Alchemy is perhaps the West’s most developed mode of writing about transformation and change. Historically, alchemists have worked in chemistry, medicine, spirituality, agriculture and politics, without necessarily respecting any formal divisions between these subjects. Alchemical thought was central to the writings of C. G. Jung and underlies his later development of depth psychology (Marshall, 2002). This essay explores the relationship and difference between alchemy and those strands of esoteric philosophy known as “hermeticism,” with the aim of discovering the insights these philosophies may have for our political and ecological life.
Faced, as we are, with a series of ecological crises, there may be an easy temptation for Jungians and others to argue that science has failed, and that we should turn to alchemy or hermeticism to address our growing problems. This is similar to what I shall argue here. However, with examination, difficulties arise in the philosophy of hermeticism, and I shall attempt to make the difficulties and virtues clearer by discussing a very useful book by Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford and Kevin Townley called Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology (Wilson, Bamford, and Townley, 2007).
Despite their apparent connections, alchemy and hermeticism express very different trends, and these trends need to be made distinct. While alchemy directs attention to the world in all its messy splendour, hermeticism can promote an elitism that demands the world be a particular way, separating the practitioner from perceived reality. It seems likely that such a hermetic attitude would exaggerate the conceptual problems we already have.
While critical of hermeticism and some, perhaps unintended, trends of Wilson, Bamford, and Townley’s book (2007), this essay will go on to argue that the authors’ insight that alchemy can lead us to challenging new and useful approaches to politics is valuable.
Alchemy and Hermeticism
The surviving hermetic texts attributed to “Hermes” (usually identified with the Egyptian god Thoth), were probably written sometime in the second century AD, or later, in Alexandria, a place where Greco-Roman and Egyptian cultures intersected (Copenhaver, 1995). With the fall of Rome, these texts were lost to the West until the mid-fifteenth century when they were brought from Byzantium to Florence. Famously, Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), the Doge of Venice, commanded the Platonic scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) to translate these texts into Latin, before finishing his translation of the works of Plato, as the Hermetica supposedly described ancient Egyptian wisdom and were the original font of all knowledge. Scholars still dispute the issue of how much ancient Egyptian philosophy the texts contain, but the general consensus is probably not that much (Yates, 1964; Fowden, 1986; Copenhaver, 1995). Despite differences between the hermetic books, Roelof van den Broek—a scholar of Hermetic, Gnostic and early Christian thought—argues (2006, p.559) that they all suggest an “indissoluble interrelationship between God, cosmos and man,” and that “all things have their unity in God.” The hermetic texts are primarily contemplative, occasionally suggesting spiritual activity or “magical” operations.
From its beginnings, alchemy tends to be more inclined to observation of the world and practical manipulation of materials than is hermeticism, although the language of that manipulation is often wildly symbolic and obscure. Some of the earliest alchemical illustrations clearly show chemical equipment (Marshall, 2002). The supposed connection between alchemy and hermeticism comes about because Hermes was considered to be proficient in all the occult arts, including alchemy, with a very few alchemical texts and fragments being attributed to Hermes—most notably the very short Emerald Tablet (Marshall, nd). However, while the two streams of thought and action may intersect in places, they are largely separate: hermeticism tends towards isolation and contemplation, and alchemy to action. Thus in the mid-seventeenth century in Great Britain (the period I am most familiar with), hermeticism tended to be the meditative philosophy of an elite who favoured withdrawal from the world and focused on the unchanging eternalities of being, whereas alchemists often aimed at providing affordable medicines or uncovering practical secrets of general benefit. The alchemists of the period tended to be entangled in radical politics and socio-technical reform (Debus, 1965; Webster, 1975). Hermeticism tends to focus on divine order, while alchemy acknowledges both the order and chaos present in the world.
Neither alchemy nor hermeticism are complete and unified entities; alchemists constantly made innovations and new interpretations (Marshall 1995). Indeed, it is probably impossible not to innovate given the obscure nature of alchemical texts, and the necessity of constantly reinterpreting the symbols as one progresses in the work. Both alchemy and hermeticism change, differentiate, and separate with time and situation, as does nature itself, consequently they both have developed many different strands.
