CHAPTER X. SUMMARY OF THE ALCHEMICAL DOCTRINE. - THE REPLACEMENT OF THE THREE PRINCIPLES OF THE ALCHEMISTS BY THE SINGLE PRINCIPLE OF PHLOGISTON.
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 sacred art of Egypt was transmuted into alchemy by contact with European thought and handicrafts, and the tenets and mysticism of the Catholic Church; and the conception of nature, which was the result of this blending, prevailed from about the 9th until towards the end of the 18th century.
Like its predecessor, alchemy postulated an orderly universe; but alchemy was richer in fantastic details, more picturesquely embroidered, more prodigal of strange fancies, than the sacred art of Egypt.
The alchemist constructed his ordered scheme of nature on the basis of the supposed universality of life. For him, everything lived, and the life of things was threefold. The alchemist thought he recognised the manifestation of life in the form, or body, of a thing, in its soul, and in its spirit. Things might differ much in appearance, in size, taste, smell, and other outward properties, and yet be intimately related, because, according to the alchemist, they were produced from the same principles, they were animated by the same soul. Things might resemble one another closely in their outward properties and yet differ widely in essential features, because, according to the alchemist, they were formed from different elements, in their spiritual properties they were unlike. The alchemists taught that the true transformation, in alchemical language the transmutation, of one thing into another could be effected only by spiritual means acting on the spirit of the thing, because the transmutation consisted essentially in raising the substance to the highest perfection whereof it was capable; the result of this spiritual action might become apparent in the material form of the substance. In attempting to apply such vague conceptions as these, alchemy was obliged to use the language which had been developed for the expression of human emotions and desires, not only for the explanation of the facts it observed, but also for the bare recital of these facts.
The outlook of alchemy on the world outside human beings was essentially anthropomorphic. In the image of man, the alchemist created his universe.
In the times when alchemy was dominant, the divine scheme of creation, and the place given to man in that scheme, were supposed to be thoroughly understood. Everything had its place, designed for it from the beginning, and in that place it remained unless it were forced from it by violent means. A great part of the business of experimental alchemy was to discover the natural position, or condition, of each substance; and the discovery was to be made by interpreting the facts brought to light by observation and experiment by the aid of hypotheses deduced from the general scheme of things which had been formed independently of observation or experiment. Alchemy was a part of magic; for magic interprets and corrects the knowledge gained by the senses by the touchstone of generalisations which have been supplied, partly by the emotions, and partly by extra-human authority, and accepted as necessarily true.
The conception of natural order which regulates the life of the savage is closely related to that which guided the alchemists. The essential features of both are the notion that everything is alive, and the persuasion that things can be radically acted on only by using life as a factor. There is also an intimate connexion between alchemy and witchcraft. Witches were people who were supposed to make an unlawful use of the powers of life; alchemists were often thought to pass beyond what is permitted to the creature, and to encroach on the prerogative of the Creator.
The long duration of alchemy shows that it appealed to some deep-seated want of human beings. Was not that want the necessity for the realisation of order in the universe? Men were unwilling to wait until patient examination of the facts of their own nature, and the facts of nature outside themselves, might lead them to the realisation of the interdependence of all things. They found it easier to evolve a scheme of things from a superficial glance at themselves and their surroundings; naturally they adopted the easier plan. Alchemy was a part of the plan of nature produced by this method. The extraordinary dominancy of such a scheme is testified to by the continued belief in alchemy, although the one experiment, which seems to us to be the crucial experiment of the system, was never accomplished. But it is also to be remembered that the alchemists were acquainted with, and practised, many processes which we should now describe as operations of manufacturing and technical chemistry; and the practical usefulness of these processes bore testimony, of the kind which convinces the plain man, to the justness of their theories.