The Experimental Approach Towards a Historiography of Alchemy | Alchemy | Carl Jung

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 787–789

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Essay Review

The experimental approach towards a historiography of alchemy (reviewing L. M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy)
Anna Marie Roos
History Department, University of Lincoln and University of Oxford, UK

When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

The secrets of alchemy, Lawrence M. Principe; University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013, pp. 281, Price US $25.00 hardback, ISBN: 978-0-226-68295-2. When I was asked to review Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy, I put it on my desk in readiness for the long summer vacation. The book then seemingly vanished, perhaps in an alchemical transformation of its own. An adolescent daughter of friends, a dedicated, one might say obsessive, Harry Potter fan was found reading it in rapt concentration on a lawn chair in the back garden, pausing at times to put on some more sun cream and to look up terms from the index. Thinking that any sort of reading was to be encouraged, I let her be, until she came bounding into the house, exclaiming: ‘‘wow, I know how they used to make a basilisk!’’ (For those uninitiated into the ways of Potter, the basilisk is a ‘‘hideously deadly reptile able to kill with its glance alone’’) (Principe, 2013, p. 54). On earlier occasions when I had told her that I studied, among other things, the history of early chemistry, the best I could raise in response had been a noncommittal grunt. Suddenly, the rather nerdy academic that I am became momentarily cool. Alchemy is indeed a cool and a hot topic, and not just for Potter fans. The study of its history has not only become a fundamental part of the history of science, but also of human aspirations and culture. Principe’s elegantly crafted account, written, one could say distilled, for non-specialists—but including extensive scholarly references for the curious—shows us that medieval and early modern alchemy was both a practical and theoretical discipline. Its practice made contributions to metallurgy and medicine, and its practitioners possessed a sophisticated theoretical exploration of the secrets of nature and its material basis. Principe’s work is partially a response to the call made by scholars such as Bruce Moran and Pamela Smith for historians of alchemy to focus upon ‘‘doing and making’’ (Moran, 2005, p. 6). Smith, for example, has analyzed the extent to which alchemy served as a vehicle for generating practical and material improvements. For her, an analysis of artisanal understanding is crucial to
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our comprehension of ‘‘the business of alchemy’’ in which alchemists were as much commercial advisors as courtly adepti (Smith, 1994, p. 91). Though also concerned about the material culture of alchemy, Principe takes a slightly different approach. As he possesses PhDs both in chemistry and the history of science, it is not entirely surprising that he accentuates the laboratory work aspect of alchemical practice, studying it in context of the history of science. Having a degree in the sciences, I too have utilized this approach in my work, and found it to be a powerful tool (Roos, 2007). In particular, I commend his chapter ‘‘Unveiling the Secrets’’ where he has recreated the processes of past alchemists, such as the making of the glass of antimony, the growing of the Philosopher’s tree, and the ‘‘gilding’’ of silver using ‘‘water of sulfur’’ (Principe, 2013, pp. 137–172). The results, rendered in color plates, are frankly spectacular. Alchemical descriptions of seemingly obscure practices are reconceptualized as attempts to characterize real chemical reactions. Principe has also done a fine job of analyzing the developing norms of openness in dissemination and presentation of laboratory knowledge, which were at odds with traditions of secrecy among practitioners of chrysopoeia or the transmutation of metals. Between these two standards a tension arose, evidenced by early modern writers’ loud criticism of chymical obscurity, with different strategies developed for negotiating the boundaries between secrecy and openness. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Tara Nummedal, Principe, too, nicely delineates the tension between standards of alchemical secrecy and its ambiguous reputation for fraud (Nummedal, 2007, p. 11). This reputation for fraudulent practice grew in the eighteenth century, which did not eradicate the discipline, but drove it further underground. Principe might be seen as an apologist for alchemy and, his book as part of a larger program to rehabilitate and reestablish the study of alchemy as a rational pursuit within the history of science. He claims that the history of the field—often seen as a fruitless or fraudulent quest (pyrites were not called fools’ gold for nothing)


