THEOSOPHY, Vol. 36, No. 7, May, 1948
(Pages 297-302; Size: 18K)

FINGER-POSTS OF THE MIDDLE AGES

JABIR OR GEBER

WHAT the atom bomb is to the science of the twentieth century, the philosopher's stone was to the science of alchemy: a tremendous power, testing the moral force of its possessor. Today's moot question of the responsibility of the individual scientist is a social problem which the alchemists knew how to solve, and which science without alchemy can never master. Alchemy, wrote H. P. Blavatsky, who duplicated many of the alchemists' experiments, and demonstrated a number of their remarkable feats, "is as old as tradition itself," and in that tradition a force -- on no matter what plane of nature -- is correlated with all other planes, physical, psychical, mental and moral. Alchemy, in one sense, is the science of the ethical integration of the man and his experiment, the discoverer and his discovery, and until this principle is recognized and practised, the achievements of modern technology will continue to run amuck, despite the best efforts of sincere humanitarians.

Alchemy (from Al or El, Mighty Sun, and Chemi, fire) is generally thought to have originated in Egypt (called Khem in ancient times), and to have been taught by Hermes Trismegistus, who is associated with Thoth-Hermes, the divine instructor of Third Race mankind.(1) The Hermetic philosophy is founded upon the Law of Correspondences, recorded on the Smaragdine (or Emerald) Tablet of Hermes, but H. P. Blavatsky states in The Secret Doctrine (II, 763 fn. and 426), that Alchemy "had its birth-place in Atlantis during the Fourth Race, and had only its renaissance in Egypt." This is significant in view of the fact that the Atlantean Viwan Vidya, "knowledge of flying in air-vehicles," is being re-discovered only in this century, and that the great energy potential of the atom may be, for all we know, a bare intimation of the solar energy harnessed for use by Atlantean "magicians."

Specific illustrations of alchemical principles, as known in our history, are the turning of base metals into gold, lighting unquenchable flames, making malleable glass, producing acari (minute insects) by a modification of potassium, and distilling the elixir of youth.(2) But unless these activities connote a philosophy as well as a process, they cannot be considered representative of alchemy itself. One who studied alchemy for the purpose of learning to make gold, or to obtain the elixir of life, would never approach the real laws of that science. He might succeed in approximating the physical processes involved, if -- as is unlikely -- he had enough intuition to decipher the directions given, but, failing to do so, it would be easy to conclude that no one else could succeed where he had not. If the secrets of Alchemy are well kept, their inviolability owes as much to popular ignorance of the philosophical truths they express, as to any technical disguises by way of words or symbols.

The experience of Dr. Carl Jung, founder of modern Analytical Psychology, is of special interest in this connection. (See THEOSOPHY XXIX, 547.) [Note: The article referred to is entitled "Alchemical Discovery", and is located in the "Additional Categories of Articles" page, in the link which contains a growing "grouping" of articles found in the section entitled "SCIENCE IN THE 'LIGHT OF THEOSOPHY'". --Compiler.] Dr. Jung came to the study of alchemy unwillingly at first, and only because in his practice he found that many subjective impressions showed "unmistakable similarities to alchemical symbolism." He applied himself to fathoming the psychological implications of alchemical works, and, as he afterward expressed himself, "my patience has been richly rewarded." In The Integration of Personality (1939), he put forward the view that alchemical operations were really an inner psychological experience, assisted by the corresponding processes which the alchemist carried out on the physical plane. "True alchemy," he wrote, "was never a business or a career, but a real opus that a man carried on in silent, self-sacrificing labor."

The works of Jabir -- at once baffling in form and clear in spirit -- are a case in point. Jabir, or Geber, as his name became in Latin translation, is "the Arabian father of European alchemy," and a pioneer acknowledged even in modern physical chemistry. He pursued the science of alchemy in the last quarter of the eighth century in Mohammedan Arabia, which had a civilization as brilliant in all branches of learning and practical knowledge as contemporary Christendom was dark. About a hundred of Geber's books are extant, and such was his reputation, we are told by E. J. Holmyard,(3) that "all Muslim alchemists from the ninth century onwards acclaimed Jabir as their master, and there is scarcely a single alchemical book in Arabic in which he is not quoted or at least mentioned." Curiously enough, no work of Geber in both Latin translation and Arabic original was extant until recently, and the famous kabalist was often regarded by modern scholars as a mythical personage. About 1925, it happened that a few of his MSS. were turned up by a German scholar in Cairo, and other facts coming to light at the same time, Geber was "established" as an actual historical figure. Obscurity has not wholly departed from him even yet, however, since Holmyard's 1928 reprint of the seventeenth-century translation of "The Works of Geber" -- comprising only a few of his books -- is an extremely rare volume.

