The alchemists were sure that the intention of nature regarding metals was that they should become gold, for gold was considered to be the most perfect metal, and nature, they said, evidently strains after perfection. The alchemist found that metals were worn away, eaten through, broken, and finally caused to disappear, by many acid and acrid liquids which he prepared from mineral substances. But gold resisted the attacks of these liquids; it was not changed by heat, nor was it affected by sulphur, a substance which changed limpid, running mercury into an inert, black solid. Hence, gold was more perfect in the alchemical scale than any other metal.

Since gold was considered to be the most perfect metal, it was self-evident to the alchemical mind that nature must form gold slowly in the earth, must transmute gradually the inferior metals into gold.

"The only thing that distinguishes one metal from another," writes an alchemist who went under the name of Philalethes, "is its degree of maturity, which is, of course, greatest in the most precious metals; the difference between gold and lead is not one of substance, but of digestion; in the baser metal the coction has not been such as to purge out its metallic impurities. If by any means this superfluous impure matter could be organically removed from the baser metals, they would become gold and silver. So miners tell us that lead has in many cases developed into silver in the bowels of the earth, and we contend that the same effect is produced in a much shorter time by means of our Art."

Stories were told about the finding of gold in deserted mines which had been worked out long before; these stories were supposed to prove that gold was bred in the earth. The facts that pieces of silver were found in tin and lead mines, and gold was found in silver mines, were adduced as proofs that, as the author of The New Pearl of Great Price says, "Nature is continually at work changing other metals into gold, because, though in a certain sense they are complete in themselves, they have not yet reached the highest perfection of which they are capable, and to which nature has destined them." What nature did in the earth man could accomplish in the workshop. For is not man the crown of the world, the masterpiece of nature, the flower of the universe; was he not given dominion over all things when the world was created?

In asserting that the baser metals could be transmuted into gold, and in attempting to effect this transmutation, the alchemist was not acting on a vague; haphazard surmise; he was pursuing a policy dictated by his conception of the order of nature; he was following the method which he conceived to be that used by nature herself. The transmutation of metals was part and parcel of a system of natural philosophy. If this transmutation were impossible, the alchemical scheme of things would be destroyed, the believer in the transmutation would be left without a sense of order in the material universe. And, moreover, the alchemist's conception of an orderly material universe was so intimately connected with his ideas of morality and religion, that to disprove the possibility of the great transmutation would be to remove not only the basis of his system of material things, but the foundations of his system of ethics also. To take away his belief in the possibility of changing other metals into gold would be to convert the alchemist into an atheist.

How, then, was the transmutation to be accomplished? Evidently by the method whereby nature brings to perfection other living things; for the alchemist's belief in the simplicity and unity of nature compelled him to regard metals as living things.

Plants are improved by appropriate culture, by digging and enriching the soil, by judicious selection of seed; animals are improved by careful breeding. By similar processes metals will be encouraged and helped towards perfection. The perfect state of gold will not be reached at a bound; it will be gained gradually. Many partial purifications will be needed. As Subtle says in The Alchemist -

                     'twere absurd 
      To think that nature in the earth bred gold 
      Perfect in the instant; something went before, 
      There must be remote matter.... 
      Nature doth first beget the imperfect, then 
      Proceeds she to the perfect.

At this stage the alchemical argument becomes very ultra-physical. It may, perhaps, be rendered somewhat as follows: -

Man is the most perfect of animals; in man there is a union of three parts, these are body, soul, and spirit. Metals also may be said to have a body, a soul, and a spirit; there is a specific bodily, or material, form belonging to each metal; there is a metalline soul characteristic of this or that class of metals; there is a spirit, or inner immaterial potency, which is the very essence of all metals.

The soul and spirit of man are clogged by his body. If the spiritual nature is to become the dominating partner, the body must be mortified: the alchemists, of course, used this kind of imagery, and it was very real to them. In like manner the spirit of metals will be laid bare and enabled to exercise its transforming influences, only when the material form of the individual metal has been destroyed. The first thing to do, then, is to strip off and cast aside those properties of metals which appeal to the senses.

"It is necessary to deprive matter of its qualities in order to draw out its soul," said Stephanus of Alexandria in the 7th century; and in the 17th century Paracelsus said, "Nothing of true value is located in the body of a substance, but in the virtue ... the less there is of body the more in proportion is the virtue."

But the possession of the soul of metals is not the final stage: mastery of the soul may mean the power of transmuting a metal into another like itself; it will not suffice for the great transmutation, for in that process a metal becomes gold, the one and only perfect metal. Hence the soul also must be removed, in order that the spirit, the essence, the kernel, may be obtained.

And as it is with metals, so, the alchemists argued, it is with all things. There are a few Principles which may be thought of as conditioning the specific bodily and material forms of things; beneath these, there are certain Elements which are common to many things whose principles are not the same; and, hidden by the wrappings of elements and principles, there is the one Essence, the spirit, the mystic uniting bond, the final goal of the philosopher.

I propose in this chapter to try to analyse the alchemical conceptions of Elements and Principles, and in the next chapter to attempt some kind of description of the Essence.

