The system which began to be called alchemy in the 6th and 7th centuries of our era had no special name before that time, but was known as the sacred art, the divine science, the occult science, the art of Hermes.

A commentator on Aristotle, writing in the 4th century A.D., calls certain instruments used for fusion and calcination "chuika organa," that is, instruments for melting and pouring. Hence, probably, came the adjective chyic or chymic, and, at a somewhat later time, the word chemia as the name of that art which deals with calcinations, fusions, meltings, and the like. The writer of a treatise on astrology, in the 5th century, speaking of the influences of the stars on the dispositions of man, says: "If a man is born under Mercury he will give himself to astronomy; if Mars, he will follow the profession of arms; if Saturn, he will devote himself to the science of alchemy (Scientia alchemiae)." The word alchemia which appears in this treatise, was formed by prefixing the Arabic al (meaning the) to chemia, a word, as we have seen, of Greek origin.

It is the growth, development, and transformation into chemistry, of this alchemia which we have to consider.

Alchemy, that is, the art of melting, pouring, and transforming, must necessarily pay much attention to working with crucibles, furnaces, alembics, and other vessels wherein things are fused, distilled, calcined, and dissolved. The old drawings of alchemical operations show us men busy calcining, cohobating, distilling, dissolving, digesting, and performing other processes of like character to these.

The alchemists could not be accused of laziness or aversion to work in their laboratories. Paracelsus (16th century) says of them: "They are not given to idleness, nor go in a proud habit, or plush and velvet garments, often showing their rings on their fingers, or wearing swords with silver hilts by their sides, or fine and gay gloves on their hands; but diligently follow their labours, sweating whole days and nights by their furnaces. They do not spend their time abroad for recreation, but take delight in their laboratories. They put their fingers among coals, into clay and filth, not into gold rings. They are sooty and black, like smiths and miners, and do not pride themselves upon clean and beautiful faces."

In these respects the chemist of to-day faithfully follows the practice of the alchemists who were his predecessors. You can nose a chemist in a crowd by the smell of the laboratory which hangs about him; you can pick him out by the stains on his hands and clothes. He also "takes delight in his laboratory"; he does not always "pride himself on a clean and beautiful face"; he "sweats whole days and nights by his furnace."

Why does the chemist toil so eagerly? Why did the alchemists so untiringly pursue their quest? I think it is not unfair to say: the chemist experiments in order that he "may liken his imaginings to the facts which he observes"; the alchemist toiled that he might liken the facts which he observed to his imaginings. The difference may be put in another way by saying: the chemist's object is to discover "how changes happen in combinations of the unchanging"; the alchemist's endeavour was to prove the truth of his fundamental assertion, "that every substance contains undeveloped resources and potentialities, and can be brought outward and forward into perfection."

Looking around him, and observing the changes of things, the alchemist was deeply impressed by the growth and modification of plants and animals; he argued that minerals and metals also grow, change, develop. He said in effect: "Nature is one, there must be unity in all the diversity I see. When a grain of corn falls into the earth it dies, but this dying is the first step towards a new life; the dead seed is changed into the living plant. So it must be with all other things in nature: the mineral, or the metal, seems dead when it is buried in the earth, but, in reality, it is growing, changing, and becoming more perfect." The perfection of the seed is the plant. What is the perfection of the common metals? "Evidently," the alchemist replied, "the perfect metal is gold; the common metals are trying to become gold." "Gold is the intention of Nature in regard to all metals," said an alchemical writer. Plants are preserved by the preservation of their seed. "In like manner," the alchemist's argument proceeded, "there must be a seed in metals which is their essence; if I can separate the seed and bring it under the proper conditions, I can cause it to grow into the perfect metal." "Animal life, and human life also," we may suppose the alchemist saying, "are continued by the same method as that whereby the life of plants is continued; all life springs from seed; the seed is fructified by the union of the male and the female; in metals also there must be the two characters; the union of these is needed for the production of new metals; the conjoining of metals must go before the birth of the perfect metal."

"Now," we may suppose the argument to proceed, "now, the passage from the imperfect to the more perfect is not easy. It is harder to practise virtue than to acquiesce in vice; virtue comes not naturally to man; that he may gain the higher life, he must be helped by grace. Therefore, the task of exalting the purer metals into the perfect gold, of developing the lower order into the higher, is not easy. If Nature does this, she does it slowly and painfully; if the exaltation of the common metals to a higher plane is to be effected rapidly, it can be done only by the help of man."

So far as I can judge from their writings, the argument of the alchemists may be rendered by some such form as the foregoing. A careful examination of the alchemical argument shows that it rests on a (supposed) intimate knowledge of nature's plan of working, and the certainty that simplicity is the essential mark of that plan.

That the alchemists were satisfied of the great simplicity of nature, and their own knowledge of the ways of nature's work, is apparent from their writings.

