Paracelsus (1493-1541)

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Paracelsus (1493-1541)

One of the most striking and picturesque figures in the history of medicine, alchemy, and occultism, full name Auraelus Philippus Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombast von Hohenheim, this illustrious physician and exponent of the hermetic philosophy was renowned under the name of Paracelsus.

He was born December 26, 1493, in Einsideln, near Zürich, Switzerland. His father, the natural son of a prince, himself a physician, desired that his only son should follow the same profession. The fulfillment of that desire was directed during the early training of Paracelsus. The training fostered his imaginative rather than his practical tendencies, which first cast his mind into the alchemical mould.

He freed himself from the constraining bonds of medicine as practiced by his contemporaries, who chiefly applied bleeding, purging, and emetics, and set about evolving a new system to replace the old. In order to study the book of nature better, he traveled extensively between 1513 and 1524 and visited almost every part of the known world. During his travels he compiled the wisdom present at the time on metallurgy, chemistry, and medicine, and the folk wisdom of the untutored.

Paracelsus met the Cham of Tartary, conversed with the magicians of Egypt and Arabia, and is said to have even reached India. At length his protracted wanderings came to a close, and in 1524 he settled in Basel, then a favorite resort of scholars and physicians, where he was appointed to fill the chair of medicine at the university.

His inflated language, eccentric behavior, and the splendor of his conceptions attracted, repelled, and gained him friends and enemies. His antipathy to the Galenic school became ever more pronounced, and the crisis came when he publicly burned the works of Galen and Avicenna in a vase into which he had cast nitrate and sulphur. By such a proceeding he incurred the hatred of his more conservative brethren and cut himself off forever from the established school of medicine. He continued his triumphant career, however, until a conflict with the magistrates brought it to an abrupt close. He was forced to flee from Basel, and thereafter wandered from place to place, earning a living as best he could.

An element of mystery surrounds the manner of his death, which took place September 24, 1541. Some say that he was poisoned at the instigation of the medical faculty, others that he was thrown down a steep incline.

But interesting as were the events of his life, it is to his work that most attention is due. Not only was he the founder of the modern science of medicine, but the magnetic theory of Franz A. Mesmer, the "astral" theory of modern Spiritualism, and the philosophy of Descartes were all foreshadowed in the fantastic, yet not always illogical, teachings of Paracelsus.

He revived the "microcosmic" theory of ancient Greece, and sought to prove the human body analogous to the solar system by establishing a connection between the seven organs of the body and the seven planets. He preached the doctrines of the efficacy of willpower and the imagination (i.e., magic):

"It is possible that my spirit, without the help of my body, and through an ardent will alone, and without a sword, can stab and wound others. It is also possible that I can bring the spirit of my adversary into an image and then fold him up or lame him at my pleasure.

"Resolute imagination is the beginning of all magical operations.

"Because men do not perfectly believe and imagine, the result is, that arts are uncertain when they might be wholly certain."

He was thus a forerunner of New Thought teachings. The first principle of his doctrine was the extraction of the quintessence, or philosophic mercury, from every material body. He believed that if the quintessence were drawn from each animal, plant, and mineral, the combined result would equal the universal spirit, or astral body in human beings, and that a draught of the extract would renew youth.

He came to the conclusion that "astral bodies" exercised a mutual influence on each other, and declared that he himself had communicated with the dead and with living persons at a considerable distance. He was the first to connect this influence with that of the magnet, and to use the word "magnetism" with its modern application in the occult. It was on this idea that much of Franz A. Mesmer's work was built.

While Paracelsus busied himself with such problems, however, he did not neglect the study and practice of medicine, into which both astrology and the magnet entered largely. When he was sought by a patient, his first care was to consult the planets, where the disease had its origin, and if the patient were a woman he took it for granted that the cause of her malady lay in the moon.

His anticipation of the philosophy of Descartes consisted in his theory that by bringing the various elements of the human body into harmony with the elements of naturefire, light, earthold age, and death might be indefinitely postponed.

His experiment in the extraction of essential spirits from the poppy resulted in the production of laudanum (a popular form of opium through the nineteenth century), which he prescribed freely in the form of "three black pills." The recipes he gives for the philosophers' stone, the elixir of life, and various universal remedies are exceedingly obscure. He was known as the first physician to use opium and mercury, and to recognize the value of sulphur.

He applied himself also to the solution of a problem that exercised the minds of scientific men in the nineteenth and twentieth centurieswhether it was possible to produce life from inorganic matter. Paracelsus asserted that it was, and left on record a quaint recipe for a homunculus, or artificial man. By a peculiar treatment of certain "spagyric substances" (which he unfortunately omitted) he declared that he could produce a perfect human child in miniature.

Medical, alchemical, and philosophical speculations were scattered so profusely throughout his teaching that one concludes that here was a master-mind, a genius, who was a charlatan, by reason of training and temperament. Paracelsus displayed a curious singleness of purpose and a real desire to penetrate the mysteries of science.

He left on record the principal points of the philosophy on which he founded his researches in his Archidoxa Medicinae. It contains the leading rules of the art of healing as he practiced and preached them. He stated that he had resolved to give ten books to the Archidoxa, but had reserved the tenth in his memory. He believed it was a treasure that men were not worthy to possess and should only be given to the world when it abjured Aristotle, Avicenna, and Galen, and promised a perfect submission to Paracelsus. The world did not recant, but Paracelsus relented and at the entreaty of his disciples published his Tenth Book of the Arch-Doctrines, also known as On the Secret Mysteries of Nature.

At the beginning Paracelsus hypothesized, and then attempted to substantiate, the existence of a universal spirit infused into the veins, which forms within us a species of invisible body, of which our visible body directs and governs at its will. This universal spirit is not simplenot more simple, for instance, than the number 100, which is a collection of units. The spiritual units are scattered in plants and minerals, but principally in metals. There exists in these inferior productions of the earth a host of sub-spirits that sum themselves up in us, as the universe does in God. So the science of the philosopher has to unite them to the body, disengage them from the grosser matter that clogs and confines them, and separate the pure from the impure. To separate the pure from the impure is to seize upon the soul of the heterogeneous bodies and evolve their "predestined element," "the seminal essence of beings," and "the first being, or quintessence."

To understand this latter word "quintessence," it is necessary to postulate that every body is composed of four elements. The essence compounded of these elements forms a fifth, which is the soul of the mixed bodies, or, in other words, its "mercury." "I have shown," stated Paracelsus, "in my book Elements, that the quintessence is the same thing as mercury. There is in mercury (soul) whatever wise men seek." That is, not the mercury of modern chemists, but a philosophical "mercury" of which every body has its own. "There are as many mercuries as there are things. The mercury of a vegetable, a mineral, or an animal of the same kind, although strongly resembling each other, does not precisely resemble another mercury, and it is for this reason that vegetables, minerals, and animals of the same species are not exactly alike."

Paracelsus sought a plant in the vegetable kingdom that was worthy of holding the same rank as gold in the metallica plant whose "predestined element" united in itself the virtues of nearly all the vegetable essences. Although this was not easy to distinguish, he claimed to recognize at a glance the supremacy of excellence in the melissa, and first decreed to it the pharmaceutical crown. Then:

"He took some balm-mint in flower, which he had taken care to collect before the rising of the sun. He pounded it in a mortar, reduced it to an impalpable dust, poured it into a long-necked vial which he sealed hermetically, and placed it to digest (or settle) for forty hours in a heap of horse-dung. This time expired, he opened the vial, and found there a matter which he reduced into a fluid by pressing it, separating it from its impurities by exposure to the slow heat of a bain-marie (a vessel of hot water in which other vessels are heated). The grosser parts sunk to the bottom, and he drew off the liqueur which floated on the top, filtering it through some cotton. This liqueur having been poured into a bottle he added to it the fixed salt, which he had drawn from the same plant when dried. There remained nothing more but to extract from this liqueur the first life or being of the plant. For this purpose Paracelsus mixed the liqueur with so much 'water of salt' (understand by this the mercurial element or radical humidity of the salt), put it in a matrass, exposed it for six weeks to the sun, and finally, at the expiration of this term, discovered a last residuum which was decidedly, according to him, the first life or supreme essence of the plant. But at all events, it is certain that what he found in his matrass was the genie or spirit he required; and with the surplus, if there were any, we need not concern ourselves."

