Development of Alchemy

©2018 Sara Ferro

A contrast and comparison of the views expressed by M. Plessner, “The Place of the Turba Philosophorum in the Development of Alchemy”, Isis, Vol. 45, No. 4 (1954), pp. 331-338, with those of M. Pereira, “Heavens on Earth. From the Tabula smaragdina to the Alchemical Fifth Essence”, Early Science and Medicine, Alchemy and Hermeticism (2000), pp. 131-144

The essay by Martin Plessner (1964) deals with the Turba Philosophorum accounted by him to be a composition of bespoken literal character and well planned structure pointing towards a defined aim, i.d. to intervowen alchemical matter with cosmological doctrines, in order, so Plessner, to inform the Islamic science with Greek alchemy by letting pouring in the commentary alchemical subjects diguised admists cosmological argumentations, a genre supposedly more germane to the Arabic tradition, where Greek philosophers and their cosmological wordings were presumably more germane; a report in form of a learned conversation among nine Pre-Socratics who deliver speeches on cosmological and alchemical topics, in the Julius Ruska’s translation (1931) – already translator of the Tabula smaragdina in 1926 -, that proves its Arabic origin, regards the treatise an attempt to full-fledgedly recognise alchemy as a natural philosophy discipline and, in the opinion of Plessner, wholly convinced of the unitary nature of the text, a claim he will reassert repeatedly, capable of conveying new evidences regarding the tradition of Presocratic philosophy, being the tractate not, as in Ruska’s view, a polemic attack against Greek alchemy, but rather, so Plessner, a momentous effort to inscribe it into the Arabic and Islamic scientific tradition, a thesis supported by the evidence that the unknown author is supposed to come from a melting-pot Egyptian city whose culture was familiar with Greek, Coptic and Arabic language. This is considered as consistent fact to explain why the author felt himself compelled in discussiong in such a fashion so that “the foundations of alchemy are made to appear in a cosmological guise” (Plessner, 1954, p.334), allowing himself for instance variations not only seemingly but true enough from both the doxographic tradition and the evidences of the genuine fragments – after Plessner, there are somehow slight deviations from the Presocratic thoughts – and even so they are still “conform to classical sources” (Plessner, 1954, p.334). Thus a very good attempt indeed to balance the argumentative structure of the speeches for bringing forwards a new vision of the world through tenets of alchemy founded by a peculiar interpretation of the Presocratics. Also Pereira (138) notices Presocratic (but Stoic also) motifs in the alchemical tradition, there exant because flowed into the Hermetic wordings, that in turn informs the alchemical reasoning. The cosmological discussion in the Turba develops, so Plessner, in a way that lead to introduce the thesis of an uniform nature of the world by means of a there conceived doctrine of the four elements – Pereira attunes with Plessner, recalling alchemy to be defined as science of the four elements. The reader of the Turba‘s speeches witnesses an expound starting with an undefinite nature (Anaximander), then the appearing in the argumentation of principles (Anaxagoras), then elements (with some of them mutually in foreground, i.g. by Empedocles and Archelaus), thereupon the appereance of non-corporeal things in the universe (Leucippus), then the questioning about the unity of the world (Ecphantus), later on the breaking with the Dualism and a monistic representation of the world, yet with all four elements only in man (Pythagoras) – to Plessner the latter more retrograde than in the Judaic or biblical outlook -, but after all four for both the Upper and Lower world, with a final “hero”, Xenophanes, who, stating the ubiquity of the four elments in the context of “a clearly monistic cosmology” (Plessner, 1954, p. 336), posing “the possibility of the alchemical transformation of substance” (idem) conducted by an Islamic Creator-Alchemist in an Unified World: herewith pledging for alchemy reaches a point where the formulated doctrine of Nature puzzling resembles the outlines of one of the most epitomic Hermetic text, the Tabula smaragdina, also if Pereira asserts an appendix writing of it, attribuited to Apollonius of Tyara as the book through that Hemes attained his distinguished role in the alchemical tradition.

