Lecture IV 23rd May, 1941
We are dealing with the subject of the attitude of the alchemists to their work, and I must still mention some quotations from the later authors, because they shed an important light
on the subject.
MICHAEL MAIER was a famous alchemist of his time (end of sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries) and was one of the founders of the society of the Rosicrucians.
l. “The philosophers have said: that no one could attain the science of the spiritual, unless his soul be divine and his nativity spiritual. ” ——-
It certainly sounds very strange to hear a chemist and doctor talking of the “science of the spiritual”.
Michael Maier worked in his laboratory, with retorts and smelting pots, just like any of the earlier alchemists; and yet he speaks of the “scientia spiritualis”, and means the alchemistic
We can see from this how the alchemist understood his work: it was work which dealt with spiritual things.
And “the philosophers” have said that only the man “whose soul is divine” can attain it.
I do not know what Maier really meant by this, possibly he was alluding to the Christian conception of the soul, but he may also have meant something which is beyond my knowledge.
The spiritual nativity certainly refers to the horoscope.
Presumably there were signs in Maier’s own horoscope that he was an electus” (a chosen one), called to this work.
This point of view, which is often to be found in the old alchemistic literature, stands opposed to the Christian standpoint: everyone has access to the Church’s means of salvation, provided he has the necessary faith, obedience and submission.
But the alchemistic opus is born through the individual and for the individual.
This remark of Maier’s is no isolated case, there are a great many passages in the literature which point in the same direction.
We read in another seventeenth century treatise:
“It is by the revelation of the highest and greatest God that I have attained this art, and only through diligent study, wakefulness, and through constantly reading the authentic books.”
By the revelation of God the author means the Gospel, and he puts this in the first place.
But besides this he has another source of information: the authentic books.
These are, of course, the alchemistic books.
Through diligent study and religious exercises, one can attain an art or knowledge which exists somehow beside Christianity.
Maier speaks clearly of another source of knowledge besides the Gospel.
Paracelsus says that man has a mind in order that he may understand the truths which are made known in the Gospel, and only for this purpose.
But on the other hand man has also a “lumen naturae” (a natural light), a source of knowledge hidden in nature, from which he can draw enlightenment.
This is the confession of a man who was one of the great reformers of medicine, and it states plainly that the Gospel is not the only source of enlightenment, but that there is another source of light and knowledge, concealed in nature.
Paracelsus was an alchemist himself, and has left a number of alchemistic treatises.
He had a considerable influence on the alchemy of the latter half of the sixteenth century, and still more on that of the seventeenth century.
Gerardus Dorneus, who lived at the end of the sixteenth century and was one of the most famous alchemists of his time, was a pupil of Paracelsus.
We read in another treatise:
“The materia must be understood, for the philosophers of all ages have held knowledge to be the most important thing in this work. One must have an untroubled fund of knowledge.”
We find an important point here. In contrast to the contemporary Christian attitude, where the whole emphasis was laid on faith, this passage emphasises knowledge: the Gnosis.
I use the word “Gnosis” intentionally, because alchemy retained, or rediscovered, a great many things which played a very important role in the early days of Christianity.
These ideas belonged to Gnosticism, one of Christianity’s most dangerous rivals.
Christianity really arose from the spirit of Gnosticism, but came into conflict with it later, because the Gnostics threatened to dissolve Christianity with their philosophical Speculations.
Therefore the fathers of the Church dissociated themselves from the Gnostics, and fought Gnosticism bitterly, declaring it a heresy.
Most of the writings of the Gnostics have disappeared eared, so there are many gaps in our knowledge of this subject; but fortunately one of the early fathers of the Church, Hippolytus, was very helpful in this respect.
He left a very complete treatise about the doctrines of the Gnostics; he was much more benevolently disposed towards them, and very much more careful and conscientious in his report, than his contemporaries.
The emphasis which is laid on knowledge, on the Gnosis, in our passage is one of the main characteristics of alchemy.
