Alchemy and Anthroposophy

by Keith Francis

The first of three lectures at the Anthroposophical Society, New York Branch
October 18th and 25th, November 1st, 2007

Lecture 1

The Hermetic tradition

I didn’t hear last week’s Prairie Home Companion, but I’ve heard from a Higher Authority[1] that someone asked Garrison Keillor what he was going to talk about and, after a moment’s thought he said, well, he was going to talk about five minutes. I can’t promise to be as brief as that. Alchemy is a big and serious subject, involving the whole history of the world, so it takes a little longer, but I’ll try not to go on too long and I’ll leave time for questions and comments at the end, and perhaps I’ll be able to raise a smile from time to time.

People learnt to work metals before they learnt to write, so the history of metallurgy, which is one of the great alchemical activities, goes back more than five thousand years. It’s hard to think about alchemy without thinking about gold. Its beauty, its great resistance to degradation and its high density, together with the fact that it is found in nature as a virtually pure metal, have given it an unparalleled status in human society. Gold, as we know from St. Matthew’s Gospel, is a fitting gift from one king to another, and its spiritual or symbolic worth is paralleled by its commercial value. Many people think that it is a better investment than anything on the stock market. There are a few chemical agents that will attack it, the most famous one being aptly named aqua regia, the kingly water. This is a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids and its action on gold produces a solution which will react with the chlorides of tin to produce a brilliant purple dye, known as purple of Cassius. The one thing that everyone knows about the alchemists is that they wanted to transmute base metals into gold, but the reasons for this and for the great importance attached to the production of dyes such as purple of Cassius are not so well known. The production of pure metals from their ores was a mystical process of perfection and the ultimate perfection would be the transformation into gold. The calcining or, as we would now say, oxidation, of metals was seen as a kind of death, and among the alchemists of early Christianity the death, resurrection and perfection of these metals as gold or purple dyes were symbolical of the death, resurrection and perfection of Christ and of what should, ideally, happen to the human soul. To some, the process was more than symbolical. Like the sacrament, it was the re-enactment of an event rather than a symbol. To the alchemists who had not become part of the Christian stream such processes carried an equally spiritual meaning. The work of the alchemists covered an enormous range from medicine and metallurgy, including honest efforts to find the elixir of life and the key to the transmutation of base metals into gold, to fortune telling, quackery and forgery.  No matter how high or low their ideals were, their task was always bound up with the study of the natural world, with its minerals, plants, creatures, stars and planets. My purpose in this series of talks is to report on Rudolf Steiner’s insights into the true nature and origin of this journey into the physical world, to link its exoteric history to those insights and to examine what has happened to its aims and ideals since it went underground in the eighteenth century.

As an old Waldorf teacher I know that in starting any course one should always go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks – and since these presentations sometimes deal with technical matters I should emphasize that I said ancient Greeks and not ancient Geeks – but in this case the most recent civilization we can start with is that of the ancient Egyptians, where we find a tremendous impulse towards everything that later became science in all its different forms, including alchemy. Before going back into the deeps of time, however, I’d like to give a brief reminder of what people think about alchemy today. When looking back, it is helpful to have some idea where one is looking from.

A look at one of Webster’s dictionaries simply confirms the commonly held view that alchemy was mostly about transmuting base metals into gold and discovering the elixir of perpetual youth, but you can’t squeeze much substance into or out of a dictionary definition, so for a more searching characterization we can turn to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, where we find the following, which is actually pretty good stuff until you get to the end:

Alchemy: a quasi-scientific practice and mystical art, mainly ancient and mediaeval, that had two broad aims: to change baser metals into gold and to develop the elixir of life, the means to immortality. Classical Western alchemy probably originated in Egypt in the first three centuries AD and was practiced in earnest in Europe by such figures as Paracelsus and Newton until the eighteenth century. Western alchemy addressed concerns of practical metallurgy, but its philosophical significance derived from an early Greek theory of the relations between the basic elements and from a religious-allegorical understanding of the alchemical transformation of ores into gold, an understanding that treats this process as a spiritual ascent from human to divine perfection. The purification of crude ores (worldly matter) into gold (material perfection) was thought to require a transmuting agent, the philosopher’s stone, a mystical substance that, when mixed with alcohol and swallowed, was believed to produce immortality, in other words, spiritual perfection. The alchemical search for the philosopher’s stone, though abortive, resulted in the development of useful experimental tools (such as the steam pump) and methods (such as distillation).

