About the Philosopher’s Stone
The Alcyhmist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, by Joseph Wright of Darby (1771)
The Philosophers’ Stone
In keeping with the intellectual pursuits of many of his contemporaries, Maier strove to produce the philosophers’ stone. But what exactly did this mean? The early modern alchemist understood himself as being a “philosopher by fire,” that is, one dedicated to the love, study and pursuit of wisdom, whereby knowledge of Nature and Creation was attained by reworking elemental matter into a lasting and incorruptible substance – the philosophers’ stone – through a series of laboratory procedures that relied on the purifying flames of the alchemical furnace. The term “stone” or “lapis” in the early modern pharmaceutical lexicon signified a potent medicinal substance that had been rendered into a solid rock-like mass through the process of boiling. Thus, the philosophers’ stone was understood to be a powerful medicine for restoring perfect health and longevity to humankind. Its undertaking required deep theoretical knowledge from the alchemical corpus that informed a complex laboratory process of successive stages of purification and recombination of matter.
The philosopher’s stone, or stone of the philosophers (Latin: lapis philosophorum) is a legendary alchemical substance capable of turning base metals such as mercury into gold (chrysopoeia, from the Greek χρυσός khrusos, “gold,” and ποιεῖν poiēin, “to make”) or silver. It is also able to extend one’s life and called the elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and for achieving immortality; for many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal in alchemy. The philosopher’s stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosopher’s stone were known as the Magnum Opus (“Great Work”).
Mention of the philosopher’s stone in writing can be found as far back as Cheirokmeta by Zosimos of Panopolis (c. 300 AD). Alchemical writers assign a longer history. Elias Ashmole and the anonymous author of Gloria Mundi (1620) claim that its history goes back to Adam who acquired the knowledge of the stone directly from God. This knowledge was said to be passed down through biblical patriarchs, giving them their longevity. The legend of the stone was also compared to the biblical history of the Temple of Solomon and the rejected cornerstone described in Psalm 118.
The theoretical roots outlining the stone’s creation can be traced to Greek philosophy. Alchemists later used the classical elements, the concept of anima mundi, and Creation stories presented in texts like Plato’s Timaeus as analogies for their process. According to Plato, the four elements are derived from a common source or prima materia (first matter), associated with chaos. Prima materia is also the name alchemists assign to the starting ingredient for the creation of the philosopher’s stone. The importance of this philosophical first matter persisted throughout the history of alchemy. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Vaughan writes, “the first matter of the stone is the very same with the first matter of all things”.
Philosopher’s stone in Western alchemy an unknown substance, also called “the tincture” or “the powder,” sought by alchemists for its supposed ability to transform base metals into precious ones, especially gold and silver. Alchemists also believed that an elixir of life could be derived from it. Inasmuch as alchemy was concerned with the perfection of the human philosophy” data- the philosopher’s stone was thought to cure illnesses, prolong life, and bring about spiritual revitalization.
The philosopher’s stone, variously described, was sometimes said to be a common substance, found everywhere but unrecognized and unappreciated. The quest for the stone encouraged alchemists from the Middle Ages to the end of the 17th century to examine in their laboratories numerous substances and their interactions. The quest thereby provided a body of knowledge that ultimately led to the sciences of chemistry, metallurgy, and pharmacology. The process by which it was hoped common metals such as iron, lead, tin, and copper could be turned into the more valuable metals involved heating the base material in a characteristic pear-shaped glass crucible (called the vase of Hermes or the philosopher’s egg). Colour changes were carefully watched—black indicating the death of the old material preparatory to its revitalization; white, the colour required for change into silver; and red, the highest stage,the colour required for change into gold.