Can we ever truly explain the Philosopher’s Stone? Is it just a myth, some fantastic, legendary artefact beloved of the alchemists of history, or is it something real? Our story begins with the Caliph of Bagdad in AD 830, who was passing through the ancient Islamic city of Harran, Mesopotamia. Here, whilst being received by a devoted crowd, he spied a group of people clearly not Muslims as they were dressed so oddly. It turned out they were ‘Sabians’ (or resident of the Old Testament ‘Sheba’) and it was demanded of them they must be ‘people of a book’ (any holy text recognised by the Islamic authorities) otherwise they’d be punished as infidels. And so, they claimed their religion was derived from the spiritual teacher Hermes Trismegistus (or Hermes the ‘Thrice Greatest’) who had – moreover – written certain sacred books long ago. He is the tutelary deity of the Hermetic Art, or Alchemy, or the noble quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.
Nevertheless, some say the founder of Alchemy was really the Egyptian god Thoth. It was He who gave birth to writing, music, arithmetic and sculpture. His lost, though marvellous, work, The Book of Thoth, contains all the secrets of magic and the Operations of the Philosophers. Yet, the book contains only two pages – one with instructions on how to command nature; the other, with keys to the world of the dead. It is upon Thoth that the title of ‘Thrice Greatest’ was bestowed around the second century BC and when the Greeks rose to power they had another name for him, Hermes. (The epithet Thoth-Hermes is used by scholars as a synonym for Hermes Trismegistus.)
Those words on how to command Nature were said to be inscribed upon a large slab of emerald, discovered by Alexander the Great, in the bowels of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. This was a precious object called the Tabula Smaragdina2 , the Emerald Tablet, whose central message is ‘as above, so below’ (the workings of heaven are mirrored by those on earth, or, the spiritual/timeless and the earthy/time-bound are two halves of the same principle.) Here is how it begins:
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
The Tablet, however, mystifies with its references to some obscure ‘thing’ it somehow cannot completely disclose, said to be ‘the fortitude of all strength’. (The astute reader will realise that the allusiuon here is to the Philosopher’s Stone.)
Hermetic thought is a school of mystical philosophy whose chief body of work is the so-called Corpus Hermeticum. Written by anonymous authors in Egypt before the end of the third century AD, its seeds stretch back to both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. On this latter, we have Plato (429-348 B.C.) and his ideas to thank, and the revival of his teachings that appeared a few hundred year later, Neo-Platonism. Essentially, Hermetic thought says that spiritual understanding, attunement and perfection can be achieved though communion with the One, Ultimate Reality. Essentially a ‘source’ of mystical knowledge, Perfection, Wisdom, Harmony and even magical ‘power’ awaits for any individual prepared to make the long, arduous journey to discover it. To discover the Philosopher’s Stone.
And if all of this sounds high-falutin and remote – not to mention impossible -more recent (easier to digest) ideas on Manifestation, Intention, Mindfulness and the clichéd Law of Attraction, stem from the exact same Hermetic source. The teachings by popular figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Norman Vincent Peale, Claude Bristol, Napoleon Hill, U.S. Andersen, Al Koran and latterly, Eckhart Tolle, Stuart Wilde, Joe Dispenza, Wayne Dyer (and various others) all owe their genesis to Hermetic thought.
Naturally, the same Hermetic or Alchemical ideas radiate through other spiritual and religious traditions, both ancient and modern, from Christianity to Cosmic Ordering, Taoism to Transcendental Meditation, Gnosticism to New Thought and through the world’s great myths and legends, fairy tales, classic fiction, pseudo-history and outright hoaxes. (The Holy Grail and it powers, for example, are synonymous with those alleged of the Philosopher’s Stone.) All in all, Hermeticism expounds what has been called the Perennial Philosophy, that which acknowledges life essentially as being rooted not in matter but Spirit. As Aldous Huxley put it:
The Perennial Philosophy teaches that it is desirable and indeed necessary to know the spiritual Ground of things, not only within the soul, but also outside in the world and, beyond world and soul, in its transcendent otherness ‘in heaven.’ 3
Which is to say that ‘God’ can be known and understood only because of our innate connection with Him. That is, we all contain a little of the divine spark and it is our task to realise and make contact with it. As the Corpus Hermeticum states, ‘God is not, as some suppose, beyond the reach of sense-and-thought.’ 4
The Philosopher’s Stone and Belief
One of the earliest and most influential Hermetic thinkers was Zosimos of Panopolis, the Greco-Egyptian Gnostic who flourished around AD 300. In fact, he is the author of the oldest known books on alchemical teachings. This he called “Cheirokmeta,” Greek for “things made by hand.” He wrote that:
‘There are two sciences and two wisdoms, that of the Egyptians and that of the Hebrews, Both originate in olden times. And it is not concerned with material and corruptible bodies; it operates, without submitting to strange influences, supported by prayer and divine grace.’5
Here is evidence enough that true Alchemy was never merely about turning base metal into physical Gold. (Alchemists were not literal miracle-workers.) No, in the typically obscure language of the Alchemist, we infer that we’re dealing with the workings of the individual soul, with spiritual laws and magic. For if we want changes to occur in our lives we must see that the spirit operates according to ‘prayer’ and ‘divine grace’, as Zosimos tells us. Obviously ‘divine grace’ is simply God granting your wish. However, there’s an ancient method for ‘persuading’ God to grant your wish, that is, by the kind of belief actually suggested by Jesus who proclaimed: ‘Therefore, I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.’6
Here is laid bare one of the key tenets in both Alchemy and Magic (and much of the modern buzz around Manifestation) – the As If Principle. The teaching says that, in order for Magic to work effectively, one must – simply put – believe that one is already in possession of that which one seeks. This is no modern New Age fad from the likes of Esther Hicks or Rhonda Byrne, but one of the timeless secrets of the Occult. Remember that Alchemy is a method of spiritual development where inner ‘powers’ are sought, powers that will transform the life of the Alchemist.
