Mesmerism: A Theory of the Soul

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Mesmerism: A Theory of the Soul


Mesmerism, named after its chief theoretician and practitioner, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), also known as Animal Magnetism, was one of the most popular medical theories of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Today mesmerism is considered a form of medical quackery, but it is also seen as a precursor to the use of hypnosis in treating psychological disorders. In its time, however, mesmerism gained popularity because of the theories it put forth on the functioning of the body and the soul.


In the eighteenth century medical practice was still attempting to differentiate itself from religious healing practices such as exorcism. In order to do so, medical practice needed to show that the object of its concern was different from that of religious practice by demonstrating, for example, that disease was the result of malfunctions within the body itself, and not the result of demonic possession. This meant that medical practice also needed to show that there were mechanical explanations for what happened within the body, instead of relying on religious explanations such as the exertion of spiritual forces. Some medical practitioners even attempted to explain in mechanical terms what the chief force was that animated the body—the force that religious practitioners refer to as a "soul." Mesmerism was just such a theory of animating forces.

Mesmeric theory was based upon two ideas that had been in circulation for centuries. The first was that there were invisible, naturally occurring forces, such as the force of gravity that keeps planets in their orbits, that can also be held responsible for the animation of living bodies, such as animals and humans. The other idea was that the application of magnets could prove beneficial in the treatment of disease. In the case of mesmerism, what was new was the explanation put forth for the relationship between the forces of magnetism and the forces of life—and by extension, disease.

Though Mesmer would revise and expand on his theories throughout his life, as would his followers, the basic principles of "animal magnetism," as Mesmer referred to it, can be found in his medical degree dissertation of 1766, De planetarum influxu (Physical-Medical Treatise on the Influence of the Planets). Here he made reference to the work of Richard Mead (1673-1754), a British medical practitioner, as well as that of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Mead was a mechanist who sought mechanical explanations for the energy behind corporeal functions, and who suggested in his treatise of 1740, Corpora Humana et Morbis inde Oriundis (On the Influence of the Sun and Moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases Arising Therefrom), that the same forces that caused tides and kept the Moon in rotation about Earth could also exert an influence over the functioning of human bodies. Mesmer, using both Mead's medical theories and Newton's theories of gravity as his examples, argued for the existence of a force he called "animal gravity," "a force which actually strains, relaxes and agitates the cohesion, elasticity, irritability, magnetism, and electricity in the smallest fluid and solid particles of our machine...." According to Mesmer, this force is generated by the actions of the particles of the body itself interacting with one another, just as gravity is the result of the interaction of the mass of two planets, so that the body becomes a kind of battery, capable of generating its own energy in order to animate itself. As Mesmer developed his theories further, he would suggest that magnets were useful in treating disease because disease was caused by a blockage in the flow of this energy, and magnets could exert an influence over this force.

Mesmeric treatment, then, concerned itself with attempting to restore balance in the flow of the "nervous fluid" of the body that was affected by the force of "animal gravity." At first, Mesmer treated patients by applying magnets to the affected parts of their bodies, but later he felt that, since all bodies generated these forces, and that the problem was an imbalance in the forces of the patient's body, a Mesmeric practitioner could simply lay hands on a patient and impart some of their own energy to the patient. Mesmer also felt that it was possible to "charge" certain objects, such as trees, metal poles, and jars of water, with energy, and that patients could treat themselves by drinking the water or holding onto the objects for a length of time.


The results of Mesmeric treatment were often spectacular, even if they did fail to cure physical disease. Since Mesmer believed that the cause of disease was a blockage in the flow of energy, a successful treatment would produce an "overcoming" of that blockage, with dramatic physical results. Patients under Mesmeric treatment would often report burning hot flashes and pains as the imagined blockage was overcome, and in his Paris treatment salon, Mesmer had special rooms set aside for those patients who swooned during the course of treatment. Today these results are interpreted as hysterical reactions brought about by the expectations of the patients, and as having little to do with the actual cure of physical disease.

The major breakthrough for mesmerism, and the one for which the term mesmerism is today most well known, came in 1780, when a disciple of Mesmer, the Marquis de Puységur, discovered that he could induce a state of "artificial somnambulism," what we would today refer to as a trance, in those undergoing mesmeric treatment. In this trance, patients displayed what was considered to be remarkable behavior; peasants could speak perfect aristocratic French or German, they could conduct everyday activities with their eyes closed, and the mesmerist could actually direct the flow of a patient's thoughts. In other words, the marquis had discovered hypnotism.

This discovery led Mesmer to speculate that the energy forces he had theorized earlier also bound all things together and enabled them, animate or inanimate, to have some communication with each other—how else could one explain, for example, the ability of a person with their eyes closed and seemingly asleep to pick up a broom and sweep out a room, then walk outside and perform other activities? While in the trance, it was as if the "somnambulist" was in communication with some higher plane of existence.

This idea caught fire in the imaginations of many philosophers of the time, such as the German Romantics, who felt that "artificial somnabulism" reflected the ability of all human beings to transcend to a higher "plane of unity" where all things were one. Throughout the early nineteenth century, then, one can find references to mesmerism in a vast array of literary works, from the writings of the German Romantic E.T.A. Hoffman to the works of the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. In all of these works, mesmerism is depicted as a strange, sometimes evil, force that has the power to change and manipulate the human soul.

Mesmerism was much more successful as a literary device than a medical practice, however. Because of the rather spectacular and indecorous reactions of patients, especially female patients, to mesmeric treatment, the French government undertook an investigation of mesmerism in 1784. The government concluded that not only was mesmerism a form of medical quackery but that it also constituted a genuine danger to patients, and in that same year the practice of mesmerism in France was banned. To this day, however, the use of magnets in medical treatment persists, and hypnosis has become a standard tool in the treatment of psychological disorders, even though its functioning is little more understood today than it was in Mesmer's time. mesmerism may today be regarded as nothing more than a footnote in the history of medicine, but in its day it proved to be a powerful philosophical force, and it opened several doors in our thinking about the functioning of the human body and the energy that animates it.


Further Reading

Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Mesmer, Franz Anton. Mesmerism, a Translation of the Original Scientific and Medical Writings of F. A. Mesmer. Translated by George J. Bloch. Los Altos, CA: W. Kaufmann, 1980.

Pattie, Frank A. Mesmer and Animal Magnetism: A Chapter in the History of Medicine. Hamilton, NY: Edmonston Publishing, 1994.

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Mesmerism: A Theory of the Soul

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