The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry – A. E. Waite
II THE SCHOOL OF ALCHEMY : AN EXCURSUS
THE history of Alchemy in Europe offers a field of research in which the first steps have as yet been scarcely taken. There is a very fair probability which does not, however, enter at all into the grade of certitude from any point of view that what I may call the font of experience in this subject was Byzantium, represented by the extant remains of the Byzantine alchemists. They date from the fourth century and onward to about 700 A.D., and their influence has been traced by the perpetuation of certain characteristic conventions of expression for a considerable period beyond the Middle Ages. These phrases seem to offer a better testimony to the source of knowledge than the instituted technical terminology which Alchemy has used so invariably and which constitutes the chief veil of the art. Having regard to the unknown world in China, and the existence of the same art therein from a period as yet wholly indeterminate, it is very difficult to say that Alchemy was not an importation from that far region, and Byzantium would not have been by necessity the sole port of entrance for the particular class of merchandise. The catch phrases, however, on which the evidence depends, are much less likely to have been common in East and West, as they are in no way essential to the subject. If we assume, therefore, as a tolerable working hypothesis, under all the necessary reserves, that the theory and practice of metallic transmutation, with some adjuncts thereto belonging, spread from Constantinople over Europe, and gave rise in several countries to a Latin literature which afterwards passed into the vernacular, the second step in the department of historical research would- be to ascertain the number and date of the earliest extant manuscripts. Their co-ordination would be the third step, and I suppose that herein I have already indicated a very serious labor. In neither case, however, has the step been taken, and as a fact we know utterly nothing as to whether the great and familiar Latin texts ever penetrated into Russia, into Southern Europe, with the exception of Portugal, Spain, and Italy, or unless at very late periods into northern countries like Sweden. There may be innumerable unknown superiors and masters of the art whose memorials lie entombed and forgotten far away from the great centers. Speaking generally, there is, so far as our acquaintance extends, no literature of the subject outside Germany, France, England, Spain, and a few great texts, with much that is late and negligible, in Italy.
Latin Alchemy arose about the tenth century and had an allotted life of seven hundred years ; it was slow in growth and it passed slowly into the vernacular of any country. An early example of the latter is furnished by the informal tract which Jean de Meung incorporated in his share of the Roman de la Rose. This is of the thirteenth century, and, whether or not it was actually the first text of its kind in the French tongue, its popularity set the fashion of writing on Alchemy therein, and some of the most valued and authoritative treatises on the Great Work belong thereto. As there is no very serious question that one of the memorials attributed to Nicholas Flamel, the wonderful scrivener of Paris, may be tentatively allocated to his period, our next date is at the close of the fourteenth century. But a curious set of monographs by Johannes Rupecissa, which move in a strange spiritual atmosphere, are near to the same epoch or earlier. They are earlier in high but not consummate probability. Bernard Trevisan followed in the fifteenth century; and Denis Zachaire is another illustrious name which brings up the present unconcerted account of the literature in one country to the middle of the sixteenth century. I have mentioned the typical instances and have selected France, because it is with this country, as intimated, that in respect of Hermetic High Grades we shall be concerned in an especial manner. As Alchemy was a secret art represented by a secret literature, and as even in its most material aspects it claimed to be the gift of the Spirit or the gift of a Master abiding under the law of the Spirit, and as it confessed invariably to a religious motive, what I may be permitted to call the sacramentary of that art has great names to offer from the Middle Ages and onward in England and Germany. Though Ecossais Hermetic Grades are fortunately not in evidence, I suppose that there are few adepts more illustrious in the catholic annals of transmutation than Alexander Seton the Scotchman at the beginning of the seventeenth century, or the pseudonymous Eirenasus Philalethes, an Englishman of the period of the Rebellion. I suppose also that Basil Valentine and Paracelsus are as great in Germany, though the latter had taken all secret science for his province, and being supposed to have attained in all is perhaps in a general sense the head of the whole body of occult adept ship. I have now mentioned three countries, though I have certified that our concern is with one, but my design is to make room for a particular distinction which is not without moment to my purpose. Between all the countries concerned in the great output of the literature, there grew up, as I have explained more than once elsewhere, two schools in Alchemy, the root matter of which is to be traced from the assumed beginnings of the mystery among the Byzantine