Those who wished to know what this genie was like were informed that it as exactly resembled, as two drops of water, the spirit of aromatic wine known today as absinthe suisse. It was a liquid green. Unfortunately, it failed as a specific in the conditions indispensable for an elixir of immortality.

By means and manipulations as subtle and ingenious as those that he employed upon the melissa, Paracelsus learned to extract the "predestined element" of plants that ranked much higher in the vegetable aristocracythe "first life" of the gilly-flower, the cinnamon, the myrrh, the scammony, and the celandine. All these supreme essences, which, according to the fifth book of Archidoxa, united with a mass of "magisteries" as precious as they were rude, were the base of so many specifics, equally reparative and regenerative. This depended upon the relationship that existed between the temperament of a privileged plant and the temperament of the individual who asked of it his rejuvenescence.

However brilliant were the results of his discoveries, those he obtained or those he thought he might obtain, they were for Paracelsus but the beginning of magic. To the eyes of so consummate an alchemist, vegetable life was not important; it was the mineralthe metallic lifethat was significant. Paracelsus believed it was in his power to seize the first life-principle of the moon, the sun, Mars, or Saturn; that is, of silver, gold, iron, or lead. It was equally facile for him to grasp the life of the precious stones, the bitumens, the sulphurs, and even that of animals. Paracelsus set forth several methods of obtaining this great arcanum. Here is the shortest and most simple explaination as recorded by Incola Francus:

"Take some mercury, or at least the element of mercury, separating the pure from the impure, and afterwards pounding it to perfect whiteness. Then you shall sublimate it with sal-ammoniac, and this so many times as may be necessary to resolve it into a fluid. Calcine it, coagulate it, and again dissolve it, and let it strain in a pelican [a vessel used for distillation] during a philosophic month, until it thickens and assumes the form of a hard substance. Thereafter this form of stone is in-combustible, and nothing can change or alter it; the metallic bodies which it penetrates become fixed and incombustible, for this material is incombustible, and changes the imperfect metals into metal perfect. Although I have given the process in few words, the thing itself demands a long toil, and many difficult circumstances, which I have expressly omitted, not to weary the reader, who ought to be very diligent and intelligent if he wishes to arrive at the accomplishment of this great work."

Paracelsus himself described in Archidoxa his own recipe for the completion of it, and profited by the occasion to criticize his fellow-workers.

"I omit what I have said in different places on the theory of the stone; I will say only that this arcanum does not consist in the blast [ rouille ] or flowers of antimony. It must be sought in the mercury of antimony, which, when it is carried to perfection, is nothing else than the heaven of metals; for even as the heaven gives life to plants and minerals, so does the pure quintessence of antimony vitrify everything. This is why the Deluge was not able to deprive any substance of its virtue or properties, for the heaven being the life of all beings, there is nothing superior to it which can modify or destroy it.

"Take the antimony, purge it of its arsenical impurities in an iron vessel until the coagulated mercury of the antimony appears quite white, and is distinguishable by the star which appears in the superficies of the regulus, or semi-metal. But although this regulus, which is the element of mercury, has in itself a veritable hidden life, nevertheless these things are in virtue, and not actually.

"Therefore, if you wish to reduce the power to action, you must disengage the life which is concealed in it by a living fire like to itself, or with a metallic vinegar. To discover this fire many philosophers have proceeded differently, but agreeing to the foundations of the art, have arrived at the desired end. For some with great labour have drawn forth the quintessence of the thickened mercury of the regulus of antimony, and by this means have reduced to action the mercury of the antimony: others have considered that there was a uniform quintessence in the other minerals, as for example in the fixed sulphur of the vitriol, or the stone of the magnet, and having extracted the quintessence, have afterwards matured and exalted their heaven with it, and reduced it to action. Their process is good, and has had its result. Meanwhile this firethis corporeal life which they seek with toil, is found much more easily and in much greater perfection in the ordinary mercury, which appears through its perpetual fluiditya proof that it possesses a very powerful fire and a celestial life similar to that which lies hidden in the regulus of the antimony. Therefore, he who would wish to exalt our metallic heaven, starred, to its greatest completeness, and to reduce into action its potential virtues, he must first extract from ordinary mercury its corporeal life, which is a celestial fire; that is to say the quintessence of quicksilver, or, in other words, the metallic vinegar, that has resulted from its dissolution in the water which originally produced it, and which is its own mother; that is to say, he must dissolve it in the arcanum of the salt I have described, and mingle it with the 'stomach of Anthion,' which is the spirit of vinegar, and in this menstruum melt and filter and consistent mercury of the antimony, strain it in the said liquor, and finally reduce it into crystals of a yellowish green, of which we have spoken in our manual."

As regards the philosophers' stone, he gave the following formula:

"Take the electric mineral not yet mature [antimony], put it in its sphere, in the fire with the iron, to remove its ordures and other superfluities, and purge it as much as you can, following the rules of chymistry, so that it may not suffer by the aforesaid impurities. Make, in a word, the regulus with the mark. This done, cause it to dissolve in the 'stomach of the ostrich' (vitriol), which springs from the earth and is fortified in its virtue by the 'sharpness of the eagle' (the metallic vinegar or essence of mercury). As soon as the essence is perfected, and when after its dissolution it has taken the colour of the herb called calendule, do not forget to reduce it into a spiritual luminous essence, which resembles amber. After this, add to it of the 'spread eagle' one half the weight of the election before its preparation, and frequently distil the 'stomach of the ostrich' into the matter, and thus the election will become much more spiritualized. When the 'stomach of the ostrich' is weakened by the labour of digestion, we must strengthen it and frequently distil it. Finally, when it has lost all its impurity, add as much tartarized quintessence as will rest upon your fingers, until it throws off its impurity and rises with it. Repeat this process until the preparation becomes white, and this will suffice; for you shall see yourself as gradually it rises in the form of the 'exalted eagle,' and with little trouble converts itself in its form (like sublimated mercury); and that is what we are seeking.

"I tell you in truth that there is no greater remedy in medicine than that which lies in this election, and that there is nothing like it in the whole world. But not to digress from my purpose, and not to leave this work imperfect, observe the manner in which you ought to operate.

"The election then being destroyed, as I have said, to arrive at the desired end (which is, to make of it a universal medicine for human as well as metallic bodies), take your election, rendered light and volatile by the method above described.

"Take of it as much as you would wish to reduce it to its perfection, and put it in a philosophical egg of glass, and seal it very tightly, that nothing of it may respire; put it into an athanor until of itself it resolves into a liquid, in such a manner that in the middle of this sea there may appear a small island, which daily diminishes, and finally, all shall be changed to a colour black as ink. This colour is the raven, or bird which flies at night without wings, and which, through the celestial dew, that rising continually falls back by a constant circulation, changes into what is called 'the head of the raven,' and afterwards resolves into 'the tail of the peacock,' then it assumes the hue of the 'tail of a peacock,' and afterwards the colour of the 'feathers of a swan;' finally acquiring an extreme redness, which marks its fiery nature, and in virtue of which it expels all kinds of impurities, and strengthens feeble members. This preparation, according to all philosophers, is made in a single vessel, over a single furnace, with an equal and continual fire, and this medicine, which is more than celestial, cures all kinds of infirmities, as well in human as metallic bodies; wherefore no one can understand or attain such an arcanum without the help of God: for its virtue is ineffable and divine."


