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With the United Kingdom facing severe financial hardship – and some European countries even facing bankruptcy – we should consider all potential solutions to our problems, however unorthodox. In The Sophick Constitution (1700) an anonymous pamphleteer advances a proposal that would revolutionize the constitution and transform the public finances. The solution is breath-taking in its simplicity: the author argues that we should invite alchemists to become part of the British constitution.
The Sophick Constitution consists of a dialogue between Citizen and Philadept, shortened to Phil in the body of the text. After a few opening questions, Citizen sits back whilst Phil ranges freely over an array of political topics.
The first question – and one that Citizen is not slow to raise – is the plausibility of the alchemical method itself. One of Phil’s claims is that the rich, a category that appears to include Citizen, should fund needy alchemists. It might be thought that the power to turn base metals into gold would negate the need for cash, but, it seems, alchemists require start up funding. As Phil tells us, in a passage reminiscent of many an emailed plea, alchemists are often placed in the unhappy position of having plenty of gold, but no means to turn it into cash (11). With money from the rich, this gold can be transformed into usable currency. Phil recognises the dangers of fraudsters – men who have spent their start-up funds ‘not in a laboratory, but in lewd Houses, and with lewd Companions’. For such cheats ‘hanging is not too severe a Punishment.’ (5)
It turns out that Phil has never actually seen the transmutation of metals (3) as alchemists are slow to perform in public. Indeed, one of the principal obstacles to his proposal is the remarkable shyness of alchemists; the power to turn lead into gold has made them sought-after, but not popular. To this end, Phil proposes that a large college be built in the middle of the city – a ‘strong’ house (22) – and the alchemists would be promised protection if they were willing to take on a share in the running of the state. This contrasts with his earlier claim that the alchemists would not need guards as the spontaneous gratitude of the people would protect them (19). Perhaps subsequent reflection on the risks and vagaries of alchemy encouraged Phil to take a more cautious approach. It sounds like the walls of the College would be very stout.
Phil’s substantive proposals for the United Kingdom are a mixed bag. Some of his ideas are ahead of their time. He calls for a national health service, free legal aid, and access to education for all. He would not be popular with the Coalition Government, though, as he comes out strongly against tuition fees, warning that ‘Professors should never take money off Scholars, who often, perhaps, care not what they cost their parents’ (49). Phil also has some radical, but not very carefully considered, proposals for increasing equality in society: the state would set pay, and would guarantee that everyone received a decent wage for their work. All of this would be subsidised by the flood of gold coming out of the alchemical College, transmuting away in the centre of London.
Karl Popper famously warned us that the danger with utopian schemes is that they tend to be oppressive, forcing one person’s vision of the good society on others. Phil’s plans do, indeed, have a slightly fascistic ring to them at times. Like our modern leaders, Phil is keen to stamp out smoking, obesity and drunkenness. He goes further, though, and would also ban ‘fringe, lace, embroidery’ and the like, abolishing all ‘unnecessary trades and unnecessary expenses’ (59). Under the benevolent guidance of the alchemists it seems that there will be little time for fun. Phil has scant patience for waste. On the natural world, his policy is firm: the state should ‘enjoin… everyone to destroy all wild Fowls and wild Beasts, as much as possible; [as then] there would be more Corn, more Fruit, more Sheep and Cows; and consequently a better provision for the generality of Men.’
Well, The Sophick Constitution is fun to read, but its central premise hardly bears close scrutiny. Would any modern author seriously advocate that Britain place its trust in a bunch of conjurors, magicking up money from nowhere in a strong-house in the middle of London? Of course not.
Nick Barber is a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.
The Sophick Constitution can be found in G. Claeys ed., Modern British Utopias 1700-1850, (Pickering and Chatto, 1997), vol. 1.