The Double Meaning of Alchemy

Part 1 of the Ego Alchemy series

Isaac Newton, a father of modern physics and a hero to rational science, had an irrational side to him. He dappled in alchemy, secretly. This fact came to light in 1936 when the famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, bought a collection of Newton’s personal papers at an auction and found among them copious writings about alchemy.

Newton the alchemist

Since uncovering this other side to Newton, historians have wondered if he discovered how to transmute lead into gold. A clue could be the fact that at the peak of his career, instead of accepting a professorship at Cambridge, Newton was appointed Director of the Mint, responsible for securing and accounting England’s repository of gold.

When historians analysed Newton’s notes, which he kept for over 30 years, many came to the conclusion he was trying to discover the Philosopher’s Stone, and not simply a way to get rich.

Before his death in 1727, Newton wrote a letter to fellow alchemist, Robert Boyle, urging him to keep ‘high silence’ about alchemy. In the book by B.J.T. Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, the author quotes from Newton’s letter:

‘Because the way by which the Mercurial principle may be impregnated has been thought fit to be concealed by others that have known it, and therefore may possibly be an inlet to something more noble that is not to be communicated without immense damage to the world if there be any verity in [the warning of the] Hermetic writers. There are other things besides the transmutation of metals which none but they understand.’

Newton never published a work on alchemy and some believe this is not a sign that he failed. It could mean he had succeeded enough to think he might be on to something. Indeed, well after his death none of his writings on alchemy come to light. Did the establishment view his alchemical writings as not fit to publish?

When Newton died it was already the period called the Enlightenment, and alchemy was relegated to nothing more than an idiotic pursuit. That Newton had been seriously investigating it, was a little embarrassing to the establishment.


So what were the ‘other things besides the transmutation of metals’ that Newton hinted at? What still remains unanswered is whether the spiritual side of alchemy was ever documented by Newton, or others.

During the Renaissance, many alchemists intuitively believed that purifying spiritually was a vital part of alchemy. In today’s terms, this would mean the ability to transmute the basic lead of ego into the gold of soul. But in those days, the spiritual side to alchemy was referred to as the ‘elixir of life’.

The true alchemist had both the mundane and spiritual aspects in mind. It was reasoned that pure intent drives mind over matter, from the will to physical manifestation in a process of cause and effect. You see it in acts of creation and change. A desire is visualised and the will (or intent) is brought into focus. Then knowledge is applied and tools and resources are assembled and used.

For the most part, the early alchemists were metallurgists and had melted ores and combined metals to create alloys. So the idea of converting one metal element into another wasn’t out of the ordinary. But their intuitive grasp of it may have left them a little short on the biological knowledge.

alchemist metallurgy

Alchemists of the time may have found it difficult to describe the process of spiritual alchemy. For example, they may have considered that what makes blood red is iron, which is the same as the metal iron, but in mineral form. Today we have learned from experience that the human body does not reject metal implants, yet can reject donor organs and human tissue transplants. So there is human affinity with metal.

But unlike modern thinking, the Renaissance thinker had no strict divide between science and religion. Subjects were not siloed into specialties like today. Alchemy was a combination of chemistry, metallurgy, medicine, astrology, and mysticism – all parts of one greater unified understanding.

Theories of nature were based on the concept of the four vital elements (fire, air, water, and earth) unified by ‘vitalism’ – which means the units (or atoms) that make up matter are animated with an aliveness. Gold represented the perfect balance between the elements of earth, water, air, and fire.

The alchemists relied heavily on their dreams, inspirations and visions to guide their art. It was thought alchemy could progress the lower metals toward gold through chemical stages called ‘projections’ which involved mercury, sulphur and furnaces. Yet their theories seem to have come more from folklore and religion in a magical view of Nature and natural forces.

It may seem like this medieval art was undisciplined and lacked solid understanding. They did have one advantage over us in that they were better placed to see relationships, correlations and inter-dependencies. There was nothing contradictory, in those days, with being scientific and spiritual.

If the principles of alchemy are applied to the evolution of the mind-body, it has the potential to transmute the lead of the ego personality into the gold of spiritual soul. The challenge is to rediscover how.

Next in the Ego Alchemy series: Alchemy wasn’t just a Western fantasy, find out how the holy grail of alchemy inspired other cultures.


1. Interview with Bill Newman (science historian, Indiana University) on Newton the Alchemist, NOVA, posted 15/11/05.

2. D.W. Hauck, Newton the Alchemist.

3. Peggy Ann Knapp, The Work of Alchemy, Project Muse.

4. Melissa Snell, Alchemy, Page Two, Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia.

5. Lawrence Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy, Chemical Heritage Foundation..

6. For more about Newton’s hidden side, see The Last Magician: Isaac Newton’s Dark Secrets.

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