Nothing gold can stay: An essay on the nature of the Philosopher’s Stone


This text was written for Mary MacGregor-Reid‘s MFA catalogue Albedo. The catalogue accompanies her 2016 MFA Graduation exhibition at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design.

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

To the elements of earth, air, fire and water, Aristotle proposed a fifth element ‘aether’ or ‘quintessence,’ a heavenly substance that made up the celestial bodies and permeated all things. It was a key concept in the belief of the interconnectedness of all things in nature. Quintessence was a notion that paved the way for the possibility that nature could be separated into component parts, and in turn that there was something original and pure at the heart of everything.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) is credited as being the first western scientist, but he lived at a time when philosophy ruled and mysticism was prevalent, and often the boundaries between these disciplines were indistinguishable. Scientists, philosophers, mystics and alchemists found commonality in their curiosity in learning about the world, the cosmos, and the elements of their make up. At the intersection of early science and mysticism sits the Philosopher’s Stone.

There are a number of interpretations of what the Philosopher’s Stone is and none of them are particularly clear. Researchers are left to conclude that it could be interpreted as a literal object, such as a magical talisman; or a secret recipe, such as a theoretical formula. Whatever the nature of the ‘stone’ itself, its purpose was, essentially, purification and this was apparently twofold: the stone was supposed to have the ability to turn base metals into gold, and to grant immortality, interpreted as the purification and restoration of the body, or eternal youth.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

 Life was beautiful but fleeting; disease and death always just around the corner. Seekers of the Philosopher’s Stone hoped to unlock the mystery of prolonging life. Modern science has a corresponding objective in the study of medicine, used to diagnose, prevent and treat sickness, the outcome of which is higher life expectancy.

In 1972, in the Hunan Province of China, a 2,000 year old coffin was excavated that contained the perfectly preserved body of a woman: “its condition was that of a person who had died only a week before… The colour of the femoral artery was like that of a newly dead person” (Marshall, 2001, p. 3). The condition of the body meant that it was possible to perform an autopsy, and it was observed that the skin was still supple, the internal organs still moist. This was the body of Xin Zhui (also known as Lady Dai or Lady Tai). The scientists involved in her discovery could not explain how this incredible preservation had occurred, however it was noted that her mouth contained a jade amulet and there was a brownish liquid containing mercuric sulphide in the innermost of her three airtight coffins.

The Chinese believed in an equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone the ‘pill of immortality’ that would allow a person to leave their body and live as an immortal in the afterlife. A sign of its success was to leave behind a body that did not corrupt or decay, a body that could just be sleeping (Marshall, 2001, p. 4). Could preservation in death be seen as equivalent to prolonging life or afterlife?

Readers of fairy tales will be familiar with the idea that no magic spell or talisman works literally in the way that it is expected to. Their promises are trickier than that, keeping an essence of the intention while deftly sidestepping expectation. Immortality here is representational, difficult to verify, and yet mysteriously implied. The search for the perfection of eternal youth is paradoxically an acknowledgement (and rejection) of the fleetingness of life.


Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

Science at its very beginning was intertwined with magic: “The magician, probing nature’s secrets, served as the template for the scientist.” Gleick, 2003, p. 104). Alchemists would conjure and discover in equal measures.

The alchemists believed in the interconnectedness of life. Everything was related to everything else in some small way:

Matter differed externally only through varying combinations of the four      elements: earth, water, air and fire. Therefore, by alchemically   manipulating those elements, any kind of matter could be transmuted into another. The conjunction of all elements would produce the philosopher’s stone. (Parry, 2011, p. 9)

Accordingly, all metals were related to all other metals. By this reasoning, if one could only discover the method, the transmutation of base metals into gold must certainly be possible.

John Dee (1527 – 1608) was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. They lived in an era where belief in angels and demons was universal, and magic was indistinguishable from science. Elizabeth’s position on the throne was a precarious one in the wake of the reign of her Catholic sister Mary, but had been predicted by Dee through astrology. Elizabeth encouraged Dee’s research, particularly his investigation into the Philosopher’s Stone, as the prolonged life and riches it promised would surely secure her station.

Dee amassed a great library of 4,000 books, and through his research came to believe in a hierarchy of metals with lead at one end, and gold at the other extremity. These metals could be understood as varying combinations of mercury (quicksilver) or sulphur (brimstone). “The elixir would rebalance those principles to purify imperfect metals into gold, remedying Nature’s defects through a process imitating its own creative force” (Parry, 2011, p. 43). Dee’s studies found no conflict between the scientific enquiry of maths and astronomy and the more esoteric investigation into the angelic language of creation, which he believed would bring unity to human kind.

Similarly, Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) followed both rational and arcane lines of thinking. Newton is better known for his work in the areas of mathematics, physics, calculus and optics, but he was also a keen alchemist: “… alchemy offered Newton, an earnest and devout seeker of truth, a comprehensive philosophy of nature and a unified theory of the universe” (Marshall, 2001, p. 402). Alchemy allowed for religion and science to go hand in hand, it was expected that an investigation into nature would uncover traces of God.

To the modern mind these subjects may seem more difficult to reconcile, but to the alchemists, it was clear. What propelled their education was not so much a search for a solid and singular answer, but a passion for life in all its seething glory “To alchemists nature was alive with process. Matter was active, not passive; vital, not inert” (Gleick, 2003, p. 101), life contained movement, and all nature contained life.

The fatal flaw in the theory of the Philosopher’s Stone was that its two proposed outcomes were both regressive or backwardly inclined: attempts to either create gold or discover eternal youth are, at heart, attempts to reverse the order of nature. Both products require a return to something that is already gone, something that cannot be gained by building, only by stripping away. Gold is not a composite. It can be a component of a composite, but cannot be created where it did not exist to begin with. Similarly, eternal youth requires the regaining of a type of purity lost to age.

These dual quests required distillation rather than creation, a metaphorical return to Eden.


So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

What doesn’t make sense is that seekers of the Philosopher’s Stone held up gold as the epitome of perfection, and yet expected that it was possible to make it out of baser things. Likewise it could be seen as nonsensical to expect to reach enlightenment with only a base human to work with. How could enlightenment be linked to youth when wisdom comes with age?

The ambiguity surrounding the nature of the Stone itself suggests that actually the Stone was of far greater value than the gold it purported to create: after all gold was already known, the Philosopher’s Stone was a mystery. No one knows for sure if the Stone was meant to be a magical amulet or a glorified recipe, and maybe that was because it was neither. Perhaps the Philosopher’s Stone was a symbolic quest, an allegory, intangible and mysterious because it truly only represented the accumulation of wisdom. Perfection is knowledge.

Where science and mysticism diverge is while scientists ultimately must prove or disprove their hypotheses; mystics find greater value in the thought and the search beyond the desire to finitely explain outcomes: Curiosity without cynicism.

On a sheet of paper Newton wrote: “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after you” (Newton as cited in Gluick, 2003, p. 190).

The great irony is, of course, that if the Philosopher’s Stone is a metaphor, then these alchemists, scientists, obtained it without even knowing: gaining and contributing knowledge (gold) and becoming renowned (immortal) in the process.




Poem: Robert Frost (1923) Nothing gold can stay.