Book Review: The Secrets of Alchemy

by namespace 14 min read21st Jan 20187 comments

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Like most decisions that seem bizarre to others, my choice to read Lawrence Principe's book took months to germinate. It started when I saw a post on Hacker News describing Jung's work on alchemical diagrams, noting that premodern people thought very differently and the 'rabbit hole goes deep'. My interest was piqued again months later when another post mentioned a woo-less history of alchemy. Having increasingly become interested in the 'postrationalist' cluster of ideas, I decided maybe a scholarly history of alchemy would help me understand some of the obscure esoteric and occult traditions they seem to draw inspiration from. Over time, I had developed a suspicion that I didn't really understand the ways in which our ancestors thought. Take for example the testimony of John Maynard Keynes, who purchased half of Newton's unpublished papers in 1936, and presumably read them quite closely:

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.

I think we all have some notion that our predecessors thought in a different way, our entire modern perspective takes this as a fundamental axiom. But do you really understand the nuances of how our thinking is different, what changed between our eyes and the magicians? Realizing my vision was clouded, I hoped that reading this book would provide clarity. First and foremost I can happily report it did.

At this point you may be thinking that my bizarre decisions are my own, but that doesn't make them a suitable topic for LessWrong. This criticism is reasonable enough. In my defense I'll say that the core themes in this wonderful history of alchemy: post-scarcity, the limitations of human industry versus nature, big secrets, the history of science, the pursuit of elusive technical goals, even the boundaries between map and territory, are all entirely on topic. In this text we find a rare example of something that should be of significant interest to both 'rationalists' and 'post-rationalists' alike.

Principe's book opens with an introduction explaining to the reader why he wrote it. In essence, Principe feels that alchemy has been horribly mistreated by popular portrayals and as someone familiar with the most recent scholarly research he hopes to correct some of the mythology and misinterpretation the field has suffered over the last 200 years. While it usually doesn't slow down the narrative, a great deal of time is spent on this myth busting. The major exception is chapter four, where Principe breaks chronological order to explain the sheer number and nature of such myths that exist and their origins. He also hopes to give readers some sense of the pre-modern way of thought, which is not marginalized in modern society so much as extinct. This latter subject is covered implicitly throughout the book, but gets full treatment on its own in the final chapter.

What Is Alchemy?

Origins and Myths

Alchemy itself begins in the 3rd century A.D, its only known precedents before then being practical trade manuals. These trade manuals are interesting, because they chiefly deal in the art of imitating precious goods such as gold, silver, gems, and expensive dyes or other cosmetics. Alchemy is defined as its own separate field by two major events. The first is the development of a central goal, chrysopoeia, or the creation of gold. While we don't know exactly when this happened, we can only assume that at some point the idea occurred to people that instead of merely imitating gold, why not attempt creation of the real thing? How this was meant to work, is that instead of merely coloring something to look like gold, a transmuting agent might be found that can give 'base' metals all the other properties of gold too. The second major event was the meeting of practical Egyptian artisan literature and abstract Greek philosophy. One of the first myths Principe sets out to bust is that the alchemists worked as empirics, throwing random combinations together in the hopes they will stumble across transmutation. While it's easy to make that criticism from the outside, the alchemists themselves certainly had a sense of their work being guided by at least some theoretical foundations.

Another common myth is that alchemy did not involve very much chemical practice. This is a modern reinterpretation of earlier texts, fueled by their common presentation to readers as ciphers. The reasons for employing ciphers varied, but among the most common is the tendency for alchemists to be suppressed by rulers for threatening to upend the economic order. Concerns about fraud and forgery, in addition to the actual upset of gold supplies would dog the subject in its earliest stages until its fall off in popularity during the 18th century. Scholars in the modern period encountered these ciphers, and concluded that the ostensible nonsense must mean that alchemy was about something other than practical lab work. In Chapter Six, Principe discusses replicating alchemical experiments in the modern laboratory, and provides a tutorial on decoding enigmatic texts.