As might be expected with an occultist, "Of the details of his life Jabir is reticent ...", but some historians have called him an "Illuminated Monarch of India." It is evident that he had studied many occult subjects, besides alchemy, and that he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge covering all branches of learning, "from the art of warfare to that of music," and was proficient in medicine. Notwithstanding Jabir's position among his fellow scientists, and his admitted contributions to the theory and practice of chemistry, he is taken to task by Holmyard for "leanings to mysticism and superstition." Thorndike in History of Magic and Experimental Science (I, 763) also betrays an impatience with the continuance, in Arabic alchemy, of "the fantastic mysticism and obscurity, the astrology and magic, of the ancient Greek alchemists."

In respect to alchemy, it is necessary to examine certain theories of the Greek philosophers concerning the constitution of metals -- theories Jabir also held. It was taught that all substances are composed of four elements (fire, air, water and earth, themselves interconvertible), but that the immediate constituents of minerals and metals are two exhalations -- an "earthy smoke" on the way to becoming fire, and a "watery vapour" on the way to becoming air. (It may be noted that both these processes can be accomplished by fire.) These exhalations, when imprisoned in the earth, form minerals if the smoky vapour predominates, and metals by a predominance of the watery vapour.

Jabir taught that the exhalations underwent an intermediate transformation, into sulphur (from the dry or smoky vapour) and mercury (from watery vapour), which then formed metals, by combining in different proportions and with varying degrees of purity. When a natural equilibrium and complete purity obtained with these two elements, the result was the most perfect of metals, gold. Jabir further concluded that the sulphur and mercury in question were not the ordinary substances known by those names, but hypothetical elements which the physical substances approximate. Dr. Holmyard comments that this hypothesis has "all the bad qualities which Lavoisier found in the theory of phlogiston." The phlogiston theory itself, he remarks, was "a direct descendant of Jabir's theory of the constitution of metals." This is of interest because Phlogiston is the name given to the principle of fire regarded as a substance, and the theory reflects the doctrine of the fire-philosophers -- that fire, the symbol of Deity, is the source of material atoms, and "the container of the spiritual and psychic Forces energizing them." (See Theosophical Glossary, "Fire-Philosophers.") It is a theosophical teaching that "matter" and "force," as well as electricity, magnetism, fire, light and heat, are all aspects of one Principle.

Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (I, 291), mentions another "curious idea frequently expressed by alchemists, that of the 'life' of the mineral. The metal or the mineral is really regarded as a living being, which is engendered and develops in the womb of the earth, where it is subjected to various conditions, such as help or hinder its perfection." In every body there is considered to be a material part and a spiritual part, body and soul.

A common task for chemists consists in giving a soul to each body, by first purifying souls and bodies, and then infusing into each body the soul which suits it. Geber, still following the idea that there were certain injuries caused by nature, even speaks of 'restoring' to the body the soul which 'has gone out of it'; this is another aspect of a chemical operation; thus, mercury is the soul which suits gold and the other metals. The spirit also is capable of a sort of education; not only must it be fit to unite forcibly with its body, and for that reason be pure, but it must also be firm, it must resist fire, and to this end must, as far as possible, partake of the nature of fire.

In practice, the aim of the alchemist's efforts is to find the substance, a living substance, 'elixir' or spirit, which, when combined with the body of the imperfect metal, previously prepared and purified, will change it into perfect metal.

