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What was alchemy?

The Latin motto of alchemy was solve et coagula, which means "separate and combine." Alchemy was practiced throughout the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish world until the nineteenth century and beyond. Traditionally, the central project of practicing alchemists was to discover how to turn base metals into gold. Second to this was a search for the elixir of life, which would cure all sickness and enable immortality. Medieval alchemists sought a philosopher's stone, which they believed would make both tasks possible, and they also worked on formulas for a universal solvent or aqua vitae. One form of aqua vitae has endured as a concentrated ethanol liquid: ethyl alcohol.

How were alchemists regarded by their peers?

Alchemists were regarded with suspicion by traditional thinkers and theologians, but their constant experimentation with metals and plant stuff resulted in discoveries useful in tanning, dying, metallurgy, and other so-called "Baconian sciences." The figure of the Magus (or wiseman, or sorcerer, or even warlock) was associated with alchemy throughout its history.

The science of modern chemistry had its early experimental roots in alchemy, which some think is the main reason why it was not accepted as part of the scientific curriculum in higher learning until well into the nineteenth century.

The theory behind alchemy was Neoplatonic. Its main principle, "As above, so below," meant that man was a microcosm of the cosmos. In addition, time was believed to be cyclical, and the universe was seen as a being that is alive with divine spirit.

What did Paracelsus contribute to alchemy?

Paracelsus (1493-1541) shared the Neoplatonic beliefs of most alchemists: decay is the beginning of all birth; prime matter separates out of ultimate "immaterial matter" and human creativity repeats this process; time is a cycle composed of force and growing; and above and below, or heaven and earth, are the same in form.

However, Paracelus replaced the planetary theory of "humors" with a chemical one: salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and the fifth element—or quintessence—life. His term Ens natural referred to the balance of the chemical humors, and Ens spirituale was the balance of the mind. Unlike many of his colleagues, Paracelsus did not think that insanity was caused by demons or that nightmares represented sexual intercourse with succubi. He taught that the mind can create diseases in itself, the body, or in the minds or bodies of others via hypnosis, magic, or ill will. He thought that most diseases are curable evils but that no doctor can correct Ens Dei, or the will of God.

Paracelsus was accused of heresy for his Neoplatonic notion of prime matter and for asserting that illness was not evil. (Prime matter contradicted the idea that God created everything; also, saying that illness was not evil left no room for the devil.) But, after his death, his birthplace became a shrine for Roman Catholics.

What were some noteworthy advances in medicine during the scientific revolution?

During the scientific revolution, William Harvey (1579-1657) correctly described and demonstrated the closed circulatory system of blood. Robert Burton (1577-1640) described (and lived out) the nature of psychological depression. With Harvey's achievement, the inside of the human body could be understood as an orderly mechanical (hydraulic) system; with Burton's achievement came the recognition of mental illness as a secular, pedestrian process. Both achievements were practical and gratifying rewards for scientific investigators, as well as their public.

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