The first major theoretical direction for alchemy was based on the observation that certain metals could be colored so that they mimic the appearance of gold. Witnessing this action, alchemists such as Zosimos sought a tincture which would allow transmutation. Zosimos was an alchemist who lived around the year 300 A.D. Their research program was based closely on the mechanisms of action that can tint metals. He cites the material of earlier practitioners often, giving the impression of a thriving alchemical 'scene' in his era. Importantly, even in these early writings we witness the use of secrecy. Secrecy had already been a part of the trade literature, because they were trade secrets of artisans that had real economic value. Zosimos takes this tradition even further, employing Decknamen, or cover names for materials which would be discernible to a practitioner but difficult for outsiders to interpret. He also employed literary narratives, describing chemical processes in the form of allegorical 'dreams'. These dreams are a common feature for mystical revisionists to latch onto, as their esoteric and ostensibly revelatory nature implies the supernatural.

The Legend Of The Philosophers Stone

Probably the most famous aspect of alchemy is its quest for the Philosophers Stone. The stone is a legendary substance said to be capable of transmuting all base metals into gold. In the tenth century Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani tells the tale of a Muslim ambassador visiting Constantinople. There he witnesses the transmutation of lead into silver and copper into gold by two transmuting agents, one white for silver and another red for gold. These two agents would come to be known as the basic appearance of the Philosophers Stone. Critically, most seekers after the stone believed that it had already been created. This caused the curious situation where by the golden age of alchemy in Europe, the 'final steps' to making the Philosophers Stone were well known. The debate was about which ingredients to use and how to prepare them. (Of course, we do not have any compelling evidence the stone ever existed beyond eyewitness accounts.)

In these final steps, the alchemist is to take the substance which forms the stone and place it into a Philosophical Egg. The Egg was a beaker with an 'oval body and a long neck'. The beaker is then completely sealed and heated, a process which should immediately strike anyone with chemical experience as carrying a high risk of explosion. Indeed, many such vessels did explode. Once the aspiring chrysopoeian has managed to steadily heat the vessel without its explosion for forty days, the mixture should turn black. This blackness is the first sign one has succeeded in finding the right mixture for the stone. Next one must continue heating at a constant temperature, a task that is trivial with modern electrical equipment, but in those days meant grueling work beside the furnace, using uniformly sized blocks of wood or charcoal and careful intuition, as even thermometers did not yet exist. Eventually in some weeks the substance should turn white, at which point it may be used to transmute silver. The red stone however requires further heating. Regardless, the stone must then be mixed with real gold or silver, and given Philosophical Mercury to allow it penetration of solid metals. Finally, the alchemist may test their creation by mixing the stone with melted base metal in a furnace to produce silver or gold. This last step is known as 'projection', and would thus come to represent disappointment in contemporary popular culture.

Beyond its ability to practically achieve chrysopoeia, the legendary stone gained further mythological powers as time went on. An alchemist writing under the name of Lull for example, conceived of the stone as a universal healer. They said it held the ability to 'heal' lesser metals into perfect gold, cure all illness, and turn lesser gems into precious stones. From a modern physical perspective there's no good reason to expect all three of these things from the same substance, but it presumably seemed plausible to pre-modern ears. This addition to the myth is a large part of alchemy's (and by extension later chemistry's) association with medicine. Critically, Western alchemists did not believe that the stone would grant eternal life. Rather, by healing all illness the stone would prolong life to its natural span.

Alchemical Practice and Thought

Who practiced alchemy?

One of the most important points to understand about alchemists, which Principe stresses over and over, is that alchemists were probably no more mystical or religious or unempirical than other contemporary disciplines of their time. Given the premise that alchemy was about discovering a physical substance which has a physical action on metals, it's not surprising that actual alchemists relied on a great deal of practical laboratory work for their investigations. Alchemy then was usually practiced among intellectual experimentalists, artisans, get-rich-quick schemers, and counterfeiters. As previously mentioned, the latter group created much trouble for alchemists. A common accusation leveled at alchemy was that it encouraged fraud by getting peoples hopes up about impossible promises of riches, then incentivizing them towards counterfeiting once it becomes clear that they're not making significant progress in achieving real transmutation. Leo Africanus, a freed slave surveying North Africa for the pope wrote negatively of alchemists he encountered in Fez, Morocco. He describes a group of people that stink of sulfur, gathering around the local mosque at night to debate methods of achieving the stone. Meanwhile their actual trade is in illicit counterfeit currency, a crime for which most of those convened at the mosque have had their hands removed. This is admittedly something like how I imagine cryptocurrency conferences work.

