A Search for Knowledge ? The Alchemistic Letter
I am the man who, unfortunately for my future happiness, was dissatisfied with such knowledge as could be derived from ordinary books concerning semi-scientific subjects in which I had long been absorbed. I studied the current works of my day on philosophy and chemistry, hoping therein to find something tangible regarding the relationship that exists between matter and spirit, but studied in vain. Astronomy, history, philosophy and the mysterious, incoherent works of alchemy and occultism were finally appealed to, but likewise failed to satisfy me. These studies were pursued in secret, though I am not aware that any necessity existed for concealment. Be that as it may, at every opportunity I covertly acquainted myself with such alchemical lore as could be obtained either by purchase or by correspondence with others whom I found to be pursuing investigations in the same direction. A translation of Geber’s ” De Claritate Alchemiae,” by chance came into my possession, and afterwards an original version from the Latin of Boerhaave’s ” Elementa Chemix,” published and translated in 1753 by Peter Shaw. This magnificent production threw a flood of light upon the early history of chemistry, being far more elaborate than any modern work. It inspired me with the deepest regard for its talented author, and ultimately introduced me to a brotherhood of adepts, for in this publication, although its author disclaims occultism, is to be found a talisman that will enable any earnest searcher after light to become a member of the society of secret ” Chemical Improvers of Natural Philosophy,” with which I affiliated as soon as the key was discovered. Then followed a systematic investigation of authorities of the Alchemical School, including Geber, Morienus, Roger Bacon, George Ripley, Raymond bully, Bernard, Count of Trevise, Isaac Hollandus, Arnoldus de la Villanova, Faracelsus, and others, not omitting the learned researches of the distinguished scientist, Llewellyn.
I discovered that many talented men are still firm believers in the lost art of alchemy, and that among the followers of the ” thrice-famed Hermes ” are to be found statesmen, clergymen, lawyers, and scientific men who, for various reasons, invariably conceal with great tact their connection with the fraternity of adepts. Some of these men had written scientific treatises of a very different character from those circulating among the members of our brotherhood, and to their materialistic readers it would seem scarcely possible that the authors could be tainted with hallucinations of any description, while others, conspicuous leaders in the church, were seemingly beyond occult temptation.
The larger number, it was evident, hoped by studies of the works of the alchemists, to find the key to the alkahest of Van Helmont, that is, to discover the Philosopher’s Stone, or the Elixir of Life, and from their writings it is plain that the inner consciousness of thoughtful and scientific men rebelled against confinement to the narrow bounds of materialistic science, within which they were forced to appear as dogmatic pessimists. To them scientific orthodoxy, acting as a weight, prohibited intellectual speculation, as rank heresy. A few of my co-laborers were expert manipulators, and worked experimentally, following in their laboratories the suggestions of those gifted students who had pored over precious old manuscripts, and had attempted to solve the enigmatical formulas recorded therein, puzzles familiar to students of Hermetic lore. It was thus demonstrated,- for what I have related is history,- that in this nineteenth century there exists a fraternity, the members of which are as earnest in their belief in the truth of Esoteric philosophy, as were the followers of Hermes himself; savants who, in secret, circulate among themselves a literature that the materialism of this selfsame nineteenth century has relegated to the deluded and murky periods that produced it.
One day a postal package came to my address, this being the manner in which some of our literature circulated, which, on examination, I found to be a letter of instruction and advice from some unknown member of our circle. I was already becoming disheartened over the mental confusion into which my studies were leading me, and the contents of the letter, in which I was greatly interested, made a lasting impression upon me. It seemed to have been circulating a long time among our members in Europe and America, for it bore numerous marginal notes of various dates, but each and every one of its readers had for one reason or another declined the task therein suggested. From the substance of the paper, which, written exquisitely, yet partook of the ambiguous alchemistic style, it was evident that the author was well versed in alchemy, and, in order that my position may be clearly understood at this turning point in a life of remarkable adventure, the letter is appended in full:
THE ALCHEMISTIC LETTER.
