Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/March 1874/The Future of Alchemy
THERE are few ideas more fatal to the exercise of that prophetic sight, by which we hope to penetrate the uncertainty of the what-is-to be, and distinguish the dark forms of the future, than the two notions: that history repeats itself, and that any form of feeling, of thought, or of motive, when once extinguished, must forever remain so. Though widely accepted, these two notions evidently contradict each other, and this contradiction is in itself a sufficient proof of their necessary mutual limitation. Yet, when limited by comparison, the two ideas find a joint expression in the moral law, that while infallibility is not of the human mind, and while all our views and forms of mental activity enshrine but a spirit of verity in a clay of illusion, it is only this body of error which the scythe of Time consigns to the grave, while the immortal soul of truth lives on.
Some centuries ago, the system of ideas known to history as Alchemy held universal sway over the minds of men; now there are none, among the cultivated at least, who dare to defend its assertions. And yet we may inquire what there was in these ideas that so commended them to men's minds, that at a time their authority was almost beyond dispute. What, we may ask, was the soul of truth, the immortal part, in the day-dreams of wealth, of power and of beauty, of magic and mystery, which formed the erroneous body of alchemistic belief?
The opinion most widely and popularly entertained at the present time ascribes to the alchemistical pursuits of the middle ages a mixed character: it holds the aim of alchemy to have mainly consisted in the transmutation of the baser metals into gold; it regards the alchemist as a man who, intensely selfish in his purpose, bore either the character of the unreasoning, visionary dreamer, of the magician moving among the phantoms of superstition, or of the charlatan and cheat living upon the credulity of the avaricious, and who sought, in the application of an exceedingly limited stock of scientific knowledge, the means for the accomplishment of his ends.
But, to the thoughtful student of history—not the history of political events, it is true, nor the history of science, or of any other isolated and abstract phase of human activity, but of history in its highest conception; a history which seeks and finds, in each of the phases of life, the determining influences of all the others—the face of alchemy wears a different aspect.
At the time when alchemistic views were most widely disseminated and accepted, and alchemistic pursuits most widely, frequently followed, alchemy had one chief central object the production of the philosopher's stone, a substance of marvelous properties and power. By those who claimed to possess it, it was generally described as a red, glass-like powder. When it was projected, that is to say, inclosed in wax, and thrown upon any base metal in a state of fusion, it instantly ennobled it, converting it into gold. When it was taken as a medicine, it was not only productive of perfect health, but even effaced the effects of time, bestowing all but eternal youth. And, even more than this, it was held to purge its fortunate possessor of all sin and moral evil. The transcendent value of such a substance is readily understood, and it is not to be wondered at that philosophical voyages, undertaken in its search, formed at a time the favorite enterprise of the alchemistic adventurer. But these attempts at its preparation were fraught with innumerable difficulties, beset by untold obstacles. The philosopher's stone was not held to be obtainable from any and every substance, but only from the peculiar material known in those days as primeval matter. Where this material was to be found no one could clearly state; the alchemists refer to its origin in dark, mysterious, unintelligible language. Hence it was sought far and near; in all countries; in the mineral, the vegetal, and the animal world; in the earth, the air, and the waters. According to the statement of the alchemist, he converted this peculiar material into another—the philosophical mercury or pure spirit of metallicity. Joining this with philosophical gold—that is to say, the pure spirit of goldenness—he placed the strange mixture in a certain vessel, the philosopher's egg, heated it in the philosopher's furnace, and hatched the philosopher's stone. It is scarcely necessary to say that the substances named do not exist. The process of making the stone was expressed in dark, enigmatical language. The open communication of the secret was held to be sinful, and liable to be punished by the instantaneous annihilation of the offender. These were the means and purposes of alchemy in the most exalted stage of its development, which it had attained toward the middle of the fourteenth century. Before the thirteenth it was immature; after the fifteenth it fell into decay.
The current of alchemistic opinions and pursuits issued from the dark ground of the Egyptian temple. Gathering the influences of Oriental Christianity, and taking in those of the Mohammedan torrent, it flowed away to the bleak shores of culture in the Christianized North. Egypt endowed it with its veil of mystery and its sacred character. The philosophy of antiquity bestowed upon it its fatal birth-gift of theoretical error. In Egypt it had been combined with astronomy and astrology, and, when that country passed under the sway of the Mohammedan conquerors, the alliance of these pursuits was further strengthened by the fatalism of the Arabian. Seeking for the philosopher's stone an ideal of material perfection, and uniting with this pursuit that of the physician, the alchemist was led to regard the imperfection of the baser metals as a disease, the supposed operation of the stone as a process of healing, and to ascribe to it the properties of a universal medicine. Transferred to northern soil, at the time when mediaeval Christianity attained its most exalted development, alchemy became thoroughly infused with the religious spirit of the period and its tendency to regard things material as analogous to and symbolical of things spiritual. Passing into the shadow of the cloud and mist-born Northern deities, still hovering over the thrones from which they had been hurled by the Christian angelic host, alchemistic pursuits became involved with the belief in magic and witchcraft. And then the great spiritual revolution which struck at the power of Catholic Rome also weakening the authority of ancient alchemistic views, they became the adroitly-wielded weapons of swindler and charlatan, who were only disarmed when the calm criticism of chemical science disproved the assertions of fraud.