Epistemic Attitudes In Alchemy

Because alchemists believed that the stone already existed, great patience was given to work that could be credibly claimed to have been written by an adept, that is someone who is reputed to have already prepared the stone. Ciphers, coded language, allegorical literature, 'dispersion of knowledge' a technique whereby authors would hide processes across multiple books or texts, pseudonymous authorship, all of this was readily accepted by aspiring adepts. These techniques were meant to ward off those who were not familiar with previous literature, that is to say people who have not made achieving the stone a central goal of their life. We might also speculate (though Principe does not) that they have the added benefit of forcing literature review from aspiring adepts in a similar manner to mathematical notation today.

The empirical basis of alchemical approaches varied widely. In terms of trends the early schools were probably closely connected with the observed action of counterfeiting methods, the Arabic schools focused more on esoteric approaches, and in the transplantation back to Europe during the middle ages a more empirical strain is found again. One of the most bizarre impressions of pre-modern and early-modern thinking, which I witness surprisingly often, is the idea that empiricism simply didn't occur to pre-modern and early-modern thinkers. Given that the very word empiricism gets its roots from the Greek philosophical traditions this seems unlikely. A particularly striking example of commitment to observation comes to us through George Starkey, an American alchemist living in the 17th century:

When the Great Plague of London--the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe--erupted in 1665, the licensed physicians fled the city. Starkey and his fellow advocates of chemiatria, however, stayed behind. They challenged the fleeing doctors to test whose medicines would cure more people of the disease. The challenge went unanswered. During the height of the contagion, Starkey caught the plague himself and died a few days later at the age of thirty-seven.

One of the odder episodes in the history of alchemy comes to us from its development in Arabia. There, a group of alchemists writing under the name of Jābir ibn Hayyān developed a theoretical foundation for alchemy which would strike modern readers as quite bizarre. In it they propose first that the metals are compositions of four qualities: hot, cold, wet, and dry. To determine the exact composition of these qualities in a metal, an alchemist is instructed to do the following. First, these four qualities are placed on a grid, with a 'semiquantitative' scale of their degree of presence in a particular metal. Then, Pythagorean numerology is used to determine that things corresponding to seventeen will predict the nature of reality. This is used to form the size of the grid, along with other details. Once the alchemist has the grid, they use an algorithm to place the syllables of Arabic words for metals onto it. Another algorithm converts the grid into the specific weights of the metals. Ostensibly, this might seem completely insane. However, Principe provides further details and context which make it less obscure. Essentially, the Pythagorean numerology might be thought of as a universal prior. The Arabic words come into the picture because in the Islamic mythic tradition, the Arabic language is given to Muslims by Allah. This would make the Arabic names for metals god's names for them, and they thus probably reflect some sort of fundamental properties. In essence these alchemists are attempting a side channel attack on god's dictionary. We can safely assume however that this methodology, while clever, did not achieve the stone. It does however demonstrate some of the way pre-modern people thought about the world they inhabited.

Another curiosity in this vein comes to us from the laboratory notebooks of George Starkey, a priceless set of artifacts that survive to the present day. Among his mundane observations about the exact weight of materials used, what was witnessed, and other minutia, comes an entry that seems bizarre to the modern reader:

"At Bristol, on 20 March 1656, God revealed to me the whole secret of the liquor alkahest; let eternal blessing, honor, and glory be to Him."

