University of California, Riverside
Riverside, California, U.S.A.
“Alle Ding sind Gift und nichts ohn Gift; alein die Dosis macht das ein Ding kein Gift ist” [all things are poison and notwithout poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison”]. With the exception of E = mc2, perhaps no other single statement has wielded such force in establishing the popular notoriety and the professional stature of an individual in the history of science as the words just quoted.
In 1993 the New York Academy of Medicine Library exhibited Paracelsus’s works to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth. Edward Farber identifies Paracelsus as “the figure head of the 16th C.” in The Evolution of Chemistry (Farber, 1952). Reynolds Historical Library (University of Alabama, 1999) curator Marion G. McGuinn writes that “it would be difficult to imagine the healing art as we know it today apart from the historical influence [Paracelsus] brought to bear” (http://www.uab.edu/reynolds/parcels.html).
A text on pharmacology in nursing credits Paracelsus with exerting “a profound influence upon the medical beliefs of his time and of succeeding centuries” (Bergersen and Goth, 1979). In Remington’s Pharmaceutical Sciences, Higby (1990) lauds Paracelsus for “sparking the growth of the modern pharmaceutical sciences.” Countless textbooks, handbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries (general and special), and monographs give him similar credit. Other sources refer to him as the “Father of Toxicology.” Furthermore, his name appears as a significant figure among voluminous numbers of works on homeopathy, natural medicine, alternative medicine, and botanical studies. A Web-based Paracelsus mailing list is part of a “health web system,” and the Paracelsus Healthcare Corporation runs the Bledsoe County General Hospital of Pineville, Tennessee. On the popular front, the Stiegl’s Beer (Salzburg, Austria) page offers “Paracelsus Naturtrueb—the unfiltered beer specialty” [(1999) http://www.stiegl.co.@/ebeer.htm]. This is a fitting tribute to Paracelsus’s interest in “naturalness” versus the artificiality he observed in the academic world of his time, but it is also ironic. Behaving in accordance with his alchemical tendencies, Paracelsus probably would have filtered the beer. The ironies of Paracelsus’s reputation are legion. In fact, it is a wonder that an individual like Paracelsus should enjoy the attention of 21st-century readers at all, much less those readers seeking essential information about pesticide toxicology. His contemporaries often found his behavior and theories enigmatic at best. At worst they regarded them as heretical, bizarre, and contentious. Scholars and critics in nearly every century since his death have maligned him, yet others have hailed him as a courageous visionary pioneer equal to Martin Luther. Such conflicting assessments have arisen in part from a variety of misunderstandings of his copious but cryptic writings. Although there exists little disagreement that he was rebellious, iconoclastic, and stubborn, textual evidence supports the view that he made some astoundingly insightful discoveries. Joseph F. Borzelleca (1999) has, perhaps, assessed Paracelsus rightly by calling him the “herald” of modern toxicology, trumpeting his views on “many fundamental issues such as the meaning of life and death, health and the causes of disease (internal imbalances or external forces), the place of humans in the world and in the universe, and the relationship between humans (including himself) and God.” His political heresies and clumsiness toward the medical establishment embittered many of his contemporaries and even some of those who would have been his colleagues. Paracelsuswas suspicious and protective of his “special” alchemical knowledge, characteristics that might otherwise have been tolerated, but in Paracelsus they made others respond negatively. It is little wonder that the commentary estimating Paracelsus’s importance and contributions is wideranging. In her work describing science in the Renaissance, Marie Boas (1962) attributes to Paracelsus a parental influence on modern chemistry. Bernard Jaffe (1976), who devotes a full chapter of his historical study of chemistry to Paracelsus, claims that the world owes Paracelsus a debt for having planted the seeds of laboratory science. He writes that Paracelsus’s most significant contribution was “not one epoch-making discovery” but instead a “vital impetus” which he initiated by “sweeping aside the teachings of the ancient authorities” and “[bringing] alchemy to the aid of medicine.” Many others agree with Jaffe, crediting Paracelsus with the innovation of “iatrochemistry” or “chemistry in the service of medicine” (Partington, 1957). Wolfgang Schneider takes issue with this assessment, specifying that the term “chemiatry” fits the work of Paracelsus: “Oswald Croll (c. 1560–c. 1609) wrote the first textbook of chemiatry, named Basilica chymica which was later revised and enlarged by . . . Professor Johann Hartmann (1568–1631), instructor in chemiatry at Marburg. In the work of Johann Baptist van Helmont (1577–1644) the influence of Paracelsus is also evident” (Schneider, 1980). It was in the context of chemistry, the study and use of chemicals for medical purposes, that Paracelsus gained particular notoriety, a renown that has continued to the present day. For example, a mid-1990s advertisement for Index Chemicus includes a reference to Paracelsus as an individual who made “legendary discoveries,” specifically the use of chemicals for medicine. By association the advertisement places Paracelsus in the company of Anders Celsius, John Dalton, Adedeo Avogadro, Marie Curie, and T. W. Richards. On the other hand, the head of one prestigious medical school in the United States commented in a 1998 interview that “medical schools generally consider his work to be irrelevant.” He added that “those who recognize the name of Paracelsus, . . . recognize his insight that chemical manipulation of drugs could improve their efficiency” (Reigle, 1998).