In his Tract Concerning the Great Stone of the Ancient Sages, Basil Valentine speaks of the "three Principles," salt, sulphur, and mercury, the source of which is the Elements.

"There are four Elements, and each has at its centre another element which makes it what it is. These are the four pillars of the earth."

Of the element Earth, he says: - "In this element the other three, especially fire, are latent.... It is gross and porous, specifically heavy, but naturally light.... It receives all that the other three project into it, conscientiously conceals what it should hide, and brings to light that which it should manifest.... Outwardly it is visible and fixed, inwardly it is invisible and volatile."

Of the element Water, Basil Valentine says: - "Outwardly it is volatile, inwardly it is fixed, cold, and humid.... It is the solvent of the world, and exists in three degrees of excellence: the pure, the purer, and the purest. Of its purest substance the heavens were created; of that which is less pure the atmospheric air was formed; that which is simply pure remains in its proper sphere where ... it is guardian of all subtle substances here below."

Concerning the element Air, he writes: - "The most noble Element of Air ... is volatile, but may be fixed, and when fixed renders all bodies penetrable.... It is nobler than Earth or Water.... It nourishes, impregnates, conserves the other elements."

Finally, of the element Fire: - "Fire is the purest and noblest of all Elements, full of adhesive unctuous corrosiveness, penetrant, digestive, inwardly fixed, hot and dry, outwardly visible, and tempered by the earth.... This Element is the most passive of all, and resembles a chariot; when it is drawn, it moves; when it is not drawn, it stands still."

Basil Valentine then tells his readers that Adam was compounded of the four pure Elements, but after his expulsion from Paradise he became subject to the various impurities of the animal creation. "The pure Elements of his creation were gradually mingled and infected with the corruptible elements of the outer world, and thus his body became more and more gross, and liable, through its grossness, to natural decay and death." The process of degeneration was slow at first, but "as time went on, the seed out of which men were generated became more and more infected with perishable elements. The continued use of corruptible food rendered their bodies more and more gross; and human life was soon reduced to a very brief span."

Basil Valentine then deals with the formation of the three Principles of things, by the mutual action of the four Elements. Fire acting on Air produced Sulphur; Air acting on Water produced Mercury; Water acting on Earth produced Salt. Earth having nothing to act on produced nothing, but became the nurse of the three Principles. "The three Principles," he says, "are necessary because they are the immediate substance of metals. The remoter substance of metals is the four elements, but no one can produce anything out of them but God; and even God makes nothing of them but these three Principles."

To endeavour to obtain the four pure Elements is a hopeless task. But the Sage has the three Principles at hand. "The artist should determine which of the three Principles he is seeking, and should assist it so that it may overcome its contrary." "The art consists in an even mingling of the virtues of the Elements; in the natural equilibrium of the hot, the dry, the cold, and the moist."

The account of the Elements given by Philalethes differs from that of Basil Valentine.

Philalethes enumerates three Elements only: Air, Water, and Earth. Things are not formed by the mixture of these Elements, for "dissimilar things can never really unite." By analysing the properties of the three Elements, Philalethes reduced them finally to one, namely, Water. "Water," he says, "is the first principle of all things." "Earth is the fundamental Element in which all bodies grow and are preserved. Air is the medium into which they grow, and by means of which the celestial virtues are communicated to them."

According to Philalethes, Mercury is the most important of the three Principles. Although gold is formed by the aid of Mercury, it is only when Mercury has been matured, developed, and perfected, that it is able to transmute inferior metals into gold. The essential thing to do is, therefore, to find an agent which will bring about the maturing and perfecting of Mercury. This agent, Philalethes calls "Our divine Arcanum."

Although it appears to me impossible to translate the sayings of the alchemists concerning Elements and Principles into expressions which shall have definite and exact meanings for us to-day, still we may, perhaps, get an inkling of the meaning of such sentences as those I have quoted from Basil Valentine and Philalethes.

Take the terms Fire and Water. In former times all liquid substances were supposed to be liquid because they possessed something in common; this hypothetical something was called the Element, Water. Similarly, the view prevailed until comparatively recent times, that burning substances burn because of the presence in them of a hypothetical imponderable fluid, called "Caloric"; the alchemists preferred to call this indefinable something an Element, and to name it Fire.

We are accustomed to-day to use the words fire and water with different meanings, according to the ideas we wish to express. When we say "do not touch the fire," or "put your hand into the water," we are regarding fire and water as material things; when we say "the house is on fire," or speak of "a diamond of the first water," we are thinking of the condition or state of a burning body, or of a substance as transparent as water. When we say "put out the fire," or "his heart became as water," we are referring to the act of burning, or are using an image which likens the thing spoken of to a substance in the act of liquefying.

As we do to-day, so the alchemists did before us; they used the words fire and water to express different ideas.

