It’s generally accepted that Isaac Newton was at least as interested in alchemy as he was in mathematics – indeed, he may well have regarded one as an extension of the other.
However, in my reading about alchemy, I have discovered that the making of gold and the philosopher’s stone were regarded by many of the more hermetic and serious alchemists as being metaphors for spiritual enlightenment. Newton was hardly unaware of the theological and spiritual sides of life.
My question is why he continued expensive and arduous experimentation in his laboratory at Trinity College, Cambridge – apparently purely physical alchemy, refining mercury to produce the “spiritual quicksilver” (known by a variety of other names) necessary to achieve the ultimate physical alchemical goals, when he was presumably aware that the crucibles, slow heating, distillations, etc. of the alchemists were regarded by many merely as symbols of one’s spiritual growth.
Was this a compulsion to see, touch, test and record (the horrendous account of his poking a needle into his eye comes to mind)? Or was this an obsession with gold and money, which came to the fore in his offices at the Mint?
Can someone who knows more about Sir Isaac than I do please shed some light on this?
I’m coming to the end of The Other Side of the Sky (at least the first draft), and it’s proving to be a voyage of discovery for me. I’m 90,000 words into the story and there are probably another 10,000 to go.
There’s a lot of mysticism in parts of this book – of the 18th century kind. I have been reading a lot of alchemical texts, and have been surprised by what I have discovered. I had, like many of us, I suppose, always considered alchemy to be concerned with turning base metals into gold, and perhaps discovering the Philosopher’s Stone (the picture is by Joseph Wright of Derby, who appears as a character in my book, and is a detail of his painting of an alchemist, sometimes known as The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus or The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone), which would grant eternal life or something to its possessor. Instead, I’ve discovered a mass of rich analogies, many of them confusing, if not outright contradictory, and all of them obscure, referring to a path towards spiritual perfection.
It’s impossible to separate these aims, and much of the imagery, from the Rosicrucians, who likewise expressed their secret doctrines in striking and colourful imagery. and from there, I suppose I could carry forward to the best-known 18th-century secret society, the Freemasons. However, I’ve decided not to go there.
Instead, I’ve chosen to go backwards, to an even earlier source of mystical spiritual growth, Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Now, Kabbalah is far from being a simple subject. It speaks in analogies, and has many forms, but the underlying concepts are those of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, as far as I can make out. So I’m not speaking as an expert but as an outsider looking into a new world.
This is a part of Kabbalah which has really attracted my attention, the Sefirot (there are many alternative transliterations), the ten energies (actually, there’s an eleventh “shadow” energy at the intersection of Keter, Binah and Chokhmah).
By moving from the source at Keter to Malkhut, one attains a realisation. It’s also possible to travel upwards, it seems, through to a union with the divine.
The links between these energies are typically associated with a letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and even with cards of the Major Arcana in the Tarot pack (this is a retroactive association, and was never made by Kabbalists, it appears).
But it also seems possible to link the Sefirot in other ways – paths which are in some way considered diabolical by many.
Here’s another view of the Sefirot which includes the letters associated with the links between the energies, and also includes Da’at, the intersection of Bina and Chockmah.
This diagram is sometimes referred to as the “Tree of Life” and is the subject of a lot of commentary and discussion. Even though there is a fair amount of low-hanging fruit that can be gathered from this tree by the non-adept, it would be possible, I am sure, to spend years studying it, with all the associations that have been made (many of them probably spurious or irrelevant). I’ve just come across a wonderfully paranoid conspiracy theory version which includes the Templars (of course), Akenahten, Freemansons, Jesuits, and puts the USA in the place of Malkhut!
As well as all of this, there is a rich corpus of Jewish legends, many of which have a bearing on this aspect of Kabbalah. One I have just been reading tells of the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet all clamouring to God that they be allowed to be first in the alphabet. The one which ends up being the first (Aleph) is the one which did not shout for a place. Maybe Jesus was aware of this story when he said “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.
Bringing this up to date
There are many more modern interpretations that can be made here. I mentioned that conspiracy theory just now, but there are other ways of viewing these subjects, and it’s also possible to trace the gradation from alchemy to chemistry.
It’s also possible (and it has been done several times) to place a psychoanalytic interpretation on both alchemy and Kabbalah. Carl Jung, in particular, was particularly fascinated by both as windows into archetypes and into the collective unconscious. Whether or not you believe in the more mystical elements of Jungian thought, there is much to consider.
All in all, I’ve gone on an interesting journey with this research. While I cannot accept all the elements of the alchemists of Kabbalists, I have discovered more than just plot elements – and the existence and details of aspects of Jewish mysticism have been a real eye-opener to me.