ANCIENT AND MODERN
THE MEANING OF ALCHEMY
The Aim of Alchemy.
Alchemy is generally understood to have been that art whose end was the transmutation of the so-called base metals into gold by means of an ill-defined something called the Philosopher’s Stone; but even from a purely physical standpoint, this is a somewhat superficial view. Alchemy was both a philosophy and an experimental science, and the transmutation of the metals was its end only in that this would give the final proof of the alchemistic hypotheses; in other words, Alchemy, considered from the physical standpoint, was the attempt to demonstrate experimentally on the material plane the validity of a certain philosophical view of the Cosmos. We see the genuine scientific spirit in the saying of one of the alchemists: “Would to God . . . all men might become adepts in our Art—for then gold, the great idol of mankind, would lose its value, and we should prize it only for its scientific teaching.” Unfortunately, however, not many alchemists came up to this ideal; and for the majority of them, Alchemy did mean merely the possibility of making gold cheaply and gaining untold wealth.
 “Eirenæus Philalethes”: An Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King (see The Hermetic Museum, Restored and Enlarged, edited by A. E. Waite, 1893, vol. ii. p. 178).
The Transcendental Theory of Alchemy.
§ 2. By some mystics, however, the opinion has been expressed that Alchemy was not a physical art or science at all, that in no sense was its object the manufacture of material gold, and that its processes were not carried out on the physical plane. According to this transcendental theory, Alchemy was concerned with man’s soul, its object was the perfection, not of material substances, but of man in a spiritual sense. Those who hold this view identify Alchemy with, or at least regard it as a branch of, Mysticism, from which it is supposed to differ merely by the employment of a special language; and they hold that the writings of the alchemists must not be understood literally as dealing with chemical operations, with furnaces, retorts, alembics, pelicans and the like, with salt, sulphur, mercury, gold and other material substances, but must be understood as grand allegries dealing with spiritual truths. According to this view, the figure of the transmutation of the “base” metals into gold symbolised the salvation of man—the transmutation of his soul into spiritual gold—which was to be obtained by the elimination of evil and the development of good by the grace of God; and the realisation of which salvation or spiritual transmutation may be described as the New Birth, or that condition of being known as union with the Divine. It would follow, of course, if this theory were true, that the genuine alchemists were pure mystics, and hence, that the development of chemical science was not due to their labours, but to pseudo-alchemists who so far misunderstood their writings as to have interpreted them in a literal sense.