alchemists. There was the school of the physical work divided into two branches one being that of transmutation, constituting the medicine of metals, which healed the sickness of reputed inferior elements in the mineral kingdom of Nature ; the other being that of the elixir, which healed sickness and senility in the kingdom of the natural man. Speaking broadly, the second of these schools did not, by the evidence of the texts, claim to confer immortality or literally to renew youth ; ex hypothesi it healed disease and retarded the waste of tissue. But there was the school of a spiritual work, the claim of which was at once the most obscure and express that is to be met with in any of the concealed literatures. It used the veils and terminology of transmutation and the elixir to cover an experiment in the inward man, but that experiment is, I think, the last secret which yields itself up to research. In the words of Rupecissa, its initiates, or rather its proficients, are ” enriched with an infinite wealth beyond all kings of the earth ; they are first before God and men, and are in enjoyment of the special favour of heaven.” This statement is equally pellucid and hopeless, but this is not the place in which to carry the subject further and explain after what manner a student who is utterly prepared may follow this side of Alchemy into its deep recesses and behold from very far away how the closed eye of the secret does in fine open, and what light it diffuses.
I have shown elsewhere that Thomas Vaughan was an exponent in England of this side of the art; Khunrath is an example in Germany, and there are many Latin treatises of concealed or equivocal authorship which might extend the list indefinitely. In the early seventeenth century, Jacob Bohme began (a) to rend the veils of the mystery, or (b) alternatively to use the terminology of Alchemy in a spiritual sense and to explain the art from a standpoint particular to himself. It is for him one of the works of regeneration, and is, I infer, that consummation which is possible of attainment by the soul, wherein it may be said literally and mystically that God wipes away all tears from the eyes. And as I am entirely certain that the pilgrimage of spiritual Alchemy was in that undiscovered country of the soul from which no traveler returns when he has proceeded a certain great distance, and as it was in this country that Jacob Bohme had received some titles of freedom not that I pretend him to have undertaken the whole journey so I think that here and there he used some of the alchemical language in its full and ineffable sense ; but I do not think that he had the whole mystery thereof. He remains, however, by his intimations, the point of departure from which those may do well to start in this quest who are in search of a criterion for the literature. That criterion has become a question of urgency; the evidence for the separation of the literature into two schools has to be restated entirely and extended where no one has tried to carry it.
Even at the present day it would be difficult to estimate the extent of the influence which may have been exercised by Jacob Bohme (Jakob Böhme) on mystical philosophy in France. He began to be made known in that country under the auspices of Saint-Martin, and there is little question that the considerable vogue and the high appeal of the latter must have reflected in many quarters on the German theosopher, to whom such a throne of the inward life was attributed by one who had taken him into his heart of hearts. Still it was rather the fact of the influence; the testimony to greatness on the part of one who was obviously carrying very high titles himself, which provided the spiritual effigy of Bohme with something of a French nimbus. I cannot trace that Saint-Martin’s translations of one or two Bohme texts made any conspicuous mark. There is reason, I think, to infer that they remained generally unknown, and their present excessive rarity is an indication that the original impressions were minute. However this may be, it does not transpire in the translations, nor in the independent appreciations of Saint-Martin, that Bohme had any place in the school of Hermetic tradition, much less that in him for the first time the veils of alchemical philosophy had begun to be lifted. Had the fact been much more conspicuous, had the revelation been much fuller, I think that it would have spelled very little to the French mystic, who was not of the Hermetic tradition, and had, if anything, less patience for its obvious concerns and modes than he carried for theurgic processes out of the school of Martines de Pasqually. I question whether it had entered into his mind to conceive that there was a spiritual side of the adept ship which on the surface of its records was concerned with metallic transmutation. I almost question whether he would have entered into the side issue if he had met with testimony thereon; his warrants were so much within himself; he was not a man of books ; he appealed little to tradition and less even to authority ; while he sincerely thought that he was not worthy to loose or to bind the shoes of the German cobbler, he carried his own implicits into the latter’s writings and brought them out shining in no very new manner of expression. In a word, Jacob Bohme enabled him to look a little more clearly into his own deeps, but the pearls which he thus discovered were the same manner of jewels as they had been from the beginning.
