Which principles of alchemy are still worth preserving?


From a modern scientific perspective, which principles of alchemy are still be worth preserving?
I look forward to your feedback.

All the ones that became “chemistry”. Alchemy was mostly just rudimentary pre-scientific method chemistry with a whole bunch of astrology and philosophy tacked on in an attempt to figure out how or why things worked, and how to perform different tasks. People may find value in those other things, but as far as the practical aspects of doing predictable, useful things with the physical world is concerned, we’ve gotten along much better disregarding those pieces.

(E: Well, insofar as one can “disregard philosophy”)

I don’t believe that alchemy was lost. It was just discarded as the scientific method came in and made the stuff which didn’t prove out shunt off.

One of the key aspects of the scientific method, which isn’t properly taught in schools, is peer review. Alchemy persisted largely because people were quietly tinkering around in their basements for centuries, probably all mostly running the same chemical tests that hundreds of other alchemists had tried with no effect. Once paper started to become readily available, and then the printing press, and they could start sharing their results, suddenly they could share results and quickly strike out all of the nonsense.

Chemistry is the part of alchemy that was worth preserving. It is that which survived peer review and peer replication.

Also, nothing I said is to knock alchemy! It was legitimately the best we had, and we did make real discoveries with it. Some very well known mathematicians and physicists such as Newton were also alchemists. it’s just that later developments, and especially philosophical developments like the scientific method, re-contextualized the stuff that worked and we shed the need for the explanations once we gathered more understanding about the world around us.

Please generate a list of all of the principles of alchemy that there are, so we can make sure we don’t miss any. TIA.

Also, what Jragon said.

Wasn’t the philosopher’s stone the main goal of alchemy? I’m confident in saying that that can be dismissed.

I’m not sure any “principles of alchemy” were worth preserving. It was based upon a philosophy wholly unlike that of modern chemistry, suffused by a sort of spiritual background that saw a progression of values in substances from “base” ones to “noble” ones. It didn’t rely on observation and experimentation, with experience correcting past errors, but sought to shoehorn what was seen into a previously-conceived philosophical network. It’s kind of hard to find anything useful or relevant in that welter of misconceptions. You may as well ask what elements of the concept of Phlogiston are still useful in our modern conception of fire.

That isn’t to say that there was nothing to be retained in their experimental work or apparatus. After all, they did a lot of work with distillation, and those alchemical alembics and retorts were used in legitimate chemistry. The discovery of Phosphorus, the first chemical element found since ancient times, is ascribed to the work of alchemist Hennig Brand in 1669, who was working with “ignoble” urine from the human body in an effort to make it more “noble” and eventually create the Philosophers Stone*. Waxy Phosphorus was the result, but not because of any effort to isolate constituents of urine. It was a fortuitous mistake. And a pretty late one in the history of alchemy – by 1669 modern chemistry was getting started.

Earlier efforts in alchemy were viewed as tragically misguided or outright fraud. The Alchemist in Pieter Breughel the Elder’s woodcuts is a self-deceiver who ends up in the poorhouse. The Alchemist in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a fraud who deceives his sponsors with falsely created gold (actually cunningly introduced into the crucible) in order to get more money from them. With a reputation for fraud and self-deception, it’s not surprising that Chemistry tried to extricate itself from that background.

*Sorceror’s Stone, I gues, to J.K. Rowland’s American publishers

I would say that alchemy slowly evolved into chemistry. There was a lot of observational and experimental evidence which chemistry incorporated. Chemists gave up on transmutation of course and alchemy per se disappeared.

Contrast this with astrology. Of course, they made lots of useful observations that early astronomers incorporated, but astrology has persisted to this day, no matter how divorced from any reality it is. Some people still don’t get the difference though. When noted astronomer Jocelyn Bell gave a talk in Montreal some years ago, the local paper had a headline describing her as an astrologer.

Anyone have a list of said principles?

From Wikipedia.

I too think some context and narrowing down of the question is required, but just shooting from the hip, there are no principles of proto-science worth preserving that are unique to alchemy. Experimentation - not unique. Seeking new knowledge - not unique. Ordering of knowledge - not unique.

There are a lot of results and methods from alchemy that have been preserved, in that they informed early chemistry, but could those be called “principles”?

On the one hand I’m fascinated with the scientific interest in reconstructing Newton’s alchemical experiments. What useful results have been gleaned from those experiments I don’t know.
I’ve read that Paracelsus concocted many medicines. How effective they were I don’'t know

“In a treatise on syphilis containing the most comprehensive clinical description the period ever produced, we find that he was the first to perceive that the disease could only be contracted by contact. He was the discoverer of the mercury treatment for the disease, as well. The Germ theory was anticipated by him in his proposal that diseases were entities in themselves, rather than states of being. He gave birth to clinical diagnosis and the administration of highly specific medicines, rather than the traditional cure-all remedies of the time. He called for the humane treatment of the mentally ill (but was ignored for several centuries), seeing in them not creatures possessed by evil spirits, but ‘brothers’ ensnared in a treatable malady.”