The authors of Green Hermeticism, Wilson, Bamford, and Townley (2007) recognise that there is more than one strand of hermeticism, but in practice, they blend all hermeticism and alchemy into one. If the two significantly differ, then this may well lessen the impact of the more useful strands. The authors also ignore any problems around hermeticism as a philosophy of nature by sanctifying it as an alternative to science. However, these problems are fundamental. Many hermetic texts express an attitude in which the body is either a prison, a distraction, or something to be transcended. Even the texts, which are sympathetic to the existence of bodies, place the true reality of human existence outside of the body and outside of nature. Although the authors argue they are not within this stream of hostility to bodies but within a Renaissance version of “defense of the earth,” (Wilson et al., 2007, p. 51) they can, for example, assume that nature is inherently “sick” or fallen (not just that we currently are poisoning or damaging nature, but that it “contains in it a principle hostile to it,”) and that this sickness can be diagnosed and cured by the human possessing traditionalist spiritual insight (pp. 45-6). Such an attitude seems to express the same arrogance that the authors accuse scientists of possessing. It implies that the hermeticists alone know what is best for the natural world. They know what absolute order should be, even if they do not observe it in the world, and they then can hold that the real cosmos should conform to this ideal of order, which is said to be divine.
This view tends to put the spiritual human at the centre of the world as peak of creation: “The human being is central… creation is creation in human nature” (Wilson et al., 2007, p. 131). Thus, human imagination and spiritual knowing is truth or a representation of truth. If you think you understand a creature, then you do. There is no sense of fallibility of vision here at all; fallibility is always elsewhere, say, in science. The spiritual-imaginal becomes the really real, while nature itself becomes a shadow of this vision; and it had better conform to those visions. Without the possibility of recognising that our insights, no matter how compelling they may be, could be wrong, we cannot relate to the world or the unconscious; we only relate to our limited ego, and condemn what we dismiss.
This rendering of concrete reality secondary to a view of tradition and soul seems to naturally flow into ideas that supposedly unspiritual nature must be escaped. Matter “is a sickness of nature,” elements can be “contaminated” by matter, physical bodies must be abandoned, the alchemist aims at creating “glorious immaterial light bodies” (Wilson et al., 2007, p. 155-6ff), darkness is falsity rather than part of a natural cycle and so on. The move to what is called “spirit” can demand that we transcend both nature and our normal ways of interacting and perceiving each other, as these seem to involve space, time, matter, motion, memory, desire, pain, plurality and so on, which are supposedly not present to God. The idea becomes to perceive as we imagine God to perceive. “Things the eye cannot see are the realities” (p. 40); the mess of reality is to be ignored or tidied out of sight. This spiritual adeptship leaves little room for the humility of Paracelsus (1493-1541) and other alchemists’ suggestion that we could learn from the knowledge of the disorderly “common folk” who live within reality’s mess (p. 174-5; cf. Debus, 1965). As a result, hermeticism can keep us within a closed academy of magi, and potentially leads to attempts at dominating nature and people, through its spiritual ideals.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1966) suggested that cultivating the supposed objectivity of science can act as a defence mechanism against a sense of chaos present in nature. However, the call of spirit can also help repress recognition of chaotic aspects of the world. If we must always transcend, or suppress, our unruly emotional self or our bodies, can we honour the apparent disorder of nature, or of life itself? Ordered perfectionism, may have no way of relating to chaos, “impurity,” multiplicity and conflict, other than to repress it, or dismiss it as unimportant, unnecessary, illusory or evil. Potentially this spiritual order could generate massive alienation from the world, and a sense of human superiority (indeed the superiority might be a way of compensating for the alienation). That a “green” science or philosophy, or any new constructive harmonious relation to nature, could arise out of such a potentially contemptuous attitude, seems improbable. This does not mean that “soul” has to be ignored. Alchemists thought their spiritual condition was important for the work, and the alchemist known as Ramon Lull (not the theologian) thought of matter as condensed spirit, which is a very different kind of perspective to saying matter is sick or contaminating.
If the world resembles divine imagining, and thus calls out to our own imagining, then why do we have to demand almost the same order and regularity in that world as we would using “scientific reason”? Can we not accept that things may appear disordered to us, and that this is not something to be suppressed by our imagined order, but engaged with? There is no reason why nature cannot be stranger than we imagine, rather than something which simply mirrors us. Alchemy, rather than hermeticism, accepts disorder, incomprehension and order as natural, and as part of needed and ongoing processes.
