Spiritual and Physical Alchemy

September 19, 2020


Simplicity or plainness has been said by a Hermetic writer to be “the real of truth,” and if it were needful to define the whole scope of transcendental wisdom in the plainness and simplicity of one unadorned phrase, we should say, in the language of Sendivogius, that it is “to make that which is occult manifest.” It is thus the education of powers and the elaboration of latencies. The definition covers all and includes all, from the parabolic mystification of Paracelsus concerning that “mineral water” by which gold can be made to grow, and the “imbibitions” and “distillations” of alchemy, even to those high altitudes of mystic action by which the lost memory of the soul’s anterior states can be recovered. Now, we have affirmed that there is a doctrine of development which is not merely discernible, but is present beyond all possibility of misconception in mystical literature. The transcendental theology of Christendom deals wholly with the evolution of man’s spiritual potencies in the direction of perfect life in Christ. But the physical perfection of humanity is forgotten or ignored therein. Side by side, however, with transcendental theology, there flourished the Hermetic school of science in the West, nominally deriving its arcana from the theurgic philosophical traditions of the Græco-Alexandrian period. The disciples of this college present themselves before us under two aspects – as Magi and Alchemists. They both operated in the region of phenomena, and the magicians represent the connecting link between transcendental evolutionary Mysticism and what may be called the physical Mysticism of the transmutatory process. The theurgic wisdom of which they were inheritors gave them in each case an illumination which transcended their mission. The evokers of spirits aspired to Deific union; many alchemists, while they exploited the capacities of metals, dreamed of the soul’s evolution. Some of these forgot their physical purpose, and surrendered their search after wealth for the purely spiritual research, led on by the resources of their terminology and the suggestions of their profound symbolism, which possessed, as we shall see, a dual field of application – in man and in the mineral world. This application was not arbitrary, and it was not forced. There is a parity and parallel between all mystical processes, because all are evolutionary. the transcendental illumination of the illuminated Christian Mystic is the application of evolutionary law to the soul of man. The physical Mysticism of the alchemists applied the same principle in the metallic kingdom, while the magician was concerned with the creation of an environment which acted as a species of forcing-house for the external education of the transcendental faculties of the inner man.


But the experimental foundation had also a philosophical basis in the great dogma of Hermes. It was in virtue of this central analogical theorem of Hermetic science – to which we shall identical in nature and principle, but applied with due regard to formal difference. The seven states of the Stone in alchemy are intimately related to the seven stages in the castle of the interior man. Both are allied to the Mysteries – that is to say, to the sequence of hierarchic pageantry by which, in the penetralia of the so-called pagan temples, the elect of those ages were inducted to the methods of supreme illumination. God alone knoweth after what precise manner the Mysteries were connected with that Holy Assembly, the existence of which we shall have occasion to affirm later on, but we do know, and are convinced beyond the possibility of indecision, that they produced a royal issue to the line of Mysticism, and that even in the light and joy of Christ, wherein, as children of the transcendental, we ourselves believe that we can experience all joy, and be enlightened with all light, there is neither peace, nor joy, nor clarity of perfect spiritual seeing, to surpass that which was experienced by such vessels of election as Plotinus.


We may, therefore, enlarging on our previous classification, divide Mysticism and its dependencies into three chief sections – that of Transcendental Religion, as professed by the higher Mystics; that of Transcendental Science, which includes all ceremonial magic, and wherein there is no real interest, and that of the physical Mysticism of Alchemy. The rise of alchemical literature is coincident with the collapse of Theurgic Neo-Platonism, the downfall of Gnosticism, the proscription of the pagan cultus, when the extinction, or loss, of all knowledge of the inner meaning of Greek and Latin mythology – a knowledge vested in the priests of the cultus – was very likely to ensure, and indeed might seem almost inevitable. It was coincident also with the degradation of the Mysteries, and with the materialization of the Christian Church. From all these vanishing theosophies it inherited light, leading, and authority; it is founded on all, it appeals to all, and its character is exceedingly composite. It is not to be judged from a single standpoint, or interpreted after an individual method, and it is full of difficulties and pitfalls. In attempting to penetrate its mysteries, our investigations lead us, it may seem, into strange and perhaps uninviting regions. But we are erecting a house beautiful of eternal hope, and we must seek in many quarries for our onyx, amethyst, and chalcedony.


