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Forum Home > #B - The History of Alchemy > Alchemy: Decline

Reverend Stormy FireDragon
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Decline

The decline of European alchemy was brought about by the rise of modern science with its emphasis on rigorous quantitative experimentation and its disdain for "ancient wisdom". Although the seeds of these events were planted as early as the 17th century, alchemy still flourished for some two hundred years, and in fact may have reached its apogee in the 18th century. As late as 1781 James Price claimed to have produced a powder that could transmute mercury into silver or gold. Early modern European alchemy continued to exhibit a diversity of theories, practices, and purposes: "Scholastic and anti-Aristotelian, Paracelsian and anti-Paracelsian, Hermetic, Neoplatonic, mechanistic, vitalistic, and more—plus virtually every combination and compromise thereof."

Robert Boyle (1627–1691) pioneered the scientific method in chemical investigations. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data. Boyle would note the place in which the experiment was carried out, the wind characteristics, the position of the Sun and Moon, and the barometer reading, all just in case they proved to be relevant. This approach eventually led to the founding of modern chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on revolutionary discoveries of Lavoisier and John Dalton.

Beginning around 1720, a rigid distinction was drawn between "alchemy" and "chemistry" for the first time. By the 1740s, "alchemy" was now restricted to the realm of gold making, leading to the popular belief that alchemists were charlatans, and the tradition itself nothing more than a fraud. In order to protect the developing science of modern chemistry from the negative censure of which alchemy was being subjected, academic writers during the scientific Enlightenment attempted, for the sake of survival, to separate and divorce the "new" chemistry from the "old" practices of alchemy. This move was mostly successful, and the consequences of this continued into the 19th and 20th centuries, and even to the present day.

During the occult revival of the early 19th century, alchemy received new attention as an occult science. The esoteric or occultist school, which arose during the 19th century, held (and continues to hold) the view that the substances and operations mentioned in alchemical literature are to be interpreted in a spiritual sense, and it downplays the role of the alchemy as a practical tradition or protoscience. This interpretation further forwarded the view that alchemy is an art primarily concerned with spiritual enlightenment or illumination, as opposed to the physical manipulation of apparatus and chemicals, and claims that the obscure language of the alchemical texts were an allegorical guise for spiritual, moral or mystical processes.

In the 19th-century revival of alchemy, the two most seminal figures were Mary Anne Atwood and Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who independently published similar works regarding spiritual alchemy. Both forwarded a completely esoteric view of alchemy, as Atwood claimed: "No modern art or chemistry, notwithstanding all its surreptitious claims, has any thing in common with Alchemy." Atwood's work influenced subsequent authors of the occult revival including Eliphas Levi, Arthur Edward Waite, and Rudolf Steiner. Hitchcock, in his Remarks Upon Alchymists (1855) attempted to make a case for his spiritual interpretation with his claim that the alchemists wrote about a spiritual discipline under a materialistic guise in order to avoid accusations of blasphemy from the church and state. In 1845, Baron Carl Reichenbach, published his studies on Odic force, a concept with some similarities to alchemy, but his research did not enter the mainstream of scientific discussion.

 

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On the Swift Wings of the Mighty Dragon.

February 20, 2016 at 2:14 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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