Alchemy

The vagueness of the general conceptions of alchemy, and the attribution of ethical qualities to material things by the alchemists, necessarily led to the employment of a language which is inexact, undescriptive, and unsuggestive to modern ears. The same name was given to different things, and the same thing went under many names. In Chapter IV.

I have tried to show that alchemy aimed at giving experimental proof of a certain theory of the whole system of nature, including humanity. The practical culmination of the alchemical quest presented a threefold aspect; the alchemists sought the stone of wisdom, for by gaining that they gained the control of wealth; they sought the universal panacea, for that would give them the power of enjoying wealth and life; they sought the soul of the world, for thereby they could hold communion with spiritual existences, and enjoy the fruition of spiritual life.

The accounts which have come to us of the men who followed the pursuit of the One Thing are vague, scrappy, and confusing.

The Sacred Art, which had its origin and home in Egypt, was very definitely associated with the religious rites, and the theological teaching, recognised by the state. The Egyptian priests were initiated into the mysteries of the divine art: and as the initiated claimed to imitate the work of the deity, the priest was regarded by the ordinary people as something more than a representative, as a mirror, of the divinity.

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.

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