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The Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter

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I grew up with the Scholastic Book Club. I was a young member of that club for years when I was in American public school. Later on, I developed an aversion to joining any club that would have me as a member, but back then you could purchase new paperback books every month for less than a dollar and I awaited each month’s new offerings with eager anticipation.

I still have my old and well-worn copy (from 1966) of "The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet." This is a fantastic tale of two kids who build an interplanetary spaceship in their backyard with some help from a strange little man with a mushroom-shaped head.

Now, a generation later, the story goes that Scholastic Books changed the original English title of J.K. Rowling’s first book from "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone" to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" because they didn’t think Americans would react well to the word "Philosopher."

This decision was an inspired stroke of pure mass marketing genius. Just look at what happened. It worked like magic.

Why this marketing ploy worked so well in the book selling business has more to do with the reactions of the misguided Christian Right to the word "Sorcerer" than any misconceptions that Americans might have had about the word "Philosopher."

These misanthropic miscreants, the Christian Right, live up to their name. They suffer from the age-old malady of self-righteousness. That is to say, they have to be right. And, in their view, the rest of the world is ignorant of the evil conspiracy behind the book, and the hidden agenda of its author, and they are wrong.

Now, it’s true that Americans, in general, tend to fail to give Philosophers their due. In that wonderful movie "Lost in Translation," Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray), lost and alone in downtown Tokyo, reacts as most Americans do when the object of his attentions confides that she graduated just last year from Rutgers with a degree in Philosophy. He cracks a joke about how, well, there’s good money in that, isn’t there!

Most Americans don’t have a clue which Stone was the Philosopher’s. I know I didn’t. I was born an American, and I happen to have been a Philosophy major at University.

The Philosopher’s Stone wasn’t to be found on the curriculum where I went to school.

My own father used to chide me on my bad career choice -- "Philosophy is nothing but a bunch of bullshitters sitting around bullshitting about bullshit." This comment in itself is a postulate for a rather profound, if ignorant, philosophy. (Dad likes to listen to Rush Limbaugh, too. But we won’t go there.)

Otherwise intelligent friends of mine reject the subject of Philosophy as not being very practical. "It doesn’t lead anywhere!" is a complaint I’ve heard a lot.

As Aleister Crowley used to complain, "Americans don’t understand irony at all!" and I have yet to have an intelligent conversation at the corner bar on the subject of Semiology or Deconstructionism.

Our European friends recognize and forgive us for this ignorance. The English First Edition of Rowling’s first book retained its original title -- "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone."

The Spanish version is "Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal."

The Canadian version includes "Philosopher’s Stone" in the title.

[Inexplicably, the French version agrees with the American -- "Harry Potter a l’ecole des sorciers." This is inexplicable because they don’t seem to agree wth Americans on much of anything else.]

"What’s the big deal?" you might ask.

Well, the big deal is that the Philosopher’s Stone is a very real thing that had a monumental influence on our modern way of life.

"How so?" you might ask incredulously.

The main criticism that the Christian Right has with the Harry Potter books is that they think there is a hidden agenda promoting Satanism. In their view, Rowling is furthering the cause of the Evil One by teaching and romanticizing the forbidden principles of the dark arts of Sorcery, Witchcraft and Alchemy -- inevitably leading to the corruption of innocent and unsuspecting American children. And they are here to let us know about it and to try to ban the books.

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard that there have been a few very public book burnings of the Harry Potter books.

The Christian Right claim that J.K. Rowling is professing Satanism. Her fans rush to her defense with the claim that she made it all up from scratch -- from her own fertile imagination. Neither view is correct.

Rowling isn’t writing in a vacuum. She is influenced by her cultural heritage.

These forbidden subjects are the staple of modern literature. We have inherited a rich tradition of folk and fairy tales. The West has a popular mythology that is firmly embedded in our culture. Goethe’s and Marlowe’s "Fausts" were a product of our culture's fascination with the banned occult underground. This fascination with the forbidden stems from the inherited mythology of our roots -- Teutonic, Celtic, Jewish, Greek and Roman. And Arabic.

You might say that Shakespeare was obsessed with the subject. Just look at "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," "Macbeth" and "The Tempest."

