Alchemy and Anthroposophy


by Keith Francis



The third of three lectures at the Anthroposophical Society, New York Branch



Lecture 3


November 1st, 2007


Paracelsus, Newton and Goethe


Last week we talked about the reverence for nature as a living being that was necessary in true alchemical work, and we contrasted it with the attitude that prevails in the modern world. Tonight I’d like to speak about Paracelsus, his relationship to nature and what his life’s work meant for those who followed him. After that I’ll talk about the great changes in scientific consciousness that took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and see how Goethean science emerged in the nineteenth.

Paracelsus was born around 1493 near the Devil’s Bridge, which crosses the Sihl River in the village of Egg in Switzerland. His father was a physician from the Stuttgart area who had married a Swiss woman. When the boy was nine his family moved to Villach in Austria, where his father served as physician to a community of lead miners. Paracelsus accompanied his father on his rounds and became familiar with the injuries and occupational poisoning suffered by the miners. From the smelters and metallurgists he learnt about the techniques and philosophy of the alchemists – the ideas of purification and transmutation. These experiences were very important in forming his attitudes to field work as a physician and an alchemist. At fourteen he left Villach and visited several universities in Southern Europe, fetching up in Ferrara, Italy, in 1511. Here he studied medicine, finding teachers who questioned the old authorities, Galen and Avicenna, and emphasized the importance of experimentation. Having qualified as a physician he spent eight years wandering around Europe, most of the time as an army surgeon, learning surgical techniques and developing medicines from practical experience. In contrast to the traditional physician who shunned direct contact with the patient, Paracelsus performed surgeries on the field and began to understand that post-operative traumas, including those inflicted by the physician, killed patients as often as the injury itself. He developed ways of cleaning wounds so that natural healing could proceed. His capacity for getting into trouble showed itself in 1524, when he settled briefly in Salzburg, got involved with the Peasants’ Revolt and barely escaped execution. He next moved to Strasbourg where his surgical practice was so successful that his fame spread throughout Southern Europe. This brought him into contact with Johannes Froben, a wealthy publisher from Basel, Switzerland, whose own physician had recommended the amputation of a necrotic leg, probably the result of diabetes. Paracelsus treated him so successfully that he kept his leg and returned to good health. Through Froben’s good offices Paracelsus became chief medical officer of the city of Basel and lectured at the University, but it was here that his career took a downward turn. His habit of lecturing in German rather than Latin and his public displays of contempt for traditional medicine as practiced by the local establishment gained him many enemies, including physicians, apothecaries and dignitaries of the church and the university, and eventually he had to make a hasty and undignified exit from the city. The intensity of his desire to reform medicine led to further trouble with the authorities in Zürich, whence he fled in turn to Colmar, Esslingen and Nuremburg. In Nuremburg he established the use of mercurial salts for curing or alleviating the symptoms of syphilis, which was known in those days as morbus gallicus, or the French disease, except among the French, who called it la malade Anglais. Unfortunately in doing so he fell foul of a wealthy family (the Fuggers) who controlled the import of guaiac wood from the West Indies, which was the fashionable and less effective cure for the disease. His initial essays on the disease and its treatment were classic studies, but since they threatened the guaiac business he was forbidden to publish any more. As one might expect, he defied the ban and was forced to leave Nuremburg. The rest of his life was less tempestuous and several benefactors allowed him to live in peace while he wrote his books on medicine, life and the cosmos. 

According to the older teaching, good health depended on the proper balance of four humors – black bile, the melancholic; yellow bile, the choleric; blood, the sanguine; and phlegm, the phlegmatic. These ideas were a thousand years old, and whatever vitality they originally had had been lost as they gradually ossified in the minds and practices of physicians, who became wealthy and were to be seen wearing their red robes and riding around on their white horses. Paracelsus, whose major preoccupation was the study of the nature and therapeutic uses of plants and minerals found the medical chemists far more to his liking. “These do not give themselves up to ease and idleness, strutting about with a haughty gait, dressed in silk, with rings ostentatiously displayed on their  fingers or silvered poignards fixed in their loins and sleek gloves on their hands. But they devote themselves diligently to their labors, sweating whole nights and days over fiery furnaces. These do not kill time with empty talk, but find their delight in the laboratory… Passing all these vanities, therefore, they rejoice to be occupied at the fire and to learn the steps of alchemical knowledge. Of this class are: distillation, resolution, putrefaction, extraction, calcination, reverberation, sublimation, fixation, separation, reduction, coagulation, tinction and the like.’” Most of the picture that we have of the life and character of Paracelsus comes from Oporinus, a devotee whose largely negative testimony was given after he turned against the object of his devotion. His remark that “Paracelsus lived like a pig, looked like a drover, found his greatest enjoyment in the company of the most dissolute and lowest rabble, and throughout his glorious life he was generally drunk”, is countered by descriptions of the great physician as “the noble and beloved monarch”, “the German Hermes” and “our dear Preceptor and King of Arts” and by a positive report from Rheticus, who played a major part in getting Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus published.

