The alchemist not only attributed ethical qualities to material things, he also became the guardian and guide of the moral practices of these things. He thought himself able to recall the erring metal to the path of metalline virtue, to lead the extravagant mineral back to the moral home-life from which it had been seduced, to show the doubting and vacillating salt what it was ignorantly seeking, and to help it to find the unrealised object of its search. The alchemist acted as a sort of conscience to the metals, minerals, salts, and other substances he submitted to the processes of his laboratory. He treated them as a wise physician might treat an ignorant and somewhat refractory patient. "I know what you want better than you do," he seems often to be saying to the metals he is calcining, separating, joining and subliming.

But the ignorant alchemist was not always thanked for his treatment. Sometimes the patient rebelled. For instance, Michael Sendivogius, in his tract, The New Chemical Light drawn from the Fountain of Nature and of Manual Experience (17th century), recounts a dialogue between Mercury, the Alchemist, and Nature.

"On a certain bright morning a number of Alchemists met together in a meadow, and consulted as to the best way of preparing the Philosopher's Stone.... Most of them agreed that Mercury was the first substance. Others said, no, it was sulphur, or something else.... Just as the dispute began to run high, there arose a violent wind, which dispersed the Alchemists into all the different countries of the world; and as they had arrived at no conclusion, each one went on seeking the Philosopher's Stone in his own old way, this one expecting to find it in one substance, and that in another, so that the search has continued without intermission even unto this day. One of them, however, had at least got the idea into his head that Mercury was the substance of the Stone, and determined to concentrate all his efforts on the chemical preparation of Mercury.... He took common Mercury and began to work with it. He placed it in a glass vessel over the fire, when it, of course, evaporated. So in his ignorance he struck his wife, and said: 'No one but you has entered my laboratory; you must have taken my Mercury out of the vessel.' The woman, with tears, protested her innocence. The Alchemist put some more Mercury into the vessel.... The Mercury rose to the top of the vessel in vaporous steam. Then the Alchemist was full of joy, because he remembered that the first substance of the Stone is described by the Sages as volatile; and he thought that now at last he must be on the right track. He now began to subject the Mercury to all sorts of chemical processes, to sublime it, and to calcine it with all manner of things, with salts, sulphur, metals, minerals, blood, hair, aqua fortis, herbs, urine, and vinegar.... Everything he could think of was tried; but without producing the desired effect." The Alchemist then despaired; after a dream, wherein an old man came and talked with him about the "Mercury of the Sages," the Alchemist thought he would charm the Mercury, and so he used a form of incantation. The Mercury suddenly began to speak, and asked the Alchemist why he had troubled him so much, and so on. The Alchemist replied, and questioned the Mercury. The Mercury makes fun of the philosopher. Then the Alchemist again torments the Mercury by heating him with all manner of horrible things. At last Mercury calls in the aid of Nature, who soundly rates the philosopher, tells him he is grossly ignorant, and ends by saying: "The best thing you can do is to give yourself up to the king's officers, who will quickly put an end to you and your philosophy."

As long as men were fully persuaded that they knew the plan whereon the world was framed, that it was possible for them to follow exactly "the road which was followed by the Great Architect of the Universe in the creation of the world," a real knowledge of natural events was impossible; for every attempt to penetrate nature's secrets presupposed a knowledge of the essential characteristics of that which was to be investigated. But genuine knowledge begins when the investigator admits that he must learn of nature, not nature of him. It might be truly said of one who held the alchemical conception of nature that "his foible was omniscience"; and omniscience negatives the attainment of knowledge.