Alchemy

In a messy, cluttered room an alchemist hold a scale while measuring out a sample.
The Alchemist (1663) by Cornelis Bega.


Alchemy was a mix of pre-modern chemical technology wrapped up with mysticism and metaphysics and directed toward specific goals. It tried to find keys to God’s processes, but without a modern understanding of how those processes worked.

Alchemists took ideals of purity and perfection, assumed a corrupt world could be made perfect, and attempted to understand how both persons and the world could be purified.

In the case of humans, that might mean looking for an elixir that would cure all diseases, or extend life. In the case of earth materials, it involved learning how to shift (“transmute”) the nature of materials toward the purest of them all, gold, via the Philosopher’s Stone.

Alchemists seem to have viewed what was essentially early chemistry and metallurgy as actually or metaphorically a magical or religious act, involving ritual invocation, an idea possibly derived from their impression of the ancient Egyptians who associated their own alchemy with the god Thoth, and whose alchemical practitioners might have been priests.

Step by step, over centuries, alchemists come to conclude by the eighteenth century that material changes had only material causes, and that the supernatural had very little to do with it. This was to become the basis of the scientific method by which alchemy transmuted into chemistry. It is ironic that the key to understanding God’s processes was eliminating the concept of God (in the sense of direct material influences) from their calculations!

Faust

From the point of view of critics, alchemy was a way of slyly trying to figure out God’s secrets and take over before He noticed, and all literal Hell broke loose, with God unleashing a brutal wave of retribution that would make Adam and Eve’s apple-eating sin look like a walk in the park.

Alchemists were geniuses, scholars, clowns, frauds, magicians, heretics, or saints, depending on the place and time – and who you asked.

The classical Faust was an alchemist, amongst other things. He studied religion and alchemy and found no answers. He despaired of finding any though those routes. In his darkest moments he turned to magic, encountered a devil, and struck a bargain.

In the old Egyptian alchemy, wisdom had had three parts: alchemy was one, and astrology was another. The ritual invocation of divine spirits (theurgy) was the third. The other, “dark” side of theurgy was goetia, which was the invocation of demons.

When the first Faust story came out around 1580, alchemy had already been practiced in Europe for hundreds of years. It was a serious pursuit, but without a solid foundation. Over the next several hundred years, unsuccessful in its main goals, impotent and unable to fend off waves of deadly plague epidemics, its reputation waned, briefly revived, and then finally collapsed with the implicit rejection of direct supernatural influence in anything material that science was born out of.

“Praise God in Eternity for this His high revelation, and thank Him in Eternity. Amen.”
Tract on the Tincture and Oil of Antimony Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294).

Religion has suffered a similar fate, leading to the Protestant Reformation, and it is interesting that the early Fausts illustrate these early trends.

But, why?

Long before the processes were understood, alchemists knew that something transpired in chemical reactions – that qualities – virtues – such as hardness, state, and so on could be changed, manipulated, and used to create purer materials; transform from one material to another; or even make entirely new materials.

Alchemists hoped to fiddle with creation by controlling the mechanisms of nature they had observed in working with elements such as gold, silver, mercury and sulfur.

The idea of converting one element into another wasn’t unreasonable. Alchemists and metallurgists before them had melted ores and combined metals to create alloys, so the suggestion that one could convert an inexpensive and plentiful element like lead into gold was reasonable: if all metals were simply variations, or in different states, then it was a simple matter of finding out how to convert from one to another. They were looking for the chemical stem cell which God must have used in the Creation.

There was an assumption that perhaps the soul also could be purified in a manner analogous to the purification of gold – a process of ascension in stages from impurity to perfection. Seeing analogies to metaphysical pursuits (such as the improvement of one’s own soul), they thought that alchemy could be used to understand (and perhaps ultimately control…) how God Himself ruled the world.

They had an idea – which came from the oldest Egyptian texts (“as above, so below”) – that the physical and spiritual world were analogous to each other – that macrocosm and the microcosm were reflections of each other. Incantations and spirit beings were available as intermediaries between the spiritual and physical planes. As metals might be transmuted from base metal to purest gold, so might a man transform his spirit or his soul from a base one to a more perfect one.

Chemistry

Alchemy had specific goals, but perhaps it’s better to say “speculations.” Among them: to find a Philosopher’s Stone which would convert substances into gold; to find a comparable Universal Panacea which would cure all ailments; and to find the Elixir of Life, which would confer immortality.

Alchemy may be called a precursor to chemistry, but chemistry lacks these specific goals and assumptions. Applied science has diverse objectives, and also applies rules for objective observation and analysis, known as the scientific method.

The scientific method presumes that anything that can be studied must have a material explanation. That eliminates the mystical or metaphysical side from the equation – literally.

That pretty much eliminated God from direct influence in life, and leaves us with everything invested in the ability of science and our ever developing and expanding technology to navigate our way through whatever disasters we might bring upon ourselves or others as we attempt to gain control over this thing we have created – our own, real-life, Faustian bargain with the Devil.

The kneeling alchemist stares in astonishment at his glowing flask.
The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771) by Joseph Wright. In 1669 German alchemist Hennig Brand boiled down urine to reveal phosphorus (which then ignites)
Attitudes toward Alchemy

For us, alchemy may stand as a monument to failed dreams and monumental hubris.

But back in the late sixteenth century, the Faust tale, with its alchemy and devils and demons might (as far as anyone might know) actually be happening around the corner, just as depicted in the story. Alchemy was a real and potent practise, and devils and demons were real. The Earth was where Satan walked. If the Faust story was not true, it could become so at any time.

