Human concerns – Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541)

See on this site – original name Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – Note: in some sources the birth date is November 10, 1493 – Swiss physician, chemist, alchemist, one of the fathers of modern medicine. Paracelsus was the pseudonym of Dr Theophrastus Bombastus Hohenheim, which meant ‘beyond Celsius’, implying that he was greater physician than the then-revered Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsius. A rebellious thinker, Paracelsus developed his own system of medicine and philosophy.

“By nature I am not subtly spun, nor is it the custom of my native land to accomplish anything by spinning silk. Nor are we raised on figs, nor on mead, nor on wheaten bread, but on cheese, milk and oatcakes, which cannot give one a subtle disposition. Moreover, a man clings all his days to what he received in his youth; and my youth was coarse as compared to that of the subtle, pampered, and over-refined. For those who are raised in soft clothes and in women’s apartments and we who are brought up among the pine-cones have trouble in understanding one another well.” (from Paracelsus: Selected Writings, ed. by Jolande Jacobi, 1951).

Theophrastus Bombastus Hohenheim (Paracelsus) was born as the only son of a poor German physician in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. His father was the illegitimate offspring of a disgraced Swabian nobleman, who had lost both reputation and estates. Around 1509 Paracelsus started his studies of chemistry and medicine at the University of Basle. After receiving his bachelors degree in 1510, he learned about metals and minerals and mining diseases at the mines in the Tirol. Paracelsus also earned a doctorate, perhaps from the University of Ferrara. At Erfurt he met and apprenticed himself to one Rufus Mutianus, a friend of Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), a Faustian scholar. At some point in the mid-1510s Paracelsus studied under the Hermetic philosopher Trithemius.

Between the years 1510 and 1524 he wandered through Europe, Russia and the Middle East, learning the practice of medicine as a military surgeon and acquired a considerable knowledge of alchemy. It is thought that he learned the Hermetic secrets from Arabian adepts in Constantinople. “The physician,” he wrote, “is he who in the bodily diseases takes the place of God and administers for Him.”

In his wide travels, Paracelsus became acquainted with remedies not familiar to contemporary physicians, and which brought him a high prestige. After great success as an army physician, he set himself to reforming medicine. He opposed scholastic physicians and medical authorities and emphasized the importance of practical knowledge. He thought that the physician must be a chemist and was accused of using poisons, when he used inorganic, particularly metallic elements in internal remedies. Paracelsus defended himself that his opponents used poisons too, and did not know the proper dosages. “The preparations of Antimony vary with the diseases for which it is administered. That which is used for wounds differs from that which is applied in the case of leprosy. And so of the rest. To take the same preparation of Antimony both in wounds and in leprosy would be a serious error.” (Paracelsus in Alchemical Medicine)

“Every experiment is like a weapon which must be used in its particular way – a spear to thrust, a club to strike,” Paracelsus wrote in Surgeon’s Book (1605). “Experimenting requires a man who knows when to thrust and when to strike, according to need and fashion.” Paracelsus taught that wounds would heal naturally if kept clean and drained. He is credited with successfully treating syphilis, gout, leprosy, and ulcers with mercury.

In 1526, supported by Erasmus, he became professor of medicine in the University of Basel, lecturing in German, not Latin. In Basel he burned publicly the works of Avicenna and Galen and declared that his cap had more learning in it than all the heads in the university. He drew about him a school known as the Paracelsists, and claimed among his discoveries that of indefinitely prolonging life. During all this time, Paracelsus continued to write prolifically. His writings, which he dictated to his disciples, comprise most of what is known about the ancient Hermetic system of medicine. In Philosophia Occulta Paracelsus wrote that human beings have two kinds of spirits – one is from the heaven, one from the nature, but they should follow their heavenly spirit in life. All diseases originate from salt, sulfur, or mercury, which correspond respectively matter (body), soul, and spirit (in Paramirum). A doctor should trust more in his intuition and reason that what the patient tells. All wisdom belongs to God (De Fundamento Sapientiae) – and thus we should try understand ourselves to be able to know the divine truth, which has been given to human beings.

In 1528, owing to quarrel with the magistracy, he was driven out of the town. Paracelsus spent a wandering life in Switzerland, Alsace, and southern Germany. He settled for a few years in the Austrian province of Carinthia, where he produced some of his most famous writings, among them The Seven Defensiones, On the Errors and Labyrinth of the Physiocians, and On the Origin and Cause of Sand and Stone. In 1541 the Arch-Bishop Duke Ernsty of Bavaria invited Paracelsus to Salzburg. It is believed that he was poisoned or killed by assassins who were hired by his enemies. Paracelsus died on September 23, 1541. After he was buried his bones were dug up several times, moved and reburied.

Despite his obsession with alchemy, Paracelsus encouraged research, observation and experiment, and revolutionized medical methods. He was among the first to write scientific books for the public. A complete edition of his works in Latin appeared in 1589. He described silicosis, and to connected goitre with minerals found in drinking water. By experimenting he improved pharmacy and therapeutics, developed techniques for the production of laudanum, and explored the effects of other opium derivatives as well. Two hundred years later laudanum became the fashionable way to escape from pain and boredom. He was the first physician to make use of the magnet and to explore the phenomenon of magnetism in relation to the human organism. On the basis of Hermetic principle of interrelationship he recognized the connection between psyche and the physical organism, and paved way for the work of Mesmer and subsequently Freud.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung has described Paracelsus as “an ocean, or, to put it less kindly, a chaos, an alchemical melting-pot into which the human beings, gods, and demons of that tremendous age, the first half of the sixteenth century, poured their peculiar juices.” According to Paracelsus the physician had to be not only an alchemist but also an astrologer, because the human beings have a firmament body, which is the corporeal equivalent of the astrological heaven. And since the astrological constellation makes a diagnosis possible, it also indicates the therapy.

Jung was fascinated of Paracelsus’s writings about alchemy and the connection between the alchemical stone (the lapsis) and the mystical experience of God. He returned to Paracelsus’s ideas in several writings, among which the most thorough was Psychology and Alchemy (1944). It explores the analogies between alchemy, Christian dogma and symbolism on the other hand, and the dreams and visions, the classical material of psychoanalysis. The character of Paracelsus has inspired several writes, among them Robert Browning, (1812-1889), Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), and Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1986).

In Borges’s story ‘The Rose of Paracelsus’ the doctor prays to his God to send him a disciple. A young man (Johannes Grisebach) appears. He is ready to follow Paracelsus, if he can prove his skills as an alchemist by burning a rose to ashes and making it emerge again. Paracelsus says that the rose is eternal, and only its appearances may change. “The path is the Stone. The point of departure is the Stone. If these words are unclear to you, you have not yet begun to understand. Every step you take is the goal you seek.” (from ‘The Rose of Paracelsus’ by Jorge Luis Borges) The man throws the rose into the flames. Paracelsus tells that all the other physicians call him a fraud – perhaps they are right. The young man says: “What I have done is unpardonable. I have lacked belief, which the Lord demands of all the faithful. Let me, then, continue to see ashes. I will come back again when I am stronger, and I will be your disciple, and at the end of the Path I will see the rose.” He leaves, promising to come back, but they both know that they would not see each other again. Alone, Paracelsus whispers a single word and the rose appears again. (Read more here).

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