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Meissen Chymistry

Roald Hoffmann


A final comment on alchemy: In the 1968 translation of his remarkable book Forgerons et Alchemistes, Mircea Eliade traced the tripartite relationship between metallurgy, alchemy and religion. In conclusion, he writes:

We must not believe that the triumph of experimental science reduced to nought the dreams and ideals of the alchemist. On the contrary, the ideology of the new epoch, crystallized around the myth of infinite progress and boosted by the experimental sciences and the progress of industrialization which dominated and inspired the whole of the nineteenth century, takes up and carries forward—despite its radical secularization—the millennary [sic] dreams of the alchemist. It is in the specific dogma of the nineteenth century, according to which man’s true mission is to improve upon Nature and become her master, that we must look for the authentic continuation of the alchemist’s dream.

You can sense that Eliade will go on to disapprove, not of the alchemist’s dream, but of modern, industrial society's twisted reincarnation of that dream. Even as I worry about the hubris implicit in the ceaseless flaunting of our transformative power, I don't disdain our present state as much as Mircea Eliade. But I do think he is essentially right about chemistry: Modern chemists, screaming to high heaven that they have nothing to do with alchemy, have fulfilled the alchemist's dream—transmuting sickness into health and, with superb ingenuity, changing mud (the raw materials of organic synthesis) into gold (what pharmaceutical companies sell).

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