Confrontations between Western philosopher and alchemy began, as references found in astrological translations illustrate, so Pereira, in the middle of the XIIth century, as philoposhy underwent a redifinition, where through the philosophical allure that surrounded Hermes the patron saint of alchemy and indeed extoled as “father of all science and arts” (Pereira, 2000, 132) , it was possible for alchemy to definitively be legitimated partakers at the philosophical discourse, a fact the alchemists felt as natural and due to them as well as cosmologists, a crowning completion that – hier the suggsted thesis by Pereira – possibly occurred mostly by way of translation of hermetic writings.

As Principe recalls (2011, 311), quoting Walter Pagel, Philosophia Naturalis encompassed “nature in her entirety, cosmology in its widest sense — that is a mixture of Science, Theology, and Metaphysics”.

Quintessence, although seldom realted to the stars referring to a celestial fifth element, suggests an association with heaven, as the sublunary quintessence of John of Rupescissa (Jevons, 1964, 142).

In the Hermeticism astrological, alchemical and magical literature writings more ancient than philosophico-theological literature as Plessner gives form and model to the latter reminds Plessner (1954, 46) recalling Festugière.

After Pereira (2000), it is in the late twelfth century differentation process of a Latin intellectual life pervasively dominated by a Christian perspective justified through Aristotelian logic and Platonic cosmology that alchemy became linked to astrology, with both regarded as parts of philosophia naturalis, a branch of philosopy as a system of knowledges becoming progressively complex. Amidst this reorentation of the philosophical outlook the alchemical attitude, insistently reclaimed rational itself, has beeen senses by coeval philosophers not outer to the philosophy of nature, but rather a liberating way out from Biblical cosmologies. The uniformity of alchemy and macrocosmic dynamics or (…) has been sensed by cosmologists of the time as a chance of renewal in the path of studying the natural universe and consequently as a potentiality of disclosure of further philosophical and spiritual understanding, this Pereira’s thesis enucleated on behalf of Wetherbee (1988, pp. 28-29), who highlights the “scientific originality” of alchemy versus “old-fashioned ideas” of the cosmologists. It was by means of Hermeticism and inside of it, since it encompassed, so the alchemists of XIIth century, cosmological and operative knowledge that happens the contact between alchemy and cosmology the fully recognition of alcemy as part of Philosophia. Moreover, relying on Cresciani (1976), Pereira notes the almost total absence of any alchemical quest within the Scholastic approach and traces a possible reason for this exclusion in the indissoluble bond between theoretical knowledges and practice as emblematic for alchemy, countrariwisely to the whole Latin understanding of the philosophical modus operandi of Greek ascendence – phenomenologically resulting in the strenght of the Aristotelian dualism -, an outright fact, yet not sufficient to conclusively bun alchemy outside the Latin philosophical tradition, . Resting on Gregory (1964), Pereira outlines how most cosmologists of twelfth century would have considered alchemy, for being as the celestial sphere related to the middle level of existence, pertinent and relevant to discover natural laws, subsequently arriving to quote alchemical text of Arabic origin, e.g. the Turba philosophorum, the Clavis Physicae, Hermes’ Septen Tractatus and eminently the Tabula smaragdina in the cases of the illustrious translators Hugo of Santalla and Hermann of Carinthia, the last making good use of it in supporting some statements of him regarding the position of the planets, an issue among the most debated as Pereira highlights referencing to the Charles Burnett (1982) edition of the De Essentiis, as well as Apollonius of Tyana reporting some Hermetic teachings that to a scruitiny reveal themselves to be perfectly attuned to the purpose of alchemy, that is as here Pereira states “to create a new balance out of the material and the spiritual components of all reality, producing material perfection by means of human activity” (2000, p. 134).

As Pereira claims in other studies too (1997), it is precisely the merging, in nearly all the alchemical texts of Arabic origin, of operational concerns with general pronouncements about attributes of the world, in the first istance related to its “creation and intrinsic dynamism” that conveys to the alchemical utterance is relevance to the natural philosophy. It seems Pereira (2000, 133) and Plessner (1964, 337) could combine their thesis in many occasions: if to Pereira in Arabic alchemical texts they have been some creationst and of intrinsic dynamism features soon labelled as hermetic, undoubtedly felt as natural philosophical, reading Plessner one understands how successfully two centuries (but to Ruska they could also be barely one) ago the alchemicy had been accepted within natural philosopy. So the alchemist’s claims, alchemy was the ancientest philosophical doctrine (Pereira, 2000, 134) has been stilled. Following Plessner they were also right, emerging alchemy out of further developments of the doctrine of the four elements and the doctrine of the principles, both with roots in the cosmological ruminations hence philosophical.

