Alchemy as philosophy
Time: 14:45 - 16:45
also makes contact with related topics such as the Christian Kabbalah and astrology.
This course will be delivered online. See the ‘What is the course about?’ section in course details for more information.
Course Code: HP172
Duration: 12 sessions (over 12 weeks)
What is the course about?
In the medieval period what we now call philosophical questions were the domain of theologians. By the early
1500s the church’s ability to shed intellectually satisfying light on fundamental questions had waned. A century
later, these were being taken over by figures such as Descartes and Locke whom we now recognise as
philosophers in the modern sense. But during the transition between these two there is a substantial gap.
In the gap between, say, 1450 and 1600, strange flowers bloomed. They addressed practical matters but also
eternal questions of the purpose and improvement of human life and the nature of the cosmos. These are the
subject of this course..
Because of this our focus is on only a small part of what encyclopedic treatments consider to be “alchemy”, which
(depending on your definition) may stretch from ancient Egypt to the present day, and from China to the
Americas. This narrowing of focus allows us to go a little deeper, examining key texts from the period. Examples
may include 15th and 16th century works by Ficino, Pico, Reuchlin, Agrippa, Bruno, Cardano, Bodin, Dee and
Kepler as well as earlier works such as the Corpus Hermeticum, the Sefer Yetzirah and the Enneads of Plotinus.
All texts will be provided in English translations.
This is a live online course. You will need:
- Internet connection. The classes work best with Chrome.
- A computer with microphone and camera is best (e.g. a PC/laptop/iMac/MacBook), or a tablet/iPad/smart phone/iPhone if you don't have a computer.
We will contact you with joining instructions before your course starts.
What will we cover?
• Some elements of Medieval alchemy, astrology and Cabbalah.
• The philosophical ideas expressed by widely-read texts by several key 16th century authors
• Key themes that occur in the literature of the time including microcosm and macrocosm, the “great chain of
being”, harmony and sympathetic magic, social order and the nature of the mind and emotions.
What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...
• Describe the intellectual currents of neoplatonism and mysticism that were inherited by the Early Modern
• Discuss the key themes and ideas that animated them.
• Make detailed reference to several primary alchemical sources from the 16th century.
• Connect these themes with the literature and the philosophical debates of the period.
• Further explore these texts and historical scholarship about them on your own.
What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?
This course has no specific prerequisites. Good English language skills are essential, since most of the course
focuses on reading original 16th century texts.
How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?
We will use a mixture of presentation and discussion in class, with the emphasis on the latter. To get the most
out of the course you will need to do some reading between classes (usually about 20-30 pages per week).
Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?
No, all required materials will be supplied during the course.
When I've finished, what course can I do next?
You might be interested in The Fantastical Baroque, starting in January 2022. Please see our website at www.citylit.ac.uk for more details of philosophy courses currently on offer at City Lit.
Rich is a programmer, writer and educator with a particular interest in creative practice. In his previous career he worked as a software developer in the CIty, first at a dot-com startup and later at a top-tier investment bank where he worked mostly on trading floor systems and got to play with a wide range of languages and technologies. He now teaches coding and maths-related courses full time. Besides his work at City Lit he also teaches at Central Saint Martins, the Architecture Association and the Photographer's Gallery and is the author of two books about mathematics. His technical collaborations with artists have been shown at, among others, the Hayward gallery, the V&A, the ICA and Camden Arts Centre. He has a BSc in Mathematics from the Open University. He also has a BA in English Literature and a PhD in philosophy (both from Cardiff). He continues to teach a little philosophy and literature, especially as they intersect with his other interests, and as a partner in Minimum Labyrinth he has brought these ideas to wider audiences in collaboration with the Museum of London, the Barbican and various private sponsors.
Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.