The fact therefore remains, that the kinship in symbolism between the regeneration of metals and the work of regeneration in man did not materially trouble the dream of the French mind in respect of the magnum opus. When Johannes de Rupecissa (Jean de Roquetaillade) affirmed, in the closing lines of his tract on The Composition of the True Stone of the Philosophers that the present order of the world would perish if the matter of the Stone were named ; that the possessor of this inestimable treasure was indeed born under a happy constellation ; that it was not the work of usury, of fraud or of deception, but was the special gift of God, I conclude that the French mind, following the line of least resistance, understood in its simplicity that all this was the license of adept ship somewhat wider than the poet’s license. It had not really heard in its preoccupations about the doctrine of correspondences, which had scarcely been formulated that is to say, in the French language; but it knew something of occult sympathies, and it is probable that the analogy would appeal to the French student after this manner and as something instituted in the mind by way of artificial likeness. But it is even more probable that for practical purposes the French occult literati had heard nothing of the instituted analogy, by which I mean that they had not noticed the colophon added to one tract of Rupecissa, though it follows from Lenglet du Fresnoy that the work itself was prized.
There was, moreover, Jean d’Espagnet, whom I ought to have mentioned previously; he also was a Frenchman, and, though there is very little doubt that he once worked in metals, he had occasional intimations, as from strange worlds of analogy, and some of records and glimpses are not precisely those of the kingdom of this world.
At the beginning of his Secret Work of the Hermetic Philosophy he makes it perfectly plain as to the nature and term of the quest and its wisdom : he says (i) that the light of the secret knowledge is a gift of God ; (2) that the postulant must be utterly dedicated to Divine things, and emptied, also utterly, of the concerns, desires and interests which have their root in this world ; (3) that the science is Divine in its nature, that it begins in the fear of the Lord and ends in love. After such a preamble, coupled with the fact which is specified a little later, namely, that the student may be ignorant of practical chemistry, it would seem almost impossible to misconstrue the real subjects with which the author is dealing, to misinterpret his metals, his mercuries, his sulphurs, or the processes by which they are converted from one to another mode of manifestation or of being. But, as a matter of fact, the mind of French Alchemy permitted the intimations to slide, overlooked the preamble, and continued its usual method of literalizing the terms and processes. D’Espagnet passed out of sight before the middle of the seventeenth century, and it will be remembered by many of my readers that about this time the belated rumour of the Rosicrucian Fraternity began to be heard of in France. It was rumor only, and it was not until the middle period of the eighteenth century when High- Grade Masonry was near the zenith of repute and power that we get our first indications of the Mystery, its offshoots or developments, being at work in the country. One of its reformations was due to take place in Germany during the next quarter of the century, but there are French records which if they are to be regarded as reliable in the historical sense offer proof that its concern in 1750 was the same as that which is on record in respect of 1777. It was exclusively a society of Hermetists seeking the philosopher’s stone on the material side. I have seen part of an exceedingly rare manuscript, written in French and dated 1763. It is entitled The Practice of the Work of the Brethren of the Rosy Cross and their Key for the Extraction of Living Gold. The extraction took place, by the hypothesis, from the subject matter of minerals, and the fixation was by means of vulgar gold. I do not know whether the title which I have quoted is that of the whole collection or one of its parts only. There are two sections extant, the second treating of natural philosophy and the spagyric or Hermetic art. Five sections are missing, and it is in these if anywhere that specific information might be expected regarding the Society. So far as the surviving portions are concerned, the document is not of authority, as the anonymous writer speaks throughout on his own responsibility, recalls his personal discoveries and the marvels which he operated by their means. He does, however, affirm that the Brethren of the Rosy Cross were the first to recognize the existence, under the name of Living Gold, of a middle substance in metals and minerals, and that the first matter is gold. It is evidently, therefore, a record of little moment on the historical side, and in respect of its secret processes I have taken different opinions of old students as to their value, with the kind of enlightenment which is usually derived from experts; that is to say, it was said on the one hand that more help could be derived from the collection than from almost anything else in the range of alchemical manuscripts. The alternative view is that no value attaches to the