Alchemy

The alchemists thought that the most effectual method of separating a complex substance into more simple substances was to subject it to the action of heat. They were constantly distilling, incinerating, subliming, heating, in order that the spirit, or inner kernel of things, might be obtained. They took for granted that the action of fire was to simplify, and that simplification proceeded whatever might be the nature of the substance which was subjected to this action.

The experimental study of combustion made by Lavoisier proved the correctness of that part of Stahl's phlogistic theory which asserted that all processes of combustion are very similar, but also proved that this likeness consists in the combination of a distinct gaseous substance with the material undergoing combustion, and not in the escape therefrom of the Principle of fire, as asserted by the theory of Stahl.

It was known to many observers in the later years of the 17th century that the product of the calcination of a metal weighs more than the metal; but it was still possible, at that time, to assert that this fact is of no importance to one who is seeking to give an accurate description of the process of calcination. Weight, which measures mass or quantity of substance, was thought of, in these days, as a property like colour, taste, or smell, a property which was sometimes decreased, and sometimes increased, by adding one substance to another.

The study of the properties of the elements shows that these substances fall into groups, the members of each of which are like one another, and form compounds which are similar. The examination of the properties and compositions of compounds has shown that similarity of properties is always accompanied by similarity of composition. Hence, the fact that certain elements are very closely allied in their properties suggests that these elements may also be allied in their composition.

For thousands of years before men had any accurate and exact knowledge of the changes of material things, they had thought about these changes, regarded them as revelations of spiritual truths, built on them theories of things in heaven and earth (and a good many things in neither), and used them in manufactures, arts, and handicrafts, especially in one very curious manufacture wherein not the thousandth fragment of a grain of the finished article was ever produced.

The system which began to be called alchemy in the 6th and 7th centuries of our era had no special name before that time, but was known as the sacred art, the divine science, the occult science, the art of Hermes.

In the preceding chapter I have referred to the frequent use made by the alchemists of their supposition that nature follows the same plan, or at any rate a very similar plan, in all her processes. If this supposition is accepted, the primary business of an investigator of nature is to trace likenesses and analogies between what seem on the surface to be dissimilar and unconnected events. As this idea, and this practice, were the foundations whereon the superstructure of alchemy was raised, I think it is important to amplify them more fully than I have done already.

The alchemists were sure that the intention of nature regarding metals was that they should become gold, for gold was considered to be the most perfect metal, and nature, they said, evidently strains after perfection. The alchemist found that metals were worn away, eaten through, broken, and finally caused to disappear, by many acid and acrid liquids which he prepared from mineral substances. But gold resisted the attacks of these liquids; it was not changed by heat, nor was it affected by sulphur, a substance which changed limpid, running mercury into an inert, black solid.

In the last chapter I tried to describe the alchemical view of the interdependence of different substances. Taking for granted the tripartite nature of man, the co-existence in him of body, soul, and spirit (no one of which was defined), the alchemists concluded that all things are formed as man is formed; that in everything there is a specific bodily form, some portion of soul, and a dash of spirit.

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