Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), more commonly known as Paracelsus,
is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Renaissance medicine
(our word, "bombastic," comes from his name). A medical reformer and prophetic
writer, Paracelsus may have taken a medical degree at the University of Ferrara,
though the record is ambiguous about whether he ever graduated. We know that
he worked as a military surgeon in northern Italy, possibly traveling as far
as north as Scandinavia and to parts of the Middle East. But he spent most
of his life in the German-speaking regions of Europe, especially Switzerland
(where he worked briefly as a town physician in Basel, enraging his fellow
physicians), Austria and Bohemia. Deeply influenced by the German Reformation,
which began with Martin Luther's attack on the Roman Catholic Church in 1517,
Paracelsus has often been called the "Luther of medicine"; though he remained
a Catholic all of his life, his religious as well as medical views were highly
unorthodox and controversial. In essence, Paracelsus advocated for a more
chemical (alchemical) medicine that restored a proper balance between the
microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (the universe he inhabited). The excerpts
below will give you some sense of how Paracelsus saw his ideas about healing,
faith and knowledge in relation to ancient medical authorities and to contemporary
medicine in his own day.
Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), more commonly known as Paracelsus, is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Renaissance medicine (our word, "bombastic," comes from his name). A medical reformer and prophetic writer, Paracelsus may have taken a medical degree at the University of Ferrara, though the record is ambiguous about whether he ever graduated. We know that he worked as a military surgeon in northern Italy, possibly traveling as far as north as Scandinavia and to parts of the Middle East. But he spent most of his life in the German-speaking regions of Europe, especially Switzerland (where he worked briefly as a town physician in Basel, enraging his fellow physicians), Austria and Bohemia. Deeply influenced by the German Reformation, which began with Martin Luther's attack on the Roman Catholic Church in 1517, Paracelsus has often been called the "Luther of medicine"; though he remained a Catholic all of his life, his religious as well as medical views were highly unorthodox and controversial. In essence, Paracelsus advocated for a more chemical (alchemical) medicine that restored a proper balance between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (the universe he inhabited). The excerpts below will give you some sense of how Paracelsus saw his ideas about healing, faith and knowledge in relation to ancient medical authorities and to contemporary medicine in his own day.
PARACELSUS: ESSENTIAL READINGS
Selected and translated by
DAS BUCH PARAGRANUM (1529-30)
They reproach me that my writings are not like theirs; that is the fault of their understanding, not my fault, for my writings are well rooted in experiment and evidence and will send forth their young shoots when the right May-time comes. They have good cause to complain of my writings, for no one cries out unless he is hurt; no one is hurt unless he is sensitive, unless he is transient and impermanent. They cry out because their art is fragile and mortal; what is not mortal does not cry out, thus they are mortal and they cry out against me. The art of medicine does not cry out against me, for it is immortal and set upon such an eternal foundation that heaven and earth shall be shattered before medicine perishes. So long as I am at peace with medicine, why should the outcry of a mortal physician upset me. They cry out because I wound them; it is a sign they themselves are sick in their medicine; this disease is their struggle against me, because they are not pleased to be discovered and exposed.
Their worst contention against me is that I do not come out of their schools, nor write out of their learning. If I wrote in such a way, how should I escape punishment for lying, for the old writings are manifestly false. What, then, can come out of them but falsehood? If I want to write the truth about their medicine, about their students, masters, and preceptors, there would have to some common ground uniting them, for they are all shouting out what medicine is, and their outcry needs to be exposed just as much as their art. So, if I attempt to write the truth about them, I must point out those bases upon which true medicine stands, in order that people may judge whether I have authority to write or not.
And because I write from the true source of medicine, I must be rejected, and you who are born neither of the true origin nor of the true heredity must adhere to the spurious art which raises itself beside the true. Who is there amongst the instructed who would not prefer what is grounded on a rock to what is grounded on sand? Only the abandoned academic drunkards who bear the name of doctor must suffer no deposition! They abide, painted doctors, and if they were not painted with this title, who would recognize them? Their works would certainly not reveal them. Outwardly they are beautiful, inwardly they are squalid dunces. What instructed and experienced man desires a doctor who is only an outward show? None. Only the simpletons desire him. What, then, is the origin of that medicine which no instructed man desires, from which no Philosophy issues, in which no Astronomy can be noted, in which no Alchemy is practised, and in which there is no vestige of Virtue? And because I point out these things essential in a physician, I must needs have my name changed by them to Cacophrastus, when I am really called Theophrastus, both for my art's sake and by my christening.
