It is told of Archytas of Tarentum, philosopher and mathematician, contemporary of Plato, that he had constructed a wooden dove, which by means of an ingenious mechanism could fly, flap its wings and remain airborne for a considerable time. Archytas, who lived 400 B.C., is also supposed to have invented the screw, the crane and various hydraulic machines. Some time later the philosopher Aristotle relates the common use in his time of robots, which he defined as "an apparatus wherein certain parts are set in motion by an external contact with another portion of the apparatus."
When Marcellus in the year 212 B.C. besieged Syracuse, the Romans suffered heavy losses through machines and instruments constructed by Archimedes: cranes armed with gigantic tongs that, from the city walls, grasped the enemy's ships, raised them in the air and then dropped them; catapults that caused a hail of gigantic rocks on the infantry. There is even said to have been a large burning glass, by means of which ships could be ignited and burnt. (Cf. Time magazine, November 26, 1973; this procedure was successfully repeated by Greek naval personnel in waters near Athens.)
The ancients certainly knew more than we are inclined to believe. How many manufacturing secrets have they not taken to their graves, secrets whose rediscovery in our time might, who knows, bring revolutionary economic consequences!
These examples show the results the ancients could accomplish, results that presuppose a highly developed technology, experimental research and deep insights into the structure of matter and in what we call natural history, physics, chemistry and mathematics. All this arouses our admiration, and we of the twentieth century find it quite proper that the people of antiquity applied their knowledge for the benefit of material progress and the perfection of technology. We tend to relate the idea of scientific research with the idea of usefulness. In our age so-called basic research defined as "a systematic and methodical seeking for knowledge without specific applications" is relatively rare.
But the ancients saw these things with somewhat different eyes. Whatever had to do with technology and mechanics was not considered quite proper. Even the ingenious inventor Archimedes had no great regard for what he had accomplished in this area, if we may believe Plutarch who writes about him in one of his "lives," the one on Marcellus, as follows:
. . . although they had obtained for him the reputation of more than human sagacity, he did not deign to leave behind him any written work on such subject, but, regarding as ignoble and sordid the business of mechanics and every sort of art which is directed to use and profit, he placed his whole ambition in those speculations the beauty and subtlety of which are untainted by any admixture of the common needs of life.
The same sentiments have been expressed by Plato, when he, according to Plutarch, strongly disapproved of Eudoxus' and Archytas' constructing mechanical instruments to prove the correctness of their geometric postulates. This entailed a corruption of geometry, which thus lost its dignity and was forced, like a slave, to step down from the immaterial to the physical. Mechanical engineering broke away from geometry and thereby became degraded. Long disdained by philosophy, engineering came to be one of the arts of war. That was how Plato, according to Plutarch, regarded the military instruments of destruction.
This attitude must be considered against the background of the role played by the Mystery schools in antiquity, even though the signs of degeneracy had already begun to manifest in Plato's time. In them was taught a knowledge of the construction of the universe, of the inner structure of matter, of man's place in the cosmos, of his divine destiny, of the forces of nature and their control; here were taught art and science, religion and philosophy, as different manifestations of Truth; in like manner they treated of esoteric astrology, alchemy, medicine, poetry, music, mathematics, geology, geography, meteorology, etc. The teaching of these "sciences" was kept strictly secret because they were studied in their causal aspects rather than as effects. Knowledge of the causes that bring about effects implies, of course, power over the forces of nature, a power which easily may be misused for selfish purposes. Hence the secrecy that surrounded the teaching of the Mysteries.
The initiates of the Mysteries doubtless possessed a profound knowledge of Nature, but they had an equally profound aversion to using this knowledge for material purposes and comfort. Their main intent was to awaken the divine forces that are latent in man, and to train his character in accordance with his abilities. Nonetheless, the cornerstone of modern physics, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geography and related subjects, including laboratory techniques, was laid in the ancient Mystery schools.
In antiquity, especially in Egypt, all activity within science and the various branches of art was tied in with the Mysteries. Artisans in ceramics, enameling, goldsmithing, wrought-iron work, glass blowing, all labored within and under the protection of the temples. They answered directly to the priests and their work was filled with sacred topics. Along with the degeneration of the Mystery schools, the ties that connected the artisans with the sacred were gradually broken. The particular skills they brought from their temple service became generally limited to "Professional secrets," which were circulated within the guilds as they were not of a nature so sacred that they might not be revealed without severe consequences. Even with the final closing of the Mystery centers under Justinian in the 6th century A.D., the bonds between the crafts and the sacred were not completely severed. The profound knowledge of the inner structure of matter possessed by the initiates lived on within certain monasteries, certain secluded circles of artists, among metallurgists, smiths and builders. In this respect it is significant to note the high repute enjoyed in the Middle Ages by the gentilshommes verriers (the gentlemen glassmakers) among kings and princes. This is where alchemy enters the picture.
