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The puffers' progress: alchemy and the roots of modern science.

Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. By William R. Newman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. 333 pages.

The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Edited by Stanton J. Linden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 260 pages.

The death of alchemy was astonishingly sudden--so sudden, in fact, as to arouse suspicion that reports of it have been greatly exaggerated. A science that occupied the best minds of three continents since before recorded history until the late seventeenth century does not expire overnight. What happened, rather, was that a certain faction within the disputatious discourse of alchemy vanquished its theoretical opponents so decisively that the art came to appear an entirely different discipline. But the elements within alchemy that have triumphed and survived were, until the seventeenth century, generally regarded as its most dangerous and ignoble, even magical and demonic aspects.

For example, the attempt to conjure financial value out of a substance of no value, which was regarded by most alchemists as a base perversion of their art, has reached fruition in the completely immaterial money of our own day. The immateriality of money demonstrates that financial value is purely imaginary, and that its power is therefore of the kind that was once called "magical." It was always the overtly magical strain within alchemy whose purpose was to realize the financial value of gold, as opposed to bringing metal to its natural telos, but today this disreputable, avaricious step-child of alchemy has disinherited its parent.

In the process, it has also given birth to the fundamental assumptions of modern science. Post-Baconian science denies the existence of essence or substantial form; it assumes that accidental appearance constitutes the only knowable reality. This proposition emerged out of the conventional claim of alchemists that their goal was not to imitate nature but to perfect it. In the hubristic hands of men like Faust or Paraclesus, this argument shaded into the impious, idolatrous proposal that the works of men's hands could augment and even supercede the works of the Creator. To alter the appearances of things, as the alchemists demonstrably could, was according to this argument not to occlude but to transmute their essential natures. The empirical methodology of modern science originated as a defense of the more morally dubious practitioners of alchemy.

It is suggestive to ponder the ideological connections between empirical science and market capitalism, the two modes of thought that dominate our world. Each of them ignores the mediating role of representation. The neoclassical economist denies that financial value is a representation of human labor-power, while the empirical scientist denies that the world of appearances is a representation of substantial forms. Both discourses take the given, the appearance, the world as it is represented to us, for ultimate reality. In fact, the identification of representation with reality is the distinguishing characteristic of postmodern consciousness. For most of history, however, this opinion was considered the veritable apotheosis of idolatry and magic. It achieved respectability through the back door, emerging out of the self-justifying rationalizations of more or less openly demonic magicians.

These are among the implications of William Newman's fascinating book, Promethean Ambitions. Newman argues that, far from representing a clean break with the alchemical tradition, the scientific practice of the Royal Society was in fact the culmination of a particular strain within alchemy. The most basic question at issue in early modern debates regarding the chrysopoetic art was whether it was imitative or perfective. Did the alchemist aim to replicate nature or to improve it? To put this question another way: did the alchemist deal only in appearances--that is, in the Aristotelian "accidents"---or could he hope to transmute essences--to create new "substantial forms"? If he remained at the level of appearances, he would be engaged in an enterprise analogous to that of a poet or a visual artist. If he attempted to impose forms of his own creation upon natural species, however, he became vulnerable to charges of practicing ritual magic or even demonic witchcraft.