A.M. Roos / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 787–789

has always lurked in the shadows of the discipline of history of science. According to Principe, most available histories of alchemy in English are nearly a half a century old, their contents valuable but often historiographically dated and entangled with Victorian occultism. He also argues that there was in the past little consideration of the extent to which alchemy was not just an allegorical or obscurantist quest. This is the attitude behind rather provocative proposal by him and his colleague, William Newman that historians adopt the term ‘‘chymistry’’ to refer ‘‘to the whole range of practices that nowadays would be classed under chemistry and alchemy’’ (Newman & Principe, 1998, pp. 43–44; Principe, 2013, p. 85). By renaming early modern practice, they argue, one avoids the baggage that the word ‘‘alchemy’’ carried in the past. It is true that in the nineteenth century, occultists proposed a vision of a purely ‘‘spiritual alchemy’’ which was later given a psychological treatment by C. G. Jung. In books such as Psychology and Alchemy (1944), Jung argued that alchemy was a symbolic representation of the individuation process, a process of the synthesis of the ‘‘self’’ which involved the union of the unconscious with the conscious. For Jung, the quest for the Philosopher’s stone was not a mere material one, but a quest to gain understanding about humans and their transformative nature, namely a spiritual awakening. Other scholars also have perceived alchemy as part of religious behavior; In his work the Forge and the Crucible (Eliade, 1962). Mircea Eliade treated alchemy as an offshoot of shamanism, connected with both the agricultural revolution and metallurgy. Later scholars, however, have critiqued what they see as the Jungians’ ‘‘ahistorical approach,’’ which discussed archetypal alchemical symbols without reference to place, time, or cultures ˘ lian, 2010, pp. 172–173; Obrist, 1982, pp. 14–36). Principe (Ca and Newman built their argument on Obrist’s work, claiming that the understanding of alchemy as basically spiritual and distinct from chemistry is ‘‘an ahistorical formulation which postdates the early modern period and was fully developed only in the con˘ lian, 2010, p. 173; text of nineteenth-century occultism’’ (Ca Newman & Principe, 2001, p. 406). Largely rejecting the Jungian analysis of alchemical symbolism as spiritual, archetypal or psychological in nature, then, Principe treats alchemical symbols and emblems as concrete and material. He argues, for example, that it is possible to decipher chymical processes hidden in the emblematic illustrations and often-impenetrable language of alchemists such as Basil Valentine (pp. 143–153). His arguments are nuanced and often quite persuasive, and I think that Principe’s work is thus extremely valuable in furthering our understanding of the experimental context of alchemy in the history of science. But is there more to the study of alchemy? Although Principe and Newman’s approach has been quite influential among historians, there have been criticisms. Some scholars such as George˘ lian have reminded us that Jung was not a historian, but Florin Ca a psychotherapist, and that thus, his purposes for looking alchemy were different. He created the idea of the archetype and the collective unconscious and searched for manifestations of these ideas in culture. Even if Jung’s exploration of spiritual alchemy is ahistorical however, it does not mean that there was not a significant spiritual component to early modern alchemy itself. In fact, this component was there long before the phenomenon of Victorian occultism. As ˘ lian has pointed out, Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294) himself made Ca one of the earliest distinctions between alkimia operativa et practica ˘ lian, 2010, p. and alkimia speculativa (Bacon, 1859, pp. 39–40; Ca 178). Whereas the former was dedicated to transmutation, Bacon said, the latter focused on metaphysical knowledge. Although Principe has argued that Bacon thought alchemical knowledge could be used to resist and ‘‘survive the assault of the Antichrist,’’ it should be noted that for others, the practice of alchemy was also a direct means to God (Principe, 2013, p. 64; Webster, 1976, 2008).

There have also been other traditions in alchemical study that Principe does not discuss in detail in this book, for instance alchemy’s role as part of Western esotericism (Faivre, 1990), or as in the work of Umberto Eco, as part of hermeneutic practice ˘ lian, 2010, p. 167; Eco, 1994, pp. 18–20). So, while Principe is (Ca correct in his observation that that the study of alchemy has been in the shadows of the discipline of the history of science, I suggest that the study of alchemy was alive and well when considered in other contexts outside the laboratory context of physical processes and material goals. For example, symbolism in alchemical emblems is bound up not just with laboratory procedure, but as Szulakowska has demonstrated, with cabala and Christian eschatology ˘ lian, 2010, p. 179; Szulakowska, 2000a, 2000b). as well (Ca Emblems themselves have a rich tradition in Renaissance intellectual history going beyond being, in Principe’s words, ‘‘brainteasers for the learned’’ (Principe, 2013, p. 176). For instance, Michael Maier in his Atalanta Fugiens (1617) did not just use image, poetry, music, or learned wordplay to make his book entertaining and delightful to learned humanists as Principe has claimed (pp. 176–177). Nor were these emblems simply puzzles to figure out divine secrets of nature. That was only part of their purpose. In addition to these roles, emblems were thought efficacious for spiritual guidance, guiding the moral sense because their images served as aids to memory, stimulating the reader to recollect spiritual truths and to remember what was not present or visible (Diehl, 1986; Roos, 2012, p. 200). Both Catholics and Protestants used emblems as part of religious practice. The emblems were not considered iconoclastic by image-shy Protestants because they did not elicit veneration or reverence but rather functioned as signs, motivating the reader to seek beyond the literal, to recall and contemplate what they represented. The visual faculty would thus imprint the idea into the memory, promoting a spiritual colloquy with the soul. For instance, as the recent work of Donna Bilak has demonstrated, alchemical emblems, such as those of Maier, not only delineated the laboratory procedures inherent in making the Philosopher’s Stone, but their musical accompaniments like the Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy) of the Tridentine mass were repeated three times, indicating a profound spiritual context (Bilak, 2013). Maier, influenced by Melchior Cibinensis, believed that transubstantiation of the host was a replica of alchemical transmutation, positing an ‘‘alchemical Mass’’ ˘ lian, 2010, p. 181; Kiss, Láng, & Popa-Gorjanu, 2006). (Ca Thus, while alchemical emblems in some works could certainly function as a means of obscuring laboratory practices, it seems premature to assume that this was their intended purpose throughout early modern alchemical practice. As Peter Forshaw has demonstrated in his study of alchemist Heinrich Kunrath’s emblematic Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom (1609), Kunrath should be recognised as ‘‘someone whose alchemy spans the whole spectrum, from investigation of the properties of matter and practical physicalchemistry to the use of alchemical language in the regenerative discourses of Christian spirituality’’ (Forshaw, 2006, pp. 195– 196). To be fair, Principe does acknowledge that in Kunrath’s work that he senses that the early moderns had a sense of the constant presence of the divine in their daily lives, but then laments ‘‘here is part of the world we have lost’’ (Principe, 2013, p. 199). He continues, ‘‘until we regain it, we cannot really understand the way early modern people thought and lived’’ (p. 199). Perhaps I would just offer that not everyone in the modern era shares only in the ‘‘rational’’ mindset of an enlightenment philosophe. Principe’s analysis of Christian spiritual spirituality briefly places alchemy in the historiographic context of the religious divisions of the Reformation, contextualizing it generally in terms of adepti looking for signs of alchemical practice in the Bible. As he states, ‘‘the addition of biblical patriarchs and ancient patriarchs to chymistry’s lineage gave the discipline and ancient pedigree

