The Elixir and the Stone is an alternative history of the intellectual world, and more specifically of the Hermetic undercurrent in the development of European culture. Hermeticism is the belief in the unity of all things: the concept that there is a macrocosm (usually described as the universe or a deity) and a microcosm (man) which are interconnected and representative of one another. ‘As above, so below’. Hermetic thought encompasses astrology, alchemy and theurgy and as such is the foundation of most of what we call ‘occult’ today.
The journey begins in Alexandria in the first century AD, describing a bustling cosmopolitan culture in pursuit of knowledge, and proceeds to describe the rise of Christianity and Islam from the perspective of those not conforming to either. We are then given a chronological overview of the way philosophy has shaped society throughout Europe and Mesopotamia ever since, with surprising insights into moments when opposing religions lived alongside one another harmoniously. Famous fictional magicians such as Merlin and Faust are used to link the sections together, showing how their stories emerged from real characters.
This is more than just a historical record however, as it endeavours to highlight the effects of Hermeticism upon areas of life we may not have noticed it. I particularly enjoyed the well written section on the magic effect of arts and literature on the soul, and the idea that they could be used as talismans:
‘For Pythagoreans and the Alexandrian Hermeticists, the cosmos comprised of a single vast musical instrument in tune with itself, producing its own music to which it incessantly vibrated and resonated. Humanity and the Gods, earth and heaven, microcosm and macrocosm were all linked by harmony and reflected the same harmonious proportions. These proportions could be defined and described in mathematical terms.’
Unfortunately the commentary on the history of alternative thought seems to end quite abruptly around Isaac Newton (who is little known to have been an alchemist as well as a physicist), and the text switches to a critique of the prevailing attitudes of modern times. This is a bit confusing at first, as up to this point the subject matter is dealt with in a factual manner save for the occasional speculation as to the cause of events.
The main theme of the critique is that the acceptance of Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ in the 17th Century sparked off a large scale change in outlook which was in opposition to the hermetic idea of unity.
‘Synthesis was supplanted by analysis – an analysis so intoxicated with its own capacity for dissection that it lost the capacity for resembling what it had dismantled. And organism was supplanted by mechanism. The cosmos came to be increasingly perceived as a species of machine, a vast clockwork contraption – created by some divine architect or engineer perhaps but now left as an automation to its own devices.’
For me, this immediately brings to mind the ‘God is dead and we have killed him’ stance taken by Nietzsche, although Existentialism isn’t mentioned at any point.
The rise of what the authors would call ‘fragmented’ scientific thought is generally considered to be a development for humanity. But a good case is laid out here that we have in some ways taken a step backwards and are in need of recovery. This is very much a matter of opinion, but is thought provoking none the less.
There is some discussion on the psychology of Carl Jung mixed in to this part of the book, but next to no acknowledgement of modern Hermetic systems such as the Golden Dawn which I think would have been a highly relevant addition and a natural continuation. The authors seem to hold disdain for characters such as Aleister Crowley, and the struggle of the modern magician is described as:
‘If he is seen to take himself too seriously, he is regarded as a deluded fool and a laughing stock. If his attitude remains inscrutable, he will be castigated as a cynical and manipulative charlatan.’
There is surely some truth in this statement, but I don’t think it applies solely to modern magicians –John Dee and Edward Kelley certainly faced this very same issue in the 16th Century – and it felt like a poor excuse for skirting around their contributions. Similarly the Freemasons and Rosicrucians were skimmed over, though I suspect this may be due to the same authors having published a whole separate book on that subject.
Part 2, which is the last 50 pages, is a further deviation from the original format and reads more like two essays. There is a write up of the ‘magic’ of rock and pop music, and its apparent links to the hypnotic drumming of voodoo; and a discussion of how we use the concept of the protective magic circle in everyday life without realising it.
In summary, this is an enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in the Hermeticism. It is not too heavy-going, but as it is not within the scope of the book to describe esoteric theory in any detail, it does command a certain amount of knowledge in the subject to begin with. It succeeds in putting key philosophies, writers and practitioners into a timeline, and offering some alternative ideas about history and the causes and effects we are seeing in our world today.