Copper to Gold?
Posted by Sen on February 3, 2014
An enquirer asked: Do Baha’is really believe that copper turns into gold after 70 years if protected from becoming dry (or solidified)?
The most important skill for understanding scriptures, including the Bahai scriptures, is not mastery of the original languages, or other arcane knowledge, but familiarity with literary language: the ability to read poetry and similar writing. Religious language is necessarily metaphorical, using the physical world (as understood at the time) as a correlative and reflection of spiritual realities. A literalist mind-set makes a complete hash of reading any scripture. This is a problem in all religious communities today, as modernity has given such a high status to the hard sciences and their way of describing the world that many people have never learned to read literary language as literature.
The text the enquirer asked about is in Baha’u’llah’s “Book of Certitude” or Kitab-i Iqan. In Shoghi Effendi’s translation it reads:
It is evident that nothing short of this mystic transformation could cause such spirit and behaviour, so utterly unlike their previous habits and manners, to be made manifest in the world of being. … Such is the potency of the Divine Elixir, which, swift as the twinkling of an eye, transmuteth the souls of men!
For instance, consider the substance of copper. Were it to be protected in its own mine from becoming solidified, it would, within the space of seventy years, attain to the state of gold. There are some, however, who maintain that copper itself is gold, which by becoming solidified is in a diseased condition, and hath not therefore reached its own state.
… the real elixir will, in one instant, cause the substance of copper to attain the state of gold, and will traverse the seventy-year stages in a single moment. Could this gold be called copper? Could it be claimed that it hath not attained the state of gold, whilst the touch-stone is at hand to assay it and distinguish it from copper? Likewise, these souls, through the potency of the Divine Elixir, traverse, in the twinkling of an eye, the world of dust and advance into the realm of holiness;
(Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i Iqan, p. 156)
Let’s start reading this at the end, with “Could it be claimed that it hath not attained the state of gold, whilst the touch-stone is at hand to assay it and distinguish it from copper?” Baha’u’llah expects his readers to see that a touchstone is available, but this is an assaying tool: not the sort of thing that readers would have on their tables. I think the touch-stone is a metaphor for Baha’u’llah himself, who really is “on hand.” And if the touchstone is metaphorical, the copper and gold must also be metaphorical.
The context gives us more clues. The previous context is the “mystic transformation” of certain “blessed souls,” and the point being made is that this can happen gradually, over a lifetime, or, with the help of the elixir it can happen in a moment. And then he argues, who is to say that somebody is not the real gold (just because he was something less than that previously), when the Touchstone is at hand and says “he’s real gold”?
There are more indications that the transformation of copper to gold is being used simply as a metaphor. The copper is “in the mine of its own self.” Copper does not have a self, people do. Seventy years is the lifetime of a man.
In a tablet to Ali Kuli Khan, Abdu’l-Baha states that the words “… the substance of copper … Were it to be protected in its own mine from becoming solidified, … would, within the space of seventy years, attain to the state of gold” is a quote, pointing to the views of one group of natural philosophers. (He writes, in hekaayat qawl-e hukamaa ast). I do not have the tablet, which so far as I know is unpublished, just a citation and transliteration, but I regard the source as reliable if not authoritative. Moreover, it is plausible that Baha’u’llah did intend these words to be recognized as a quotation, since he then contrasts that view to the ideas of another group who “maintain that copper itself is gold, which by becoming solidified is in a diseased condition, and hath not therefore reached its own state.”
In that citation, Abdu’l-Baha refers to the copper being protected from a “preponderance of dryness.” Solidity and a preponderance of dryness are synonyms, in the physics that prevailed in the Islamic world at the time (which drew on classical Greek physics). This physics supposes that all things are composed of four elements: earth, fire, water and air, of which only the dry element, earth, is a solid. So if something is a solid it must by definition have a preponderance of dryness. Shoghi Effendi’s term “becoming solidified” is therefore a good translation, for a readership who do not know about the categories used in the physics of that time. A translator must always consider the readers as well as the source text, for the purpose of translation is to convey as much as possible of the source to an audience who cannot read the original, and have a different cultural and educational background.
In other works by Baha’u’llah that refer to this physics and the alchemical process, the dry/earth element represents the body of an individual, and water represents spirit. So to be preserved for 70 years from a preponderance of the dry, is to escape the attractions of materialism, and benefit from a spiritual education, throughout one’s life. And potentially, to be transformed from a mixed character to a pure one, from copper to gold.
Among the specified sciences were the science of metaphysical abstractions, of alchemy, and natural magic. Such vain and discarded learnings, this man hath regarded as the pre-requisites … (The Kitab-i Iqan, p. 186)
Nevertheless he often uses alchemical metaphors. Here’s another:
The Book of God is wide open, and His Word is summoning mankind unto Him. No more than a mere handful, however, hath been found willing to cleave to His Cause, or to become the instruments for its promotion. These few have been endued with the Divine Elixir that can, alone, transmute into purest gold the dross of the world, and have been empowered to administer the infallible remedy for all the ills that afflict the children of men…
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 183)
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