Much of the controversy connected with Paracelsus has to do with his outspoken challenges to the prevailing practices of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. He believed that many of these practitioners sought personal gain above the welfare and safety of the infirm, afflicted, and occupationally exposed masses: “There are two kinds of physician—those who work for love, and those who work for their own profit. They are both known by their works; the true and just physician is known by his love and by his unfailing love for his neighbour” [Selected Writings (Paracelsus, 1951)]. Paracelsus believed that God gave herbs, a term he used in the very broad generic way of the 16th century, “power and virtue to free man from his infirmity ” and to “protect his life span against the wrath of death up until the last minute” (Paracelsus, 1951, emphasis added). Thus, Paracelsus espoused the ideas of safety and restoration. He sought to help people avert suffering, to ward off affliction, or if it were not possible to ward it off then to turn it away by curing it once the victim had been afflicted (Paracelsus, 1951). He aimed his studies and his advice toward protection from infirmity, asking rhetorically how one could possibly “protect himself from harm and disaster if he does not know his enemy” (Paracelsus, 1951). Further, if protection and cure failed, at least the physician could prevent the disease from getting worse. To know the enemy, it was essential to study the conditions in which the afflicted persons lived and worked. This was a bold assertion meant to challenge the prevailing notion that all disease arose from imbalance or overabundance or underabundance of one of the four humors.
Paracelsus expressed great concern for the health of all people, high-caste and ordinary: “. . . to love the sick, each and all of them, more than if my own body were at stake.” This concern seems to have arisen when heworked among theminers of his native Einselden, alongside his father, as Paracelsus sought cures for “miner’s disease” (Noble, 1992). In his works, he admits to being different, claims the superiority of his knowledge and methodology over the ancients, and casts aspersions on the medical profession: “I for my part am ashamed of medicine, considering what an utter fraud it has come to be.” He pursued medical knowledge with the fervor of a zealot: “This is my vow:
To perfect my medical art and never to swerve from it so long as God grants me my office, and to oppose all false medicine and teachings” (Paracelsus, 1951).
He vigorously opposed the classical teachings and practices. Conventional “humoral” physicians of the 16th century were more concerned with the “accumulation of learning” than with treating disease. They were also more concerned, he asserted, with the unscrupulous accumulation of wealth:
Since such useless rabble befoul the art of medicine with their bungling, and seek nothing but their own profit, what can it avail that I admonish them to love? I for my part am ashamed of medicine, considering what an utter fraud it has come to be. (Paracelsus, 1951)
Medieval doctors concentrated on the learning collected in works by Galen, Avicenna, and other classical ancients. Contrary to the accepted canon of his time, Paracelsus, whose influences included Hippocrates, believed that finding the right way to cure an ailment or an infirmity was the physician’s paramount mission: “to love the sick, each and all of them, more than if my own body were at stake” and not “to administer any medication without understanding, nor to collect any money without earning it” (Paracelsus, 1951). In the 16th century these were bold, accusatory words, but Paracelsus was a bold man. That boldness—some then and now regard it as ego and audacity—moved him to break with tradition, seeking an effective method and useful knowledge on a combination of trial and error and wide-ranging testimony from almost any source he could enlist: “. . . wherever I went I eagerly and diligently investigated and sought after the tested and reliable arts of medicine. I went not only to the doctors, but also to barbers, bathkeepers, learned physicians, women, and magicians who pursue the art of healing” (Paracelsus, 1951).