But, at the time when the belief in the reality of the philosopher's stone was general among the cultivated as well as the ignorant, alchemistic hypocrisy was not common. More frequently, then, the alchemist was either an excited enthusiast, led astray by the mirage of his hope, or the cautious commentator who lent the weight of his name merely to give currency to the reports of older authorities. Nor was covetousness always the leading motive of the alchemists. Some of the most illustrious of them apparently persevered in their search for the philosopher's stone without a single sordid thought; many sought to make their pursuit tributary to the healing art; many also regarded their labor as one of the duties of a life of religious devotion.
Alchemy is often represented as immature chemical science, but even this view is only partially correct. The essence of science consists in experimental investigation; but, though many of the alchemists made discoveries, and some of them were investigators, the greater number, and some of the most illustrious, were rather men who, born to the habit of religious enthusiasm, and led by a beacon-light from the ideal world across the threshold of reality, only now and then stumbled over a new fact. Closer by far is the relationship subsisting between the alchemy of the past and the chemical technics of today. Most generally, the aim of the alchemist was not to discover, but to create. Indeed, alchemy had a constant purpose—the production of a perfect agent of chemical change—the philosopher's stone. It was a purpose which was never accomplished, an aim which could not possibly be attained—at least, not in the way and time dreamt of by the alchemistic enthusiast, nor by the means at his command.
Most of the arts reward the laborer, who engages in their pursuit, with the attainment of his aim. But, though most of the arts do so, all do not. For, among that vast group of human activities to which the name of "arts" is applied, there are certain forms, the very essence of which consists in the seemingly unattainable character of their ends. And these activities, constantly striving for the absolute—for ideals of the many forms of beauty and of strength—are those known as the "Fine Arts."
But all the forms of the ideal world are a part of the religious system of a time, and for this reason all the fine arts have ever been in such close relation with religious belief. And, consequently, when we consider the essential and persistent characteristics of alchemy, such as its intimate connection with religion, and its endeavors to realize chemical ideals, we are compelled to regard alchemy as a primitive fine art, which fell into decay on account of the extreme inadequacy of its means, and the despondency of the artist. The true artist-hero, when he perceives that the absolute perfection he aims at is unattainable, save by the moral, intellectual, and technical education of successive generations, undismayed persists in creating, though not the ideal, yet at least beauteous forms, adumbrations of its image. The alchemist, when he saw that the prize was not to be attained in his day, ignominiously abandoned the field of action.
These facts point to a probability of the revival of alchemy in the future. But the conception of the perfectibility of matter is closely united to that of its transmutability. And when we inquire, "Has the chemical science of our time, by the unceasing toil of the last two centuries, not already developed the means which might enable us to successfully resume the great work of alchemistic art?" we receive not a favorable answer. Chemistry has taught us to resolve compounds into elements and to unite elements to compounds, but it knows naught of transmutation; all its inductions seem to disprove the existence of any reality corresponding to the idea. Year by year the belief that definite, specific forms of matter, such as water or iron, though resolvable or combinable, are yet in themselves absolutely fixed and invariable, has become more firmly rooted. And, if we would therefore hope to see the transmutation of imperfect forms of matter into others more perfect realized, it is not on the inductions and theories of chemistry that our hopes may be founded. It is among chemical conditions, and with the aid of chemical knowledge, that the future alchemist must resume his pursuit; but, before he may do so with any promise of success, these conditions and that knowledge must undergo a change, and chemical science, unleavened as yet by the thought which shall work it, must receive it from without.
The source whence this thought may be derived is the current of organic science, now distributing far and wide the fertilizing influence of the theory of evolution, a view of creation which, though not new, was not victorious until, within the last decades, Charles Darwin led upon the hard-fought logic-field an array of facts glittering in their strength. Before a victory had been conquered by the Darwinistic school, the specific forms of vegetal and animal life were held to be immutable. While it was known that among the individuals of any one species certain differences, justifying their being classed as distinct varieties, might arise in the course of successive generations, all such variations were held to be bounded by certain more or less narrow limits of possibility. The facts adduced by the new school of biologists have led to different conclusions, culminating in the assertion that all organic forms are changeable without limit—transmutable without end—capable of a physical, intellectual, and moral elevation, which knows no boundaries.
