ennui is for suckers (t3dy) wrote in alchemy_class,
ennui is for suckers

debate on spiritual vs. physicalist alchemy from FB

Phil Norfleet Gnostic strategies for accomplishing the liberation of the soul, rest upon the belief that the 'divine spark' in man is not an inert and alien residue, but is an attribute that retains a divine power to bring about change in the world and in the self. Alchemy was one such strategy. At the loftiest level, the alchemists... brought together imagination, will, reason, and knowledge to constitute a powerful spiritual force.

Ted Hand (aka t3dy) This may be true for "spiritual alchemists" especially since the 19th century, but it sure seems from the texts of the medieval alchemists that they were primarily interested in the physical transmutation of matter rather than any spiritual practice. For most historical alchemists alchemy was not a separate religion, but rather a science that was not intended to supersede their own religious tradition, be it Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.

Phil Norfleet
Sorry Ted, I must disagree. Almost all of the alchemical texts written during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance may be understood at two different levels. At the exoteric level, the texts describe hands-on laboratory procedures. How...ever, these same texts, when appropriately decrypted, deal with the psychological transmutation of man. An excellent and relatively well-known example of this is the "Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine." This document, when the Twelve Keys have been properly sequenced and decrypted, is a text at least as powerful as any of the writings of G. I. Gurdjieff. It is nothing less than a recipe for physical and mental excercises that are capable of leading to a profound change in both streams human consciousness.

Ted Hand
I don't disagree that you can use the texts that way, nor would I condescend to deny their power (I use them myself!--but more importantly I'm committed to studying them on the basis of their head-science value for anybody regardless of esoteric affiliation) however I'm not convinced that such an initiatory understanding of the "keys" to the code actually reflects the intentions of the medieval writers of alchemical texts. They may have had their own recipes but I don't think they had (or even felt the need for) such an elaborate theory of spiritual transmutation. I would love to see a book about spiritual alchemy that can explain it to me (can you refer me to anything specific?), but I have looked at a great deal of the research out there and haven't found much in the spiritual alchemy camp that makes sense, whereas the physicalist readings of the serious scholars who are working on the subject (Principe, Newman, etc.) are grounded in the most scrupulous textual scholarship (although see Hereward Tilton's excellent critique of their approach in Michael Maier: Quest for the Phoenix, and his rehabilitation of the Jungian method, which I don't entirely reject myself). I don't deny that there may be a spiritual alchemy which the medieval authors of alchemical texts practiced, but I don't think it looks anything like post-19th century Atwoodian/Jungian "spiritual alchemy"

In my opinion, rather than looking to the worldview of contemporary occultism and attempting to
anachronistically read it back into the alchemical texts themselves, we should be looking at the roots of spiritual alchemy in the Hermetic and late-hellenic/Jewish alchemists themselves. We have very interesting evidence in Zosimos, for example, that there was a spiritual alchemy, but accounts of this spiritual alchemy surviving past the Islamic developments into medieval europe in some subterranean manner rest on speculation rather than hard textual evidence. I have no doubt that the alchemical symbols remained powerful and useful, but I think it makes more sense to understand Christian alchemists as reading them in a Christian fashion, rather than inventing this entity of a "gnostic religion" which is somehow being transmitted across confessional boundaries.

What is common to all the medieval alchemical traditions is the legitimate spirituality of neoplatonism. But since these authors had their our religious committments, I don't think they felt a need a gnosis behind alchemy--it was a worthy pursuit in itself as a science without requiring some ultimate justification outside of the orthodox perspective. When we look at guys like Albert and Roger Bacon, alchemy is seen as a pious scientific undertaking that is religiously important not because it imparts an esoteric gnosis or uplifts the soul, but because alchemy is a wonderful tool for doing natural philosophy and natural theology at both the practical and theoretical levels. Even as late as Agrippa we don't see anything like the 19th century version of spiritual alchemy, but it is clear from the de vanitate (see Lehrich's book on Agrippa) that Agrippa was very interested in alchemy and positioned himself as an insider. There was a Christian Renaissance Magic which included alchemy as an occult science, but it was a tradition that usually attempted to explain its "results" in terms of the orthodox spirituality and worldview of its times.

My main concern in raising this issue is that I think it would do a disservice to authors of alchemical texts not to attempt to reconstruct as precisely as we can whatever spirituality they "projected" onto their science.
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