Jung seized upon alchemy because it presented an analogy to the way unconscious and conscious processes interact. The order of the ego, when insisted upon too much, is subject to disruption by the (dis)orders of the world and the unconscious, and this can appear chaotic and threatening to us, even when it is part of a natural process of healing. Alchemy teaches that disruption, decay, maiming, darkness, “matter,” and disorder are as much a part of our lives, cosmos and nature, as are growth, healing, harmony and unification. Disorder has its place, and its dynamics, and cannot be entirely left behind. We cannot be conscious of everything that matters; we always are only partially conscious and at least partially deluded. Alchemy, more than hermeticism, recognises this murk, and is therefore more expressive of the complex and confusing processes of both our psychologies, and of the world and its ecologies.
This is important, because the lessons of ecological theory match quite easily with a non-hermetic alchemy. First, humans are not the centre of the cosmos, we are not the centre of nature, we are not the peak of creation; we are a changing part of creation, dependent upon, and emerging from, that creation like any other creature. Creation is not just centred on us, our will, our imagining, our ‘spirit’, or our sense of order. Neither is any “world soul” focused on us or our particular culture. This is not to say we are insignificant to world processes. Second, we cannot control or order nature completely. The world (including ourselves) is in constant unstable flux. It forms a complex interactive system, subject to accidents. Our interactions with it routinely produce unexpected and unintended results. Third, we cannot transcend the world. Without the rest of the natural world or cosmos, we cannot survive. We have grown out of the world and remain within it. Our fate is entangled with the disorderly fate of the world and, in the wider sense, with the fate of the solar system and so on. We cannot leave nature behind.
While some more hermetically-inclined alchemists wrote of the possibility of humans redeeming nature, they seemed to mean the gradual, experimental working with nature to bring out its inherent perfections. They did not mean imposing human specifications on the world or aiming for human separation and transcendence. Instead of projects of transcendence, alchemists made preparations to allow nature to appear to us, put questions to it, and then listened to the answers, whatever those answers were. Alchemically, we act to help nature follow its own pathways. This approach would seem to require humility and an ability to respond; it does not require us to demand that nature be a particular way, or claim that our imaginations or reasons automatically portray nature correctly or intuitively. Imagination, or reason, may do this; more likely, it may not. Truth is not easy and is always provisional. This is the nature of symbols, and we cannot work without them.
As Jung further suggests, symbols may have their own dynamics beyond our intention. We may learn from those dynamics, and from engaging with images that spontaneously arise from wherever it is that they originate, or they may carry us along. Our images, our feelings, intuitions, panics, reasons and so on, are part of the wider process, and we learn by paying attention to them; but they are part of that process, they are not the end of the process. Failure is also part of the process, and discovering whether our image of the world is moderately accurate, or useful, requires constant and caring interaction. We wait for answers in hope, we try proposals, we see if they appear to work and abandon them if they do not. Certainty is dangerous and we do not assume that truth and order is already completely within us. Knowledge, in so far as we attain it, comes from repeated interaction with othernesses, and recognising failure is vital to learning.
The alchemical movement is endlessly cyclic: ascension and descension, imagination and objectivity, dissolution and coagulation, moving towards and drawing away from. These contrary movements aim at correcting a one-sided perspective, even when that one-sidedness is not intended. This is the move Jung learned; of listening to many apparently contradictory voices, of not denying the apparent darkness, or fleeing to the light, but facing that darkness and chaos, hearing it as best we can, and withdrawing our projections. Relating to the natural world is an ongoing process, it is messy and it is not solved by one type of insight alone.
Non-hermetic alchemy accepts that nature is both a plurality and a unity; neither point of view subsumes the other and renders it invalid or secondary. There is no “one” in control. We have our place “alongside with” as well as in potential “unity with.” As Plato is quoted as saying in Green Hermeticism, the humans of old believed that “All things that are ever said to be consist of a one and a many, and have in their nature a conjunction of limit and unlimited” (Wilson et al., 2007, p. 114). Just as a drop of water is not the ocean, but the ocean could be thought of as drops of water, so we humans are a part of nature, but not the whole of nature.
Granted plurality and unity, then we don’t have to value one state of consciousness over all others. We can assume that different states have different uses, and different purposes, but that they all need to work together. The same is probably true of our senses, as the authors imply in a quotation from the late 18th century Romantic philosopher Novalis (1772-1801): “Not one of the senses must slumber, and even if all are not equally awake, all must be stimulated and not repressed and neglected” (p. 20). It is through this continual correlation of the senses and our processes, that we deal with the failures of our awareness to sense the world in its disorderly completeness.
