May 19, 2007
The Alchemist in me feels compelled to respond to the excellent documentary that aired on PBS the other week entitled Newton’s Dark Secret. The film profiled Sir Issac Newton’s fascination with the ancient art/science/craft of Alchemy.
Many of the experts interviewed regarded Newton’s Alchemical experiments to be shameful, perhaps reflecting more on our modern epistemic prejudices than on Newton. Contemporary experts seem threatened by the prospect than anybody in historical times understood things about the world that we don’t.
Beyond the shame of taking Alchemy seriously, they also considered Newton’s alchemy to be his greatest failure. Failure?!? During the period Newton was practicing alchemy he wrote the Principica Mathematica, and also catapulted his way into the power elite – he became knighted, was appointed the head of the Royal Society, and earned power, prestige and wealth beyond his wildest dreams. To this day one of the most respected chairs in physics still bears his name. From this perspective, his alchemical pursuits seem quite successful. Smashingly successful if you consider this blogs tagline “Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi” – Our gold is not ordinary gold.
The Alchemists understood metaphor, and it was essential to their theory and practice. Why do most modern thinkers insist upon interpreting the craft so literally?
My girlfriend shared a Bahá’í quote on a related subject.
“Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, The Fourth Principle
Or, to paraphrase, Religion without Science is superstition, Science without Religion is reductionism”
I have long believed that Alchemy is a framework which seeks to reconcile spiritual integrity with material wealth, or more broadly, science and religion.
Perhaps the ancients might have been on to something that modern science has truly forgotten. It is tough to challenge Newton’s genius – maybe his alchemical theories deserve a more respectful examination.