Here we have the acknowledgement that alchemy was an art, together with the implication that it was not really a science. We learn that the alchemists were pursuing something more than material wealth and perpetual youth, but reading between the lines we get the message that while it’s a pity they spent so much time on a wild goose chase, at least they managed to invent a few useful things along the way. This attitude was expressed long ago in allegorical form by the Dutch chemist, Hermann Boerhaave, in his New Method of Chemistry of 1724. There was once an elderly farmer who had several rather lazy sons. He worried a great deal about what would happen to his farm after he had gone and on his deathbed he finally hit on a scheme – he told his sons that he had buried treasure in all the fields surrounding their home. The result was that the sons tilled the land so energetically that they became prosperous even though they never found what they were looking for. By about 1750, in fact, alchemy had become so unfashionable that any open profession of alchemical beliefs was greeted with ridicule and, even fifty years earlier, Isaac Newton had found it wise to pursue his alchemical researches clandestinely. In spite of all this, the ancient art never disappeared entirely. Its exoteric, practical achievements became part of what we now think of as “regular” chemistry, but its esoteric side continued to develop, notably in early 19th century Germany where the nature-philosophy movement had strong alchemical echoes. In the mid-nineteenth century a new impulse came from a young English woman called Mary Ann South, whose interest in mysticism and religious history was encouraged by her father and led to the publication of A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. This book helped to bring back to public consciousness the realization that true alchemy had been a search for spiritual enlightenment rather than material gain. Modern historians of chemistry have found it worthwhile to include extended sections on the history of alchemy in their writings and there is now a highly respected periodical called Ambix, the Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry. So the time when alchemy, like sex, could be mentioned only in hushed tones, is over.

The phrase, Hermetic Mystery, refers to the great body of documents known as the Corpus Hermeticum, dating back to the early years of Christianity and linked in some way with much more ancient figure of Hermes Trismegistos about whom we’ll soon be talking. Miss South either had second thoughts herself or was horrified by the reactions her book produced, for after selling only a hundred copies she and her father burnt all that remained. When, in 1920, she republished the book in her old age, it made quite a stir, influencing, among others, the great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. The importance of her work lay in the fact that it helped to establish the link between alchemy and the Hermetic tradition and provided a great deal of the impetus for studies of esoteric alchemy that took place in the twentieth century. It is with the origins of this tradition that our series really begins, so you may be intrigued to hear that the train of thought that leads into it arose from one of my vices, an addiction to crossword puzzles, which I have a tendency to do when I probably ought to be meditating or making useful observations.

A few days ago I came across the word incus. It seemed tantalizingly familiar, but I couldn’t place it, so I reached for the dictionary and soon found myself looking at a diagram of the inner ear. The incus is the little bone that we usually call the anvil and it keeps company with the hammer and the stirrup, leaving the impression that the ear was probably designed by a blacksmith with a horse standing by. So the question of design popped into my mind, as it often has before. Mainstream science suggests that such complex and beautiful structures as the ear, not to mention the blacksmith and the horse, can come about as a result of such things as the ability of certain molecular structures to replicate themselves, some variety of natural selection, and the operation of statistical inevitability, which most people would call blind chance. And once again I realized that no matter how hard I try, I can’t believe that such a marvel of organization could have come about in that way, no matter how many billion years these processes have been going on for. It is my opinion that when we see how present generations of people, animals and plants are so finely tuned to conditions of earth and sky we are right to marvel at God’s goodness in providing for all our needs, and at our own stupidity in spoiling so much of what He has given us – but, in today’s standard model of the universe, any appearance of purpose in the way the world works can be traced back to the properties of particles produced by the Big Bang and the ability of organisms to adapt to prevailing conditions in a purely mechanistic way. Rejecting this model doesn’t make me a creationist, however. It seems to me very reasonable to believe that the earth and its creatures have reached their present states through a long process of evolution and that Darwin and those who followed him and elaborated and adapted his ideas can’t simply be ignored. But to make sense out of the whole picture something else is needed. This was provided by Rudolf Steiner and I should warn you that it takes him a couple of hundred pages to give just an outline of it. Be comforted, however: I have to mention these things as a key to understanding why alchemy appeared when it did, but I need only give a thumbnail sketch of Steiner’s outline. I should also point out that while Steiner speaks specifically about events in the Middle East, alchemical work seems to have begun practically simultaneously in many parts of the world, especially China and India. 

