Alchemy

“It is no stone; it is in every man & in every place, & at all seasons, & is called the end of all philosophers.”

–  Pseudo-Aristotle to Alexander, ca. 12th century or earlier[i]

The inspiration to write this blog entry came to me a few nights after I read Lawrence W. Principe’s book on alchemy, The Secrets of Alchemy.[ii]  Principe, a historian of science with two PhDs, has an impressive breadth and depth of learning, to be sure, but his survey and evaluation in his book of the use of alchemy during and after the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century occult revival, its use in literary works over the course of its history, and the hermetic tradition in general are imbalanced and myopic.[iii]

Mary Ann Atwood, Principe says, was the first to suggest that man is “the true laboratory of the Hermetic Art” in A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. Principe claims that this interpretation and description of alchemy – as an esoteric, pseudo-religious tradition whose aim is the transformation of the human body and mind – is “simply wrong.”[iv] Principe provides no evidence to support this claim other than another (baseless) claim that Atwood is the originator of the idea that alchemy was and is a “self-transformative psychic practice” and that her beliefs are merely a product of the craze for Mesmerism in the 1840s.[v]

I will address Principe’s disregard for Atwood and her claims by showing that Atwood is not the originator of the notion of alchemy as a psychic transformation, and that both an “inner” or “occult” tradition and an “outer” or “material” tradition existed centuries before her publication. Indeed, Atwood gained the ability and desire to create discourse about alchemy in this way through Mesmerism and the subsequent cultural craze for it (that is, its principles gave Atwood and her father the necessary framework and awareness to conceive in a new way what alchemists had been disguising as alchemical doctrine for centuries).

Atwood is not the originator of the dualistic “inner vs. outer” or “esoteric vs. exoteric” view of alchemy. (In fact, the notion of traditions having an esoteric and an exoteric side to them originates with teachings as early as Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Lucian, but more on this in my next blog entry.) In the literature of the English alchemical tradition, there are many instances of the acknowledgement of an underlying doctrine beneath alchemical terms, but the most striking example of this is in Patrick Scot’s The Tillage of Light. In the first few pages of this short treatise, Scot outlines the purpose of his short piece – to elucidate the “allegoricall sense” of the philosopher’s work:

[…] we are heare to consider, specially what nature and art can doe, either joined or severed, in reducing of mettalls to the perfection and multiplication of millions, by projection of an Elixar upon unrefined metalicall substances, and whether the phylosophers perfection is literally to bee understood of a material Elixar, or whether Urim and Thummim, aurum dei, Ezekiells coals of fire, quintessence, and Phylosophers elixir are meant of multiplication of gold by art, or whether Alchemists have wrongfully enforced these titles upon the Phylosophers worke, which are onely to be understood in an allegoricall sense.[vi]

Later, Scot expresses one of the basic tenets of so-called “spiritual alchemy”:

Man is the Microscosmos, or abridgement of the Creation; the Philosophers worke is the abridgement of mans Formation. As the World was made of two severall parts, the one intelligible, sensible, and corruptible, the other, untelligible, insensible, and incorruptible: So man was made the middle peece of both, and perfection of the Intellectual parts, which hee hath meanes of the body…[vii]

And, in the last few pages of his Tillage, Scot concludes:

…all [the Alchemist’s] Ignitions, Calcinations, Dissolutions, Amalgations, Circulations, Sublimations, Fixations, and Multiplications, otherwise then in a spirituall sense, are but borrowed words of Art, Smoake to ruine craz’d estates, or trumpery to uphold Mountebanckes upon the charges of the more curious then wise.[viii]

To summarize, Scot claims, in the middle of the seventeenth century,  1) that alchemy and the alchemical process are to be understood allegorically and spiritually, 2) that anyone who interprets the “art” otherwise gives their attention to mere trumpery, or worthless ornamentation, and 3) that the alchemical process is an “abridgment” of the “formation” of the human being. Principe’s analysis of Atwood, then, is proven wrong by this one example, as it is clear that, to Scot, the human body is the alchemical vessel and the alchemical process is a spiritual process; Atwood was not at all the originator of this idea. However, I will provide one more example.

