Alchemy and Chemistry

In the examination of magic, we reached the conclusion that it did not really concern nature, that, if anything, it concerned the immaterial dimension of reality; for it was expected to allow control of lesser spiritual entities (or, in its modern version, hidden powers of the mind), which in turn could act on nature. What about astrology and alchemy, two other abandoned lines of research, also related to magic? Well, the former was based on the dubious belief that the positions of the stars in the firmament influence a person's temperament and history, and even the history of mankind; we have already seen that whatever may be valid in that idea should probably be rephrased in terms of mere parallelism: e.g., climatic influences on moods, which are a fact, depend on the seasons, and the seasons are parallel to particular arrangements of the constellations, because both depend on the position of the earth on the ecliptic.

Alchemy, on the other hand, was an experimental discipline trying to establish cause-effects chains leading to repeatable experimental results; indeed, its aim was the kind of knowledge that would allow man to reproduce in the laboratory the most mysterious operations of Nature. Therefore, although it relied on a general world-view that was abandoned in the seventeenth century, alchemy was closer to modern science than magic and astrology long before it gave birth to chemistry. Indeed, an attempt to understand what it was and why people were so interested in it will open an illuminating perspective on the nature of science and give material for reflection on the present plight of technological research. In point of fact, there was a great difference between it and astronomy, the science from which present physics originated. Astronomy was concerned with observations and tried to find a representation of the universe in terms of geometrical figures — circles, ellipses, hyperbolas, and their focuses — capable of explaining them; alchemy aimed

1. Lao-Tzu, Tao-teh-Ching, poem 14. Translated into Italian with an introduction and notes by the philosopher J. Evola (Milan: Ceschina, 1959). We refer to Evola's work because, as is well known, the translations of Chinese texts are actually interpretations, and many of them are so full of inconsistencies that they are unlikely to correspond to the intentions of Lao-Tzu.

at discovering how operations such as calcination (which takes its name from the process in which limestone is changed into lime) can be used to imitate and emulate the transformations of materials performed by nature in volcanoes or in living beings. It is precisely because of this practical approach to knowledge that since its beginning alchemy was close to what technology in general is today; for technology is not just the production and improvement of tools, which help ordinary people in their ordinary operations, but the design and realization of devices, processes, and materials that — in addition to making it possible for human beings to do what by nature they are not capable of doing, e.g., to speak to one another over distances of thousands of miles, or to fly by mere muscular strength — allow them to "understand by doing." In fact, the slightest modification in technological design or production method involves some degree of understanding of new aspects of matter's actualities or potentialities. Examples of the scientific nature of practical applications are provided not only by the history of science, but by the fundamental conceptual contributions of technology to present science, such as the introduction of the notion of feedback and of information content.

The transition from alchemy to chemistry took place in the seventeenth century, as did the move from Aristotelian physics to Galilean physics; nevertheless the former presents itself in a much different way. As we have already recalled, pre-Galilean physics and astronomy gave priority to mathematics and measurement, and for them the observer was, so to speak, like a person watching from a window the action in the street below; alchemy, in contrast, involved the researcher in a system of mystical theories, which required spiritual commitment as well as physical activity. The deliberate obscurity of many texts and the number of charlatans and mountebanks who practiced it was so large that laws against it were promulgated in various times and places. Sir Thomas Edward Thorpe, a distinguished British chemist and brilliant writer, gave in 1894 a lively description of that dark side.2 Therefore, it might be cause of wonder that, among the great men who took an active interest in it, there were such diverse personalities as the German Dominican monk Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great, 1200-1287), teacher of Thomas Aquinas and a rigorous thinker, the French scribe-notary Nicolas Flamel (1330-1417) and his wife, serious experimenters with empirical and mystical minds, and even Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the very man who, by founding modern mathematical physics, masterfully completed the affirmation of Galileo's approach to the study of nature.3 What we want to do here is

2. T. E. Thorpe, Essays in Historical Chemistry (1894); we have been able to consult this work only in an Italian translation by R. Pitoni under the title Storia della Chimica (Turin: STEN, 1911).

3. C. Gilchrist, Alchemy (Longmead, England: Element Books, 1991).

to understand the reasons why alchemy appealed to them, and to show that there was a substantial scientific continuity between alchemy and chemistry. This is important for our exploration of what modern science suggests or hints at beyond experimentally observable facts. If alchemy had a mystical dimension and yet was a science in the modern sense, then maybe that lost dimension, considered an unforgivable fault in the age of rationalism and positivism, might offer a gleam of hope for the present plight of science. For it would seem that ecology and bioethics are bound to remain at the stage of good intentions if they do not recognize that man's scientific and technical activity cannot be treated as if it did not engage his whole physical and spiritual reality; alchemy might provide the blueprints for such an urgent task.

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