The wandering troubadours of the Renaissance were carrying on a verbal tradition passed to them from the Sufis. Alchemical Philosophy of the Middle Ages was a product of this Arabic influence that spread from occupied Spain.

This rich mythology was forced underground by the Catholic Church. In its roots, Protestantism was closer to the banned mythology than its modern proponents would like to admit.

There is a school of thought that says that Martin Luther was a closet Rosicrucian.

Who were the Rosicrucians and what was that all about anyway?

In sixteenth century England it seems there was a fellow named Dr. John Dee. He was an advisor to the Queen of England. Dee was an odd fellow, highly regarded for his advanced knowledge in science and mathematics. He was also feared. It was thought that he was a Sorcerer. Some say he was the real-life source for the tale of Faust.

The truth is that John Dee wrote exhaustively on mathematics. He was the author of a popular text on Euclid’s Geometry. He wrote on the subject of calendar reform. (At the time, England was resisting the Church’s edict to adopt the new Gregorian calendar.)

Some historians credit Dee with filling the English Queen’s head with the idea of global hegemony. In other words, that Dee was the father of the idea of British Colonialism. Dee also was a heavy investor in a company that was exploring (and exploiting) the New World.

Dee had one of the most extensive personal libraries of his time. Some of these books were dusty old tomes that were rare because they were also forbidden. This made them very valuable.

Dee was also a devout Christian. This was a necessity of his time. He was a product of Oxford and a product of the system. But, he was also a thinking man and a scientist. And it made sense to him to experiment.

Dee has been a pariah and banned from history books ever since because he chose to go where few men had gone before. He dabbled in what we would now call the Occult.

Since he was a Christian, and since Christians of the time believed in a sort of white magic, it made sense to him that an educated and scientific man of his training should be able to do what the Priests had always done, but was forbidden to the layman. That is to say, he should be able to talk directly to angels, and ultimately to God himself.

He set about this experimentation very methodically and recorded copious notes about his findings. Some of these manuscripts still exist and can be found in various collections. The most notorious of these were found after his death in a secret compartment of a chest that Dee had once owned.

A fellow named Meric Casabaum published some of them a generation later and Dee has been notorious for consorting with demons ever since.

This same generation saw a curious document appear called "The Chymical Marriage of Christian Rosencreutz." This was the first appearance of a series of pamphlets purporting to be Rosicrucian. The Rosicrucians were said to be a secret society of initiated adepts who held a secret body of enlightened knowledge.

This document had certain affinities to an earlier work of Dee’s called "The Hieroglyphic Monad." Some say that John Dee was the father of Rosicrucianism.

The publication of several more of these pamphlets set the educated classes of Europe on fire. Everyone who was anyone wanted to know who the real Rosicrucians were and they wanted to join up and become members of the club.

This was the time of The Enlightenment. It was a time to reject the dogma of the Catholic Church, to embrace Protestantism... and Rosicrucianism. Freemasonry was a close kin, if not a product of this interest in Rosicrucianism and the gentry of 17th and 18th century Europe became enamored with it.

We know that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Lafayette were all Freemasons.

The writings of Rosicrucianism were heavily influenced by the age-old tradition of Alchemy. Existing European Alchemical writings go back to the 11th century and the roots are said to go all the way back to Rome and ultimately to Egypt. During the Dark Ages, Alchemical teachings were preserved by the Arabs. These spread later to Europe, through occupied Spain.

Alchemy is a strange subject, cloaked in a mysterious language of obscure symbolism. There are various modern schools of thought about Alchemy.

Critics say that Alchemy is a primitive and mistaken dead-end of Western thought. The well-known Alchemical claim to be able to turn lead into gold is given as the best example of how mistaken the Alchemists were.

One school says that Alchemy is a reflection of mythical archetypes, and that the teachings and symbolism used in Alchemy are an allegory alluding to the admirable goal of personal spiritual self-transformation.

Another school of thought says that Alchemy is more than that. This school says that Alchemy was a sophisticated system of ancient learning that included practical instruction in a science, of sorts. We know the ancients were accomplished metallurgists and herbalists. This science documents the practice of transforming metals and plants into different and new substances. Alchemy was the science that described how these practical tasks were accomplished.

