Why Alchemy Failed But Didn’t

Why Alchemy Failed But Didn’t

The study of the changing of base metals into gold seems to reach the top favorite of occult topics for many. Steeped in a rich history, all who study it have their various reasons for loving Alchemy and why not? What’s not to like? The idea that one can start out with an imperfect substance and through labor and effort transform it into one of the most precious and perfect metals desired is to be desired itself.

Alchemy has a long history that modern science has reduced into one sentence of otherwise large and heavy textbooks — Alchemy failed.

This statement hardly gives any indication that there were brilliant minds involved in this once noble science. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were no sycophants or charlatans and they were deeply respected (and still are) for their enormous and varied contributions to science. Why, then, did Alchemy not make the cut? The answer is quite simple — well kind of — Alchemists were playing with the wrong stuff.

Fundamentally and generally speaking Alchemy is based on transformation. This is the process of taking a metal, like lead, and changing it into another metal, such as gold. In order to do this, an alchemist would need to reach into the center of an atom, into its nucleus (or essence if you would like to call it), and add or take away one of its major components: protons.

Protons at the Center of a Nucleus

This is no easy task. Atoms tend to really like their protons right where they are – at their center. This is because the number of protons provides the atom with a level of stability while giving them their identity. For example, hydrogen has one proton, helium has two, lithium has three, and so on. You can imagine how very important protons are. So much so, that atoms protect their nucleus with layers of small but really powerful particles called electrons.

These super tiny subatomic particles are what alchemists were working with back in the day instead of the needed protons. To put it metaphorically, alchemists were working on the peel of an avocado rather than inside the seed. At the height of Alchemy, in the High Renaissance, the existence of protons wasn’t known so alchemists weren’t able to change their tactics to get things right. This is the reason transmutation continually evaded them… and why Alchemy eventually failed. Or did it?

Modern science owes much to Alchemy. If Newton’s statement holds true that he saw further only because he stood on the shoulders of giants, then Chemistry today stands on the shoulders of Alchemy. It is because of Alchemy that advancements in the periodic table took place, that the nature of metals is more thoroughly understood, and the development of the atomic theory progressed from its proto-theories into our current quantum understanding.

Can it be called coincidence that the Father of Chemistry is none other than the beloved alchemist Robert Boyle? I do not believe so. What the alchemists gave us, among other things, is better knowledge of chemical behavior. So did Alchemy fail in its purpose of transmutation? Yes, it did. But it didn’t fail us all together.

An Alchemist in His Laboratory

Imagine an old laboratory room full of musty and sour scents with bubbling concoctions of a variety about it. Sitting at his workbench is a hunched-over bearded man, deep in contemplation as he stares intensely at the flask in front of him. It isn’t a difficult scene to picture but what is harder to imagine are the silent and mysterious thoughts of this unknown man. Why is he looking at the blackened substance with such complexity? With such expectation?

It is because that mass of material represents his very essence, and he doesn’t understand it. Not one bit. You see Alchemy isn’t just about transformations of materials like its successor Nuclear Chemistry. It is about tying one’s personal evolution and transformation to that lump in the flask. This prima materia, as it is called, is the proxy of the alchemist and he will make it undergo numerous experiments. The constant subjecting of the substrate to fire, acid, and time is emblematic of the alchemist unlocking the conditions and behaviors that block him from reaching perfection or the Philosopher’s Stone.

This stone is achieved only through the agony of self-scrutiny and long hours at the workbench. It represents gold or the perfected material and is the ultimate achievement of any alchemist, if accomplished. There is something profound and beautiful about this intense exploration and application. Alchemy is the very symbol of Man realizing that he, at his most basic level, is no more understood than the substrate he has captured in his round bottom flask. And that he can become more than this undefined mound if he truly works for it.

The Alchemist by Sir William Fettes Douglas

Alchemy failed on one level but it has found supremacy on another. There is more than value in trying to understand our human nature through the nature of other things. That value is purpose and we find it through personification. Personification of our universe has been our means of communication with it. The laboratory has been and can be another way we personify our hidden nature. It enlivens our senses like no textbook can. And our senses are the gateway to experience and authentic knowledge.

We should look to Alchemy as a spiritual method of self-discovery and actualization and not a valid empirical science of transmutation. The latter holds no future in its outdated form, but the former holds the potential of all of our greatness.

Obligation in Modernity

Obligation in Modernity

Freemasonry is built on the idea of obligating yourself to perform certain tasks, with a specific set of goals in mind. The word “obligation” comes from the roots of Middle English, from the verb “oblige,” which means to formally legally or morally bind someone to a promise. North Americans are used to hearing the phrase “much obliged,” in a sort of archaic sense, which means “to be indebted or grateful.” This is a derivation of the word; the more archaic form, from where the word “obligation” comes from is “to bind (someone) by an oath, promise, or contract.” The current 21st century definition is “an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.”