contents. I will only note in conclusion that the writer, unlike the general members of the Rosicrucian Order, would appear to have been a Catholic, and possibly even an ecclesiastic; he mentions in one place that he had been in retreat for a period of four years at the Abbaye Royale ; he states, further, that he began his occult studies at the age of sixteen, or at the same period as in the case of Christian Rosenkreutz. If we are to accept this manuscript as a reflection of the Order, at however far a distance, it is interesting as a record of the Fraternity ; it registers the nature of its preoccupations, and shows that even in what may be tentatively called the high quarters of initiation there was then at least no horizon outside the physical work. I believe that the manuscript belongs to the date which is mentioned in one of its remaining sections, and it therefore follows that the Hermetists in France did not draw higher leading from the inmost circles than their particular dispositions helped them to extract from the prevailing texts of Alchemy.
Cagliostro and the Comte de Saint-Germain were the public advertisements of the subject at that period on the Continent of Europe, or at least of that part having France as the centre thereof. Both claimed to have been renewed by the elixir of immortality; both could at need dispense it ; theirs also was the secret of wealth, and all power was at their demand. Saint-Germain is too doubtful and nebulous for any definite opinion to be formed concerning him; he was little more than a portent, and might almost have furnished a case in point to the makers of historic doubts. But the impositions of Cagliostro are beyond all question, and the experience of Cardinal de Rohan, in search of the great palingenesis, at the hands of the dubious adept is evidence enough as to the kind of Alchemy which the latter practiced.
There has been an attempt within recent times to redeem Cagliostro by indicating the very slight basis in fact which remains after a searching inquiry into the motives and circumstances of his identification with Joseph Balsamo, and I have recorded otherwise my feeling that there is at least a tolerable warrant for the suspension of judgment on the subject. The distinction, if it can be maintained, does not operate substantially towards the redemption of the Magus ; but it reduces the old charges by leaving his early life in a cloud of darkness. In another cloud of this kind the Comte de Saint-Germain remains throughout his whole career. He was a contemporary of Cagliostro, but the chief part of his pageant had passed across the stage of Europe some few years previously. It has been suggested that he was born in 1710, and he seems to have been first heard of in Germany about 1750. He visited England in 1760 on some kind of semi-political mission from the court of France. This was apparently arranged by Louis XV. personally, and did not prevent one of that king’s ministers sending secret instructions to London for the arrest of Saint-Germain as a Russian spy. With the particulars I am not concerned, but two years later he was in St. Petersburg and was certainly involved in some kind of conspiracy. I mention this to show that on the historical side he was rather a political personality, and his claims of the occult order, though in part they must have arisen from himself, are more largely of contemporary attribution and of romantic invention. Much in the latter respect is due to the Marquis de Luchet and to the imaginative writers who later on accepted his illuminated fables as facts. In 1774 Saint-Germain is said to have taken up his abode in Germany, there to live in retirement, and though he is heard of subsequently in Italy and Denmark, he had left the public stage. The date mentioned was two years before Cagliostro as such, and setting aside his time-immemorial identification with Joseph Balsamo, made his own appearance in London. Now in 1760 and thereabouts we know that Masonry was in the light of public evidence, both here and on the Continent, but the High Grades were at the dawn rather than the zenith and had not filled all men’s ears. It has been said that Saint-Germain not only claimed initiation but a throne of Masonic adept ship, for which, however, I find no evidence ; no rite is connected with his name ; no Lodge is said to have received him. The explanation is probably that at the period when Cagliostro was in his high noon there was every reason why a person adopting the role of a travelling illumine should identify himself with the Brotherhood, which was then in the glory of the High Grade fever ; but if there was some incentive from fifteen to twenty years previously, it was not in the same degree. The history of the Comte de Saint-Germain remains to be written in the light of first-hand knowledge, but in certain respects he may be called the precursor of Cagliostro, and it is for this reason that he is entitled to mention here. He is said to have resigned immortality in 1783 at Eckenfiorde. Having regard to his antecedents in Masonry, he is about the most unfortunate selection that could have been made by certain dreamers in the modern school of theosophy, when they were in search recently of a hypothetical adept to be installed as a guardian angel for the female Freemasonry which they have taken under their wing.