According to Steiner, human beings were present in a remote age of the world at the very beginning of evolution, long before our present states of matter appeared. There were no physical bodies as we know them, and nothing at all in the nature of individual human consciousness. The process of evolution has been one of physical densification and evolving consciousness, and has proceeded under the guidance of successive levels of spiritual beings, who have gone through their own parallel stages of evolution and have appeared to humanity as gods and angels. Minerals, plants and animals are the modern representatives of beings who left the human stream of evolution at different stages. All have been increasingly subject to the physical forces of the earth and therefore to physical processes of the kind familiar to all who study modern science. As modern human beings we have the privilege of individual consciousness and the burden of individual responsibility, but this is something that has developed only in the comparatively recent past. And this is where it seems almost as if the creationist mantle has been donned by the Darwinians and, in fact, by pretty well everyone. We get the impression that since homo sapiens emerged 40,000 years ago, the species has remained in all important respects exactly the same – the ancients wore funny clothes and were ignorant of human biology, calculus and other useful disciplines, but their thoughts, perceptions, feelings and desires were really just the same as ours. Steiner found this assumption to be deeply mistaken and, out of his research into the esoteric background of human history, gave a very different picture, in which the events of world history are the outward signs of an evolving human consciousness and of struggles in the spiritual world to control that evolution. As a footnote to this I should add that in the usually accepted evolutionary terms 40,000 years is a very short time, so one can hardly blame the proponents of Darwinian evolution if they have missed something.




In earlier times we were at one with the divine beings who were responsible for our nurture and upbringing but at a certain point they decided to kick us out of the nest, withdraw somewhat and make us fend for ourselves. Naturally we listened to the wrong advice, fell into temptation, and suffered disastrous consequences, including the calamity whereby the ancient civilization of Atlantis was overwhelmed. We are the descendants of the survivors from Atlantis and it appears that we may not have learnt the lesson very well.

In 1908 Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures under the title of Egyptian Myths and Mysteries. This includes a summary of the evolution of the earth and the human being as a necessary background for understanding the ancient civilizations of India and the Middle East. He takes up the story of human evolution in the period after the Atlantean disaster. Before Atlantis the human being had lived, slept and died in constant communion with the spiritual world so that there was no conscious knowledge of sleep and death, and the daytime consciousness and sense of individuality that we have today had not yet developed. During the Atlantean period the feeling of being at home with god-like spiritual beings was lost and when the catastrophe was past most of surviving humanity no longer had the natural ability to gaze into the spiritual world at night. In place of this they gained the capacities they needed so that they could fend for themselves – including the ability to see more and more sharply by day, so that the objects around them appeared in ever greater clarity.

People were, in fact, acquiring the kind of consciousness needed to investigate the natural world, and approaching the beginning of recorded history, perhaps ten thousand years ago, with the development of the great civilizations of India and the Middle East. But they paid for their new-found capabilities with a feeling of great loss, the experience of being cut off from the world of the spirit, which they felt to be their true home, rather like children whose loving parents have sent them off to boarding school. Steiner traces the effects of this widening separation through the civilizations of India, Persia and Egypt, which he called the first, second and third post-Atlantean cultures. I quote from Egyptian Myths and Mysteries:

Like a painful memory of his old true home, this went through the soul of the ancient Indian when he saw himself transplanted into the physical world, which is only the outer shell of the spiritual world. The feeling grew ever keener that man had sprung from the truth and had his real home in the spiritual; that the things of sense were untrue, were Maya. The ancient Indian longed to escape from the hard reality of the physical world, which for him was nothing but illusion, for to him the true was not what his senses perceived, but what lay beyond that, which could be revealed by his teachers, the holy Rishis.

