by Tim Harding, B.Sc. (biochemistry), B.A. (philosophy)
(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
March 2019, Vol 39 No 1)
Unlike physics, astronomy and biology, chemistry is a relatively new science – less than 400 years old. Yet for thousands of years, people have been extracting chemicals from plants for medicines, dyes and perfumes; fermenting beer and wine; making pottery and glazes; rendering fat into soap; making glass; extracting metals from ores and making alloys like bronze. But this does not mean there was any knowledge of the underlying chemistry involved.
For instance, metal-working and smithing have existed since the Bronze Age, which began with the rise of the Mesopotamian civilisation in the mid-4th millennium BCE. Bronze was harder and more durable than other metals available at the time, and thus better suited for making weapons and armour. It was made by smelting copper and alloying with tin, arsenic, or other metals. This technology was largely invented by trial and error, without any chemical knowledge of the nature of metals or alloys. The science of chemistry did not exist at all in these ancient times.
It has been claimed by some writers that alchemy was a precursor to chemistry, or that chemistry ‘evolved’ from alchemy. I think this is wrong. Chemistry no more evolved from alchemy than astronomy evolved from astrology. Alchemy was a mystical pseudoscience like astrology, rather than being a protoscience of chemistry. The eventual mainstream switch from alchemy to chemistry in the 17th century was quite rapid – more like a revolution than evolution. It has been suggested that this was due to the development of scientific methods. I think this is also wrong, for reasons I shall later explain.
Alchemy was practised throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia; but as this essay is about the transition from alchemy to chemistry, which happened in Europe, I shall focus on western alchemy.
WHAT IS ALCHEMY?
The ‘holy grail’ of Western alchemy was the production of the fabled ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which really had nothing to do philosophy but was supposed to bestow spiritual wealth and immortality. This Stone would also enable the alchemist to turn base metals such as lead into silver and gold. In theory, this was merely the test employed to check whether the Stone was genuine, but in practice it became the main driver of alchemical experimentation.
Other goals of alchemy included the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of ‘alkahest’, a hypothetical universal solvent able to dissolve every other substance, including gold. (A potential problem with alkahest is that, if it dissolves everything, then it cannot be placed into a container because it would also dissolve the container).
Western alchemists continued antiquity’s belief in the classical ‘four elements’ of earth, water, air and fire. They held that metals grew slowly and naturally in the earth, the product of a ménage a trois between the otherwise opposing forces of mercury, sulphur and salt. Alchemists tried to speed up these supposedly natural processes in the laboratory.
They guarded their work in secrecy including cyphers and cryptic symbolism, somewhat akin to astrological arcanery. Their work was guided by Hermetic principles relating to magic and mysticism. (These principles are named after Hermes Trismegistus, the purported ancient author of the Hermetic Corpus, a series of esoteric early Greek-Egyptian texts).
There were some connections between the two mystical pseudosciences of alchemy and astrology. The belief of the alchemists that all natural events are connected by a hidden thread, that everything has an influence on other things, that ‘what is above is as what is below,’ constrained them to place stress on the supposed connection between the planets and the metals, and to further their metallic transformations by performing them at times when certain ‘planets’ were in conjunction. The seven principal ‘planets’ and the seven principal metals were called by the same names: Sol (gold), Luna (silver), Saturn (lead), Jupiter (tin), Mars (iron), Venus (copper), and Mercury (mercury).
HISTORY OF WESTERN ALCHEMY
The beginnings of Western alchemy may generally be traced to ancient and Hellenistic Egypt, where the city of Alexandria was a centre of alchemical activity, and retained its pre-eminence through most of the early Greek and Roman periods. The oldest known alchemical texts are preserved on what is known as the Leiden Papyrus, which dates from around 300 CE. It is written in Greek, and contains 101 recipes for the production of fake gold, silver and dyes.
Maria Prophetessa (or Mary the Jewess), was possibly the first western alchemist. She is known from the works of Zosimos of Panopolis, as none of her writings have survived. Maria is thought to have lived between the first and third centuries CE, and is credited with the invention of several kinds of laboratory apparatus such as the eponymously named ‘bain-marie’.
Zosimos of Panopolis was a Greek-Egyptian alchemist and gnostic mystic who lived at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century CE. He was born in Panopolis (the present day Akhmim) in the south of Roman Egypt. He wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, which he called ‘Cheirokmeta’, using the Greek word for ‘things made by hand’. He is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings that was probably put together in Constantinople in the 7th or 8th century CE, copies of which exist in manuscripts in Venice and Paris. This was when the term ‘alchemy’ first began to be used.
As early as the 14th century CE, cracks seemed to grow in the facade of alchemy; and people started to became sceptical. In 1317, the Avignon Pope John XXII ordered all alchemists to leave France for making counterfeit money. A law was passed in England in 1403 which made the ‘multiplication of metals’ punishable by death. Despite these and other apparently extreme measures, alchemy did not die. The lure of making gold from lead was too much of a monetary magnet.
