THE WISDOM OF ARISTOTLE
But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. (NewT:1 Peter 5:10)
One of the most influential writers whose works were rediscovered in the library in Alexandria was Aristotle. His ideas had a particular influence on the development of alchemy. According to Aristotle, the basis of the entire material world was something he called prime or first matter. This was not, as it may first sound, some gray sludge from which the world would gradually evolved. In fact, it was not a substance one could see or touch. It had no physical existence on its own account. However, it was the one unchangeable reality behind the ever-changing material world. To give this matter a physical identity and individual characteristics, various stages of form were needed.
The first stage of form, Aristotle believed, was found in the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The elements, while distinguished from each other, are also related by four qualities. These qualities are dry, moist, hot, and cold. Each element possesses two qualities, of which one predominates, and each element is linked to two other elements by the quality they possess in common. Here is how this system applies:
Fire is hot and dry with heat predominating. Air is hot and moist with moisture predominating. Water is moist and cold with cold predominating. Earth is cold and dry with dryness predominating. FIRE * * * * Hot * * Dry *+---------+* * | | * AIR * | | * EARTH * | | * *+---------+* Wet * * Cold * * * * WATER The diagram (above) shows complex interrelationship of these qualities more clearly.
The main interest of Aristotle's theory of the elements from the point of view of alchemy is the idea of change. According to his theory each element can be transformed into another element through the quality they possess in common. In this way Fire can become Air through the action of heat; Air can become Water through the action of moistness; Water can become Earth through the action of coldness; and Earth can become Fire through the action of dryness. It is possible under this theory for an element gradually to complete the circle of change and go from Fire to Air, from Air to Water, from Water to Earth, and from Earth back to Fire, for example. It must be remembered that in all these changes the prime matter behind the form always remains the same.
The next stage of form in Aristotle's theory was that all physical manifestations in the world are composed of all four elements in different proportions. The varying amount of each element in the composition accounts for the infinite variety of things in the world. Because it was believed that elements could be transformed into other elements, it was only a small step to the assumption that all substances could be changed by altering the proportions of elements that constitute them. It is easy to see how alchemists took up on this idea. If as they believed, lead and gold consisted of different proportions of the same four elements, what was there to prevent the one being transformed into the other?
Aristotle had another theory that influenced the ideas of alchemists. This was on the formation of metals and minerals. He believed that when the Sun's rays fell on water, they produced a vaporous exhalation that was moist and cold. This exhalation became imprisoned in the dry earth, was compressed, and finally was converted to metal. All metals that are fusible or malleable, such as iron, copper, or gold, were, according to Aristotle, formed in this way. The formation of minerals, on the other hand, occured when the Sun's rays fell on dry land. They produced a smoky exhalation that was hot and dry, and the action of the heat produced the minerals. In this category Aristotle included substances that cannot be melted, as well as substances such as sulfur.
[From Alchemy, the Ancient Science by Neil Powell; pages 26 to 30. Boldface added.]