The author of The New Chemical Light (17th century) says: "Simplicity is the seal of truth.... Nature is wonderfully simple, and the characteristic mark of a childlike simplicity is stamped upon all that is true and noble in Nature." In another place the same author says: "Nature is one, true, simple, self-contained, created of God, and informed with a certain universal spirit." The same author, Michael Sendivogius, remarks: "It may be asked how I come to have this knowledge about heavenly things which are far removed beyond human ken. My answer is that the sages have been taught by God that this natural world is only an image and material copy of a heavenly and spiritual pattern; that the very existence of this world is based upon the reality of its heavenly archetype.... Thus the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals."

The Only True Way advises all who wish to become true alchemists to leave the circuitous paths of pretended philosophers, and to follow nature, which is simple; the complicated processes described in books are said to be the traps laid by the "cunning sophists" to catch the unwary.

In A Catechism of Alchemy, Paracelsus asks: "What road should the philosopher follow?" He answers, "That exactly which was followed by the Great Architect of the Universe in the creation of the world."

One might suppose it would be easier, and perhaps more profitable, to examine, observe, and experiment, than to turn one's eyes inwards with the hope of discovering exactly "the road followed by the Great Architect of the Universe in the creation of the world." But the alchemical method found it easier to begin by introspection. The alchemist spun his universe from his own ideas of order, symmetry, and simplicity, as the spider spins her web from her own substance.

A favourite saying of the alchemists was, "What is above is as what is below." In one of its aspects this saying meant, "processes happen within the earth like those which occur on the earth; minerals and metals live, as animals and plants live; all pass through corruption towards perfection." In another aspect the saying meant "the human being is the world in miniature; as is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm; to know oneself is to know all the world."

Every man knows he ought to try to rise to better things, and many men endeavour to do what they know they ought to do; therefore, he who feels sure that all nature is fashioned after the image of man, projects his own ideas of progress, development, virtue, matter and spirit, on to nature outside himself; and, as a matter of course, this kind of naturalist uses the same language when he is speaking of the changes of material things as he employs to express the changes of his mental states, his hopes, fears, aspirations, and struggles.

The language of the alchemists was, therefore, rich in such expressions as these; "the elements are to be so conjoined that the nobler and fuller life may be produced"; "our arcanum is gold exalted to the highest degree of perfection to which the combined action of nature and art can develop it."

Such commingling of ethical and physical ideas, such application of moral conceptions to material phenomena, was characteristic of the alchemical method of regarding nature. The necessary results were; great confusion of thought, much mystification of ideas, and a superabundance of views about natural events.

When the author of The Metamorphosis of Metals was seeking for an argument in favour of his view, that water is the source and primal element of all things, he found what he sought in the Biblical text: "In the beginning the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Similarly, the author of The Sodic Hydrolith clenches his argument in favour of the existence of the Philosopher's Stone, by the quotation: "Therefore, thus saith the Lord; behold I lay in Zion for a foundation a Stone, a tried Stone, a precious corner Stone, a sure foundation. He that has it shall not be confounded." This author works out in detail an analogy between the functions and virtues of the Stone, and the story of man's fall and redemption, as set forth in the Old and New Testaments. The same author speaks of "Satan, that grim pseudo-alchemist."

That the attribution, by the alchemists, of moral virtues and vices to natural things was in keeping with some deep-seated tendency of human nature, is shown by the persistence of some of their methods of stating the properties of substances: we still speak of "perfect and imperfect gases," "noble and base metals," "good and bad conductors of electricity," and "laws governing natural phenomena."

Convinced of the simplicity of nature, certain that all natural events follow one course, sure that this course was known to them and was represented by the growth of plants and animals, the alchemists set themselves the task, firstly, of proving by observations and experiments that their view of natural occurrences was correct; and, secondly, of discovering and gaining possession of the instrument whereby nature effects her transmutations and perfects her operations. The mastery of this instrument would give them power to change any metal into gold, the cure of all diseases, and the happiness which must come from the practical knowledge of the supreme secret of nature.

The central quest of alchemy was the quest of an undefined and undefinable something wherein was supposed to be contained all the powers and potencies of life, and whatever makes life worth living.

The names given to this mystical something were as many as the properties which were assigned to it. It was called the one thing, the essence, the philosopher's stone, the stone of wisdom, the heavenly balm, the divine water, the virgin water, the carbuncle of the sun, the old dragon, the lion, the basilisk, the phoenix; and many other names were given to it.

We may come near to expressing the alchemist's view of the essential character of the object of their search by naming it the soul of all things. "Alchemy," a modern writer says, "is the science of the soul of all things."

The essence was supposed to have a material form, an ethereal or middle nature, and an immaterial or spiritual life.

No one might hope to make this essence from any one substance, because, as one of the alchemists says, "It is the attribute of God alone to make one out of one; you must produce one thing out of two by natural generation." The alchemists did not pretend to create gold, but only to produce it from other things.