Understand then thoroughly that I am expounding the basics of medicine upon which I stand and will stand: namely, Philosophy, Astronomy, Alchemy, and Virtue. The first pillar, Philosophy, is the knowledge of earth and water; the second pillar, Astronomy together with Astrology, has a complete knowledge of the two elements, air and fire; the third pillar, Alchemy, is knowledge of the experiment and preparation of the four elements mentioned; and the fourth pillar, Virtue, should remain with the physician until death, for this completes and preserves the other three pillars. And note well, for you too must enter here and come to understand the three pillars, otherwise it will be known by the very peasants in the villages that your trade is to treat princes and lords, towns and countries through lies and deception only and that you know neither your trade nor the truth, for the education which prepares you fits you for fools and hypocrites, all you supposed physicians. And as I take the four pillars, so must you take them too and follow after me, not I after you.
Follow after me, Avicenna, Galen, Rhasis, Montagnana, Mesue, etc. Follow after me, and not I after you, you from Paris, you from Montpellier, you from Swabia, you from Meissen, you from Cologne, you from Vienna and from the Danube, the Rhine, and the islands in the sea. Italy, Dalmatia, Sarmatia, Athens, Greek, Arab, Israelite, follow me and not I you. Not one of you will survive, even in the most distant corner, where even the dogs will not piss. I shall be monarch and mine will be the monarchy.
There are three substances which give every single thing its body. The names of these three things are Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt. These three are combined to make a body and nothing else is added save life and that which pertains to it. If you take an object in your hand, you have these three substances concealed within one body. A peasant can tell you that you are holding a piece of wood, but you also know that you have a compound of Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt. If you have a bone and can say whether it is mostly Sulphur, Mercury, or Salt,, you know why it is diseased or what is the matter with it. The peasant can see the externals, but the physicians task is to see the inner and secret matter. In order to make these things visible, Nature must be compelled to show itself.... Take a piece of wood. It is a body. Now burn it. The flammable part is the Sulphur, the smoke is the Mercury, and the ash is the Salt. The peasant cannot understand the process of combustion, but the physician can with the eyes of medicine.
What is the taste other than a need in the anatomy in which nothing is important except to reach its own like? It follows that as this gustus [taste] is distributed to every member in the body, each desires its own like, the sweet desires the sweet, the bitter desires the bitter, each in its degree and measure, as those held by the plants sweet, sour, and bitter. Shall the liver seek medicine in gentian, agaric, or colocynth? No. Shall the gallbladder seek medicine in manna, honey, sugar, or the polypody fern? No, for like seeks its like. Nor in the order of anatomy shall cold be a cure for heat, nor heat for cold. It would be a wild disorder if we were to seek our cure in contraries. A child asks his father for bread and he does not give him a snake. God has created us and he gives us what we ask, not snakes. So it would be bad medicine to give bitters where sugar is required. The gall -bladder must have what it asks, and the heart too, and the liver. It is a fundamental pillar upon which the physician should rest to give to each part of the anatomy the special thing that accords with it. For the bread which the child eats has an anatomy similar to his own, and the child eats as it were his own body. Therefore each sickness in the anatomy must have its own corresponding medicine. He who does not understand the anatomy finds it difficult to act if he be honest and simple; but it is worse with those whose honour is small and whom shame and crime do not trouble. They are the enemies of the light of Nature.... What blind man asks for bread from God and receives poison? If you are experienced and grounded in anatomy you will not give stones instead of bread. For know that you are the father rather than the physician of your patients: therefore feed them as a father does his child. As a father must support his child according to his need and must give him the food which becomes himself, so must the physician care for his patients.
Christ who is the Truth has given us no false remedy but one that is compatible and arcane. For far be it from us to say that Christ knew not the sympathy of Nature. Therefore oil and wine must be competent, else there is no foundation in medicine.... Let it be manifest to you that a grain of wheat yields no fruit unless it be cast into the ground and die there. Thus the wound is the earth, and the oil and wine the grain. You must guess what the fruit is.
There are three anatomies which should be maintained in man: first localis , which tells us form, propositions, substance of a man and all that pertains to him; the second shows the living Sulphur, the flowing Mercury, the sharp Salt in each organ; and the third instructs us what kind of anatomy death brings, that is mortis anatomia, and in what manner and likeness he comes. For the light of Nature shows that death comes in as many forms as there are species from the elements; there are as many kinds of death as there are kinds of corruption. And just as each corruption gives birth to another, it requires anatomy. It comes in many forms until one after another we all die and are consumed through corruption. But beyond all these anatomies, there is also a uniform science in the anatomy of medicine, and beyond them all stand heaven, earth, water, and air, and the heavens and all the stars have their part in the new anatomy. For Saturn must give his saturnum, Mars his martem, and until these are discovered, the art of medicine has not been found. For as the tree grows out of the seed, so must all that seems now invisible grow into new life, for it is there, and it must come to pass that it shall be visible. For the light of Nature is a light to make men see and it is neither dark nor dim.
