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Alchemy; A Brief History of a Pseudoscience

Updated on December 10, 2014

Ambitious Aims Steeped in Mysticism

Alchemy is indeed an ancient tradition with roots in three areas of the world that extend back over 4,000 years. We can trace these roots to China, India, and the Mediterranean. The former two strains hold close religious ties to Taoism and the Hindu concept of dharma, respectively. The latter tradition took deep root in Egypt during the Hellenistic period, latter spreading to Palestine and eventually Western Europe. While Alchemy is certainly a precursor to modern Chemistry and did employ methodology and hypothesis, it is nonetheless a pseudoscience steeped in mysticism and religion which predates the atomic theory, the periodic table, and scientific skepticism in general. It's ultimate aim was the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, the conversion of base metals into noble metals, and the distillation of an elixir of life that would confer youth upon anyone who consumed it.

Gnosis stated the Alchemical ethos well;

" Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption. Material perfection was sought through the action of a preparation (Philosopher's Stone for metals; Elixir of Life for humans), while spiritual ennoblement resulted from some form of inner revelation or other enlightenment"

Exoteric and Esoteric Alchemy

Modern continuation of the study of Alchemy can be roughly broken into two types. Exoteric Alchemy studies the historical tradition and influence of the practice while acknowledging it's contributions to experimental design, rudimentary laboratory protocol, and early chemical innovations such as gunpowder, distillation, tannery and metalworking.

Esoteric Alchemy is of concern to new age fads and their practitioners, certain types of Philosophers, and some branches of Psychology. Hermetic Philosophy concerned with Esoteric Alchemy has to do with a metaphoric understanding of the process of perfection. These Philosophers consider the change of base metals into noble metals as a spiritual proxy for the perfection of the human spirit through self-actualization or spiritual enlightenment.

Famous Alchemists and Their Contributions

Boyle, considered the father of Chemistry was an Alchemist. Issac Newton, the inventor of Calculus, the field of Optics, the theory of Gravity, and the writer of the three laws of motion was also an Alchemist who kept a fire going for just such experiments at all times. Martin Luther and Pope Innocent VIII were hermetic or spiritual Alchemists that viewed the metaphor of metallic transmutation as closely tied to the spiritual transformation idealized in Christian Theology.

This list goes on and on to include important contributors to many fields such as Roger Bacon, George Ripley, Johann Faust, John Dee, Claude Duval, Franz Tausend, James Price, and Georg Welling (among many, many other). It is also considered a Pseudo intellectual tradition of many great thinkers, meaning it may perhaps have grown out of the schools of thought begun by Plato, Democritus, and Aristotle. Indeed Stoicism, Platonism, and Gnosticism were all heavily influenced by Alchemical practice and metaphor.

The Decline of Alchemy

The 17th century enlightenment, replete with it's emphasis on empirical quantitative analysis, began the slow stubborn downfall of popular Alchemical practice. It persisted, in small ways, through the formation of the germ theory, advances in Physiology, and the development of Organic Chemistry. Throughout the 18th century the terms Chemistry and Alchemy were often used interchangeably. In the 19th century the place for Alchemy had receded to the mythological and spiritual realms and actual practitioners of it were viewed as deluded charlatans. It was thus demarcated from the physical sciences and today is handed down to us as a historical phenomena that contributed to the development of Chemistry in the same way that mythology has contributed to modern religion.


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      Blogimus 3 years ago

      Thank you for this hub. I intend to read it again as first-source material for another work I am contemplating. I appreciate it.