[Marxism] What alchemists got right

maxthespoon at aol.com maxthespoon at aol.com
Sat Apr 11 07:04:22 MDT 2009

In Peter Segwick's introduction to Victor Serge's "Memoirs of a Revolutionary" he stated that?Serge's last conversation just prior to his death, was a conversation with his wife about the mystical qualities of gold.? I wish Segwick would have expanded a little more about that.

-----Original Message-----
From: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com>
To: mr spoon <maxthespoon at aol.com>
Sent: Fri, 10 Apr 2009 11:01 am
Subject: [Marxism] What alchemists got right

Good as gold
What alchemists got right

By Stephen Heuser  |  March 15, 2009

THREE HUNDRED YEARS ago, more or less, the last serious alchemists 
finally gave up on their attempts to create gold from other metals, 
dropping the curtain on one of the least successful endeavors in the 
history of human striving.

Centuries of work and scholarship had been plowed into alchemical 
pursuits, and for what? Countless ruined cauldrons, a long trail of 
empty mystical symbols, and precisely zero ounces of transmuted gold. As 
a legacy, alchemy ranks above even fantasy baseball as a great human 
icon of misspent mental energy.

But was it really such a waste? A new generation of scholars is taking a 
closer look at a discipline that captivated some of the greatest minds 
of the Renaissance. And in a field that modern thinkers had dismissed as 
a folly driven by superstition and greed, they now see something quite 

Alchemists, they are finding, can take credit for a long roster of 
genuine chemical achievements, as well as the techniques that would 
prove essential to the birth of modern lab science. In alchemists' 
intricate notes and diagrams, they see the early attempt to codify and 
hand down experimental knowledge. In the practices of alchemical 
workshops, they find a masterly refinement of distillation, sublimation, 
and other techniques still important in modern laboratories.

Alchemy had long been seen as a kind of shadowy forebear of real 
chemistry, all the gestures with none of the results. But it was an 
alchemist who discovered the secret that created the European porcelain 
industry. Another alchemist discovered phosphorus. The alchemist 
Paracelsus helped transform medicine by proposing that disease was 
caused not by an imbalance of bodily humors, but by distinct harmful 
entities that could be treated with chemicals. (True, he believed the 
entities were controlled by the planets, but it was a start.)

"We've got
 people who are trying to make medicines, which are 
pharmaceuticals; we've got people who are trying to understand the 
material basis of the world - very much like a modern engineer, or 
someone in technology," says Lawrence Principe, a professor of chemistry 
and the history of science at Johns Hopkins University who is a leading 
thinker in the revival of alchemy studies.

The field has begun to coalesce as its own academic specialty. Last 
fall, alchemy scholars gathered at their second academic conference in 
three years, and in January, Yale University opened an exhibit of rare 
alchemical manuscripts. For the first time, the leading academic journal 
of scientific history is planning to publish a special section on alchemy.

To Principe and his colleagues, there is a larger goal. Beyond 
rehabilitating the reputation of the historical thinkers who considered 
themselves alchemists, they hope to encourage a broader view of science 
itself - not as a starkly modern category of human achievement, but 
rather as part of a long and craftsmanlike tradition of trying to 
understand and manipulate nature.

Alchemists might have been colossally wrong in their goals, but they 
were, in some fundamental way, part of the story of science, these 
scholars say. Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton, fathers of modern 
chemistry and physics, were also serious students of alchemy. And the 
fact that alchemists have been marginalized as hand-waving mystics says 
less about alchemists themselves than about modern society's need to 
separate itself from the supposedly benighted past.

The roots of alchemy appear to touch nearly every developed culture - 
alchemists worked in the Far East, India, and the Islamic world. But it 
was in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries when alchemy reached its 
peak of influence, a network of respected and often well-paid 
specialists laboring in the towns and princely courts of Germany and 
Italy, as well as in Britain and France. Some alchemists were 
independent operators, perhaps an assay
er in a mining town who hoped to 
create a little gold on the side; some ran workshops with a dozen 
apprentices under the patronage of aristocrats. "It's really a 
surprising range of people who got involved in alchemy in the 16th 
century," says Tara Nummedal, a historian of alchemy at Brown 
University. "Alchemy was really part of the popular culture."

What they all shared was a belief that one natural substance could be 
transmuted into another. An ancient theory of nature held that all 
matter was in a process of slow but constant change, and the mission of 
alchemy was to nudge that process along. The highest and purest state of 
matter was gold, and gold is what alchemists prized most. But even a 
partial success could yield a valuable material like tin, copper, or silver.

In many ways the alchemists made it easy for later scientists to dismiss 
them as tall-hatted cranks. Their notebooks are deliberately cryptic; 
they wrote under arcane pseudonyms and invented fictional authorities. 
They assumed vast, secret connections between planets and the spiritual 
world; they saw metals as an expression of the divine.

Even their most serious research was infused with beliefs and terms that 
sound more like wizardry than like modern lab science - the 
Philosopher's Stone, the Chemical Wedding, an invisible "vegetative 
spirit" that suffuses the earth. It is hard to imagine a modern 
scientist choosing to express his lab findings, as the distinguished 
German alchemist Michael Maier once did, in a set of 50 musical fugues 
for three voices, in which mythological characters represented the 
interacting elements.

That might seem impossibly distant from the idea of modern science, a 
world of hard data about discrete physical problems, ruled by observable 
and reproducible fact. But as scholars reexamine the roots of chemistry, 
they are now seeing less of a clean break than a subtle evolution from 
one craft to another. Alchemists tried and discarded theories, like 
scientists did; despite their occult reputatio
n, they often saw 
themselves less as conduits to the supernatural than as analytical 
thinkers trying to accelerate and manipulate real physical processes.

