices. (Edwards pp. 50-75; Norton pp lxiii-lxvii)
One of these men who emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century was named Cornelius Agrippa. This alchemist believed himself to be a wizard and actually thought himself capable of summoning spirits. His influence was negligible, but like Flamel, he produced writings which were referred to by alchemists of later years. Again like Flamel, he did much to change alchemy from a mystical philosophy to an occultist magic. He did keep alive the philosophies of the earlier alchemists, including experimental science, numerology, etc., but he added magic theory, which reinforced the idea of alchemy as an occultist belief. In spite of all this, Agrippa was still a Christian, though his views often came into conflict with the church. Edwardes p56-9; Wilson p.23-9)
Alchemy continued in this way through the dawning of the Renaissance. Alchemists/con-artists abounded, who would use popular beliefs and sleight of hand to convince a noteworthy person such as a professor or minor noble that the secret of transmutation was possessed by the alchemist. Invariably the "alchemist" was summoned to the local lord's court for a presentation. When none was forthcoming, nasty things happened to the imposter. (Wilson p.31-44)
Then, in the early sixteenth century a man named Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, (Theocrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) (1493-1541) remolded alchemy into a new form rejecting the occult paraphernalia that had accumulated over the years and calling for new observations and experiments.
Paracelsian dogma was the last "ism" to be grafted onto alchemy before its death. Paracelsus rejected Gnostic traditions, but kept much of the Hermetical, neo-Platonic, and Pythagorean philosophies; however, Hermetical science had so much Aristotelian theory that his rejection of Gnosticism was practically meaningless. In particular, Paracelsus rejected the magic theories of Agrippa and Flamel; Paracelsus did not think of himself as a magician and scorned those who did. (Williams p.239-45)
Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. He coined the words "alcohol" and "zinc" and used experimentation in learning about the human body. His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man the microcosm and Nature the macrocosm. He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. (Debus & Multhauf, p.6-12) He summarized his own views: "Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines." (Edwardes, p.47)
Indeed, the remnants of alchemical traditions can still be seen in modern medicine. For instance, the Caduceus (the staff of Hermes), has been adopted as the prime symbol of western medicine.
While the Paracelsian interpretation led to the development of modern medicine, a different offshoot led to modern chemistry. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) is well known for his studies of gases, leading to Boyles law, but few realize the importance of this man to modern chemistry. In the early 1600s, alchemy was synonymous with medicine and chemistry. By Boyle's time, alchemists had disposed of most of the occultist beliefs that once plagued the Art, but still they clung to the hermetical beliefs that had been carried down through the millennia. Boyle did away with this. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data; in a typical experiment, Boyle would collect data on the place in which the experiment was carried out, the wind characteristics, the position of the sun and moon, and the barometer reading, all just in case they proved to be relevant. (Pilkington p.11)
With the birth of modern chemistry, alchemy was made impotent. As scientists began to discover and rationalize the clockwork of the universe, alchemical theories were thrown in the waste basket, unneeded and forgotten. It is sobering to observe that alchemy, after having such a rich and colorful two thousand years of history - during which it enjoyed the preeminent position among scientific studies - could be so easily and totally ostracized by scientists and common citizens.