VI. TWO PSEUDO-SCIENCES—ALCHEMY AND ASTROLOGY

In recent chapters we have seen science come forward with tremendous strides. A new era is obviously at hand. But we shall misconceive the spirit of the times if we fail to understand that in the midst of all this progress there was still room for mediaeval superstition and for the pursuit of fallacious ideals. Two forms of pseudo-science were peculiarly prevalent —alchemy and astrology. Neither of these can with full propriety be called a science, yet both were pursued by many of the greatest scientific workers of the period. Moreover, the studies of the alchemist may with some propriety be said to have laid the foundation for the latter-day science of chemistry; while astrology was closely allied to astronomy, though its relations to that science are not as intimate as has sometimes been supposed.

Just when the study of alchemy began is undetermined. It was certainly of very ancient origin, perhaps Egyptian, but its most flourishing time was from about the eighth century A.D. to the eighteenth century. The stories of the Old Testament formed a basis for some of the strange beliefs regarding the properties of the magic "elixir," or "philosopher's stone." Alchemists believed that most of the antediluvians, perhaps all of them, possessed a knowledge of this stone. How, otherwise, could they have prolonged their lives to nine and a half centuries? And Moses was surely a first-rate alchemist, as is proved by the story of the Golden Calf.[1] After Aaron had made the calf of gold, Moses performed the much more difficult task of grinding it to powder and "strewing it upon the waters," thus showing that he had transmuted it into some lighter substance.

But antediluvians and Biblical characters were not the only persons who were thought to have discovered the coveted. "elixir." Hundreds of aged mediaeval chemists were credited with having made the discovery, and were thought to be living on through the centuries by its means. Alaies de Lisle, for example, who died in 1298, at the age of 110, was alleged to have been at the point of death at the age of fifty, but just at this time he made the fortunate discovery of the magic stone, and so continued to live in health and affluence for sixty years more. And De Lisle was but one case among hundreds.

An aged and wealthy alchemist could claim with seeming plausibility that he was prolonging his life by his magic; whereas a younger man might assert that, knowing the great secret, he was keeping himself young through the centuries. In either case such a statement, or rumor, about a learned and wealthy alchemist was likely to be believed, particularly among strangers; and as such a man would, of course, be the object of much attention, the claim was frequently made by persons seeking notoriety. One of the most celebrated of these impostors was a certain Count de Saint-Germain, who was connected with the court of Louis XV. His statements carried the more weight because, having apparently no means of maintenance, he continued to live in affluence year after year—for two thousand years, as he himself admitted—by means of the magic stone. If at any time his statements were doubted, he was in the habit of referring to his valet for confirmation, this valet being also under the influence of the elixir of life.

"Upon one occasion his master was telling a party of ladies and gentlemen, at dinner, some conversation he had had in Palestine, with King Richard I., of England, whom he described as a very particular friend of his. Signs of astonishment and incredulity were visible on the faces of the company, upon which Saint-Germain very coolly turned to his servant, who stood behind his chair, and asked him if he had not spoken the truth. 'I really cannot say,' replied the man, without moving a muscle; 'you forget, sir, I have been only five hundred years in your service.' 'Ah, true,' said his master, 'I remember now; it was a little before your time!' "[2]

In the time of Saint-Germain, only a little over a century ago, belief in alchemy had almost disappeared, and his extraordinary tales were probably regarded in the light of amusing stories. Still there was undoubtedly a lingering suspicion in the minds of many that this man possessed some peculiar secret. A few centuries earlier his tales would hardly have been questioned, for at that time the belief in the existence of this magic something was so strong that the search for it became almost a form of mania; and once a man was seized with it, lie gambled away health, position, and life itself in pursuing the coveted stake. An example of this is seen in Albertus Magnus, one of the most learned men of his time, who it is said resigned his position as bishop of Ratisbon in order that he might pursue his researches in alchemy.

If self-sacrifice was not sufficient to secure the prize, crime would naturally follow, for there could be no limit to the price of the stakes in this game. The notorious Marechal de Reys, failing to find the coveted stone by ordinary methods of laboratory research, was persuaded by an impostor that if he would propitiate the friendship of the devil the secret would be revealed. To this end De Reys began secretly capturing young children as they passed his castle and murdering them. When he was at last brought to justice it was proved that he had murdered something like a hundred children within a period of three years. So, at least, runs one version of the story of this perverted being.