This school says that Alchemy is more than just a science. There’s an Art to it as well. In this sense, Alchemy transcends modern science (as in modern Chemistry.)

The Art of Alchemy requires the operator to be in the right frame of mind (and spirit) to accomplish the Great Work. Hence, the spiritual transformation of the Alchemist himself goes hand in hand with the practical work he is trying to accomplish.

What is the ultimate goal of the Alchemist?

Why, to create the Philosopher’s Stone, of course.

What was this mysterious Stone? Ah, there’s the rub. Nobody knows for sure. The subject is shrouded in mysterious terminology and obscure symbolism.

Some say the Philosopher’s Stone is a secret elixir of immortality. Why don’t we know what it is? Mainly, because anyone who knew the secret wouldn’t tell you. It’s too valuable to reveal the secret to the masses.

Some say the Philosopher’s Stone is a tool that enables one to turn lead into gold. Again, anyone possessing this tool would be a fool to divulge the secret to the masses. In fact, European monarchs of the period banned the practice of Alchemy because the possibility of Alchemists creating large quantities of gold would undermine their economies.

Some monarchs hired Alchemists who claimed to know the secret of creating gold in order to fill their own coffers and shore up their own ailing economies. If any succeeded, we don’t have a way of confirming that they did. Again, the subject would be closely guarded.

It is also argued by this school of thought that this practice of Alchemy led eventually to the true science of Chemistry, and then to modern science as we know it. Even if Alchemy was misguided, it is ultimately the father of modern science.

It therefore can be argued that, if the goal of Alchemy was the production of the Philosopher’s Stone (whatever that was), then the Philosopher’s Stone is ultimately responsible for modern science.

In the sense that the search for the Philosopher’s Stone was behind societies of Freemasonry, and if Freemasonry was responsible for the Enlightenment and ideas of modern Western Democracy, then the Stone again is at the heart and source of our modern Western society.

Isaac Newton was a practicing Alchemist.

Prior to his groundbreaking work on the motion of planetary bodies and gravitation, Isaac Newton was a practicing Alchemist. In his youth, he boarded with an Apothecary. This exposed him to the practices of herbal alchemy and to a large Alchemical library. We know that he owned a vast personal library of Alchemical literature. We know that he purchased the necessary laboratory equipment and that he compiled a dictionary of Alchemical terminology. We know where his laboratory was located.

After his death, Isaac Newton’s alchemical notes were hidden away by the Cambridge fathers as an embarrassment.

His handwritten experimental notes and manuscripts on the subject of Alchemy were finally discovered and sold at a Sotheby auction in the 1930s. Some have disappeared. Others exist in known private and academic collections.

The available manuscripts reveal that Newton attacked the subject with the same zealous genius that led to his later successes. What was his goal? Isaac Newton set out to discover the Philosopher’s Stone, of course.

A contemporary of Newton was a fellow named Robert Boyle. Boyle was also experimenting with Alchemy. The two were corresponding and there are extant letters where the subject of whether to publish their findings was discussed. Their consensus was that they should NOT.

Newton went on to become the father of Newtonian Physics. Boyle went on to become the father of modern Chemistry. Boyle published a book on the subject entitled, "Sceptical Chymist." In this book, he destroys the credibility of Alchemy and establishes the new science of Chemistry.

Newton remained publicly mute on the subject of Alchemy and was rewarded by being appointed the Master of the Mint of Great Britain. What better position for someone who understood in great detail the smelting of Copper, Silver and Gold and their alloys!

Did Isaac Newton find the elusive Philosopher’s Stone? That’s an open question, but his unpublished manuscripts seem to indicate that he thought he found it.

Honi Sui Qui Mal Y Pense

In response to the Christian Fundamentalist critics of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, I retort:

"Honi Sui Qui Mal Y Pense."

This is the motto of the Order of the Garter. Translated from the French, it means "Shame on those who think it to be evil."

It’s only proper now for the American publishers of J.K. Rowling’s books to change the name back to the original -- "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone."
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On November 23rd, 2005 09:36 am (UTC), poaebox commented:
i stumbled upon this and just wanted to say that it is very well written. thank you for sharing.
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