It was, at any event, generally acknowledged that Paracelsus was a good physician and that he used many new substances to cure diseases which had resisted the old remedies. He had strong links to the alchemical stream and did not deny that alchemical gold might be produced, but he thought that transmutation should not be the chief purpose of alchemy and that chemists ought rather to devote their time to identifying and purifying therapeutic substances that might replace some of the disgusting concoctions inflicted by ignorant physicians on unwitting patients. The practice of medical chemistry – known as iatrochemistry – gradually took hold, but not in time to give Paracelsus much satisfaction. His teachings were not well received and his ambition to reform medicine was only partially realized, and not within his lifetime. There are several reasons why Rudolf Steiner regarded him as important, of which I’ll mention three.

One is that he had an extremely healthy relationship to the workings of nature. Some people, Steiner says, find natural processes prosaic and uninspiring because they regard them as occurring in a purely material world. Others are so anxious to grasp the spirit with the senses that they people nature with all kinds of spiritual beings. But, like Paracelsus, one who knows how to look at such processes in connection with the universe, which reveals its secret within man, accepts these processes as they present themselves to the senses; he does not first reinterpret them; for as the natural processes stand before us in their sensory reality, in their own way they reveal the mystery of existence. What through this sensory reality these processes reveal out of the soul of man, occupies a higher position for one who strives for the light of higher cognition than do all the supernatural miracles concerning their so-called “spirit” which man can devise or have revealed to him. There is no “spirit of nature” which can utter more exalted truths than the great works of nature themselves, when our soul unites itself with this nature in friendship, and, in familiar intercourse, hearkens to the revelations of its secrets. Such a friendship with nature, Paracelsus sought. And this is the relationship to nature which, metamorphosed into its modern form, became Goethean science. As a footnote to Steiner’s remarks I should make it clear that neither he nor Paracelsus denied or ignored the presence of spirits in nature. Paracelsus, in fact, regarded many as beneficent that the church deemed malignant, and in some cases thought that they were not pure spirits but amalgams of the human, the animal and the spiritual – which would take us back to the discussion on elementals that we had in the first session if we had time.

Secondly, Paracelsus was the first to base his understanding of the natural world on the three substances mercury, sulphur and salt, which became known as the Tria Prima. The Greeks, according to Paracelsus, were right about the four elements, but fire, air, water and earth do not participate as such in bodies, but rather in the form of three principles: salt, sulphur and mercury. “Salt was the principle of fixity and incombustibility, mercury of fusibility and volatility, sulphur of inflammability. The last two had long been recognized by the Arabian alchemists, but Paracelsus seems to have been the first to add salt, making a group of three which he compared with body, soul and spirit. He thought everything had its own particular kind of salt, sulphur and mercury, ‘yet these salts, sulphurs and mercuries are only three things.’” In describing the salt, sulphur and mercury in various objects as being the same only different, Paracelsus seems to justify the charge of being self-contradictory. But to the modern chemist an element can be in different states in different compounds while still being regarded as the same element. Carbon atoms in a diamond, a molecule of carbon monoxide and a molecule of ethane are in three different states, but nobody would deny that they are still carbon atoms. Each one contains a nucleus with six protons, and that settles it as far as the modern chemist is concerned. There is nothing so cut and dried about the tria prima. They are either nonsense or a matter for contemplation. Perceiving that the atmosphere of our planet is shot through with the activities of sulphur and mercury and that all of the tria prima are subtly active in the human being, [1] Steiner is speaking out of an experience of substance that is separated by a huge gulf from all that is mechanical and atomic. One might ask, if Paracelsus is right, should we be able to isolate salt, sulphur and mercury, as we now understand them, from every other substance? If so the whole idea must be fantasy since this is obviously impossible. But since Paracelsus associated the three principles with body, soul and spirit, we should be speaking of activity or potentiality, rather than inanimate matter. Paracelsus still lived in the age when the belief in inanimate matter had not taken hold; everything seemed to be in some way ensouled. We, if we follow Steiner, think that there is some form of consciousness even in a crystal. This is why it is impossible to verify or to invalidate these opinions simply by chemical analysis – there’s always something there that isn’t purely material.