He sought to understand Nature and the nature of its elements and essences. For the wisdom that he believed would result, he traveled widely:
Wisdom is a gift from God. Where he gives it, there should one seek it out . . . . For this I would prove through nature: he who would explore her, must tread her books with his feet. Scripture is explored through its letters; but nature from land to land. Every land is a leaf. Such is the Codex Naturae; thus must her leaves be turned. [Four Treatises (Paracelsus, 1996)]
His contemporaries may not have shared his sense of “experiment”: “Every experiment is like a weapon which must be used in its particular way: a spear to thrust, a club to strike. Experimenting requires a man who knows when to thrust and when to strike, each according to need and fashion” (Paracelsus, 1996). He felt that he learned “when to thrust and when to strike” by experiencing Nature directly and by inquiring of the people he met during his travels: “The book of Nature is that which the physician must read; and to do so he must walk over the leaves.” Moreover, Paracelsus’s ideas of scientia and experientia differed radically from their typical 16th century usages. “In a characteristic reversal of traditional social and intellectual categories, Paracelsus defined scientia as the ‘virtue present in natural objects,’ which the physician must ‘overhear’ and with which he must achieve union” (Smith, 1994). On this basis, he built the principle and raised to a new level of significance the theory that sense observation and experience can—must—provide the proof of the physician’s hypotheses. What he gleaned from his wide travels and conversations, if not seminal, also stands apart from the work of most other medieval scientists by virtue of its being very unusual and pioneering.
References to his personality and scientific contributions to modern medicine, modern chemistry, psychiatry, pharmacology, and toxicology have appeared in countless histories of science, science textbooks, scientific handbooks, and articles. According to the Web site http://www.paracelsian.com/paras.html:
He is considered the father of Toxicology. It was Paracelsus’s belief that it was not the substance that was toxic but the amount that was toxic. Paracelsus believed that everything, in excess, was potentially toxic. Conversely, he believed that certain substances such as arsenic, mercury, lead, etc. could be beneficial in the treatment of disease if administered in very small, controlled dosages.
This quotation contains the most often cited and most widely misunderstood bit of Paracelsean insight. Probably because the insight derived from an intuitive base rather than a modern experimental base, Paracelsus has not received credit for his understanding of dose response. He comprehended, applied, and wrote about hormesis, or the beneficial use of toxic substances in small doses, but he followed some rather bizarre ideas and reasoning to support his contention. On the one hand, he experimented successfully with low-dose applications of mercury to treat epilepsy; on the other hand, he claimed that the source of the epilepsy sprung from a bubble that ascended to the brain and burst there. Arndt-Schulz established an experimental basis for the phenomenon that Paracelsus contrived in his peculiar alchemical way.
Medical historians and others have connected his name with a wide range of therapies, procedures, and applications: electroconvulsive therapy (Yudofsky et al., 1991); homeopathy (Ullman, 1988), use of opium and laudanum as painkillers (Levinthal, 1988; Porter, 1996); and aromatherapy (Jacobs, 1996). Some commentaries, including the aforementioned study of pharmacology in nursing (Bergersen and Goth, 1979), credit him with pioneering work as a physician who revolted against the archaic practices of his contemporaries with clumsy, faltering, but remarkable application of dose–response principles (Magner, 1992). Others name him as the most significant individual force in the decline of alchemy and its cryptic mysteries (Barnes-Svarery, 1995).
