What is the course about?
This course examines the tradition of Western-European alchemy with a particular focus on the 16th century. It also makes contact with related topics such as the Christian Kabbalah and astrology.
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.
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 alchemists.
• 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?
For our philosophy offer, please check our website at www.citylit.ac.uk. You might be interested in HP093 The fantastical Baroque, which starts in January 2020.
General information and advice on courses at City Lit is available from the Student Centre and Library on Monday to Friday from 12:00 – 19:00.
See the course guide for term dates and further details