A.M. Roos / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 787–789


and status’’ (p. 181). However, this treatment sidelines a substantive historiographic issue, namely that alchemy was as much a social phenomenon as it was a scientific one. Scholars such as Charles Webster have associated alchemy in early modern England with Puritanism and radical religious reforms (Webster, 1976). Hedesan has pointed out that recent works by Glyn Parry and Bruce Janacek offer correctives to this view, revealing that ‘‘alchemy cut across contemporary religious division in England as well as continental Europe’’ (Hedesan, 2013, p. 286; Janacek, 2011; Parry, 2012). Part of alchemy’s appeal, besides its practical promise of material gain, was that it included religious and political reconciliation (Janacek, 2011), and the creation of a pre-apocalyptic empire (Parry, 2012). Alchemy could also demonstrate tenets of Christianity; natural philosopher Kenelm Digby (1603–1665) for example thought palingenesis was an analogy for the resurrection of bodies at the Last Judgment (Hedesan, 2013, p. 288; Janacek, 2011, pp. 119– 121). Outside of England also, alchemy was bound with religious belief well into the eighteenth century. In his recent work, Inventing Chemistry, John Powers cogently grapples with current historiographic debates surrounding Hermann Boerhaave, particularly the extent to which Boerhaave’s Calvinism had an effect on his approach to chemistry and medicine (Knoeff, 2002; Powers, 2012). Did Boerhaave’s intensely empirical stance have its basis in the work of seventeenth-century Dutch philosophers, who posited that observation and not the simple use of reason was key in quelling the passions so as to free one’s mind from bias? Or did his empiricism stem directly from his Calvinist faith: his study of the natural world a means to praise God’s creative plenitude? Rather than privilege either viewpoint, Powers argues that Boerhaave combined these ‘philosophical’ and ‘Calvinist’ perspectives in his empirical approaches (Powers, 2012). The spectrum of alchemical practice was thus vast, in the words of Moran, a ‘‘sometimes inharmonious intellectual and social mixture of learned and artisan, of occult, spiritual, and mechanical’’ (Moran, 2005, p. 187). Principe demonstrates tremendous erudition, wit, and verve in creating a modern history of alchemy that is both accessible and scholarly (no mean feat to be sure!), and, his book is absolutely necessary to show that alchemical practice was often rational and informed by empiricism, experimentation, and sophisticated laboratory practice. However, there is a danger that in his concentration on the aspects of alchemy that can be distilled into what we see as current scientific language, we may lose a significant part of the rich history of the field. Even as the ‘‘scientific revolution’’ was radically changing early modern thought, early modern natural philosophy often continued to be analogical in its approach. It considered revealed truths in nature that affected religious salvation, and was permeated by exploration of active principles in matter of a vitalist nature (Henry, 2012). We can now happily reproduce the alchemical practice of gilding metals, and even make a silica or philosophical tree in a laboratory. But, much to my adolescent friend’s disappointment, making the basilisk, often a symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone, will always be out of our material reach.

But perhaps the early moderns would not share this disappointment, as for many, making the stone was a never-ending spiritual quest as much as it was a material one. References
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