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."

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.

The alchemical notion of a natural state as proper to each substance was vigorously combated by the Honourable Robert Boyle (born 1626, died 1691), a man of singularly clear and penetrative intellect. In A Paradox of the Natural and Supernatural States of Bodies, Especially of the Air, Boyle says: - "I know that not only in living, but even in inanimate, bodies, of which alone I here discourse, men have universally admitted the famous distinction between the natural and preternatural, or violent state of bodies, and do daily, without the least scruple, found upon it hypotheses and ratiocinations, as if it were most certain that what they call nature had purposely formed bodies in such a determinate state, and were always watchful that they should not by any external violence be put out of it. But notwithstanding so general a consent of men in this point, I confess, I cannot yet be satisfied about it in the sense wherein it is wont to be taken. It is not, that I believe, that there is no sense in which, or in the account upon which, a body may he said to be in its natural state; but that I think the common distinction of a natural and violent state of bodies has not been clearly explained and considerately settled, and both is not well grounded, and is oftentimes ill applied. For when I consider that whatever state a body be put into, or kept in, it obtains or retains that state, assenting to the catholic laws of nature, I cannot think it fit to deny that in this sense the body proposed is in a natural state; but then, upon the same ground, it will he hard to deny but that those bodies which are said to be in a violent state may also be in a natural one, since the violence they are presumed to suffer from outward agents is likewise exercised no otherwise than according to the established laws of universal nature."

There must be something very fascinating and comforting in the alchemical view of nature, as a harmony constructed on one simple plan, which can be grasped as a whole, and also in its details, by the introspective processes of the human intellect; for that conception prevails to-day among those who have not investigated natural occurrences for themselves. The alchemical view of nature still forms the foundation of systems of ethics, of philosophy, of art. It appeals to the innate desire of man to make himself the measure of all things. It is so easy, so authoritative, apparently so satisfactory. No amount of thinking and reasoning will ever demonstrate its falsity. It can be conquered only by a patient, unbiassed, searching examination of some limited portion of natural events.