Book Review: An Introduction To Alchemical Philosphy

An Introduction To Alchemical Philosophy, by Alasdair Forsythe

This book is one of three books that I downloaded for free from the author, who happens to be the person responsible for the Forgotten Books page that I am so fond of [1], which meant I felt somewhat obligated to check this book out and see what it had to do with his interest in old and obscure books about esoteric subjects.  As it turns out, this book is both helpful and frustrating in that regard.  On the helpful side, it is clear that this author has read and written a great deal of material about what could politely be considered both New Age and historically-inclined esoteric writings about the importance of energy, that at the very least are mystical in nature.  On the frustrating side, nearly every chapter of this very short book (only about 30 pages in length) begins with the same monotonous statement:  “Alchemy Deciphered, which you should read before this book, shows that the alchemists agree on the following premises relevant to this chapter.”  This is a problem because this book conducts itself as an introduction, one of the reasons (aside from its length) that I read it first before tackling the author’s other books.  It does not make sense that someone looking to read an introduction to a particular esoteric school of self-professed philosophy and metaphysics should expect to have already read books on the subject matter, since introductions are supposed to introduce subjects.  Rather than belabor the point any further, this book is worthwhile on its own merits, even without background knowledge, although there is clearly a bigger picture of which this small book is a brief summary and introduction.

The contents of this book are extremely streamlined, and one gets the feeling that the longer explanation could take a while.  The book begins with a discussion of what Alchemical philosophy is, then spends two very short chapters introducing the subject of alchemy and the philosopher’s stone.  The rest of the book is filled with discussion of various principles such as the principle of as above so below, or analogical reasoning, oneness, duality (yin and yang), cycles of nature, dissolving and coalescing, generation from corruption, and the importance of seeds.  Included in these discussions is a list of propositions, many of them very enigmatic, agreed to by a consensus of alchemical philosophers, whoever these people may happen to be.  Alchemy, is one knows anything about the subject, fell into a great deal of disrepute because of the lack of success in changing base metals to gold and the failures in uncovering mystical layers to reality as well as ways to gain immortality.  One thinks of Goethe’s Faust as being a prototypical example of that kind of disreputable person, and the scientific quest for mastery of the material universe eventually sidelined, for the most part, the quest for metaphysical and spiritual power and, to use the term a bit guardedly, magic, that had helped spawn scientific experimentation and exploration.

So, as is often the case, especially when one is dealing with books about odd subjects, the question is whether this book is worth reading.  If you have no interest in esoteric and obscure matters of metaphysics, or in the history of science, this book is not likely to be of interest.  Even for those with some interest in such matters, this book is going to raise a lot more questions than it answers, such as the following:  Where did the author develop his view of a consensus among alchemical philosophers?  What kind of people in history and in our contemporary world are alchemical philosophers?  Why does the author find it necessary to quote the New Testament and discuss a mysticism that is close to the Bible but that posits an erroneous dualism as opposed to having a proper respect for the Creator?  Why does the author use complicated words like quintessence when energy will do, and why does he have a love of obscure Latin phrases (not that I can complain, since I share that same love and have peppered many blog entries and larger essays with obscure Latin phrases myself)?  Is such a small book and such an obviously derivative book worthy of such questions?  Is the larger book this cites worth reading?  It appears that this book does one job of an introduction well–to prompt thought and encourage further reading, and that is a modest but worthwhile success for those interested in the subject matter.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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