The Hermetic Process: Solve et Coagula

There is new interest, especially among quantum physicists, in some aspects of the Hermetic Philosophy. Perhaps that is not entirely novel since we now know that even the great Newton studied Hermeticism and practiced alchemy in secret. But the fact that he felt he had to study it “in secret” says something about the attitude of his times, and living this divided life may well have contributed to Newton’s noted irrascibility.

It has also been noted that while Einstein publicly denounced Henri Bergson’s views on time as erroneous, in private he confessed that he actually agreed with Bergson. This peculiar dividedness was recently explored by science historian Jimena Canales in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time (a video of her work is also available on YouTube).

A third example of this strange bifurcation of views is recorded in Arthur Miller’s Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung. Pauli, one of the pioneers of the quantum mechanical worldview, was a real Jekyll-and-Hyde figure — a Mr. Hyde by night and a Dr. Jekyll by day. And it was this extreme inner division that initially drew him into psychoanalysis with Carl Jung and a shared interest in the Hermetic Philosophy. Other pioneers of the quantum mechanical worldview subsequently, or coincidentally, began to confer with Jung — Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and even Einstein among them. Jean Gebser also mentions that Erwin Schrödinger also attended one or more of Gebser’s lectures on consciousness mutations, and participated in the post-lecture discussions on the matter. Jung, of course, is credited with the contemporary revival of interest in Hermeticism, and so the reasons for this new convergence of the psychological and the physical was pretty much owing to Einstein’s integration of the space and time in relativistics and subsequently to quantum synchronistics.

This renewed interest and respect (and breakthrough) for subject-object integration or complementarity, and the precedent that Jung and Pauli set for that, is also reflected in Stephon Alexander’s book The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. Alexander recounts how the Dean of Oxford Physics at the time would recommend that his students pause and read Carl Jung whenever they became obstructed or stumped by a problem in physics.

We should understand what this means. The enforced division of the self and the dichotomisation of being into rigidly segregated compartments or sectors of “subject and object” or “mind and matter” or “individual and the mass” or “private and the public”, enforced since at least Galileo and Descartes, has broken down, and with that, also, what Jean Gebser calls perspectivism or “the perspectival consciousness structure” (or “mental-rational consciousness structure”) in development since the Renaissance invention of perspective. For that was the new approach and attitude to reality, conceived as a three-dimensional spatial structure, that Galileo and Descartes formalised as a method of thinking. It was one which, to function effectively, required the radical segregation and separation of the subjective and the objective.

Many people now hold that this set the tone for the maladies of the Modern Age and the modern “Self” — the problem of “21st century schizoid man” who has become dichotomised creature divided against itself, but which is now become explosive and is coming to a head in the contemporary epidemic of what we call “cognitive dissonance” or “crisis of the individual”, or the breakdown of the personality and character structure of late modern man — ego dissolution.

What was actually enforced by this radical incision into the unity of lived life whereby it was divided between “subjects” and “objects” was the radical segregation and sectoralisation of what we call “quality” and what we call “quantity”. This vivisection of being, as it were, is formalised as dualism — as being an extreme antithesis or opposition of the spiritual and the physical, or the mind-body dichotomy. At root, it is consequence of a forcedd separation of the qualitative (and a devaluation of the qualitative or the immeasurable therewith) and the quantitative (the exaggerated valuation of quantity and the measurable). So too eternity and time (or the secular world) became radically separated and mutually estranged, even considered antitheses.

Please bear this in mind, then, for this discussion — it is the enforced segregation of the qualitative and the quantitative that is the essence of dualism and the problem of “21st century schizoid man” that has become now a crisis of the whole personality and of consciousness itself.

A few years ago, Robert Pirsig became famous for a very popular book entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig was, in those terms, our canary in a coal mine, and his book recounts his breakdown and recovery. The whole book deals with this crisis of the qualitative and the quantitative (as the title might suggest) which Pirsig frames as “romantic” and “classical” modes of consciousness. It was very much a landmark book, in some respects, because it was the autobiography of a mind become conscious of the dichotomisation and the struggle to re-integrate the qualitative and quantitative. In that sense, it is also a landmark book in the early history of what we now call “integral consciousness”, or at least an aspiration towards wholeness.

Blake’s own way of rendering the re-integration of the qualitative and quantitative aspects of being is the meaning of his “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. The marriage, as such, is a Hermetic symbol — the hieros gamos or sacred marriage — that is the final achievement of all Hermetic praxis — the Rebis. It’s symbolisation is the cosmic Androgyne as integral being. It reflects in its form the marriage of the qualitative and the quantitative.

