Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose early practitioners’ claims to profound powers were known from antiquity. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied; these include the creation of the fabled philosopher’s stone possessing powers including the capability of turning base metals into the noble metals gold or silver, as well as an elixir of life conferring youth and longevity. Western alchemy is recognized as a protoscience that contributed to the development of modern chemistry and medicine. Alchemists developed a framework of theory, terminology, experimental process and basic laboratory techniques that are still recognizable today. But alchemy differs from modern science in the inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices related to mythology, religion, and spirituality.
Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications, and its esoteric aspects. The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences who have examined the subject in terms of proto-chemistry, medicine, and charlatanism. The latter is of interest to the historians of esotericism, psychologists, spiritual and new age communities, and hermetic philosophers. The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts. Despite the modern split, numerous sources stress an integration of esoteric and exoteric approaches to alchemy.
Holmyard, when writing on exoteric aspects, states that they can not be properly appreciated if the esoteric is not always kept in mind. The prototype for this model can be found in Bolos of Mendes’ third century BCE work, Physika kai Mystika (“On Physical and Mystical Matters”). Marie-Louise von Franz tells us the double approach of Western alchemy was set from the start, when Greek philosophy was mixed with Egyptian and Mesopotamian technology. The technological, operative approach, which she calls extraverted, and the mystic, contemplative, psychological one, which she calls introverted are not mutually exclusive, but complementary instead, as meditation requires practice in the real world, and conversely.