It is impossible, so the argument ran, to transform a divinely created essence by means of human art. Where such a transformation seemed to take place, therefore, this was an illusion caused by superficial changes in a thing's perceptible qualities. In what Newman calls the "conservative" version of this argument, it was alleged that an alteration of a thing's accidents to the degree that it seemed as though its substantial form had also been transformed could only be achieved by demonic agency. The transmutation of species at which alchemy aimed was by this logic not only impossible to achieve but impious to attempt. The "conservatives" claimed Aristotle's authority for their opinion, but in fact it was based on a passage from Avicenna that from the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries was erroneously attributed to the Stagirite. As quoted in Stanton J. Linden's The Alchemy Reader, this piece decisively identifies alchemy as an art of imitation only and asserts that the transmutation of essences is impossible:</p> <pre> I do not deny that such a degree of accuracy may be attained as to deceive even the shrewdest, but the possibility of imparting or eliminating the specific difference has never been clear to me. On the contrary, I regard it as impossible, since there is no way of splitting up one combination into another. Those properties which are perceived by the senses are probably not the differences which separate the metals into species, but rather accidents or consequences, the specific differences being unknown. And if a thing is unknown, how is it possible for anyone to endeavor to produce or to destroy it? (98) </pre> <p>Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and the scholastics in general assumed this was Aristotle's work. The proximate cause of their mistake was an editorial error, but it is easy to see why the attribution seemed plausible: the passage is in complete accord with Aristotelian metaphysics. The schoolmen defined identity by essence not appearance and thus argued that even if alchemical gold was identical to natural gold in its material properties, it would still be essentially different because it would differ in substantial form. Avicenna admits that appearances can be utterly transformed, but he claims this process is deceptive because the imperceptible essence of the thing must remain the same. For medieval and early modern Christians, this made alchemy a convenient gauge of the earthly, practical power of Satan, since he was the only force that could enable the complete alteration of a thing's accidental qualities, though not of its substantial form. Since, as Nelson observes, "Averroes and Avicenna had adopted the unbending axiom that man and nature cannot produce the same effects" (43), the alchemist's apparent reproduction of nature could only be brought about by magical means.

From the fifteenth century on, the belief that accidental change was real was regarded as not merely mistaken but heretical and Satanic. It was the heresy of the witches as well as of the alchemists. Magicians often claimed to be able to effect real transformations in the natural essences of things. The ecclesiastical inquisitors replied that (a) the transformations were of appearances only, not essences, and (b) a transformation of appearance so effective as to be mistaken for one of essence could only be brought about with diabolical aid. But their central objection was to the magical, alchemical (and also Baconian) claim that a transformation in appearance was a transformation of essence. Such a claim denied the very existence of imperceptible substantial forms. By extension, then, it denied the existence of the human soul (which was the substantial form of the body) and even of the divine Creator. An attack on substantial form is also an attack on telos, the final cause that, in any artifact, is identified with the subjective intention of the maker. But if appearance is essence--if, that is, there is no substantial essence--then there is no need to seek for the final causes of things, and we can rest content with material and efficient causality. The gold produced by the furnace will be as good as the gold produced by the sun.

Early modern Christians did more than offer a logical critique of alchemy; they threatened to make alchemy a branch of witchcraft. Witch-hunting handbooks like the Malleus Malificarum (1480) made the connection explicit, and many alchemists were indeed burned as witches throughout the early modern period. This concentrated the minds of the survivors on developing a convincing refutation to the inquisitors' charges, and it was here, as Newman brilliantly argues, that alchemy opened the way for Baconian empiricism and mechanism. The achievement of Promethean Ambitions is to demonstrate that the arguments Bacon used in favor of his new organon originate in this debate regarding the ethical status of alchemy.

Newman begins by pointing out that Aristotle was frequently cited by both sides of the debate, reminding us of "the tremendous latitude that an Aristotelian viewpoint could assume on the issue of the artificial and the natural" (104). The defenders of alchemy used the real Aristotle against the pseudo-Aristotle, employing the Stagirite's concept of perfective art to bridge the gap between art and nature. In the Physics Aristotle observes that "the arts either, on the basis of Nature, carry things further than Nature can, or they imitate Nature" (2.8.199a15-17), and alchemists claimed that theirs was an instance of the former kind of art. (This claim was also made by defenders of literary art, as in Phillip Sidney's assertion, clearly influenced by the alchemy debate, that "Nature['s] ... world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.") The artificial manufacture of natural materials could be considered legitimate as long as it was seen as abetting or perfecting natural processes, rather than as violating or perverting them. Newman argues against what he calls "the noninterventionist fallacy" regarding Aristotle's attitude to nature, showing that Aristotle did advocate experiment as a means to knowledge: "The notion of a perfective art was in fact the key concept in arguing for the legitimacy of experimental results, just as it had been crucial for maintaining the identity of natural and artificial gold. It was the bridge that allowed one to cross the otherwise impassible chasm separating the natural from the artefactual." (248).