Thirdly, in his concept of signatures, Paracelsus carried forward the ancient principle that the macrocosm (the heavens) and the microcosm (the earth and all its creatures) are linked together. The heavens contain both visible and invisible stars that descend to permeate the matter of the microcosm, giving each body the specific form and properties that direct its growth and development. Like acts upon like. This leads directly to his teaching concerning specific remedies. He realized that these are not to be discovered among the fantastic combinations of substances prescribed by physicians who still followed Galen. Through careful observation extending over many years, Paracelsus concluded that mineral, plant and animal substances contain within themselves what he called “active principles.” It was his conviction that if a method of purification and intensification could be discovered which would allow these substances to release their “active principles”, much safer and more effective medicines could be produced. These ideas did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century, when Samuel Hahnemann developed methods of treating mineral, vegetable and animal substances so that their innate healing powers were enhanced and made safely available. This was the start of the modern homeopathic movement.


           Paracelsus lived to be only 41. If he had survived to the biblical three score and ten, his life would have overlapped with those of William Gilbert, who pioneered the study of magnetism, Galileo, who provided the groundwork for Newtonian mechanics and Francis Bacon, who wanted to replace all the older scientific methods with a system based entirely on observation and induction – not to mention Shakespeare and Monteverdi. He would also have had near misses with Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, van Helmont, one of the earliest chemists to use quantitative methods, Willabrod Snell, who discovered the laws of reflection and refraction and Rene Descartes, who discovered that if he stopped thinking for a moment he might disappear from the face of the earth. In short, within a hundred years of the birth of Paracelsus – in other words, by about 1600 – virtually all the characters who set the scene for modern developments in science and the humanities had appeared, and there were many others who are less well known. The revival of the ancient atomic theory had begun and the early stirrings of the industrial revolution would soon be felt. The idea of nature as a field for exploitation rather than gentle exploration was gaining strength. Until quite recently it has generally been thought that the advent of all this modern scientific thinking caused a sudden decline in the practice of alchemy – that once people had learnt how to think clearly and logically they got rid of their old superstitions, including alchemy, and were ready to move into the brave new world of the mechanical universe. It turns out, however, that this version of history barely gets a passing grade, and one of the reasons is the discovery, over the past thirty years or so, that alchemical beliefs and practices persisted not only among the ignorant, uneducated or superstitious, but among the leading scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many of the scientists who are usually regarded as the pioneers of the modern age still had a thoroughly mediaeval side to their make-up. Apart from the fact that Copernicus placed the sun at the centre – or to be more accurate, near the centre – of the planetary system, his system was no more modern than that of Ptolemy of Alexandria, who lived fourteen centuries earlier. Kepler, who discovered that the planets’ orbits are elliptical, undoubtedly preferred his earlier version of the system, in which the orbits fitted into a nest of Platonic solids. Unfortunately the fit was not quite exact enough to satisfy the modern side of his consciousness. Francis Bacon gave the strongest expression to the changing relationship to nature: writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, he says, “Now as to how my Natural History should be composed, I mean it to be a history not only of Nature free and untrammeled (that is, when she is left to her own course and does her work in her own way)… but much more of nature constrained and vexed; that is to say when by artifice and the hand of man she is forced out of her natural state and squeezed and moulded.” He tried to institute an entirely new scientific method which has been talked about endlessly although it has never been put into practice. This would eliminate all preconceived ideas, theories and intuitions and would coax general principles out of multitudes of observations. Bacon put all this forward in his Novum Organum, but he seems to have been more interested in the collection of all kinds of observations of nature, varying from the commonplace to the strange and wonderful, such as the people of the Middle Ages loved to put into their anthologies, than in developing his new scientific program. Even Galileo, who made great steps towards the system of mechanics that was to become dominant by the beginning of the eighteenth century, still had one foot in the mediaeval world. Such things are only to be expected – great changes in consciousness don’t happen all at once. The real shocker was that all the old rumors about Isaac Newton’s involvement in alchemy turned out not only to be true but to understate the case. Newton, in fact, spent at least as much time on a chronology of the scriptures, alchemy, occult medicine and biblical prophecies as he did on his work in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Historians who have immersed themselves in the estimated one million words of Newton's surviving alchemical manuscripts, have seen his interest in alchemy as an integral part of his approach to the natural world. It has become clear that Newton was deeply influenced by the Neoplatonic and Hermetic movements of his day, which harked back to the Hermetic Mysteries that we have already discussed. He was also influenced by the Rosicrucian alchemist Michael Maier, which opens a window on yet another terrain that we don’t have time to investigate. Newton hoped that all this ancient wisdom would give some insight into the structure of matter and the hidden powers and energies of Nature that he had tried to explain in terms of atoms, attractions and repulsions. If it had just been Newton we might have been inclined to say, “Well, everyone knows that Newton was a strange personality”, but many of the leading scientists of the seventeenth century were deeply committed to alchemy, and some, like Newton, were at great pains to avoid letting this be known publicly. The real nub of the matter as far as Newton was concerned was that he had done very well with the mathematical description of the motions of objects on the earth and in the heavens, but he had no idea why or how gravity worked. Something similar can be said about his work in optics. His attempts to explain the constitution of matter had been less successful. Being a deeply religious man he gave all the credit to God.

