I first read this extraordinary book in the early 1990’s. What struck me about it was the breadth of knowledge expressed by the various members. It wasn’t their erudition, although that was clearly a part of it, no, what struck me was observing brilliant minds struggle to find a unified-field theory of Alchemy, and slowly coming to understand that such a thing did not exist.
At least from the age of the Enlightenment, the concept of a unified-field theory has driven serious people onward, searching for the elusive ‘key’ that will unlock the mysterious language of Alchemy. In one sense this had been met by the research of Carl Jung, who established a psycho-spiritual understanding of the language of Alchemy; and for many it remains sufficient; but not for all.
Perhaps this is because Alchemy has many roots, of which only some are concerned with the psycho-spiritual dimension. Some are clearly concerned with a scientific perspective, and others are pragmatically concerned with elements of trade and commerce. Arguably, from the earliest times, the work of the Alchemist has been shaped and controlled by forces within society that are at best political, with many of its secrets couched in a hidden language to protect vested interests.
Early in 1911, in the course of a highly favourable review of Alchemy, Ancient and Modern, a recently published book by H. Stanley Redgrove, the astrologer W.G. Old – writing under the pseudonym of Scrutator – pointed out that although ‘The bibliography and biography of Alchemy has already been thoroughly handled by Mr. A.E. Waite’, it yet ‘needed the critical work of a scientifically trained mind to enable us to set a true value upon the claims of the Alchemists’. This, he noted, ‘we have in the present volume.’
Herbert Stanley Redgrove, who was twenty-three years old at the time, was a chemist by training and a teacher of mathematics by profession. He had already contributed papers to academic, religious and esoteric journals – he was an enthusiastic student of metaphysics as well as the physical sciences – and had been taken under the journalistic wing of Ralph Shirley, the editor and proprietor of The Occult Review.
This brought him to the attention of A.E. Waite, then perceived as the doyen of intelligent writers on occultism, who was impressed by his work. Waite endorsed Old’s view of Redgrove, and wrote that, “It is a matter for satisfaction that Alchemy on the external or material side has been taken over of recent days by a practical chemist, Mr. H.S. Redgrove, who has given us a sane and enlightened review of the subject in his work entitled Alchemy, Ancient and Modern.”
Waite made a perceptive comment that Redgrove ‘is alive to the main issues, including the mystical aspect, and it is by collaboration of this kind that the desired canon of criticism in respect of the literature will be established ultimately’. He also added a broad hint by stating, ‘I do not know much of the outlook otherwise, save in respect of France, where there is an Alchemical Society.’ Waite was, however, dismissive of this society, which he saw as being little more than practical occultism with no concern for either science or mysticism. Redgrove took these comments to heart, and when, eighteen months later, he put forward his own proposals for an Alchemical Society, it was for a very different creature indeed.
The more I have engaged with Alchemical thought and practice the more I perceive different motives and objectives that follow different traditions. Some have followed predicable lines, yet, curiously, there is a thread that runs through the labyrinth of Alchemical thought that unites others in the eternal quest for perfection, or redemption, if you will. That thread emerged, arguably, out of the Athenian Academy during the fourth century BC. In the Western tradition, Alchemical theory rests heavily upon the teachings of the Athenian Academy, especially the teachings of Plato and Aristotle – which ostensibly marks the beginning of its public life.
In his book the Timaeus, Plato, describes the creation of the cosmos by the demiurge; (the divine creator of the world; a word deriving from the Greek dēmiourgos, meaning “artisan”). He also describes in the Timaeus, how spiritual archetypes or forms, seek expression in the world through a system of interlocking structures in matter (the Platonic Solids). Whereas his student, Aristotle, taught that the cosmos consisted of a primitive matter – prima materia, which only had a ‘Potential’ for existence until impressed with a form. The Form was not only a geometric structure but also the total inner organisation of a thing – the sum of its qualities and properties – that gave it its identity.
In simple terms, the form turned matter into the four elements through a variation of qualities arising from HEAT, COLD, FLUIDITY, and DRYNESS. Each element had two of these qualities. Thus, four possible sets of combinations arise; hot & dry (fire) hot and fluid (air), cold and fluid (water), cold and dry (earth). In every element a single quality dominated: DRYNESS in Earth, COLDNESS in Water, Fluidity in AIR and Heat in FIRE.
In the same period (4th cent BC) there emerged a movement known as Stoicism. This school of philosophy was founded by Zeno, a Greek philosopher who lived c.334–c.262 B.C. A significant contribution of Stoicism was the evolution of the concept of the Pneuma (the breath, a synonym of the element of AIR). The concept of pneuma had a long history before the emergence of Stocisim. For example, Anaximenes of Miletus c. 6th cent BC, had previously maintained that the cosmos was sustained by the divine air (pneuma) which it breathed. He thought that this pneuma, when rarefied became fire. With this notion of the universe evolving out of air by condensation and rarefaction, he declared: “As our soul, being air holds us together, so do we breathe and air surrounds the whole universe.”
For the Stoics pneuma was air and fire, the active elements or forces of cold and heat; they later added the qualities of dry and moist (earth & Water) in order to distinguish between the pneuma (soul) of animals, and the pneuma (soul) of plants, physis; the animal pneuma being dry & warm and the plant pneuma being moist & cold. As the pneuma entered into matter it pervaded the whole universe with a series of inter-related archetypes or forms. Matter, being shapeless & inert, all of its features was considered to be properties of the pneuma (in Stoic terms) or the form (in Platonic terms). Thus ‘Being’ rather than ‘Substance’ took centre stage.The separation and or transmutation of which, is central in Alchemy….
This process of separating Form from Matter has fascinated alchemists for centuries, which raises the question, what do we mean by the terms Form and Matter? Today, modern scientific thought defines Matter as “anything that has mass and takes up space”. Not really helpful in my opinion. It is also described as being composed of atoms, which are themselves composed of protons, neutrons, quarks etc. Arguably, we have not really moved on since the time of the Greeks or the Egyptians. In truth Matter is essentially indescribable because any description applies to Form.
The alchemists of old spoke of three distinct Philosophical Principles applying to Form, philosophical Salt, Mercury and Sulphur, These terms are analogues of spiritual forces, which from a Stoic perspective are 3 modes of one Living Entity – Pneuma. And they spoke of four elements – Fire, Air, Water and Earth, applying to Matter. From these simple components a vast and complex Tower of Babel that we know as Alchemy derived.
Thus, the short-lived Alchemical Society, in its few years of existence, explored and opened up this fascinating subject as never before, and compiled a wonderful Journal that describes their endeavours for all to read. This is the first time the Journal has been re-presented in completion.