How to correct Plato, alchemically?

By Bojidar Dimitrov, AlchemEast Project

Jabir Ibn Hayyan is a figure of key importance for the development of alchemy and chemistry. A vast body of literature virtually covering the entire spectrum of ancient science has been attributed to the Islamic polymath, and yet much of the little we know about him remains shrouded in mystery. The very historicity of Jabir’s person and the authenticity of his works have been the subject of rigorous scholarly debate. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of the texts which belong to the Jabirian corpus have not been edited and published.

The scant biographical data provided by mediaeval Islamic sources and Jabir’s own works suggests that his lifetime spanned the period between ca. 721/725 and 812/815 AD. The so-called Jabir Problem mainly revolves around different aspects of this alleged historical context. The ambiguous relationship between the Arabic Jabirian corpus and the nascent alchemical tradition of the Latin West is the other major side of the conundrum. 

Paul Kraus’ ground-breaking studies on Jabir[1] proposed that the Jabirian corpus was probably compiled over a longer period of time by a school of alchemists who circulated their works under Jabir’s name. Similar doubts were already expressed by mediaeval Islamic scholars, and Kraus’ detailed analysis of the language and the content of seminal texts argues that the scientific terminology, doctrines and references to Greek authorities found in them point to a later stage of Islamic intellectual history, which began in the ninth century. Kraus’ conclusions have been debated by scholars since their publication in the 1940s, but the scope and depth of his research remain unmatched to this day.

One of the current objectives of the AlchemEast Project is to make available a collection of alchemical recipes belonging to a sub-genre of Jabir’s corpus. Plato’s Rectifications is the only surviving collection of a cycle of pseudepigraphical ‘rectifications’ associated with ancient authorities. The work is presented as a commentary on alchemical doctrines ascribed to Plato that the Greek sage is said to reveal to his disciple, Timaeus. The ninety recipes involve alchemical procedures with mercury which are intended to illustrate the application of Plato’s theories.

Socrates discussing philosophy with his disciples (from a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript).

Jabir’s attribution of alchemical material to Plato is pertinent to the reception of Platonic influences in Islamic alchemy and the wider context of Islamic thought. While Jabir’s system incorporates key Neoplatonic traits of Greek philosophical alchemy, its experimental and arithmological developments are highly original and do not seem to derive from extant Greek texts. Furthermore, no alchemical texts are attributed to Plato (or Socrates) in the Greek tradition.[2] There are, however, Syriac recipes attributed to Plato, and he is generally accorded a prominent place in Arabic occult literature. Such facts may indicate that Jabir could have been influenced by late antique Neoplatonic traditions of a distinctly Near Eastern flavour.

An excerpt from Rectification Nr. 14 presents a recipe which involves the heating and cooling of mercury:

Then he said: take ten measures of spirit (i.e. mercury), put it in the middle gourd (i.e. glass vessel), and tighten upon it the alembic which has no aperture (i.e. valve). Heat it over gentle fire for ten days, then cool it off on the eleventh. Repeat the operation and gather the first water. The gourd containing mercury will be heated, or joined to the other gourd until it (i.e. mercury) dissolves in one of the two gourds. Take the thickened [residue], put it in the second gourd, and heat it until it melts, becomes liquid and turns red. Then heat the water until it boils and [the condensate] starts dripping all over the residue, [so that] it swells, absorbs some of the water and is incerated by it, and yields. It will become like wax, just as we described initially, and [even] better. If the procedure starts by heating the water until [the condensate] drips over the residue, it will be dissolved, and both will be dissolved, coagulated and incerated together, [and thus the procedure] is also complete. Peace.

Image 2: Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS, BNF Arabe 6915)

Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS BNF Arabe 6915).

The text exemplifies the fluidity of content that alchemical recipes often exhibit. The procedures it describes are relatively simple, but the textual variants in the manuscripts allow different possibilities. The translation above is not conclusive, since the relationship of the alembic and the two vessels is somewhat ambiguous. According to certain readings, for instance, the second vessel and the alembic must be alternated during the process of dissolution. The examination of further textual variants and manuscripts can expand our understanding of Jabir’s technical methodology. Ultimately, the intertextuality of Platonic pseudepigrapha found in Jabir and other traditions calls for an overarching discussion of Plato’s role in alchemical discourse. Whether this role was itself rectified by practitioners over the centuries, or the fluctuations we encounter in manuscripts are of a purely textual nature, are the main questions AlchemEast aims to address.

[1] Paul Kraus, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Vol. II. Jābir et la science grecque (Cairo: Mémoires de l’Institut d’Égypte 45.1, 1942).

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

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