"They were essentially pursuing philosophy and pursuing the 
investigation of nature in a way that makes sense in the context of the 
time," says Bruce Moran, a science historian at the University of Nevada 
at Reno who has become a leading scholar in the reconsideration of 

It is alchemists who gave Europe some of its key discoveries. Alchemists 
discovered zinc and metallic arsenic. A German alchemist named Hennig 
Brand isolated phosphorus in 1669. The alchemist Johann Bottger, working 
for the Dresden court, stumbled on a material that allowed German 
workshops to make their own porcelain and break China's monopoly on one 
of the world's most lucrative industries.

If alchemy's achievements can sometimes seem accidental, its practices 
and their approach were deliberate, and often notably scientific in 
spirit. "We see for example some wonderful cases when an alchemical 
writer is really observing a laboratory phenomenon - some reaction, some 
operation - and racking his brains, trying to figure out what's going on 
under the surface," says Principe. "And that, in a way, is what chemists 

Without alchemy, it's unlikely chemistry could have happened at all. 
Influential early chemists, such as Georg Ernst Stahl and Robert Boyle, 
were either practicing alchemists or former alchemists. A chemistry lab 
in the 18th century would have been almost indistinguishable from an 
alchemist's workshop.

Principe and Indiana professor William Newman found a deeply scientific 
mind at work when they edited and published the notebooks of George 
Starkey, a Harvard-educated alchemist whose teachings influenced Boyle. 
The federal government has allocated nearly $1 million in grants for 
Newman to translate and publish Sir Isaac Newton's immense body of 
alchemical writings, which are slowly being put online.

These scholars have occasionally been tak
en to task by historians who 
see them as apologists for alchemy, saying they ignore its shortcomings 
in the effort to reclaim it as a close cousin of modern science. The 
British historian Brian Vickers recently published a harsh critique of 
both Principe and Newman, saying their new published histories of 
alchemy willfully "airbush out of the record" alchemy's embarrassing 
qualities - its obsession with the occult; its long history of public 
failures. Unlike experimental scientists, he says, alchemists were 
unwilling to abandon their opaque ancient texts; and even in their own 
time, alchemists were derided as charlatans.

Newman says such criticism overemphasizes alchemists' occult interests, 
mistaking one piece of their belief system for the whole field. The 
evidence leaves no doubt that alchemists were practicing science, he 
says, and many early chemists were alchemists who had simply renounced 
the quest for gold.

Principe, for his part, says that trying to find crisp distinctions 
between material science and alchemical beliefs is just a modern 
preoccupation. "Alchemists, like everyone else in the pre-enlightenment 
world, didn't separate studies that were going on in the laboratory from 
larger issues in philosophy and theology," he says.

Bringing alchemy under the tent of science does more than illuminate a 
turning point in a distant history, however: It suggests a different way 
to think about science in our own time. Science might be the most 
productive tool ever invented for understanding the world, but despite 
its claims on truth, it is still just that: a tool, and a man-made one.

Alchemy is an important reminder that modern science has a context, says 
Bernard Lightman, a historian and editor of the science-history journal 
Isis, and to grant scientists an exclusive claim on truth only ensures 
that our view of the world is limited to the scientific prejudices of 
the day.

"Science is a human creation, like a lot of other human creations. It's 
like art, it's like literature," says

The early chemists often drew conclusions no more accurate than those of 
the alchemists who had preceded them. Georg Stahl, for instance, 
renounced alchemy but then explained fire by proposing that a fanciful 
substance called "phlogiston" infused all combustible objects.

Science in the modern era can still be seduced by a reigning metaphor - 
the tree of evolution, the wave theory of light, the "selfish gene," all 
deeply influential ideas whose limits have been exposed. Science is also 
no stranger to alchemy's immensity of ambition. Isaac Newton, the first 
great physicist, reached for alchemy when he tried to formulate a theory 
of the universe that could account for everything from plant life to 
gravity. Albert Einstein tried, and failed, to cap his career by 
formulating a single theory that explained all the universe's forces. 
And at the cutting edge of modern physics, string theory purports to 
offer a complete but possibly unprovable explanation of the universe 
based on 11 dimensions and imperceptibly tiny strings.

Alchemists wouldn't recognize the mathematics behind the theory. But in 
its grandeur, in its claim to total authority, in its unprovability, 
they would surely recognize its spirit.

Alchemy: the gathering

HISTORIANS AREN'T THE only ones resuscitating alchemy. A 40-year-old 
organization called the International Alchemy Guild attracts people who 
purport to be practicing alchemists, and holds an annual conference 
where speakers share wisdom on herbal elixirs, life extension, and the 
"psyche-matter continuum." Its catalog (online at crucible.org) sells 
alchemical distillation equipment and helpful scrolls. Last year, the 
"Complete Idiot" line of guidebooks released a how-to volume on alchemy 
aimed at much the same constituency.

This revival of hands-on alchemy may seem profoundly New Agey, or at 
best a Harry Potter mania gone overboard, but it has its own history. 
The Victorian fad for the occult, which gripped much of Europe and 
America in the late 19th and early
 20th centuries, claimed alchemy for 
itself, appealing to people who saw alchemy's mystical transformations 
as a metaphor for the purification of the soul, and who wanted to find a 
font of deep wisdom outside the science of the time.

How does a historian see today's practicing alchemists? Says Lawrence 
Principe, a trained chemist who researches historical alchemy at Johns 
Hopkins University: "You can just put me down as a groan."

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