Several practical problems with alchemy emerged. There was no systematic naming scheme for new compounds, and the language was esoteric and vague to the point that the terminologies meant different things to different people. Indeed, many alchemists included in their methods irrelevant information such as the timing of the tides or the phases of the moon. Like astrology, the esoteric nature and codified vocabulary of alchemy appeared to be more useful in concealing the fact that they could not be sure of very much at all.
In fact, according to Brock (1992): ‘The language of alchemy soon developed an arcane and secretive technical vocabulary designed to conceal information from the uninitiated. To a large degree, this language is incomprehensible to us today, though it is apparent that readers of Geoffery Chaucer’s ‘The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale’ or audiences of Ben Jonson’s ‘The Alchemist’ were able to construe it sufficiently to laugh at it.
The 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, from whom the word ‘bombastic’ is derived) believed in the existence of alkahest. He thought alkahest was an undiscovered element from which all other elements (earth, fire, water and air) were simply derivative forms. Paracelsus believed that this element was, in fact, the Philosopher’s Stone. Paracelsus advocated the tria prima (three primes) of salt, sulphur and mercury. They were not, however simply the substances which bear these names today. Salt was the prime of fixity and incombustibility, mercury of fusibility and volatility, and sulphur of flammability. So anything that burned was sulphur and different substances afforded different sulphurs, mercuries and salts. The Three Primes were thought to be related to the Law of the Triangle, in which two components come together to produce the third. These views may seem strange, even unintelligible to us but, even in the 17th century, they were still believed by some of the best brains of the time.
In 1608 the alchemist Sendivogius proposed that one metal could be propagated from another only in the order of superiority of the planets. He placed the seven planets in the following descending order: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercury, Luna. ‘The virtues of the planets descend,’ he said, ‘but do not ascend; it is easy to change Mars (iron) into Venus (copper), for instance, but Venus cannot be transformed into Mars’.
Even the great Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy, for which we can forgive him in the absence of a mature science of chemistry in his time. According to Ackroyd (2007), the young Newton set up an alchemy laboratory in his chambers at Cambridge, and he had 175 alchemical books in his library – one tenth of the total. However, for Newton alchemy was a private interest – more like a hobby than a profession. He did not publish on the subject, and his writings consisted of personal notes and annotations on alchemical texts.
THE RISE OF CHEMISTRY
Chemistry is the science of matter at the atomic to molecular scale, dealing primarily with collections and interactions of atoms, such as molecules, crystals, and metals. Chemistry studies matter in solid, liquid and gaseous states. It really has nothing to do with alchemy – the only similarity being the use of laboratory experiments.
The Classical Greek philosopher Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) and later Epicurus and Leucippus held that everything is composed of ‘atoms’, which are physically indivisible; that between atoms, there lies empty space (called the void); that atoms are indestructible, and have always been and always will be in motion; that there is an infinite number of atoms and of kinds of atoms, which differ in shape and size. Although this early atomic theory appears to be more nearly aligned with that of modern science than any other theory of antiquity, it was a philosophical theory rather than a scientific theory. Classical Greek atomists could not possibly have had an empirical basis for modern concepts of atoms and molecules, so this was not the beginnings of chemistry.
Nevertheless, in the 17th century, a renewed interest arose in Classical Greek atomism. The major figures in this rebirth were Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, and Robert Boyle, the latter being the first real chemist who is perhaps best known for Boyle’s law. This law describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system.
Once again, before the advent of chemistry, Robert Boyle (1627–1692) was an alchemist. He believed the transmutation of metals to be a possibility, and he carried out experiments in the hope of achieving it.In his ground-breaking book ‘The Sceptical Chymist’ (1661), Robert Boyle demonstrated problems that arise from alchemy, and he proposed atomism as a possible explanation, which soon became widely accepted amongst the physical sciences. Boyle called the alchemists who were disciples of Paracelsus ‘vulgar spagyrists’. Boyle showed that Paracelsus’s theories of the tria prima – salt, sulphur, and mercury – were totally inadequate to explain chemistry and he was the first to give a satisfactory definition of an element. Boyle endorsed the early atomistic view of elements as the undecomposable constituents of material bodies; and that atoms were of various sorts and sizes. He also made the distinction between mixtures and compounds; and he made considerable progress in the technique of detecting their ingredients, a process which became designated by the term ‘chemical analysis’.
For Boyle, chemistry was the science of the composition of substances, not merely an adjunct to the arts of the alchemist or the physician. Chemistry soon became recognised as a legitimate science, alongside physics, geology and biology. As a result, Boyle has been whimsically called ‘The father of chemistry and the brother of the Earl of Cork’.
Wootten (2015) notes that although alchemy had once been respectable in the eyes of Newton and Boyle, it had become entirely disreputable by the 1720s. He states that this was a result of a series of ‘rhetorical’ moves by chemists in the Academie des Sciences.
Later pioneering chemists such Brandt, Cronsted, Black, Cavendish, Geoffrey, Priestley and Lavoisier built on the work of Boyle, but as this essay is about the transition from alchemy to chemistry, I do not propose to discuss their work in detail.
