The Philosopher’s Stone:
A Study of the Quest for Perfection and Transmutation
in the works of Paracelsus Theophrastus of Germany
Jesse London Estrin
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements of the Major in Religion at Vassar College
Table of Contents:
2) Paracelsus as Man and Myth
3) First Aspect: The Elementary Realm
4) Second Aspect: The Sidereal Realm
5) Third Aspect: The Celestial Realm
I have become drawn to alchemy because of its capacity to fuel the imagination. Its narrative of transformation – turning base metals into gold – can be used to tell the underlying
story of many life processes. The alchemists believed that just as all metals – if left untouched
within the earth – naturally matured and developed into gold, so all natural processes were guided by a divine teleology. The growth of a tree from a seed, the birth and development of a child, or the generation of a pearl within an oyster all partake of the rich mystery of transmutation. For life itself is a mysterious movement towards perfection, towards progression and evolution. The alchemists saw this evolution as a divine drama, and the art of alchemy as a ritualized attempt to actively participate in this sacred process.
But the quest for perfection and transmutation is also an inquiry into human potential. This potential was understood to be no less than the innate human capacity to seek out, understand, and ultimately experience the Divine. Understanding this trend towards perfection operating within themselves, the alchemists attempted to facilitate the transformation of their souls into purified vessels capable of reflecting God‟s light. Alchemy was seen as an efficient tool, or method, for such a journey into the ineffable. This esoteric mysticism has begun to catch the attention of the modern public; the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is known to have spent the last 15 years of his life devoted to the study of alchemy. He saw in the cracked pages of
alchemical manuscripts a rich symbolism of the human psyche. He perceived in alchemy a universal language of symbols. In the metaphorical imagery and obscure paradoxes of the alchemical literature, Jung witnessed the primordial human struggle to understand ourselves and the world around us. For Jung believed that it was in the human, not nature, that the alchemical process brought to light that which was dark, purged that which was impure, and perfected that which was imperfect.
It is this dedication to the penetration of Nature‟s underlying secrets, and the passionate
urge towards human self-understanding that renders alchemy still relevant to us in the modern age. For alchemy, I believe, is still with us. From the poems of Chaucer and Shakespeare to the modern phenomenon of Harry Potter and Paulo Coelho, mainstream public audiences refuse to lose curiosity in the concept of transmutation. In a certain sense our entire modern civilization is founded on the dream of progression and transformation, in which our capacity to sculpt our own future is limited only by a loss of will or lack of imagination. I believe that our society‟s scientific ventures – from space exploration to natural resource extraction – are themselves
products of a cultural alchemy, that is, the quest for mastery and dominion over both the natural world and the unknown psychic void. It is because of this – the powerful presence of an
unconscious alchemical drive in modern culture – that I believe alchemy to be an important
phenomenon to study, and ultimately to understand.
I decided to write my thesis on Paracelsus in particular because he was a passionate, revolutionary, and controversial alchemist. I was also drawn to the fact that Paracelsus was first and foremost a physician. It appears that almost all of his inquires into Nature and her mysteries - whether through the study of alchemy, chemistry, astrology, or theology - were aimed towards the sole purpose of increasing his capability and efficacy as a doctor. He was as much a reformer
of medicine as he was an adept in alchemy, and he appeared as a startling figure on the horizon of the alchemical scene because of his admonitions to use alchemy to make medicines and not gold. But ultimately it was the strange blend of his pragmatics and speculation, his medicine and mysticism, that spoke to me. It is not frequent that the theoretical and the concrete merge with such harmony, and I was inspired to find a passionate philosopher who was equally devoted to a physical, worldly practice: in this case, healing.
Paracelsus represented for many the passionate desire for wisdom and understanding, the will towards discovery, and for this reason his name is closely associated with the emerging scientific attitude of the Renaissance man. His devotion to both practical sciences and imaginative spirituality reveals a desire to synthesize a holistic philosophy that unifies opposites and obliterates all distinctions between the sacred and the profane. His unconventional emphasis on discovering knowledge through experience foreshadows the modern scientific dictum, even as his poetic religiosity bespeaks of a rich and “active” imagination. Because of this he speaks to our intuitive impulses, our non-rational sensibilities, as much as to our intellect and reason. For Paracelsus was, in many ways, a paradox. But more than that, he became a symbol for something greater than himself. He became a symbol of the “Faustian man,” the experience-hungry
philosopher whose insatiable appetite for knowledge leads him further and further into the unknown.
This symbolism that is now irrevocably intertwined with the historical man Paracelsus is what defines him as a legendary figure. I believe it is for this reason that he continues to speak to us today, four centuries after his death. And it is for this reason that I turn to him now, worlds apart in time and space, in an attempt to shed light on the primordial human desire for perfection and transmutation.