            “… it seems probable to me”, he says, “that God in the beginning formed Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles, of such Sizes and Figures, and with such other Properties, and in such Proportion to Space, as most conduced to the End for which he form’d them;”

            Newton wanted to know such things as what held the atoms together and how much space there was between them. He also wanted to know the cause of gravity. How was this mysterious force communicated from one heavenly or earthly body to another?

Officially he seems to think that it is enough to know the laws of gravitation without understanding how it works.

“But hitherto I have been unable to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy… And to us it is enough that gravity does really exist, and act according to the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea.”[2]

            But clearly he had a burning desire to know the answers to these questions and this is one of the reasons why he continually returned to his alchemical manuscripts and furnace. The religious element was perhaps the strongest of all. He believed that activity in the non-living world requires divinity and that non-mechanical, organic action shows the presence of the divine in nature. Newton regarded space – the whole three-dimensional world – as the sensorium of God, and gravity as the manifestation of God’s omnipresence. He saw processes in the vegetable world as indicating the continuing presence of God’s Viceroy, the Christ – Christ, not sitting at the right hand of God, but actively at work in the physical world. Like Francis Bacon, Newton was convinced that natural science had the potential to reveal knowledge of God. All this new information has wrought a remarkable change in the status of Newton in the Anthroposophical Society and that of alchemy in the world at large.

Forty-five years ago, when I first became involved with anthroposophy, no one in the movement had a good word to say about Newton. Discussions of him were filled with abuse of his color theory, which Goethe had described as the product of a sick mind, and of his ideas of force and inertia. This situation remained very much the same until the 1990’s when knowledge of Newton’s esoteric activities began to filter into the Society. Within a few years Newton began to look like a different person. At the end of a recently published book called Aether, a collection of ostensibly scientific discussions with contributions from several well known anthroposophists, you will find the following characterization.


“Isaac Newton 1642-1727

Studied the two fundamental polaric forces of the cosmos, the inward-seeking (gravity) and the outward-seeking (levity). Also studied alchemy in which is sought the ideal balancing of proportions in the essential threefold nature of all manifestations.”


Great man! Evidently, like all good anthroposophists, he studied polarities, including levity, the polar opposite of gravity, almost three centuries before Ernst Lehrs’s magisterial Man or Matter [3] first gave the concept wide currency. It’s odd, however, that there’s no mention of his Opticks and Goethe’s disapproval thereof, and that alchemy is characterized in a way that Newton would not have recognized. This thoroughly unbalanced picture of Newton is given in a book that has certain problematical aspects, but since I’ve seen something similar in other anthroposophical publications it does seem to me to be part of a trend. The other side of the picture is that while Newton was being rehabilitated in anthroposophical circles, alchemy was undergoing the same process among scientific historians, and I have a strong feeling that Newton and his colleagues had something to do with it. If people like Newton and Boyle took it seriously it must, so to speak, have been more important than we thought. So among anthroposophists Newton is in greater favor because of his alchemical work, and among everyone else, alchemy is in greater favor because Newton practiced it. That’s the way it goes, and it need hardly be said that that the new, rose-tinted view of Newton is just as inaccurate as the old one that placed him next to Francis Bacon as one of the arch-villains responsible for our technocratic society.