Things were already different among the Persians in the following period, out of which arose Zarathustra. To characterize the difference between the Indian and Persian cultures we can say that a member of the Persian culture felt the physical to be not merely a burden, but a task to be fulfilled. Like the Indian he looked up into the spiritual worlds, but he turned his gaze back into the physical world and in his soul he saw how everything divides into the powers of light and the powers of darkness. The Persian said to himself, ‘There is the beneficent fullness of light, the god Ormuzd, and there are the dark powers under the leadership of Ahriman. From Ormuzd comes salvation for men; from Ahriman comes the physical world. We must transform what comes from Ahriman; we must unite with the good gods and vanquish Ahriman, the evil god in matter, by transforming the earth, by learning to work upon the earth. By vanquishing Ahriman, we make the earth into a medium for the good.’ The first step towards redeeming the earth was taken by the members of the Persian culture. They hoped that the earth would become a good planet one day, and that a glorification of Ormuzd, Ahura Mazdao, the highest being, would come about.

The conquest of the physical world proceeded further in the Middle Eastern civilizations that led to the great period of Egyptian dominance. At this time, hardly anything remained of the ancient Indian repugnance for the physical world. The Chaldeans looked up to the heavens, and the light of the stars was not merely Maya for them; it was the script that the gods had imprinted on the physical plane. On the paths of the stars the Chaldean priest pursued his way back into the spiritual worlds, but he did not regard all that he saw in the physical world as mere illusions; he saw in it the handwriting of the gods.

Steiner says that these initiates felt as we should feel if we had been long separated from a friend, and then received a letter from him and recognized his familiar handwriting.

We see that it was our friend’s hand that formed these signs, and we sense the feelings of his heart expressed in them. The Chaldean or Egyptian initiate who, while he was in the mystery temple, saw with his spiritual eye the divine beings who are connected with our earth. When he went out again and looked into the world of stars, this appeared to him like a letter from the spiritual beings. As we feel about the letter from a friend, so he felt about the world of nature. Everything was part of the divine script.

The Egyptians were confident that the laws that they found in the physical world would give them mastery over material objects. They could use mathematics to rule the elements because they trusted what they found in the spirit and believed that the spirit could be imprinted on matter. Thus they would be able to build the pyramids, the temples, and the sphinxes. This was the great step in the conquest of the physical world that was accomplished by the Egyptians in the third cultural period after Atlantis, but it was not to be accomplished without teachers. In Egypt, as in ancient India, it was necessary that through initiation these students should learn to see into the spiritual world, but they also learnt how the spiritual forces were at work in the physical world, how spiritual deeds were reflected in physical processes. The founder of this school, in which was shown both the spiritual and its work upon the physical, was the great initiator, Hermes Trismegistos. It was he, the thrice-great Thoth, who first showed to men the entire physical world as the handwriting of the gods. Hermes appeared to the Egyptians like a divine ambassador. He gave then what had to be deciphered as the deeds of the gods in the physical world. Through him people learnt to value the physical plane.

