For centuries the study and practice of alchemy was regarded as a sacred ritual. Alchemists held great esteem in early societies and their influence continued well into the Middle Ages. In fact, it wasn’t until scientific discoveries and advancements in the study of compositional matter in the 1700s did modern science replace alchemy as the dominant force for thinking in western civilization. Even with the decline of alchemy, there is still a place for it in modern society. Many scholars today are beginning to look back at the origins of alchemy and what alchemists tried to accomplish as a way to gain a greater understanding of its effect on the development of chemistry as a science.
The earliest documentation of the practicing of alchemy can be found in ancient Egypt. However, it spread to other parts of the world such as India, Persia, Asia and ancient Greece. It seemed to have flourished in the city of Alexandria right after Alexander the Great conquered the city in 330 B.C.
Shortly thereafter the city was the intellectual capital of the world and attracted scholars from all over. At that time the idea of chemistry, that is- the idea of a separate science apart from alchemy did not exist. As such, the Greek thinkers, specifically Aristotle and Plato’s views on physical science and matter were the most widely accepted views. Alchemy was a purely chemical endeavor and “based on the idea of formation and transmutation of metals from a lesser state to gold. (Ragai 60).
Eventually the mixture of Greek thinking and Egyptian astrology turned alchemy towards a more supernatural realm. The search for the perfect metal began to be perceived as a metaphor for the search of the perfect human soul.
This idea of transmutation is only possible however with the use of an elixir and is said to create a mystical substance known as the Philosopher’s Stone. Many alchemists believed this would grant the person who made it eternal life or immortality.
The concept of the Philosopher’s Stone is an almost universal theme in all cultures and civilizations. A study found that there were over 170 working synonyms of the idea that could be used ( Read 28). The origin of the Stone is believed to come from an ancient Hindu text, where Shiva, possesses an alchemical medium where the body turns to immortal gold ( Hagen). Since that time it has been elaborated on and spread to many different places.
The concept of the Philosopher’s Stone and the practice of alchemy made its way to Europe and continued into the Middle Ages. The teachings and views of Aristotle and the Greek thinkers were the accepted model of thinking during those times. Alchemy and its mystical aspects were based on this model of thinking and was unchallenged by science up until that point. This was partly because early chemists had a lack of reliable equipment and measuring materials, making experiments with consistent and accurate results difficult to accomplish.
Aristotle believed that all matter was made up of four “fundamental” elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. He believed that since everything was made up of these elements you could transmute an object to another completely different object by rearranging its fundamental particles (Haynes 269)
However as scientific advancements increased, such as the discovery of oxygen, Aristotle’s views began to get challenged for the first time in a thousand years. Another advantage new technology gave chemists was the ability to measure heat, which allowed chemists to heat up metal to specific degrees and not have to estimate the temperature. This made experiments easier to perform and record (Paneth 416) Other advancements include better materials, the discovery of atoms, and Robert Boyle’s discovery of the vacuum.
Many modern scholars would agree that modern alchemy is more about learning about it then actually doing it. It is important to look back and analyze the place this ancient superstitious tradition has in our modern scientific society. Many scholars have found that “medieval alchemists stumbled on experimental techniques and chemical properties which are consonant with modern chemistry” (Ragai 72)
In the medieval worldview its important to realize that alchemy, mystical theology and practical chemistry were blended together and the lines between them blurred.
Even in today’s time, people are still fascinated by alchemy and the idea of the Philosopher’s Stone. The idea of transmutation and its application beyond metals to an allegorical meaning about the human condition still has relevance now as much as it did during the time of the Renaissance. If we can look at alchemy as a blend of science and philosophy we can learn that even though a chemist might not consider alchemy legitimate, a philosopher would embrace the idea of being able to transform one’s soul.
It is crucial to understand that although alchemy may have no practical use to us, we can still learn from examining the path it laid for the development of chemistry. Distinguished thinkers such as Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes both dabbled in alchemy, as well as many other learned scholars making one wonder what could have made them want to indulge in that subject? Was it the lure of everlasting life or divine knowledge? Or was it simply looking for an answer for how Nature worked? When asked about practicing alchemy Newton declared his motive was, “ to discern the activity of God in all of Nature.” (Browne 8) Science may have taken over alchemy’s place, but it hasn’t wiped out its historical significance.
Browne, Malcolm. “Alchemy: Clues to Chemistry”, International Herald Tribune, (April 12 1990) 8
Cherubim, By David. "Alchemy: The Black Art." Multidisciplinary View of the Religious, Spiritual and Esoteric Phenomena. Web. 20 Oct. 2010.
Hagen, William E. "The Philosopher's Stone." JSTOR. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
Haynes, William. “Out of Alchemy into Chemistry”. The Scientific Monthly. Vol. 75 No. 5. 1952
Paneth, Fritz. “Ancient and Modern Alchemy”. Science. Vol. 64, No. 1661. Oct 1926. Pg 409-417
Ragai, Jehane. "The Philosopher's Stone: Alchemy and Chemistry." JSTOR. JSTOR. Web. 13 Oct. 2010
Read, John. Prelude to Chemistry (New York: The Macmillan Company 1937)