Nonetheless Paracelsus’s writing about “poisons” and “dose” has captivated toxicologists and pharmacologists. The most widely quoted statement about the topic appeared in Paracelsus’s “Third” Defence Concerning the Description of the New Receipts,” published posthumously in 1564. The “Third” is one of seven defenses presented as replies to the accusations of Paracelsus’s enemies. These enemies are the medical establishment of his day, particularly the scholastic physicians and apothecaries. Paracelsus accused them of growing rich at the expense of the poor, of being narrow- and closed-minded, of making faulty diagnoses, and of lacking true knowledge and piety. The establishment, in its turn, questioned Paracelsus’s diagnoses, his itinerancy, his contentiousness, and his “poisonous” prescriptions.
C. Lilian Temkin translates the title “Sieben Defensiones, Verantwortung über etliche Verunglimpfungen seiner Mißgönner” as “Seven Defenses, the Reply to Certain Calumniations of His Enemies” (Paracelsus, 1996). Using a common rhetorical strategy of the epoch, Paracelsus refers to himself in the third person in this and other writings. His word choice may warrant a bit more stridency than Professor Temkin has given it in her translation. “Verantwortung,” for example, includes the sense of vindication and defensiveness, perhaps a vengeful reply. It might be used when matters of honor and reputation are questioned. “Verunglimpfungen” also expresses harsh connotations associated with defamation and disparagement. He aimed his barbs at physicians who “did not practice the right way”: “For what reason is the physician’s calling practised with so much stupidity and so little art, although he fancies himself so important and so superior” [Selected Writings (Paracelsus, 1951)]. In his defense he repeats his diatribe against the apothecaries:
Thus too come all the lazy and profligate rascals into medicine and sell their medicine, whether it makes sense or not. . . . Thus the apothecaries too and some barbers take medicine upon themselves, behave and carry on as though it were a woodcart, go into medicine against their own conscience, forget their own soul, if only they become rich, prepare house and home and all that belong in it, and dress it up. [Four Treatises (Paracelsus, 1996)]
“Calumniations” certainly fits the paranoiac quality one may sense in these defenses, suggesting that Paracelsus felt that he had been tricked or deceived and that his enemies were tricking and deceiving the public as well as his colleagues. By using “Mißgönner,” Paracelsus accusingly implies his feelings of envy and grudging recognition toward his enemies. Paracelsus’s appointment as professor in the University of Basel exemplifies the contentious nature of his career. The position began as a political reward for Paracelsus’s treatment of John Froben’s infected leg. Paracelsus recommended against amputation and saved the leg and the man, witnessed by Erasmus, who was a friend of Froben. Led by Erasmus, Froben’s associates secured the university position for Paracelsus, but many of the Basel faculty were not present to hear and consent to the appointment. Thus Paracelsus arrived somewhat “uninvited.” Further exacerbating the circumstances, Paracelsus began his tenure by immediately announcing his disfavor of the “scholastic” approach to medicine, his disdain for Avicenna and Galen (demigods of that epoch’s medical world), and his dislike for other traditions such as lecturing in Latin and closing lectures to barber–surgeons. A course of events that included Paracelsus publicly insulting a judge—a potential capital offense—led to Paracelsus’s flight from Basel after proving himself to be litigious and caustic to friends and enemies alike. All were in some way or another out to get him, he thought. All seemed to question his diagnoses and his prescriptions.
In his second defense, Paracelsus claims “authority” for making his unorthodox prescriptions. His tone and words leave no room for doubt that he sees himself as superior to others, an attitude that did not endear him to his peers:
To everyone it is given to speak to advise and to teach, but it is not given to everyone to speak and teach things of strength. For you know that the Gospel too testifies that when Christ taught, He spoke as One who had authority and not as the scribes and hypocrites. Such authority one should respect as proves itself with works, if one is incredulous of the word. [Four Treatises (Paracelsus, 1996, p. 17)]
The question of authority was a very important matter in Paracelsus’s era. Luther’s reform ideas included the notion of ad fontes (“back to the sources”), in other words going back to the biblical text rather than to the authority of the Pope and the Church and its clerics for knowledge and understanding and interpretation of the spiritual world. Similarly, the concept included going back to the Greek philosophers rather than relying on moderns for knowledge and understanding of the material world. So important and so widely accepted was this notion that such ancients as Avicenna and Galen were revered; memorizing and repeating their ideas and practices were regarded as the highest forms of medical ability. “During the sixteenth century an astonishing 590 editions of Galenic treatises appeared, the main publishing centers being Paris, Lyons, Venice and Basel” (Porter, 1997).
