Friend: So what exactly do you mean when you say "alchemical methods"?
Alchemist: Spagyrics is where most people start, which is basically breaking things down to component parts and recombining the parts to remove impure components, but that's mostly just for plants. Alchemy involves the same ideas but additional processes to further explore more completely the deconstruction and recombination. Alchemists generally look at it as a way of self identifying with and exploring the processes of nature and participating in creation and the improvement of the world
Friend: Okay, purification and such seems fairly straightforward to me. As long as things don't start getting into "all metals are combinations of mercury and sulfur in varying proportions" and whatnot.
Alchemist: Yeah...no, not exactly.
Friend: Of course, my knowledge of the subject is highly tempered by modern prejudices...I'm sure there's far more to alchemy than the old "lead to gold" stuff.
Alchemist: Originally alchemy utilized the same four element system which the Greeks believed in as a way of understanding the composition of substances. Theophrastus VonHohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, and the progenitor of medical thinking (analyzing symptoms and looking for and addressing causes rather than analyzing humors); originated the three principles idea - salt sulfur and mercury; the concept is basically Aristotelian.
Essentially there is a substantive element which underlies things, that's mercury. The substantive nature is operated on by features which define and create its character, this is the sulfur. The two combined together are fixed into a material state, this is salt.
The idea was never that there was physically sulfur and mercury in everything. St. Thomas Aquinas actually wrote a paper on the importance of alchemy and referenced it in the Summa. A papal contemporary of his wrote a bull endorsing alchemy and condemning "charcoal puffers" or people who pretended to be alchemists and pushed the idea of turning lead into gold.
Friend: So using mercury and sulfur as an analogy for matter and spirit?
Alchemist: Yes. Mecury = spirit, Sulfur = soul, salt = body/matter.
Friend: So how does this actually translate into mixing stuff in a lab?
Alchemist: The idea was that by subjecting substances to processes which destroyed impurities and isolated the core principle elements we could perfect the substance and obtain a perfect version of the pure elements in a fixed fashion. So from a medical perspective, if a plant was good at treating an illness an alchemist could create a tincture or a salt from the plant which would concentrate that capability. From a religious or spiritual perspective the alchemist could improve the condition of his soul by creating the improved substance and reflecting on the process attempting to experience in his soul what has was creating in his lab. There was a view that by doing both, as the alchemist perfected himself he would perfect his process and further empower the development of his materials.
Friend: So... Orgo I lab combined with a metaphysical reflection paper?
Alchemist: Kind of...you could think of it along the lines of how monks “illuminated” their souls by the process of making illuminated manuscripts. There was also an idea that by improving these pieces of nature and himself that he could apply the results, and his understanding of the process to the world around him to improve that as well. This was called The Great Work and was the real purpose of alchemy.
Friend: What I'm getting out of this is that "alchemy" refers not to the actual laboratory work (which appears to just be basic Chemistry), but rather to an additional thought structure on top of the chemistry which explores the philosophical implications of our interactions with the materials. Am I roughly correct?
Alchemist: Yes essentially. There are specific lab processes which alchemists would have engaged in but yeah a lot of that has to do with what chemistry was at the time; some of the techniques however where there because they reflect what needed to be done with the material and what the alchemist needed to go through.
Titus Burkhardt's Alchemy Science of the Cosmos Science of the Soul is a very good presentation of traditional alchemical thinking for the contemporary world while rejecting modernity and new age thinking. But he doesn't address the lab elements, but you get the feeling of how important the lab elements are while reading it.
Friend: Extraction and purification processes seem to be the focus.
Alchemist: I've seen some people suggest though that there was non-alchemical chemistry which shows that alchemy didn't directly lead to chemistry and that the two can exist separately even though they're related. I'm not sure that that's accurate in terms of the history. But normally my criticism of the idea of alchemy as just an early superstitious form of chemistry is that chemistry is more of a child of physics than of alchemy.
Friend: Mm, everything is chemistry, unless it's physics.
Alchemist: Alchemy related more to early medicine and early metalurgy. But in general I would say yes you pretty much grasp the concept
Friend: Alchemy was early chemists looking at what they were doing and going, "why am I doing this?"
Alchemist: I once had to do a "panel" where it was me and a guy with a chemistry background and we were supposed to talk about the relationship between alchemy and chemistry it largely became me talking about how the two aren't the same and then talking about alchemy. In the end neither of us understood why we were put on a panel together. Early chemists were particle physicists, whereas alchemists were metallurgists, doctors, and well, the intelligentsia of the middle ages and renaissance.