Hartmann, Franz. The Life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim Known by the Name of Paracelsus and of the Substance of his Teachings. London: George Redway, 1887; Retd. with: The Prophecies of Paracelsus; Occult Symbols and Magic Figures. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1973.

The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast, of Hohenheim, called Paracelsus the Great. 2 vols. Edited by Arthur E. Waite. London: James Elliott, 1894. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1967.

Stillman, John M. Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim called Paracelsus; his Personality and Influence as Physician, Chemist and Reformer. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing, 1920.

Webster, Charles. From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Paracelsus (1493/94–1541)

views updated May 29 2018

PARACELSUS (1493/941541)

PARACELSUS (1493/941541), German physician and alchemist. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, who later gave himself the name Paracelsus, spent his early years in Einsiedeln (Switzerland) and Villach (Austria) before leaving home and wandering through much of Europe while visiting several universities. He gave his attention primarily to medicine but rejected ancient authorities in favor of a conception of medicine based in alchemical experience and a Hermetic view of nature. The principles of all things, Paracelsus believed, were the tria prima of salt, sulfur, and mercury, which separated initially from a prime matter, the mysterium arcanum, and gave rise thereafter to the four elements, described as the material wombs of all the earthly, watery, airy, and fiery parts of nature.

Around 1520 Paracelsus composed the Archidoxis (the title could be translated as Ancient Teaching, or Deepest Knowledge), which focused on the extraction of the "mysteries of nature" (qualities, virtues, powers) from natural things. After brief residences in Salzburg and Strasbourg his reputation as a physician brought him, in 1527, to Basel as city physician and university lecturer. His teaching in German, as opposed to traditional Latin, and his condemnation of traditional medical authorities, led to sharp confrontations with the Basel community of physicians and prompted his flight from the city in 1528. Soon thereafter he composed two works dealing with syphilis in which he spoke out against the use of guaiacum (the wood from a West Indian shrub, a monopoly on the importation of which was held by the Fugger trading dynasty) and recommended instead a medicament made from mercury.

Paracelsus described the discipline of medicine as resting upon four pillars, namely philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and the virtue of the physician. True philosophy, he argued, began with a knowledge of the ars spagyria, the alchemical art of separation. In a work called Opus Paramirum (or Work Beyond Wonder), this concept played a central role in helping him formulate a new conception of disease. In contrast to traditional humoral pathology, Paracelsus argued that each organ of the body contained an archeus (a kind of guiding spirit or principle) which acted as an "inner alchemist" and provided for the proper functioning of the organ by separating that which was good or pure from that which was impure or unnecessary. In many cases of illness, he thought, the separating function of the archeus was disturbed. Moreover, just as everything in nature was born out of the three corporeal principles of salt, sulfur, and mercury, diseases of the body were also born into these three cosmogonic categories and represented themselves as saline (for example, outbreaks of the skin), sulfurous (inflammations or fevers), or mercurial (diseases associated with excess phlegm or fluid). Diseases were thus not consequences of general humoral imbalance, as depicted in Hippocratic and Galenic writing, but specific entities with individual etiologies and characteristics located within particular parts of the body. According to Paracelsus, specific remedies needed to match specific diseases, and physicians cured not by opposing qualities (hot to cold, or wet to dry) as in traditional therapies, but as a result of fashioning a medicine similar to the nature of the illness itself. Medicines could be prepared from anything, since the tria prima was to be found in every part of nature. The most effective medicaments, however, were prepared from minerals and metals, since these related best to the disease categories manifested as saline, sulfurous, or mercurial. In this way, like cured like. All of nature existed as a giant pharmacopoeia, and the alchemist-physician, guided by observation and experience, knew which of its parts related most closely to the various parts of the body. After selecting the appropriate material, the doctor needed to separate its purities from its impure and possibly poisonous parts. The spiritual powers thus extracted were then further ennobled and communicated as a medicine to a specific, diseased part of the body.


The new therapy rested on what was actually a very old idea, namely that "the firmament is within man"; that is, there exist everywhere in nature analogies and correspondences between the macrocosm and the microcosm. Within this medical cosmology, Paracelsus believed that astral emanations impressed all earthly things and gave to them their divinely designated "signatures," the material indications showing which parts of the body (microcosm) they could serve best as medicaments. Comprising the being of every person, he thought, was the mortal life of the physical body, the immortal life that corresponded to the soul, and a life derived from the heavens and which corresponded to an "astral body" or "sidereal spirit"the essential middle link between mind and matter. While not everything in nature possessed a divine soul, all thingsplants, animals, minerals, and metalsdid possess an astral body, which originated in the stars and which specified for all things their form and function. It was this spirit, or, as Paracelsus refers to it, this astra, that penetrated matter, giving life to all growing things, including minerals and metals. He regarded it as "the secret forger" from which proceeded every form and figure, and the source of the motions and directed actions that accounted for the vitality of the body. Because of the fall of Adam, impurities were mixed in with the astra, and these could sometimes also produce certain kinds of illness.

Since the human being was a condensation of the forces, elements, and creative principles of the entire universe, Paracelsus thought that an understanding of how the healthy universe of the body worked had to begin with an understanding of how the greater world functioned. The keys to doing this were to be found in philosophy and astronomy. Philosophy, however, was not the study of Aristotle, but the comprehension through experience of how the forces, virtues, and powers hidden in natural things operated to produce specific effects. Knowledge of astronomy was similarly based in experience of the world, being an understanding of how the powers and celestial virtues linked to the stars and planets affected the functioning of the human body.

Paracelsus's handbook of surgery, the Grosse Wundartzney, appeared at Augsburg in 1536. His Astronomia Magna, a summary of philosophical, anthropological, and cosmological opinions, was never finished, and other tracts representing his views in theology in addition to medicine and natural philosophy remained unpublished at the time of his death.

See also Alchemy ; Astrology ; Astronomy ; Hermeticism ; Medicine .


Primary Sources

Paracelsus. Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Karl Sudhoff and Wilhelm Matthiessen, 19221933; rept. Hildesheim, 1996.

. Sämtliche Werke: Zweite Abteilung: Theologische und Religionsphilosophische Scriften. Edited by Kurt Goldammer. Wiesbaden, 1955.

Secondary Sources

Goldammer, Kurt. Paracelsus: Natur und Offenbarung. Hannover-Kirchrode, 1953.

Grell, Ole Peter, ed. Paracelsus: The Man and His Reputation, His Ideas, and Their Transformation. Leiden, 1998.

Pagel, Walter. Paracelsus. Basel, 1958.

Bruce T. Moran

Paracelsus (1493–1541)

views updated May 17 2018


Paracelsus was the pseudonym of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus (Baumastus) von Hohenheim, the reformer of medicine and pharmacology, chemist, philosopher, iconoclast, and writer. If he himself assumed this name, it could signify "higher than high," or "higher than Hohenheim," a jibe at his illegitimate paternal grandfather. Born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, where his father practiced medicine, Paracelsus later lived at Villach in Carinthia (Austria), a center of mining, smelting, and alchemymetal lores that were to occupy him for the rest of his life. From the age of fifteen his life was migratory. After medical studies at various German and Austrian universities, he seems to have completed his doctorate in 1515 at Ferrara under a faculty that was Scotist, Platonist, and humanist.