            The work that Newton spent his public life doing was not that which was closest to his heart. It was not only his alchemical work that had to be kept secret – he also had to keep important parts of his religious life under wraps, since he had unorthodox views about the Trinity. It seems quite possible that the continual need for secrecy in the most precious areas of his life accentuated the personality problems that he undoubtedly had and that we hear so much about. From all this there is a lesson to be learnt about history. There is a great temptation to divide the story of civilization into neat, well-defined periods and to posit causes and mechanisms for the transition from one to the next. “In the Middle Ages”, we are apt to say in unguarded moments, “people had such-and-such characteristics”, and we go on to supply their Renaissance successors with quite a different set of traits. It is not always convenient to recognize that these seemingly incompatible ways of seeing and dealing with the world often existed contemporaneously not only in different countries and different sections of society, but also within individual societal groups and in one and the same person.

And now we must leave Newton since I’d like to close by making a connection between the alchemical tradition and the new form of science that Steiner found implicit in Goethe’s work.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in 1749, 22 years after the death of Newton and seven years before the birth of Mozart. He died in 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, a few years after John Dalton calculated the first atomic weights and one year after Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle. The dictionaries tell us that he was a “German poet, dramatist, novelist and scientist whose genius embraced most fields of human endeavor.” Goethe considered that his scientific work was no less important than all his other endeavors, so he might not have been pleased to see it left until last on the list. It’s generally agreed that he was an outstandingly skillful experimenter and a very acute observer, but most of his contemporaries couldn’t stand the way he thought and talked about science, which seemed to them to confuse the artistic and the metaphysical with the scientific. Apart from that pervasive objection, there were two big differences between Goethe’s way of doing science and that of his contemporaries. One was that, like Bacon, they wanted to do things to nature in order to see what happened, while he wanted to let nature speak for herself; the other is that while physical science was becoming increasingly mathematical, Goethe’s work is devoid of mathematics. We saw how Steiner characterized the attitude of the best mediaeval alchemists – nature will not speak to you unless you approach her with reverence and a pure heart – and we find that Goethe’s science is imbued with that kind of moral conscience. It is not only that the scientist must be moral; nature herself has moral qualities. Nature acts and nature suffers.

Goethe begins his study of nature in the same way that Steiner begins the path of knowledge in his Knowledge of Higher Worlds – that is to say, with reverence. Nature is to be loved and cared for, not exploited. Goethe wants to be at one with nature and experience what she does. Now this attitude could easily lead to a lazy, sub-mystical, feel-good wallowing in pleasant sensations, but again like Steiner in Knowledge of Higher Worlds, Goethe is disciplined and rigorous. He did not, however, leave a description of his method – it has to be inferred from his practice, and this is where Rudolf Steiner came into the picture.




In 1883, at the age of twenty-one, Steiner was invited to edit all Goethe’s scientific writings as part of a collection of German masterpieces. While working on the first volume he realized that something lay behind Goethe’s work that was never explicitly stated – not a system of science but a different way of looking at nature – different, that is from the kind of approach that began before the Renaissance and increasingly became the norm. Steiner’s study bore fruit in 1886 in the form of A Theory of Knowledge based on Goethe’s World Conception, a forbidding title for a book that does not make easy reading. You may well feel that Goethe’s approach to nature sounds as if it ought to be easier to understand than, say, a regular textbook of physics, but we are talking about two very different ways of thinking. In a well-written physics text, which is, unfortunately, a very rare commodity, the argument goes from point to point in a logical manner and anyone of reasonable intelligence can follow it. Now Goethean science is not illogical or a-logical, but it does require a contemplative approach, and you can’t get the juice out of it just by reading about it – or just by hearing somebody lecture about it.

So the second volume of Goethe’s scientific work did not appear until 1887 and another ten years elapsed before the project was completed. One of Steiner’s duties as editor was to write an introduction for each section. These introductions were later collected and published as a separate volume under the title of Goethe the Scientist, and they provide an excellent introduction to Goethean science.

While working on the Goethe edition Steiner struggled with a problem that lay at the heart of nineteenth century science and which goes all the way back to our old friends the pre-Socratic  philosophers of fifth century BC Greece, of whom we spoke in the first session, and the atomic theory developed by Democritus.

