The Alchemists

This small but fascinating volume on the history of Alchemy by F. Sherwood Taylor was part of my recent second-hand haul from the wonderfully warrenous Regent Books in Wantage. I got through it in a couple of days. A few passages stood out, and one had resonance with last week’s blog post about Keith Thomas’s The Ends Of Life, a book which describes the increasing moral acceptance of material acquisition during the early modern period.

Covering a similar timescale, Sherwood takes a general overview on what changed when the alchemical worldview was surpassed by that of the ‘new science’, to which it had contributed lessons in laboratory technique, but with which it otherwise shared little:

The medieval philosopher could visualize the whole cosmos with the vast empyrean heaven enclosing the concentric spheres of the planets which, in their turn, governed all the changes of the world. He saw these changes as operated by God’s will, doing God’s purpose. He saw the world as begun by God and by Him to be ended. The new science left out all this, and consequently it seemed to the philosophical and religious thinkers to be lacking in interest or at least to be insufficient. It revealed a number of instances of law and order, no doubt. But was a man to renounce this wonderful vision of a world impelled by God for God’s purpose in order to trifle with the measuring of pendulums and the weighing of air?

Needless to say, I’m very much pro-science and don’t ‘believe’ in Alchemy in any literal sense. But I’m also interested in the notion of connectedness, and how these older ideas can prompt us to think about the world differently. I find some of our older knowledge systems fascinating precisely because of their easy links between what we’d call the arts, sciences and spirituality, and the willingness – audacity even – to build them into a big beautiful picture.

Sherwood’s book was first published in 1952, and is in itself an interesting period piece. Alchemists claimed their secrecy around the supposed ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ was to prevent it falling into the wrong hands and being used for evil. Sherwood compares this ironically to the very real ‘transmutation’ of metals achieved through the nuclear fission of Uranium in atomic weapons.

But atomic anxiety aside, at the very end of the book he strikes a strangely upbeat note: ‘we shall not return to the alchemists, but doubtless the pendulum, which has swung from the spiritual view of things to the material one, will swing back’. He could not have imagined the extent of our current environmental crises, in which a better understanding of our materials and how they fit in the scheme of a finite planet would be so direly needed.

For a fictional exploration of alchemical ideas that was also set during the Cold War, I heartily recommend Lindsay Clarke’s novel The Chymical Wedding.

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