And it must come to pass that we shall use our eyes in that light to see those things that we require to see. They will not be otherwise than they are now; but we must be otherwise able to see them. We must see in a different manner to the peasant. The light of Nature must kindle our eyes.
All our nourishment becomes ourselves; we eat ourselves into being. So also in medicine, with this difference, that the treatment must match the disease. In health all that is worn out is restored to each organ by and in itself. Do not be astonished at this: a tree which stands in the field would not be a tree, had it no nourishment. What is nourishment? It is not a mere feeding or stuffing, but the restoration of form. What is hunger? It is a precursor of future death in the waste of the organs. For the form is carved by God himself in the womb. This carving abides in the form of each type, but it wastes and dies without addition from without. He who does not eat does not grow, he who does not eat does not last. Therefore he who grows, grows by nourishment, and the shaper is with him to give form, and without it he cannot exist. Whence it follows that the nourishment of each careen type has the form within itself in which it grows and develops. Rain has the tree in itself, and so has the earth sap. Rain is the drink, earth sap the food, by which the tree grows. What is it that grows? What the tree absorbs from rain and earth sap becomes wood and bark. The shaper is in the seed, wood and bark are in the earth sap and the rain. The craftsman in the seed can make wood out of these two things. And it is the same with plants; the seed is nothing but a beginning in which is the form and the craftsman, the type and property. If it is to germinate, the rain, dew, and earth sap must develop the plant, for in these are the stalks, leaves, flowers, and so on.
There must therefore be an outward form in all nourishment for growth, and if we do not receive it, we never grow but die in the neglected form. And if we are grown up, we must preserve our form, lest it waste away. For we have in us what resembles fire, which consumes our form. If we did not supply and support the form of our body, it would die neglected. Therefore what we eat becomes ourselves so that we do not die through the decay of our form. In this way we eat our fingers, our body, blood, flesh, feet, brain, heart, and so on. For every bite we take contains in itself all our organs, all that is included in the whole man, all of which he is constituted . . . When summer is at hand, the trees become hungry because they want to put forth leaves, blossom, fruit. They have not got these within themselves, otherwise trees that were cut down would put forth leaves as well as those still standing. They stand in the earth whence they receive these things into their own form, where the craftsmen shapes them according to the kind of each; that is his contribution. Know therefore that in order to preserve their form and type from being consumed, all living things become hungry and thirsty.
There are two men, visible and invisible. That which is visible is twofold, namely, like the body in this example. An image is carved out of wood, in which it could not be originally discerned. This is the nourishment, which once in the body goes into all its organs. It does not remain in one part, but is richly used. For the great Artist carves it, He who makes man, and distributes to the organs so as to make man. Now we know that we eat ourselves; every tree and every creature that lives, and we must now learn further what follows from this concerning medicine. We do not eat bone, blood vessels, ligaments, and seldom brain, heart, and entrails, nor fat; therefore bone does not make bone, nor brain brain, but every bite contains all these. Bread is blood, but who sees it? It is fat, who sees it? For the master-craftsman in the stomach is good. He can make iron out of brimstone; he is there daily and shapes the man according to his form. He can make diamonds out of salt, and gold out of mercury. He is more concerned with man than with things, so he labours at him in all that is necessary. Bring him the material, let him divide it and shape it as it should be, for he knows the measure, number, weight, proportion, length and all. Know then that every creature is twofold, one out of the seed, the other out of nourishment.... He has death within himself, and through nourishment he must hold it at bay.