TO THE BROTHER ADEPT WHO DARES TRY TO DISCOVER ZOROASTER’S CAVE, OR THE PHILOSOPHERS’ INTELLECTUAL ECHOES, BY MANS OF WHICH
THEY COMMUNICATE TO ONE ANOTHER FROM THEIR CAVES.
Know thou, that Hermes Trismegistus did not originate, but he gave to our philosophy his name- the Hermetic Art. Evolved in a dim, mystic age, before antiquity began, it endured through the slowly rolling cycles to be bandied about by the ever-ready flippancy of nineteenth century students. It has lived, because it is endowed with that quality which never dies- truth. Modern philosophy, of which chemistry is but a fragment, draws its sustenance from the prime facts which were revealed in ancient Egypt through Hermetic thought, and fixed by the Hermetic stylus.
” The Hermetic allegories,” so various in interpretable susceptibility, led subsequent thinkers into speculations and experimentations, which have resulted profitably to the world. It is not strange that some of the followers of Hermes, especially the more mercurial and imaginative, should have evolved nebulous theories, no longer explainable, and involving recondite spiritual considerations. Know thou that the ultimate on psychochemical investigation is the proximate of the infinite. Accordingly, a class came to believe that a projection of natural mental faculties into an advanced state of consciousness called the ” wisdom faculty ” constitutes the final possibility of Alchemy. The attainment of this exalted condition is still believed practicable by many earnest savants. Once on this lofty plane, the individual would not be trammelled by material obstacles, but would abide in that spiritual placidity which is the exquisite realization of mortal perfection. So exalted, he would be in naked parallelism with Omniscience, and through his illuminated understanding, could feast his soul on those exalted pleasures which are only less than deific.
Notwithstanding the exploitings of a number of these philosophers, in which, by reason of our inability to comprehend, sense seemed lost in a passage of incohesive dreamery and resonancy of terminology, some of the purest spiritual researches the world has ever known, were made in the dawn of history. The much abused alchemical philosophers existed upon a plane, in some respects above the level of the science of to-day. Many of them lived for the good of the world only, in an atmosphere above the materialistic hordes that people the world, and toiling over their crucibles and alembics, died in their cells ” uttering no voice.” Take, for example, Firenaeus Philalethes, who, bore in 1623, lived contemporaneously with Robert Boyle. A fragment from his writings will illustrate the purpose which impelled the searcher for the true light of alchemy to record his discoveries in allegories, and we have no right to question the honesty of his utterances:
” The Searcher of all hearts knows that I write the truth; nor is there any cause to accuse me of envy. I write with an unterrified quill in an unheard of style, to the honor of God, to the profit of my neighbors, with contempt of the world and its riches, because Elias, the artist, is already born, and now glorious things are declared of the city of God. I dare affirm that I do possess more riches than the whole known world is worth, but I can not make use of it because of the snares of knaves. I disdain, loathe, and detest the idolizing of silver and gold, by which the pomps and vanities of the world are celebrated. Ah! Filthy evil! Ah! vain nothingness! Believe ye that I conceal the art out of envy? No, verily, I protest to you; I grieve from the very bottom of my soul that we ( alchemists ) are driven like vagabonds from the face of the Lord throughout the earth. But what need of many words? The thing that we have seen, taught, and made, which we have, possess, and know, that we do declare; being moved with compassion for the studious, and with indignation of gold, silver, and precious stones. Believe me, the time is at the door, I feel it in spirit, when we, adeptists, shall return from the four corners of the earth, nor shall we fear any snares that are laid against our lives, but we shall give thanks to the Lord our God. I would to God that every ingenious man in the whole earth understood this science; then it would be valued only for its wisdom, and virtue only would be had in honor.”