In the present day we are used to the notion that a divine revelation is an exceptional, mystical experience that happens only for a select few. (And that's if you believe in divine revelation at all.) Here Starkey records this as something no more unexpected than any other successful result of his research. What's going on? Principe explains that in the early modern period, Europeans conceived of the world as being deeply layered and connected by god's authorship. All knowledge was a gift of god, in the literal sense. Even if knowledge came through an intermediary, such as a book, teacher, or observation of the natural world, that knowledge originated from god. It was quite common to publish texts whose purpose was for educated readers to find connections, either as a personal pursuit or in periodicals which collected and published the best interpretations from readers. To the pre-modern and early-modern mind, metaphors and analogies, which we conceive as the product of human pattern matching, were part of the territory itself rather than the map. Such abstract connections were a method of examining the underlying architecture of god's creation.

Abilities of Alchemists

In chapter six, Principe decodes text from Basil Valentine's Of The Great Stone for readers. In addition to showing that chrysopoetic texts are enciphered rather than gibberish, it also displays some of the impressive abilities of premodern chemists. Basil Valentine for example manages to volatize gold, an operation widely considered impossible by then-known chymical knowledge and essential to the creation of the stone. His experiment can be replicated today using modern equipment, and Principe found it to be an extraordinarily difficult and subtle endeavor. Somehow, Basil Valentine accomplished this feat using technology available to him in the 16th century. Principe notes that realistically, whoever Basil Valentine really was (the name is almost certainly a pseudonym), they had great practical skill and would likely be a revered experimentalist even today.

Being known as an adept could cause you trouble. The alchemist Johann Bottger was imprisoned by Duke August the Strong of Saxony for his reputed ability to make gold. While the alchemist never did manage to make the stone for his captor, he did help discover the secret of making porcelain. Principe notes that this secret ended up being worth almost as much as making gold would have been. Interestingly enough, news that metallic transmutation had been witnessed attracted one Gottfried Leibniz to see it for himself.

Alchemy and Discourse

Criticism of Alchemy

We've already discussed the objections to alchemy based on fraudulent practices, but philosophical objections existed as well. Probably the most famous and influential of these is by Ibn Sīnā (hereafter referred to by his Latin name Avicenna). Avicenna makes two major arguments against alchemy. The first is that human industry is simply weaker than nature, the stone is impossible because humans have not the strength to produce natural gold. His second argument is that unknown unknowns mean that alchemists can never truly know if they've imitated gold, it's possible that there are properties of gold beyond human detection, and that even if the alchemists succeed in creating something that has all the apparent properties of gold they've still failed to create the genuine article.

Another criticism from ibn-Khaldun is that chrysopoeia must be impossible, as its possibility would foil god's plan to have balanced economies by making a limited amount of gold and silver.

While these criticisms may have had wide influence in intellectual circles, the ones that finally 'killed' alchemy in the 18th century were the old ones about fraud. During the enlightenment, alchemy was increasingly demonized as a symbol of everything stupid and ignorant about the past, with fraudulent practitioners whose only accomplishments were con artistry. Part of the reason why these critiques, which had failed to stop practitioners before, finally started to stick was another phenomena that occurred at the same time. Chemists who wanted academic support found it difficult, as chemical work was smelly, messy, and closely associated with artisans and blacksmiths. Worse still, chymistry did not have a classical pedigree which could be drawn on to insist on its inclusion in the academy. That is, no classical author had written about practicing it. Alchemists then came up with the idea of giving their field a makeover, by associating all the practical undeniable benefits with the word 'chemistry' and all the as to then unrealized goals with the word 'alchemy'. Before this division, both words had meant the same thing. In creating a scapegoat in alchemy, high profile practitioners could finally shake off the bad reputation their field had as being for con artists and frauds. This meant that for the first time, chrysopoeia no longer had competent defenders. As more and more chymists abandoned 'alchemy' for 'chemistry', public opinion of chrysopoeia became ever more negative.

Responses to Criticism

Because Avicenna was the most popular critique in intellectual circles, most responses to critique were to him or derivatives of his ideas. One simple response pointed out that alchemists could quite clearly imitate certain natural products, such as common salt. Roger Bacon took this even further, asserting that not only are human arts not weaker than nature, they're quite often stronger. Artificial gold isn't inferior to natural gold, it's better than natural gold. Human art can create products which are better than what nature provides. Principe notes this is one of the first times this argument seems to have been made, and as author I'll note if true that would make it an early precursor of ideas that underlie subjects like transhumanism.

