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.