The Secrets of Alchemy
Lawrence M. Principe
University of Chicago Press, 2015
288 pp., $15.00
Science in Focus: Jarrett A. Carty
Thinking Like an Alchemist
Charlatans peddling elixirs to medieval monarchs, fraudulent claims of transmutation into gold, and the futile search for the "philosopher's stone": these are some of the pejorative associations with alchemy. It has often been dismissed as a "pseudo-science" due to its bogus theories and superstitions that were summarily rejected by the triumph of the "scientific method." Adding to this shady reputation, books on alchemy are sometimes found in those sections of the big box stores named most flatteringly as "new age" or "metaphysics." But in fact, alchemy's place in the history of science is enormously important; one could even argue that it was alchemy that led to modern science's insistence on measureable empirical evidence and laboratory experimentation when theorizing change in material substances. In short, alchemy was once what we now call chemistry.
Alchemy's contribution to science was first given an overview by the renowned British historian and curator (1950-1956) of London's Museum of Science, Frank Sherwood Taylor, in his 1952 survey, The Alchemists (London: William Heinemann Ltd.). While at the time one of the world's most competent authorities in the history of science, Taylor was limited by the very piecemeal research hitherto made on alchemy. Nevertheless in the years to follow, his work would underscore the vital importance of this supposed pseudo-science to the emergence of modern chemistry.
Lawrence Principe's The Secrets of Alchemy (University of Chicago Press, 2013) shows us just how far historical research into alchemy has come: its enormous role in the history of natural philosophy and science is now beyond any shadow of a doubt, despite the mystique surrounding it and the widespread inaccessibility of its historical texts. This book is particularly useful and timely. For both the general reader and the specialist, it is accessible, even if its primary sources are not, and yet it is also erudite. Moreover, Principe is perfectly suited for the job as everyone's guide to alchemy. First, he is a fine writer. But Principe is also a very rare breed of academic: he is both a humanities scholar and a scientist, a historian of science and a chemist.
Though Principe claims his book was not written to be a "who's who" of the history of alchemy, the book introduces a considerable breadth of major but often enigmatic characters that were emblematic of the science in the various ages. Appropriately, Principe organizes his chapters following the conventions of the periodization of the history of science. Therefore, there is a chapter each on the ancient Greco-Egyptian origins of chemia, the Arabic development of al-Kīmiyā', the medieval Latin science of Alchemia, the early modern science of Chymystry, and the complex modern period containing both the development of chemistry and the concomitant decline and ultimate relegation of alchemy to the dustbin of natural scientific inquiry.
The very existence of the word "alchemy" is a testament to its long and fascinating past. Its classical Greek root chemia was itself long predated by a rich history of ancient Greek and Egyptian alchemical thought and practice. Chemia's origin is unclear; while Principe argues that it is most likely that chemia comes to us from the Greek cheō, meaning "to melt or fuse," there is nevertheless a plausible account that has it originating from the Coptic word for black, kheme, used for describing the silt-laden Nile of Egypt. In any case, chemia came to be used in Hellenistic natural philosophic texts by late antiquity. Chemia then journeyed south and east as part a massive ninth and tenth century translation movement of Greek knowledge into Arabia and Persia, by which it henceforth became prefixed by the Arabic definite article al-, thus making al-Kīmiyā', or essentially the word we use today. Many other words still echo this great translation movement: "alcohol" and "elixir" still speak to the progress of chemia in Arabic natural philosophy, just as "algorithm" and "algebra" speak to the great medieval Arabic contributions to mathematics (which is also a classical Greek word).
Why were the works of chemia important enough to translate and the science crucial enough to appropriate? In sum, alchemy explained natural phenomena. Even alchemy's most famous failure, chrysopoeia - the making of gold through transmutation - had a rational basis in natural philosophy, particularly the matter theory of its day. What we now call elements, particularly the metals, were until the advent of modern elemental theory generally seen to be compounds (made of more than one basic substance). Thus the highly influential "mercury-sulfur" theory, which considered all metals to be made up of some combination of these two substances, was far from being just a ruse to cheat the gullible with false gold, though there were plenty of criminal exploitations of chrysopoetic theory. (Mercury and sulfur were also not equivalent to the modern elements by those names: mercury and sulfur were the names given to natural matter that exhibited mercurial or sulfuric qualities, such as, respectively, heavy fluidity and gaseousness.) Rather, the alchemical art of making gold sought to precisely combine mercury and sulfur so as to create gold as natural processes had created it. Chrysopoeia was thus essentially a science of understanding and subsequently replicating nature. Even the search for the "philosopher's stone" (not to be confused with the "sorcerer's stone" of the Harry Potter series) aimed only to facilitate the combining of mercury and sulfur in the correct natural way in order to make true gold. The "philosopher's stone" was therefore what we would today call a catalyst.