Monday, November 20, 2006

Alchemy in Medieval Europe

Because of its strong connections to the Greek and Roman cultures, alchemy was rather easily accepted into Christian philosophy, and Medieval European alchemists extensively absorbed Islamic alchemical knowledge. 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 13th century the moves were mainly assimilative. (Hollister p. 124, 294)

In this period there appeared some deviations from the Augustinian principles of earlier Christian thinkers. Saint Anselm (1033–1109) was a Benedictine 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. Peter 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, and, since reason could not run in opposition to God, reason must be compatible with theology. (Hollister p. 290-4, 355). 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.

The first true alchemist in Medieval Europe was Roger Bacon. His work did as much for alchemy as Robert Boyle's was to do for chemistry and Galileo's 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. (Edwardes 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. (Edwardes p. 24-7)

So by the end of the thirteenth century, alchemy had developed into a fairly structured system of belief. Adepts 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 (for example, if one could learn the secret of purifying gold, one could use the technique to purify the human 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)

In the fourteenth century, these views underwent a major 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. (Edwardes, 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.

Nicholas Flamel had these mysterious alchemical symbols carved on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris.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 Flamel: they concentrated on looking for the philosophers' stone and the elixir of youth, now believed to be separate things. Their cryptic allusions and symbolism led to wide variations in interpretation of the art. For example, many alchemists during this period interpreted the purification of the soul to mean the transmutation of lead into gold (in which they believed elemental mercury, or 'quicksilver', played a crucial role). These men were viewed as magicians and sorcerers by many, and were often persecuted for their practices. (Edwardes pp. 50-75)(Norton pp lxiii-lxvii)

One of these men who emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century was named Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. This alchemist believed himself to be a wizard and was 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 still considered himself a Christian, though his views often came into conflict with the church. (Edwardes p.56-9)(Wilson p.23-9)

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Alchemy as a proto-science

The common perception of alchemists is that they were pseudo-scientists, crackpots and charlatans, who attempted to turn lead into gold, believed that the universe was composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and spent most of their time concocting miraculous remedies, poisons, and magic potions.
Although some alchemists were indeed crackpots and charlatans, most were well-meaning and intelligent scholars; among their number can be counted such distinguished scientists as Sir Isaac Newton. These people in many ways served as innovators, and attempted to explore and investigate the nature of chemical substances and processes. They had to rely on experimentation, traditional know-how, rules of thumb — and speculative thought in their attempts to uncover the mysteries of the physical universe.
At the same time, it was clear to the alchemists that "something" was generally being conserved in chemical processes, even in the most dramatic changes of physical state and appearance; i.e. that substances contained some "principles" that could be hidden under many outer forms, and revealed by proper manipulation. Throughout the history of the discipline, alchemists struggled to understand the nature of these principles, and find some order and sense in the results of their chemical experiments — which were often undermined by impure or poorly characterized reagents, the lack of quantitative measurements, and confusing and inconsistent nomenclature.

Alchemy (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

For other uses, see Alchemy (disambiguation).

An alchemist's laboratory
Alchemy refers to both an early protoscience and an early philosophical discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art. Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Islamic Caliphates, and then in Europe up to the 19th century — in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.
Western alchemy has always been closely connected with Hermeticism, a philosophical and spiritual system that traces its roots to Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic Egyptian-Greek deity and legendary alchemist. These two disciplines influenced the birth of Rosicrucianism, an important esoteric movement of the seventeenth century. In the course of the early modern period, as mainstream alchemy evolved into modern chemistry, its mystic and Hermetic aspects became the focus of a modern spiritual alchemy, where material manipulations are viewed as mere symbols of spiritual transformations.
Today, the discipline is of interest mainly to historians of science and philosophy, and for its mystic, esoteric, and artistic aspects. Nevertheless, alchemy was one of the main precursors of modern sciences, and we owe to the ancient alchemists the discovery of many substances and processes that are the mainstay of modern chemical and metallurgical industries.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline

The best known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold or silver, and the creation of a "panacea", a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Starting with the Middle Ages, European alchemists invested much effort on the search for the "philosopher's stone", a mythical substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or both of those goals. Alchemists enjoyed prestige and support through the centuries, though not for their pursuit of those goals, nor the mystic and philosophical speculation that dominates their literature. Rather it was for their mundane contributions to the "chemical" industries of the day — the invention of gunpowder, ore testing and refining, metalworking, production of ink, dyes, paints, and cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics and glass manufacture, preparation of extracts and liquors, and so on (It seems that the preparation of aqua vitae, the "water of life", was a fairly popular "experiment" among European alchemists).
On the other hand, alchemists never had the inclination to separate the physical (chemical) aspects of their craft from the metaphysical interpretations. Indeed, from antiquity until well into the Modern Age, a physics devoid of metaphysical insight would have been as unsatisfying as a metaphysics devoid of physical manifestation. For one thing, the lack of common words for chemical concepts and processes, as well as the need for secrecy, led alchemists to borrow the terms and symbols of biblical and pagan mythology, astrology, kabbalah, and other mystic and esoteric fields; so that even the plainest chemical recipe ended up reading like an abstruse magic incantation. Moreover, alchemists sought in those fields the theoretical frameworks into which they could fit their growing collection of disjointed experimental facts.
Starting with the middle ages, some alchemists increasingly came to view these metaphysical aspects as the true foundation of alchemy; and chemical substances, physical states, and material processes as mere metaphors for spiritual entities, states and transformations. Thus, both the transmutation of common metals into gold and the universal panacea symbolized evolution from an imperfect, diseased, corruptible and ephemeral state towards a perfect, healthy, incorruptible and everlasting state; and the philosopher's stone then represented some mystic key that would make this evolution possible. Applied to the alchemist himself, the twin goal symbolized his evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, and the stone represented some hidden spiritual truth or power that would lead to that goal. In texts that are written according to this view, the cryptic alchemical symbols, diagrams, and textual imagery of late alchemical works typically contain multiple layers of meanings, allegories, and references to other equally cryptic works; and must be laboriously "decoded" in order to discover their true meaning.
Some humanistic scholars now see these spiritual and metaphysical allegories as the truest and most valuable aspect of alchemy, and even claim that the development of chemistry out of alchemy was a "corruption" of the original Hermetic tradition. This is the view espoused by contemporary practitioners of spiritual alchemy. Most scientists, on the other hand, tend to take quite the opposite view: to them, the path from the material side of alchemy to modern chemistry was the "straight road" in the evolution of the discipline, while the metaphysically oriented brand of alchemy was a "wrong turn" that led to nowhere. In either view, however, the naïve interpretations of some practitioners or the fraudulent hopes fostered by others should not diminish the contribution of the more sincere alchemists.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Alchemy in ancient Egypt

The origin of western alchemy may generally be traced to ancient (pharaonic) Egypt. Metallurgy and mysticism were inexorably tied together in the ancient world, as the transformation of drab ore into shining metal must have seemed to be an act of magic governed by mysterious rules. It is claimed therefore that Alchemy in ancient Egypt was the domain of the priestly class.
Egyptian alchemy is known mostly through the writings of ancient (Hellenic) Greek philosophers, which in turn have often survived only in Islamic translations. Practically no original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived. Those writings, if they existed, were likely lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (292), which had been a center of Egyptian alchemy.
Nevertheless archaeological expeditions in recent times have unearthed evidence of chemical analysis during the Naqada periods. For example, a copper tool dating to the Naqada era bears evidence of having been used in such a way (reference: artifact 5437 on display at [1]). Also, the process of tanning animal skins was already known in Predynastic Egypt as early as the 6th millennium BC [2]; although it possibly was discovered haphazardly.
Other evidence indicates early alchemists in ancient Egypt had invented mortar by 4000 BC and glass by 1500 BC. The chemical reaction involved in the production of Calcium Oxide is one of the oldest known (references: Calcium Oxide, limekiln):
CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2.
Ancient Egypt additionally produced cosmetics, cement, faience and also pitch for shipbuilding. Papyrus had also been invented by 3000 BC.
Legend has it that the founder of Egyptian alchemy was the god Thoth, called Hermes-Thoth or Thrice-Great Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus) by the Greeks. According to legend, he wrote what were called the forty-two Books of Knowledge, covering all fields of knowledge—including alchemy. Hermes's symbol was the caduceus or serpent-staff, which became one of many of alchemy's principal symbols. The "Emerald Tablet" or Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes, which is known only through Greek and Arabic translations, is generally understood to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners.
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)
It has been speculated that a riddle from the Emerald Tablet—"it was carried in the womb by the wind"—refers to the distillation of oxygen from saltpeter—a process that was unknown in Europe until its (re)discovery by Sendivogius in the 17th century.
In the 4th century BC, the Greek-speaking Macedonians conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria in 332. This brought them into contact with Egyptian ideas. See Alchemy in the Greek World below.
The proof of alchemic practices in Ancient Egypt also supports that not all forms of alchemy are Christian based.