Rebis. The hieros gamos.

The name “Rebis” means “It is finished” or “it is complete”, referring to the success of the Hermetic Great Work and transmutation. It is likewise this path of the “Great Work” of integration that Gebser follows in his cultural philosophy, and which he highlights as “unsere Aufgabe” — our task or our purpose. In fact, Gebser holds that the entire history of consciousness from its origins in the archaic until the present day, this “Great Work” itself — our slow, and often painful, emergence from “the cave”.

Today, this “cave” or cavern has become particularly concrete and visible as the claustrophobia of what we call “the Anthropocene”. It is that described by Blake — narcissistic mind — now made objectively real, even if as Morton’s “hyperobject”, but also described by Blake as “the Mundane Shell” or as “Ulro” or as “dark Satanic Mill”.

“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”

This is quite ironic, and quite significant, that even as we discover man’s earliest origins in the cave, we discover ourselves now in what is its global and planetary equivalent — the Anthropocene. This means, we are now ready to leave the cave for the boundlessness — that which Blake calls “infinity” or “eternity” — if we will. This is essentially what Gebser means by “accepting our fate” (Schicksal) or what Nietzsche also described as “amor fati“.

This brings us to what Gebser describes as “the double-movement” of our transitional age — one dynamic of disintegration and another countervailing dynamic of a new integration emerging from the ruins of the old structure. This paradoxical double process is essentially what is described in Hermetic Philosophy by the phrase “solve et coagula” — dissolution (or disintegration) and coagulation (Gebser’s “concretion of the spiritual”). This process describes the transmutation of the base element into the noble element with the “crucible”, very much parallel to what happens in the chrysalis stage of the larva as it mutates into the butterfly (in fact the very word “chrysalis” is related to “gold” or “golden”).

That is one way of describing the process of solve et coagula. Another way which might even be more suggestive is what happens when you shake up a kaleidoscope. Chaotic transition might well be described as being analogous to the shaking of the kaleidoscope — the fragments that cohered in an old pattern are loosened from their form by the turbulence, and yet congeal into a new mosaic pattern once the shaking stops. If you could be one of those fragments, you would think during the shake-up your whole world was disintegrating and coming to a conclusive and definitive end, but its really just the process of solve et coagula, like what occurs in the Hermeticist’s crucible — the transmutation.

The really interesting question is, if we use the metaphor of the kaleidoscope being shaken up for our present “Great Interregnum” or chaotic transition, who or what is doing the shaking? Gebser answers “it is time” — it is the “irruption of time” into our spatially-biased consciousness and perception. But since Gebser holds that time is the energy of the psyche or soul, it becomes pretty evident what he means — we ourselves, or rather our “oversoul” to borrow Emerson’s phrase, is doing the shaking. Since time is, essentially, the energy of the soul in the process of making itself manifest in order to “take place”, it is the instigator of the irruption.

So, this is what Gebser means by accepting our fate (Schicksal) since it is we ourselves who are the drivers of this fate, and the ego-consciousness (McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of attention) needs to harmonise and align itself with this intentionality of the soul to emerge, and to serve as a conduit for its emergence rather than as obstacle and hindrance. It is we ourselves who are executing this maneouvre, and this is precisely what Gebser means in saying that the fate of the Earth and humankind pivots crucially (the “crucible” again!) on our “knowing when to let happen and knowing when to make happen”. These are powerful ancient forces arising within us with “the return of the repressed”, and we either harmonise and align ourselves with them or they will roll over the ego and swallow it or crush it, resulting in what Lewis Mumford feared as “total disintegration”. The paradox is that the very same powers and forces arising within us that could prove our salvation are also the very same powers that could overwhelm and crush us. This paradoxical character of the powers is what is rendered in the Rebis symbol by the dragon upon which the Androgyne rises.

Our fate is not something external to what we ultimately are. Gebser (and Nietzsche) fully accept Heraclitus’s formula that “ethos is fate”, this inner core of what we are or what is called “the You of you”. Regardless of who or what we conclude is shaking up the kaleidoscope — God, Earth, Nature, Technology — we ourselves are the instigators and we ourselves rise or fall from the quality and character of our responses. We either rise to meet these new challenges or they will bury us.

Rosenstock-Huessy finds that the whole question of our existence and of our adequacy for existence resides in an old Biblical question that God puts to man: “Who art thou Man that I should care for thee?” And it is the appropriateness of our responses to this question and this imperative that prove the test of our fitness — our worthiness to be written into the Book of Life. The very question forces us to become conscious of ourselves — Gebser’s three questions — “who am I? where do I come from? Where am I going?”