Paracelsus had been attacked for lack of respect for the medical establishment, for his slow diagnoses, for his itinerant habits, and for his lack of civility. Apothecaries despised him for questioning and exposing their money-mongering practices. Other physicians questioned his use of information drawn from ordinary people (midwives, shopkeepers and butchers, simple country-folk, and mine workers). Scholars rebuked him for his heresies, as exemplified by his burning books of the ancients, in particular Galen.
While it is true that Paracelsus paid attention to a variety of factors in treating individuals and that one of his considerations involved “dose,”modern readersmust be wary of equating his defensive comments with an exposition on dose–response protocols. For Paracelsus the idea of dose may be seen as theological rather than chemical:
Man consists of the four elements, not only—as some hold—because he has four tempers, but also because he partakes of the nature, essence, and properties of these elements. In him there lies the “young heaven,” that is to say, all the planets are part of man’s structure and they are the children of the “great heaven” which is their father. [Das Buch Paragranum (Paracelsus, 1996)]
Alchemists held this macrocosmic–microcosmic view of life quite commonly; for many of them their chief goal was to bring these two worlds into closer connection, in fact to restore the perfect impression the macrocosm had on the microcosm. The latter was believed to be the image and likeness of the former, after all. Further, he thought that all of creation emanates from God, even what appears to be negative or destructive from the human perspective:
Is not a mystery of nature concealed even in poison? . . . What has God created that He did not bless with some great gift for the benefit of man? Why then should poison be rejected and despised, if we consider not the poison but its curative virtue? . . . And who has composed the prescriptions of nature? Was it not God?
It is in this sense and context that Paracelsusmade the statement that has reverberated his reputation. For it was this topic more than any other accusation that generated the most controversy related to Paracelsus’s “new prescriptions.” His enemies alleged that Paracelsus used poison to treat his patients: “the use of inorganic, particularly metallic, elements in internal remedies was attacked as unnatural and poisonous . . .” (Paracelsus, 1996, p. 6). It is this allegation and the quarrels over this use of metals that provided the impetus for Paracelsus’s “third” defense. He opens that defense with a characteristic portrayal of the establishment as being composed of men of little understanding and knowledge of natural forces (Paracelsus, 1996, p. 21):
If you wish justly to explain each poison, what is there that is not poison? All things are poison, and nothing is without poison: the Dosis alone makes a thing not poison [emphasis added]. “Alle Ding sind Gift und nichts ohn Gift; alein die Dosis macht das ein Ding kein Gift ist.”
First, this quotation has received considerable attention and attained remarkable status among members of the scientific community. It appears here in its original German form with a fairly literal translation. Among its noteworthy features is the fact that it uses the word “Ding,” which means “thing;” it does not use element, substance, medicine. The vague generality of Paracelsus’s usage in this instance seems significant because Paracelsus was an alchemist with the alchemist’s typical mix of mystical and experiential ideas. Like other alchemists, Paracelsus believed that the “Great Work” involved both material and spiritual elements. “Alle Ding” includes the entire extent of “prima materia”: “The still undifferentiated primal substance . . . everything that is in or has returned to its original state, as well as the unconscious initial state of the soul before it has attained fulfillment, that is to say, ‘before the removal of its dross”’ (Paracelsus, 1951). All things are poison—yes; but all things contain an essence, the active good principle in them, often designated as their virtue or power known as their “essentia,” or essence. This “essentia” represented the opposing quality to their “poison.” As he wrote elsewhere [Die drei Bücher des Opus Paramirum (Paracelsus, 1951)], “There where diseases arise, there also can one find the roots of health. For health must grow from the same root as disease, and whither health goes, thither also disease must go.” Paracelsus also maintained the belief that several influences or entia governed humans’ bodies and could do violence to them: ens astorum, the influence of the stars; ens naturale, the natural constitution; and ens veneni, the influence of poison.