What did not sit well with me was the claim that everything is reducible to sulfur, mercury and salt. What nagged me was the claim that 1. oil, 2. liquor and 3. alkaline salt produced from sulfur, mercury and salt respectively don’t decay. Surely they degrade. I’d like an answer on that one.

I think one of the most important “principles of alchemy” is still one of our most important today: that a combination of careful thought and controlled experimentation will lead in the right direction. In other words, the idea that truth is a discoverable property and not a perpetual mystery.

We may find it hard to wrap our brains around a time when “Why don’t I do an experiment to find out?” was a bold and iconoclastic thing to think.

Alchemy (and science) are special because of how their adherents react to failure and confusion. Being right is easy - you just be right and that’s that. What you do when you’re wrong, and how you proceed when you don’t know what to do, shows a lot about your philosophy and your goals. Alchemists certainly had some mistaken goals and assumptions; I think we should take that fact as a warning and a lesson. As some have kept a memento mori (remember you will die), a skull displayed as a reminder of where we’re all going, it might be good to keep beside it a “philosopher’s stone”, maybe fool’s gold with a Cracker Jack prize inside, as a memento fallere (remember you will get it wrong).
I think alchemy’s search for philosophical truth, and its idea that philosophical truth and physical truth would ultimately unite in a sort of singularity, may still drive a lot of what we do - but the impulse toward unity of all inquiry, along with the concept of one single person discovering the great singularity of [life, the universe, and everything], either has been postponed or has exploded and scattered in fragments around the world.

The fact that you can convert elements into each other?

Of course the only way (I know of) that you can do this is via nuclear reactions, which nobody knew about back then.

It’s true that there was a sudden blossoming of science at the time of Galileo, Descartes and Boyle, and a turn away from alchemy; but many of the ancient alchemists and natural philosophers were familiar with Scientific Method.

One of the greatest alchemists was the 8th-century Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, known in Latin as Geber.

I’m still curious about whether oil, alcohol and alkaline salt decay.Perhaps someone can answer that question fir me. I can’t help wondering about their connection to mummifucqrion. We’re products of sulfur, mercury and salt included in the mummification process?

“That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing” principles? Or alchemical processes principles? The former is probably still relevant to some religions. The latter is (badly envisioned) chemistry – I deal with Calcination and Distillation, amongst other operations, every day.

What do you mean by “decay”? Alcohols evaporate, denature, degrade. Oils undergo similar degradation processes – you might say that cooking oil “decays” as it goes rancid, but you’re not likely to describe the degradation of a motor oil in the same way. I don’t think I’d describe a salt as “decaying”.

You seem to be thinking of natron, which was used in the mummification process, and also a popular thing for alchemists to use. I wouldn’t say sodium carbonate “decays” – it’ll sure react (with acids), which was presumably helpful in mummifying corpses, but that’s just forming a different salt (and some water), not “decaying”.

Maybe the OP will return to let us know.

Thanks Lightray for putting that matter to rest. I couldn’t find any scientific rebuttal online for the spurious principle put forth by New Age alchemists/those espousing ‘operative alchemy’, that the products produced by sulfur, mercury and salt don’t decay. Thank you all.


All knowledge is based on theoretical underpinnings, a story about the world we have in our minds to make sense of it, and to guide our future investigations. This is, in fact, the meaning of the much-abused word “paradigm”, bugbear of a billion bad business seminars. Theories form the paradigm, hypothesis are generated from theories, experiments test the hypotheses, and the experimental results shape the theories and, therefore, the paradigm.

Alchemy’s paradigm is fatally flawed. Matter isn’t made of the Aristotelian Elements, so interpreting experimental results as per that paradigm will lead you astray. If you ditch that paradigm, and move to one where matter is formed of molecules, atoms, and, ultimately, particles, you’re not doing alchemy anymore.

Alchemy is that specific paradigm, chemistry is a fundamentally different one, and you can’t have both without either contradictions or “interpreting” one of them into something it’s not, like how some people “interpret” alchemy into something purely philosophical with no connection to physically mixing reagents at all.

Experimental results must be kept. The universe doesn’t care how we interpret things, so things which happened one way must always have happened that way, regardless of what we make of that event. Therefore, all science is built on experimental results generated by experiments performed to test the theories of the previous paradigm. But experimental results aren’t science, they don’t form a paradigm, and keeping a record of them doesn’t mean we have to keep accepting the previous paradigms which lead to them.

We have discovered that it’s possible to turn lead into gold, but the process is very costly and will only produce small amounts of gold.

Of course ISTM that the alchemists that tried to figure out the process may also not have realized that had they succeeded all they would have accomplished is lowering the value of gold.