According to the theory of evolution, the modifications of structure and capability which organic forms are liable to undergo, in the course of generations, may be traced back to three principal causes. The first of these is the influence of physical forces, as, when the strength of the muscles is enhanced by exercise, the mind invigorated by thought, or, inversely, their function impaired by long-continued disuse. The second cause consists in the transmission of these results of individual life to a line of descendants, the effects being compounded, as they pass, with others of the same order. The third cause is to be found in the competition of the forms so produced under circumstances not equally well adapted to their capacities nor sufficient for their coexistence, leading necessarily to the preservation of those races which are best, and the extinction of those which are least, fitted to endure adversity. To this last cause, constantly active in the organic world, the term "natural selection" has been applied, to distinguish it from the artificial selection of the stock-breeder and gardener. The changes wrought in organic forms by the influence of inorganic forces are generally spoken of as variation. But this variation is in reality merely an extension of the principle of competition. Organized beings are brought face to face with the forces of Nature, with the earthquake, the flood, the lightning, and the storm. Often they meet in mortal conflict. The living form sinks to the earth before the power of the thunder-bolt, or the thunder-bolt is conquered by the invention of genius. Death is but a victorious alliance of inorganic forces triumphing over the organic form laid low on the battle-field; life is but the victory of the organic forces over the inorganic hosts. But, do we not also behold a competition taking place between, a struggle for existence. and a natural selection occurring among, inorganic forms? Cast water upon fire; either the water disappears as vapor or the fire is extinguished. A mixture of salt and gravel is brought in contact with water; the salt is dissolved, the gravel remains unaltered. Heat a mixture of salt and sal-ammoniac; the salt persists, while the sal-ammoniac is vaporized.
And here we may ask: "Is the distinction between that which is living and that which is not between the organic and the inorganic worlds around us—properly drawn?" If the changes undergone by the forms of both are due to the same causes, wherein lies their difference? Both forms are capable of assimilating material from without; the organic by nourishment, the inorganic directly, as when a crystal grows by the assimilation of material from a solution in which it is placed. Both also are capable of producing offspring—at least by division if not by sexual genesis. Are we then justified in assuming the gap of distinction between these two orders of existence to be as wide and deep as it is generally considered? Life is the gradual modification of material forms by the action of physical forces; the continuity in time of the changes thus wrought; the competition of the forms thus evolved. It is the projection of the past into the future. It is the persistence of history.
And we may well question whether it were not better to extend our idea of life. Even if that wide gap which we imagine to open between the organic and the inorganic does exist, we may still ask: "Is the organic form the only living one, and the inorganic form so absolutely dead; or do they not rather both constitute forms of life radically and polarily opposed—vast alternate generations of existence, majestic in their mystery?" The power which fashioned this earth wrote not only upon the bark of the tree and the brow of man, but also upon the cold and passionless rock and the wide expanse of the deep, blue sea, their history. That which is seemingly so inanimate, as well as that which throbs with a warm consciousness of being, obeys the commanding influences of the past, and transmits them to the future. The biologist and the geologist have read the story; where they have not—the letters await but the riper wisdom of the yet unborn sage.
But the chemist has not yet acquired a knowledge of his historic alphabet. To him specific forms of matter are still immutable, unvarying, constant. He knows naught of differences wrought by the influences of the past, or of their transmission to the future. He is not aware of a competition or struggle for existence taking place between individual and specific forms of matter. The idea that substances, as we find them, are the result of a process of natural selection has been expressed, but it is as yet unsupported by experiment or interpretation of facts observed.
But, where a natural selection takes place, artificial selection is also possible; and, when chemistry shall develop before us the spectrum of the law of inorganic creation, the artistic spirit will seize upon the individual colors of truth, and once more-endeavor to paint the image of the chemical ideal. The recognition of the law of evolution compels the acceptance of the inexorable conclusion that the competition of races must, in the course of infinite ages, inevitably lead to the absolute perfection of the enduring forms. Natural selection this hope has been called, because the hand of Nature bestows the warrant of nobility. But man is himself only a part of that great, that bountiful, that all-generous Nature, and it is wrong to speak of the selections he has made among the flowers which embower his dwelling, and the half-mute companions of his home, as artificial. In making these he is but executing the commands of Nature, as the most skilled workman in her earthly palace of labor, and the approximations to perfection which she initiates by the intellectual and moral lever of his mind distance all others known to us.
The chemistry of to-day is, in part a science searching for forms of truth; in part an art pursuing the objects of the useful. The scientific chemist seeks and discovers realities of fact; the technical chemist produces realities of matter; neither of them endeavors to give existence to material ideals. But though man may thus unconsciously serve the inscrutable power through which all is that is, and all is what it is, yet of nobler mood is he who, feeling his heart swell in sympathy with her purpose—the creation of ultimate universal perfection—persists in constant faith to work her ends. Of such noble mood, and of such conscious purpose, must be the future alchemist. His work—the reformation of the crude earth, and air, and waters, that surround us, in the image of his chemical ideals, the production of untold varieties of the philosopher's stone—is not to be accomplished in a lifetime, or a century, but demands the continued labor of infinite generations. We shall never behold it, but—
"On the day when, drawn on paths of duty,
The last worlds eternity-begun
shall most surely be witnessed its completion!