I am not intrinsically interested in health. It is part selfish complacency, but I have always felt that a society morbidly interested in healthcare is one lacking an essential confidence – one that is half-hypochondrical, self-pitying, querulously conscious of growing old while sorely missing old religious consolations. So to me the ongoing Corona saga is not just terrible, but terribly tedious. It might therefore seem strange that I have been spending some of my enforced leisure with a biography of the alchemist-cum-doctor, Paracelsus – Philip Ball’s 2006 book, The Devil’s Doctor – Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science.
But then Paracelsus – real name Philipp Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim – wasn’t your average sixteenth century physician, but a half-brilliant, half-mad Swiss sage with a Europe-wide reputation, who even now manifests unexpectedly in all kinds of histories. In life, and in death, he has been credited, feared or reviled, for everything from drunkenness through gold-transmutation, heresy, homunculi, miracle cures, prognostication, restlessness, rudeness, teleportation and ugliness, to witchcraft. He was a folk-hero in his lifetime, rumoured to ride a magic white horse and carry the elixir of life in the pommel of his sword – and more recent, more ‘rational’ idolaters have even credited him with foreseeing quantum physics.
I first came across him by chance, whilst visiting Salzburg 25 years ago. There was his striking sepulchre in the porch of St Sebastianskirche – a bas-relief obelisk bearing his square-skulled profile, and a Latin inscription reading, in part,
Here are the effigy and bones of Philip Theophrastus Paracelsus, who has won such fame in all the world through his alchemy; until they are clad again in flesh.
Although his death in the city’s White Horse Inn in September 1541 was well-attested, and his will notarized, rumours spread swiftly about the way he might have died – fallen drunkenly downstairs, stabbed in a brawl, an accidental overdose of one of his own elixirs, poison in his wine, or powdered diamond in his beer. The most excitable whispered that he had not died at all – that he had never been a real person, but a mythic projection, like the Wandering Jew or Dr Faustus (the Faust story may, in fact, have been based on a real person). His nineteenth century biographer Franz Hartmann insisted Paracelsus had been reincarnated in
…a certain place in Asia, from whence he still – invisibly, but nevertheless effectually, influences the minds of his followers, appearing to them occasionally even in visible and tangible shape.
‘His followers’, because Paracelsus gave rise to his own school of thought – the Paracelsians, starting with some of his former assistants, expanding as widely as his correspondent Erasmus, and lingering even now in esoteric circles. These were people captivated by his irrepressible personality, roving life, vigorous rejection of orthodox theories of medicine, and reputation as powerful occultist.
Paracelsus wrote copiously, and although he published little during his lifetime, his works were edited and reproduced widely from the 1560s onwards – editing often improving on them greatly, making his thinking sounder and more systematic than it was. For a century after his death, philosophers devoured opuses like The Labyrinth of Lost Physicians, Archidoxa, De Natura rerum, and Astronomia magna, or the Whole Philosophical Sagax of the Great and Little Worlds, and were effectively forced to choose between Galen and Paracelsus. Long after that, some of his ideas survived just under the surface of incoming scientific currents, directing or diverting the flow in unsuspected ways.
The central idea of medieval medicine was the ‘humoral theory’, attributed to the 5th-4th century BC Hippocrates, promulgated by Galen in the 2nd century AD, reinforced by Arab and Christian translators, and eventually imposed by universities and the Church. Humoral theory asserted that there were four humours – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile – associated with four basic personality types – choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine – and more loosely, Aristotle’s four elements. Ailments of all kinds could be alleviated by balancing these humours – by administering herbs or compounds of herbs, by purgation, bloodletting, or excruciating operations (these last carried out by lower-status surgeons, rather than doctors). The quadruple demarcation infused into popular culture, thanks to influencers like Chaucer, with his sanguine Franklin and ‘colerik’ Reeve, and Ben Jonson, whose Every Man in his Humour was written in 1598.
Medical treatments were carried out according to astrology, astronomy, examination of excrement and urine, readings of classic texts, and omens. These treatments were naturally largely ineffective, and their practitioners widely distrusted as cynical charlatans hiding behind meaningless Latinisms. The best physicians were probably those who intervened the least, and some of Paracelsus’s most celebrated ‘cures’ may have been a mixture of lackadaisicalness and luck.
Much of what Paracelsus said was not new, even if he said it in a new way. Much of the rest was wildly wrong. Like all alchemists, he sought the chimerical Philosopher’s Stone, but also a spiritus mundi, a substance in the air which could create new life in non-living matter through putrefaction. He invented his own triune theory of elements – mercury, sulphur and salt. He believed in chiromancy and the significance of comets, that time was purely qualitative, that the poison antimony could be a cure-all, and in ‘weapon salves’ (that wounds caused by weapons could be cured by placing herbs on the weapon). His grandly gnomic mistakes impelled later fruitless scientific searches for animal magnetism and the phlogiston. He conflated contradictory meanings or invented nonsensical new words – like ‘alkahest’, a ‘universal solvent’ that would dissolve and homogenize anything else, which some of his followers continued to seek until it was pointed out in the 18th century that even if such a thing existed, there would be nothing to keep it in. Paracelsus possessed, Philip Ball notes sympathetically, the vocabulary of a miner and the mind of a poet.