Chapter One: Introduction
Born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, in the late fifteenth century, Paracelsus Theophrastus, otherwise known as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, grew to become a renowned and controversial physician. A true renaissance man and a prolific author, Paracelsus wrote hundreds of treatises on topics as diverse as medicine, chemistry, astrology, natural philosophy, alchemy, occultism and theology. Although recognized as a reformer of sixteenth-century medicine and an early contributor to modern scientific chemistry, it is Paracelsus the alchemist and hermetic philosopher with whom I am concerned for this paper. Much of the scholarship and historiography of Paracelsus, however, remains questionable despite its success in bringing to light this obscure renaissance luminary. Historians, both past and present, have often portrayed him more as a mythologized figure than as a historical personage. The subjective views of his earliest records, written by either his adversaries or his most intimate disciples, blur the line between the mythology and history of the man Paracelsus, and sets the precedent for inaccuracy in later scholarship. The result has been a shadowy and shape-shifting Paracelsus.
Paracelsus gained contradictory reputations for writing extensively on both “empirical” and “speculative” subjects. He was recognized by some as a scientific genius for his academic contribution in the fields of medicine and chemistry, and by others as an illumined sage whose
impact lay more in the sphere of philosophy and mysticism. More modern scholars tend to see to him as a superstitious and medieval man – although his contemporaries used the phrase “fatuous
quack” to describe him more than once – due to his tendency of blurring the fields of empirical
science and speculative philosophy. Such a fusion of disciplines, which in the renaissance mind were hardly separate, makes it more difficult for modern day historians to understand where, specifically, his most significant contributions lie. In the time of Paracelsus, for example, there was simply no distinction between what we would call astronomy and astrology, and likewise philosophy in its various forms could hardly be teased out of the study of medicine. In addition, the concept of “natural philosophy” no longer exists as it once did, subsuming many different
areas of knowledge, and thus any attempt to view his writings through the lens of modern academia, with its clearly differentiated and highly specific fields of knowledge, is bound to prove difficult. It was this blending of interests, which included what we might now call “hard”
and “soft” sciences, that served as one of the cornerstones of his contentious legacy.
One place where Paracelsus‟ spiritual insight and physical practicality converged was in his alchemy. As a systemized effort to transmute and ultimately “perfect” base metals into gold,
this Spagyric art – Paracelsus often used the term Spagyrist to refer to one who practiced alchemy– was certainly engaged with the mysteries of physical matter. At the same time, however, we know that the recipes and processes used to “cook” these metals were also
frequently used as allegorical codes for mystical experiences. By projecting spiritual and psychological dimensions onto the metals in his laboratory, Paracelsus believed he was simultaneously “perfecting” both the matter in his crucible and his very own soul. The nineteenth century chemist Marcellin Berthelot characterizes this binary alchemical operation as a “secret
affinity between Gnosis, which teaches the true meaning of philosophical and religious
1 It will be the theories… and chemistry, which seeks knowledge of properties hidden in nature.”goal of this paper to explore the dynamics of this “secret affinity,” and to uncover the ways in which Paracelsus‟ alchemy unites personal Gnosis and practical chemistry.
As interesting as Paracelsus‟ generalized philosophy of alchemy is, however, for this paper I am particularly interested in that alluring, enigmatic dream of every alchemist‟s, namely that of the Philosopher‟s Stone, and what role it played in Paracelsus‟ philosophy and practice. In looking to Paracelsus‟ conceptions of this Stone, and thus analyzing one specific interpretation of it, it is one of my hopes to extrapolate a clearer understanding of this Stone as a critical element in the age-old quest for perfection and transmutation. The Philosopher‟s Stone has long been a coveted object for the alchemists, and it was believed to possess the magical capacity to transmute base metals into gold, as well as bestow long-life, or even immortality, upon its possessor. The mythology of this magical Stone has permeated our Western culture, and even to this day its presence can be seen in fairy tales, children‟s books, and popular movies. This Philosophical Stone, or Lapis Mysterium, was revered as a sacred fulfillment of Nature‟s slow
evolutionary process of maturation, and as such was seen by the alchemists as the culmination or final stage of the Magnum Opus. It appears that few people – and sometimes not even the
alchemists themselves – seemed to know what exactly this Stone was, of what it was composed, and even less the processes for making it. This confusion is compounded by the obscure metaphorical language used by the alchemists. Gareth Roberts notes the confusing, and often times frustrating, nature of this idiom; “alchemy‟s characteristic mode of discourse is to express its truths in binary figures of language: paradox, enigma, equivocation and allegories which say
1 Marcellin Berthelot, Les Origines de L’alchemie (Paris, G. Steinheil, 1885), as quoted by Francoise Bonardel,
Alchemical Esotericism and the Hermeneutics of Culture, ed. Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman, Modern
Esoteric Spirituality (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992),
2 It is because of such preference for poetic descriptions of the one thing and mean another.”
Philosophical Stone that its true nature is often difficult to ascertain.
