What is Alchemy - part two

The founding father of Alchemy is the Egyptian god Thoth, who gave birth to writing, music, arithmetic and sculpture and who uttered words commanded by Ra, the Sun God, in order that the world should be created. His lost though marvellous work, The Book of Thoth, contains all the secrets of magic and alchemy, the Operations of the Philosophers. Even so, despite its wealth of information, the book contains only two pages – one with instructions on how to command nature; the other, with keys to the world of the dead. (The reason for the scant content is that the exercise of true magic requires little instruction.) It is upon Thoth that the title of ‘Thrice Greatest’ was bestowed, and this as far back as the second century BC – but when Greeks rose to power they had another name for him, Hermes.

Tis true without error, certain & most true.

That which is below is like that which is above

& that which is above is like that which is below

to do the miracles of one only thing.

And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one:

so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.

The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,

the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.

The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.

Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.1

It is Hermes Trismegistus whose is credited with the authorship of of the Tabula Smaragdina, the Emerald Tablet part of which is quoted above. It gave excellent value for money, too – as it bore all the divine wisdom of the world on one page.

Such is the stuff of myth and legend – in fact the Emerald Tablet is medieval in origin. Prized by Qabalists of that age, an Arabic version existed during the eighth century, found in the works of the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815) The basic philosophical axiom on the Tablet is ‘as above, so below’, based on the magical idea of universal correspondences, that what is happening in heaven is mirrored by what is happening on earth – that the spiritual/timeless and the earthy/time-bound are in fact two halves of the same principle. But the Tablet mystifies the reader with its references to some obscure ‘thing’ it somehow cannot completely disclose, even though it is ‘the fortitude of all strength.’

The Tablet begins: ‘ T’is true, without lying, certain & most true.’ This undisclosed something gave birth to all things in creation, and thus its power is ‘perfect’. What seems extraordinary is that we have access to this power since, with it, ‘one wilt possess the brightness of the glory of the whole world’ and ‘marvellous adaptations’ can be accomplished. Additionally, when one has ‘it’, all ‘obscurity will fly from thee.’ It is thus an amazing power with which one can achieve marvellous feats – in fact we are in the realm of Your Subconscious Power and the more recent claims of the New Thought and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. For the obscure ‘it’ of the tablet is nothing other than the magical boon of faith, whereupon God created the world through ‘adaptation’ (he thought it into existence) and where man can likewise create the desired conditions in his life through the act of belief. That we are speaking of magic and the power of belief to effect results is made fairly explicit where the Tablet says that ‘it’ is the ‘father’ (the governing force) of all the ‘works of wonder’; (magic) in the world.

And so, the alchemist was essentially a magician. His quest was twofold, to know and transform himself and by doing so, to ‘magically’ affect the world around him. Very much like the death-rebirth theme in Myth, alchemy, or the Hermetic Art, concerns the struggle of the soul to free itself from the ‘prison’ of the body The alchemist is engaged on a quest for self knowledge – and that quest begins by looking into one’s own soul. The questions they ask themselves are: what am I made of? what is God made of? What is the relationship between myself and God? Do I really have any effect on the world of matter, and thus the ability to change my destiny? Put this way, this latter is the same question that must have exercised nearly everyone who has used the techniques of Positive Thinking – does Mind Power actually have any effect? The answer is yes, but only – as the alchemist would put it, when he has attained the Philosopher’s Stone. Occultist Manly P Hall explains thus:

‘The alchemist realizes that he himself is the Philosopher’s Stone, and that this stone is made diamond-like when the salt and the sulphur, or the spirit and the body, are united through mercury, the link of mind. Man is the incarnated principle of mind as the animal is of emotion. He stands with one foot on the heavens and the other on the earth. His higher being is lifted to the celestial spheres, but the lower man ties him to matter. Now the philosopher, building his sacred stone, is doing so by harmonizing his spirit and his body. The result is the Philosopher’s Stone.’ 2  

The Philosopher’s Stone, which we will cover in a later post, is essentially that much sought-after ‘magic power’ in Alchemy that is required before undertaking the Great Work. But, like Hall tells us, the Stone is within – it is a spiritual principle. The image of the laboratory – full of bubbling vases and retorts, as the alchemist sweats and toils, pondering some cosmic riddle in a sacred book – is an image of the individual at work on himself. He is the laboratory. As cited, Alchemy was called the magnum opus, Great Work, but we are the ‘great work’, too, the ‘work’ which must be continued transforming and perfecting ourselves. The basic idea is that what God left spiritually unfinished – i.e. humans – must be completed by ourselves. Hence, one of the chief exponents of alchemy,  Paracelsus, wrote that God ‘created the ore but did not carry it to its perfect state. He has charged the miners [alchemists] with the task of refining it.’ And this is one of the easier statements to understand!