The author of A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby says: "We do not, as is sometimes said, profess to create gold and silver, but only to find an agent which ... is capable of entering into an intimate and maturing union with the Mercury of the base metals." And again: "Our Art ... only arrogates to itself the power of developing, through the removal of all defects and superfluities, the golden nature which the baser metals possess." Bonus, in his tract on The New Pearl of Great Price (16th century), says: "The Art of Alchemy ... does not create metals, or even develop them out of the metallic first-substance; it only takes up the unfinished handicraft of Nature and completes it.... Nature has only left a comparatively small thing for the artist to do - the completion of that which she has already begun."

If the essence were ever attained, it would be by following the course which nature follows in producing the perfect plant from the imperfect seed, by discovering and separating the seed of metals, and bringing that seed under the conditions which alone are suitable for its growth. Metals must have seed, the alchemists said, for it would be absurd to suppose they have none. "What prerogative have vegetables above metals," exclaims one of them, "that God should give seed to the one and withhold it from the other? Are not metals as much in His sight as trees?"

As metals, then, possess seed, it is evident how this seed is to be made active; the seed of a plant is quickened by descending into the earth, therefore the seed of metals must be destroyed before it becomes life-producing. "The processes of our art must begin with dissolution of gold; they must terminate in a restoration of the essential quality of gold." "Gold does not easily give up its nature, and will fight for its life; but our agent is strong enough to overcome and kill it, and then it also has power to restore it to life, and to change the lifeless remains into a new and pure body."

The application of the doctrine of the existence of seed in metals led to the performance of many experiments, and, hence, to the accumulation of a considerable body of facts established by experimental inquiries. The belief of the alchemists that all natural events are connected by a hidden thread, that everything has an influence on other things, that "what is above is as what is below," constrained them to place stress on the supposed connexion between the planets and the metals, and to further their metallic transformations by performing them at times when certain planets were in conjunction. The seven principal planets and the seven principal metals were called by the same names: Sol (gold), Luna (silver), Saturn (lead), Jupiter (tin), Mars (iron), Venus (copper), and Mercury (mercury). The author of The New Chemical Light taught that one metal could be propagated from another only in the order of superiority of the planets. He placed the seven planets in the following descending order: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercury, Luna. "The virtues of the planets descend," he said, "but do not ascend"; it is easy to change Mars (iron) into Venus (copper), for instance, but Venus cannot be transformed into Mars.

Although the alchemists regarded everything as influencing, and influenced by, other things, they were persuaded that the greatest effects are produced on a substance by substances of like nature with itself. Hence, most of them taught that the seed of metals will be obtained by operations with metals, not by the action on metals of things of animal or vegetable origin. Each class of substances, they said, has a life, or spirit (an essential character, we might say) of its own. "The life of sulphur," Paracelsus said, "is a combustible, ill-smelling, fatness.... The life of gems and corals is mere colour.... The life of water is its flowing.... The life of fire is air." Grant an attraction of like to like, and the reason becomes apparent for such directions as these: "Nothing heterogeneous must be introduced into our magistery"; "Everything should be made to act on that which is like it, and then Nature will perform her duty."

Although each class of substances was said by the alchemists to have its own particular character, or life, nevertheless they taught that there is a deep-seated likeness between all things, inasmuch as the power of the essence, or the one thing, is so great that under its influence different things are produced from the same origin, and different things are caused to pass into and become the same thing. In The New Chemical Light it is said: "While the seed of all things is one, it is made to generate a great variety of things."

It is not easy now - it could not have been easy at any time - to give clear and exact meanings to the doctrines of the alchemists, or the directions they gave for performing the operations necessary for the production of the object of their search. And the difficulty is much increased when we are told that "The Sage jealously conceals [his knowledge] from the sinner and the scornful, lest the mysteries of heaven should be laid bare to the vulgar gaze." We almost despair when an alchemical writer assures us that the Sages "Set pen to paper for the express purpose of concealing their meaning. The sense of a whole passage is often hopelessly obscured by the addition or omission of one little word, for instance the addition of the word not in the wrong place." Another writer says: "The Sages are in the habit of using words which may convey either a true or a false impression; the former to their own disciples and children, the latter to the ignorant, the foolish, and the unworthy." Sometimes, after descriptions of processes couched in strange and mystical language, the writer will add, "If you cannot perceive what you ought to understand herein, you should not devote yourself to the study of philosophy." Philalethes, in his Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby, seems to feel some pity for his readers; after describing what he calls "the generic homogeneous water of gold," he says: "If you wish for a more particular description of our water, I am impelled by motives of charity to tell you that it is living, flexible, clear, nitid, white as snow, hot, humid, airy, vaporous, and digestive."

Alchemy began by asserting that nature must be simple; it assumed that a knowledge of the plan and method of natural occurrences is to be obtained by thinking; and it used analogy as the guide in applying this knowledge of nature's design to particular events, especially the analogy, assumed by alchemy to exist, between material phenomena and human emotions.