Whether the hypothesis accepts a comparatively old story that, despite his fatigue of immortality, and notwithstanding its alleged surrender, Saint-Germain continues to carry the load of the Christian centuries, I do not pretend to say ; but for our diversion in these matters of transcendental faith, it may be added that there is a person at this day resident in Hungary who affirms that he is the dubious Count in propria persona^ that he is not as such re-embodied but perpetuated apparently in the flesh for ever and ever. It does not seem clear that he is the concealed guardian of the thing called Co-Masonry, and in the contrary event what attitude would be taken up by that doubtful body should the claimant appear in England is a question for those who are concerned.
I mention these trivial matters to indicate the temper of the time, in respect of the present moment, but in respect also of the past. The evanescent but brilliant success of the personages in question at the close of the eighteenth century is an efficient touchstone for the predisposition concerning the occult sciences in general and things Hermetic in particular, and so it remains to-day. But that which prevailed in the world of adventure and trickery had then its parallel in more serious quarters. Baron Tschoudy and the Abbe Pernety, both in Masonic and in literary life, have left important memorials concerning their understanding of Alchemy the first in his Catechism, which assumes a purely arbitrary and
even fantastic air of Masonic connection and terminology ; the second in his interpretation of classical mythology as being the veils of the Great Work which work, for all and sundry at that period and in that place, is rooted in earth and the material, carrying with it no suggestion of a deeper sense.
The century of revolution went, and I must not say that in France the sleep of Alchemy and the occult sciences generally was unbroken; but I know of nothing apart from Masonic Rites that is worth mentioning, of nothing which belongs to our purpose for a period of sixty years. Thereafter, for another period, whatsoever was considerable, whatsoever was brilliant, whatsoever was attractive and plausible was written over one signature, and the name was Eliphas Levi. He was much too comprehensive and interpretative to see single phases only where more than a phase was possible, and if we question his oracle, it responds with no uncertain voice, as follows:
- The Stone of the Philosopher is the foundation of absolute philosophy, the supreme, the immovable reason, which is the touchstone of truth.
- It is also the certitude which follows conscientious researches.
- The universal medicine is, in the soul, supreme reason and absolute justice ; in the mind, it is mathematical and practical truth ; in the body, it is the quintessence, which is a combination of gold and light.
- Philosophical salt is wisdom; mercury is skill and application; sulphur is the fire of the will.
I could multiply quotations like these, or I could select entire chapters, but I have made them available already by summarized or direct translation. Their sum total does not deny, or perhaps especially reduce, the hypothesis of the metallic work, but it offers the other side of the shield of Hermetic faith: it is Eliphas Levi’s presentation of spiritual Alchemy; it is utterly unsubstantial, betraying no acquaintance with the root-matter of the literature; but it has glimpses here and there.