CHAPTER III. THE ALCHEMICAL CONCEPTION OF THE UNITY AND SIMPLICITY OF NATURE.
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.
Mention is made in many alchemical writings of a mythical personage named Hermes Trismegistus, who is said to have lived a little later than the time of Moses. Representations of Hermes Trismegistus are found on ancient Egyptian monuments. We are told that Alexander the Great found his tomb near Hebron; and that the tomb contained a slab of emerald whereon thirteen sentences were written. The eighth sentence is rendered in many alchemical books as follows:
"Ascend with the greatest sagacity from the earth to heaven, and then again descend to the earth, and unite together the powers of things superior and things inferior. Thus you will obtain the glory of the whole world, and obscurity will fly away from you."
This sentence evidently teaches the unity of things in heaven and things on earth, and asserts the possibility of gaining, not merely a theoretical, but also a practical, knowledge of the essential characters of all things. Moreover, the sentence implies that this fruitful knowledge is to be obtained by examining nature, using as guide the fundamental similarity supposed to exist between things above and things beneath.
The alchemical writers constantly harp on this theme: follow nature; provided you never lose the clue, which is simplicity and similarity.
The author of The Only Way (1677) beseeches his readers "to enlist under the standard of that method which proceeds in strict obedience to the teaching of nature ... in short, the method which nature herself pursues in the bowels of the earth."
The alchemists tell us not to expect much help from books and written directions. When one of them has said all he can say, he adds - "The question is whether even this book will convey any information to one before whom the writings of the Sages and the open book of Nature are exhibited in vain." Another tells his readers the only thing for them is "to beseech God to give you the real philosophical temper, and to open your eyes to the facts of nature; thus alone will you reach the coveted goal."
"Follow nature" is sound advice. But, nature was to be followed with eyes closed save to one vision, and the vision was to be seen before the following began.
The alchemists' general conception of nature led them to assign to every substance a condition or state natural to it, and wherein alone it could be said to be as it was designed to be. Each substance, they taught, could be caused to leave its natural state only by violent, or non-natural, means, and any substance which had been driven from its natural condition by violence was ready, and even eager, to return to the condition consonant with its nature.
Thus Norton, in his Ordinal of Alchemy, says: "Metals are generated in the earth, for above ground they are subject to rust; hence above ground is the place of corruption of metals, and of their gradual destruction. The cause which we assign to this fact is that above ground they are not in their proper element, and an unnatural position is destructive to natural objects, as we see, for instance, that fishes die when they are taken out of the water; and as it is natural for men, beasts, and birds to live in the air, so stones and metals are naturally generated under the earth."
In his New Pearl of Great Price (16th century), Bonus says: - "The object of Nature in all things is to introduce into each substance the form which properly belongs to it; and this is also the design of our Art."
This view assumed the knowledge of the natural conditions of the substances wherewith experiments were performed. It supposed that man could act as a guide, to bring back to its natural condition a substance which had been removed from that condition, either by violent processes of nature, or by man's device. The alchemist regarded himself as an arbiter in questions concerning the natural condition of each substance he dealt with. He thought he could say, "this substance ought to be thus, or thus," "that substance is constrained, thwarted, hindered from becoming what nature meant it to be."
In Ben Jonson's play called The Alchemist, Subtle (who is the alchemist of the play) says, " ... metals would be gold if they had time."