Also significant is the fact that the quotation emphasizes the inherent toxicity of all things. Most modern readers have inferred that Paracelsus meant something chemical. While it is true that Paracelsus recognized that “dosage” as quantity made a difference in efficacy, he comprehended this as a matter of balance or compensation. His medicine, his theology, involved the idea that “Each natural disease bears its own remedy within itself” and the principle that “Man has received from nature both the destroyer of health and the preserver of health.” Because God created the whole system, Paracelsus reasoned, it is a perfect system. It may fluctuate from its perfect balance, and when it does humans should try to restore it by searching the resources God has provided, that is, nature. Nature, in turn, also contains both good and bad; it is incumbent upon the physician to use an appropriate measure of Nature’s resource to achieve that stasis:
There is always some remedy, a herb against one, a stone against another, a mineral against one, a poison against another, a metal against one, something else against another.
Just as everything (“alle Ding”) contains its essence, everything contains its entia. Paracelsus experimented with dose; he studied degrees of exposure. He considered disease an organic quality rather than a matter of humoral balances. In writing about miners’ sickness, for example, he argued that “the sickness” arose in different ways depending on each miner’s degree of exposure and the kind of mining he did: “. . . those who work with iron succumb to the spirit of iron and those who work in fire with copper succumb to the copper spirit” (Paracelsus, 1996). It may seem very odd to modern eyes to see Paracelsus refer to the “copper spirit” and the “spirit of iron.” These references appear quaint and perhaps superstitious.
In addition to this sense of “spirit,” Paracelsus espoused the notion that all substances consisted of the four classic Greek elements—earth, air, fire, and water—as well as the three Arabic qualities—mercury, sulfur, and salt. Modern readers often misunderstand the former group by thinking of them as the substances they name. In fact they refer to the “essences” or inherent qualities of, for example, fire: volatility, heat, light, consumptiveness, etc. This explains why redheads have suffered the assumption of their having volatile tempers. To many alchemists the association of “red” with fire and a “hot temper” would have been an easy equation. This also explains why “eye of newt” appears in alchemical concoctions: the newt often being a ruddy-skinned creature could lend its “fiery” quality to a mixture.
The three qualities—mercury, sulfur, and salt—are common stumbling blocks of Paracelsus’s alchemical writings because in his writing they refer to qualities or “principles” as well as ordinary substances. Sulfur expressed the “spirit of gold” by reason of its color, and the “spirit of fire” because of its combustibility. In this respect, Paracelsus aligned with other alchemists: “. . . the fundamental thesis so different from our own is the conception that the essential and technically important thing in metals is not material but spiritual” (Hopkins, 1967). Although it may comfort us to know that Paracelsus held views similar to note of many of his contemporaries, the theories of alchemy are such a chaotic mass of ideas derived from so many sources and projected onto such a confused background of late medieval adaptations derived from classical and other works that compiling a clear set of systematic rules from them presents insurmountable problems. Furthermore, alchemists typically wrote their formulas and other notes with deliberate ambiguity. They rationalized this latter practice on the grounds that clear notes might provide an unscrupulous or careless practitioner the means to diabolically or inadvertently wreak havoc.
In spite of all the quaint arcanities, Paracelsus holds significance for us today as a representative figure. He stands as an emblem of the churning dynamics of his own times, while he inspires modern readers to pursue their investigations with passion and determination.
Although the exact date of Paracelsus’s birth remains uncertain (probably November 10, 1493), his epoch unquestionably evokes qualities of momentous proportions. Coincident with Paracelsus’s birth year, Columbus had returned from his first trans-Atlantic voyage and had already set sail for a second adventure. Leonardo DaVinci and Sandro Botticelli flourished as artists. The Treaty of Tordesillas, June 7, 1494, would provide impetus for European exploration, exploitation, and colonization of unparalleled scope and impact. Printing technology and applications had created the possibility of mass communication and wide exchanges of ideas, as well as shifts in the languages used for commerce and politics. Exploration, travel, and communication reached stunning levels by comparison with the levels of these activities in earlier eras.