For the next eleven years, Paracelsus traveled throughout Europe, jeopardizing his authority as a physician by practicing surgery (then a craft, not a learned profession) in the army of Charles V and by experimental prescriptions. He visited spas, analyzed the waters, treated by hypnosis, and sometimes alleviated pain with laudanum. At Salzburg he narrowly escaped execution for participating in a peasants' revolt. When, in 1526, he settled at Strasbourg to establish himself in medical practice, he was famous as an object of superstitious distrust. But his spectacular cure of the printer Johann Froben quickly led to friendships with such men as Desiderius Erasmus and Oecolampadius and an appointmentagainst the will of the facultyas medical lecturer at the University of Basel.

His eminence was short-lived. Lectures in German (rather than Latin), rejection of the canonical theory of Avicenna and Galen, denunciation of the apothecaries, and a public burning of the works of Avicenna were topped by the death of Froben. Those whose vested interests had been threatened tricked Paracelsus into behavior that could justify dismissal and arrest.

From 1528 until his death, his life was once again nomadic. Unkept promises and unstable patronage led him to Colmar, Nuremberg, Saint Gall, Villach, Vienna, and finally to Salzburg, where he died, probably of cancer, perhaps of metal poisoning.

Among his medical innovations were chemical urinalysis; a biochemical theory of digestion; chemical therapy; antisepsis of wounds; the use of laudanum, ether (without awareness of its anesthetic properties), and mercury for syphilis; and the combining of the apothecary's and surgeon's arts in the profession of medicine.

Paracelsus's numerous books are mostly variants on the theme of man (the microcosm) in relation to nature (the macrocosm). The most important are Archidoxis (c. 1524); the treatises on syphilis (c. 1529); Opus Paragranum (c. 1529); Opus Paramirum (c. 1530); Philosophia Sagax (c. 1536); and Labyrinthus Medicorum (1538).

Paracelsian philosophy was both traditional and new. Its medieval elements are traceable to alchemy and Kabbalism, which are branches of a trunk rooted in Hellenistic Neoplatonism, the Corpus Hermeticum, and Gnosticism. These occult lores shared the concept of creation through corruption; the axiom "That which is above is one with that which is below"; belief in a bisexual, homogeneous, hylozoic universe; a cyclic theory of time; and an animism approximating pantheism.

A mystery religion of life rather than merely of gold, medieval alchemy employed Semitic and Greco-Roman mythology as a screen against the unenlightened and as a vehicle of private communication for adepts. Although Paracelsus counted himself an adept, he abandoned the tradition of reserve and discarded most of the mythological symbolism. Unlike his predecessors, he wrote to clarify. He explained that alchemy's real desideratum was the secret of life.

Like Kabbalists and alchemists, Paracelsus believed in the theory that decay is the beginning of all birth. Nature emerges through separations: First, prime matter separates out of ultimate matter (also called Yliaster or Mysterium Magnum ), which is eternal and paradoxically immaterial. "The first was with God that is ultima materia ; this ultima materia He made into prime matter that is a seed and the seed is the element of water [fluid]." God spins ultimate matter out of himself. This yields, by separation, the prime matter of individual objects, a watery matrix, perpetually spawning nature, perpetually resolvable back into ultimate matter. Human creativeness in art, alchemy, or pharmacology repeats the primal act. The human demiurge, like God, separates rather than combines.

The Paracelsian theory of time resembles that of Plotinus. Time is qualitative change: growth, transitioneven fate. Given the basic concept of cyclic generation and decay, Paracelsian time would be for the material cosmos a cycle of becoming. But there are two orders of time: force time (within) and growing time (without). Like the Paracelsian concept of "prime matter" in relation to "ultimate matter," this theory of time is essentially dualist.

"Above" and "below" are substantially the same: "Heaven is man and man is heaven, and all men together are the one heaven," but microcosm and macrocosm are contained by membranes or partitions.

Paracelsus rejected the concept of humors as governed by planets and substituted a chemical theory of humors as properties: salt, sweet, bitter, and sour. He retained the medieval alchemistic variant of the four elements and a quintessence, the fifth element, that is life. He tended to treat fire as less elementary than the combustible principle, sulfur. Medieval alchemy had stressed the sexual polarity of two elements, fire (identified with the male principle) and water (identified with the female principle), and contrasted flame with flow and sulfur with mercury. Paracelsus reinterpreted these as principles rather than as elements and added a third principle, salt. These are properties or statescombustible, fluid or vaporous, and solid; each confers on matter its structure, corporality, and function. As constituents of ultimate matter, these are absolutes; as components of nature, they are infinitely variable in all sensuously discernible properties. Every natural object has its own sulfur, salt, and mercury, as well as its own quintessence.

Absolute life comes from Ens Seminis, the cosmic protoplasm. Ens Astrale is to the microcosm (man) as the firmament is to the macrocosm (nature). It can sustain or poison from within, as a toxic atmosphere can poison sea water and fish. Ens Veneni is the poison from without. Nature lives by dying; life eats life. Man may eat the flesh of an animal whose food would poison him, but within every living body there is an alchemist that selects what is food for that body. Ens Naturale is the bodily harmony of the chemical humors. Ens Spirituale has its equivalent in what psychiatry calls the psyche. Against the common belief of his day, Paracelsus argued that madness was not demonic possession and that evil dreams were not intercourse with incubi or succubi. Mind produces diseases both in itself and its own body or in another mind or body through hypnosis, fetishism, or demonstrable ill will. Most diseases are positive evils, but there is Ens Dei, God's will, which no doctor can circumvent.

Although accused by Erasmus of dualist heresy because of the importance he gave primal matter and because he described illness as intrinsically evil, Paracelsus died in the Church of Rome, and his burial place became a shrine.

See also Avicenna; Erasmus, Desiderius; Galen; Gnosticism; Kabbalah; Macrocosm and Microcosm; Neoplatonism; Pantheism; Plotinus; Time.


works by paracelsus

Opera Omnia. 12 vols, edited by John Huser. Basel, 15891591. The original German text.

Opera Omnia. 3 vols, edited by F. Bitiskius. Geneva, 1658. In Latin.

Sämtliche Werke. 15 vols, edited by Karl Sudhoff and E. Matthiessen. Munich, 19221933. In German; the standard critical edition.

Four Treatises of Theophrastus von Hohenheim, edited by Henry Sigerist, C. Lilian Temkin, George Rosen, and Gregory Zilboorg. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1941.

Selected Writings, edited by Jolande Jacobi; translated by Norbert Guterman. New York: Pantheon, 1951 and 1958. Contains an introduction by the editor. Excellent.

works on paracelsus

Browning, Robert. Paracelsus. London, 1835.

Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 15001700. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Science History Publications, 1977.

Debus, Allen G. "The Paracelsian Compromise in Elizabethan England." Ambix 8 (June 1960): 7197.

Donne, John. Ignatius His Conclave. London, 1613.

Koyre, Alexandre. "Paracelsus (14931541)." Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 24 (1) (2003): 169208.

Pachter, Henry M. Magic into Science. New York: Schuman, 1951. Represents Paracelsus as a proto-Faust; readable.

Pagel, Walter. "Paracelsus and the Neoplatonic and Gnostic Tradition." Ambix 8 (October 1960): 125166.

Pagel, Walter. Paracelsus. An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. New York: Karger, 1958. Excellent.

Pagel, Walter. "The Prime Matter of Paracelsus." Ambix 9 (October 1961):, 117135.