In the same treatise in the Musaeum Hermaticum, we read:
“He, who would attain this highest mystery, must realise that this art does not lie in man’s power, but depends up on God’s goodness, and that neither will nor desire can lead him to it, but only God’s mercy. One must only exercise this art for the honour and glory of God (ad solam Dei gloriam) and for no other goal. Nature is one, true and simple, perfect in its essence, and a secret spirit lies hidden in it. If thou wouldst recognise it, thou must thyself be true, simple, patient, steadfast and devout, and must not harm thy neighbour, in short : thou must be a regeneratus, a new being.”
A “regeneratus” means a re-born man, a regenerated human being; and the attitude which is recommended for such a man is very similar to that which Christianity has established as the “desideratum”.
The result is called “the highest mystery”.
There cannot be two highest mysteries, but only one.
The alchemists apply this term to their art; in other words: the attainment of this art is their highest mystery which excels even the Christian mystery.
This is not said in so many words, but nevertheless it is the conclusion which one is bound to draw from this passage.
And, as I have pointed out before, it would have been far too dangerous to express themselves more clearly on this point in those days.
The author also tells us that a secret spirit lies concealed in nature, the “spiritus absconditus”.
This concealed spirit cannot be proved to be in nature, but quite certainly it exists in man, for the human soul is for the most part hidden from us.
The old masters project the unconscious, and describe what is really an attitude to one’s own unconscious; though to talk of “one’s own unconscious” is a facon
de parler, for I cannot say anything is my own, unless I have it in my pocket or Another author says:
“Spirit, body and soul must all take part in this work.”
This means that the opus demands the whole man, and not just the intellect: though one might well think it was only the latter, because knowledge is so much stressed.
Another author says:
” In this art, which comes from God, no sensual, wicked or infernal spirits are admitted, but only a simple, straight, true and steadfast spirit whose essence is pure and devout. All others misunderstand the highest mystery.”
This passage needs no further explanation. We come now to another text:
“But when God grants his grace, to someone who understands it, this will appear incomprehensible in the eyes of the world and those who love this mystery will
be scorned of men and looked down upon as . . . ”
They will be regarded as good for nothing people.
“Just as learned men also, doctors and others, cannot find it, because they have never looked at it, although it lies before their eyes, and do not trust it, although it contains such power in itself. And no one can teach them any better while they follow their nature and their intellect : therefore they cannot find it for very wisdom, because it transcends their power of comprehension, for it is the work of God and of nature and can only be reached through nature. Therefore they remain ignorant.”
If you assume that the alchemists were really, without knowing it, working on the unconscious, you can easily understand this text, we could still apply what it says today.
A further text says:
“Only a few attain the possession of this Kingdom, although many labour in the construction of our stone. The Creator has not given the true knowledge and possession of it to the multitude, but only to the few, who hate lies and cling to the truth, devote themselves to the art with heartfelt sighs and seek it conscientiously; but above all to those who love God without hypocrisy, and therefore pray to him.
“If he succeeds in finding a worthy, suitable man, and he begins to feel the weight of his own years, then he may impart the art to him, but not
to several! For this science must always remain secret. Because, were a wicked man to have knowledge of it, the Christian world would be in great danger. Puffed up with pride (inflatus superbia) over his heritage, he would overthrow the legitimate rulers who govern others . . . God has hidden this knowledge from great doctors and has only given it to a few who were truly devout and humble. And as among the myriads of stars in the Heavens, there are only seven planets, so among millions of people, only a few attain this knowledge. Those, who think themselves wise although they know nothing, are not bidden to our feast.”
The fact, that this art is only for the individual, is emphasised here again.
It is not meant for the multitude, but is presumably only for the man who is chosen on account of his fate or disposition.
Moreover we see the contrast to the Christian world expressed in this passage.
Should someone, who understands the art, betray it to the multitude, he would come into conflict with Christianity, and the Christian world would be in great danger.
This shows us clearly, that the principle of the art of alchemy was opposed to the Christian “Weltanschauung” of those days, in other words, alchemy concealed a heresy.
It was a spiritual endeavour which, far from running parallel to Christianity, opposed it, even dangerously.
