I have long been fascinated by alchemy. In fact the alchemical transmutation formed the framework of the literary masterwork I planned in my teenage years. ( I had just read Ulysses and was taken by Joyce’s similar use of the Odyssey. ) Sadly laziness and a total lack of literary ability denied the world that treasure.
Rudolf Steiner also seems to have been fascinated by alchemy and whatever else you can say he was not lazy. You will find many references to alchemical modes of thinking in anthroposophical writings on subjects such as medicine and biodynamic agriculture. Even where the reference is not explicit it is possible to discern a general affinity between the mind of the alchemist and that of the anthroposophist.
It is worth looking more closely at what the alchemical tradition was about – there is rather more to it than the popular notion that is was simply a matter of getting rich by making gold. Today we are accustomed to separating science from other areas of human activity, and indeed separating science itself into numerous specialist fields. This is a comparatively recent development so we should not be surprised to find that alchemy contains elements of what we would now call philosophy, religion, chemistry, technology, biology, astronomy, astrology, magic and so on.
The history of alchemy is rather murky but it most likely took recognisable shape in Egypt under Greek rule in the first couple of centuries BCE. Traditional alchemists liked to claim that it reflected the wisdom of ancient Egypt going back thousands of years. One of alchemy’s central figures is Hermes Trismegistus ( “Thrice Great” ) who was said to have created the collection of alchemical texts known as the Corpus Hermeticus back in ancient times. Despite the fact that as long ago as 1614 Isaac Casaubon showed that they in fact dated from the early centuries CE this claim is still made today by some new age writers. Other writers such as Zosimus also date from this period whilst one of the key texts of European alchemy, the Tabula Smaragdina ( the Emerald Tablet ), although claiming to be written by Hermes Trismegistus was in fact written in Arabic around the seventh or eighth century CE.
Although interest in alchemy survived in medieval Europe it was really during the Renaissance that it flourished with the revival of classical and Arabic literature. Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin so making it widely available alongside translations of Plato and Aristotle. Other names from this period include Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus ( particularly interested in medicine ), Giordano Bruno, and John Dee in England. These were people who were trying to understand, and hence perhaps to control, the world in which they lived. This attempt took in philosophy and what we would see as early science but also what most of us would now regard as superstition and magic.
It is easy to look back and forget that these were the most learned men of their day. Dee for example was an advisor to Elizabeth 1st, a mathematician, an early advocate of imperial expansion and a devisor of maps and navigational techniques in support of this goal. He was also in later life a conjuror of angels and the dupe of his assistant Kelly who appears to have been the archetypal alchemist as con-man. We tend to think that this sort of thinking was displaced by the emergence of modern science with its emphasis on experiment and measurement as opposed to tradition and ancient authority. Men like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton exemplify this new approach – but both devoted a lot of their efforts to alchemical studies. In fact Newton probably regarded these as more important than the work for which he is now remembered. His estate clearly disagreed and the work remained obscure until 1936.
So what has this to do with anthroposophy? One of the principal doctrines of alchemy is “as above, so below” which comes from the Tabula Smaragdina but crops up widely. This implies a correspondence between the individual and the universe, the human and the divine, the physical and the spiritual. It is part of a mental framework which sees the universe as occupied by beings and forces which act upon many levels. So actions on one level can have effect upon another level. In particular the actions of the alchemist upon the physical level can, if undertaken correctly, channel forces from some spiritual level to produce results which cannot be accounted for purely in terms of physical agency. For the renaissance alchemists this might indeed be the transmutation of lead into gold. For their anthroposophist descendents the burying of a cow horn full of manure over winter then applying the result in a homeopathic dilution is said to direct cosmic forces into the soil.
But alchemy was not just about physical transmutation. For many the real aim was the transmutation of the base metal of humanity into the gold of the divine. Ie the aim was to change the alchemist, the lead to gold was symbolic and the manipulation of the physical was but a means to channel these cosmic powers. This human transmutation was intended to allow the practitioner to acquire direct insight into the mysteries – ie exactly the sort of higher knowledge which Steiner claimed.
You can get an idea of Steiner’s thoughts on alchemy from “Alchemy: The Evolution of the Mysteries” which is a collection of his writing on the subject published by the Rudolf Steiner Press. The broad theme is that anthroposophy is a continuation of the same tradition of which alchemy is a part . In it you will find the same parallels drawn between chemical processes and supposed ‘spiritual’ process with which they are mystically associated. Eg the alchemical triad of sulphur, mercury and salt embodies our ability to balance the forces of involvement ( sulphur ) and definition ( salt ) through the balancing force of mercury ( experienced as true ego ). I trust that is clear?
Perhaps another example will help. Oxalic acid and glycerol react to form formic acid and carbon dioxide. This can be done in a test tube. A similar reaction occurs in the human body. The human body is living, the test tube is not. The obvious conclusion for Steiner is that if the human being did not convert oxalic acid to formic acid “his astral body would have no basis in his organism”. This is because we need the “inner activity” going on in the oxalic and formic acid “processes” for our etheric and astral bodies respectively. He goes on to say that this is something present day physiologists have yet to discover. No kidding!
There is another parallel between alchemy and anthroposophy which Steiner fans would be less willing to admit. Despite its pretence of practical activity and experiment alchemy was essentially backward looking and founded on the appeal to ancient authority ( mostly fraudulent ). If the practical work failed to deliver the goods it was because the practitioner did not approach it with the correct spiritual attitude. Maybe Steiner was genuine in advising his followers to test his ‘insights’ but if so they show no sign of taking his advice. His words are treated like holy script, subject to endless commentary and elaboration but no serious criticism. If your experience does not confirm his clairvoyant wisdom then your experience is wrong.
Earlier I said that the old alchemists were attempting to understand and control the world. Gradually they made progress by developing what worked and provided real knowledge, the science, and shedding what did not, the magic and mysticism. Here the parallel with anthroposophy breaks down. Anthroposophy offers no real knowledge or progress, just a backward looking and authoritarian anti-science.
PS: if you like that sort of thing I can recommend an article on silica in biodynamics. http://dennisklocek.com/articles/silica-substance-and-process Its really quite hilarious. The site calls itself New Alchemy and promises hours of fun.
If you want a very readable introduction to the historical tradition of alchemy try the works of Frances A Yates, especially “Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition”.