Everything you know about alchemy is wrong. Well, not everything. Yes, some alchemists tried to discover the Philosophers’ Stone, which could turn base metal into gold and guarantee long life and health. Sort of like going to Vegas. In his oft-perused book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), Charles Mackay grouped alchemists with rogues, pseudo-science, and irrational fads such as the Dutch tupilomania. In short, it was bunk.
Not so, says Lawrence M. Principe, in his new book The Secrets of Alchemy (2013). Principe, who is a professor of chemistry and the history of science, believes alchemy has been misunderstood, both in historical and scientific terms. He claims that there was no real distinction between alchemy and chemistry prior to the Enlightenment.
Principe’s claim rests on three arguments. First, Principe shows that Classical and medieval Arabic texts on alchemy contained valid chemical processes, some of which he has duplicated himself to prove the point. Second, that those valid chemical processes and what we would think of as fanciful alchemical thinking relied on a common theory about the nature and composition of matter, especially metals. Put these two arguments together, and alchemy appears no longer as a fanciful guessing game, but a serious attempt to understand and change the world — science, or at least proto-science.
But what of alchemy’s bad reputation? That’s where Principe’s other argument come into play. Unlike the other sciences, alchemy was a messy affair, and it was often put to dubious uses. One of the processes Principe duplicated was designed to make silver look like gold! (He even supplies a photo of the result.) And it had no mathematically theorized framework or an ancient pedigree, unlike, say, astronomy. So it was disreputable. As chemists tried to gain a prestigious position as scientists, they sought to distinguish themselves from the more dubious parts of their field, which they labeled alchemy.
Which brings us to the time of Mackay. By the mid-19th century, the chemists had succeeded. All that was useful of the old science was now “chemistry,” all that was fraudulent, impossible, and disreputable was alchemy. If we factor in the attempt by occultists of the late 19th century to refashion alchemy, as they incorrectly understood it, into a spiritual discipline instead of a physical one, we have the modern view of alchemy complete.
Ironically, the playwright Ben Jonson (1572 -1637) anticipated the occultists by using alchemical thinking and language in his plays, to mirror in the spirit what is happening in the material world. But far from turning lead into gold, Jonson uses alchemy to turn gold into dross. The Alchemist (1610) features a trio of rogues: a fraud of an alchemist, a whore, and a traitorous servant. They work together to fleece the greedy and lustful of their every gold coin and shilling with promises of the Philosophers’ Stone, good fortune, and a chance to seduce willing women. I learned more 17th century ways of cursing people in the opening lines of this play than I knew existed, and it overflows with alchemical knowledge. It also overflows with Jonson’s biting attack on human foibles, as all the rogues and their victims are thwarted in their designs. Jonson must have been well-versed in alchemy, for he used its language and philosophy repeatedly in his work. But to judge from The Alchemist and the other two works bound with it in my library (Volpone and Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court), he viewed alchemy unfavorably as a fraudulent attempt to mimic or surpass nature. A century before the Enlightenment, the seeds of the later division into alchemy and chemistry were already present in Jonson’s writing.