Stillman, John Maxson. Paracelsus. London: Open Court, 1920. Emphasis on science.

Stoddart, Anna M. The Life of Paracelsus. London: Murray, 1911. Browning's interpretation.

Webster, Charles. From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Weeks, Andrew. Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Linda Van Norden (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)


views updated May 29 2018


PARACELSUS (1493?1541) was a German alchemist, mystic, and physician. Philippus Aureolos Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was one of the most bizarre characters in the history of science. Commonly known as Paracelsus because in his own estimation he was greater than the great Greek physician Celsus, he was a paranoid, uncouth, abusive, and usually drunken genius, whose reputation varied widely. While his supporters dubbed him the "Luther of science," his detractors denounced him as a heretic and condemned him as the disreputable black magician who provided the model for Faust. His considerable writings offer a strange blend of medicine, religion, philosophy, cosmology, alchemy, magic, and astrology, a synthesis of natural and mystical philosophy typical of other writers before the scientific revolution separated science from religious and philosophical speculation.

Neither modest in presenting his opinions nor restrained in his language, Paracelsus launched an acrimonious attack on the medical and scientific establishment of his day. He rejected the prevailing Galenic theory that attributed disease to an imbalance of the four humors and replaced it with his own dynamic theory of diseases as specific entities attacking specific organs.

Paracelsus was an idealist and a visionary who considered chemistry the key to the universe. In his view, God was the divine alchemist who created the world by calcinating, congealing, distilling, and sublimating the elements of chaos. The alchemist had only to read the reactions in his laboratory on a grand scale to fathom the mysteries of creation. By turning alchemy away from gold-making, Paracelsus and his followers transformed it into a universal science of matter concerned with every aspect of material change.

Paracelsus's thought was shaped by both the Renaissance and the Reformation. Although he rejected the aesthetics and classicism of Renaissance humanists, he shared their anthropocentric and individualistic outlook. As Walter Pagel (1958, p. 36) has pointed out, there was a decentralizing tendency throughout Paracelsus's work. An enormous variety of noncorporeal forces (vital spirits, demons, subhumans, superhumans) work below the surface of the Paracelsian universe. Paracelsus drew his vitalist and pantheist ideas from the occult philosophies and sciences revived by Renaissance scholarsNeoplatonism, Gnosticism, Qabbalah, magic, alchemy, and astrology. The analogy between the macrocosm and the microcosm characteristic of these philosophies shaped Paracelsus's theory of knowledge. He rejected scholastic rationalism in favor of a kind of psychological empiricism. Because humans are the microcosm they contain within themselves all the elements of the greater world, or macrocosm. Knowledge therefore consists in an intuitive act of recognition, in which the knower and the known become one.

Because Paracelsus's theory of knowledge approximates Luther's doctrine of the "inner light," the two men have been compared. Each attacked established ideologies and institutions, wrote in the vernacular, and was a master of scurrilous invective. Both enjoyed theatrics: Luther burned the papal bull excommunicating him; Paracelsus burned the works of Galen and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The comparison between the two men is, however, superficial. Luther preached the bondage of the human will, while Paracelsus was an ardent advocate of free will; Luther made grace the prerequisite of salvation, while Paracelsus emphasized charitable acts; Luther sided with sovereigns, while Paracelsus's sympathies remained with the people. Although Paracelsus was in contact with many reformers, sharing their criticism of church abuses, he eventually became disillusioned and charged that the reformers were as autocratic as their Catholic counterparts. Paracelsus's religious ideas were more compatible with nondogmatic reformers such as Hans Denck (1495?1527) and Sebastian Franck (1499?1542?).

Religion and philosophy provided the sources for both the progressive and the obscurantist aspect of Paracelsus's thought. His repudiation of reason led him to embrace empiricism; it also made much of his writing incomprehensible. On the basis of his vitalist philosophy, he rejected mechanical explanations of biological processes in favor of an organic, holistic approach that allowed for psychological factors. The same vitalism taken to extremes, however, resulted in proliferation of the number of active, independent forces to the point that classification became impossible and causality meaningless.

With his penchant for oracular and aphoristic statements, Paracelsus was more a prophet than a scientist. His most vociferous critic, Thomas Lüber (Thomas Erastus), denounced him as a gnostic heretic. Paracelsus did believe he was divinely inspired. In this sense, he was the "spiritual man" or "knowing one" who had achieved gnōsis.

See Also

Occultism; Rosicrucians.


The critical standard edition of Paracelsus's Sämtliche Werke, 15 vols., edited by Karl Sudoff and Wilhelm Mattiessen (Munich, 19221933), includes copious annotations and bibliographic references. Walter Pagel's Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (New York, 1958) has an excellent bibliography and provides a thorough discussion of Paracelsus's sources. In his The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2 vols. (New York, 1977), Allen G. Debus discusses Paracelsus's legacy and influence on later scientists. English translations of selected treatises can be found in Arthur Edward Waite's The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast, called Paracelsus the Great, 2 vols. (1894; reprint, New Hyde Park, N. Y., 1967); Henry Sigerist's Four Treatises of Theophrastus von Hohenheim (Baltimore, 1941); and Jolande Jacobi's Paracelsus: Selected Writings (New York, 1951).

Allison Coudert (1987)


views updated May 11 2018



Alchemist and physician


Early Years. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, later known by the simpler cognomen Paracelsus, was born in the Swiss village of Einsiedeln, where his father practiced medicine. Paracelsus’s mother died while he was still a child, and the family moved to Villach, a mining town in Austria, where he grew up observing his father treat the particular diseases that afflicted miners. Paracelsus also absorbed the chemistry and lore surrounding mining and metallurgy. He was schooled by local clerics, from whom he received a wide-ranging exposure to both orthodox and mystical religion and philosophy, which were feeding the discussions and social unrest in the early sixteenth century that gave rise to the Reformation. It is no wonder, then, that Paracelsus’s extensive writing, popular preaching, and teaching as an adult revealed a syncretistic combination of chemical theory, medicine, and heterodox religious ideas, which he gave vague philosophical expression in terms of medieval mysticism and Renaissance Platonism.

Medical Approach. Paracelsus claimed to be a doctor of both medicine and surgery, and historians have speculated that he may have attended the University of Vienna and perhaps received the M.D. from the University of Ferrara, where Copernicus completed his graduate study a decade earlier. His writings show a familiarity with concepts found in academic natural philosophy and medicine, but his poor knowledge of Latin, cloudy explanations of theory, and open hostility to the chief tenets of Galenic medicine and Aristotelian philosophy suggest that his knowledge was gleaned from a variety of oral and vernacular written sources and not through the contemporary university medical curriculum. His rejection of any medical use for human anatomy, for example, is not without precedent, inasmuch as medieval Islamic physicians regarded knowledge of anatomy gained from dead bodies to be of little use in healing the living, beyond what might help a surgeon to mend a bone or remove an arrow. Even in Galen’s day, there were physicians identified as Empiricists, who denied the therapeutic value of anatomical knowledge and elaborate theories. Members of this medical sect taught that healing was a matter of careful observation of the patient, who should be treated according to the physician’s experience with like cases. However, Paracelsus probably was neither an Empiricist nor an Arabist, given his deprecation of Islamic and pagan Greek medicine (except that of Hippocrates) and his readiness to apply magical lore and alchemical theory to describe the hidden workings of the body and its diseases. More likely, he rejected traditional medical theory as part of a Reformation-era antirationalism, combined with a commitment to alchemical theory, Neoplatonist ideas about the relationship between the learned magus and the divinity present in nature, and the German mystics’ view of the divinity of the inner man.