The social climate varied considerably from town to town, but some qualities of social interaction, fashion, and civic interchange give us a sense of the common feelings of the time. The rapid increase in the number and frequency of markets suggests that the atmosphere was dynamic. “All news, political or otherwise, was passed on in the market. In 1534, the actions and intentions of Henry VIII were criticized aloud in the marketplace of Fakenham in Norfolk” (Braudel, 1979, II). Towns tried vigorously to control markets by regulating prices, participants, market days, and locations, but the demand for market exchanges of goods as well as the desire for social dialogue overwhelmed most of their efforts. Sixteenth-century European towns were usually defined by protectivewalls, sometimes moats too. Entrance by strangers required permission from authorities. Yet those in power could exert only so much power against the inevitable: “Traditional habits and customs were lost or smashed. Who would have thought that the belly of London or the belly of Paris would cause a revolution? Yet they did so simply by growing” (Braudel, 1979, II). Fashion trends indicate great fluctuations in the social milieu also, resulting in social classes blurring and blending.
The political and theological climate felt similar countercurrents through the writings and public acts of such distinctive characters as Martin Luther, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Loyola, and Copernicus. Although Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German marks a notable achievement, it is equally important to note that he did not have to stand alone. He completed his New Testament in September 1522, his complete Old and New Testaments in 1534. To accomplish this, he worked “in collaboration with a committee of colleagues” (Bainton, 1950). Luther’s courageous outcry against the weaknesses of the Church are well known. Yet in the midst of such efforts as Luther’s, much tradition maintained its stalwart position and sometimes stultifying influence. For example, Latin continued as the expected language of most scholarly intercourse and much internal politics. Maximilian I seemed proud to illustrate his pleadings with his troops in several languages; he had learned German as a child, Latin in school, Saxon and Czech from his subjects, French from his wife, Mary of Burgundy, and Flemish from the officials in the Netherlands. He added Spanish, Italian, and English to his linguistic repertoire by the necessities of diplomacy and military ventures. By 1526, faculty gave law lectures in London’s Inns of Court in English, and “according to statutes setting up Sir Thomas Gresham’s College in 1596, the Monday lecture on medicine was to be given in Latin in the morning and repeated in English in the afternoon because ‘the greatest part of the auditory is likely to be of such citizens and others as have small knowledge or none at all of the Latin tongue”’ (Hall, 1994). That Paracelsus raised the hackles of his colleagues at the University of Basel by lecturing in German probably had more to do with his insistence on wearing the alchemist’s apron rather than the scholar’s gown to address his students than with the scholarly inertia of his day: “For a peculiar collaboration between science and esoteric tradition was in fact the norm of the Renaissance, and played an indispensable role in the birth of modern science” (Tarnas, 1991). For thinkers and practitioners like Philippus Aureolus Bombastus Theophrastus Paracelsus von Hohenheim, the times offered remarkable challenges and opportunities.
In accomplishing these ends, Paracelsus exhibited what seems to be a characteristic temperament of the time. He shared a mystical religious outlook with his predecessor Roger Bacon (c. 1220–c. 1292) and hermeticist Giordano Bruno (1548– 1600), whose Spaccio de la bestia trionfante forecasted a universal moral and religious reform based upon alchemical principles. Paracelsus’s vision of the parallels between and in- fluences of the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosms of Earth and individual humans reflects his faith in the doctrine of signatures: “There is nothing that nature has not signed in such a way that man may discover its essence . . .. The same is true of man . . . . Man is endowed with a form corresponding to his inner nature” (Paracelsus, 1951):
Since man is a child of the cosmos, and is himself the microcosm, he must be begotten, each time anew, by his mother.
Besides the Neoplatonic and Pythagorean mathematical mysticism and Sun exaltation that ran through all the major Copernican astronomers, one finds Roger Bacon, the pioneer of experimental science whose work was saturated with alchemical and astrological principles. Giordano Bruno, the polymath esotericist, championed an infinite Copernican cosmos.