This knowledge held by the initiates of the Mysteries had by different routes been transmitted to the alchemists of the Middle Ages, who worked under various guises within secret societies, the guilds, the monasteries: representatives of an ancient sacred royal knowledge and art, whose purpose was not merely to bring man back to the state he had enjoyed before the so-called fall, but also to reawaken the divine forces that lie dormant within all creation. In other words, alchemy has as its purpose to lead man into a higher, more spiritual state of consciousness. Although it has its roots in what we call religion and philosophy, we must not forget that alchemy constitutes an exact autonomous science, whose practitioners maintain that it brings tangible results, among others, in the form of the legendary substance called the Philosopher's Stone, lapis philosophorum.
Now we return to the highly regarded glass blowers. It is said, for example, that the church windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris have the Philosopher's Stone to thank for their inimitable luster, a theory that bears the stamp of probability if it is true that Pierre de Montereau, who built Sainte-Chapelle, practiced alchemy in the Paris convent Saint-Martin-des-Champs.
Another application of the Philosopher's Stone is reputed to be malleable glass. Ancient writers, such as Pliny, Dion Cassius and Isidorus, tell of a man who in the presence of Emperor Tiberius had hurled a goblet to the floor without breaking it. It was dented, instead, but the dent was easily removed.
A third application of the Philosopher's Stone is said to be the fuel that caused lamps to burn in graves for many centuries, so-called eternal fires, about which there are many tales told.
That the production of a substance which possesses the wonderful qualities of the Philosopher's Stone and which endows its possessor with wisdom, riches and health, without the pains of aging, must be kept a secret, goes without saying. To possess the Philosopher's Stone, if it exists in the world of the senses, would of course entail a terrible temptation for us ordinary humans to misuse it for selfish purposes.
Since long before antiquity and until a few decades ago, the releasing of the energies that slumber in matter has remained a secret, a secret that must have been known both to the initiates in the Mysteries and the adepts in alchemy. It is now no longer a secret. But are we mature enough for this knowledge, which formerly was guarded as a holy heritage, passed on from generation to generation? Are we not sitting on a powder keg? Is there not a grave danger in objective research that is totally divorced from religio-philosophic elements, which were a large part of the research in ancient times? And yet our nuclear physicists do understand their responsibility. Just before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the scientists met in Los Alamos to try to stop it. But it was too late. The secret of nuclear fission was known.
As long as spiritual progress does not keep pace with the material, so long as increased knowledge of the control of nature's forces is not counterbalanced by increased spiritual insight into the proper use of these forces, we are embarked on a dangerous path, which could lead to the destruction of Western civilization.
Alfred Nobel was naive when he thought that the terrible explosive power of dynamite would restrain humanity from engaging in war. Three hundred years before him the Jesuit Francesco Lana, whose eyes were open to the dangers of exploiting nature's forces and the progress of technology, had expressed a similar idea.
Lana was the inventor of an airship and is regarded by some as the father of aerostatics. He emphasizes in his Prodromo published 1670 that the basic problems of weight and gravitation were solved and that in the near future aircraft of considerable size would be developed, wherein flight would be possible, even to the moon. But he added: "I can foresee no other difficulties which might annihilate the invention but one, which is the greatest of all, namely that God would surely not permit such a machine to succeed." Imagine, he said, the possible consequences: airships could be steered over public places, over ships at anchor in a harbor. Weights of iron, fireballs and bombs could be dropped. (Cf. "Two Voices: Science and Literature ??? I" by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Sunrise, Feb. 1965.) How often have not bombs since been dropped from the air?
Lana, like Nobel, did not believe God would permit this to happen. A more realistic view on these matters and on the real danger of spreading knowledge of the structure of matter, was held by the Nobel prize winner Frederick Soddy, who wrote in his book The Interpretation of Radium and the Structure of the Atom, issued 1920, that he believed that there had been cultures in the past which knew of atomic energy but which had been totally annihilated through its improper use. He may be referring to the myth regarding the destruction of Atlantis. According to tradition, the Atlanteans had achieved great material development but misused their knowledge of nature's forces and therefore met their destruction.
Let us not, however, think that material progress is evil. What is essential is that the spiritual values not be obscured. Technology should be the ally of culture. The gains of technology may be a blessing to humanity to the extent that they make possible a life with time enough to cultivate the soul. But what use is it to a man if he knows not how to "kill" time (terrible word) in his leisure moments. Archimedes' attitude may be an expression of spiritual wisdom when he regarded mechanical inventions with disdain and preferred to devote himself to those sciences whose exclusive aim was the noble and the beautiful.
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)