This is what we might call the archetypal origin of the Hermetic Tradition and the human quest to understand and be at one with both the spiritual and the natural worlds – in other words, of alchemy – but the events that Steiner describes took place long before the first appearance of any written texts ascribed to Hermes, which may have been in the fourth century B. C. Even these texts have not survived, however, and the written basis for the tradition is the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of writings in Greek and Latin which dates back only to the second and third centuries AD. Its basic impulse was the conviction that salvation depends on the revealed knowledge of God – in a word, Gnosis – and of human and natural creation. Other fragments in various different languages, including later versions in Arabic and Latin, deal with alchemy, astrology and various esoteric matters. Naturally we should all like to know what Hermes actually told the ancient Egyptians but I think we can probably take it for granted that if we did know we should not understand it. It was, presumably, told only to students trained in the Mystery Schools. As a rather poor analogy you might try to imagine the effect of having Einstein here in person to explain the general theory of relativity, a subject which is generally taught to postgraduates. What we do have surely contains echoes of the original wisdom but it is overlaid with many centuries of striving to maintain some contact with the spiritual world while developing the natural philosophy of the physical. In order to give an idea of its flavor I’ll read some brief excerpts, and if you want to read the whole thing for yourselves you can find it on the web-site of the Gnostic Society, gnosis.org. The most recent reliable translation that is in the public domain is by G. R. S. Mead, who died the year I was born. Unfortunately he tried to reproduce the flavor of the original writings by using a consciously archaic brand of English, but beneath all the tushery you can find what is said to be a reasonably accurate rendition. There are fifteen sections, known as tractates, of which the fourth, the Cup or Monad, is the shortest and the easiest to follow. Here are its opening paragraphs:


1. Hermes speaks: With Reason (Logos), not with hands, did the World maker make the universal World; so that thou shouldst think of him as everywhere and ever-being, the Author of all things, and One and Only, who by His Will all beings hath created.

This universal world is a thing no man can touch, or see, or measure, a body inextensible, like to no other frame. 'Tis neither Fire nor Water, Air nor Breath; yet all of them come from it. Now being Good he willed to consecrate this world to Himself alone, and set its Earth in order and adorn it.

2. So down [to Earth] He sent the Cosmos of this Frame Divine - man, a life that cannot die, and yet a life that dies. And o'er [all other] lives and over Cosmos [too], did man excel because of the Reason (Logos) and the Mind. For contemplator of God's works did man become; he marvelled and did strive to know their Author.

3. Reason (Logos) indeed among all men hath He distributed, but Mind not yet; not that He grudgeth any, for grudging cometh not from Him, but hath its place below, within the souls of men who have no Mind.

The pupil asks: Why then did God, O father, not on all bestow a share of Mind?

Hermes: He willed, my son, to have it set up in the midst for souls, just as it were a prize.

4. Pupil: And where hath He set it up?

Hermes: He filled a mighty Cup with it, and sent it down, joining a Herald [to it], to whom He gave command to make this proclamation to the hearts of men:

Baptize thyself with this Cup's baptism, what heart can do so, thou that hast faith thou canst ascend to him that hath sent down the Cup, thou that dost know for what thou didst come into being!

Mead, who had unorthodox ideas about Holy Communion, thought that this cup might have a connection with the Holy Grail. To a student of Steiner’s work a more likely connection is with the descent of the divine intelligence under the guidance of the Archangel Michael. It was this descent that led to the great changes in attitudes towards the investigation of the physical world that took place from the earliest days of Greek philosophy to the passing of the mediaeval ethos into that of the Renaissance, and right up to the present time. I should add that if you read this whole section of the Corpus you will find that there are elements that appear to be contradictory and seem to send you back to the idea of the physical world as Maya. This is not really surprising – the Corpus Hermeticum comes out of the mingling of several different streams and is clearly not an object for casual inspection. It is generally acknowledged that the basic impulse of Hermeticism was the conviction that human salvation depends on revealed knowledge – gnosis, that is – of God and of the human and natural creations. This is consistent with the idea of the neoplatonic stream that flowed into hermeticism, that natural reason will take you just so far and that above the realm of human reason there exists not only the pure self-thinking intellect described by Plato and Aristotle, but at an even higher level an indivisible being referred to as the One. This Oneness is the source and root of everything and without it there is nothing. It is impossible not to be reminded of St. John’s Gospel and to feel that behind all these varied and sometimes distorted attempts to say something true about God and creation, there is not merely a succession of literary borrowings and influences but a long chain that reaches deep into the well of truth. “In the beginning was the Word – the Logos – and the word was with God, and the word was God. By Him all things were made and without him was not anything made that was made.”