But he also advocated ideas we would recognize. He believed in close observation of nature, and the importance of practice over theory. He saw that diseases often entered the body from outside, rather than being the result of internal imbalances, and intuited that the mind also played a part in health and illness. He was one of the first to write on women’s illnesses, which was slightly ironic, as he never married – fuelling rumours that he was a eunuch, which in turn must have strengthened his reputation for magical superhumanity. He thought about digestive processes, leading to later insights about acids. He experimented constantly with new chemicals and metals, at the cost of his own health and wealth. His fascination with distillation to extract essences led later investigators to speculate about respiration and vapours, and so indirectly to the discovery of oxygen. His use of the word khaos to describe air gave van Helmont the word ‘gas’ (the Greek kh being equivalent to the Dutch g.)
His works were well-known to Brahe, Newton, Leibniz, and countless others who helped shape modern science. Well-connected practitioners relied on him too – like Thomas Moffett, physician to Francis Drake and Philip Sidney (even if now we remember him mostly for his little daughter, frightened away from her ‘curds and whey’ by one of his collection of spiders). Even those – like Erastus, Conrad Gesner, John Donne and William Harvey – who hated his ideas were forced to answer them, which refining process itself expanded understanding. Science would have advanced anyway – in 1543, Vesalius published De fabrica, and Copernicus his De revolutionibus – but almost certainly more slowly. Ball feels strongly that modern scientists should acknowledge their debt to pre-scientists who held aloft alembics against all discouragement, and whose very errors increased the stock of knowledge.
His non-scientific cultural impact was also great, as he was taken up by generations of Neoplatonists, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, occultists, hermeticists and Spiritualists – while Romantics saw in him the ultimate autonomous individual, an intellectual Wandervögel, and man of the (German) people. Blake borrowed from him for Jerusalem, and as late as 1830, Salzburgers crowded to his grave, hoping his aura was an aegis against cholera.
His ideas clashed with philosophical canonicity, and by inference social serenity. Many in the Church were in any case suspicious of both astrology and medicine, as possibly contrary to divine design – and Paracelsus’ ideas seemed even more unnecessary, or dangerously like Gnosticism. They also irked doctors who had gone to the expense and trouble of indoctrinating themselves at universities; they sneered at Paracelsus as an untrained ‘empiric’, and often hated him personally because of his legendary bluntness. Paracelsus was, however, his own worst enemy, engineering himself out of good positions into which he had inveigled himself. ‘By nature, I am not subtly spun’ he bragged defiantly; he frequently started, and never backed down from, arguments, calling his opponents, amongst many other things, ‘arseholes’ (William Harvey responded in equally philosophic mode, by referring to Paracelsians as ‘shit-breeches’). Paracelsus lived more intensely than most; as he wrote of Man in De virtute imaginativa,
If he thinks a fire, he is a fire. If he thinks a war, he is a war
He was hated almost as roundly as Martin Luther, and often by the same people. For centuries afterwards, Paracelsianism would be associated with Protestantism and political radicalism.
Paracelsus is generally excluded from histories of science, or at best included as a supercilious footnote. Much earlier inquirers, like Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste, were much more methodical, objective and rigorous. In defining Paracelsus’s epistemological borderlands, Ball comes up with terms like ‘chemical theology’ and ‘alchemical biology’. He knows this is not fair, and that alchemy cannot easily be separated out from science. Knowledge is a continuum, rather than a series of clean breaks or sudden insights all tending in one direction. Ideas emerge messily, and sometimes inconsistently, out of each other, and their origins are too easily elided or forgotten. Ball pities the blundering, coarse, genius-in-the-rough, stuck in a continent not ready, and maybe too small, for him –
His was the thankless task of preparing for the hegemony of science, lacking the tools he needed, derided by onlookers and having no real notion of what he was doing
Even this most bombastic of men seems sometimes to have found his lot frustrating. He once repined ‘Where I had seen flowers in alchemy, there is but grass’, which may be one of the saddest sentences in the history of philosophical enquiry.
Paracelsus was probably unlikeable in life, but posthumously he takes on a kind of grandeur, a pioneer purged of grossness, tempered by time, smelted like one of his own metals. If not the magus of myth, he was at least a man who lived and died on his own proud terms, ‘a Croesus in his mind’. If never a true scientist, he ‘sowed seeds that later blossomed into science’. He was, concludes Ball as he bids reluctant farewell to his subject, finally a failure, but a ‘valuable…and glorious’ one.