Alchemy (page 3)
Gold truly represented the alchemist's quest, and kings and commoners from the Mediterranean to the Baltic came to see alchemy as a shortcut to limitless wealth. Greed generated corruption, creating a darker side to all this. Charlatans, swindlers, and humbugs that preyed on the humble and the powerful alike, thrived. Some of them, as mentioned before, ended up paying the ultimate price for their unscrupulous exploits. Their histories present a rich catalog of the flaws as well as the follies of humankind.
Yet in its proper manner the art of arts was a higher calling. Numerous alchemists were men of vast wisdom and profound moral principles. For these men, the pursuit of spiritual perfection took precedence over the search for easy riches, and transforming a troubled and unclean soul into spiritual gold was as important as the physical procedure of transmuting metals. These authentic adepts viewed the universe as a unity and believed that by searching the complicated workings of its elements they could discover the essence of the whole.
Thus alchemists saw their superior vocation as a holy art that had a dual nature. Assiduously pursued, it could supply both a spiritual pathway to knowledge of the cosmic objective and a practical means to improve humanity. The dynamically renewed spirit of the Renaissance inspired thinkers to question ancient authority and to seek practical answers to nature's mysteries. Alchemists were at the forefront of this new directive, paving the way for the development of chemistry as a science. And since true alchemists had elected as one of their goals the betterment of the human condition, it was an obvious next step to apply their chemical skills to the field of medicine.
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To achieve such enlightenment was a formidable undertaking, however, and the grueling path led a large number of alchemists to a lifetime of frustration and a pauper's grave. Yet on its highest plane alchemy was a magnificent obsession, and the genuine adept had nothing but disdain for the petty practitioner whose only objective in life consisted of a base aspiration to find his fortune in a gold-filled crucible.
When Nicholas Flamel was earning a name for himself in 14th century Paris, the beginning of the age of scientific chemistry was a long way off. Flamel and his fellow alchemists knew almost nothing about the constitution of matter. Most scholars believed confidently in the ancient theory that all matter sprang from an elemental material, known as the prima materia, from which was formed the four basic elements fire, air, water, and earth. They still accepted Aristotle's explanation that everything in the universe was formed from these four elements and that the exact proportions, combined with divergent qualities such as wet and dry, hot and cold, defined whether a metal turned out to be lead or gold.
In this context, the concept of transmutation made perfect sense. Most scholars thought that the metals were naturally formed in the earth's interior furnace by an essentially alchemical process that acted on the prima materia. Furthermore, since all things in nature were energized with the divine spirit and for that reason aspired to a higher, more perfect state, metals, too, steadily perfected themselves inside the earth's womb. For this reason even lead, in the course of a natural process of transmutation, would ultimately become silver or gold. The alchemist's role, therefore, was to speed up nature's work by executing the transmutation in the laboratory. Such artificial transmutation seemed completely reasonable to the Renaissance intellectuals. The predicament was how to go about it.
One of the fundamental principles of alchemy was that its secrets should not be revealed to the uninitiated. "I swear to you upon my soul," the 13th century alchemist Ramon Llull vowed to his readers, "that if you reveal this, you shall be damned." A later adept, writing under the name of Basil Valentine, was no less graphic when he warned that "to speak of this even a little further would mean being willing to sink into hell."
The rationale for secrecy went beyond mere elitism. Greed, of course, played its part in prompting some alchemists to retain their formulas under wraps. Another potent restraint was imposed when the Catholic Church in the 14th century pronounced alchemy to be a diabolic art. But still more persuasive, for the true adept, was an authentic fear of the evil that possibly would be wreaked on society should the stone find its way into the wrong hands.
As Englishman Thomas Norton wrote in the 15th century:
"This art must ever secret be. / The cause whereof is this, as ye may see: / If one evil man had thereof all his will, / All Christian peace he might easily spill, / And with his pride he might pull down / Rightful kings and princes of renown."
Norton's anxiety may sound picturesque today, but he was dead serious, and it would not be unusual to associate his concern to a 20th century statesman's apprehension about nuclear proliferation.
The Philosopher's Stone may not have been part of the Renaissance citizens' everyday life, but most believed that it existed and that some of the sorcerers, necromancers, and wizards of the time possessed it. Written and oral histories of the period abound with tales of the stone's prowess, and the accounts some might call them legends or fairy tales deal in perfectly matter-of-fact tones with the phenomenon. Today, most of the narratives come out as being a fascinating blend of truth and wishful thinking, but not all the facts can be sorted out, and many mysteries still remain.
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Sources: (1) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (2) Steiger, Brad and Sherry H., The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained, Thomson Gale; (3) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (4) Fernando, Diana, Alchemy: An Illustrated A to Z, Sterling Publications; (5) Alchemy: The Art of Knowing (Medieval Wisdom), Harper Collins Publishers; (6) Secrets of the Alchemists, Mysteries of the Unknown series, Time-Life Books; (7) Walker, Charles, The Encyclopedia of the Occult, Random House Value; (8) Mysteries of Mind, Space & Time: The Unexplained, H. S. Stuttman Inc. Publishers; (9) Powell, Neil, Alchemy, the Ancient Science, Doubleday.
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