In the 1870’s, when Steiner began his scientific education, the atom was simply a more sophisticated version of Democritus’ indestructible particle. The physicists had had some success with the kinetic theory of matter and the wave theory of light, but there were only the most rudimentary ideas of chemical combination, and some scientists were still very skeptical about atoms. Steiner, however, could see the way the wind was blowing and he was particularly distressed by efforts to explain all our sense impressions and inner experiences in terms of atomic motion. So he found himself faced by a dilemma that had already caused great concern in the ancient world – if our sense impressions are determined by atomic motions they must be valueless as a source of truth. The problem was stated in a more modern form and given an added consequence by J. B. S. Haldane about 80 years ago[4]. “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” It was reflections of that nature that compelled Steiner “to reject as impossible every theory of nature which, in principle, extends beyond the domain of the perceived world, and to seek in the sense-world the sole object of consideration for natural science.”

Or more briefly as the basic principle of Goethean science:

“The theory must be limited to the perceptible and must seek connections within this.”

And as Steiner put it in the Philosophy of Freedom, which he wrote while he was working on Goethe, and which describes his own approach to knowledge, “Observation and thinking are the two points of departure for all the spiritual striving of man…”[5]


It’s worth mentioning that these remarks are very reminiscent of Aristotle, who knew that the source of human ideas must be in the mind itself but that they must arise from the experience and contemplation of the natural world.             

To make the correct reading of nature possible, Aristotle created a system of logic, and in order to do the same thing at a very different stage of the world’s evolution, Goethe, implicitly, and Steiner, explicitly, developed a new form of science. We have the first principle, but what comes next? It’s all very well to speak of seeking connections within the perceptible, but how do you actually do this? Orthodox scientists get their connections by means of atomic science, but how does a Goethean scientist do it? It is not to be expected that Steiner found, or would have wished to find, any sort of prescribed system of science in Goethe’s writings, but he did find two principles which act as signposts. One is the operation of metamorphosis and the other is the notion of the primal (or archetypal) phenomenon.

Goethe believed, and acted on his belief, that artistic vision could reveal these principles. The process is contemplative, not analytical, and requires time and inner quiet. This is in tremendous contrast to nineteenth century chemistry, which is a story of people trying one conceptual model after another, in the hope of eventually finding something that will fit an increasingly complex set of experimental observations. In contemplating the forms of plants and animals Goethe perceived a formative principle of metamorphosis which enabled him to see each organism as a unity of interrelated parts and to perceive principles of growth and being that might apply to the whole process of nature rather than to the restricted fields of the botanist and the zoologist. In the formation of seed, leaves, calyx, corolla, stamens and pistil, fruit, and, again, seed, there is a series of alternating expansions and contractions. Mainstream scientists look for molecular processes to explain the expansions and contractions, but according to Steiner this stands the matter on its head. “Nothing is to be presupposed which causes the expansion and contraction; on the contrary, everything else is the result of this expansion and contraction. It causes a progressive metamorphosis from stage to stage. People are simply unable to grasp the concept in its very own intuitive form but demand that it shall be the result of a physical process. They are able to conceive expansion and contraction only as caused, not as causing. Goethe does not look upon expansion and contraction as if they were the results of inorganic processes taking place within the plant, but considers them as the manner in which the being of the plant is fully realized.”[6] People who believe that nature consists of nothing but atoms and void, no matter how highly developed these concepts have become in the modern world, feel the need for a mechanism for such processes. I speak with the voice of personal experience when I say that it is very hard, even for those who are intuitively drawn to Goethe’s view of nature, to get out of the mechanistic habit. Goethe’s way of expressing things has the cognate disadvantages of being easily ridiculed by the scientific intelligentsia, and being easily and uncritically accepted by the half-baked dilettanti, so it is as well to remember that the test of a scientific theory is not how good or reasonable it sounds, but how well it fits the facts and, in particular, how fruitful it is in generating further penetration into the mysteries of nature.

Goethe, seeing also that there is metamorphosis among the colors of the rainbow and the spectrum, believed that all the colors come about through the interaction of light and darkness. He thought that all the phenomena of color could be understood in terms of light and darkness and that there was one manifestation of this that could stand as the perfect example, or archetypal phenomenon. When we look into the blue sky we are looking at the darkness of space through the streaming field of sunlight. When we look at the red of the setting sun we are seeing the light through an intervening region of darkness. Light seen through darkness gives us red; darkness seen through light gives us blue. For Goethe such a phenomenon requires no explanation, just as metamorphosis requires no explanation. It is a basic principle which allows us to link the phenomena without diving into the world of atoms and their bits and pieces.