In the enlightenment period, Andreas Ruff critiques the enlightenment skepticism by noting that its oppressive atmosphere of criticism dissuades people from pursuing anything which is not already obvious. He comments further that:

We live nowadays in an 'enlightened' world, in a time when every sixteen-year-old boy is already a champion of criticism and a persecutor of superstition and antiquity. They revile their forefathers who believed too much, who debated about many things they did not understand, and who (to their shame) affirmed many things for which they could not declare a reason--save that they believed. Thus the grandfather is dishonored in his grave by his grandson, and the father by his son, and whosoever can say such things without being at all ashamed shall be proclaimed to have an 'open mind'.

This discourse seems like an interesting parallel to similar arguments today around ideas like Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation and Thielian Secrets.

The modern interpretations and revivals of alchemy are another response to the criticism leveled by enlightenment thinkers. These people essentially took up alchemy in the image of its critics as part of an occult revival. Their interpretations and ideas about alchemy are the ones which have ultimately passed down to us in the modern day. Chapter four of Principe's book covers this in some detail, and provides an extensive bibliography for someone interested in learning more about the discourse and ideas in modern occultism.

Conclusions and Conjecture

Field Building

Principe's text provides us a direct example of field-building which seems instructive in looking at how to pursue further development of 'rationality'. For example, the observation that alchemy is defined by its central goal of chrysopoeia seems insightful. I at least would have trouble naming the central goals of 'rationality', let alone a chief central goal. Having a central goal(s) is important because it provides a concrete way to measure progress and allows you to find your place in the clusterspace of knowledge. The reader may at this point be objecting that the central goal is Effective Altruism, or stopping artificial intelligence from eating everything, or 'winning'. The former two earn points at least for satisfying concrete notions. If your objection is on the basis of the latter I ask you a simple question: What does rationality offer me that isn't already found in the generic life strategy of pursing a college education, then using the tried and true techniques of my forefathers to provide value to society? 'Winning' does not really exclude this as being part of The Art, in fact when it comes to life outcomes this is empirically quite a good way to win, but if that were the beginning and end of things there would be no reason for rationality to exist. What differentiates you, what connects the focuses between subjects and is shared by basically all practitioners? That is the stuff of central goals.

The other condition for alchemy to form, practical trade literature meeting abstract philosophy, also implies that we should perhaps look more at existing bodies of literature to find techniques. For example, I don't know of any rationalist projects to mine the existing self help literature for techniques. Without a clearly defined sense of goals in fact, it's difficult to tell you if such an endeavor even makes sense. As Eliezer himself would probably warn, a term that describes everything and excludes nothing, has no information content. Questions to ask yourself are what constitutes the 'practical literature' of rationality, and what would be the theory?

My friend points out James Gleick's Chaos as a book which might have more information for someone who is interested in other examples of this.

Potential Uses For Secrecy

One thing that strikes me in considering the alchemists ciphers, is that it seems possible such ciphers might allow a crossing of the gap between doxa and episteme. Certainly it is not easy under ordinary circumstances to get your reader to deeply consider something. One issue with this was noted in response to the enigma I published, namely that it's very easy to make stuff up and put it into this format. A possibility to avert this issue might be to hash a plaintext description of the ciphertexts 'true' meaning, and then show it to trusted eyewitness associates that can confirm the ciphertext describes something real and important.

Another potential use for the methods of obfuscation employed by alchemists, is to provide plausible deniability on things you can't say. Rather than conjecture this might be possible, I would say it quite obviously already has. The recent alliance between pseudo-mysticism and the authors of 'Neoreactionary' tracts seems undeniable in its existence and obvious in its utility for both parties. While possibly an exaggeration to say such tracts are enciphered, it's clear that they often use obfuscatory language as a way to ward off the attention of common society.

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