Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 4.djvu/622

This page has been validated.
604
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

medan conquerors, the alliance of these pursuits was further strengthened by the fatalism of the Arabian. Seeking for the philosopher's stone an ideal of material perfection, and uniting with this pursuit that of the physician, the alchemist was led to regard the imperfection of the baser metals as a disease, the supposed operation of the stone as a process of healing, and to ascribe to it the properties of a universal medicine. Transferred to northern soil, at the time when mediaeval Christianity attained its most exalted development, alchemy became thoroughly infused with the religious spirit of the period and its tendency to regard things material as analogous to and symbolical of things spiritual. Passing into the shadow of the cloud and mist-born Northern deities, still hovering over the thrones from which they had been hurled by the Christian angelic host, alchemistic pursuits became involved with the belief in magic and witchcraft. And then the great spiritual revolution which struck at the power of Catholic Rome also weakening the authority of ancient alchemistic views, they became the adroitly-wielded weapons of swindler and charlatan, who were only disarmed when the calm criticism of chemical science disproved the assertions of fraud.

But, at the time when the belief in the reality of the philosopher's stone was general among the cultivated as well as the ignorant, alchemistic hypocrisy was not common. More frequently, then, the alchemist was either an excited enthusiast, led astray by the mirage of his hope, or the cautious commentator who lent the weight of his name merely to give currency to the reports of older authorities. Nor was covetousness always the leading motive of the alchemists. Some of the most illustrious of them apparently persevered in their search for the philosopher's stone without a single sordid thought; many sought to make their pursuit tributary to the healing art; many also regarded their labor as one of the duties of a life of religious devotion.

Alchemy is often represented as immature chemical science, but even this view is only partially correct. The essence of science consists in experimental investigation; but, though many of the alchemists made discoveries, and some of them were investigators, the greater number, and some of the most illustrious, were rather men who, born to the habit of religious enthusiasm, and led by a beacon-light from the ideal world across the threshold of reality, only now and then stumbled over a new fact. Closer by far is the relationship subsisting between the alchemy of the past and the chemical technics of today. Most generally, the aim of the alchemist was not to discover, but to create. Indeed, alchemy had a constant purpose—the production of a perfect agent of chemical change—the philosopher's stone. It was a purpose which was never accomplished, an aim which could not possibly be attained—at least, not in the way and time dreamt of by the alchemistic enthusiast, nor by the means at his command.

Most of the arts reward the laborer, who engages in their pursuit,