Well, perhaps you may feel that this is all very fine and inspiring but not the kind of picture that you had of alchemy and alchemists. Shouldn’t I be talking about furnaces, cauldrons, potions, and the gathering of strange herbs under the full moon? Well, next week we’ll get down to some of the nitty-gritty and we’ll not forget that alchemy is like migraine or the products of Mr. Heinz: it comes in at least 57 varieties and it never goes away. It has actually been said, by the way, and by no lesser person than Dr. Sacks, that the visions of Hildegarde of Bingen were the results of migraine, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t true. I doubt whether the Gnostics would have approved of the revelation of Oneness coming in this way, but I would gladly accept a headache from almighty God if only he would reveal something of Himself through it. Perhaps he has and I didn’t get it. Pain has been described as God’s megaphone but, like the human race, I’ve become a little deaf in my old age. Be that as it may, no matter how far alchemy has strayed from its original source, its essential religious or spiritual dimension has never been lost, even among the rogues and charlatans, about whom I do intend to say something next week. The importance of the concept of the One and Oneness was stated with commendable brevity by Zosimos of Panopolis about 300 AD. Zosimos is supposed to have been the author of the first handbook of alchemy and this is what he said: “The one is all, through which all has come to be.” This was the great guiding principle of alchemy, and provided one of the justifications for belief in the possibility of transmutation.

Hermes, however, was not just the property of the alchemists. Early Christians, including Augustine, discussed him and disagreed about his value. The Muslims identified him with a figure in the Koran, and he was well known to the twelfth century Platonists at Chartres, to whom Steiner attaches a great deal of importance. It was by a historical accident – if one believes in such things – that the Corpus and all the other Hermetic discourses became widely available in the early Renaissance. The documents had all been collected into a single volume in Byzantine times, and around 1460 a copy of this volume survived to come into the hands of Lorenzo de Medici,[2] the big wheel of Florentine politics. This happened just at the time when the great scholar Marsilio Ficino, the head of the Florentine Academy, was busy translating the dialogues of Plato. Lorenzo was sufficiently impressed by the hermetic writings that he made Ficino stop what he was doing and put the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin. His translation was published in 1463, and it aroused so much interest that it was reprinted at least twenty-two times over the next century and a half.

Ficino thought that the documents were pre-Christian and their appearance generated a considerable theological stir – in fact, John Michael Greer, in his introduction to the Corpus Hermeticum, goes so far as to say that it landed like a well-aimed bomb amid the philosophical systems of 15th century Europe. The Fathers of the early Christian Church had accepted Hermes as a historical figure who had lived at the time of Moses. So it seemed that the Hermetic writings were a source of primordial wisdom that had anticipated and influenced Jewish scripture and Platonic philosophy. This was very encouraging to scholars who wanted to make changes in the standard theology of the time and to a rather different bunch who wanted to reestablish magic as an acceptable spiritual path in the Christian West; but of course, it didn’t work out that way. The church became increasingly allergic to the occult and those who followed the magical path risked being burnt at the stake. In spite of this and in spite of the discovery at the beginning of the seventeenth century that the hermetic writings were post-Christian, rather than the remains of ancient Egyptian wisdom, they remained important for some of the greatest scientists of the following period, including Isaac Newton. When I was a student I was taught that the advent of rational, quantitative science around sixteen hundred drove out the older forms with their magical and spiritual components, but recent studies of the work of Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and other scientists of the seventeenth century have shown that this is absolutely untrue. On this point I’d like to quote Dr.William H. Brock, the very distinguished author of the Norton History of Chemistry and a former editor of Ambix: “Alchemical symbolism and allegory appealed strongly to the early Gnostics and Neoplatonists. As in the case of Isaac Newton, the historian of science must at all times be aware that, until the nineteenth century at least, most scientific activities were, fundamentally, religious ones. The historian of chemistry must not be surprised to find that even the most transparent of experimental texts may contain language that is allegorical and symbolical and which is capable of being read in a spiritual way.”


