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The Secrets of Alchemy: No nearer the Philosopher’s Stone

September 26, 2013

Lawrence M. Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy is a deeply gratifying book that brilliantly unveils the hidden wonders of that most shadowy and misunderstood art. Alchemy has not always been associated with esoteric mystics muttering necromantic incantations in the quest for spiritual purification. For much of its history, Principe reveals, alchemy was recognized as a sophisticated pursuit entailing the vigorous exertion of mind and hand, a convergence of laboratory experimentation and theoretical speculation that yielded spectacular control of chemical processes. To protect their hard-earned knowledge, alchemists wrote under pseudonyms and encrypted discoveries in mystical-sounding codenames (Decknamen). While this contributed to alchemy’s association with mysticism, Principe argues persuasively that its traditional essence lay in the expert combining of substances, and that no account of it can rightfully ignore its experimental and material foundations.

Principe’s most robust evidence derives from his own laboratory expertise and philological sleuthing. By deciphering the substances concealed under Decknamen and re-creating the reactions elaborated in seemingly obscure texts, he reveals alchemists to be proficient manipulators of chemical phenomena, capable of creating remarkable effects through distillation, fermentation, cupellation and more. Alchemy’s experimentalism, marriage of theory and practice, as well as attention to material causality explain the enthusiasm with which luminaries of early modern science such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle practised it.

Excerpt from an article written by NICHOLAS POPPER at TLS. Continue THERE

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