“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring” – Marilyn Monroe
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama once described transhumanism (the aspirational intellectual perspective that effective application of technology will ultimately usher in the transformative age of the “post-human”) as one of the “world’s most dangerous ideas”, warily commenting “Although the rapid advances in biotechnology often leave us vaguely uncomfortable, the intellectual or moral threat they represent is not always easy to identify. The human race, after all, is a pretty sorry mess, with our stubborn diseases, physical limitations, and short lives. Throw in humanity’s jealousies, violence, and constant anxieties, and the transhumanist project begins to look downright reasonable. If it were technologically possible, why wouldn’t we want to transcend our current species? The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology’s tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost” (Fukuyama, p42). The notion of course, is that with the aid of technology (including technique) we have mastered our physical environment, thus it stands to reason that we can apply such demonstrably successful techniques to ourselves. Our eternal fascination with and fear of technology evident in the apocalyptic fairy tales of The Terminator, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey and innumerable other fantasies prognosticating the rise of the machines has always been embedded in a concern about changes in the social order. Crossbows were regarded with suspicion, since they didn’t require years of training (as a bow might) to be an effective weapon against an armored man. This placed a new kind of power in the hands of a commoner. And while we pay lip service to the tenet that “all men are created equal”, one of our abiding fears is that one day, in fact, “all men can be built equal”. This is no doubt what drove Thomas Aquinas to take a stick to the legendary android of famed alchemist Albertus Magnus.
Dominican friar Albert of Cologne (c.1200-1280 A.D.) was the eldest son of the Count of Bollstädt, educated at the University of Padua, and labored as an itinerant lecturer in theology at schools in Cologne, Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg, and Hildesheim, until he was asked to become the Chair of Theology at the University of Paris, nigh well a centerpiece of Dominican scholastic philosophy. His list of scholarly works and accomplishments is impressive, and includes a stint as Bishop of Regensburg, posthumous beatification as the patron saint of natural scientists and identification as a “Doctor of the Church” (a distinction only accorded to about 36 other people), and even during his lifetime he was known as doctor universalis, later accorded the name Albertus Magnus (“The Great”). The extent to which Albertus Magnus was also an alchemist and sorcerer are unclear for while many of his learned works touch upon such subjects, a vast literature of pseudo-Albertine alchemical writing emerged for centuries after his death, much of which was falsely attributed to him, no doubt in order to boost sales, although he is generally credited with three important things: (1) discovering the philosopher’s stone, (2) teaching St. Thomas Aquinas, and (3) building a preternatural, yet mechanical automaton in the form of a brass head that could answer any question put to it.
Just to be clear, most scholars of alchemy maintain that the aims of “The Great Art” are not base power and riches, rather the spiritual, psychological, and physical perfection of the alchemist. “When the Alchemists speak of their Gold and Silver (symbolized in the Lodges of Masonry as the Sun and the Moon), from which they extract their first matter, they do not mean the common Gold and Silver, because these are dead, but the gold and silver of the philosophers are full of life. The object of all this philosophy and all Initiations is to obtain the Knowledge or the Art how to make perfect that which nature has left imperfect in the human kind and to find the Treasury of True Morality. Far back, when man first commenced to reflect on himself, he saw, that, although knowing and approving the good, yet he mostly committed evil, and he found that the power of his desires was greater by far than that of reason. He only enjoyed partly or in appearance his free will. It became clear to him that if he would acquire the liberty of choosing and determining his actions throughout his life, he must subdue the passions which controlled his very being. From thence sprang the first idea of the sage, to be a Free Man and master of himself, and every Institution and every Philosophy which tends or claims to make Masters and Adepts, must teach how to acquire this liberty and this Kingdom. The greatest of all victories is the victory one gains over one’s self” (Clymer, 1907, p8-9). In short, alchemy was and always has been about transcending one’s humanity, mastering those limitations that keep us from capitalizing on those qualities that differentiate us from clever apes. Similarly, the popular alchemical practice of trying to create various homunculi had little to do with a need for quality labor or domestic servants, rather was a logical extension of this task. Let’s face it, on average humans make rotten raw material for spiritual perfection, therefore a certain sensibility resides in starting from scratch to build an improved version. Thus, Albertus Magnus set out to create his animate automaton (later writers coined the now common term “android” to describe it).
So early, however, as the year 1480 the Great Chronicle of Belgium records him magnus in magia, major in philosophia, maximus in theologia. It is futile for the historians of his order to argue that Albert never applied himself to the Hermetic art, says an anonymous writer. His books alone—those which are his incontestably—bear witness to his alchemical erudition, and as a physician he carefully examined what regards Natural History, and above all the minerals and metals. His singular experiments are recorded in the Secretum Secretorum, which ﬁrst appeared at Venice in 1508. Michael Maier declares that he received from the disciples of St. Dominic the secret of the philosophical stone, and that he communicated it in turn to St Thomas Aquinas; that he was in possession of a stone naturally marked with a serpent, and endowed with so admirable a virtue that on being set down in a place infested with such reptiles, it would attract them from their hiding places; that for the space of thirty years he employed all his knowledge as a magician and astrologer to construct, out of metals carefully chosen under appropriate planetary inﬂuences, an automaton endowed with the power of speech, and which served him as an infallible oracle, replying plainly to every kind of question which could possibly be proposed to it. This was the celebrated Android, which was destroyed by St. Thomas under the impression that it was a diabolical contrivance (Waite, 1888, p58-59).