Unpopular Stance. Paracelsus was violently opposed to the prevailing medical doctrine that health and disease were governed by the state or temperament of the four cardinal qualities (hot, cold, wet, dry), which were determined by the patient’s particular mixture of the four basic fluids (blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile). This concept was central to the diagnostic and therapeutic parts of Galen’s medicine, and by rejecting it Paracelsus was denying the validity of university medical education. Paracelsus’s utter disdain for traditional medicine is symbolized in the story that while employed as a town physician in Basel, Switzerland, in 1527, he threw a copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, an expensive book that had been one of the mainstays of medieval medical education, onto the St. John’s Eve bonfire. Not surprisingly, he was not popular with professional physicians and apothecaries (druggists), whose livelihood depended on their knowledge of Galenic medicine, not to mention the professors themselves, who viewed Paracelsus as a crackpot and a serious threat to health care and medical education.

Inner Alchemical Agents. Instead of the four basic fluids and qualities, Paracelsus regarded all physiological processes as chemical in nature, whether occurring in the body of the greater world (the macrocosm) or in the human body (the microcosm). He described human digestion, excretion, and metabolism as a series of chemical “digestions” or separations that were governed by a kind of innate intelligence. He likened these processes of separating pure nutrients from impurities to the operations of a metallurgist or alchemist, who separated the pure metal or chemical from the dross or dregs. He imagined these processes to be distributed around the body, governed by inner alchemical agents that he called archei (singular archeus). When operating properly, the archei that were present at various places, most obviously the stomach, perfectly separated pure nutrients from the dregs and excreted the latter. However, when affected by an external influence, caused by a stronger chemical archeus or perhaps a malign ray from a planet or star, the inner alchemist could malfunction and permit a buildup of toxic salts in the body. Inflammations, for example, were regarded as caused by inflamed sulfurous or nitrosulfurous salts.

Divine Calling. In keeping with his alchemical view of physiology, Paracelsus recommended drugs on the basis of their chemical properties, which could combat bad inner chemistry, expel toxic excrements, and help the body’s natural tendency to restore health. Like Hippocrates, whom he admired, Paracelsus viewed the physician as nature’s assistant or minister and demanded that the physician be morally upright. Unlike the Greeks, though, he saw the physician as having a particularly divine calling, since Christ himself was the prototype healer, able to cure the incurable and even raise the dead to life.

Life of Wandering. Paracelsus’s career was troubled. Owing to his medical iconoclasm, which offended the medical establishment, and his irregular religious preachings, which offended both Catholic and Lutheran religious authorities, he was seldom resident in any one town for long before being chased out, sometimes fleeing in great haste and leaving unfinished treatises behind him, to be puzzled over and reconstructed a generation later by his followers. His reputation for successfully treating diseases that academically trained physicians deemed incurable led to his being repeatedly summoned to heal aristocrats and other prominent people, such as the humanist printer and friend of Erasmus, Frobenius. However, the forces of medical and theological order gave him little respite to work or publish before making him resume his life of wandering. Few of his treatises were printed during his lifetime, which came to an end in Salzburg in 1541, where he died without fanfare.

Lasting Impact. Paracelsus’s reputation both as a healer and as an author of an alternative medical system grew rapidly after the publication of his main medical ideas during the 1560s. In the last quarter of the century, a new generation of medical students began to embrace these ideas, giving them a more rigorous theoretical explanation and incorporating them into an eclectic medical practice. Petrus Severinus, for example, composed an influential biological philosophy that explained human physiology, generation, and pathology according to Paracelsian principles, which he showed to be compatible with ancient ideas of Hippocrates, Pliny, and other authors. After publishing this book, Idea medicina philosophica (An Ideal for Philosophical Medicine, 1571), Severinus was appointed royal physician to the king of Denmark and took part in the intellectual circle around the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe—who was also a Paracelsian alchemist. Severinus’s career typifies the reception of Paracelsian ideas in the late sixteenth century: many students were fascinated by Paracelsus’s ideas, but the universities generally opposed them. As a result, Paracelsus’s followers often relied on the patronage of kings, queens, and other nobility, who were open to alternative philosophies and treatments.


Allen G. Debus, The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2 volumes (New York: Science History Publications, 1977).

Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel, Switzerland & New York: S. Karger, 1958).

Andrew Weeks, Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997).

Paracelsus, Philippus Aureolus

views updated May 29 2018

Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus

Born: November 10, 1493
Einsiedeln, Switzerland
Died: September 24, 1541
Salzburg, Austria

Swiss alchemist and doctor

Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus was a Swiss doctor and alchemist (medieval doctor) noted for founding medical chemistry. He also was the first physician to correctly describe a number of serious illnesses, including tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs.

Youth and early career

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, later called Paracelsus, was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, on November 10, 1493. His father was a physician and instructed Theophrastus in Latin, botany, chemistry, and the history of religion. Theophrastus attended a mining school in Villach, where his father was appointed town physician. There he learned about metals, ores, and chemicals used to process them.

Theophrastus studied in Basel, Switzerland, and Italy, where he learned classical medical theory. He also studied at the University of Vienna, and then returned to Italy, where he received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Ferrara in 1515. While he was in Ferrara he took the name Paracelsus, which means "beyond Celsus." Celsus was a doctor of ancient Rome who was admired by Paracelsus's fellow physicians.

Paracelsus resumed his study of metals briefly, and then began a series of travels that lasted to the end of his life. He was an army physician in Denmark from 1518 to 1521. In 1522 he joined the military forces in Venice, Italy. By 1526 he had settled briefly at Tübingen, Austria, where he gathered a small group of students. Later that year he traveled to Strasbourg, France, were he bought his citizenship and apparently intended to settle down.

New approaches to medicine

The classical theories of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), a Greek philosopher, and Galen (c. 130c. 200), a Greek physician, formed the basis of medicine at the time. Aristotle and Galen believed that the human body contained four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). These had to be balanced in order to maintain health. Paracelsus believed that diseases came from outside the body. He thought diseases could be cured by supplying the right chemical, as opposed to herbal, medicines. These would restore internal balance. His successful cures served to support his theories and he acquired a reputation as a healer.

In 1526 Paracelsus went to Basel, Switzerland, to treat a patient. He stayed on and became the town physician. His responsibilities included lecturing at the university and supervising the local apothecaries (druggists). His lectures drew large audiences, but his teaching and style were unpopular with the authorities.

Paracelsus openly challenged traditional medical teachings. He preferred to lecture in German rather than Latin, which was the traditional language of teaching. Also, he refused to prescribe the medicines of the local apothecaries. In 1528 Paracelsus had to flee to escape arrest and imprisonment.

Alchemy and philosophy

Paracelsus also wrote books about medicine, surgery, and cosmology (the nature of the universe). Paracelsus said that his outlook on the world was based on philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and virtue. Alchemy was a medieval form of chemistry. Some people studied alchemy hoping to turn baser (lesser) metals into gold. In contrast, Paracelsus regarded alchemy as a spiritual science. He felt it required moral virtue on the part of the person who practiced it.

Paracelsus believed that for every evil there was a good that would eliminate it. Thus, he believed that there was a cure for every disease. He studied alchemy hoping to discover the means of restoring youth and prolonging life. He also thought that alchemy should not be restricted only to chemistry. He thought it was at work in all of nature. He felt strongly about relating his philosophy of nature to his religious beliefs.

After 1531 Paracelsus appears to have undergone a spiritual conversion. He gave up his material possessions. It is said he became like a beggar. He went to cities in Austria and Italy, where the plague (a highly contagious disease often carried by rats) was raging, and he attended to the sick. In this new spirit that drove him, Paracelsus gave special attention to the poor and the needy. His work was guided by a more mystical view of man and especially of the physician.