As mentioned above certain Hermetic motifs – par excellance someones included in the Asceplius and in the Tabula smaragdina – seems be extant, as Pereira points out following Festugière (1949-54), for the alchemists in the attempt to support their cosmological and empirical assertions and these seem in turn, yet in lesser extent, also to resemble Stoic patterns, e.g. the oneness of All, where spirit and matter are downgraded to mere moments of an unity of things generating multiplicity of things by virtue of an intrisic active quality, the general indistinctness between animate and inanimate beings, a certain cause-effect order as source of things – reveling the rational attitude the Hermeticism and alchemy have in common -, the non-hierarchy between heaven and earth and, above all the tie bonding “cosmic couples: low and high, good and evil, material and spiritual, small and large, male and female” (Pereira, 2000, 135) following Burnett (Dronque, 1988).

It is then suggested that it can have been indeed the affinity between Hermetic motifs of Arabic origin and Stoic topics both informing alchemy in the twelfth century that promoved a cultural transfer started by cosmologists content to be given some clues found in the alchemical wordings about the very essence of nature as anima mundi themselves kind of cosmological visions and conceptualizations that promoved in return a diversification in the develpoment of the cosmological thought from the Aristotelian stances, since these other elements conveyed by the ascendents of the alchemical tradition have been introduced to the core of the Latin natural philosophy. Pereira (2000, 135) seems to endors the cultural transfer between alchemy and cosmology through Hermeticism, as she pledges for the validity of the Tabula smaragdina in Plessner’ translation, as he opts for a “mutual possession” of Upper and Lower.

Distillation, stated as the core of alchemy in the Tabula smaragdina‘s and Hermetic Tractatus aureus‘s translations of the twelfth century and then in the works of the Franciscan alchemist John of Rupescissa at the middle of fourthteen century, as the very method to refine a in the thirthteenth century perfected form of wine alcohol, namely aqua ardens,to the point of obtaining the sought-after elixir, the philospher’s stone, the One thing, ultimate goal of all alchemist search, an incorruptible substance “first matter of every elementary being” (2000, 143), is expounded by Pereira, in first instance for being indicated by such important treatises as the alchemical epitome means, to have a key role in bringing the heaven to the earth. Thus because alchemists, in search of the root of all beings and alchemy, as science of the four elements, succeded, also thanks the use of a metaphorical figures e.g. the egg, in conceiving their vision about the structure of reality in a way capable of reconciling the dogmatic division between heaven and earth by means of concepts, as the one of the “middle term” between matter and spirit, that have their origins in the particular Stoic and Platonic tradition flow in the Hermetic wordings. A blatant accomplishment against Aristotelian dichotomy that alchemists anyway failed to discern, so busy they were seeking out the stone.

The tenth aphorism stresses the structural identity of the creation of the world with the alchemical opus (Pereira, 2000, 135). Distillation process and cosmogonic ones resemble themselves. Alchemy is the litmut test validating the hermetic claims (Pereira, 2000, 136).

Mutual interdependence of Heaven and Earth, magnified by a mutual interdependence of Cosmology and Alchemy under the aegis of Hermes. Pereira reinforces the Plessner about the Pre-Socratic insight in the Turba, “where the oneness of matter/nature appears to be organized by means of a macrocosmic distillation” (Pereira, 2000, 138). Macrocosmic dynamics unites cosmo and matter. Both scholars see Presocratics utterance behind the alchemical tradition.


Hussey, E., The Presocratics, London: Duckworth, 1983

Jevons, F. R., “Paracelsus Two-Way Astrology. I. What Paracelsus meant by ʻStarsʼ”, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1964, pp. 139-147

Plessner, M., “Hermes Trismegistus and the Arab Science”, Studia Islamica, No. 2, 1954, pp. 45-59

Principe, L. M., “Alchemy Restored”, Isis, Vol. 102, 2011, pp. 305-312