The anonymous 1625 work The Golden Tract, tells us that ‘if you know the beginning, the end will duly follow by the help of God’, and that we must, ‘cease to think of many things. Nature is satisfied with one thing, and he who does not know it is lost.’ Here, allusions are made to the Belief required of the aspirant, to avoid distraction from one’s path by even a shred of doubt. ‘One thing’ is an allusion to powerful belief, the firm image one must hold of the desired goal – a singular certainty, for to doubt is to conceive of more than one possible outcome, the ‘many things’ mentioned in the text. ‘Knowing the beginning’ is, again, being convinced of the outcome before it manifests. (Fans of self-help ‘positive thinking’ manuals will have heard all of this before.)
In addition, real Belief is not merely some mental abstraction, but an active part of us, and always invokes strong feelings. In Al Koran’s Bring Out the Magic In Your Mind (1964) the author simply says: that ‘you obtain your desire by feeling as if you had already got what you want now’. The late philosopher and teacher, the popular Dr. Wayne Dyer, provides the latterday equivalent:
The truth is that I have within me a very powerful knowing that when I place something into my imagination, it is already a fact for me. I just don’t seem to have the capacity to erase from my mind what it is that is already my reality … When I was told that nine out of ten doctoral students do not receive their degree because they cannot complete the vigorous requirements of writing a dissertation, I knew that this did not apply to me, because I was already a doctor in my imagination. I persistently acted as if my dream were a present fact. I’ve had this same kind of “thinking from the end” in every phase of my professional career. As a young boy I saw myself on television shows and vehemently held this inner picture in my imagination, ignoring a lot of naysayers! And these imaginings ultimately were taken from my mind, where they were real, to the material world, where my senses finally caught up and confirmed them as truths.7
In the Ordinal of Alchemy from 1477 (whose teasing sub-title was Believe – Me) we find more allusions to the As-If Principle. We read that, ‘the first cause of sorrow (among the adepts) is to see and realise that among the many who seek this Art only few ever find it, and that no one can attain this knowledge unless he be taught before he begins.’
Note the paradoxical line about how one can only ‘attain this (occult) knowledge’ by being taught before one begins. This is perhaps about as explicit as Alchemists of the period would permit themselves to be in revealing the Great Secret. The paradox is resolved when we realise that its author, Thomas Norton, was saying that the Art (the realisation of the wonderful Philosopher’s Stone with its marvellous powers) is dependent on ‘knowing’ – by which he means faith and belief, the engine of the As If Principle. Neverthless, we do in fact have a fuller revelation from Alchemy that connects the mysterious Stone with the power of Belief. Gerhard Dorn, the sixteenth century Belgian alchemist wrote that:
‘There is in natural things a certain truth which cannot be seen with the outward eye … and of this the Philosophers have had experience, and have ascertained that its virtue is such as to work miracles …As faith works miracles in man, so this power, the veritas efficaciae, [‘efficient truth’] brings them about in matter. This truth is the highest power and an impregnable fortress wherein the stone of the philosophers lies hid.’8
So there you have it. This is what the Alchemists were trying to conceal all along with their hopelessly florid, obscure meandering about the Philosopher’s Stone. The ‘stone that isn’t a stone’ (etc, etc,) is a spiritual property of the soul, the very power of Belief itself, which – as we know – can move mountains when exercised correctly. It’s just that not everyone believes in Belief. As the seventeenth century Sophic Hydrolith says, the Stone is familiar to everyone, ‘both young and old’ and though it is ‘despised by all’ it is ‘the most beautiful and the most precious thing upon earth, and has power to pull down kings and princes.’ For ‘if it be prepared in the right way, it is a pearl without price.’
And therein lies the rub. ‘Preparing it ‘in the right way’ requires strong intuitions and requires much arduous effort. It could even lead to possible financial or psychological ruin. And who wants to engage in years of toil and struggle for something they might not even find? Well … Sir Isaac Newton, for one, the alchemist who translated the Emerald Tablet quoted above. And we can be sure that he discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, too.
1. Isaac Newton (translator). “Keynes MS. 28”. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. Ed. William R. Newman June 2010. Retrieved March 4, 2013 from url.dlib.indiana.edu
2. 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)
3. The Perennial Philosophy, Chatto & Windus, 1947.
4. On Thought and Sense, translated by G.R.S. Mead)
5. Concerning the true Book of Sophe, the Egyptian, and of the Divine Master of the Hebrews and the Sabaoth Powers.
6 Mark 11, verse 24
7. Wishes fulfilled : Mastering the Art of Manifesting / Wayne W. Dyer. Hay House 2012
8. From Speculative Philosophy, quoted in Psychology and Alchemy, C. G. Jung, Collected Works 12, RKP, 1953
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