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nature science century

The name “Paracelsus” was probably coined by friends and intended as an implication of going “beyond” (Gr. para ) the then-authoritative work of Celsus,   an ancient medical encyclopedist. The official name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, and the child was born in a village near Zurich in 1493. As a boy he apprenticed at the nearby Fueger mines, where he had direct contact with the use of chemicals; he would later write a book on miners’ diseases. Between 1513 and 1516 he studied medicine in Italy. After that he traveled widely, employed as an army surgeon. The rest of his life, devoted to lecturing, writing, private practice, and religious preaching, was divided into a series of brief stays—at Basel, Colmar, Nuremberg, St. Gall, Inns-bruck, Ulm, Vienna, and other locations—sojourns both initiated and terminated by his restless nature. He died in Salzburg in 1541.

Records of Paracelsus’ actions, as well as the testimony of his own discourse, portray him as a bumptious iconoclast, aggressive, absolute, pugnacious, vindictive. This character is apparent in his choice of a student riot as the occasion to burn the work of Avicenna in Basel. Oporinus, his “famulus” who would later become well known as a professor of Greek at Basel, had opportunity to observe his habits closely and confirms his reputation as a thoroughgoing eccentric. Paracelsus never undressed, except to put on a brand-new outfit (he tried to give his old clothes away but could not because they were too filthy). He would lie down on his bed still girt with his longsword, sleep for a spell, and then leap up, either to write, to labor at his furnace or, when the fit was upon him, to pull out the sword and madly flail it about in the air. He drank heavily and sometimes on a dare, yet what he dictated in his cups had all the clarity and coherence of his sober productions. Oporinus (Pagel, 30) is the more credible for showing no rancor at these excesses. He describes Paracelsus the way one might describe some colossal act of nature, like a hurricane or earthquake, that had come and tormented history and passed away.


Paracelsus is the least known and least acknowledged of all the major Renaissance thinkers. His obscurity, though unmerited, is easily enough explained. His opinions were so dangerously unorthodox that many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers conveyed his ideas without mentioning his name. His thought is so interdisciplinary that few historians have the breadth to appreciate it. His writing (in German and Latin) is dense and oracular enough to defy all but the most highly motivated readers. Yet his influence was broad and so thoroughly identified with the “new” in science, philosophy, and spirituality that John Donne* pays him the negative compliment of placing him, together with Copernicus* and Machiavelli,* at the center of his imaginary Hell ( Ignatius His Conclave ).

Donne’s grouping is especially pertinent. Just as Machiavelli and Copernicus labored to cut inquiry loose from classical and Christian premises about society and nature, Paracelsus strove to establish natural science as an entity free from Galenic blueprints and Christian assumptions. To sustain such a radical project during the Inquisition required his use of the “double truth”: an Averroistic verbal strategy that simultaneously asserted religious faith and allowed for scientific autonomy.

Yet Paracelsus walked dangerously close to the edge. He clearly had no use for the doctrine of original sin, believing instead that human beings were born with elements of God inside them. His notion that many diseases were, in fact, living things (he rightly held that contagion resulted from invisible germs or “seeds”) flew in the face of the dogma that all created nature was “good.” His foundation and practice of homeopathy (“ similia similibus curantur ”) were a medical heresy whose moral implications were strangely similar to Machiavellian politics. He was a consistent opponent of religious dogma, whether in the hands of Catholic or Protestant. These doctrinal elements combined in a comprehensive image of nature, humanity, and God that differed from established Christianity in almost every particular.


Both practically and conceptually, Paracelsus made major contributions to early modernity. Practically, by applying alchemical methods to the preparation of remedies, he not only laid the foundation for modern medicine but invented the science of chemistry (which he also named). His treatments (including his improvements in the use of mercury against syphilis) were often sensationally effective. Erasmus himself heartily congratulates him on a successful cure. For all its unorthodoxy, Paracelsian influence spread rapidly through Europe. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Prague (reigned 1576–1612) was an enthusiastic patron of Paracelsians. James I* of England had a Paracelsian court physician. Shakespeare’s* son-in-law, the noted Warwickshire physician John Hall, availed himself of Paracelsian authorities, and I have suggested that Shakespeare himself adumbrated Paracelsus’ doctrine of free will and developed the moral equivalent of the homeopathic cure (Grudin). In the seventeenth century Paracelsus influenced the Royal Society and the Puritans alike (Webster). In the twentieth century his ideas were advanced by Carl Jung.

Conceptually, Paracelsus was important in developing what T. S. Eliot would characterize as the unified sensibility: the reciprocating, mutually allusive frames of reference that were typical of Renaissance thought. This holistic, endlessly suggestive style of thinking, which owes its existence as well to Erasmian copia , was adopted by Montaigne* and Shakespeare and radicalized by the metaphysical poets. But for Paracelsus, experience was also troubled by dynamic conflicts. Michel Foucault, who labels Paracelsus a champion of analogies, unaccountably ignores that he was also a notable dualist. This subtle vision, with its warp of profound analogy and its weft of violent opposition, led to startling insights into nature and humanity.

Though Paracelsus was a notable figure for writers of the nineteenth century, including Browning and Hawthorne (see Browning, Bensick, and, more generally, Pagel, 34), he has since drifted into the eddies of intellectual history and is currently of interest chiefly to historians of early modern science. In large measure this fate is shared by two other heroes of early modernity, Bruno* and Bacon*. That figures of such stature should be ignored by their cultural beneficiaries constitutes another testament to faulty graduate education and disciplinary blindness.

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almost 6 years ago

A good doctor from Middle age, i want to go there and see this world especially while reading such stories - http://www.fampeople.com/articles-from-greatness-to-mania-theophrastus-paracelsus

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almost 6 years ago

very interesting, i didnt know who's Paracelsus. found a funny story about him - http://www.fampeople.com/articles-from-greatness-to-mania-theophrastus-paracelsus