Following an alchemical thread, I’ve been having a quick look at the writings of Philippus Aureolas Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a.k.a Paracelsus. Born in a Swiss village in the year after Columbus reached America, he’s variously celebrated as a pioneering theorist of modern medicine who founded antisepsis and wound surgery, or as an early exponent of holism. Rejecting the classical canon of his day (Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna) Paracelsus preferred to put his trust in a combination of devout, if unconventional, Christian faith, a cosmological system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm (as opposed to the theory of humours and temperaments), personal experience – including as an army surgeon, and medical lore gleaned from ‘herb-women, bath attendants, peasants, gypsies and magicians’.(1) His writings, therefore, give us a vivid sense of the thickets of European thought at the dawn of modernity.
Little is known about the early life of Paracelsus, except that his mother is thought to have taken her own life when he was about nine years old. His father, a respected local doctor, ‘gave him herbs and stones, water and metal, as friends’.(2) As a young man he embarked on extensive travels that took him right across Europe, to renaissance Italy, then as far as Algiers, Constantinople, Russia, and Ireland.
Paracelsus regarded the human spirit as a divine spark, and believed in free will to the extent of thinking we could act upon the stars (of which more later). Because he saw divine potential in humanity, he often took a stand against social convention, vested interests, or political structures. This was usually done with a flourish, as when he staged a public burning of Avicenna’s authoritative textbook, or when he promised the be-robed doctors and academics of Basel that he would reveal the greatest secret of medicine, before presenting them with a dish of steaming human excrement. “If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians!”(3).
Though his motto was ‘… that man no other man shall own, who to himself belongs alone’, he drew upon medieval ideas of Christian community life. He was a pacifist, sided with the rebellious peasants against the feudal lords of Salzburg in 1525, and was in contact with Anabaptist groups. His religious views embraced the popular pantheism that influenced mystical anarchist and millenarian movements of the late middle ages -his concept of yliaster (probably from hyla matter, and astrum the stars) revived Avicebron’s doctrine of prime matter -a primal divine being originating, sustaining, and existing within the material substrate of all things. For Paracelsus it was this spiritual force that justified human freedom and moral agency.(4)
His charitable medical work involved risks to his own health and life. He wrote the first treatise of occupational medicine, on the miners’ disease, as well as advocating the therapeutic value of music, chants, magical seals, and amulets. Like the alchemists he sought invisible virtues within substances, and believed that “decay is the beginning of all birth”. Paracelsus regarded base metals as analogous to disease, and based his remedies upon the homoeopathic principle of sympathies between diseases and the arcana (mysteries, secerets). Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke argues that his predominant contribution was the foundation of an alternative science and medicine, ‘the science of the symbol’.(3)
Nicholas Campion, however, points out that whilst Paracelsus made conventional assumptions about astrological correspondences, he argued that, from the moment of birth, the physician should respect individual autonomy by examining a patient’s physical processes on their own terms, rather than imposing a univeral astrological model for each disease. For Paracelsus, the Kaballah impelled empirical observation. Campion goes on to argue that ‘Paracelsus’s emphasis on the functional separation of nature and spirit, even if they were theoretically entwined in the Kabbalistic cosmos, presages the mind-body split written into Western thought by Rene Descartes in the next century ….’. In Paracelsus’s work ‘magic was a stepping stone to modern science’.(6)
Although there is much of interest, and much to like, in Paracelsus’s prolific writings, Goodrick-Clarke’s account erases some major contradictions and difficulties. According to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus believed the relationship between humanity and the stars to be particularly close in relation to ‘mental illness’ (I prefer ‘distress’, and ‘madness’). For Paracelsus, madness resulted from “the subjugation of man (sic) and his divine spirit by his low animal instincts, notably lust, covetousness, and the passions of the soul in general … each star corresponds to an animal with its characteristic emotional behaviour, also to a single passion in man. When he falls prey to these passions, the star awakens in him the one that corresponds to its own animal nature”. Moreover, “He who is prone to meanness has chosen Saturn as his wife, for each star is a woman. Hence in this case, the cure must be directed against Saturn. The patient must be talked to, admonished, and encouraged to confess in church. His disease must be explained to him. If he is not accessible to advice he must be taken into custody ‘lest he lead astray with his animal spirits (vichgiestern) the whole town, his house, and the country.”
Whilst some of Paracelsus’s reccomendations sound like a relatively ‘modern’ and progressive, albeit paternalistic, response to the complex and difficult realities of crisis support, his markedly gendered -and anthropocentric- understanding of the underlying causes clearly express the dominant Christian/neo-Platonist assumptions of his day. Unfortunately, according to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus was also ‘deeply immersed in the contemporary belief in witches and demoniacal and devilish posession as causes of insanity’ and ‘in some treatises recommended the burning of the patient lest they become an instrument of the devil’. (7) He was hardly progressive in this respect then! But let’s not forget that he also wrote that “Every cure should proceed from the power of the heart; for only thereby can all diseases be expelled”.
Or that he talked about the ‘light of nature’ -which Jolande Jacobi gives as- ‘intuitive knowledge gained by experience of nature and implicit in all beings at birth’; about ‘magnalia (Dei)’ -remedies and works whose special efficacy derives from the divine power inherent in them; and about the matrix -‘the primal womb or mother, the formless receptacle of form’. Interestingly, Paracelsus used the term anima (soul), mainly when referring to the notion of a sidereal body (an inner heaven) -but also for anything resembling breath, or for ‘the specifically effective part of medicine’. Another interesting term he used was the astrum (or sidereal body) -‘an impression engraved in man at the hour of his birth by the external heaven’, consituting an inner heaven, and giving us our innate disposition.(8) As Joni Mitchell (in Woodstock) put it more recently: “We are stardust/billion year old carbon/we are golden …”.
Some Paracelsus quotes:
“Every land is a leaf of the codex of nature, and he who would explore her must tread her books with his feet”
“Decay is the midwife of very great things!”
“Dreams must be heeded and accepted, for a great many of them come true”.
“The art of astronomy helps us to discover the secrets of the innate disposition of the heart..”
“How can a man say ‘I am certain’ when he is so far from any certainty?”.
“I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum, monarch of the physicians”, and I can prove to you what you cannot prove”.
1) Nicholas Goodricke Clarke, ed. Paracelsus, North Atlantic Books, 1999.
2 and 8) Jolande Jacobi, ed. Paracelsus, Selected Writings, 2nd ed. Bollingen series XXVIII, 1958. (this book has a useful glossary).
3) Philip Bell, The Devil’s Doctor, Heinemann, 2006.
4 and 5) Goodricke Clarke, Op Cit.
6) Nicholas Campion, A History of Western Astrology, Vol 2, The Medieval and Modern Worlds, Continuum 2009 pp117-8.
7) Walter Pagel, Paracelsus; an Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, 2nd ed. 1982 S. Karger. A.G. Basel.