Study Guide

The Alchemist Wisdom and Knowledge

By Paulo Coelho

Wisdom and Knowledge

Part 1
The Gypsy Woman

"It's the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them. And since I am not wise, I have had to learn other arts, such as the reading of palms." (1.65)

So, apparently reading palms is easy, and the gypsy woman wasn't such a good student of other psychic powers and had to stick with the crystal ball approach. Her hint that the simplest things are also the most extraordinary shows us that even Santiago's straightforward dream is going to take a lot of doing before it comes true.

Part 2

I can always go back to being a shepherd, the boy thought. I learned how to care for sheep, and I haven't forgotten how that's done. But maybe I'll never have another chance to get to the Pyramids in Egypt. (2.82)

Santiago has learned a super-important lesson here. Once you gain knowledge you never lose it. (Tell that to our high school German.) No seriously: the take-home here is that you should never stop learning. Even if things don't work out in a new project, you can fall back on the abilities you already learned flipping burgers or reading palms.

I've learned things from the sheep, and I've learned things from crystal, he thought. I can learn something from the desert, too. It seems old and wise. (2.140)

Unlike the Englishman, Santiago doesn't need books to learn the ways of the world. His natural curiosity provides him with lots of knowledge, without any pesky school tuition or library late fees. Whether it's watching sheep or dusting crystal, everything is a teachable moment for Santiago.

The wind was listening closely, and wanted to tell every corner of the world that the sun's wisdom had its limitations. That it was unable to deal with this boy who spoke the Language of the World. (2.674)

Apparently the wind and the sun are living out a little soap opera full of intrigue and jealousy. The sun is supposedly the wisest thing in nature, but the wind is thrilled when it has to admit its ignorance. Hm. That seems pretty petty for a novel supposedly about showing the universe working together as one.

But when the boy wanted to learn how to achieve the Master Work, he became completely lost. There were just drawings, coded instructions, and obscure texts. (2.188)

The Master Work is the skill of turning any metal into gold, but don't look for it in your college course catalog: even Santiago, who is a natural learner, can't learn it from books. He's going to have to gain knowledge by observing the natural world and talking to wiser people, not just scratching his head over books all day.

That night, the boy slept deeply, and, when he awoke, his heart began to tell him things that came from the Soul of the World. It said that all people who are happy have God within them. And that happiness could be found in a grain of sand from the desert, as the alchemist had said. Because a grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it. (2.513)

When it comes right down to it, the alchemist says, you don't need books or even the natural world. You just have to listen to your heart, and you'll learn everything you need to know to achieve your dreams. Although we bet it helps if you have a fat bank account and come good networking skills, TBH.

But the boy was too frightened to listen to words of wisdom. (2.596)

Fear isn't just a mind killer: it's also a wisdom killer. Here, it gets in the way of recognizing and listening to wisdom from a friend. Luckily, Santiago's going to man up enough to overcome his fear and get the treasure and the girl and all that. We'd settle for being able to overcome our fear long enough to trap that spider that's been living in our bathroom for a week, but whatevs.

Who knows, maybe they had failed to discover the secret of the Master Work—the Philosopher's Stone—and for this reason kept their knowledge to themselves. (2.90)

Hmm. The Englishman is starting to suspect like the stingy, so-called wise men might not be all that wise. Pro tip: if someone claims to have some secret knowledge but isn't willing to show or share it, "secret" just might be code for "nonexistent."

Santiago

"Why do they make things so complicated?" he asked the Englishman one night. [. . .]

"So that those who have the responsibility for understanding can understand," he said. "Imagine if everyone went around transforming lead into gold. Gold would lose its value." (2.189-90)

The Englishman's books on alchemy are super difficult to understand, which is super frustrating for Santiago. But the Englishman has a better attitude: he figures that anything worth doing is going to take some effort, and the secrets of alchemy must be hidden in complicated texts so that only people smart and determined enough to figure them out will gain the special knowledge. (Does that mean calculus is going to turn out to be useful after all?)

"The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom." (2.490)

Santiago is frustrated with the alchemy books, but the alchemist shows him that they're not the only way to learn the wisdom of the world. In fact, all of nature is like a giant text book, complete with built-in tests and quizzes and extra problem sets.