The Philosopher's Stone: Background information when reading The Age of Genius

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The Age of Genius

The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind

by A.C. Grayling

The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2017, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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Beyond the Book:
The Philosopher's Stone

Print Review

Its powers are said to be remarkable. It is the source not only of great wealth but also, perhaps, freedom from mortality. It was sought after for centuries, often by some of the greatest minds in history. Its legend has lived on in movies, novels, video games, music, and comic books. Its fabled existence has fired the human imagination for centuries. And it played a key role in the growth of the Western way of thinking, according to A.C. Grayling's The Age of Genius.

The Philosopher's Stone, "the magic mineral which would transmute base metals into gold and give us eternal youth," according to Grayling, intrigued the most fertile minds throughout the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, when "science emerged from a period in which many enquirers were deeply involved in magic and occult practices and belief."

Painting print of alchemist trying to discover Philosopher's Stone So what is this Philosopher's Stone supposed to look like – and how does it work, anyway? Well, as the name suggests, it is some sort of hardened mineral composite – either red or white – often portrayed as roughly the size of a fist. It is thought to be the ultimate end result of the process of alchemy, a medieval mix of occult practice and chemistry intended to convert base metals, such as lead, into gold. Once the Philosopher's Stone is forged through the melting and combining of other elements, it can then be used as a catalyst for the creation of gold, or to impart great health and long (even eternal) life, in some iterations of the story. Ironically, Grayling suggests that the search for the stone might have contributed to Isaac Newton's death, given how much time he spent working with toxic mercury.

Although for the last couple of centuries it has been widely discredited as a mythic enchantment of the Middle Ages, the Philosopher's Stone still lives on in legend, though mostly in works of fiction, perhaps most famously in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first in her best-selling series. In that book, which, in the American edition, was titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone – a change made on the assumption that young readers might be put off reading about a "philosopher", the stone becomes the subject of the quest by dark wizard Lord Voldemort.

Although the notion of such a magical substance strikes the modern mind as absurd, our scientific forebears didn't share that view – and that's turned out to be a good thing. As one writer has noted, "In an age when there were no microscopes to penetrate living cells and no understanding of the nature of atoms and molecules, the alchemists were not misguided so much as misinformed, doing their best to make sense of a world they could not see. That they understood as much as they did is the real marvel: In pursuing what today seems like little more than witchcraft, the alchemists were in fact laying the foundation for modern experimental science."

To some contemporary thinkers, the search for the Philosopher's Stone stands as a metaphor of the quest for a more perfect state of human existence. The author and spiritual advocate Deepak Chopra, in his book The Way of the Wizard argues "The secrets of alchemy exist to transform mortals from a state of suffering and ignorance to a state of enlightenment and bliss."

Picture of print of painting depicting an alchemist looking for the Philosopher's Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, from Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Article by James Broderick

This article was originally published in March 2016, and has been updated for the May 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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