Students of The Ocean of Theosophy will recognize in this a familiar teaching. Mr. Judge writes (p. 60): "What then is the universe for, and for what final purpose is man the immortal thinker here in evolution? It is all for the experience and emancipation of the soul, for the purpose of raising the entire mass of manifested matter up to the stature, nature, and dignity of conscious god-hood." The close interweaving of the evolution of "spirit" and "matter," or soul and body, through the efforts of the self-conscious ego, would be an impossible doctrine if spirit, soul, mind, and matter were essentially different and discrete. A miracle -- creation -- would be required to change a thing (matter) into a being (spirit); but if spirit is potential in every atom of matter, and if both are poles of the same Substance-Principle, Spirit-Matter, the One Life, it follows that the gradual perfection of finer and finer instruments permits the progressive incarnation of spirit and soul in matter, fused by the fire of mind. Soul and "body" then partake of the nature of fire, in the language of alchemy, or perhaps of what H. P. Blavatsky referred to as the luminous "fire mist," the ethereal stuff from which the Universe was formed.

The doctrines of the alchemists are frequently quoted by the messenger of Theosophy in the nineteenth century, for across many centuries their works kept "in solution" certain central teachings of the wisdom-religion, as well as the age-old rules for occult students and experimenters. Theosophy in its present form contains direct instruction in philosophical concepts about which the alchemists could exchange only hints and symbols, correspondences and analogies. Also, both H.P.B. and W.Q.J. described and explained much of moral, mental and psychic discipline which in other ages had been confined to the temples and the Mystery schools. That a greater portion of the Secret Doctrine has been placed before the minds of men in the twentieth century, is by way of being a sign that in this age, not only a few men here and there, sequestered in laboratories and publishing their findings in a guarded cipher for co-disciples, but every man -- insofar as he is able and to the degree of his fellowship with mankind as a whole -- is to learn the responsibility of power over nature.

Extracts from the writings of Geber, in succeeding issues of THEOSOPHY, will give some idea of the range of philosophy contained in alchemical writings. It will be seen that the ideas and the language of the alchemists are without appeal for the literal-minded, for "the mentally lazy or obtuse," in H. P. Blavatsky's phrase. Moral intuition can reveal to a man the hidden powers and faculties found alike in great nature and in the human being, and that same intuition will govern him in the right use of such occult knowledge. Without intuition, joined to moral power, the secrets of life and death become the secrets of death only. Thus the alchemist sought, by every means at his command, to protect the man of evil motive, as well as one of indifferent morality, from knowledge that would implement ill-will and further pervert their spiritual destiny.

The true alchemists, as delineated by H. P. Blavatsky (Isis, I, 66-7), are extraordinary in knowledge, power, and responsibility:

Men possessed of such knowledge and exercising such powers patiently toiled for something better than the vain glory of a passing fame. Seeking it not, they became immortal, as do all who labor for the good of the race, forgetful of mean self. Illuminated with the light of eternal truth, these rich-poor alchemists fixed their attention upon the things that lie beyond the common ken, recognizing nothing inscrutable but the First Cause, and finding no question unsolvable. To dare, to know, to will, and REMAIN SILENT, was their constant rule; to be beneficent, unselfish, and unpretending, were, with them, spontaneous impulses. Disdaining the rewards of petty traffic, spurning wealth, luxury, pomp, and worldly power, they aspired to knowledge as the most satisfying of all acquisitions. They esteemed poverty, hunger, toil, and the evil report of men, as none too great a price to pay for its achievement.
Alchemy in our day appears in new guises, and in many partial forms, but the Magnum Opus, or Great Work, of these early scientists -- the transmutation of base "metals" into gold in their own nature -- is still the one all-inclusive science of life spiritual and physical: "Man is the philosopher's stone spiritually," writes H. P. Blavatsky.

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EDWARD BACH, HERBALIST

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THREE (3) FOOTNOTES LISTED BELOW:

(1) "On Alchemy and the Alchemists", see THEOSOPHY XXV, 490 and 532. [Note: The article referred to above, on page 490, is found in the 29-part series entitled "Great Theosophists". The second article referred to, on page 532, from the same series, is entitled "The Light of the Dark Ages". They are the 14th and 15th articles in the series, and the 143rd and 144th in the Introductory book on this web site (which contains a total of 166), subtitled "Volume 1--> Setting the Stage". The link to it, of the same name, is found at the bottom of this page, and every page. --Compiler.]
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(2) See Isis Unveiled, I, 503; 225 et ff.; 50; and 465.
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(3) See his edition of The Works of Geber, Englished by Richard Russell, 1678. (E. P. Dutton & Co., New York: 1928.)
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