In the ancient world the terms objective and subjective had no meaning, but in the course of human evolution our consciousness has become increasingly insulated from the objects that we perceive and consider. Goethean scientists try to live into nature in such a way that the gulf between the perceiver and the perceived is bridged. This, I believe, is the modern form into which the ancient art and science of alchemy has been transmuted. It is slow, contemplative and gives practical results in its own way, but neither in the ways nor at the speed desired by the modern commercial world. The point that we have reached in world history suggests that it might be time to do science in a different way, or, at least, with a different attitude. Goethean science will not replace orthodox science, but it’s conceivable that Goethean attitudes might infiltrate it. This is a long shot that depends on the recovery of the ancient feeling of reverence for nature that made alchemy possible in the first place. Science, like anthroposophy, is a quest for knowledge, but both journeys can take us on false and misleading paths; knowledge can come at too high a price and the results can be catastrophic. The physicist who looks deep into the atom and finds revelations of the spirit is rather like the spiritually unprepared person who seeks God on the mountainside and is unaware that the being he actually encounters is Lucifer. And if you don’t approve of this comparison we can try something a little more mundane. A Goethean attitude might have some influence on the choices we make about what we want from science. Knowledge can still be prized for its own sake, but the kind of knowledge desired by physicists in the 20th and 21st centuries has become inordinately expensive, and the thirst for new knowledge has begun to look more like mere curiosity. To give one particularly strident example; the love of nature and of one’s fellow human beings ought to be seen to take precedence over the love of knowledge when the knowledge in question concerns the possibility of creating a perfectly useless Higgs boson at the cost of billions of dollars. If we really love the earth wouldn’t it be better to spend this money on protecting the environment? Unfortunately, one of the characteristics of Goethean science is that although it generates many good things, it doesn’t generate large quantities of cash and its practitioners tend to be somewhat impoverished. So it is really the responsibility of people of good will to exert all the influence that they can muster – moral, educational, economic or political – to change the direction in which people’s thoughts habitually move in our present society.

[1] See Rudolf Steiner, The Four Season and the Archangels, Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1968.

[2] Scholium to the second edition of Principia: Motte’s translation, rev. and ed. Cajori, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1962.

[3] Ernst Lehrs: Man or Matter, Third Edition, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1985. (First English edition 1951)

[4] Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom, translated by Michael Wilson, Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1964.

[5] Steiner, Goethe the Scientist, Section IV



Beauty and Truth


A Brief Note about String Theory


The question of what happened to alchemy led by a circuitous route to an extended discussion of string theory. Before recording the chief points that arose in the discussion, I’ll briefly explain why string theory created such a furor when it appeared in the 1970s.

When I first became interested in science it seemed that the actual sizes and electrical charges of the fundamental particles of matter – the proton and the electron – were brute facts for which no explanation was required or available. This was in the mid-1940s and my textbooks were a little old-fashioned, so it was some time before I learnt much about neutrons and neutrinos, and the multitudes of “funny particles” with all kinds of different masses that were being discovered by intrepid investigators leaving piles of photographic plates on lonely mountainsides. Some further time elapsed before I received the shocking news that gravitational and electromagnetic forces had been joined by a strong force and a weak force that nobody seemed to understand. The final straw, as I then thought, came when I heard that protons and neutrons were not fundamental particles after all, but composed of quark triads, and that the forces that held them together or pulled them apart acted through the agency of a set of exchange particles. It seemed to me that there had been something very calm and orderly about the schoolboy image of the Rutherford-Bohr atom with its apparent resemblance to the solar system. I thought there were now far too many particles, and I particularly disliked exchange particles. Unlike Newton, I had never had any difficulty in imagining action at a distance – the sun’s gravity, for example, acting on the earth with no intermediate agency. According to Newton, gravitation shows the presence of God and, according to my understanding, God is present fully everywhere and locally nowhere, so I couldn’t imagine what the problem was. Unfortunately I was in a minority of one.