William Gilbert’s theory of the Earth’s magnetism rested on his proof that the world soul was embodied in that magnet.William Harvey believed his discovery of the circulation of the blood revealed the human body to be a microcosmic reflection of the Earth’s circulatory systems and the cosmos’s planetary motions. Descartes found support for his theories in an affiliation with mystical Rosicrucianism. Newton derived support from the Cambridge Platonists, and his belief that he worked within an ancient tradition of secret wisdom dates back to Pythagoras and beyond. Indeed the law of universal gravitation itself is modeled on the sympathies of Hermetic philosophy. The modernity of the Scientific Revolution was in many ways ambiguous (Tarnas, 1991).
It was a bold age, and Paracelsus was a bold character. His name, Theophrastus Bombastus Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus von Hohenheim, suggests a great deal about his character and manner. The name “Paracelsus,” like the man, derives from a variety of sources, or so we presume. Though it may mean “greater than Celsus,” its origin and meaning remain mysterious. Because Celsus, a first-century-A.D. Roman medical author, espoused the principles of health according to the humours, theories which von Hohenheim disdained and disputed, it would not have been out of character for the man or for others of his time to accept “Paracelsus” as an epithet for his superiority. Just as likely, “Paracelsus” may simply be the Greco-Roman transliteration of “Hohenheim”: “higher than the sky” or “beyond the sky.” In this sense, it may come from the common medieval practice of name augmentation. Such “an eke name,” a nickname in modern parlance, would probably have suited Paracelsus’s pride about himself and about his hometown Einselden, which he regarded as heaven (yet another way of translating “Hohenheim”). For the members of the Renaissance scientific establishment, this name could hold double annoyance. First, it would seem presumptuous in its self-aggrandizement; second, it would seem heretical in its devaluation of the ancients as authorities. But “Paracelsus,” which he may or may not have invented and used, is just part of the story.
His entire name is very long, probably the result of the gradual accretion of details about his life and contributions while he lived and after his death. About every part one finds a wide spectrum of opinion and speculation. Definitive information is scarcer. “Aureolus,” for example, suggests gold and glory, both common aspirations among alchemists. It also relates to a heavenly halo, which one from high heaven would wear. Just as plausibly and appropriate in Paracelsus’s case, it may refer to an individual with blond hair (a halo of hair on one with male pattern baldness). “Theophrastus” translates as “God’s words,” also an aspiration of medieval alchemists who valued the idealistic notion of The Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This parallels the Old Testament Bible concept of creation as presented in Genesis in which words (“Let there be light”) precede substance. Medieval alchemists, Paracelsus among them, perceived their ultimate mission as the restoration of the perfect state resulting from the succession of words uttered and then made manifest by the Judeo-Christian God. These alchemists put great stock in the power of words as means of connecting the spiritual with the material world.
Paracelsus may have given himself the appellation “Bombastus,” which stems from his rustic ancestry, being a variation of “Baumast,” a German word that relates to trees and their branches. Paracelsus thought of himself as a man of the people, and “Baumast” not only rings with his Germanic roots but also links him with the “Bauers,” who were builders, cultivators, and so on. However, some of his contemporaries may have applied the name as an expression of their disdaining judgment. The frequently outspoken Paracelsus caused many scandals, including one in which he asserted that “German was just as refined and dignified a language [as Latin]” (Hall, 1994).
On the surface, his name seems to indict him as a selfserving, insensitive, money-grubbing hand at the alchemical grindstone.However, the causes inspiring his investigations and his insistence on pursuingwhat his intuition and experience told him must be true emerged from deeper and unselfish roots:
This is why I expect thanks from no one. For my medical teaching will give rise to two parties. The first will befoul them; these are not of a breed to thank God or me, but rather will curse me wherever possible. The others will thrive so well that for sheer joy they will forget to thank me. This is the fate of the scientist . . . (Paracelsus, 1951).
He was shrewd and insightful, yet strange and fanciful. In his own time, his views made him an anathema to most of his contemporaries. In our time, his “experiments” simply do not stand up to the scientific scrutiny of laboratory replication and examination; his results cannot be “repeated, confirmed, refuted and indexed, independently” of him personally. However, from the world of alchemical arcana, now regarded as largely unscientific, he produced influential scientific insights that have profoundly impacted modern scientific and medical activity.
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