The concept of perfective art would allow Francis Bacon to claim that art and nature differ not "in form or essence, but only in the efficient" (qtd. in Newman, 63), and Newman skillfully proves that this claim is prefigured in the most ancient of alchemical texts. The Book of Hermes (ca. 1600) claimed that "the works of man can be both natural with regard to essence and artificial with regard to mode of production" (qtd. in Newman, 64), thus suggesting that human beings can produce natural essences. To reproduce the accidental qualities of gold by an "artificial ... mode of production," then, would be to reproduce the essence of gold itself, and once again, the substantial form would be theoretically and practically eliminated. Newman shows that this critique of essentialism does not originate with Bacon but had been used in justifications of alchemy for millennia.

This is an important, innovative, and convincing point. In his eagerness to demonstrate the origins of seventeenth-century empiricism in alchemy, however, Nelson sometimes passes rather lightly over the differences between Aristotelian and Baconian science, and he is not long detained by Bacon's clearly derogatory references to "the sect of the chemists" (qtd. in Newman, 264). Surely, for example, the issue of causality constitutes an insuperable barrier between the two methods? It is true that some alchemists anticipated Bacon in asserting that the final cause was unknowable, and that the student of nature should confine himself to the material cause. But this position seems incompatible with the defense of alchemy on the grounds that it is a perfective art. Such a defense presupposes a natural telos towards which the material of the experiment is tending, and to which the alchemist assists nature in bringing it. For Aristotle, the gap between the efficient and the final cause of a process was the gap between art and nature, and this gap therefore cannot be bridged by a science that confines itself a priori to efficient or material causality. Scientists, as the scholastics often pointed out, are likely to be ignorant of, or unconcerned with, the ultimate purpose of nature, and therefore more likely to wrench her away from her telos than assist her in achieving it.

Certainly Bacon's attitude to nature is frequently not perfective but indifferent or even aggressive. He does not follow the mainstream alchemical tradition or even the tradition of sympathetic magic, which sought to assist nature in attaining her telos. Rather, he is influenced by the demonically magical end of the alchemical spectrum, to which the purpose of nature is irrelevant at best. Many of Bacon's most famous statements declare the question of whether art violates or assists nature to be irrelevant: "nature, like Proteus, is forced by art to do that which without art would not be done; call it what you will,--force and bonds, or help and perfection" (qtd. in Newman, 258). Newman is correct to say that "Bacon's entire program of reducing the distinction between art and nature to one of efficient causality is already to be found in the discussion of art and nature stretching from the High Middle Ages through the seventeenth century" (260), but we should remember that this program occupies a fairly radical position within alchemical discourse--one that gave considerable plausibility to charges that alchemists were engaged in magic and that was repudiated by most alchemists for precisely that reason.

It was on the basis of causality, for example, that Aquinas distinguished natural gold from the gold produced by alchemy: "alchemists produce something similar to gold as to exterior accidents. But it is still not true gold, since the substantial form of gold is not [induced] by the heat of fire--which alchemists use--but by the heat of the sun" (qtd. in Newman, 51). This was the mainstream position within alchemy itself, and empiricist practitioners were generally considered marginal: the very word "empirick" was derogatory when used of alchemists. Newman surely goes too far when he claims that the indubitable debt owed by figures like Bacon and Robert Boyle to discussions within alchemy "belies the lingering picture of Aristotelian and Scholastic natural philosophy as inimical to the growth of experimental science" (275). Most elements in Aristotelian philosophy are indeed inimical to empirical science, and Bacon's real ancestors are found among the more dubious of the alchemists, especially those who attracted allegations of sorcery.

One especially notorious such practitioner was Paracelsus, who uncompromisingly asserted the equality of art with nature: "the generation of all natural things is twofold: Naturall and without Art; and Artificiall, viz. by Alchymie" (qtd. in Newman, 152). For Paracelsus, art can produce anything that nature can, including a human being, and it is in such claims that we find the true antecedents of modern science. Newman is understandably fascinated by Paracelsus and provides a gripping account of recent discoveries regarding "his" sexuality. On the basis of a study of Paracelsus's remains, we learn, "forensic specialists suggest that Paracelsus was either a genetic male afflicted with pseudohermaphroditism or a genetic female suffering from androecial syndrome" (197). The title of Promethean Ambitions refers to the derogatory description given by Pope John Paul II to recent attempts to produce human life by artificial means, and Newman examines Paracelsus's precedent for such enterprises in great detail. S/he claimed the ability to produce a "Homunculus" from the pure "form" of sperm, without any need for the material, female body, and Newman confidently observes that "It is very difficult not to conclude that Paracelsus's own tortured sexuality played a part in these considerations" (217).

