A new phase of his character is now forced upon us. He has appeared hitherto as the man of learning, astronomer and mathematician, a brilliant lecturer and demonstrator, diligent in probing the chemical and alchemical secrets of which his vast reading, his foreign correspondence, and his unique library gave him cognisance. Interested in geographical discovery and history, a bibliographical and mathematical writer, his genuine contributions to science had been considerable. He had written upon navigation and history, logic, travel, geometry, astrology, heraldry, genealogy, and many other subjects. He had essayed to found a National Library, and was contemplating a great work upon the reformation of the Calendar. But these purely legitimate efforts of his genius were discounted in the eyes of his contemporaries by the absurd suspicions with which his name had been associated ever since his college days. After his arrest and trial by Bonner, he never really succeeded in shaking off this savour of something magical. The popular idea of Dee in league with evil powers was, of course, the natural result of ignorance and dull understanding. To a public reared in superstition, untrained in reasoning, unacquainted with the simple laws of gravitation, the power to raise heavy bodies in the air at will, to see pictures in a simple crystal globe, or converse with projections of the air, to forecast a man's life by geometric or planetary calculations, and to discern the influence of one chemical or mineral substance upon another, seemed diabolically clever and quite beyond human agency. Even to study Nature and her secrets was to lay oneself open to the suspicion of being a magician. We must remember that in the early years of Queen Elizabeth's reign it was thought necessary to pass an Act of Parliament decreeing that all who practised sorcery causing death should suffer death; if only injury was caused, imprisonment and the pillory whould be the punishment. Any conjuration of an evil spirit was to be punished by death as a felon, without benefit of clergy or sanctuary. Any discovery of hidden treasure by magical means was punishable by death for a second offence.
But if "magic" was tottering on its throne, the reign
of alchemy was still uncontested. Belief in it was universal,
its great votaries in the past were of all nations. St. Dunstan
of Glastonbury, Roger Bacon, Raymond Lully, Canon George Ripley
of Bridlington, Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Arnold de
Villa Nova and Paracelsus, all their writings, and hundreds of
others, Dee had in his library and constantly upon his tongue.
Alchemy was not only a science, it was a religion and a romance.
It was even then enduring the birth-throes and sickly infancy
of modern chemistry, and the alchemists' long search for the secret
of making gold has been called one of its crises. Long after this
it was still an article of faith, that such a man as Robert Boyle
did not deny. We cannot forget that even that great chemist, Sir
Humphry Davy, reverenced the possibility, and refused to say that
the alchemist's belief in the power to make gold was erroneous.
How unlike Dante's keen irony of the dark and groping men who
seek for "peltro," or tin whitened with mercury. But
alchemy was bursting with many other secrets beyond the manufacture
of gold. The spiritual element abounding in all minerals, and
the symbolism underlying every actual substance, were deeply imbedded
in it. It was a scienceof ideals. It ever led its followers on
to scale illimitable heights of knowledge, for in order to surpass
all material and rational nature, and attain the crowning end,
did not God delegate His own powers to the sage? So the art of
healing was thought the noblest, the most Godlike task, and no
means of attaining hermetic wisdom were untried. The psychical
world became every bit as real to these religious mystics as the
physical and rational, which they understood so vaguely. Even
the strange shapes which escaped from the retorts of the old alchemists
were known to them as "souls." Their successors called
them spirits. Paracelsus named them as mercury, and it was left
to his pupil, Van Helmont, the true founder of all modern chemistry,
to give the name of gas.
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