Alchemy and Modern Science

Again, alchemy is interested in what truly animates us – (which alchemists naturally called the soul) and how this might be connected with God. The later theory of Vitalism (now discarded by today’s orthodox science) assumed that within human beings there must be some vital spark, some animating force that really constitutes being alive, otherwise we are just the workings of physics and chemistry. Science has found no proof whatever of this ‘life force’ and naturally, the theory is rejected nowadays, being too reminiscent of ‘the soul’ with its fuzzy, religious overtones. Those scientists who persisted with heretical views on vitalism did harm to their reputations. One such was Hans Driesch (1867–1941) who merely sought to show that life is not governed by physico-chemical principles: ‘All proofs of Vitalism, … can only be indirect proofs: they can only make it clear that mechanical or singular causality is not sufficient for an explanation of what happens.’3

However, today’s science hasn’t found a satisfactory replacement for the soul. This is admitted as much with the so called Problem of Morphogenesis which is essentially the conundrum of how embryos develop, how cells morph into tissues, organs and limbs with distinctive shapes and sizes. (And how they regulate and repair themselves.) There’s an entire ‘program’ at work, but it can’t be guided by DNA, which is mostly an inert ‘blueprint’, the ‘instructions’ or ‘recipe’ for what will become the cell nucleus. In any case, every cell in your body contains the same gene-code, in spite of the fact that you have different sized limbs, bones, muscle that are the result of cell development. If the genes were wholly responsible for morphogenesis, there would be no you – all of your body parts would be the same. Some other ‘program’ is occurring. The question can be simply put – how do cells ‘know’ how to organise themselves in this very systematic way? To say that the genes are the ‘recipe’ is one thing; to say that a recipe can then produce the actual meal it refers to (cooked for just the correct amount of time) is quite something else. In other words, where is the cook? Again, to restate the problem – the ‘intelligent organiser’ that governs growth and development is a mystery.

In alchemy, this intelligent, organising faculty is the soul, but it is never quite contained in the body – it is free to visit other realms. That the soul has power over the physical world, was never in doubt with the alchemists, just as we talk of the Power of the Unconscious Mind or Mind over Matter, thus:

“The soul … has absolute and independent power to do other things than those the body can grasp. But, when it so desires, it has the greatest power over the body, for otherwise our philosophy would be in vain. Thou canst conceive the greater, for we have opened the gates unto thee.” 4  

In seeking to know himself, to discover that which truly drives him, the alchemist realises that there is a little spark of divinity in him, or simply put, he has a spiritual aspect, moreover, that this is the authentic reality. And it is this spiritual element to life that is animating and informing matter. Even modern physicists have seen this:

‘The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is the level of elementary physical processes in quantum mechanics. Matter in quantum mechanics is … constantly making choices between alternative possibilities according to probabilistic laws … The second level at which we detect the operations of mind is the level of direct human experience … [I]t is reasonable to believe in the existence of a third level of mind, a mental component of the universe. If we believe in this mental component and call it God, then we can say that we are small pieces of God’s mental apparatus.’ 5

The alchemists of yore would have agreed with Professor Dyson in no uncertain terms. In fact they would have declared him an adept for having such penetrating insight.

1. Isaac Newton. “Keynes MS. 28”. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. Ed. William R. Newman June 2010. Retrieved March 4, 2013 from url.dlib.indiana.edu

2. Hall, Manly Palmer, The initiates of the flame, Premier Printing Company, Los Angeles, 1922

3. Driesch, The History And Theory Of Vitalism, Macmillan and Co., London, 1914.

4. Sendivogius ‘Concerning sulphur’: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/newchem3.html

5. Dyson, ‘Infinite in All Directions’ – Gifford lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland, (April-November 1985), New York: Harper & Row, 1988. (p. 297).