At the time, the eminent Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.), then an undistinguished frat boy at the University of Paris, was under the tutelage of Albertus Magnus, who despite the protestation of others about the dim-wittedness of Aquinas, presciently remarked “You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.” Unfortunately, Thomas Aquinas took exception at the existence of Albertus Magnus’ android. Chroniclers attribute this to a variety of causes. Some suggest that the android simply talked too much, and its incessant chattiness was interfering with the completion of his homework assignments. Therefore, the man who would later be celebrated as “the angelic doctor” took a hammer to it.
Albertus Magnus constructs a complete brazen man, so cunningly contrived as to serve him for a domestic. At This was at the time that Thomas Aquinas was living with him. The household trouble arising from the excessive garrulity of this simulacrum grew so intolerable for it was incessantly making mischief among the other inmates that Thomas, unable to bear it any longer, took a hammer and broke the troublesome android to pieces. This reverend father, known among his contemporaries as the “seraphic doctor,” was not without experience in the mysterious craft (Draper, 1901, p116).
Now, we all have encountered those excessive conversationalists that refuse to recognize that a story should have an ending, and that there are only so many hours in the day we can spend basking in their high opinion of their gift of gab. And no doubt you have also considered the option of taking a hammer to their heads if only for a few moments of peace and quiet, but other occult scholars have suggested that Aquinas’ attack on the android was more motivated by philosophical concerns i.e. the android, infinitely logical, endowed with all knowledge, and subtle in its arguments, so frustrated Aquinas in his rigid scholastic philosophy and theology, that rather than admit he was in error, he ended the conversation with a few carefully placed blows. Those of you with an elder sibling will no doubt recognize this rhetorical technique. With all of the purported logic and the sum of human knowledge at its disposal, the android had simply argued Aquinas into a corner, berating philosophical necessity with logic. This was the perfection of the transhuman in mortal combat against glorious, but sadly flawed human frailty, human irrationality, and human compassion. Aquinas, in one blow, took the stance that we recognize what it is to be human has nothing whatsoever to do with perfection, that we are not meant to start from the presumption of divinity and work backwards to conform to such a standard, rather that we should do what is both human and “humane”, and understand that the results of this attempt are what constitute being fully human.
Albertus Magnus lived at the same period, and he still passes among the people as grand master of all magicians. Historians of the time affirm that he possessed the Philosophic Stone and that after studying for thirty years he had succeeded in solving the problem of the android—in other words, that he had fabricated an artificial man who was endowed with life and speech, who could, in fact, answer questions with such precision and subtlety that St. Thomas Aquinas, infuriated at being unable to silence the image, broke it with a blow of his stick…The end was more arduous and sublime; it was a question of recovering the adamic earth, which is the coagulated blood of the vital earth; and the supreme dream of philosophers was to accomplish the work of Prometheus by imitating the work of God—that is to say, by producing a man who should be the child of science, as Adam was child of divine omnipotence. The dream was insensate perhaps, and yet it was sublime. Black Magic, which ever apes the Magic of Light, but takes it, as it were, backwards, was also concerned with the android, that it might be used as an instrument of passion and an oracle of hell…Albertus Magnus was neither infanticide nor deicide; he was neither guilty of the crime of Tantalus nor that of Prometheus; but he had succeeded in creating and arming at all points that purely scholastic theology, outcome of the categories of Aristotle and the sentences of Peter Lombard, that logic of syllogism consisting of argumentation in place of reasoning and of finding an answer for everything by subtleties concerning the terms. It was less a philosophy than a philosophical automaton, replying in an arbitrary manner and unrolling its theses like the revolution of machinery. It was in no sense the human logos, but the unvaried cry of a mechanism, the inanimate speech of an android. It was the fatal precision of machinery, in place of the free application of rational necessities. St. Thomas Aquinas, with one blow, shattered this scaffolding of words when he proclaimed the eternal empire of reason in that magnificent sentence which has been cited already so often: “A thing is not just because God wills it, but God wills it because it is just” (Lévi, 1913, p259-261).
Transhumanism looks at a flawed universe, populated with flawed sentience and declares “there but for the grace of perfection, go I”, placing its hopes on the marriage of technology and evolution to move humanity beyond its sordid mucking about in illogic, inequality, and injustice, although well-intentioned with a desire to end hunger, war, crime, strife, and pain, inadvertently ignoring the fascism and egocentricism of a mythical perfection that it espouses. The transhumanist dream is that of Eliezer Yudkowsky that “someday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won’t tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they’re old enough to bear it; and when they learn they’ll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed”. Me? I’m keeping a hammer handy.
Clymer, R. Swinburne 1878-1966. Alchemy And the Alchemists: Giving the Secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elixer of Youth, And the Universal Solvent. Also Showing That the True Alchemists Did Not Seek to Transmute Base Metals Into Gold, but Sought the Highest Initiation Or the Development of the Spiritual Nature In Man “knowing Thyself.”. Allen-Town, Pa.: The Philosophical publishing co., 1907.
Draper, John William, 1811-1882. History of the Intellectual Development of Europe. Rev. ed. New York: Harper, 1901.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The world’s most dangerous ideas: transhumanism”. Foreign Policy (144): 42–43, 2004.
Krauskopf, Joseph, 1858-1923. The Jews And Moors In Spain. Kansas City: M. Berkowitz & co., 1887.
Lévi, Eliphas, 1810-1875. The History of Magic: Including a Clear And Precise Exposition of Its Procedure, Its Rites And Its Mysteries. London: W. Rider & Son, 1913.
Waite, Arthur Edward, 1857-1942. Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers Based On Materials Collected In 1815 And Supplemented by Recent Researches With a Philosophical Demonstration of the True Principles of the Magnum Opus. London: G. Redway, 1888.