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The Historiographical Problem of Spiritual Alchemy
Transcript of The Historiographical Problem of Spiritual Alchemy
What is Historiography?
Historiography refers either to the study of the methodology and development of "history" (as a discipline), or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic. Scholars discuss historiography topically – such as the "historiography of Catholicism", the "historiography of early Islam", or the "historiography of China" – as well as specific approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the ascent of academic history, a corpus of historiographic literature developed. How much are historians influenced by their own groups and loyalties--such as to their nation state--is a much debated question
William R. Newman and Lawrence Principe
"Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy"
18th Century - Alchemy is irrational, opposite of science
19th Century - Alchemy really a spiritual technique: the chemistry is meaningless, and thus the true alchemist knows that the real secret is spiritual transformation.
20th Century - Jungians follow Carl Jung who thought alchemists were doing psychological "projection" (if unconsciously): even if the chemistry didn't work, it was still worth studying as "individuation" process.
Since Newman and Principe
Some of the most important changes identified are a marked awareness of the risks of presentism, a shift from ambitious histories to contextualised microhistories, a heightened recognition of the internal diversity of historical alchemy, and a greater emphasis on its practical dimensions and its role in the Scientific Revolution.
Ambix. 2011 Nov;58(3):215-37. Some recent developments in the historiography of alchemy.
Esotericism as "rejected knowledge" category
created by Christians dealing with presence of
remains of Pagan culture, ideas, worldview.
Alchemy lumped in with "occult sciences.
Historians don't have access to information
about "the divine" or "essence (vs. religionism)
We must be careful making claims about
what "real alchemy" is, avoid rejecting data.
Spiritual Alchemy in the 16th and 17th centuries
Christian Cabalist Magical traditions blend with alchemical experimental traditions
Paracelsus - Merkur argued he's origin of Sp. Alch.
Khunrath - Forshaw has shown practical side
Fludd - Alchemy in theology - anticipates Boehme
Maier - Emblems and "Rosicrucian" writings a common target for defenders of "spiritual alchemy" but I'm not convinced that he thought the chemistry was all a con job like in 18th c.
Paracelsian Mystical Experience
In the Paracelsian tradition of spiritual alchemy, initiates sought four specific mystical experiences in a deliberate sequence in order to inculcate a particular doctrinal orientation to mystical practice and metaphysics. Comparably complex mystical initiations have rarely been documented in the general history of religion. The literature occasionally suggests that a single technique of ecstasy, such as reciting a Hindu or Buddhist mantra, or the Muslim la illaha, or the Christian Jesus prayer, is able to induce several experiences en route to the desired experience of union.
Dan Merkur, "Stages of Ascension in Hermetic Rebirth
These ideas have prevented scholars from understanding alchemy, which was always
primarily concerned with physical matter.
"alchemists like making stuff." -L.P.
Defenders of Spiritual Alchemy
Kyle Fraser, "Baptised in Gnosis: The spiritual alchemy of Zosimos of Panopolis" Dionysius 25
Hereward Tilton, "The Quest for the Phoenix: Spiritual Alchemy and Rosicrucianism in the
work of Count Michael Maier (1569-1622)
Florian George Calian "Some Modern Controversies on the History of Alchemy" Annual of Medieval Studies at CEU, VOL. 16, 2010, 166-190.
Bruce Janacek, Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England (2011)
Brian Vickers, “The ‘New Historiography’ and the Limits of Alchemy,” Annals of Science, 2008, 65:127–156.
Newman and Principe
on Spiritual Alchemy
Most alchemical texts originated in a culture of greater religious sensibility than our own and thus naturally exhibit more spiritual and religious expressions than do later works of "chemistry." ...
This is not to say that there was nothing whatsoever akin to a "spiritual alchemy" in the broad historical spectrum of alchemy. The relationship between alchemy and religion, theology, and spirituality is complex, but still does not countenance the esoteric spiritual school of interpretation.