Quote Originally Posted by Auroboros View Post

Four and five substances sounds a lot like a metaphor for the 4 elements and the 5th (Quintessence). I never look at the literal meaning first as lot of what the Philosophers state is multi-layered which is why it's so difficult to decrypt their sayings (unless you speak the language of the Philosophers). This concept is especially true for words/phrases sounding so obvious written in 'common' terms, on which we find is always a prefixed warning stating to never follow them to the letter in every true philosophical work on Alchemy.


I think you hit the nail on the head - multi-layered meaning. Mercury/Salt/Sulfur - Spirit/Body/Soul - Matter/Vessel/Fire - Father/Son/Holy Spirit. Yes you are right, a lot of Philosophers were heavily influenced by Christianity which had a profound impact on their concepts of the creation of the Universe. This is why true authors of this Art are called Philosophers and not simply Alchemists/Chemists, and many of them make this distinct division. The Philosophers see the spiritual incorporated into the material world and explain it as such, through enigmas, metaphors, mythology, scripture &c. An example can even be seen in the story of Christ being killed/putrefied on the cross then sealed within a tomb in which he rose again with a new body, a Divine being, who has ever lasting life (all very important concepts concerning the great work). The Philosophers also borrowed a lot from Genesis in order to explain their views on creation and how the 'first matter' came into being. If you aren't familiar with these stories or the mythology it can be fairly daunting task of interpreting a Philosophers mindset and unraveling it all to make sense. A lot of authors state that the whole 'recipe' can be written on a single page of paper it's so simple, so you can imagine how a 400+ page book is merely just 'fluff' with a few pearls of wisdom cast!


That whole "we don't mean what we say" bit has been grossly misunderstood and exaggerated by some people. It is only when it comes to dealing with what substances are used to compose the Stone that you have to be on your guard against the trickery of the alchemists. Here is where they bombard you with a barrage of "decknamen", misleading statements ("one matter only", "one vessel only", listing substances that can actually be used in the work among the "false" ones, etc.), purely imaginary things ("sulphurs", "mercuries", "quintessence", "undetermined matter", "spiritus mundi", etc.) and such like traps and literary & "philosophical" devices to make it more difficult to figure out. Despite all their "philosophizing", the alchemists knew very well what mattered and what made the difference between success and failure in alchemy. That's why they had little problem clearly explaining their theories/speculations (that does not mean that they necessarily make sense to us, since they are mostly based on a bunch of unproven assumptions, most going back to the speculations of Aristotle about matter, which the majority of alchemists quite uncritically accepted), but when it comes to the issue of the actual substances they worked with they deploy all the traps in the book, and then some! Theories/speculations = of little value in the real world; empirical facts = what really matters.

The "we are philosophers" bit is really more of a fantasy of the alchemists. They fancied themselves "philosophers" but were in fact empiricists at the core, even though they try to avoid admitting it as if it was the plague (for people so obsessed and infatuated with being seen as "philosophers", such a humble and truthful admission was out of the question.) Their theories and speculations about matter are adaptations of those of real speculative philosophers, specially Aristotle, to try to "explain" and give some supposed "intellectualism" to the empirical facts that they discovered. The result of this is a theoretical framework that can hardly be taken seriously: supposed "elements", "mercuries", "sulfurs" and the like things that nobody ever saw or had any proof of whatsoever being used to supposedly "explain" real things, actual facts. As Chaucer would say: "ignotum per ignotius!" ("explaining the unknown by the even more unknown!") What is really valuable about alchemy are its empirical facts, without the dead-weight of theories/speculations that the alchemists threw into the mix so they could go around trying to impress "the vulgar" and claiming to be "philosophers". These theoretical ruminations attached to alchemy are in fact more of an impediment than anything else, something one should strive to get rid of, not uncritically cherish and embrace them. Keep the empirical facts; dump the theoretical baggage.