Another text says:
“One should not begin to touch this secret, impenetrable work, and the spirit which lies hidden beneath it . . . before having explored it in the depths of its own singularities and characteristics, and in relation to the indispensable harmonising with nature. One gains nothing from this spirit, if one has not already clearly recognised and known it. God is wonderful in his works and his wisdom is infinite and he does not allow himself to be mocked. Many entangled themselves lightly in this work and have died in the laboratory, or have been otherwise pursued by misfortune. For the art is not easy, as some imagine, because the philosophers have likened it to the play of children and the work of women.”
The “ludus puerorum ” (play of children) and “opus mulierum” (work of women) are expressions which recur frequently in alchemy.
“A few philosophers have found it easy, simply because God granted them understanding. Therefore one should pray and begin with God’s help.”
Here again we hear of the “spiritus absconditus” with which this art was, concerned.
One is really curious to know what this old master understood by this spirit.
For us, as I have said several times, it is the unconscious, but in those days they had no conception of the unconscious.
It was projected and was outside, it was not understood as a psychological fact.
We live, historically speaking, in a period of transition, when the psychical man is beginning to exist as an empirical fact, psychical man was unknown before.
The culture of India is pre-psychological, for instance.
The Indians are totally unpsychological, one cannot explain to them what psychology is, because they do not think in those terms.
Psychological facts are metaphysical facts to them and it is the same with orthodox Catholics.
It is very difficult to explain to such people what we mean by the unconscious, because classical Christianity is also pre-psychological.
These things are metaphysical, not psychological, entities to them, which naturally makes a considerable difference.
I will bring the excerpts from the alchemists’ writings about attitude to a close with a short passage from another treatise:
“So man must become as the corn of the field . . . therefore he must die outright and unfold completely.”
This is one of those assertions of the alchemists which remind us of Goethe, in this case of the last verse of his poem: “Selige Sehnsucht”:
“Und so lang du das nicht hast, (All the while thou hast not part,
Dieses Stirb und werde! In this dying and new birth!
Bist du nur ein triib er Gast But a dismal guest thou art
Auf der dunklen Erde. “On the dark and gloomy earth.)
The old alchemists were also aware that they must have such an attitude, in order to do their work properly.
To sum up:
it is evident from all these excerpts that alchemy was not a natural science nor even a natural philosophy as we understand the latter; it was really a purely religious endeavour, in which the Christian attitude was taken for granted, but which really stood opposed to contemporary Christianity and is still opposed to the modern Christian attitude.
This whole effort is not an undertaking for the many, it does not contain social thoughts, it is essentially an individual matter, and, whether it is practised by one, ten or even a thousand people, each works alone.
This is an attitude which is foreign to us, for we have grown up in the congregational teaching of the Church, and in the more modern socialistic ideas which are “plus papal que le pape”.
We think socially and talk socially, the individual has become a mass article.
But in those days one of the greatest and most important spiritual movements existed only for the individual.
And indeed it is as individuals that we are part of the world, and we cannot experience anything except as an individual.
We may feel safer and more protected in a crowd, yet the truth is that the individual is more unsafe and in greater danger in a crowd than anywhere else.
It is there that he goes under and loses himself.
The attitude of the alchemists arises from manifold admonitions to prayer, patience, purity of purpose, renunciation of all worldly gain, conviction that this work depends on the grace of God, that it cannot be completed without the intercession of the Deity and that it is a purely spiritual work.
The alchemist turns away from the materia, in spite of the fact that he works on it in his laboratory.
He has a secret purpose: to free the world soul (the deus absconditus) bound in matter.
The work is a source of divine knowledge; and therefore requires a man, who through attitude or predestination, is capable of understanding this divine mystery.
The work takes place through the will of God operating in individuals who are led on to this path by an inexorable fate.
It must be worked on through meditation, obedience to tradition and an introductory study of the authentic works.
It demands a good mind, great intelligence and industry.
The artist or philosopher also encounters a psychological difficulty in his work.
If, for instance, he produces the nigredo (blackness) in his retort, then his own soul also enters the nigredo.
This means that he must face the darkness of his own soul, its melancholia.
