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persed to be destroyed; but that, entering into clouds, the aqueous vapours remained hovering above until the operation of some natural cause should effect their descent to earth once more in hail or snow, dew or rain. Many a reflective sage in ancient times must have speculated on the results of combustion; more subtle, less amenable to scrutiny than those of evaporation though they be; and although neither the priests of Isis nor the sages of Greece knew the means of collecting, as does the chemist of our own times, the fleeting gaseous elements which are scattered by combustion, yet the spiritual intuition of these philosophers anticipated in a poetic myth the slower evidence of induction. In the fabled rising of the Phønix from her ashes is displayed a credence in the non-destructibility of matter under the operation of existing laws; and the many changing aspects of Proteus seem but the expression of a belief in the occurrence of chemical transformations.
No sooner were the manifestations of chemical action displayed by experiment, than the wonderful mutations of form as evidenced by combination and decomposition gave rise to hopes that the baser metals might be transmuted into gold; a credence which, when we come to investigate the period of its first origin, carries us back into the furthest recesses of antiquity.
Viewed under the aspect of a prevailing chemical furor, the belief in alchemy may be said to belong to the middle ages; but amongst all its votaries a sort of universal credence was given to the remote origin of the doctrine. The Egyptian Hermes * was held to be the accredited originator of alchemy, and the notion of the possibility of transmuting base metals into gold has been thought by some writers to have existed amongst the Greeks at a period coeval with the Argonautic voyage in quest of the Golden Fleece. Suidas, in his lexicon published during the 11th century, expressly states under the head “ Aepas," that the golden fleece was only a mythical expression for a parchment document on which had been written a description of the process for making gold.
Without minutely discussing the opinions or the history of alchemical writers, it may suffice to remark that a belief in the possibility of making gold, and extending the duration of man's corporeal life, constituted the foundation of alchemy. Not that these tenets were received by all professing alchemy to the same extent; in this respect the greatest difference of opinion obtained. Some votaries merely contented themselves by expressing their belief in the possibility of transmuting the base metals into gold, whilst others proclaimed to the world in mystic terms their possession of the secret.
Rescued from the obscure jargon of the language in which these descriptions were veiled, the opinions of
* Hermes Trismegistus.
the alchemists as relates to the composition of metals, were far from irrational, always remembering the kind and the amount of information at their disposal. All the metals, they believed to be compounds :—the baser metals containing the same elements as gold, from which they differed on account of their association with impurities. These impurities being separated, it was imagined that gold would remain. The agent supposed to be capable of effecting this purification was the philosopher's stone, which, although many alchemists did not hesitate to state they had made, the greater number limited themselves to the expression of a belief in its existence.
It would be ungrateful in the chemical philosopher of the present day to contemn utterly the striving of the alchemists. Many of these enthusiasts there were who shadowed forth in their hyperbolic phrases the sterner facts of induction; and even the labours of that
1 sordid class who had no nobler aim in view than the amassing of wealth, disclosed a vast store of collateral facts for the benefit of future chemistry. Nor is it, perhaps, just to stigmatise by so harsh a term as insanity that belief in an elixir which should be capable of extending the life of man, in his corporeal form, beyond the limits allotted to mortality. Having started from the basis of considering gold a noble metal, untarnishable in the air, imperishable in the fire, unalterable by all common solvents, it does not seem a flight of imagination beyond the confines of sanity, although fanciful, to assume that the human frame might be so imbued with gold as to be proof against many of the destructive agencies to which it is ordinarily subjected. Many a recent medical hypothesis has rested on a basis far less seemingly rational than this.
The hope expressed by many alchemists of their being enabled to extend the life of man beyond that of the patriarchs-nay, even to render him immortal in his corporeal form—was a wild flight of fancy starting from a basis of seeming probability; a pushing to extremes of a theory in itself not so much at variance with given premises as many have conceived. Doctrines in themselves rational are often strained by ardent minds until they assume the semblance of error,—theories often forced beyond their proper sphere,—until, breaking loose from restraint, they lead where they ought to follow, suggesting accordances rather than associating facts. Such tendencies are common to all doctrines in all times. It is a quality of the human mind to be ever striving at perfection, ever aiming at the acquisition of that which seems to be true. The isolated fragments of truth which lie scattered in our path, we are ever endeavouring to bring together or arrange. Too confident in the strength of our own perceptions—too oblivious of the narrow limits which restrain the excursions of our reasoning, we are ever prone to set in order, and construct into a fondly-thought temple of perfection, those scattered fragments of truth. The
temple stands approved by our own complacent scrutiny, —we die, and others fill our place. Then comes the inductive reasoning of a future age, and proves the cherished edifice of truths so pleasing to our eye, to be a monstrous distortion.
During the period of a century or more, it was the custom to spurn the doctrines of the alchemists; not only in the literal acceptation of these doctrines, but even as semblances of philosophic truths. The time has passed for this opinion to be maintained. Within the last few years a series of manifestations has been noticed which goes far to vindicate many opinions of the alchemists. The condition of allotropism, or the quality which certain bodies possess of assuming two marked phases of chemical and physical existence, shatters the opinion on which our absolute repudiation of the doctrine of transmutation was based. Chemists now regard the idea of transmutation, not so much in the sense of being absolutely, essentially false, as a vision of truth distorted by the aberration of the medium through which it has been made to pass. Although a belief in the existence of an universal elixir and the philosopher's stone was not extinct even so late as the beginning of the present century,* yet the deca
* I allude to Peter Woulfe, who died in the year 1805, of whom remarks Professor Brande (Manual of Chemistry), “it is
to be regretted that no biographical memoir has been pre“served. I have picked up a few anecdotes respecting him from
two or three friends who were his acquaintances. He occupied