A Response to Principe

Diagram of the philosopher’s stone from German alchemist Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugens

“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

The following short essay was written about 5 years ago today, just after I read for the first time Lawrence W. Principe’s book on alchemy, The Secrets of Alchemy. I’ve adapted the essay slightly.

Principe, a historian of science with two PhDs, has an impressive breadth and depth of learning, but I thought his descriptions of the evolving conception of alchemy, alchemy’s use in literary works over the course of its history, and the hermetic tradition in general are imbalanced and myopic. His book serves to obscure further the already obscure “secrets” of alchemy.

In his book, Principe makes a specific claim about Mary Anne Atwood, who wrote and published A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery in 1850. He writes that Atwood “originated the notion that alchemy was a self-transformative psychic practice” with her book. Additionally, Principe claims that Atwood’s interpretation and description of alchemy – an esoteric, pseudo-religious tradition whose aim is the transformation of the human body and mind – is “simply wrong.”

With this essay, I want to readdress Principe’s disregard for Atwood and her claims by showing that she is not the originator of the notion of alchemy as a psychic transformation at all, and indeed the idea of a distinction between the inner or occult tradition and an outer or material tradition existed centuries before her publication. The two traditions have not always existed, nor was there even a distinction between inner and outer practices since the beginning, nor is there a noticeable difference between the two traditions early on. There was, however, a distinction, but, as I discuss elsewhere, alchemy began in the medieval world and existed a long time as a medieval concept.

Principe claims that Atwood borrowed ideas from mesmerism to describe her conception of alchemy, and that claim is true: Atwood was the first to equate alchemy and mesmerism. However, Atwood didn’t take ideas from mesmerism and try to pass them off as authentic alchemy. Rather, she gained the ability and desire to create a new discourse about alchemy through mesmerism, a discourse that would have been impossible in the Middle Ages except by metaphor, symbol, and allegory.

In the literature of the English alchemical tradition, there are many instances of the acknowledgement of a spiritual doctrine within alchemical terms, but one example is 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.

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…

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.

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.

Notably, Patrick Scot was a critic of Rosicrucianism and Paracelsian philosophy, so he didn’t have the “double vision” so characteristic of writers of alchemical texts at the time.

Principe’s analysis of Atwood is proven myopic (or at best oversimplified) by this one example, though, as it is clear that, to Scot, the human is the alchemical vessel and the alchemical process is a spiritual process; though Atwood probably never read Scot, and she has had a far greater influence on recent developments in alchemy than Scot, Atwood was not at all the originator of the idea.

A second example of a delineation between a literal and spiritual meaning 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.

The meaning that Sendivogius desires his readers to take from his work is spiritual, and, similar to the warning in Scot’s Tillage, if Sendivogius’ 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 they only came about in the 19th century.

Though these are the most prominent examples of a delineation between a spiritual and a physical alchemical tradition centuries before Atwood, there are more early examples of a spiritual-physical ambiguity surrounding the tradition, including in works by Geoffrey Chaucer (from whose works Principe selectively quotes), his friend and fellow poet John Gower, and the Freemason Elias Ashmole.

Here’s Chaucer’s Cannon’s Yeoman on the philosopher’s stone after he warns his listeners of the tricks of the charlatan alchemists through his tale:

‘Nay,’ quoth Plato, ‘It is a secret, still!
The philosophers are sworn every one
To reveal the essence of this to none,
Nor write it in a book in any manner,
For to God it is so precious and dear
That he wishes not its discovery,
Save where it is pleasing to his deity
To enlighten men, and thus to defend
The truth from others; lo, this is the end!’

And Ashmole in his 1652 Theatrum Chemicum Brittannicum, after his overview of magic and the arcane, describes the alchemists’ pursuit in spiritual, religious terms:

For they being lovers of Wisdome more then Wordly Wealth, drive at higher and more Excellent Operations: And certainly He to whom the whole Course of Nature lyes open, rejoyceth not so much that he can make Gold and Silver, or the Divells to become Subject to him, as that he sees the Heavens open, the Angells of God Ascending and Descending, and that his own Name is fairely written in the Book of life.

Ashmole wrote that though the alchemists pursue the creation of gold and silver, they also pursue a more religious goal, using biblical imagery of demons, angels, the Book of Life, and Jacob’s ladder metaphorically to describe it.

To Principe, Atwood’s ideas seem far-removed from his understanding of alchemy because of his unfamiliarity with the symbolist tradition running throughout alchemical literature. Medieval and early modern texts should be read in the context they were written, not in the context of a 20th- or 21st-century view of science and the psyche. This is where both Atwood and Principe go astray. Medieval consciousness had less of a wall between what we separate out as mind and matter or subject and object in this age, so at that time it would have been impossible to speak of purely psychological phenomena in the way Atwood was able. The discourse had shifted in a way that allowed her to do so.

Despite Principe’s lack of nuance surrounding Atwood, symbolism, and medieval thought, I found the book very valuable. Although he doesn’t appear to understand the hermetic mystery or symbol at great depth, by carrying the shell, or outward appearance, of alchemy into our present age, Principe can help us learn about it nevertheless.

“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.”

qtd. in Atwood

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