And I am also very impressed with some today who have risen to the challenges of this primary existential question, and who, by becoming conscious in this way, are proving themselves, painfully as the case may be, of being worthy of being written into the Book of Life.

May they flourish and emerge victorious.

23 responses to “The Hermetic Process: Solve et Coagula

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Might make note that even the great Einstein was riven between the subjective and objective aspects of his life, which is why I call him a paradox — the last of the Great Newtonian scientists and the first of the post-Newtonian scientists. That rivenness is exemplified by his contradictory attitudes to Bergson’s time philosophy, as Canales examines, and it probably explains why he was never able to square himself with quantum mechanics, where the subject-object dichotomy is superceded.

    And yet he called David Bohm his heir.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Pirsig’s *Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance* was a very popular book when it first came out. I think it was because many were feeling this same sense of unease, malaise and disquiet about the extremity of estrangement and alienation between the qualitative and the quantitative aspects, so I think it would have attracted the attention of Gebser too as an indication of the turn away from the old consciousness structure.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    “Humanity on the Edge of Chaos: Collapse & Creative Breakthrough”. This gets to the gist of Gebser’s paradox of “the double movement” or what Bronowski also calls “the crisis of paradox”, or Dabrowski’s “Positive Disintegration” and what I mean by the shaking of the kaleidoscope.

    View at

  4. Scott Preston says :

    It might also be helpful in understanding the Hermetic Art of *solve et coagula*, of Gebser’s notion of “the double-movement” through Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s “Theory of Positive Disintegration”, which is beginning to attract some attention these days.

  5. Yeffen Ray says :

    Here, observable constant would be like lower attribution into some detail of higher organized (analysis – [well-what is] need?)
    traction/retraction divided infinitelyneedreceptivewhereveritgoes, icrown, (highest of high attributes) highest attributes inward into the most abundant,
    beyond measure or scale… quantuities, the most enumerate/innumerable times/tines, arc-sines, (ofone) which are the (residual)
    remainder, the most infinitely, infinitesimal… for the contrast of dark matter with polarity? ark matter polarity

    (The plates ride on the mantle.)

    fATE is planned/unplanned di-synchrony the graph is beyond just within disynchronous time…

    Which is why i’d say we dance across the wind in fractals.
    How does angular momentum constitute matter?

    Why is the unifield tunable (fields&range)?

    This video could be a tribute to the passing of Alexander McQueen

    When regarding the results from corporeal time, what is not infrastructure to the integument, the physical network for integuments
    for any physical… connection, hence, James Burke’s “Connections”.
    [he ego-consciousness (McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of attention) needs to harmonise and align itself with this intentionality of one `i’ into the soul to emerge]

  6. says :

    Excellent and so smart as usual, a pleasure to read. You broaden my horizons..Thank you

  7. Yeffen Ray says :


    You’re connecting with all the other “I” s in the psyche, the way from the past, says, (back.there); You’re head is loaded with light and spin; you’re crown is where all the one to ones are simultaneously referred to the omni/one, formerly known as referred to omni/all… or thinks as the one and all immanence/essence di-synchrony. The non-corporeal, super consciousness beyond the artificial units of light and spin and cone spectra built out of quanta. Your crown has been placed to connect with your “CROWN” and, what does this correlate, the top part of the crown is the temple, and, inside the temple are some specialized arcs with a few unusual amplitudes in the incorporeal wave lengths… your crown is co-next to the eyes, back and up and all around *CONVEYANCE. They’re fractal developing…

    Could our universe be fractal?

    You realize, this is amazing stuff, just with the exception of all the knowledge we cannot contain into human corporeality… this you already know.

    Hey, watch these, dual at timestamps 3:53 and 5:00 click back & forth from one to one…pretty amazing! [CROWN.REALITY] hierarchy of one to one
    I wonder if JPB some of these turn/spin moves, hey?

    What else is amazing? Teleportation Physics Study

    * what is infinite complexity?
    pillar of structure time
    How we are constructed with light without the ability (devoid) to detect in a physical sense, the parts of creation from which all in all is manifest as immanent, should be this light within us all as one to one within the all in all. (What more?)

    Google Images
    superstrings in sets as quanta
    ark matter polarity

  8. Steve says :

    A wonderful book by R.J. Reilly-“Romantic Religion: A Study of Owen Barfield, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien.”