As the authors of Green Hermeticism suggest, alchemy usually accepts that the cosmos is alive – “mining and metallurgy were thus originally a kind of agricultural obstetrics” (Wilson et al., 2007, p. 35) – and that we can have a responsible relationship with that cosmos. This also implies the acceptance of change, growth and apparent disorder as life takes its generally unpredictable course. The idea of alchemy is not to dominate nature but to engage with it, to aid it, to follow or imitate “nature in her mode of operation” (p. 41) so the alchemist “participate[s] in the world process” (p. 44). In Paracelsian terms, we learn to listen to and “‘overhear’ nature’s workings (Pagel, 1982, p. 51). Hence, we must learn to be present in nature and not reduce it entirely to our orders. This is why alchemy is not “magic”; it is not about domination or making things happen in accord with a localised will at whatever cost, but a surrender to the wisdom of the system while still moving ahead. Another metaphor we might use is that we tack our sails to sail into the wind; we don’t try and change the wind. The possible does not depend upon an act of power but, as it were, of grace; a gift, wherever that gift comes from.
Another difference between alchemy and hermeticism is that alchemy also suggests that psychological or spiritual work by itself is not enough. If anything, it suggests that we must try and work on the physical, psychological and spiritual planes simultaneously, so that any ignorances between these levels are diminished; otherwise, if our work remains simply spiritual then it will remain unconnected to reality, ignore the effects it generates, and possibly become disruptive or even hostile to, and demeaning of, a world that disrupts its ideal visions. To remain connected, we need to test out our development and understanding by observing our effects on the world. We need to work with our disorder (spiritual, emotional and otherwise) without cutting it off.
However, alchemy does suggest that the alchemist must be changed as they engage in altering materials, and interacting with the world. They must wait, and pay attention to the things that are discarded by the world. If we faced up to rubbish, mess and decomposition and turned this detritus into something valuable rather than hidden, then we would start to become alchemists. Perhaps in slightly Heideggerean terms we can say that the alchemist waits for a clearing to emerge: for a symbol to emerge, which encapsulates and includes both the dynamics of ‘matter’ and the dynamics of the psyche, the Self, all at the same time. The alchemical symbol (in motion) is in this sense a bridge, which may then be suggestive to others, but is not programmatic; it is not a technical instruction alone. We realise that the symbol conceals as it reveals. This movement recognises that we do not know in advance what will be valuable. To make gold we must give up the desire to make gold; we surrender our ultimate desire, in order to allow something precious to occur.
This suggests that rushing towards a goal is not always the way to success and this realisation might lead us to a contemplative politics. Again, we accept that we do not know what the transformed ego or organization will look like in advance; so we do not force it, but encourage new growth and change. Rushing implies that we have a limited view, a fixed solution that we cannot be bothered to test or explore. Rushing removes events from consideration, so that some aspects of the situation and ourselves remain unconscious. As an example of fatally rushed politics, we might instance the Bush Administration’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. They seem to have seen the question as “Why do they hate us?” and the answer as “Let’s bomb them into loving us, or fearing us.”
The contemplative response would involve pausing to see the world as complex interactive system, with the high possibility of unexpected results, and then moving on to observe the results of our actions, and the paradoxes they create. It would mean moving beyond binaries, and being able to see the world as more than just those who support us and those who hate us. It would mean wondering whether our projections and fantasies are truths. Pausing long enough to recognize our ignorance might lead us to look for more than just human perspectives, and more than just repressing one side of a paradox. For example, if everyone travels to a food co-op by car, this may produce new levels of pollution, and building solar panels may consume large amounts of energy; but what is the considered and experiential response to these problems? We cannot talk usefully about nature without being sure that we are in nature and being mindful of that complexity and its apparent contradictions.
One of our current problems is that many people tend to characterise political endeavour in terms of freedom, dominance and independence when we are interdependent: not only with other humans upon whom we depend for food, shelter, goods, politics, power money and so on, but with “nature” which we depend upon for air, water, food and so on. We may now also depend upon human activity for our air, water, food as well, just as current-nature depends on humans. This, to me, is a practical example of what it means to see ourselves as spilling into the world, or the world as ensouled, or as soul not being only internal to us. Humans are not self-sufficient and never can be; there is always an interdependence with the World, with the unconscious (which is collective), and with others. If we wish liberty to be absolute, and to mean separation from all limitations, then this World and nature can be seen as threatening to our freedom. By this kind of psycho-logic, we could conclude that we destroying the world makes us truly free; and then we would die.
