What is the Philosopher’s Stone: An “Ask the Philosopher” Column
Alchemy flourished in the west from the 12th century on, although its history extends back into ancient Egypt and China. The central inquiry that the alchemists pursued involved their search for what they called the Philosopher’s Stone. This “stone” was not literally a stone, but it was thought to be a mysterious, unknown substance that, if it were discovered and used, would generate remarkable results. Alchemy is best known as a project whose main goal was to transmute base metals into gold. It was capable of other marvels, but let’s look more closely at this first claim for the Philosopher’s Stone.
If we think of changing lead into gold, what does that remarkable feat represent? Lead compared to gold is relatively worthless whereas gold is the root principle of wealth. Human history shows us that individuals in all cultures have constantly sought material wealth as insurance against the ravages of change and uncertainty. However wealth is culturally defined, it is deemed better to be wealthy than not. Even the cloistered monks of the Middle Ages sought spiritual wealth in exchange for having forsworn material wealth. Further, monasteries provided monks with all their material needs making the renunciation easier to sustain while they pursued their spiritual ends. Wealth gives power over our lives. It gives us control over our circumstances, and gold is both a literal and symbolic measure of that wealth and security for most people.
Nations use the gold standard as a way to remove currency uncertainty, and there is the key to the Philosopher’s Stone: uncertainty.
We live unavoidably in an uncertain, constantly shifting, never quite what it was, changing world. We must learn to cope with those pressures somehow. The alchemical quest bears hard against this erosion of our wellbeing. The quest is for control and power over the vagaries and risk-saturated aspects of change, an unending attempt to keep the shifting circumstances at bay. The wealth of gold is one strategy for overcoming this struggle.
Besides changing base metals to gold, the Philosopher’s Stone was also thought to be instrumental in curing illnesses, to be capable of prolonging life, and finally it could revitalize our souls. Serious alchemists were far more interested in this spiritual quest, but in popular culture this has been overshadowed by the dream to make gold from base metals.
However, in all the claims, material or spiritual, we can recognize an underlying principle of security, an intense search for some kind of permanent resolution of our human troubles and woes.
There is the latent hope to eliminate the troubles of our human lives. It is a way of shifting the uncertain realities of our lives to stable, comforting, reliable states of affairs. Is this possible? The alchemists wanted to believe so, and countless people throughout our history have implicitly agreed with them and joined in the struggle against the relentlessness of our changing world.
Despite the magnitude of the efforts made, things are still changing, and there is no let-up in sight. What are we to make of this quest for certainty, for release from the hazards that life constantly confronts us with at every turn?
Do we want to overcome change? Would that provide us with the security we lack? Would that give us the peace we yearn for? Would somehow getting past the endless changes make our lives better?
I believe the answer to these questions is a clear no. Change can be difficult, but if we consider a world without change, what do get? We get stability and a kind of certainty, but at what cost? We pay the price in lost opportunities and possibilities. The paradoxical reality is that change and uncertainty are the ground of all our possibilities. Take any example of change, look at it closely, and what you find embedded within the change is possibility.
Sailing is based on the presence of the wind. When the wind stops, the sailboat lies becalmed in the water. It can no longer move, and must await the resumption of the wind to regain its motion. This simple example can stand as a prototype for how change works in our lives. It is only because things can change that we can accomplish anything. An unchanging world would be a static, dead world incapable of supporting life. If we want to live, our world must be capable of change. The future that is predictable is also the future that is closed off to being different.
Wherever we look, we find that our ability to create–our capacity to remake our world over in accord with our goals and dreams–is firmly embedded in some kind of change that makes such efforts fruitful.
Underneath the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone is a rejection of the way the world is for us, a rejection of change. In our world, the only total resolution for us is death, which is the end of all our changing.
What do we need to shift in our life? We need to shift our resistance and denial of change. We need to take on the uncertainties of our lives, for there is where our optimum future lies. Gandhi driving the British out of India; Einstein accepting that mass was not a fixed characteristic of matter as Newton had assumed; Martin Luther King rejecting abiding by unjust segregation laws; and Jackson Pollock making works of genius out of madly dripping paint, all took on the attendant uncertainty of their circumstances and brought something dramatically and wonderfully new and important to the world.
The implicit question in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone is the wrong question. William James, a 19th-20th century American philosopher lays it out neatly for us. He tells us:
Life is a muddle and a struggle,
with an ever not quite to all our formulas,
with novelty and possibility forever leaking in.
He puts it in one sentence. We advance with our lives and our dreams in direct proportion to how fully we embrace the change and uncertainty that is endemic in our day-to-day living.
The true Philosopher’s Stone is in accepting that change is the datum of everything we do. The question for all of us is, “Can I live fully and completely in this uncertain, ever changing world?”
If we take on this question, we find that the search presses us to look within for the Philosopher’s Stone. Our creativity and imagination, our discipline and tenacity, and our willingness to live fully with that “ever not quite” leads us to the Philosopher’s Stone within all of us.
William Cole-Kiernan was a full time philosophy professor at St Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey for thirty-three years before he retired. Now a Professor Emeritus at the College, he continues to teach part time. The main goal in his teaching has always been to teach philosophy as a context for students to expand their consciousness and learn to think for themselves.
His undergraduate work was at New York University, where he completed a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. After college, he served three and a half years in the United States Army as an officer and a pilot flying reconnaissance and light cargo aircraft.
Returning from the service, he switched directions from engineering and started his study of philosophy. He has a Master’s and a PhD from Fordham University, and specialized in American Philosophy, especially focusing on the thought of William James and John Dewey.
He lives in Lambertville, New Jersey with his wife Barbara, and has four grown children and six grandchildren.