    For Barfield, the history of the universe is the story of Absolute Mind becoming conscious of itself through man. We are now on the cusp of man’s ultimate evolutionary destiny as he becomes consciously aware of the wholly immanent God within his unconscious mind. Though man becomes the creator of all meaning, not all men are creatively equal. We must look to the Poets, like Coleridge, who open pathways to their unconscious minds and draw out the wisdom of the ages which they swathe in magic combinations of words that convey truth to those with ears to hear and eyes to see. (Page 16.)

  9. The Oak of Normal says :

    I’m going to have to check out The Jazz of Physics. Did Jean Gebser play music or does anyone know what his relationship with music was? I looked up his autobiography on The Jean Gebser Society page and it didn’t mention anything about it, and Wikipedia just acknowledged his passion for the arts. I’m very intrigued with music as a bridge between the irrational and rational modes of thinking/sides of the brain and thinkers who incorporate music into how they work. I really like Oliver Sack’s books and he played piano. Nietzsche did as well. In Birth of Tragedy, I was quite taken with his claim about Socrates daimon telling him to play music. Einstein had his violin. I play music myself and all this is incredibly interesting and stimulating.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Did Jean Gebser play music or does anyone know what his relationship with music was?

      Good question. Nothing overt about his own musicality in the literature that I’ve found as yet, but he was apparently acquainted with Stravinsky.

      “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

      You may be interested in reviewing the “theory of everything” as viewed through a musical lens: Harmonic Evolution. Also of note, Voices aims to be a “world forum for music therapy.”

      And who doesn’t like music?

      There was a time when most people believed the universe and everything in it was made of music. The early Hindus were perhaps first to embrace this concept in their musical philosophy of Shabda, a Sanskrit word meaning “sound” or “speech.” Their Vedic texts, written in the form of sacred hymns, were said to embody the divine knowledge of sruti or “what is heard.” As this idea was adopted into Buddhist, Jainist and Tibetan teachings, it was known as the Audible Life Stream, Inner Sound, Sound Current and the Word. Spreading through much of the populations of India and China, many today still claim: “the Sound Current vibrating in all creation can be heard by the inner ears.” — Toward a New Harmonic Framework

      13 This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. ~ Matthew 13:9-16

      Much talk today about our “inner eye” and what we “see.” Not much about our “inner ear” and what we “hear.” I personally view that as resulting from the prevalent “patriarchal” influence, at the expense and even the exclusion of the “matriarchal,” in the West. The “heiros gamos” is understood by most of us as the “marriage” of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine, which appear to have been divorced for some time now. Time they were reconciled.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I don’t think Gebser played an instrument, other than the poetry in his mind, so you might say that his mind was his instrument. But he was conversant about music. There’s a lengthy section in EPO that addresses the changing structure of musical composition, and how this reflects changes in the consciousness structure.

      But as for a musical instrument? I think that was his own mind, which he expressed through poetry.

    • John says :

      I gather from the EPO that Gebser was a fan of Debussy, as he recognized in his work a quality of diversified and coalescing time signatures accompanying uniquely intensified range of feelings.

      I really enjoy Jean Efflam Bavouzet’s rendition of Debussy’s preludes for piano.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I don’t recall him mentioning Debussy as much as others. I’ll have to recheck that section in EPO, or perhaps it will come up in my reading of *In der Bewaehrung”.

  10. Yeffen Ray says :

    Use Moon as Mirror in Hunt for Extraterrestrial Life

    The sun burns out in five billion years.
    The constant perception with the derivative proof, looks, hypothetically, like this: the size of the atom in proportion to the solar system is the size of a string in proportion to an atom… Shouldn’t the core of human (spectrum) energies be focused on the primary and secondary premise for existence of creation, extraterrestrials the size of the string?

    This was interesting, the fractal seeks to mediate in the balance from the space or order/chaos fields. What other fields are impervious in constraint to PROTON 10X. This seems tantamount to all suppositions, propositions or di-synchronies…

    [The hypothesis and theory series of discovery.]
    Scientists Use Moon as Mirror in Hunt for Extraterrestrial Life
    Like Life Itself,

    Sustainable Development is Fractal
    C biosymbiosis Quantum Distil-called life
    the truth hunts… for the numbers built into equations, which infer the constant of the physical laws with the unifield. . . . . .

    Quantum Physics for 7 Year Olds | Dominic Walliman | TEDxEastVan
    How can this be what it looks like an algorithm?

  11. Soror Mystica says :

    “The enforced division of the self and the dichotomisation of being into rigidly segregated compartments or sectors of “subject and object” or “mind and matter””

    Scott this is reflected in my work as a psychoanalyst…I am a “Self Psychologist” in that I am influenced but Kohut’s ideas of self” or an intrinsic locus of agency, or a deep, nuclear “something” within each individual- it doesn’t eliminate the connectedness between subject object- but is also doesn’t completely eliminate self or make self exist ONLY in context with no unique aspect of it’s own. The problem with describing self is that language is too bifurcating for post-modern sensibilities and so any attempt to define self is considered reifying. My issue with the popular relational psychoanalysis today is the denial of any kind of separation of subject and object. There are obviously parallels here between some Buddhist concepts of no-self, vs say the more Christian or Vedic ideas around spirit or Atman and I wonder how much these spiritualities form underpinnings to psychoanalysis – I am sure a lot. I see the discipline of psychoanalysis as in many ways sterilized spiritual work. I believe the self’s goal is the hieros gamos…part of the self’s suffering is the solve et coagula process. I wonder what your thoughts are on self in the new consciousness?

    • Scott Preston says :

      If it is helpful, both Gebser and Nietzsche (and Rosenstock-Huessy too) are adamantly opposed to any doctrine of “unselfing” or “egolessness”. In fact, that’s what Nietzsche means by “teachers of sleep”.

      What is crucial is the transparency of the ego-consciousness, and such transparency often gets confused with egolessness. An enlightened ego consciousness is absolutely necessary, but in becoming transparent it also allows the diaphainon to “shine through” as Gebser puts it.

      Rosenstock-Huessy also displaces the ego-consciousness, the “I” from the centre of his “cross of reality”. It too becomes one phase in the overall process of realisation. The diaphainon is nothing like a “transcendental ego”, but the ego-nature is one expression, one manifestation, of the diaphainion itself, and it has been evolved through many ages for that express purpose — to guide the diaphainon into full manifestation and realisation within the spacetime system. Instead, it has become a “usurper” as McGilchrist puts it — Blake’s “Urizen” is a usurper. This is the problem of narcissism and the narcissistic mentality — what Gebser calls “the one-sided attitude” or what Ellul described as the pursuit of “the one best way of doing anything” which would, of course, deny the fluidity of awareness, Rosenstock-Huessy’s “multiformity of man” and cross of reality, or the validity of the phases of the Holling Adaptive Cycle.

      I’m not sure, though, that Ellul was ever very clear on why he felt this monomania of “the one best way” was so obsessive and destructive. I think he had a kind of intuitive sense for the fourfold and for human multiformity but if he made that explicit, I’m not sure where (Perhaps “The Presence of the Kingdom” which I haven’t yet read). “The Presence of the Kingdom” may well be Ellul’s own insight into Gebser’s “ever-present origin”.

      I’ll catch up with that in time, i hope.

      • Soror Mystica says :

        Indeed helpful. Thank you. I must read Gebser… I love the idea of transparency, vs “void” or emptiness– which really point toward oblivion and why people mistakenly call Tibetan Buddhism an atheistic religion. Transparency captures something of the paradox of self as one and all simultaneously…

        • Soror Mystica says :

          Also, I wonder why they were against these teachings, since modern secular philosophers would say egolessness is a good idea since it is not dualistic or bifurcating like say Christian teachings of soul . I was taught growing up that Nietzsche was essentially an atheist, but it seems in this case he and all these mentioned philosophers believed in something like spirit…

          • Scott Preston says :

            Nietzsche wanted to be rid of the moralising God (Blake’s “Urizen” in effect). As I see it, he revalued all questions of “good and evil” into issues of health and sickness. Otherwise, the essential structure of the Christian message is retained, and Christian themes keep recurring in Nietzsche’s writings but in new ways commensurate with this paradigm of health and sickness.

            Nietzsche continues to fullfil the essential Christian imperative “Be thou therefore perfect, even as they Father in heaven”, although the word “perfect” actually means “whole”, “entire”, “complete” and isn’t a moral category at all. But the whole Christian process of history as “godman-making” is still fulfilled in Nietzsche’s “overman” concept.

            In other words, both Nietzsche and Jesus aim for much the same destiny — history as the process of god-man-making (as does Blake “God becomes as we are so that we may be as he is”). So the interesting question is how do these two figures, Nietzsche and Christ, see this process effectively unfolding comparatively?

            Nietzsche’s “free spirit” corresponds, after all, to Jesus promise that “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”, so the question is, how human beings come to realisation of this truth that sets free. Nietzsche holds that conventional Christianity failed at this.

          • Scott Preston says :

            I might add to this that Gebser obviously also feels that humankind has matured sufficiently to be ripe and ready spiritually for this “truth that sets free”, which he frames as “time-freedom”.

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