Such terms as hardness, softness, coldness, toughness, and the like, are employed for the purpose of bringing together into one point of view different things which are alike in, at least, one respect. Hard things may differ in size, weight, shape, colour, texture, &c. A soft thing may weigh the same as a hard thing; both may have the same colour or the same size, or be at the same temperature, and so on. By classing together various things as hard or soft, or smooth or rough, we eliminate (for the time) all the properties wherein the things differ, and regard them only as having one property in common. The words hardness, softness, &c., are useful class-marks.

Similarly the alchemical Elements and Principles were useful class-marks.

We must not suppose that when the alchemists spoke of certain things as formed from, or by the union of, the same Elements or the same Principles, they meant that these things contained a common substance. Their Elements and Principles were not thought of as substances, at least not in the modern meaning of the expression, a substance; they were qualities only.

If we think of the alchemical elements earth, air, fire, and water, as general expressions of what seemed to the alchemists the most important properties of all substances, we may be able to attach some kind of meaning to the sayings of Basil Valentine, which I have quoted. For instance, when that alchemist tells us, "Fire is the most passive of all elements, and resembles a chariot; when it is drawn, it moves; when it is not drawn, it stands still" - we may suppose he meant to express the fact that a vast number of substances can be burnt, and that combustion does not begin of itself, but requires an external agency to start it.

Unfortunately, most of the terms which the alchemists used to designate their Elements and Principles are terms which are now employed to designate specific substances. The word fire is still employed rather as a quality of many things under special conditions, than as a specific substance; but earth, water, air, salt, sulphur, and mercury, are to-day the names applied to certain groups of properties, each of which is different from all other groups of properties, and is, therefore, called, in ordinary speech, a definite kind of matter.

As knowledge became more accurate and more concentrated, the words sulphur, salt, mercury, &c., began to be applied to distinct substances, and as these terms were still employed in their alchemical sense as compendious expressions for certain qualities common to great classes of substances, much confusion arose. Kunckel, the discoverer of phosphorus, who lived between 1630 and 1702, complained of the alchemists' habit of giving different names to the same substance, and the same name to different substances. "The sulphur of one," he says, "is not the sulphur of another, to the great injury of science. To that one replies that everyone is perfectly free to baptise his infant as he pleases. Granted. You may if you like call an ass an ox, but you will never make anyone believe that your ox is an ass." Boyle is very severe on the vague and loose use of words practised by so many writers of his time. In The Sceptical Chymist (published 1678-9) he says: "If judicious men, skilled in chymical affairs, shall once agree to write clearly and plainly of them, and thereby keep men from being stunned, as it were, or imposed upon by dark and empty words; it is to be hoped that these [other] men finding, that they can no longer write impertinently and absurdly, without being laughed at for doing so, will be reduced either to write nothing, or books that may teach us something, and not rob men, as formerly, of invaluable time; and so ceasing to trouble the world with riddles or impertinences, we shall either by their books receive an advantage, or by their silence escape an inconvenience."

Most of the alchemists taught that the elements produced what they called seed, by their mutual reactions, and the principles matured this seed and brought it to perfection. They supposed that each class, or kind, of things had its own seed, and that to obtain the seed was to have the power of producing the things which sprung from that seed.

Some of them, however, asserted that all things come from a common seed, and that the nature of the products of this seed is conditioned by the circumstances under which it is caused to develop.

Thus Michael Sendivogius writes as follows in The New Chemical Light, drawn from the fountain of Nature and of Manual Experience (17th century): -

  "Wherever there is seed, Nature will work through it, whether it 
  be good or bad." "The four Elements, by their continued action, 
  project a constant supply of seed to the centre of the earth, 
  where it is digested, and whence it proceeds again in generative 
  motions. Now the centre of the earth is a certain void place where 
  nothing is at rest, and upon the margin or circumference of this 
  centre the four Elements project their qualities.... The magnetic 
  force of our earth-centre attracts to itself as much as is needed 
  of the cognate seminal substance, while that which cannot be used 
  for vital generation is thrust forth in the shape of stones and 
  other rubbish. This is the fountain-head of all things 
  terrestrial. Let us illustrate the matter by supposing a glass of 
  water to be set in the middle of a table, round the margin of 
  which are placed little heaps of salt, and of powders of different 
  colours. If the water be poured out, it will run all over the 
  table in divergent rivulets, and will become salt where it touches 
  the salt, red where it touches the red powder, and so on. The 
  water does not change the 'places,' but the several ' places' 
  differentiate the water.[4] In the same way, the seed which is the 
  product of the four Elements is projected in all directions from 
  the earth-centre, and produces different things, according to the 
  quality of the different places. Thus, while the seed of all 
  things is one, it is made to generate a great variety of 
  things.... So long as Nature's seed remains in the centre it can 
  indifferently produce a tree or a metal, a herb or a stone, and in 
  like manner, according to the purity of the place, it will produce 
  what is less or more pure."

   [4] The author I am quoting had said - "Nature is divided into 
   four 'places' in which she brings forth all things that 
   appear and that are in the shade; and according to the good or 
   bad quality of the 'place,' she brings forth good or bad 
   things.... It is most important for us to know her 'places ' 
   ... in order that we may join things together according to