No student of Mysticism, historical or philosophical, can afford to ignore alchemy. There is a solidarity, if we take only the lowest standpoint, and as we have elsewhere and often iterated, between the physical processes of occult chemistry and the spiritual processes of the Mystics. Now, in so far as this solidarity was known to the Turba Philosophorum, so far were all alchemists themselves Mystics, and alchemy – that is, the physical part of the process – was a Mystic work. We regard alchemy, as we regard the larger philosophy of which it was a part, and a mode of expression or of presentations, under a dual aspect. As in the one case Mysticism is capable, as we have seen, of division into Transcendental Science and Transcendental Religion, so in the other alchemy is to be regarded as a spiritual and physical work. We do neither doubt nor question that many alchemists sought only the transmutation of metals, and applied the principles of arcane law only among mineral genera; of this fact their lives are the evidence. But our researches have also convinced us that their labours were overshadowed by the portents of a higher achievement – that even as their works read obviously in two ways, literally and transliterally, so also their operations had two objects, and that both these objects were pursued from the first beginnings of the science, and are contained in its earliest literature. The spiritual interpretation was not an afterthought; the testimony to these matters is not less strong in Geber than it is in Khunrath. The arcane knowledge in both cases preceded the arcane literature. The secrets of the ancient sanctuaries and of the Holy Assemblies embraced both the physical and transcendental. It was known that one law variously applied obtained in all departments of Nature as regards the development of species and of the potential energies in all things. Their acquaintance with that law enabled the adepts to develop the latent possibilities of the mineral world, which possibilities resided not in the differentiated species but in the common elements. Their acquaintance with the same law also enabled them to elaborate the transcendental potencies of man. Thus, in vulgar parlance, they could transmute metals, and they could transfigure humanity. Alchemical literature enshrined both processes, which accounts for its composite character, like a skein of silk in which two colours, distinct, though almost inextricable, are confusedly tangled and braided. The evolutionary doctrine of alchemy is scarcely a subject for formal quotation from the sequence of alchemical literature, for it is the foundation and sum of that literature. There is, of course, the hackneyed maxim everywhere cited by the champions of the “spoliated past,” that maxim which puts tersely, after the manner of the wisdom of old, the whole theory of the development of species into a nutshell. “The stone becomes a plant, the plant an animal, the animal a man, man a God.” But that is not the evolution with which we are now dealing; we are not here concerned with the mode in the manifestation of the law which differentiated species, but rather with a fundamental principle, and a philosophical reason for the principle, which all Mysticism applied in practice. The principle briefly was this: All natures, however diversified, have a common origin; there is but one substance in the universe; the latent powers which subsist in any species are the capacities of the First Matter; it is impossible to ameliorate or to improve species except by having recourse to the fontal substance and source, whence all multiplication, all generation, all energy of development proceed. By recourse to this storehouse of universal potency every species can be ameliorated and developed. Development proceeds under the providence of Nature up to a certain point, beyond which it can be carried by art, and to the highest point and pitch of this evolutionary art the Hermetic adepts apply the name of alchemy. No recognized initiate and no intelligent disciple who has followed in the footsteps of a master have ever attempted to confine the scope of alchemy to the mere conversion of metals. Paracelsus defines it as artificial generation or production, of what kind soever, and it includes the education of the potencies in plants, animals and men, as much as the “augmentation of Sol.” Referring to the transmutation of metals, Alexander Seton testifies that there are “further and higher secrets.” And Sendivogius, his inheritor, states that “the Philosophers propounded to themselves that they would make trial of the possibility of Nature in the mineral kingdom; which, being discovered, they saw that there were innumerable other arcana, of which, as of divine secrets, they wrote sparingly.” It is also in this sense that we must understand the explicit information of Thomas Vaughan, already cited, who assures us that Chemia is a narrow name which ought not to be applied to the science, as the latter is ancient and infinite.

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