Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ALCHEMY.

The emphatic al places the alchemist as much above the ordinary chemist as the gold which he obtains is superior to other metals. Germany still swarms with people who seek the philosopher’s stone, as the water of immortality has been sought in China, and the fountain of youth in Europe. In France some have been known to ruin themselves in this pursuit.

The number of those who have believed in transmutations is prodigious, and the number of cheats has been in proportion to that of the credulous. At Paris we have seen Signor Dammi, Marquis of Conventiglio, obtain some hundred louis from several of the nobility that he might make them gold to the amount of two or three crowns. The best trick that has ever been performed in alchemy was that of a Rosicrucian, who, in 1620, went to Henry, Duke of Bouillon, of the house of Turenne, Sovereign Prince of Sedan, and addressed him as follows:

“You have not a sovereignty proportioned to your great courage, but I will make you richer than the emperor. I cannot remain for more than two days in your states, having to go to Venice to hold the grand assembly of the brethren; I only charge you to keep the secret. Send to the first apothecary of your town for some litharge; throw into it one grain of the red powder which I will give you, put the whole into a crucible and in a quarter of an hour you will have gold.”

The prince performed the operation, and repeated it three times, in presence of the virtuoso. This man had previously bought up all the litharge from the apothecaries of Sedan and got it resold after mixing it with a few ounces of gold. The adept, on taking leave, made the Duke of Bouillon a present of all his transmuting powder.

The prince, having made three ounces of gold with three grains, doubted not that with three hundred thousand grains he should make three hundred thousand ounces, and that he should in a week possess eighteen thousand, seven hundred and fifty pounds of gold, besides what he should afterwards make. It took at least three months to make this powder. The philosopher was in haste to depart; he was without anything, having given all to the prince, and wanted some ready money in order to hold the states-general of hermetic philosophy. He was a man very moderate in his desires, and asked only twenty thousand crowns for the expenses of his journey. The duke, ashamed to give so small a sum, presented him with forty thousand. When he had consumed all the litharge in Sedan he made no more gold, nor ever more saw his philosopher or his forty thousand crowns.

All pretended alchemic transmutations have been performed nearly in the same manner. To change one natural production into another, for example, iron into silver, is a rather difficult operation, since it requires two things a little above our power — the annihilation of the iron and creation of the silver.

We must not, however, reject all discoveries of secrets and all new inventions. It is with them as with theatrical pieces, there may be one good out of a thousand.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25