A second example of a strong delineation between esoteric and exoteric meanings in the alchemical tradition comes from a Polish alchemist named Michael Sendivogius, who published The New Chemical Light in 1608. The delineation appears in the first several pages of the preface:

…I dedicate the following pages, which embody the results of my experience, to the sons of knowledge, that by a careful study of the working of Nature they may be enabled to lift the veil, and enter her inmost sanctuary. To this final goal of our sacred philosophy they must travel by the royal road which Nature herself has marked out for them. Let me therefore admonish the gentle reader that my meaning is to be apprehended not so much from the outward husk of my words, as from the inward spirit of Nature. If this warning is neglected, he may spend his time, labour, and money in vain. Let him consider that this mystery is for vise men, and not for fools.[ix]

That is, the meaning that Sendivogius desires his readers to take from his work is spiritual, and, similar to the warning in Scot’s Tillage, if his meaning is taken too literally, the reader may “spend his time, labour, and money in vain.” Again we see a distinct and intentional separation between the spiritual meaning and the “outward husk” of alchemical teachings, contrary to Principe’s claims.

Though these are the most prominent and blatant examples (in my opinion) of a clear delineation between an inner or esoteric and an outer or exoteric alchemical tradition centuries before Atwood, there are dozens more examples of this delineation, including in works by Geoffrey Chaucer (from whose works Principe selectively quotes), John Gower, and Elias Ashmole. However, we must establish that one side of the tradition is neither primary nor greater than the other side. I do not doubt that both traditions simultaneously circulated the western scientific and occult traditions, commingling as one and the same but in reality having strikingly different aims. One tradition was symbol and allegory disguised as the transmutation of metals; the other was material and literal, with aims to achieve unfathomable riches. However, the spiritual side did exist long before Atwood and Mesmerism, and to say otherwise is myopic and inane.

“For is not our art cabalistic,” asks Artephius [ca. 1150], “and full of mysteries? And you, fool, believe we teach the secret of secrets openly, and understand our words according to the letter; be assured, we are not envious, but he that takes the philosophers’ saying according to the outward sense and signification has already lost the clue to Ariadne, and wanders up and down the labyrinth, and it would be of the same benefit to him as if he had thrown his money into the sea.”[x]

I can only assume that to Principe, Atwood’s ideas seem far-fetched and far-removed from his conception of alchemy because of his unfamiliarity with the symbolist tradition in literature, of which the esoteric alchemical tradition is certainly a part. I should also mention that despite his position, I found Principe’s book very valuable.

To support me, and keep me writing blogs, you can buy Principe’s book via my Amazon Associates Store here:

The Secrets of Alchemy (Kindle)

The Secrets of Alchemy (Paperback)

Or check out the other books in my recommended reading list (created via astore) at the top of this page.


[i] Wilder, Alexander. New Platonism and Alchemy. 1869. pp. 27-28.

[ii] Principe, Lawrence W. The Secrets of Alchemy. 2012.

[iii] Principe also dismisses psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s life’s work by merely revealing his association with the occult tradition by the mention of the title of his doctoral dissertation. However, despite Principe’s unintentionally misleading nearsightedness, I am grateful he was able to include a broad survey of the “esoteric” side of alchemy at all, given his scientistic education, specialization, and perspective.

[iv] Principe, 97. Seriously, that’s his argument.

[v] Ibid, 96.

[vi] Scot, Patrick. The Tillage of Light. 1623. p. 4.

[vii] Ibid, pp. 41-42.

[viii] Ibid, 46.

[ix] Sendivogius, Preface to The New Chemical Light. <http://www.levity.com/alchemy/newchem1.html>

[x] Quoted in Mary Anne Atwood’s Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery