The Philosopher's Stone

Michael Miller

A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXXIV-- April 10, 2005

[This essay is based on a series of posts to Quackgrass Roots Network.

Alchemy hovered between worlds. It emerged in a time-between-times, after a Dark Age had brightened but before a Renaissance had dawned. It came from Arab and Greek sources, but it flourished in the West. It lay between faith and philosophy; it still dreamed of heaven, but it focused on the Earth. Alchemy sought abundance in this world for the sake of living men.

Alchemists aimed to transmute base metals into gold. Why gold? Evidently because observation declares that gold is the principle of wealth. A man who has drink may not have food, or he may have these but lack fine clothing, or horses, or mansions, or lands. But a man who has gold may have all these and more. Gold is special; it is not just one kind of wealth among many: it is a means to the rest. Gold is the means to everything that can be bought. 

But what is the means to the means? What is the means to gold? Alchemists proposed to use the philosopher's stone, a mysterious, unknown substance which they believed to have the power to transmute base metals into gold. If they could find the philosopher's stone, gold would become plentiful and (so they thought) wealth would be abundant. Thus, for centuries, alchemists sought the philosopher's stone. 

Their quest for the philosopher's stone can be viewed as irrational silliness or the highest idealism. There was no reason to expect such a "stone" to exist, but what alchemists hoped to gain by means of the philosopher's stone is the sum of all human ambition. Transmutation of metals was the least of the stone's supposed powers. 


Universal means.

According to my encyclopedia: 

"The stone, also referred to as the "tincture," or the "powder" (Greek xerion, which passed through Latin into Arabic as elixir), was allied to an elixir of life, believed by alchemists to be a liquid derived from it. Inasmuch as alchemy was concerned not only with the search for a method of upgrading less valuable metals but also of perfecting the human soul, the philosopher's stone was thought to cure illnesses, prolong life, and bring about spiritual revitalization. The philosopher's stone, described variously, was sometimes said to be a common substance, found everywhere but unrecognized and unappreciated." (Encyc. Brit., 15th ed., 1976)

What a wish list! Wealth. Spiritual renewal. Longevity. Health. Even an elixir of life! In essence, the philosopher's stone offers all human values. The philosopher's stone is like gold, but even better. Gold is a means to all wealth, but the philosopher's stone is a means to all ends, a universal means. And it's lying around for the taking. It's everywhere! If you have the wit merely to recognize it and learn how to use it, then all ends are within your reach. We needn't wonder why those who believed in the philosopher's stone devoted their lives to finding it. What higher ideal could they seek? What better end could a man set himself than a universal means?


Ends and means: the last end.

Before you scoff at the idea of a universal means, observe that it's just the inverse of an end-in-itself. An end-in-itself, long a cornerstone of ethics, is the ultimate end to which all other values are means. An end-in-itself is the end of all means, and a universal means is the means to all ends. If an end-in-itself exists, may not a universal means also exist? Perhaps alchemists erred only in seeking the universal means among tinctures, powders and stones. 

The concept of an end-in-itself goes all the way back to Aristotle. He observed that some things we choose for the sake of something else and some things we choose for their own sake. To take a modern example, we don't choose a dollar for its own sake, but for the sake of the coffee we intend to buy with it. And we don't choose the coffee for its own sake, but for the sake of drinking it. The dollar is a means to the coffee as an end, the coffee is a means to the end of drinking, and so on--but within limits. 

Aristotle noted that not everything can be desired for the sake of something else, "for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain." A chain of one means leading to another means, leading to yet another means, and so on forever, would be pointless and impossible. There is necessarily an end which we desire for its own sake: an end-in-itself. 

Furthermore: 

"If ... there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), ... clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?" --Nichomachean Ethics, I 1.

This was a good day's work even for Aristotle! Beginning from the commonplace observation that there are things we desire for the sake of something else, he had at one stroke validated the concept of an end-in-itself and proposed the concept of a unique end of all action. The unification of moral life was immense. One need merely focus on the last end and pursue it single-mindedly, evaluating all other goods as means to that last end. There was no need to divide one's attention among myriads of unrelated goods. A single last end would imply an entire code of conduct and way of life. 

Alas, last ends multiplied alarmingly! Aristotle himself proposed happiness (eudaimonia) as last end. Epicurus named pleasure (absence of pain, if you read his fine print). The Stoics named absence of emotion (literally, apathy). Even Christians invoked a last end, although they exiled it from this world entirely. Aristotle's unification of ends had fallen apart into a clutter of competing theories, but in each theory his doctrine of the last end reigned unchallenged. Aristotle riveted the focus of moral  theorists on the last end for thousands of years. 

Means became the orphans of moral theory. Aristotle's potent little argument had unified ends, but had left means in a theoretical void. There they remained. If theorists thought of means at all, they regarded them as an indiscriminate jumble with no unifying principle, no specific identity. Lacking so much as a positive definition, means were ignored as unimportant. 

Orphans of theory became outcasts of morality. The last end must be an end-in-itself, and this was thought to imply that the last end cannot be a means in any way whatever; i.e., the supreme good was thought to be supremely useless. Theorists competed, in effect, to name the most useless last end. (Christians won this implied contest hands down, with a last end that could not be achieved while one lived.) But if the supreme good is supremely useless, then it stands to reason that useful things are not good. At the end of this road is the conclusion that means are at best morally indifferent, and at worst outright evil. Man's means came under fire from the very theorists who should have championed them. 

It is unfair to blame Aristotle for this situation--he'd done superbly to unify ends--but the appalling fact remains that no one so much as proposed the corresponding unification of means despite the passage of almost two and a half millennia!

Allow me to remedy this lamentable lack with no further delay! I'll lean on Aristotle; I'll use his starting point and follow his method. I take this approach, not to parody Aristotle, but to stress how easy he had made the unification of means for anyone who had thought to attempt it. I'll simply trace the chain of ends and means in the reverse direction. 


Ends and means: the first means.

Some things we desire are won by means of something else, and some are already ours. Not everything we desire can be won by means of something else; for in that case, the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain. We necessarily have a first means, a means which is not won by some other means, but which is already ours. If, then, there is some means to all the things we desire (everything else being won by means of this), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like technicians who know what's in their tool kits, be more likely to work well? 

This argument does for means everything that Aristotle's argument did for ends. It proves the existence of a first means just as Aristotle proved the existence of a last end. It suggests a unique first means in the same way that Aristotle suggested a unique last end. Observe that a unique first means is a universal means.

Alchemists were not wholly deluded. There is a first means, and it is already ours! It is mine and yours, and his and hers and theirs. The first means is a common thing, it's everywhere! And if we are ignorant of our wonderful possession, if we doubt its very possibility, if you think I'm crazy to propose it, then surely the first means is unrecognized and unappreciated! 

The concept of a first means was available to any ancient who had chosen to focus on means, and its absence was disastrous. Ancient theorists, lacking the concept of a first means--and still less able to name the first means--could propose no positive last end. Had they done so, they would merely have provoked cynical mirth among their listeners; for without a first means desire is empty and vain. Their last ends had to be negative; they had to be expressed in such terms as shun, abstain, reject, deny, suspend, etc. In fact, the ancients' chief goods (Aristotle's excepted) were negative, with the deplorable results documented by history--up to and including the collapse of their civilization. 

Christian writers have observed that pagan civilization perished from hopelessness, and this is true. Hope is the conviction that one can achieve the good. Hopelessness is the natural state of those who are ignorant of their first means, and the writings of later antiquity reek of it. Without hope, what would be the point of any action? A hopeless man (or civilization) cannot save himself: he is doomed. 

The same writers attribute Christianity's growing popularity in the ancient world to its offer of salvation, of hope. Alas, that offer had nothing to do with life on Earth; Christians regarded hope as supernatural. Christian hope was hope of heavenly good to be achieved by heavenly means, by the power of God. Pagan good was negative, but Christian good was negative twice over: it was unworldly in both end and means. Accordingly, Christians despaired of Earthly good even more completely than did pagans. Throughout the ensuing Dark Ages, Christians won considerably less Earthly good than their pagan ancestors had won. 

All this raises a question about the origin of modern civilization. Modern civilization is not merely a rebirth of ancient civilization; it's something new. The philosophers, scientists, businessmen, engineers, artists, navigators, and reformers who remade the world in the last 7 centuries began with the conviction that they could achieve Earthly good; they were living embodiments of hope. They certainly didn't get it from an ancient world that had perished of hopelessness. Where did they get it? 

It is certain that alchemists stand near the beginning of this line of heroes; alchemy flourished in the West from the 12th Century. It is certain that the teacher of Thomas (namely Albertus Magnus) studied alchemy. It is certain that the alchemists' doctrine of the philosopher's stone was widely known for centuries, and that it inspired men to action. It is also certain that the description of the philosopher's stone--"a common substance, found everywhere but unrecognized and unappreciated"--is uncannily appropriate to an unidentified universal means We may owe our civilization to alchemists. For concealed within the rough husk of their fantastic notion of the philosopher's stone lies the precious kernel of a universal means--the seed of hope. 


Life and values: biological teleology.

So far, like Aristotle, we have taken for granted the existence of things that are desired or sought or chosen, and have investigated the relations of ends and means among them. Now we look at ends and means together, and observe that they are all objects of some action; they are goods, values. A value is the object of an action. Values presuppose the kind of action that has objects, namely goal-directed action. 

Where on Earth do we see goal-directed action? What kind of entities perform it? Ayn Rand posed this question, and immediately answered it: living organisms, and only living organisms, are capable of goal-directed action. Inanimate entities are not valuers. Valuing is the distinctive kind of action performed by living organisms, and values are the objects of an organism's distinctive kind of action. To understand values and valuing one must observe living organisms; they are the observational base of all such concepts. Life is an organism's last end: if its values do not serve and further its life, they cease to be values; the organism dies. To contemplate values beyond the context of life is arbitrary and unwarranted; values exist only in that context. 

Teleology is the study of value; it presupposes that values exist, that some things are done for an end. Ayn Rand's teleology is revolutionary in many ways. By validating biological teleology, Rand rose above ateleology without falling into universal teleology. Ateleology--which is orthodox by default in learned circles these days--is the view that values do not exist, that nothing is done for an end. Universal teleology is the view that all things are done for an end; it implies the question, "Who or what is the cosmic valuer?" Universal teleology has spawned any number of fantasies, but Rand's work sweeps them all aside. 

Rand validated non-conscious valuing. The view that valuing implies consciousness is so ingrained in common thinking that most value terms (e.g., to seek, to pursue, to choose, to desire) connote consciously directed valuing. Indeed most value terms imply rationally directed valuing: purpose. Just as universal teleology arbitrarily expands the concept of value, so the notion that only conscious valuing is valuing arbitrarily restricts it. Until about the time of Aristotle, the concept of life was similarly restricted to conscious life; the tip-off is Aristotle's repeated reminder that plants have life "of a sort." Life and value have only gradually been distinguished from the conscious living and conscious valuing that are such essential features of man. 

The basic answer to those who profess to see a contradiction in non-conscious valuing is an ostensive definition of it, an appeal to observation: 

"Behold yon gooseberry bush! It thinks not, neither doth it perceive; yet it seeks its life's values even as you or I". 


And the universal means is ...

With values solidly rooted in life, the universal means is absurdly easy to identify. It is life! Absent the action of some living organism, the things in the universe would exist, but they would not be values. Each organism's actions are the means to all its values; it is those actions which make a thing a value. An organism's ends extend precisely as far as those means. An organism's living action is the fully adequate means to all its ends: its life is its universal means.

