Principle

The term ‘Principle’ or ‘principles’ is occasionaly found as a technical term in alchemical treatises. More often the terms ‘Sulphur’, ‘Mercury’ and ‘Salt’ are employed: ‘Sulphur’ being particularly suitable for designating the nature and function of the Principle. In Platonic and Neo-Platonic metaphysics, there are three principles: The One (Absolute), the Intellect (Universal Spirit), and the (Universal) Soul. In this scheme, The One is seen as the completely pure and simple First Principle, and is therefore considered to be the Principle of Principles. It is self-caused, self-subsistent, and independent: the Root, Cause, Source, Seed, and Origin of all things.

The Intellect, on the other hand, is the first-born ‘Son of God’; that is, the first emanation from the Absolute. The Intellect is the locus of all the Forms which existed only virtually in The Absolute. The Intellect, as the active agent and locus of all Forms, is thus the paradigm, or model, for all states of the Soul. The Soul, through vertically directed Desire, may establish a relationship with the Intellect and that Form which best corresponds to her Desiring. This Form is then Impressed upon the Soul much as wax, or hot metal, may receive the impression of a seal.

The Soul is related to the Intellect in very much the same way that the Intellect is related to the Absolute. The activity of ‘God’ is simply to exist. This Original Principle is made active and partipatory through the agency of the Intellect which Contemplates ‘Him’ and the Forms which exist virtually within ‘Him’. The Passion of the Intellect is found in accepting the impress of Perfect Forms existing virtually within the Absolute. The action of the Intellect consists of passing these Forms on to the Soul according to the Soul’s Desiring and Imagining. The passion of the Soul is in acceptance of the impression of Forms passed from the Intellect. The action of Soul is in the re-cognizing of Intelligible Forms within the sensible world, as well as conferring the Form received from the Intellect to the materia of the Subtle and Physical Bodies. All natural Bodies are composed of Forms in matter. Matter, being completely inert and passive, is, in principle at least, deprived of all intelligibility, yet matter is still ultimately dependent upon ‘God’ through the action and passion of Intellect and Soul.

The Soul, then, is the Principle of the Body (or of matter). The Intellect is the Principle of Soul. The One [the Absolute or ‘God’] is the Principle of the Intellect, and ultimately the Principle of all things. These relationships are often expressed as relations between the sexes, where the active party is considered to be masculine while the passive party is considered to be feminine. The One [‘God’], then, is Masculine in relation to the Intellect because the Intellect (Spirit/Nous) passively receives Seed (or Forms) from The One. The Intellect/Spirit is masculine in its relation to the Soul because the Soul receives Seed (Forms) from the Intellect. The Soul, then, is passive, and thus seen as feminine in relation to the Intellect; whereas it is active, and thus masculine, in its relation to the Body (or matter).

As mentioned at the opening of this glossary entry, the alchemists often used the term ‘principles’ to refer to Sulphur (Spirit), Quicksilver (Soul) and Salt (Form/Body). This is a perfectly acceptable usage because ‘God’ can only be known through the proper functioning of, and harmonious relationship between these three.

  1. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    June 3, 2011 at 3:11 am

    How can we, the readers, best use this website (in general), this group of topics called the Cyclopedia (more specifically) and this entry regarding Principle in particular?

    I would also like to better understand why you say that the term “‘Sulphur’ [is] particularly suitable for designating the nature and function of the Principle.”

  2. June 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    As you have mentioned elsewhere, the entry, ‘Principle,’ is intimately related to the content in the ‘Meditations of the Greek Master‘ and reading these documents together —letting one inform the other— is very useful.

    As regards the use of the Cyclopaedia, the Library and the Blog, that involves the effective use of the search function to follow a term across the site.

    For instance: if you type ‘sulphur’ into the search form, you will retrieve all the references to it across the site. Most modern browsers also have a ‘find’ function which is especially useful when examining all those references and moving quickly and easily from one reference of the term to the next.

    One can also use this page to search the site and receive more traditional search result summaries.

    Be that as it may, the particular quality of Sulphur is that it burns. The function of the Principle (in its relation to the Intellectus Agens is to know directly and without impediment – to observe the apparent while seeing the real. We will leave it to you to determine why the ‘burning’ quality of sulphur might best represent the capacity to clear away superfluity.

  3. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    June 12, 2011 at 1:49 am

    Alright so I followed your suggestion and typed ‘sulphur’ into the search form, then used the find button to scroll through the results. It was very interesting to collate the meanings, which basically broke down into two consistent aspects to the use of the word ‘sulphur’.

    The first was reference to (as you pointed out above) fire, heat, or burning. Sulphur produces combustion, and shortens the process of working by (again as you note) clearing away superfluity and leaving the essence. This activity is referenced when sulphur is regarded as the masculine agent (that which acts upon something), and one of its names is the Active Intellectual Agent.

    This relates to the uses of the word Sulphur as meaning the Divine Essence, the Divine Spiritual Nature that lives in the Human Spirit, hidden deep in the brain, or similarly called the spiritual seed in the soul, a spiritual fire that has Form (light). Although it does not say so directly, it must also be the Divine Breath, as referenced in question #8 (of the Catechism). So on the one hand it is Divine and transcendent, on the other it lives within us.

    This Living Gold (wisdom, insight, intuitive knowledge) that lives within us, however, is covered with a hard rind, the unclarified human psyche, the sense of self. And interestingly this relates to the second consistent aspect in the use of the word 'sulphur', which is in reference to "corrupt forms": the sensuous appetites, the self will. It is the "animal" vitality within the blood, which maintains life and can be raised and refined in the service of the Transcendental Spirit, but all too often is used in service to the senses turned outward. And here is the second place where burning can occur, as our vitality is burned out and destroyed instead of being transformed. A symptom of this burning, I think, might be the restless sense we all have of needing to do something, but not being sure of exactly what.

    If it is released from its rind and transformed, it becomes then living sulphur, which itself helps continue the transformational process via combustion of the superfluous elements in our psyche and self. This in turn releases more of the living sulphur and the process continues.

    Would I be right in thinking that the freeing of the living gold within us attracts its celestial complement?

  4. June 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    You would be correct in thinking that the freeing of the living gold within us attracts its celestial complement even as contact with the celestial nature assists in the freeing of that gold – which contact is accomplished through sublimation (see questions #147 through #151 in the Catechism).

    [Addendum – the Short Catechism of Alchemy has been removed from the site with the termination of activity so the links above are effectively dead.]

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