Alchemy potentially threatened both government and religion. If it succeeded in its major goals, it could usurp the incumbent power – either Church or State – or both.

Church

Attempts to delve into the spirit world to divine secrets involved rituals and invocations of spirits. This was what we understand as magic, and is one reason why the Catholic Church felt threatened by alchemy, as it felt that both any attempt to delve into God’s secrets was heresy, and that any attempt to control the spirits was rightly their province (if anybody’s) through the Apostle Peter, from whom the Church is descended.

“…there pertaineth to the soul, through the same senses of the body, a certain vain and curious longing, cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning, not of having pleasure in the flesh, but of making experiments through the flesh.”
Confessions, Book 10, by Augustine, a digital book in the International School of Theology’s Cyber Library. Chapter XXXV. You don’t ask God to do tricks. He’s not a dog.

State

Alchemy has also both fascinated and frightened governments over the years: there is the lure of unlimited wealth on one hand, and the spectre of an economy out of control on the other. An excess of gold reduces its value, and an imbalance threatens the throne. Just prior to 300 AD, Emperor Diocletian, banned alchemy and destroyed the world’s archive of alchemical texts inherited from the Egyptians. It has been suggested that this was done to weaken and impoverish Egypt, but was notably done toward the end of decades of out-of-control inflation that led to Diocletian’s disastrous price-controlling “Edict on Maximum Prices” of 301 AD.

People

Alchemy could also frighten the regular folk. While the Middle Ages have been described as more open and tolerant that we might have thought, alchemy was a dangerous practise even when it didn’t work out right. It involved working with molten metals and extremely dangerous and toxic chemicals in crude form and using crude equipment. If it did work out right, then the superstitious populace could fear the same economic and political chaos the leaders feared, as well as the same spiritual chaos the Church feared – and they knew it would be them being fed into the fires of Hell by demons, come the Apocalypse. If it didn’t work out right, then they could expect huge explosions, toxic chemical clouds, and fires that would destroy their houses, neighbourhoods, and businesses.

Opportunity

Alchemy would have particularly fascinated the growing, opportunistic, upwardly-mobile beneficiaries of the explosion of books that came available after the development of the movable type press by Gutenberg (around 1439 – itself an example of suspected black magic) in the generations before the first Faust stories were published.

Fraud and Superstition

Inevitably, alchemists aroused suspicion among the populace. Fantastic stories of consorting with the devil and other spirits helped explain their preoccupation, their secrecy, and their startling powers.

Persecution and the intrigues of competitors drove alchemists to encrypt, obscure and disguise their notes and books, couched in a mystical facade. Furthermore, fraudsters preyed upon the gullible populace, to the extent that alchemy was viewed with suspicion and hostility. Anyone who offered some claim of actually being able to do such art as converting substances into gold, could expect to be tortured or blackmailed for his secrets, while the rest were likely to be accused of fraud.

Faustian Outcome

Sadly, religion, metaphysics, and spirituality turned out to have nothing to do with science.

Early Faust was no friend of science. He embraced black magic after giving up on the available body of knowledge and its slow and pedantic acquisition. Faust was wrong, after all – there was no recourse to God or to the Devil, and alchemy held more promise than Faust expected. Time would show that rationalism was the way to go.

Goethe’s Faust was further along in this: he knew the value of reason and of effort, and foresaw a world where God-blessed, man (and Faust) is saved through his initiative and noble works. Yet there is a Faustian hell in this too, for we have since seen that cold rationalism and great works alone are insufficient. Homunculus-like; the child’s half-formed.

Alchemy was a transition between depending upon spirit to depending upon matter. It had both a spiritual and physical component, but over time, the two have parted, with science the inheritor of the physical; and the occult and secret mystical societies, the refuge of the disgraced charlatan spirituality.

In fact, rationalism has become so dominant, and its technological offspring so powerful, that both God and the Devil fade into the background, and mankind, without relevant spiritual guidance, proposes a new Faust of the modern era in which Faust is damned again.

European Transition

Around the time of the fifteenth century (through the period of Renaissance humanism) – approaching the time of the first known Faustbuch – European achievements in various fields of navigation, exploration, etc., were clearly advancing so far beyond what the predecessor civilizations had achieved that Europe might begin to feel it had become greater than they, and that even more greatness lay ahead. With the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1439 (himself spuriously tied to the Faust legend through his financier/swindler partner’s suggestively similar name “Fust”), the availability of cheaply produced books paved the way for a huge explosion in the dissemination of knowledge and ideas – and mysteries.

In the sixteenth century – at the time of the first Faust, alchemy was undergoing a subtle change in direction: people began to loose their focus on the main goals of alchemy – such as transmutation into gold – and turned instead to focusing on their successes in specific areas of chemical medicine and science, and to loose their attention on the mystical side, in favour of a more material, pragmatic, and meticulous investigation.

In the sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries (Reformation and start of the Industrial Age) alchemy underwent a revival, in part due to the printing press, and the compilation of alchemical works from the past.

Neither the gases that by nature rose
Nor solid matter either- none of those
Might, in our working, anything avail.
For lost was all our labour and travail,
And all the cost, the devil’s own to pay,
The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: From The Canterbury Tales (by Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1343 – 25 October 1400). The alchemist’s man tells the story of their road to ruin

Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, scientific methods and disciplines were developed that presumed material cause and effect, and the mystical and ritual side of alchemy was effectively shown to be irrelevant.

The Church was right to fear the alchemists, but not because they would come to misappropriate all God’s secrets (and the route to them though the Church), but because with the discovery that the alchemist’s cupboard was bare, suspicion was cast upon the Church’s.

Selected References

External links