            So now we had four forces; the gravitational and the electromagnetic, respectable, well-known forces that had been around for donkeys’ years; and the nuclear forces, strong and weak, newcomers which did not fit at all comfortably into my picture of the way the world ought to be. Everyone else seemed to like them, however, so I had to put up with it. We also had a multitude of particles – large ones, like protons and neutrons, medium ones known as mesons, little ones, like electrons and positrons, and infinitesimal ones like neutrinos. What the physicists wanted more than anything was something known as a Unified-Field Theory, which would unite all the forces in one set of equations and give some sort of rhyme and reason for the existence and vital statistics of all the particles. No such theory has yet been found, although some less far-reaching unifications have been achieved. The sensational thing about String Theory was that when it first appeared it gave the promise of generating exactly this longed-for result. Put very briefly, it proposes that the world-structure is built on many more dimensions and contains many more particles than we have yet observed, and that all these particles arise from the application of simple and beautiful laws to the vibrations of a string. In the early days of the theory it was hard for its proponents to gain a foothold in the academic world where most research is done, but soon it swept the board and more recently it has been almost impossible for a non-stringy physicist to get a university position. This has happened in spite of the fact that string theory has failed to live up to its original promise.

In speaking of the problems of string theory I mentioned that one of the legitimate requirements for a scientific theory is that it should make predictions that can be tested experimentally. To put it very simply, science takes a step forward when such a prediction is verified or falsified. Someone asked for an example of a successful prediction, and I mentioned Louis de Broglie (1892- ), the aristocratic French physicist who, having learnt about Einstein’s theory that light energy travels in particle-like packages, made the inverse hypothesis that a stream of particles, such as electrons, should have wave-like characteristics. De Broglie actually calculated the wavelength of the associated waves, and in 1927, three years after the publication of his work, the first electron diffraction experiments verified his predictions. This led to the new branch of physics known as wave mechanics and, among other things, to the development of the electron microscope. Alchemy and Goethean science, it should be noted, are not without predictive power, but their predictions take time to work themselves out and the results are not necessarily expressible in quantitative terms. The thing that increasingly troubles the present generation of physicists is that string theory, “beautiful” and “elegant” as it may be, has been with us for thirty years and has not succeeded in predicting anything new of major significance that can be verified experimentally. In the century that between 1900 and 1970 produced the General Theory of Relativity, the Rutherford-Bohr Atom, the Quantum Theory, Wave Mechanics, Quantum Electrodynamics and Quantum Chromodynamics, all of which made verifiable predictions, brought great successes and posed intractable problems, this is a deeply anomalous situation. The awful thought has, in fact, crept into the string theory community that, pace Keats, no matter how beautiful the theory may be, it might not be true.

String theorists are, however, extremely resilient and there is strong opposition to this perception. As Lee Smolin puts it in his The Trouble with Physics, “It seems to me that any fair-minded person not irrationally committed to a belief in string theory would see this situation clearly. A theory has failed to make any predictions by which it can be tested, and some of its proponents, rather than admitting that, are seeking leave to change the rules, so that their theory will not need to pass the usual tests we impose on scientific ideas.”

            What struck me as slightly comical about this situation and brought about this discussion in the context of a lecture on alchemy was that the string theorists seem to want to do exactly what modern scientists and historians have often accused ancient scientists of doing. The contemplative armchair has been replaced by the laptop computer but the principle is the same. The philosophy, the world picture, the theory must be true to inner vision, and if the external world appears to disagree there must be something wrong either with it or with our perception of it. This was the view of Parmenides and Melissus twenty-two centuries ago, and it was controversial even then, when inner vision was much more alive than it is now.

            Even more striking is the admission that string theorists don’t actually know what string theory is. Brian Greene, the most prominent popularizer of the theory, says in his latest book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, “More than three decades after its initial articulation, most string practitioners believe we still don’t have a comprehensive answer to the rudimentary question, What is string theory?” or as Nobel Laureate David Gross remarked at the end of a string theory conference, “We don’t know what we’re talking about…”[7]

            Beauty is indefinable and the poet greatly oversimplifies its relation to truth – unless you wish to define beauty in terms of truth, in which case the last line of the famous ode becomes a tautology. One element of beauty may be the inner truthfulness through which an object obeys its own inherent laws; but these laws, whether the object is a painting, a sonata, or a theory, are not necessarily the laws of the universe. The string theorists have made some progress in creating a universe, but it may not be the one that we actually live in.


[7] Quoted by Lee Smolin, op. cit.


Biographical Note


            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 1

Lecture 2