It may be objected that there are ends beyond an organism's power. Can a plant run? Can a dog learn logic? Can a man change the past?  But these are not ends, they're fantasies! A universal means does not imply omnipotence. Rather, an organism's power to act determines what can be an end for it; whatever is the object of no action is not an end. Not even mortality refutes this universal means. Even when an organism is dying, when no action can sustain its life further, its universal means has not become inadequate to its ends. Rather, at that point even its life has ceased to be an end. Throughout life, ends and means are precisely commensurate. From microbe to man, a universal means is every organism's birthright. 

We have here a final unification far beyond Aristotle's hopes. We have unified all ends in the last end, as Aristotle sought to do. Beyond that we have unified all means in the first means, as alchemists hoped to do. Beyond even that alchemical hope, we have found that the last end and the first means are one and the same! Life is the end of all means. Life is the means to all ends. Life is both the fundamental end and the fundamental means. Life is important! 

You needn't wonder that the same thing can be both an end and a means; this was implicit all along. In our very first example--.../dollar/coffee/drinking/...--every value is both end and means: each is the end of an earlier means, and the means to a later end. By identifying the first means with the last end, we've shown that all chains of ends and means curl around to form loops, so that every good without exception is both end and means. This agrees with ordinary thinking; what is not an end is unwelcome, and what is not a means is useless: neither the useless nor the unwelcome is thought to be good. 

Because chains of ends and means form loops, valuing involves circular causation. Circular definition--i.e., to define a thing in terms of itself--is an error, but circular causation is no defect of this theory. It is a triumph! Circular causation is no figment; it is common as mud, better known as feedback. Today's life--through however many intermediate values--is the means to tomorrow's life. Today's ends "feed back" to the organism to become its future means.

Valuing is a feedback process. 


Feedback and exponentials.

The fact that valuing is a feedback process will have spectacular implications if we can unlock them, for feedback processes are the natural habitat of exponentials. Exponentials (also known as yeast growth laws, or compound interest laws, or geometric progressions) are among the most dramatic growth laws known to mathematics. Exponential growth compounds laughable advances from derisory beginnings to produce awesome outcomes. 

Imagine the most feeble, inept, woebegone twerp that you can. Then suppose that the twerp devises a method to increase the potency of his means by just over 1% in a week. His beginning is certainly derisory, and his weekly advance is a sorry joke. Yet behold! The twerp's slightly more potent means produce slightly greater ends which are fed back over the week to become even more potent means. If the twerp can keep up his laughable advances week after week, the potency of his means will double in a year! If the twerp keeps up this pace of advance year after year, the potency of his means will multiply more than a thousand-fold in a decade, more than a million-fold in two decades, more than a billion-fold in three decades. Some twerp! 

Are these numbers a reasonable projection or a mathematical fantasy? No one knows, but the fact of genius suggests that such numbers are not completely fantastic. In every human pursuit, certain geniuses stand so far above the rest that they seem to belong to a different species, like giants among pygmies. If we can believe their testimony (and what other testimony would be relevant?), they have no special powers which other men lack. Indeed they often become indignant at the suggestion that their accomplishments are beyond the hopes of "mere mortals." Newton compared himself to a boy picking pebbles from the beach while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before him. Exponential growth at differing rates would easily reconcile the testimony of geniuses with the gulf between them and the rest of mankind. Just as every recruit's kit has been said to contain a field marshal's baton, it may be that every cradle contains the laurels of genius. It may be that genius is unexplained method. 

The key that unlocks exponential growth is quantitative knowledge, but quantification of value has always been dismissed as hopeless. Even such a thorough champion of measurement as Ayn Rand set value apart from quantity. She proposed to measure values by a process of "teleological measurement," which would use ordinal numbers rather than the cardinal numbers that we use to measure length, mass and such. The outcome of her teleological measurement would not be a quantity but a ranking: "first, second, third," rather than "one unit, two units, three units." I can't imagine how to compute exponentials by means of rankings, but I can see how to quantify value. 


Value quantified.

How can we quantify value? If ends were fancies and figments, and if means were a random jumble, then we couldn't. But we've learned that life is the primary value, and that gets our foot in the door. If we can quantify that primary value, we can measure other values by comparing them to units of the primary value. If we can define units of life, we can use them as "yardsticks" to measure other values. Can we define units of life? 