Probably. But in that case, how can we explain our own century's "promethean ambitions," which clearly spring from deeper motives than the androgyny of scientists? And why, more generally, has the Baconian instauration been so successful, despite its undeniably magical and arguably demonic heritage? Newman stops short of attempting to answer such questions, although his conclusion does pertinently ask "Into what further areas of culture did the issue ramify?" (290). He answers with a regrettably brief reading of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's Faust (1808-33), in which the protagonist (whose historical prototype was both alchemist and magician) successfully manufactures a homunculus, although not without the demonic assistance of Mephistopheles.

It would have been instructive to read Newman's views about an incident in Goethe's play that seems even more clearly alchemical. In the so-called "paper money scene," Faust enlists Mephistopheles's aid in paying the Emperor's debts by the invention of banknotes. The monarch is skeptical at first, rightly suspecting that black magic is involved, but he embraces the new currency once he perceives that his creditors are happy to accept it as though it were real gold. As critics like Hans-Christophe Binswanger have pointed out, the liberation of financial value from gold bullion, which coincides historically with the triumph of Baconian science, constitutes the ultimate triumph of alchemy. In Binswanger's words: "It is not vital to alchemy's aim, in the sense of increasing wealth, that lead be actually transmuted into gold. It will suffice if substance of no value is transformed into one of value: paper, for example, into money.... The modern economy is a continuation of alchemy by other means." (1)

Alchemy did not disappear because it failed but because, certain elements within it having succeeded, it was no longer deemed necessary. But the elements within alchemy that proved successful--the practical attempt to create financial value, and the theoretical claim that art could reproduce natural essences--were never orthodox, and their victory over the respectable practitioners of the discipline can accurately be described as true alchemy's "death." As Goethe's attribution of paper money to Mephistopheles suggests, the artificial production of financial value was indissolubly connected with black magic throughout all alchemical debate. This issue had none of the ambiguity that surrounded the question of whether art can produce substantial forms, and not even alchemy's staunchest advocates would defend attempts to use the art as a means to realize financial value. In the eyes of most alchemists, modern economics, even more than modern science, would have seemed manifestly Satanic.

Perhaps because of the interestingly unflattering light it casts on the twenty-first century, alchemy has recently attracted renewed interest from literary critics and historians. The appearance of Stanton J. Linden's The Alchemy Reader, which collects twenty-seven of the most significant documents in alchemical theory from ancient to early modern times, is long overdue. Many readers will be encountering the primary texts of alchemy for the first time, and this book should help to dispel some tenacious popular misconceptions. For example, one cannot but be struck by the consistency with which respectable alchemists through the centuries reiterate not just the difference, but the contradiction, between their art and that of the "sooty empiricks," whose aim is the creation of financial value. In the eighth century Jabir ibn Hayyan mentions that "there are some, who are slaves, loving money, who do affirm this to be an admirable Science.... Although they approve it, and according to Reason seek the same, yet to the experience of the Work they attain not through covetousness of money: therefore, this our Science comes not to them" (83). In 1652 Elias Ashmole was still reminding his readers that to make gold "was scarce any intent of the ancient philosophers, and the lowest use the adepti made of this materia. For they being lovers of wisdome more than worldly wealth, drove 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" (227).

Ashmole almost automatically links the seeking of financial value with the magician's attempt to make "the divells to become subject to him." He distinguishes between high-minded "philosophers" and mere "alchemists," for whom the manufacture of gold is "the chiefest intent." Robert Boyle also opposes "philosophers" to "alchemists," and he associates the latter with "usurers": "if we will consider things as philosophers, and look upon them as nature hath made them, not as opinion hath disguised them; the prerogatives and usefulness of Gold, in comparison of other metals, is nothing near so great as alchemists and usurers imagine" (236). This usurious kind of alchemy (which was often referred to as "multiplication") contradicted the purposes of the original art, however, and its victory signaled the transmutation of alchemy into modern science and economics.