The most common obligation people run into is that of marriage. Divorce rates in the United States are down, possibly because marriage rates are also down. A shift? What about other obligations we make during our lives, especially the ones to ourselves? Upwards of 25% of current high school Freshmen will never complete high school. College drop out rates are the highest they have ever been, even with the highest enrollments ever. Even fraternal and social groups suffer from those who start and, for whatever reason, drop out.

To be fair, there are many reasons for giving up the path; financial, health, and family issues may cause problems for the student or spouse. Yet, we find little effort being made to surmount those challenges; we see the heroes as ones who complete school against all odds – but those odds are sometimes no greater than odds we all face. Everyone has challenges in their life. Completing or dedicating yourself to an endeavor takes will and strength, a desire to go against the easy life and really work hard to achieve your own success, whatever that might be. In an age of “Alexa” and “Siri,” doing things for yourself is seen as too much effort.

Molecular Thoughts

People who choose an esoteric path have put themselves on an extremely hard working journey. It’s not easy. As Buddha said, “life is suffering.” Enlightenment is not found in simple meditation. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual work are all necessary. Freemasonry, an esoteric and mystery path built on the foundations of “operative masonry,” is perhaps the epitome of working esoterically and externally.

An excellent article on the “Obligations of a Freemason” can be found on Pietre-Stones. In this article, the author expounds on the obligations of the individual as well as the collective. As Freemasonry is an “individual path worked in a group/collective,” it’s very right that we also look at not only what our obligations to ourselves but also to the group. In fact, from the very onset, in our application, we are promising certain actions that are considered obligatory.

Why all this emphasis on obligation, promises, and commitment? Is there some deeply esoteric meaning in obligating yourself to someone or something? Perhaps.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” ~ (John 1:1)

Much has been said about the divine logos, or, according to the Greeks, “The One Great Reason.” It’s representative of the unseen force of the universe that links us all together, whether we call it God, Love, the Divine, the Force, or whatever. Our ideas about “the Word,” and I suspect John’s as well, came from the Greek philosophers – Heraclitus, Plato, and Epictetus. Where Plato defined logos as an archetype, an idea representation of the divine in an independent-of-physical world, the Stoics refined the idea of logos to impart to it an active principle, and one which incorporated “the Reason” for all being into the function of “The Word.” It’s clear that The writer of the Gospel of John, as well as Buddhists, Jews, Taoists and others have also integrated this idea of the logos into the active Divine in the function of speaking the Word.

The divine Logos is the divine purpose, plan, or word that is the ultimate reason for the cosmos, which orders the universe and gives it meaning. That is, the sound or word has meaning, weight, in creation. As noted above, the Stoics defined logos as the law of generation in the Universe, which was the principle of the active reason working in inanimate matter. Humans, too, each possess a portion of the divine logos. That is, we humans, through our actions and words have generative power. The act of committing ourselves, or creating a binding agreement to complete work has power over us, either consciously or subconsciously. It also has the power to affect other individuals and other groups. This is a ripple effect; what we achieve has a lasting effect on the world around us, and flows out from us in a physical and metaphysical wave.

LOGOS-GreekThus, in giving our “word” or “bond,” we are creating. We create not only the superficial matter – such as our place in a Lodge or our status as spouse in a marriage, but we are creating an unseen, immaterial ripple that will create an effect throughout time. We create – it’s what humans do – and through our words, we create more than just simple relationships. Each word is a spoken manifestation of divinity.

Thus, promises, obligations, and commitments have weight – perhaps even more weight than we realize – when it comes to our overall spiritual life. It is important that we chose and use them carefully.

It’s funny that some individuals see their obligations as infringements on their time, or resources, or futures; funny because most, if not all commitments, promises, and obligations are solely made as the choice of the individual.  We think the promise we make to ourselves and others is somewhat disposable, minimal, with little effect on others and perhaps not even ourselves. Divorce and breakups, broken familial relationships and school dropouts – these are the failures of not understanding ourselves and our words. Failure is always an option and do-overs are necessary – but in order to achieve relief from the suffering, we have to be willing to be honest with ourselves. Pain is inevitable, and suffering doesn’t arise from pain but from our resistance to it – from our resistance to honesty and careful thought; it comes from our resistance to speak “the Word.”

I’ll leave you with a quote from a children’s fantasy book, one which understands and captures the essence of “the Word” in a very real sense – The Wizard of Earthsea.

“It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.”
― Ursula K. Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea