Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Sir Humphry Davy (17781829)
AMONGST a people of conquerors, disposed to sensuality and luxury even from the spirit of their religion, and romantic and magnificent in their views of power, it was not to be expected that any new knowledge should be followed in a rational and philosophic manner; and the early chemical discoveries led to the pursuit of alchemy, the objects of which were to produce a substance capable of converting all other metals into gold; and an universal remedy calculated indefinitely to prolong the period of human life.
Reasonings upon the nature of metals, and the composition of the philosophers stone, form a principal part of the treatises ascribed to Gebar; and the disciples of the school of Bagdat seem to have been the first professed alchemists.
It required strong motives to induce men to pursue the tedious and disgusting processes of the furnace; but labourers could hardly be wanting, when prospects so brilliant and magnificent were offered to them; the means of procuring unbounded wealth; of forming a paradise on earth; and of enjoying an immortality depending on their own powers.
The processes supposed to relate to the transmutation of metals, and the elixir of life, were probably first made known to the Europeans during the time of the crusades; and many of the warriors who, animated with visionary plans of conquest, fought the battles of their religion on the plains of Palestine, seemed to have returned to their native countries under the influence of a new delusion.
The public spirit of the west was calculated to assist the progress of all pursuits that carried with them an air of mysticism. Warm with the ardour of an extending and exalted religion, men were much more disposed to believe than to reason: the love of knowledge and power is instinctive in the human mind; in darkness it desires light, and follows it with enthusiasm even when appearing merely in delusive glimmerings.
The records of the middle ages contain a great variety of anecdotes relating to the transmutation of metals, and the views or pretensions of persons considered as adepts in alchemy; these early periods constitute what may be regarded as the heroic or fabulous ages of chemistry. Some of the alchemists were low imposters, whose object was to delude the credulous and the ignorant; others seemed to have deceived themselves with vain hopes; but all followed the pursuit as a secret and mysterious study. The processes were communicated only to chosen disciples, and being veiled in the most enigmatic and obscure language, their importance was enhanced by the concealment. In all times men are governed more by what they desire or fear, than by what they know; and in this age it was peculiarly easy to deceive, but difficult to enlighten the public mind; truths were discovered, but they were blended with the false and marvellous, and another era was required to separate them from absurdities, and to demonstrate their importance and uses.