The Alchemy Reader will quickly correct any impression that traditional alchemy has much in common with empirical science. We are incessantly reminded of the occult and esoteric (as opposed to the exoteric or practical) aspects of alchemy, which are obviously alien to the post-Baconian approach. The rich symbolism of peacock's tails, green dragons, and red lions, the habit of analogical thinking, the integration of mythology into experiment, the concern with the state of the alchemist's own soul, the deliberate obfuscation of meaning, the reliance on tradition, and the influence of Christian doctrine all separate alchemy from empiricism. Where Newman concentrates on the Aristotelian aspects of alchemy, Linden's volume reminds us of other influences that contradict Baconian assumptions, notably Plato's Timaeus, whose emphasis on the irreconcilable gulf between Creator and creation denied the possibility of altering essence by art. Consider also the entertaining extract from the seventeenth-century Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius. He tells of an alchemist who dreams of an "old man" telling him that his mercury is not pure. The man disappears, and the alchemist later has a second dream. Disturbed by the revelation that his art is impure, he "fell mad, by always thinking of the old man. And when he was in that strong imagination, there appeared to him in his sleep a false vision, in the likeness of the old man, and said to him, "Doe not despaire, my friend, they Mercury is good, and thy matter, but if it will not obey thee, conjure it, that it bee not volatile; Serpents are used to be conjured, and then why not Mercury?" (184). Sendivogius is telling a cautionary tale of how alchemists can be tempted into the clutches of Satan. Upset by the "old man's" denial that his artificial mercury is genuine the alchemist, having "fell mad," is lured by a clearly demonic "likeness" of his critic. He takes this apparition's advice and "conjures" mercury with ritual magic. An apparition of Mercury then appears, but only pretends to be under the alchemist's control and in fact mocks him: "O my noble Master, I beseech thee pardon mee, wretch that I am, I did not know that thou wast so great a Philosopher." This is strikingly similar to Faust's experience with Mephistopheles, and the unfortunate alchemist soon realizes that "thou art but a devill, and will seduce mee" (186). Mercury's retort is instructive: "Truly my Philosopher thou art a devill to mee, not I to thee: for thou dost deale most sordidly with mee, after a devilish manner.... The Philosophers said that Nature is to be mixed with Nature; and they command nothing to bee done without Nature; but thou dost mix mee with almost al the sordid things that bee, as dung" (186). The alchemist's magical approach to nature is an aggressive violation, and makes man and nature seem enemies--"Satans" or "devils"--to each other. Empiricism shares with magic the belief that an alteration in appearances constitutes a transmutation of essence--that accidental qualities rather than substantial forms define identity--and the fact that the vast majority of alchemists condemn such beliefs should give us pause before we claim alchemy tout court as the ancestor of today's science.

In fact, the reader will come away from this book feeling overwhelmed at the sheer variety of the discourses that are collectively labeled "alchemy." As Linden's useful introduction notes, it was always a plural discipline, taking various forms in Egypt, China, India, Greece, Islam, and Christendom, and we can best understand it as including virtually all attempts to investigate the relation between art and nature before the seventeenth century. This will also do us the benefit of reminding us just how violently the technological and economic practices of our own era have broken with the universal assumptions of other civilizations. Newman correctly notes that our modern beliefs emerged out of alchemical discourse, and given that discourse's plurality this was almost inevitable. But Linden's volume gives a sense, above all, of the vast abyss separating our assumptions from those of our predecessors. It also indicates that they would judge us as ethically, not just logically, degenerate, and many of them would argue that our activities are Satanic in nature. We should not forget that the most notorious of the "empirick" alchemists was Dr. Faust.

(1.) Hans-Christophe Binswanger, Money and Magic: A Critique of the Modern Economy in the Light of Goethe's Faust, trans. J. E. Harrison (U of Chicago P, 1994), 9, 33.

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Author:Hawkes, David
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Date:Sep 22, 2005
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