The world is not our wish fulfilment, or an unchanging spiritual vision, even if the world is part of us, because it has its own complex interconnectedness and dynamics which are beyond us. However, unless we are capable of listening to and interacting with our own unconscious and our own bodies, it is doubtful as to whether we can listen to the wider world. But perhaps the two movements go together. If we suppress our flesh or feelings, and refuse to listen to them, then we will more readily suppress the world. If we attempt to listen to the wider world, we could be more likely to hear the Self speaking.
At that moment, communication with nature has the potential to move to a mutual co-creation as nature can no longer be taken as just an object responding to our action. That our conceptions are always symbolic, and thus change the ways that we can relate to nature and what we see of as natural, does not affect this. Symbols also can come from nature and participate within the movement of nature. We think with the world, with “sensory analogues” which lead to the world, provided those images are not rendered purely abstract. In this bi-directional communication, nature is a participant with us, and us with it. We can both come into the presence of each other. There is relationship, not domination.
One of the Green Hermeticism authors rightly, I think, points out that science is corrupted by its enforced organizational ties to capitalism, the State and the military. As a result, it actually struggles to be objective in the way that it claims that it is (Wilson et al., 2007). This warning needs to be taken to heart. It is not just science that can be bent by fitting in with power and position, the same can happen to spiritual and psychological traditions as well. Similar arguments have been made about the transformations of Christianity as it became affiliated with State politics. When a tradition gains power, it may even attempt to stop others from speaking. If this is so, then relying on the wisdom of spiritual or psychological adepts is dangerous, especially when those adepts display a nostalgia for priestly wisdoms and hierarchies, as frequently happens in this book. Green Hermeticism risks becoming another doctrinaire and established church, which dismisses input from outside.
Alchemy’s drives are different, as the authors of Green Hermeticism point out in passing. Alchemy guards against sterile orthodoxy because it is an “experimental religion” (Wilson et al., 2007, p. 41), and importantly an experimental science. “Each alchemical text is singular and unique to its author’s experience” (p. 143). Alchemy is “not interested in concepts, but experience. It is not a metaphysic or a philosophy but a way of being” (p. 135). This, however, is also alchemy’s weakness: it cannot guarantee an accurate or orderly transmission. That is why there are historically so few organizations of alchemists. Attempts to guarantee transmission can lead to sterile traditionalism, with metaphors fossilising into literal truths that seemingly must be accepted. Alchemy’s paradox is that if it continues, then it diverges and faces collapse, while if it stays the same and is taught within organizations then it dies. If it ever becomes the dominant paradigm, then it undermines itself, and less subtle and less experimental ways take over. To work, alchemy must always be somewhat disreputable and uninstitutionalised.
Therefore, green alchemy, if it is to be a part of the way ahead, should probably accept a minor position as an opening, rather than risk foreclosing itself in a ‘tradition’ where everything is already known by an elite engaged in spiritualising their distance from the world. But then, in nature, it is often the small and apparently insignificant, which proves truly important and truly necessary for life.
An alchemical politics is a politics of patience, but not of waiting aimlessly. It is a politics of participation, of allowing symbols to rise, of working with both symbols and observations, of treating dreams as messages, of listening, of acting, of interacting, of testing and retesting. It accepts that life is disorderly, and that order is limited, temporary, and debateable. It is a politics of modesty, an unheroic politics, which recognises our aims may not be realisable as we currently conceive them, but that we may learn as we go. It acts, while aware that acting will have repercussions that come from our inevitable lack of understanding. When repercussions come, then it recognises them and does not think it weak to change course when confronted with failure.
In all, an alchemical politics would accept that we are part of nature and that nature is part of us. It would accept that we are psychological, spiritual and material, and that we don’t know where the boundaries are. It would accept that we are both conscious and unconscious, individuals and interlinked. It accepts that life is full of unknowns, paradox and disorder, and that there are always current limits. It moves gently, no faster than required, with sensitivity to the materials it is working on. It is open to failure and the possibility of beginning yet again, in a new direction. It has no vision, or purity, to which it sacrifices others. It is a politics of endless adaptation to the world and to ourselves. It is a politics of experiment.
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Dr. Jonathan Paul Marshall is an anthropologist and Senior Research Associate at the University of Technology Sydney, currently researching the politics of coal use and the transition to renewables. Previously he has worked on questions around online social life, and the relationship of alchemy to the history of science. He is the author and editor of a number of books includingJung, Alchemy and History; Depth Psychology Disorder and Climate Change;Environmental Change and the World’s Futures: Ecologies, ontologies and mythologies; Disorder and the Disinformation Society and Living on Cybermind: Categories Communication and Control.