Recently a science historian and amateur chemist, Lawrence M. Principe, released a rather good book called The Secrets of Alchemy. For those not interested in historical detail, it is probably enough to know the damning fact that alchemy and chemistry were once a single traditional science, and were divided in the precise year 1699, when la chemie was included in the newborn Parisian Academy of Sciences. It is amusing to learn that a 1722 submission to the Parisian Academy from one of these newly modernized chemists, fiercely denouncing the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, was in fact plagarized from an alchemical manuscript describing common roadblocks to production of the Stone. (86-88)
Similar to René Guénon adopting the Latin term materia to correct the modern concept of “matter”, Principe refers to the traditional science as “chymistry”, and most of the book is dedicated to resurrecting the true nature of chymistry. Using scraps of historical research done by various academics over the past century, as well as experiments in his home laboratory, he succeeds in producing a credible likeness. Managing to decipher and duplicate the first few keys of Basilius Valentinus, he pronounces his chemical knowledge “astonishing”. (153) He concludes that the goals of chymistry “included both knowing and doing”, and that “the ‘natural’ world was not so neatly circumscribed for early modern people as it is for moderns”. (208-9)
But there is one regrettable misunderstanding perpetrated by Principe, and that is of the role of allegory and symbolism in chymistry. Principe claims that “internal” alchemy dates no earlier than the Victorian period, naming as the original perpetrators of the concept Anne Atwood, a Mesmerist, and Ethan A. Hitchcock, a neo-Rosicrucian. (97-99) To demonstrate the error, we must begin by noting that these occultists referred to their invented tradition exclusively as alchemy, and not as chemistry or chymistry. The resurrection of chymical imagery for purely internal purposes shows just as clearly as modern chemistry that we live in a disjointed world. In Tradition there is no profession that lies outside the sacred, including the “puffers” and “charcoal burners” ridiculed by Guénon in Crisis of the Modern World. The sanctity of physical experiment even through the early modern period is well-documented by Principe. (190-206)
Resolving this confusion requires a deeper understanding of what traditional science is. A friend recently suggested that alchemy was “liberated” from natural philosophy in the eighteenth century. This is another misunderstanding, parallel with Principe’s. In a shallow sense, the existence of modern-day alchemy makes it evident that something is remiss in modern-day chemistry. But both are mere “residues” of the traditional science, chymistry, which united internal and external modes. The texts presented by Principe show quite clearly that whether you were a “puffer” or an armchair chymist, reading through an early modern chymical manual was no easy feat and required extended thought and devotion. How much more so for the medieval texts, of which we know so little! Guénon’s challenge to the critics of internal alchemy to read the Arabic texts has not yet been answered. Principe sheepishly admits that historians still lack proper translations of these texts (28), and in the important case of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus we have neither a definitive edition of the text nor a good understanding of where it came from. (31n)
Chymistry in the early modern West was a practice much-maligned and already in danger of losing its traditional nature. For some hundreds of years Europeans spoke of it as a noble art, but moderns were able to loosen its bonds and recast it as chemistry. Like Freemasonry, it became corrupted far more severely than the traditional forms persisting to this day under the label of “religions” or “religious groups”. Principe’s book can provide the reader with any number of superficial reasons why this might have happened, but a slightly more accurate way to put it is that it became too closely bound to physical proofs and lacked an inseparable connection to local formulations of metaphysics.
Far Eastern alchemy is much easier to distinguish from modern chemistry, because it was firmly embedded into the esoteric tradition from the beginning (as attested in the classical Taoist text The Unity of the Three). Here the final goal of the noble work was not gold but mercury sulfide, i.e. cinnabar, and the the early medieval name for alchemy, neidan or “the internal cinnabar”, as well as the ancient Chinese term for the chakras, dantian or “cinnabar-field”, already inform us that something more than physical experimentation is meant.
The Western severance of chemistry and alchemy has caused much confusion about what the original nature of the traditional science was. But Taoist alchemy underlies practices that persist today such as Chinese medicine and qigong. It would be very difficult to be confused about the nature of this Eastern traditional science, or to deny that it has any physical element. Here is one visible reason, probably among many others, why it is still useful to consider Guénon’s dialectic of East and West in age where the East seems to have been severely modernized.
The Secrets of Alchemy (2013)
The World Upside Down: Essays on Taoist Internal Alchemy (Kindle edition, 2014)
Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Neidan (Kindle edition, 2014)
Institute of Inner Elixir (Japanese only…)