We also met with curious symbolic allusions in these passages.
The spring of Paradise, for instance, gushes forth again during the work, the eternal water which flows in the form of the four rivers.
This water represents the grace of God, or the Holy Ghost.
It is a parallel of the water which flowed from the wound in the side of Christ, which signifies the spiritus veritatis (spirit of truth) , and is the redeeming, refreshing water for mankind – in alchemy, however, only for the individual.
The opus itself, therefore, means a re-birth, a regeneration; and it is compared to the grain of wheat which must die and decay, in order that its new life should arise.
So the man, who gives himself to this work, must die in order to rise again.
We also hear that the work can be hindered by bad spirits, the demons Ophiuchus and Antimimus1 (the imitator) .
And, moreover, this work is the highest mystery and greatest secret which must be anxiously and zealously guarded.
We shall hear more of this later.
This represents roughly the attitude of the alchemist towards his work.
On the one side he worked in his laboratory, where he was busy with all kinds of minerals and with all the chemical substances that were known in his day; and, on the other side, he meditated, carried out exercises in meditation, so to speak, for meditation was an essential part of the work.
His subjects of meditation were the so-called operations and the authentic books.
We must try to realise, therefore, what these old philosophers meant by meditation; as we tried in previous lectures to get a clear picture of how Ignatius, the Devoti and the Christian mystics understood meditation, and earlier, of the Indians’ conception of Yoga.
We find the word “meditation” in one of the earliest monuments of alchemy:
“The Tabula Smaragdina” attributed to Hermes Trismegistus .
We read there:
“And as all things proceed from one, through the meditation of the One . ”
This sentence is of course very obscure.
Is it the meditation of one man or of this one thing?
Probably the latter.
The expression “meditation”, as it is used here, has a parallel in the process of the creation where God meditated the world into existence.
He thought the world with his logos, and the world originated in this thought.
And the alchemist also thought that he could complete the miraculous work through meditation.
We read in the Turba (a text which was also transmitted by the Arabs but which goes back to antiquity and was translated into Latin about the eleventh century):
“One must reflect on the books:”
The books play, so to speak, the role of the gospel in alchemy and must be meditated up on.
Another old authority, GEBER (who is only alleged to be of Arabic origin) wrote a book called: “Summa perfectionis” (the sum total of perfection) , and he says in it:
“And indeed thou must work with greatest concentration of unlimited meditation ; for with it thou wilt find, and without it thou wilt not.”
The alchemistic work is worth nothing at all without meditation, and in this passage meditation is made the most important part of the alchemistic work.
A similar but rather more recent text says:
” Understand then and meditate up on it . . . . Meditate upon these words, and with the will of God, thou wilt find.”
In another part of the same text we read:
“It is a stone and yet no stone. Moreover, if thou art a seer, and meditatest on it, then thou canst hope to perceive it.”
We see here that this meditation has not only the character of reflection, but also of visualisation.
We should now call this.: “active imagination”, that is, intentional imagining.
This something which we also found in the Ignatian exercises, certain pictures were intentionally visualised.
You will remember the very concrete meditations on hell and on the life of Christ, which had to be realised with all the senses; sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.
But there is this difference: the subject is prescribed from Ol outside in the Ignatian exercises, and in alchemy it is not, or at most it can be found in the books, and if you read such a book, you will see how vague any directions are.
It is the stone which must be visualised until it is actually seen, until it becomes a reality.
Another treatise, the “Liber Quartorum”, which also goes back into antiquity, says:
“It is therefore necessary, that we principally discern the soul, through the intelligence. If we do this, we shall reach the goal and be exalted by the science through meditation: But this is the procedure of the philosophers, and the philosopher begins in the teaching (sermone) at this place, at the more subtle end of nature.”
One sees here how these people understood their materia.
Nature, as a material manifestation, had two ends: a material and a spiritual end.
The philosophers began their meditation with the spiritual end of matter, in order to transform it from that side.
We only handle matter from the physical end, because we do not assume that nature contains a spirit.
For these people, however, nature still contained the projection of the soul.