Yes we can! We can measure life, and we do measure life! We measure life routinely. We measure life as a whole, and we measure life in smidgens and great blocks. We say "That man lived for 62 years." and we say, "He studied in Plato's Academy for 20 years." and we say, "He directed his Lyceum for 12 years." We measure life in units of hours, months, years and decades! 

We measure life by time!

When we measure life by time, we measure no irrelevant, inessential attribute of life. Time is a measure of existence, so time measures a life's very existence. Thus, we measure it all; we measure the organism's every action, power, capacity and et cetera. We measure the organism as a whole. We omit nothing. We include the whole shebang! The all-inclusive units of life which we define by means of time are the units of value.

The units of value are not mere blank, unspecified days or years; they are days or years of this organism's life. These units of life are defined by time, but mere units of time are not the units of value. The units of value are units of life; these units are the values we need as yardsticks to measure other values. By defining units of life and value, we have introduced a whole new category of measurement. 

That new category of measurement deserves a name, and it has a name: leisure.

Leisure is life, regarded as a continuous series of definite units. Leisure is the time of your life, the time of all your life. The definition usually offered for leisure, namely "absence of labor" is hopeless. First, it is obviously negative. It is also circular in two respects; its unstated genus is the full concept of leisure, and you will strive in vain to define "labor" without using the full concept of leisure. Leisure is the fundamental concept; labor and loafing are derivative concepts, merely uses of leisure. 

Can one really measure all values by leisure? Yes! Leisure is earned and spent like money so, like money, it enables you to appraise and calculate. Leisure is the ultimate, uninflatable, undeflatable currency of man's moral life. All the "economic" concepts usually defined in terms of money--profit and loss, wealth, capital, etc.--have more fundamental counterparts in terms of leisure. So these are not social concepts after all, but the moral concepts of an absolutely individualist, egoist ethics. No wonder the bad guys rail against capitalism and real money; they daily teach a rational alternative to the bad guys' counterfeit moralities! (See "The leisure theory of value.") 

Because leisure is life, whatever is true of life is necessarily true of leisure. In formal syllogisms: Leisure is life; life is X: therefore leisure is X. Leisure is the first means and the last end. Leisure is the universal means and the end-in-itself. Leisure is the central, all-encompassing value. Furthermore, being quantitative, the concept of leisure is supremely adapted to the volitional use of a rational, calculating being. In short, leisure is man's primary moral value. Leisure is important! (On the negative side, note that anti-leisure is anti-life.) 

Aristotle was near-as-dammit to a full grasp of leisure. He emphasized, repeated and insisted that "leisure is the first principle of all action." Furthermore, he defined the subject matter of ethics as "goods achievable by action." But alas, he inherited universal teleology from previous thinkers ("the good is that at which all things aim"). Thus he didn't grasp that the goods achievable by action are the only goods that exist, so he was left without the concept of a fully universal means. But unlike the later ancients, and contrary to modern slanders, Aristotle never ignored or despised means. Because he knew the first principle of action, his chief good could be positive, and he chose a positive: happiness. Aristotle's ideal of happiness has ever since been a power for moral sanity; its root is leisure. 


The profit of living

Partisans of the labor theory of value will object that I've merely attributed to leisure the power and glory that belong to labor. When all is said and done, they will protest, all man's ends are won by means of labor. Whatever the merits of leisure in general, the residue which remains after subtracting labor is useless. Labor is all-useful, but leisure not employed in labor is useless. Leisure to which no use whatever has been assigned has no use whatever, by definition. 

Before we answer this seemingly formidable argument, we should note that it must be answered. The fate of mankind depends on the answer, for this argument is the moral root of the most grinding tyranny. This century's most ardent advocates of the labor theory of value have been Communists, and wherever they have gained power they have put their worship of labor and their contempt for labor-free leisure into practice. The blight of labor camps that has spread across the face of the Earth is a product of their theory. Just as they damn monetary profit as mere "surplus value," so they damn the highest and best of man's life as a useless residue. 