In 1540 Paracelsus went to Salzburg, Austria, but he was very sick. He died there on September 24, 1541.

For More Information

Hall, Manly Palmer. Paracelsus, His Mystical and Medical Philosophies. Los Angeles, CA: Philosophical Research Society, 1980.

Stillman, John Maxson. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim Called Paracelsus. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1920.

Stoddart, Anna M. The Life of Paracelsus. London: J. Murray, 1911.

Weeks, Andrew. Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus

views updated May 11 2018

Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus

The Swiss doctor and alchemist Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541) is noted for opposing Galen's medical theories and for founding medical chemistry.

The real name of Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He was born in Einsiedeln. His father instructed him in Latin, botany, chemistry, and the history of religion. When Theophrastus was 9, his father was appointed town physician at Villach, and the boy attended the mining school there. For his secondary education he went to Basel. Through visits to Italy he learned of classical medical theory; after studies in the faculty of arts at the University of Vienna, he went back to Italy, receiving his doctorate in medicine from the University of Ferrara in 1515. During this Ferrara period he took the name Paracelsus.

Paracelsus resumed his study of metals briefly at Schwatz in the Tirol and then began a series of travels that lasted, almost without exception, to the end of his life. He served as an army physician in Denmark from 1518 to 1521, and the following year he joined the Venetian military forces. By 1526 Paracelsus had settled at Tübingen and gathered around him a small group of students. Later that year he was on the road again, this time to Strassburg, where he bought his citizenship and apparently intended to settle down.

During all these travels, Paracelsus was spreading the anti-Aristotelian position that the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were composed of primary principles: a fireproducing principle (sulfur), a principle of liquidity (mercury), and a principle of solidity (salt). From a medical viewpoint, salt was thought to be a cleanser, sulfur a consuming agent, and mercury a transporter of the product of consumption. Shaping the normal healthy organism is a principle called an archeus. When an imbalance occurs among the three principles in man, there is disease, and the office of the doctor is to help the archeus by supplying the right medicines. Advocating the treatment of like by like, Paracelsus therapy is thus homeopathic in theory. During his travels he acquired a reputation as a healer; all his practical success would support his theory of the three principles.

In 1526 Paracelsus was summoned to Basel to treat a patient, and he remained on as town physician, a post that included a lectureship at the university and supervision of the apothecaries. His lectures drew large audiences, but his teaching and style were unpopular with the authorities. He openly challenged the traditional books on medicine and the teaching of medicine by textual analysis; he preferred to lecture in German rather than Latin; he refused to prescribe the medicines of the local apothecaries; and, though sympathetic with some of the ideas of the Reformation, he was a Roman Catholic. In 1528 Paracelsus had to flee to escape arrest and imprisonment.

Shortly before the flight from Basel, Paracelsus completed the most important of his earlier works, Nine Books of Archidoxus, a reference manual on secret remedies. Between 1530 and 1534 he wrote his bestknown works, the Paragranum and the Paramirum, both dealing with cosmology. He returned to medical writing with the Books of the Greater Surgery in editions of 1536 and 1537; this was his only work that was a publishing success. The Astronomia magna, done between 1537 and 1539, shows his most mature thinking about nature and man.

Paracelsus claimed that the pillars of his outlook on the world were philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and virtue. It might be convenient to sample this outlook by emphasizing only alchemy here. For Paracelsus, alchemy was not only an earthly science but a spiritual one, requiring moral virtue on the part of the knower. At his highest, such a knower was not a theoretician but an activist; Paracelsus emphasized wisdom as practical rather than contemplative.

Paracelsus believed that to every evil there was a counteracting good and to every disease, a cure. He valued alchemy not because it might turn baser metals into gold, but because it might discover the means of restoring youth and prolonging life. He was looking for something like an elixir. Yet alchemy was not restricted to the chemist; it was at work in the whole of nature. Relating his natural philosophy to his religious beliefs, he pointed out that Christ came not as a scholar or a philosopher but as a healer. Many of Christ's miracles were healings of the sick. Most importantly, he healed the wounds of sin. Alchemy thus provided Paracelsus with a natural philosophy and a view of Christianity.

Paracelsus underscored the relation between the macrocosm and the microcosm as an argument for going to nature to understand man. According to his macrocosm-microcosm theory, "Everything that astronomical theory has profoundly fathomed by studying the planetary objects and the stars…can also be applied to the firmament of the body." The physician is the god of the microcosm. Such was the cosmology which Paracelsus espoused.

During the post-Basel period and especially after 1531, Paracelsus appears to have undergone a spiritual conversion which prompted him to renounce material possessions. In 1534 he came as a beggar and tramp, to use his own words, to Innsbruck, Vipiteno, and Merano. The plague was raging in these cities, and he ministered to the victims. In this new spirit that animated him, Paracelsus was especially attentive to the poor and the needy. He tended to a more mystical view of man and especially of the physician. He had long stressed a so-called light of nature, which was human reason. He thought that such a light was a radiation of the Holy Spirit.

In 1540 Paracelsus arrived in Salzburg a sick man, and he died there on Sept. 24, 1541.

Further Reading

Many of Paracelsus' own writings are gathered in Jolande Jacobi, ed., Paracelsus: Selected Writings, translated by Norbert N. Guterman (2d ed. 1958). Biographies of his life and work include Anna M. Stoddart, The Life of Paracelsus (1911); John Maxson Stillman, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim Called Paracelsus (1920); John Hargrave, The Life and Soul of Paracelsus (1951); Henry M. Pachter, Paracelsus: Magic into Science (1951), and Sidney Rosen, Doctor Paracelsus (1959). □


views updated May 18 2018



Swiss Physician, Pharmacologist and Alchemist

Paracelsus was arguably the most innovative medical mind of the Renaissance. Some denounced him as a charlatan (one who merely pretends to possess knowledge or skill) because of his devotion to magic and the occult. But other scholars agree that he accomplished too much in too many genuinely scientific fields for this accusation to make sense. In an age when authority was expected to remain unquestioned, Paracelsus rejected authority and conducted his own investigations. His iconoclasm inspired Canadian physician Sir William Osler (1849-1919) to dub him "the Luther of medicine."

Paracelsus was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, the only son of Wilhelm von Hohenheim, a poor country physician. His real name was Philipp Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim. He created the pseudonym Paracelsus by combining the Greek prefix para-, meaning "beside" or "beyond," with the name of a great Roman physician, Aulus Aurelius Cornelius Celsus (25 b.c.-a.d. 50).

After the death of his mother, Theophrastus (as he was called) and his father moved in 1502 to Villach, Austria. Theophrastus attended the Bergschule in Villach, where his father taught chemistry and where students learned the properties of metals and the economics of mining. He served as an apprentice to his father in medicine and studied the works in his father's library. In 1507 he began his life of wandering. Eager for both knowledge and adventure, he traveled widely, briefly studying at several German universities. Around 1510 he may have received a bachelor's degree from the University of Vienna. In 1513 he enrolled at the University of Ferrara, Italy, where he may have received an M.D. degree in either 1515 or 1516. However, academic life and its pretensions disturbed him. He claimed that the true student should seek knowledge from sorcerers, nomads, thieves, and peasants, as well as from professors, and should travel in order to keep from stagnating. His journeys extended into England, Africa, and Asia. While in England, he claimed he could learn more in a Cornwall mine than at Oxford or Cambridge.

