Alchemy is the baseborn ancestor of chemistry, celebrated by chemists like Primo Levi as the art from which bold workers with dirty hands delivered that powerful new science. Historically, alchemy was readily confused with counterfeiting, and charlatans preyed upon easy marks with promises of turning base metals to gold. Debasement of specie was familiar to inflationary rulers who had access to smelting works. Amateurs were reduced to clipping coins. Pope John XXII banned pollution of the coinage in 1316 but was widely suspected of it himself. Henry IV banned alchemy in 1404, but in 1440 his grandson Henry VI issued licenses to regulate it, to control inflation.
As substantial forms, conceived as the inner essences of things, lost credibility in the Renaissance, alchemists were increasingly dismissed as impostors, with little distinction between seekers of the philosopher’s stone and those who promised panaceas. So Ben Jonson made alchemy emblematic of the skullduggery of confidence men, trulls, and religious impostors in The Alchemist (1610). John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728) makes alchemy a ready butt for his spirited highwaymen:
Let us take the Road.
Hark! I hear the Sound of Coaches!
The Hour of Attack approaches,
To your Arms, brave Boys, and load.
See the Ball I hold!
Let the Chymists toil like Asses,
Our Fire their Fire surpasses,
And turns all our Lead to Gold.
Tien-yi Chao finds a friendlier trope in Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673). Once lady-in-waiting to Charles I’s queen, Margaret was exiled to Paris upon his overthrow, where she befriended the circle of Hobbes, Gassendi, and the Cartesians. Returning to Restoration England as the duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1660, she made alchemy the symbol of her own literary creativity and a paradigm of the discoveries made using telescopes, microscopes, and the new tools of mechanical and mathematical analysis. Shakespeare applies a similar trope to poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
In Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), Margaret sees nature as infinite and self-moving, a plenum animated, as if by Stoic sympatheia. But Galileo’s discoveries about inertia revived the ancient magnum opus of alchemy, to create a living being, a perpetuum mobile, or an artificial man. That project has enchanted and alarmed imagination from antiquity down to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., and today’s hopes and fears of machine intelligence and autonomous automatons.
Neoplatonism gave alchemy a theory: Being springs from the eternal Forms, flowing forth to sensory particulars. Monotheists saw the Forms, immanentized by pagan Neoplatonists, as the realities behind scripture’s poetic imagery of angels. As intermediaries between divine transcendence and the here below, the Forms were the immediate objects of God’s creativity and knowledge, vehicles of divine governance. Reliant on Plato’s neo-Pythagorean notion that numbers lie between pure Forms and particulars (universal like Forms, yet discrete as individuals), many a monotheist set numbers between God and nature. So the ten sephirot (literally, numbers) of Kabbalah are God’s attributes but also emanations. And since each letter had a numeric value, sacred words readily became portents, or incantations, invoking divine powers, much as God had created by His word of command, the Logos that made divine wisdom tangible.
Philo (ca. 20 BCE–50 CE) saw that wisdom instantiated in the world’s plan. Early Christians took up the idea to explain how a transcendent God could create or govern nature. To Jews, God’s word was the Torah. But to Christians, it was Christ. Thus the Gospel of John reads: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God,” for Christ had replaced the Law. To Muslims, the word was God’s creative fiat: Be! But they kept the older idea of the word as God’s book, the eternal Qur’an or the Inviolate Tablet (al-lawĥ al-maĥfūż).