Does labor-free leisure have a use? The unanimous testimony of every child who ever rushed to finish his chores--to get them "over with," and "out of the way"--is YES! Is that use more desirable than drudging away at one's chores? Again the children's unanimous testimony is YES! What is the use of labor-free leisure? Here, both children and their uninstructed elders are reduced to random mutterings which allow the specter of labor camps to creep ever nearer. The one-word answer they need to avert impending doom hinges on an elementary point of logic. 

The labor theory partisans and their dupes commit the most complete of all logical sins; they mistake "anything" for "nothing." Leisure which you have won free from drudgery is not a means to nothing; it is a means to anything. Such leisure is not useless, it is all-useful! Its special importance, which even a child implicitly recognizes, is its universality. Labor-free leisure is the highest and best kind of leisure, for it is most completely a universal means. The use of labor-free leisure is, precisely, anything!

Labor-free leisure--leisure which you have freed from all the "have-tos" of life--is the profit of living! It is what remains to you after paying all the expenses of life's "have-tos." The profit of living is your means to all of life's "want-tos," and it is nowhere written that your heart's deepest desires must be frivolous! 

The profit of living is the cause of all human progress. Every new idea, every new method, every new industrial process was pioneered by someone who won leisure free from the daily grind of the old ways of thinking, acting and producing. No other cause of innovation is conceivable; only leisure which has been freed from the old can be used to create the new. Innovators are men who invest the profit of living in whatever is new and better. 

Adventurers are those who spend the profit of living on whatever they find interesting and exciting. A life of adventure is possible! But it can only be funded out of the profit of living. 

The profit of living is your means to experience life fully as an end-in-itself, pure fun! It is your means to surpass--with full adult knowledge!--even the carefree joy of a toddler who is ignorant of life's chores. The profit of living is the "sovereign alchemist that, in a trice, life's leaden metal into gold transmutes." 


Alchemy updated.

Leisure is the one, true and genuine, philosopher's stone. Accept no substitutes! 

Wealth? Spiritual renewal? Longevity? Health? Even an elixir of life?! So far as lies within man's power, all these may be won--and have been won or will be won--by means of leisure, and by no other means whatever. Every other means is either a part of leisure or a product of leisure. 

Transmutation of values is common as mud! The key to this seemingly wondrous power is the fact that whatever wins you more of the universal means is a step toward any value whatever. If you can derive leisure from yon sack of sows' ears, you can devote that leisure to winning a silken purse. If you can derive leisure from yon leaden lump, you can devote that leisure to winning golden treasure. The amounts of sows' ears and silken purses in existence, of leaden lumps and golden treasures, may not be changed by your actions, but the amounts of them among your values will surely be changed by your choice.

Transmutation of values is the deepest analog of what is known in markets as "liquidity." Because leisure is a universal means, it can be turned into any value. And because all values (as opposed to fantasies) are means to leisure, all values are more or less liquid. When you grasp this power of your leisure, you can transmute any value whatever into any other value whatever, subject only to the quantities and degrees of liquidity involved. Leisure is the liquid resource you can shape into your heart's desire. 

Leisure is not magic, it transmutes values only in definite ratios; but this would be true even of a literal philosopher's stone: some amount of it would be needed for some time to transmute some lead into some gold: to be is to be something. 

Leisure is better than magic: it's real! And what your leisure cannot win you in a day, it may win you in a year or in a lifetime. The calculation is yours to perform, and calculations in terms of leisure can harness exponentials! So aim high! 

By leisure to the very stars! 

(C) 1999, Michael Miller.

Michael Miller is an engineer and Objectivist filosofer with thirty years of experience. He had been a member of Boycott Alberta Medicare in 1969 and of the Association to Defend Property Rights from 1973 on. He writes in-depth philosophical theory at his publication, Quackgrass Press, which can be accessed at http://www.quackgrass.com.

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