In the New Hampshire presidential primary battle, former president Bill Clinton, stumping for Hillary, used some language that harks back to the age of the alchemists.
At rally in Milford, N.H., Mr. Clinton derided Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters (though he did not mention Mr. Sanders by name). “Hillary’s opponent has a different view,” Mr. Clinton reportedly said.“It’s a hermetically sealed box. It’s very effective. The system is rigged against you by the big banks, and both parties are in the thrall of the big banks. Anybody who takes money from Goldman Sachs couldn’t possibly be president.”
That “hermetically sealed box” is a useful metaphor to portray Mr. Sanders as out of touch with reality, as if he inhabits a pristine space closed off from all external influence. The phrase “hermetically sealed,” in fact, goes back more than four centuries, rooted in the esoteric philosophy of alchemy.
Best known for their attempts to turn base metals into gold, alchemists saw themselves as heirs to an occult tradition that they traced back to a mythical figure known as Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest Hermes.” A fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, Hermes Trismegistus was revered as the author of a set of mystical teachings named after him, the Corpus Hermeticum.
Following this “hermetic” tradition, alchemists concocted various distillations, such as by melting metals, that they placed in sealed-off glass tubes. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1605 tract by the English clergyman Thomas Tymme, who translated alchemical works from French. Tymme gave instructions for creating a “Hermes seal.” The result would be a vessel that was “hermetically closed round about, that nothing breathe through.”
Hermetic seals outlasted their mystical origins, as airtight containers became valued for keeping out infectious bacteria and other contaminants. But “hermetic” and the phrase “hermetically sealed” have taken on more figurative meanings, to refer to ways that things—or people—could be closed off from the outside world, for better or worse.
The English poet William Cowper, in a letter from 1780, wrote, “If you trust me with a secret, I am hermetically sealed.” And in 1881 William Robertson, a New York Republican from the moderate “Half-Breed” faction, warned that having too many “Stalwarts” in President Chester A. Arthur’s administration would put reformists “in a political metallic casket, hermetically sealed.”
“Hermetic” has also taken on connotations of reclusiveness, as it has been confused with the word “hermit,” which has a different etymology (from the Greek word for “solitary”). North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has often earned the label “hermetic” in news accounts, perhaps because he is both sealed off and hermit-like.
Given Mr. Sanders’s big win in the Democrats’ New Hampshire primary, the Clintons, like the alchemists of old, failed to find that magic golden recipe.