In fact, it may be only a slight exaggeration to say that everyone who was engaged in any kind of scientific practice was in some way following the original Hermetic ideal – to try to perceive the work of the spirit in material processes. As scientists in the modern world we are still trying to read the script that we find in nature. To some of us it is still, as Rudolf Steiner said, the handwriting of the hierarchies, the divine beings who formed the world and cared for its evolution. To others it is the inscrutable legacy of the Big Bang or, perhaps, of a thousand monkeys randomly pecking at typewriters in someone’s basement, unaware that at any moment one of them may design an ear, or hit on the next stage of evolution, if not the complete script of Hamlet. This, I admit is to put the matter melodramatically and unfairly. The scientist who has a materialistic concept of the universe provides a much more convincing application of randomness than the efforts of a cartload of monkeys, and may be no less idealistic than one who sees the work of the spirit in it – the ideals are simply in a different place. In both cases the quest is for deep understanding and it is a very arduous one. It was also what alchemy was all about and what Goethean science, anthroposophy and string theory are all about. One would think that it would be possible to leave this quest to those who feel strong enough, brave enough or, some would say, foolhardy enough to pursue it, and to follow a more pragmatic approach, which is what many people do. Just as there have always been metallurgists who plied their trade with no thought of its spiritual meaning, there are physicists who keep on doing quantum physics because the calculations come out right even though they don’t know why. There seems to be a rule that no matter how promising an investigation into the fundamental nature of the universe may be, it eventually hits the wall and its best ideas have to be absorbed or transformed into something new. This seems to have been the case with alchemy and with quantum theory, and very probably it’s happening to string theory right now. One possible reason for this is that the universe keeps evolving – it doesn’t stay still long enough for us to draw a bead on it. There is, in any case, a deep distinction between wanting a science that works and wanting to know why it works, although the two aspirations are sometimes combined in the same person. That’s a point that I’ll come back to in the third talk, but for now I’ll point out one key difference between the ancient and the modern.


The feeling that persisted from ancient times right up to the Renaissance was that everything was in some way ensouled. The “Why?” of everything was taken care of by the belief that every natural object, having been created by God or by the gods, was in some way holy and had its proper place and purpose. There was really no such thing as inanimate matter, and that made a huge difference to the way people interacted with nature. From the sixteenth century to the present time people have had less and less compunction about the way they treat the natural world. Even so, Newton could still speak of mineral nature as though it were in some way organic and believe that the world is the way it is because that’s how God created it. Now, in the year of Our Lord 2007, such a statement would be taken as an admission that science is impossible. I want to emphasize that these remarks about ancient and modern science and attitudes to the world are observations, not judgements. As Steiner makes clear, there are reasons why world history has taken this particular form.


Next week I’ll speak about Greek alchemy, which had a strong therapeutic component, and of the plight of the mediaeval alchemists, who experienced the loss of access to the spirit as a deep tragedy. This will lead us naturally to the figure of Paracelsus, the great medical innovator, and to the enormous influence he had on the key scientists of the seventeenth century, such as van Helmont, Boyle and Newton. Then in the third and final session we’ll try to see how the ancient ideal of understanding spirit in nature reached a modern form in the scientific work of Goethe and Steiner. And we may well ask what has happened to the search for the elixir of youth, the philosopher’s stone and alchemical gold. Perhaps these are no longer issues because they represented a goal in human evolution that has been superseded by a new one – to make the experience of transformation inward; to take the Christ into our thinking and find the best use for the gifts of divine intelligence, individuality and freedom that the heavenly powers have bestowed on us.

[1] I had assumed that someone would ask who the Higher Authority was, but no one did.

[2] According to some sources the Medici involved was Cosimo, not Lorenzo.

Keith Francis was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, England and at the University of Cambridge. He worked as an engineer at the Bristol Aircraft Company before returning to the Crypt School as a teacher of physics and mathematics. In 1964-65 he studied at the Waldorf Institute of Adelphi University, Garden City, New York and later joined the faculty of the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan, where he remained until his retirement in 1996. Since then he has written several novels, a memoir of his experience as a Waldorf teacher, a somewhat controversial assessment of the work of Francis Bacon and a history of atomic science. He is also the founder and director of the Fifteenth Street Singers, a group attached to the New York City Branch of the Anthroposophical Society. He has been a member of the Anthroposophical Society since 1962.

Lecture number 2 will appear in the next issue of SCR.