Paracelsus discarded all previous medical systems and held Arabic medicine in particular contempt. To promote his lectures at the University of Basel, Switzerland, in 1527, he publicly burned the works of the acclaimed physicians Galen (129-c. 216) and Avicenna (980-1037). Through alchemy, he experimented with therapeutic applications of metallurgy and chemistry that would later develop into iatrochemistry and eventually into modern chemotherapy.

Some of the ancients believed that disease resulted from disturbances in the body's four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, which corresponded to the four elements, temperaments, and seasons. Choleric yellow bile was hot and dry like fire and summer; melancholic black bile was dry and cold like earth and autumn; impassive phlegm was cold and moist like water and winter; and sanguine blood was moist and hot like air and spring. It was believed that all four humors should be in balance in order to ensure good health. Paracelsus renounced this traditional humoral theory and instead attributed the onset of disease to environmental factors such as contagion, the pathogenicity of chemicals, and geographic location.

Paracelsus wrote much, but few of his writings were published during his lifetime. He left manuscripts behind him wherever he went. Thus many of his works were published posthumously and probably many more were lost. His Grosse Wund Artzney (Great Surgery) (1536), soon translated into Latin as Chirurgia magna, offers a detailed analysis of gunshot wounds and argues against treating them with hot oil, which was common among military surgeons before the work of the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510?-1590). (Paré discovered the therapeutic value of simple dressings and soothing ointments for wounds.) Von der frantzüsischen Kranckheit (1553) contains Paracelsus's studies of syphilis, which he called "French disease" or "French gonorrhea." He advocated mercury for its cure. In De gradibus (1562) he detailed most of his important improvements in drug therapy. One of the first books on occupational health hazards was Von der Bergsucht oder Bergkrankheiten (1567), which focuses on the diseases of miners. In Von den Kranckheyten so die Vernunfft berauben als da sein (1567), he rejected the popular notion that unwelcome mental states were caused by demons and described psychiatric disorders in terms of purely physical occurrences. In De generatione stultorum (1603), he revealed the association of cretinism with endemic goiter.

There is no reason to discount the standard view that Paracelsus was a coarse and brutish man. Sometime before 1524, he acquired a gigantic broadsword that he carried for the rest of his life, even sleeping with it. He supposedly hid his personal supply of laudanum in a secret compartment in its hilt. He died mysteriously in Salzburg, Austria, perhaps as the result of a bar fight.



views updated May 08 2018



Paracelsus was born Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He was a contemporary of Martin Luther and Nicolaus Copernicus. He adopted his

pseudonym based on his assertion that he was a better physician than Celsus, the first century c.e. Roman author on medicine acclaimed in Renaissance Europe (he was "Para-Celsus," or beyond Celsus). His self-promotion as "The Most Highly Experienced and Illustrious Physician " has given us the word "bombastic," derived from his birth name.

Paracelsus gained his early medical knowledge from his father, who was a physician. He followed this education with formal medical training at the University of Ferrara in Italy. Finding his formal training disappointing, Paracelsus embarked on a life of travel and study combined with medical practice. According to Paracelsus, he collected medical knowledge anywhere he could find it without regard to academic authority. He acknowledged his consultations with peasants, barbers, chemists, old women, quacks, and magicians. Paracelsus developed his notions of disease and treatment away from any established medical faculty and promoted the idea that academic medical training had reached a state deeply in need of reform.

Paracelsus believed in the four "Aristotelian" elements of earth, air, fire, and water. His medical theory was based on the notion that earth is the fundamental element of existence for humans and other living things. Paracelsus believed that earth generated all living things under the rule of three "principles": salt, sulfur, and mercury. He therefore believed these substances to be very potent as chemical reactants, as poisons, and as medical treatments. (Indeed, salt and sulfur can yield strong mineral acids, for example, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, and mercury is a strong poison.) Finally, Paracelsus believed in the "Philosopher's Stone." The Philosopher's Stone (which he sometimes claimed to possess) was supposed to cure all ills and to enable the transformation of any metal into gold. Such a stone, it was believed, would be the strongest chemical reactant and the strongest medicine possible.

Paracelsus advocated the direct observation of a patient's medical condition and the assessment of his or her surroundings. He was one of the first physicians to describe occupational diseases. He described several lung diseases of miners and recommended improved ventilation as a means of their prevention. He emphasized that the legitimacy of a treatment was whether or not it worked, not its recommendation by an ancient authority in an ancient text. Paracelsus promoted the use of mineral treatments. Because small amounts of mercury salts were effective against some illnesses, these medicines were judged to be very strong.

Paracelsus's exalted claims for himself and his abrasive personality often brought him into conflict with civil authorities. His methods of trial and error and observation led him to reject the use of sacred relics as medical treatment. It brought him into conflict with religious authorities. His calls for reformation of the medical profession offended medical authorities. As a consequence he was on the move often. Paracelsus held an academic post only once, and it lasted only a year. Although he wrote a great deal, only one of his manuscripts was published in his lifetime. Most of his manuscripts were left in a variety of cities and were published several years after his death. Within these manuscripts are inconsistencies and contradictions. Paracelsus never established any one strong school of thought or medical practice. He did, however, influence future generations of iatrochemists (physicianchemists, iatro being Greek for "physician"), who continued to apply chemistry to questions of medical practice.

see also Alchemy.

David A. Bassett


Jacobi, Jolande, ed. (1942, reprint 1988). Paracelsus, Selected Writings, tr. Norbert Gutman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Partington, J. R. (1961). A History of Chemistry, Vol. 2. New York: Martino Publishing.

Sigerist, Henry E., ed. (1941, reprint 1996). Paracelsus: Four Treatises. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Paracelsus (1493–1541)

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Paracelsus (14931541)

Germany physician and alchemist who pioneered a new approach to treating illness, and helped usher medicine out of its medieval occultism and into the more rational scientific philosophies of the Renaissance. The son of a physician, his given name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim. He was born and raised in the town of Einsiedeln in what is now Switzerland and spent several years wandering to the far corners of the known world to learn from philosophers, scientists, and doctors from Europe to Arabia and India. He studied in several universities, poring over the medical texts of the ancient writers and exploring the alchemical tracts of medieval writers. His studies and experiments led him to the conclusion that all matter derived from three basic substancessalt, sulfur, and mercurythat originated in a matter known as mysterium arcanum.

Paracelsus rejected the traditional practices of physicians, who in his day worked to rid the body of impurities through bleeding and purging. In his book Archidoxis, he explained his theory that certain essential qualities all derive from substances found in nature. He believed that philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and virtue were all necessary to the work of a doctor, and that disease represented a malfunction of the body and not, as was traditional, the imbalance of the bodily humors. He elaborated his ideas in another major work, Opus Paramirum, or Work Beyond Wonder, which also explained the organs of the body as containing a guiding spirit that separated good qualities from bad. To cure disease, the physician needed to apply a substance manufactured from minerals, metals, or other compounds that was proper to the functioning of the diseased organ and could mimic the body's natural balancing action.

Paracelsus saw man as a microcosm of the universe, a being in which all the qualities found in nature had their counterparts on the human scale. The physical body, the soul, and an astral body were present, in which the latter spiritwhich originated in the heavensserved as a blueprint for the form and function of all things and as an important link between the mind, the body, and the spiritual world. For this reason, the study of both human philosophy and scientific astronomy were needed for a physician to truly understand the workings and diseases of the body.

In 1524 Paracelsus became a lecturer and physician in the city of Basel, where his strange new ideas and his teaching in German instead of traditional Latin sparked bitter conflict with his physician rivals and quickly drove him from the city. In 1536 he published a handbook of surgery, Der Grossen Wundartzney. He died five years later under mysterious circumstances, with many historians believing that he was poisoned by rivals.

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