Alchemical Theory: A Look at the Basic Principles of Alchemy
The One Thing (or the Subtle Ether)
Space, whether interplanetary, inner matter, or inter-organic, is filled with a subtle presence emanating from the One Thing of the universe. Later alchemists called it, as did the ancients, the subtle Ether. This primordial fluid or fabric of space pervades everything and all matter. Metal, mineral, tree, plant, animal, man; each is charged with the Ether in varying degrees. All life on the planet is charged in like manner; a world is built up in this fluid and move through a sea of it.
Alchemical Ether, which some Hermeticists call the Astral Light, determines the constitution of bodies. Hardness and softness, solidity and liquidity, all depend on the relative proportion of ethereal and ponderable matter of which they composed. The arbitrary division and classification of physical science, the whole range of physical phenomena, proceeds from the primary Ether, for science has reduced matter as we know it to nothing but Ether, which, although not solid matter, is still matter, the First Matter of the alchemists. When most of us speak of the matter, of course, we usually visualize solid substance, but it has been proved by that matter is not actually solid, but merely a stress, a strain in the etheric field of time and space. The atom and the electrons and protons of which it is composed, all move in a sea of Ether, so, that in accordance with this theory of alchemy, the very air we breathe, the very bodies we inhabit, all things must likewise be moving in this sea of Ether, the parent element from which all manifestation has come.
This principle that all things proceed from One Thing is demonstrable in the realm of biology, for the multicellular organisms, complex as they may be in their structure, nevertheless arise from a single cell. Science postulates that all matter is composed of atoms; atoms, however, are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and those in turn composed of still finer components until we the Ether. This Ether is.a universal connecting medium, filling all space to the furthest limits, penetrating the interstices of the atoms without a break in its continuity. So completely does it fill space that it is sometimes identified with space itself, and has, in fact, been spoken of as Absolute Space?
“The Ether of space,” according to physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, “is a theme of unknown and apparently infinite magnitude and of a reality beyond the present conception of man. It is that of which everyday material consists, a link between the worlds, a consummate substance of overpowering grandeur. By a kind of instinct, one feels it is the home of spiritual existence, the realm of the awe-inspiring. and supernal. It is co-extensive with the physical universe and is absent from no part of space. Beyond the furthest star the Ether extends, in the heart of the atom, it has its being. It permeates and controls and dominates all. It eludes the human senses and can only be envisaged by the powers of the mind. Yet the Ether is a physical thing; it is not a physical entity, yet it has definite properties. It does not matter any more than hydrogen and oxygen is water, but it is the vehicle of both matter and spirit.”
Now, the alchemist has divided matter, seen and unseen, into seven principles or planes, and of these the fifth principle, or Quintessence, corresponds to science’s Ether or in more contemporary parlance, the Space-Time Continuum. If we are willing to admit that there is some truth in this relationship of ideas, then we may begin to see that alchemy is based on absolute law. All the forces of our scientists have originated in the Vital Principle, that one collective life. Our life is a part of, or rather one of the aspects of, the One Universal Life.
During a person’s life, there is present a finely diffused form of matter, a vapor filling not merely every part of his physical body but actually stored in some parts; a matter constantly renewed by the vital chemistry; a matter as easily disposed of as the breath, once the breath has served its purpose. Paracelsus named this First Matter of life the Archaeus, meaning the oldest principle. “The Archaeus is an essence that is equally distributed in all parts of the human body,” he wrote. “The Spiritus Vitae(Spirit of Life) takes its origin from the Spiritus Mundi (Spirit of the Universe). Being an emanation of the latter, the Archaeus contains the elements of all cosmic influences and is, therefore, the cause by which the action of the cosmic forces act upon the body.”
The Archaeus is of a magnetic nature and is not enclosed in a body but radiates within and around it like a luminous sphere. Alchemy and alchemy alone, within the current historical epoch, has succeeded in obtaining a real element, or a particle of homogeneous matter. This is the true Mysterium Magnum. By this age-old science, the alchemist may set free this Vital Principle in his laboratory, destroy the body of the metal on which he is working, purify its Salt, and reassemble its principles together in a higher form. The alchemical process, which is, after all, but a miniature reproduction of a superior process in operation around us all the time, undoubtedly proceeds from Master Intelligences who have lived at some time or another on our earth.
It is a pity that science must always reject old ideas and cast them away as useless before rediscovering them as something new to be incorporated into current theories. To discard the alchemist’s theories is about as intelligent as to dismiss as rubbish Einstein’s Theory of Relativity merely because one does not happen to understand his language. Some of our scientists have realized this for a long time. F. Hoefer in Histoire de la Chimie (Paris 1866) remarked: “The systems that confront the intelligence must remain basically unchanged through the ages, although they assume different forms [depending on the age and culture of man]. Thus, through mistaking form for basic truth, one conceives of an erroneous sequence. We must remember that there is nothing so disastrous in science as the arrogant dogmatism that despises the past and admires nothing but the present innovation.”
If scientists would try to understand the conception of the universe as taught by Hermeticism (the Perennial Philosophy) throughout the ages, taking as its starting-point the teaching of the One Mind in Manifestation; its seven planes of consciousness; its infinite archetypal forces, and as the basis of its philosophy the Emerald Tablet axiom “As Above, So Below,” it would create a lasting system of understanding based on eternal Truth instead of on a quicksand of egocentric theories. Science will never really understand the truth about life until it reaches this realization. Such a realization cannot be attained through its instruments and appliances but only through the inner powers of the mind.
Paracelsus noted: “Nothing of true value is located in the body of a substance, but in the virtue thereof, and this is the principle of the Quintessence, which reduces, say 20 lbs. of a given substance into a single Ounce, and that ounce far exceeds the 20 lbs. in potency. Hence the less there is of the body, the more in proportion is the virtue thereof.”
“The Magi in their wisdom asserted that all creatures might be brought to one unified substance,” he continued, “which may by purification and purgation, attain to so high a degree of subtlety, such divine nature, and Hermetic property, as to work wonderful results. For they considered that by returning to the Earth, and by a supreme and magical separation, a certain perfect substance would come forth, which is at length, by many industrious and prolonged preparations, exalted and raised up above the range of vegetable substances into mineral, above mineral into metallic, and above perfect metallic substances into a perpetually alive and divine Quintessence. The evolutionary perfection includes within itself the essence of all celestial and terrestrial creatures.” By this Quintessence or quantum esse, Paracelsus meant the nucleus of the essences and properties of all things in the universal world.
From the Golden Casket of Benedictus Figulus comes the following wisdom: “For the elements and their compounds in addition to crass matter, are composed of a subtle substance, or intrinsic radical humidity, diffused through the elemental parts, simple and wholly incorruptible, long preserving the things themselves in vigor and called the Spirit of the World, proceeding as it does from the Soul of the World. This is the one certain Life filling and fathoming all things so that from the three emanations of sentient beings (Intellectual, Celestial, and Corruptible), there is formed the One Machine of the Whole World. This spirit by its virtue fecundates all subjects natural and artificial, pouring into them those hidden properties that we have been wanting to call the Fifth Essence or Quintessence. But this Fifth Essence is created by the Almighty for the preservation of the four qualities of the human body, even as, Heaven is for the preservation of the Universe. Therefore is this Fifth Essence and Spiritual Medicine, which is of Nature and the Heart of Heaven and not of a mortal and corrupt quality, makes life possible. The Fount of Medicine, the preservation of life, the restoration of health, and in this may be the cherished renewal of lost youth and serene health be found.”