The body is developed from Sulphur, that is, the whole body is one Sulphur, and that a subtle Sulphur which burns and destroys invisibly. Blood is one Sulphur, flesh is another, the major organs another, the marrow another, and so on; and this Sulphur is volatile. But the different bones are also Sulphur, only their Sulphur is fixed: in scientific analysis each Sulphur can be distinguished. Now the stiffening of the body comes from Salt: without the Salt no part of the body could be grasped. From Salt the diamond receives its hard texture, iron its hardness, lead its soft texture, alabaster its softness, and so on. All stiffening or coagulation comes from Salt. There is therefore one Salt in the bones, another in the blood, another in the flesh, another in the brain, and so on. For as many as there are Sulphurs there are also Salts. The third substance of the body is Mercury; which is a fluid. All parts of the body have their own fluid: thus the blood has one, the flesh has another, the bones, the marrow, each has its own fluid, which is Mercury. So that Mercury has as many forms as Sulphur and Salt. But since roan must have a complete form, its various parts must compact, stiffen, and have a fluid: the three form and unite one body. It is one body but of three substances. Sulphur burns, it is only a sulphur; Salt is an alkali, for it is fixed; Mercury is a vapour, for it does not burn but evaporates. Know then that all dissolution arises from these three.
The three substances are in the four elements, or mothers of all things; for out of the elements proceed all things: from earth come plants, trees, and all their varieties; from water, metals, stones, and all minerals; from the air, dew and manna; from fire, thunder, rays of light, snow, and rain. And when the microcosm is broken up, part becomes earth, and so wonderful that in a brief time it bears the fruits whose seed has been sown therein, and this the physician should know. Out of the broken body, too, comes the second element, water; and as water is the mother of the minerals, the alchemist can compound rubies out of it. And the dissolution also gives the third element, fire, from which hail can be drawn. And air too ascends from the rising spirit, just as dew forms inside a closed glass. Many have begun to treat of this generation of creation, but they have failed. There is another transmutation after these, and it yields every kind of Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury which the microcosmic world can demonstrate. This is very important, for it concerns man's quest for health, his water of life, his Philosopher's Stone, his arcanum, his balsam, his golden drink, and the like. All these things are in the microcosm; just as they are in the outer world, they are in the inner world.
Therefore man is his own physician; for as he helps Nature she gives him what he needs, and gives him his herbal garden according to the requirements of his anatomy. If we consider and observe all things fundamentally we discover that in ourselves is our physician and in our own nature are all things that we need. Take our wounds: what is needed for the healing of wounds? Nothing except that the flesh should grow from within outwards, not from the outside inwards. Therefore the treatment of wounds is a defensive treatment, that no contingency from without may hinder our nature in its working. In this way our nature heals itself and levels and fills up itself, as surgery teaches the experienced surgeon. For the mumia is the man himself, the mumia is the balsam which heals the wound: mastic, gums, glaze will not give a morsel of flesh; but they can protect the working of Nature so as to assist it.
Since man derives from the limbus and the limbus is the whole world, it follows that each several thing finds its like in the other. For were man not made out of the whole in every part of the whole, he could not be the microcosm. nor would he be capable of attracting to himself all that is the macrocosm. But as he is made out of the whole, all that he eats out of the Great World is part of himself for he must be maintained by that of which he is made. For as a son is born from his father and no one helps the son so naturally as the father, in the same way the curative members of the outer world help the members of the inner world. For the Great World has all the human proportions, divisions, parts, members just as man has; and man receives these in food and medicine. These parts are separated one from another for the sake of the whole and its form. In science their general body is the physicum corpus. So man's body receives the body of the world, as a son his father's blood; for these are one blood and one body, separated only by the soul, but in science without separation. It follows then that heaven and earth, air and water are a man in science, and man is a world with heaven and earth, air and water in science. So the Saturn of the microcosm receives from Saturn in the heavens, as the Jupiter of the heavens takes from the Jupiter of the microcosm. The melissa of the earth takes from the melissa of the microcosm . . . and they are all in union. Therefore heaven and earth, air and water are one substance, not four, nor two, nor three, but one. Where they are not in union, the substance has been destroyed or broken up.
We must therefore understand that when we administer medicine, we administer the whole world: that is, all the virtue of heaven and earth, air and water. Because if there is sickness in the body, all the healthy organs must fight against it, not only one, but all. For one sickness can be death to them all: note how Nature struggles against sickness with all her power. Therefore your medicine must contain the whole firmament of both upper and lower spheres. Think with what energy Nature strives against death when she takes heaven and earth with all their powers to help her. So too must the soul. fight against the devil with all her might .... Nature has a horror of cruel and bitter death, which our eyes cannot sec, nor our hands clutch. But Nature sees and knows and clutches him: therefore she employs the powers of heaven and earth against the terrible one, for terrible he is and monstrous, hideous, and harsh. As he who made him, Christ on the Mount of Olives, who sweated blood and prayed to his Father to take him away -- it is reasonable that Nature should be appalled. For the better death is known, the greater is the value of medicine, a refuge which the wise seek.