THE ELIXIR AND THE STONE
"This book, the story of the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus and his legacy, Hermetic Philosophy, was one which I had wanted to write for many years. I finally managed to convince my colleague, Richard Leigh, of its merits. Essentially the book tells of this little-known but powerful underground counter-current to the prevailing, Church dominated, rational and logical, perspective upon reality. This alternative Hermetic perspective saw the cosmos as a unity, as an interconnected whole where the above and the below were eternally and dynamically intertwined.
This counter-current has mysterious origins: it seems to have emerged out of the Egyptian Temples and the late classical rediscovery of early Greek mystical traditions. It was, however, in its teachings and its origins, unashamedly mystical, personal and non-hierarchical. It was communicated in the first few centuries AD by a random network of teachers and pupils. There were no theologians or ‘star’ philosophers; there was no organisation and no fixed canon of sacred literature.
Such texts as were written down were attributed to the legendary ancient figure, Hermes Trismegistus – who was, in fact, a derivative of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom. These books under the authorship of Hermes were collected together and now go by the name Hermetica or the Corpus Hermeticum. This perspective on the reality we all inhabit is now called Hermetic Philosophy and I commend it to anyone – though without claiming it to be any better than many other approaches to reality. In any case, The Elixir and the Stone tells the extraordinary story of its survival, its supporters and its effect over the last two thousand years; it also describes the very important changes it brought to the Western world, the Florentine Renaissance, for example, and the rise of science, can be directly attributed to it.
The problem with writing a book like this, dealing with vast mass of information, is how to reduce its complexity in order to make it readable without degrading the story. There are no rules which one can follow: all that one can do is take each story, each chapter, each paragraph, even each sentence, on a case by case basis, and do the best with it. My colleague and I often struggled and argued over how much or how little to simplify, to excise, or conversely to explore further. In the end we did what we thought right.
The Elixir and the Stone is a voyage through a landscape which seems very strange to begin with but which soon becomes familiar as the reader’s own perspective begins to adapt to the new way of looking at things. And in the end, it is the prevailing world of fixed and empirical ideas which seem the stranger, for the so-called normal perspective on the world is more akin to that of a madman who has sliced off a tiny piece of reality, believes that it represents the whole, and acts accordingly. Reality is broader and more weird than we could ever imagine. To force it to conform to our rules of interpretation is to profoundly misunderstand it.
Among the themes covered in the book is that of the rise of science. We show how it grew out of Hermetic Philosophy yet soon severed contact with its parent and grew into an arrogant and wilful child tamed only by the strength of humanity of individual scientists who increasingly found it a struggle to contain its amoral ebullience. In the end, its arrogance, encouraged by the teachings of a Church obsessed with power over both humanity and nature, gave rise to three very unfortunate results which we explore.
Firstly, when science split from philosophy it left its morality behind. Scientists now claim that the morality of science is that of the host society forgetting an important point: science is so far ahead of society that the latter has no chance to apply moral strictures or limits in time to stop potentially dangerous research.
Secondly, science’s discoveries created a perspective whereby the universe was no longer perceived as, and respected as, a living unified entity but was rather seen as a dead collection of elements moved mechanically in accordance with immutable physical laws. It became considered as an endless quarry which might be plundered at will for ever without fear of any consequences. This attitude has given rise to our current pollution crisis.
Thirdly, science, leaving its original Hermetic perspective of a unified cosmos, has created a fragmented and compartmentalised world inhabited by people with fragmented minds. This has led to the loss of any sense of meaning. People are insecure, vulnerable to those who would pretend to give satisfaction and completion. This is the prime vulnerability exploited by modern advertising: first expose or create an area of vulnerability then sell that product which promises to satisfy it.
During the course of the book we suggest that the true symbol of the West is not Christ, but Faust: one who pursues knowledge rather than wisdom.
At the end we put in a postscript: one in which we confronted those charges which were all too often directed at us and other authors like us by critics and reviewers, charges such as ‘New Age psychobabble’ - frequently hurled in the direction of anyone who seeks to express a reality beyond that of sceptical rationalism. We pointed out in this postscript that the spirit of supercilious sneering mockery which expresses itself in this way is done so by those who believe only in their own cleverness, who ridicule any attempt at self-confrontation, self-recognition and self-knowledge. Few of those who sneer possess any such knowledge. And, we stressed, without knowledge such apparently informed opinion is no such thing, it is just prejudice.
This perhaps contributed to a curious phenomenon: for the first time in our many years of collaboration our book failed to get a single review in any of the major newspapers or magazines. Yet, with our next collaborative effort, published as The Inquisition, we again had a book which was widely reviewed in all the major papers and magazines!"
In this study Baigent and Leigh construct an alternative history of religion and thought which begins with the Hermeticism of 1st century Alexandria and describes its pathways through Europe over the ensuing centuries. Along the way there are tales of individuals, including the Elizabethan magician John Dee and the Franciscan friar and alchemist Roger Bacon.
The Elixir and the Stone is a remarkably rich and ambitious book that adds up to a little short of an alternative history of the intellectual world. Perhaps for the first time it puts into their true context those shadowy alchemists and magicians who have haunted the imaginations of people for centuries. Moreover it offers a way of looking at the world that is in one sense 'alternative', but, in another, deeply historical.
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"An interesting take on the occult/hermetic undercurrents running throughout history. As usual with Baigent and Leigh, the material is well researched and presented."
THE ELIXIR AND THE STONE
Since the seventeenth century, science has been contending with philosophy, organised religion and the arts for domination over Western civilisation and society. By the middle of the twentieth century, the battle appeared to be won; scientific rationalism and scepticism were triumphant. Yet in the last few decades a strong and potent counter-current has emerged. One manifestation of this has been the so-called occult revival.
In the Elixir and the Stone, Baigent and Leigh argue that this occult revival - and indeed the entire revolution in attitudes which has taken place recently - owes a profound debt to Hermeticism, a body of esoteric teaching which flourished in Alexandria two thousand years ago and which then went underground.