One exception is Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743 –1794), a French chemist who is celebrated as the ‘father of modern chemistry’. Lavoisier demonstrated with careful measurements that transmutation of water to earth was not possible, but that the sediment observed from boiling water came from the container. He burnt phosphorus and sulphur in air, and proved that the products weighed more than the original. Nevertheless, the weight gained was lost from the air. Thus, in 1789, Lavoisier established the Law of Conservation of Mass, which is also called ‘Lavoisier’s Law.’ By this investigation Lavoisier destroyed part of the experimental basis of alchemy, and established specific methods by which chemical changes can be investigated, such as the use of the mass balance.
Lavoisier worked with Claude Louis Berthollet and others to devise a system of chemical nomenclature which serves as the basis of the modern system of naming chemical compounds. Lavoisier’s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elementary Treatise of Chemistry, 1789) was the first modern chemical textbook, and presented a unified view of new theories of chemistry. In addition, it contained a list of elements, or substances that could not be broken down further, which included oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, mercury, zinc, and sulphur. Lavoisier also established that elements could not be converted from one to the other, which was the final nail in the coffin of alchemy.
Later on, the English chemist John Dalton in 1803 proposed a modern atomic theory which stated that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles termed atoms, that atoms of a given element possess unique characteristics and weight, and that three types of atoms exist: simple (elements), compound (simple molecules), and complex (complex molecules). In 1808, Dalton first published a New System of Chemical Philosophy, in which he outlined the first modern scientific description of the atomic theory.
Pattison Muir (1902) gives credit to the Classical Greek atomists rather than the alchemists in inspiring the work of Boyle, Lavoisier, Dalton, and other early chemists. He says: ‘Instead of blaming the Greek philosophers for lack of quantitatively accurate experimental inquiry, we should rather be full of admiring wonder at the extraordinary acuteness of their mental vision, and the soundness of their scientific spirit’.
The demise of alchemy cannot be attributed to the development of scientific methods. This is because experimental scientific methods had already been developed around four hundred years earlier by the English philosophers Robert Grossteste and Roger Bacon, as explained in an essay of mine in the June 2016 issue of The Skeptic.
According to Wootton (2015), alchemy was never a science, and there was no room for it to survive among those who accepted a scientific approach. For they had something the alchemists did not: a critical community of scientific peers prepared to take nothing on trust. Wootton argues that alchemy and chemistry were both experimental disciplines, but they belonged to different types of community.
The demise of alchemy provides further evidence that what marks out modern science is not the conduct of experiments (alchemists conducted plenty of laboratory experiments), but the formation of a critical scientific community capable of peer reviewing discoveries and replicating results. Alchemy, as a clandestine enterprise, could never develop such a community. Wootton says that Popper was right to think that science can flourish only in an open society.
Today new interpretations of alchemy are still perpetuated, sometimes merging in concepts from Hippie, New Age or other radical countercultural movements. Even conservative Christian groups like the Rosicrucians and Freemasons have a continued interest in alchemy and its occult symbolism. According to Principe (2011), occultists reinterpreted alchemy as a spiritual practice, involving the self-transformation of the practitioner and only incidentally or not at all the transformation of laboratory substances, which has contributed to a merger of magic and alchemy in popular thought.
Some forms of quackery believe in the concept of the transmutation of natural substances, using alchemical or a combination of alchemical and spiritual techniques. In the practice of what is known as Ayurveda, the ‘samskaras’ are claimed to transform heavy metals and toxic herbs in a way that removes their toxicity. These mystical beliefs persist to the present day.
Two Spagyrists of the 20th century, Albert Richard Riedel and Jean Dubuis, merged Paracelsian alchemy with occultism, teaching laboratory pharmaceutical methods. The schools they founded, Les Philosophes de la Nature and The Paracelsus Research Society, popularized modern spagyrics including the manufacture of herbal tinctures and products. The courses, books, organizations, and conferences generated by their students continue to influence popular applications of alchemy as a New Age quackery practice.
Ackroyd, Peter. (2007) Isaac Newton. Vintage Books, London.
Boyle, Robert (1661) The Sceptical Chymist. J. Crooke, London.
The Project Gutenberg eBook: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22914/22914-h/22914-h.htm
Brock, William H. (1992). The Fontana History of Chemistry. Fontana Press, London.
Davidson, John S. (2001) Annotations to Boyle’s ‘The Sceptical Chymist’:
Martin, Sean (2015) Alchemy and Alchemists. Pocket Essentials, Harpenden.
Pattison Muir, M. M., (1902) The Story of Alchemy and The Beginnings of Chemistry. The Project Gutenberg eBook http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14218/14218-h/14218-h.htm
Principe, Lawrence M. (2011) ‘Alchemy Restored’. Isis 102.2: 305-12.
Russell, Bertrand. (1961) History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition. George Allen & Unwin, London.
Sendivogius (1608) The New Chemical Light. The Alchemy Web Site: <http://www.levity.com/alchemy/newchem1.html>
Wootton, David (2015). The Invention of Science – A New History of the Scientific Revolution. Harper Perennial, New York.
About the author Tim Harding originally majored in biochemistry. He has also studied the history and philosophy of science twice – once as part of a science degree and more recently as part of an Arts degree majoring in philosophy.
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