Of course there was a more worldly class, and a large contingent of mercenary impostors ( as science is always encumbered ), parasites, whose animus was shamefully unlike the purity of true esoteric psychologists. These men devoted their lives to experimentation for selfish advancement. They constructed alchemical outfits, and carried on a ceaseless inquiry into the nature of solvents, and studied their influences on earthly bodies, their ultimate object being the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the alkahest which Boerhaave asserts was never discovered. Their records were often a verbose melange, purposely so written, no doubt, to cover their tracks, and to make themselves conspicuous. Other Hermetic believers occupied a more elevated position, and connected the intellectual with the material, hoping to gain by their philosophy and science not only gold and silver, which were secondary considerations, but the highest literary achievement, the Magnum Opus. Others still sought to draw from Astrology and Magic the secrets that would lead them to their ambitious goal. Thus there were degrees of fineness in a fraternity, which the science of to-day must recognize and admit.
Boerhaave, the illustrious, respected Geber, of the alchemistic school, and none need feel compromised in admiring the talented alchemists who, like Geber, wrought in the twilight of morn for the coming world’s good. We are now enjoying a fragment of the ultimate results of their genius and industry in the materialistic outcomes of present-day chemistry, to be followed by others more valuable; and at last, when mankind is ripe in the wisdom faculty, by spiritual contentment in the complacent furtherings beyond. Allow me briefly to refer to a few men of the alchemistic type whose records may be considered with advantage.
Rhasis, a conspicuous alchemist, born in 850, first mentioned orpiment, borax, compounds of iron, copper, arsenic, and other similar substances. It is said, too, that he discovered the art of making brandy. About a century later, Alfarabe ( killed in 950 ), a great alchemist, astonished the King of Syria with his profound learning, and excited the admiration of the wise men of the Fast by his varied accomplishments. Later, Albertus Magnus ( born 1205 ), noted for his talent and skill, believed firmly in the doctrine of transmutation. His beloved pupil, Thomas Aquinas, gave us the word amalgam, and it still serves us. Contemporaneously with these lived Roger Bacon ( born 1214 ), who was a man of most extraordinary ability. There has never been a greater English intellect ( not excepting his illustrious namesake, Lord Bacon ), and his penetrating mind delved deeper into nature’s laws than that of any successor. He told us of facts concerning the sciences, that scientific men can not fully comprehend to-day; he told us of other things that lie beyond the science provings of to-day, that modern philosophers can not grasp. He was an enthusiastic believer in the Hermetic philosophy, and such were his erudition and advanced views, that his brother friars, through jealousy and superstition, had him thrown into prison- a common fate to men who in those days dared to think ahead of their age. Despite ( as some would say ) of his mighty reasoning power and splendid attainments, he believed the Philosopher’s Stone to be a reality; he believed the secret of indefinite prolongation of life abode in alchemy; that the future could be predicted by means of a mirror which he called Almuchese, and that by alchemy an adept could produce pure gold. He asserted that by means of Aristotle’s ” Secret of Secrets,” pure gold can be made; gold even purer and finer than what men now know as gold. In connection with other predictions he made an assertion that may with other seemingly unreasonable predictions be verified in time to come. He said: ” It is equally possible to construct cars which may be set in motion with marvelous rapidity, independently of horses or other animals.” He declared that the ancients had done this, and he believed the art might be revived.