In terms of more literal renderings, many alchemists refer to it variously in their treatises as a powder, a tincture, a stone, a liquid, or even intangible spiritual potencies. The scholar of alchemy C.J.S. Thompson acknowledges that the so-called Philosopher‟s Stone was known by
many names, including “the Essence,” “the Stone of the Wise,” “the Magisterium,” “Magnum
3Opus,” “the Quintessence,” and “the Universal Essence”. One alchemist may declare the Stone
to be an impenetrable and immutable substance composed of the purest primordial matter, while
4another may exclaim that it is the “heart and spirit of Jesus Christ.” In addition, many authors
accuse other alchemists of misunderstanding its “true” nature, either out of ignorance or
purposeful deceit, and after even a brief survey of the contradictory treatises that compose the alchemical forum, it becomes apparent that the “school” of alchemy has little fixed structure or
organization. It also indicates that the attempt to understand what the Philosopher‟s Stone was,
let alone the alchemical processes for creating it, may be more complex than first imagined. My hope is to explore the alchemical treatises of Paracelsus Theophrastus in an attempt to understand, as clearly as possible, at least one alchemist‟s understanding of this mysterious and controversial Lapis Mysterium.
In one of his most famous works on medicine, entitled the Archidoxies of Theophrastus
Paracelsus, Paracelsus has a chapter named Concerning the Arcanum of the Philosopher’s Stone.
2 Gareth Roberts, The Mirror of Alchemy (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994), 92 3 Charles J.S. Thompson, The Lure and Romance of Alchemy (Detroit, Omnigraphics Inc., 1987), 69 4 Allison Coudert, Alchemy, The Philosopher’s Stone (Boulder, Shambhala Publications Inc., 1980), 96 - “ Fludd
drew a parallel between the stone and Christ; he believed both were in man: „Christ, that mot noble cornerstone, is in
us.‟ Morienus revealed this secret to his apt and eager pupil Khalid when he counseled him to seek the stone in himself, „for this thing is extracted from you.‟ Rosinus said in greater detail: „And as man is composed of the four elements, so also is the stone, and so it is [dug] out of man, and you are its ore, namely by working; and from you it is extracted.”
It is from this source, as well as two others, entitled The Manual or Treatise Concerning the
Medicinal Philosophic Stone and The Aurora of the Philosophers, that we may learn not only
whether he believed in the possibility of a genuine so-called Philosopher‟s Stone, but also to
what extent knowledge concerning its constitution and preparation is possible. It is, for sure, important before embarking on this investigation to realize that first and foremost, before all else in his long list of expertise, Paracelsus was a doctor. His ultimate goal was not to accumulate wealth but to master the art of healing, and therefore his Philosopher‟s Stone was understood to be primarily medicinal in nature. In discussing the role of the Philosopher‟s Stone as a tincture, or medicine, Paracelsus writes:
The dose is very small, but its effect is most powerful. By means thereof I have cured the
leprosy, venereal disease, dropsy, the falling sickness, colic, scab, and similar afflictions;
also lupus, cancer, noli-metangere, fistulas, and the whole race of internal diseases, more
surly than one could believe. For what can there be in the whole range of medicine
greater than such purgation of the body, by means whereof all superfluity is radically
removed from it and transmuted?…This, therefore, is the most excellent foundation of a 5 true physician, the regeneration of the nature, and the restoration of youth.
Paracelsus frequently refers to this Stone as a material substance to be imbibed, and in passages such as this he describes its beneficial effects as surely as he would any other of his numerous tinctures or remedies. Indeed, hearing Paracelsus boast about the Stone‟s miraculous cures, which succeed “more surely than one could believe,” it is easier to understand why Paracelsus speaks primarily of the Philosopher‟s Stone as a Universal Medicine, that is, in its function as an agent of healing. By somehow removing and transmuting the destructive diseases – the
“superfluity” – that cause imbalance within the human body, Paracelsus believed that this Stone held the secret to “the regeneration of nature and the restoration of youth.” Whether or not,
5 Paracelsus, The Tincture of the Philosophers, trans. & ed. E.A. Waite, The Hermetic Writings Vol. 1, 29-30