So this text says the most important thing is to discern the soul through meditation, which entails beginning at the. more subtle end of nature.
The author says in this same Liber Quartorum:
“I have spent much time in meditating on the teaching, in understanding the words, and in meditating on the meaning.”
You see that these old masters meditated on the words of the still older masters, these were their classics.
They meditated on them much as a Christian mystic meditated on the word of the Lord; or perhaps as the Buddhists meditate on, or rather imagine, the teaching of Buddha and the traditional dogma until they become reality.
The mechanism is the same as that of the Ignatian exercises: whoever strives to carry through those exercises, renounces his ego through imagination, and dissolves himself, so to speak, in the figure of Christ.
And in alchemy also, the thoughts or words of these old masters are meditated on in such a way that a curious result comes about.
It is not formulated as Christ, or – to use Buddhist language – as Buddha or Atman, but as the lapis philosophorum, the “stone” or as the “red tincture”, a chemical product, a “thing” so to speak.
It is admitted that this “thing” is highly mysterious, and that it is not possible simply to say what it is ; it can only be realised by long investigation.
What it was, that the alchemists were really searching for, has therefore always remained obscure, and there are still people who think that perhaps they really had a receipt for making gold and
that this was the secret fascination.
But we know nothing of any such receipt, and we have a great many passages in the literature which say that they did not mean ordinary gold at all, that such language is only eye-wash for the stupid.
We shall return later to this expression: “prima materia”, and consider then what the alchemists meant by it.
We come now to the famous pupil of Paracelsus: GERARDUS DORNEUS, who was a doctor in Frankfurt and lived at the end of the sixteenth century.
“The human mind is composed of nothing better than the spagiric and meditative procedure, ap art from the divine gift of grace.”
The alchemists mention the gift of grace, or God, again and again, but apart from this the important thing in this passage is the “spagiric and meditative procedure”, which is given Paracelsus’ name for it here: “dispositions spagirica”.
The word “spagiric” probably originated with Paracelsus, and is a combination of two Greek words: “spai” (to tear) and “ageir” (to bring together).
“Solve et coagula” (dissolve and coagulate) and ” fac fixum volatile et volatile fixum ” (solidify the volatile, and evaporate the solid) are expressions which we meet again and again in alchemy; and since the sixteenth century the spagiric art or procedure is also a current phrase.
You see that Dorneus also lays the chief emphasis on meditation.
He says in the same treatise:
“No one can truly know himself, if he does not investigate through diligent meditation, and know who he really is.”
This is a piece of real meditation.
The alchemists evidently assumed that, during their frequent meditation on the words of the old masters, they would learn to know themselves and God.
Meditation was a means of learning to know God, and, at the same time, themselves.
This is something which we find also in the other forms of meditation, be they Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, namely self-knowledge:
he who knows himself knows God, and he who knows God knows himself.
It is the culmination of wisdom in India to know that that which one can recognise inside and outside of man is the Deity.
We learn from the sixteenth century alchemist, KHUNRATH, whom I have often mentioned, that visions, and conversations with God and his good spirits took place during the meditation; and he speaks of: “Good apparitions, visions and answers ” and says further:
“Direct therefore thy feeling, senses, reason and thoughts toward this salt alone.”
The word salt is of course only used symbolically as the “sal sapientiae” (the salt of wisdom) .
So the important thing is the words of wisdom, and while those are being meditated upon, visions take place, apparitions, conversations with spirits and so on. Khunrath says later:
“Therefore study, meditate, sweat, work, cook . . . and in this manner a wholesome flood will burst forth, which comes from the heart of the son of the great world.”
Through this procedure a flood wells up , which is the eternal water of Paradise ; the water of redemption will burst forth again, which comes from the heart of the son of the great world.
This son is the “filius macrocosmi ” that Khunrath contrasts to Christ as “filius microcosmi”.
Christ exists for man, and is called “the son of man”, but the ” filius macrocosmi”, which alchemy is concerned with, is called the son of the cosmos, of the great world and of the whole of nature. ~Carl Jung, ETH Lectures, Pages 161-170.