Notebooks

Alchemy

11 Mar 2003 13:53

Origins in Hellenistic Egypt; in China; in India. Biological transformations and shape-changing. And initiation rites (Eliade). "Life" of metals. Popular perceptions of alchemy and alchemists. Role of alchemy in the development of modern science, especially during the scientific revolution.

Like many people, I was taught a "spiritual" interpretation of alchemy, where what the alchemist was really trying to accomplish was not the transformation of outward matter, but the perfection of his own soul, or at least that, while it may have started as a practical undertaking aimed at transforming matter into gold and elixirs, it ended as a spiritual discipline. Accordingly, alchemical writings are to be read as allegories of the inner life, not coded experimental protocols. This theory comes from Jung and Eliade (who allowed for more experimentation than Jung seems to). William Newman, alone and with Lawrence Principe, argues in a number of places that this interpretation is just wrong, and mostly derives from Victorian occultists. That alchemy was just spiritual has never seemed plausible to me, nor I should think to most scientists who've thought about it. That alchemists, at least in early modern Europe, were really doing practical lab work is, for me, proved conclusively by Newman and Principe's ability to extract experimental protocols from alchemical writings, follow them in the lab, and get results which match the alchemists' descriptions. This doesn't show that alchemy was everywhere and always a technological (pseudo-)science, but since early modern Europe is supposed to have been the place and time where its practice was most spiritualized, things look bad for the truth of the Jung-Eliade theory. The paper by Principe and Newman (below) is, I think, a pretty definitive demonstration of these Victorian origins.


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