One of the many antiquated beliefs that have been left behind over the centuries is alchemy. Today we tend to think that anyone who supposed natural substances could have been transmuted into others must have been naïve at best, or credulous at least. Bruce Janacek’s Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England sheds light on the wider worldview of the alchemists. Some of them, anyway. Firstly, it is quite clear that many adepts of alchemy were very intelligent people. We easily forget that in addition to rewriting the laws of physics, Sir Isaac Newton practiced alchemy throughout his adult life. There’s something incredibly beguiling about the idea of an underlying unity of materials. Today atomic theory has answered that unity, perhaps a little too well. And that bring up the second important insight in Jancek’s book: alchemists often had an ulterior motive.
Early modern alchemists (think of those emerging from the wake of the Reformation, and you won’t be far wrong) often had a religious motivation for their work. Alchemy isn’t just turning base metals into gold—that’s just its most spectacular claim. Janacek points out that several alchemists were also attempting to prove the legitimacy of Christian theology through their explorations. Concepts as strange as the Trinity, or even the divisions of Christianity itself that were happening in the shadow of Luther, indicated to ordered minds that theological truth must be a unity. That unity, once found in alchemy, would naturally apply to the world of the church. The church, after all, can’t defy the very laws of the universe, can it? These early scientists accepted that there might also be a mystical element involved. Some rejected that aspect, but felt that the basic ideas of alchemy itself were sound.
Like dinosaurs, alchemy pretty much went extinct with the onset of the empirical method. Also like dinosaurs, it survived into the new age, transmuted in form. Alchemy was one of the ancestors of that bane of college students everywhere: chemistry. We tend to forget that astrology laid the groundwork for astronomy and creation (not quite an “ism” in those days) led to the study of biology. Religious ideas underlie much of what led to modern science. Religion, after all, indulges the curiosity of humankind. We are allowed (in the best instances) to let our minds range where they will. Later on theology, or some such device, will rein them in, but until such a time the psyche is free to explore. And build systems. And offer explanations. The alchemy comes when all of this is taken from the hands of natural philosophers and put into the laboratory only. And the rest of us await pronouncements from above of what might be real, or not.