Following came various enthusiasts, such as Raymond, the ephemeral ( died 1315 ), who flared like a meteor into his brief, brilliant career; Arnold de Villanova ( 1240 ), a celebrated adept, whose books were burned by the Inquisition on account of the heresy they taught; Nicholas Flamel, of France ( 1350 ), loved by the people for his charities, the wonder of his age ( our age will not admit the facts ) on account of the vast fortune he amassed without visible means or income, outside of alchemical lore; Johannes de Rupecissus, a man of such remarkable daring that he even ( 1357 ) reprimanded Pope Innocent VI., for which he was promptly imprisoned; Basil Valentine ( 1410 ) he author of many works, and the man who introduced antimony ( antimonaches ) into medicine; Isaac of Holland who, with his son, skillfully made artificial gems that could not be distinguished from the natural; Bernard Trevison ( born 1406 ), who spent $30,000 in the study of alchemy, out of much of which he was cheated by cruel alchemic pretenders, for even in that day there were plenty of rogues to counterfeit a good thing. Under stress of his strong alchemic convictions, Thomas Dalton placed his head on the block by order of the virtuous (?) and conservative Thomas Herbert, ‘squire to King Edward; Jacob Bohme ( born 1575 ), the sweet, pure spirit of Christian mysticism, ” The Voice of Heaven,” than whom none stood higher in true alchemy, was a Christian, alchemist, theosophist; Robert Boyle, a conspicuous alchemical philosopher, in 1662 published his ” Defense of the Doctrine touching the Spring and Weight of the Air,” and illustrated his arguments by a series of ingenious and beautiful experiments, that stand to-day so high in the estimation of scientific men, that his remarks are copied verbatim by our highest authorities, and his apparatus is the best yet devised for the purpose. Boyle’s ” Law ” was evolved and carefully defined fourteen years before Mariotte’s ” Discours de la Nature de l’Air ” appeared, which did not, however, prevent French and German scientific men from giving the credit to Mariotte, and they still follow the false teacher who boldly pirated not only Boyle’s ideas, but stole his apparatus.
Then appeared such men as Paracelsus ( born 1493 ), the celebrated physician, who taught that occultism ( esoteric philosophy ) was superior to experimental chemistry in enlightening us concerning the transmutation of baser metals into gold and silver; and Gueppo Francisco ( born 1627 ), who wrote a beautiful treatise on ” Elementary Spirits,” which was copied without credit by Compte de Gabalis. It seems incredible that the man ( Gueppo Francisco ), whose sweet spirit-thoughts are revivified and breathe anew in ” Undine ” and ” The Rape of the Lock,” should have been thrown into a prison to perish as a Hermetic follower; and this should teach us not to question the earnestness of those who left us as a legacy the beauty and truth so abundantly found in pure alchemy.
These and many others, cotemporaries, some conspicuous, and others whose names do not shine in written history, contributed incalculably to the grand aggregate of knowledge concerning the divine secret which enriched the world. Compare the benefits of Hermetic philosophy with the result of bloody wars ambitiously waged by self-exacting tyrants- tyrants whom history applauds as heroes, but whom we consider as butchers. Among the workers in alchemy are enumerated nobles, kings, and even popes. Pope John XXII was an alchemist, which accounts for his bull against impostors, promulgated in order that true students might not be discredited; and King Frederick of Naples sanctioned the art, and protected its devotees.
At last, Count Cagliostro, the chequered ” Joseph Balsamo ” ( born 1743 ), who combined alchemy, magic, astrology, sleight of hand, mesmerism, Free Masonry, and remarkable personal accomplishments, that altogether have never since been equalled, burst upon the world. Focusing the gaze of the church, kings, and the commons upon himself, in many respects the most audacious pretender that history records, he raised the Hermetic art to a dazzling height, and finally buried it in a blaze of splendor as he passed from existence beneath a mantle of shame. As a meteor streams into view from out the star mists of space, and in corruscating glory sinks into the sea, Cagliostro blazed into the sky of the eighteenth century, from the nebula of alchemistic speculation, and extinguished both himself and his science in the light of the rising sun of materialism. Cagliostro the visionary, the poet, the inspired, the erratic comet in the universe of intellect, perished in prison as a mountebank, and then the plodding chemist of to-day, with his tedious mechanical methods, and cold, unresponsive, materialistic dogmas, arose from the ashes, and sprang into prominence.
Read the story backward, and you shall see that in alchemy we behold the beginning of all the sciences of to-day; alchemy is the cradle that rocked them. Fostered with necromancy, astrology, occultism, and all the progeny of mystic dreamery, the infant sciences struggled for existence through the dark ages, in care of the once persecuted and now traducers alchemist. The-world owes a monument to-day more to Hermetic heroes, than to all other influences and instrumentalities, religion excepted, combined, for our present civilization is largely a legacy from the alchemist. Begin with Hermes Trismegistus, and close with Joseph Balsanto, and if you are inclined towards science, do not criticise too severely their verbal logorrhea, and their romanticism, for your science is treading backward; it will encroach upon their field again, and you may have to unsay your words of hasty censure. These men fulfilled their mission, and did it well. If they told more than men now think they knew, they also knew more than they told, and more than modern philosophy embraces. They could not live to see all the future they eagerly hoped for, but they started a future for mankind that will far exceed in sweetness and light the most entrancing visions of their most imaginative dreamers. They spoke of the existence of a ” red elixir;” and while they wrote, the barbarous world about them ran red with blood,-blood of the pure in heart, blood of the saints, blood of a Saviour; and their allegory and wisdom formulae were recorded in blood of their own sacrifices. They dreamed of a ” white elixir ” that is yet to bless mankind, and a brighter day for man, a period of peace, happiness, long life, contentment, good will and brotherly love, and in the name of this ” white elixir ” they directed the world towards a vision of divine light. Even pure gold, as they told the materialistic world who worship gold, was penetrated and whelmed by this subtle, superlatively refined spirit of matter. Is not the day of the allegorical ” white elixir ” nearly at hand? Would that it were!
I say to you now, brothers of the eighteenth century, as one speaking by authority to you, cease ( some of you ) to study this entrancing past, look to the future by grasping the present, cast aside ( some of you ) the alchemical lore of other days, give up your loved allegories; it is a duty, you must relinquish them. There is a richer field. Do not delay. Unlock this mystic door that stands hinged and ready, waiting the touch of men who can interpret the talisman; place before mankind the knowledge that lies behind its rivets. In the secret lodges that have preserved the wisdom of the days of Enoch and Elias of Egypt, who propagated the Egyptian Order, a branch of your ancient brotherhood, is to be found concealed much knowledge that should now be spread before the world, and added to the treasures of our circle of adepts. This cabalistic wisdom is not recorded in books nor in manuscript, but has been purposely preserved from the uninitiated, in the unreadable brains of unresponsive men. Those who are selected to act as carriers thereof, are, as a rule, like dumb water bearers, or the dead sheet of paper that mechanically preserves an inspiration derived from minds unseen: they serve a purpose as a child mechanically commits to memory a black verse to repeat to others, who in turn commit to repeat again- neither of them speaking understandingly. Search ye these hidden paths, for the day of mental liberation approaches, and publish to the world all that is locked within the doors of that antiquated organization. The world is nearly ripe for the wisdom faculty, and men are ready to unravel the golden threads that mystic wisdom has inwoven in her web of secret knowledge. Look for knowledge where I have indicated, and to gain it do not hesitate to swear allegiance to this sacred order, for so you must do to gain entrance to the brotherhood, and then you must act what men will call the traitor. You will, however, be doing a sacred duty, for the world will profit, humanity will be the gainer, ” Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man,” will be closer to mankind, and at last, when the sign appears, the ” white elixir ” will no longer be allegorical; it will become a reality. In the name of the Great Mystic Vase-Man, go thou into these lodges, learn of their secrets, and spread their treasures before those who can interpret them.
Here this letter ended. It was evident that the writer referred to a secret society into which I could probably enter; and taking the advice, I did not hesitate, but applied at once for membership. I determined, regardless of consequence, to follow the suggestion of the unknown writer, and by so doing, for I accepted their pledges, I invited my destiny.
My guest of the massive forehead paused for a moment, stroked his long, white beard, and then, after casting an inquiring glance on me, asked, ” Shall I read on?”
” Yes,” I replied, and The-Man-Who-Did-It, proceeded as follows
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