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Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
THEOPHRASTUS BOMBASTUS VON HOHENHEIM, commonly known as Paracelsus, was
born in 1493 at Maria Einsiedeln, near Zurich, Switzerland. When he was
nine years old, his father, who was a reputable physician, removed his
residence to Carinthia. Paracelsus received instruction in chemistry
from the Abbot Trithemius, a Benedictine monk, and then investigated
mining methods, and learned the physical properties of minerals, ores,
and metals. He also studied at universities in France, Germany, and
Italy. Quite early in his career he developed a taste for a Bohemian
mode of life and is reported to have gained a livelihood by
psalm-singing, astrological prescriptions, chiromancy, and even by the
practice of the Black Art. He was also keen in acquiring information
about popular remedies and nostrums, from travelling mountebanks,
barbers, old women, and pretenders of all kinds. In 1526 he was
appointed Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the
University in Basle. Here he taught doctrines of his own, denouncing the
prevailing tenets of Medical Science, as derived from the ancients, and
claiming for himself a supremacy over all other teachers and writers.
According to his view, Philosophy, Astrology, Alchemy and Virtue were
the four pillars of Medicine. It is a problem how to reconcile his
ignorance, his weakness and superstition, his crude notions and
erroneous observations, his ridiculous inferences and theories, with his
grasp of method, his lofty views of the true scope of Medicine, his
lucid statements, his incisive and epigrammatic criticisms of men and
motives. After remaining at Basle for about a year, he resumed
his wanderings, frequenting taverns and spending whole nights in
carousals, with the lowest company. Paracelsus believed that it was
reserved for him to indicate the right path to the medical practitioners
of his day. In carrying out this idea, he exhibited such colossal
conceit, and indulged in such virulent abuse of his medical brethren,
that he became the object of their hatred and persecution.
According to his doctrine, man is a little world or microcosm, and in
him are represented all the elements which are to be found in the great
world or macrocosm. Some diseases, he averred, require earthy remedies,
others aqueous or atmospheric, and still others, igneous. Paracelsus was
thoroughly imbued with the cabalistic theories prevalent in his time,
and traced analogies between the stars and various portions of the human
body. His fame as the greatest of charlatans appears to have been due in
large measure to his influence over the popular imagination by the magic
power of high-sounding words, which were mostly beyond the comprehension
of his hearers. His teachings have been aptly described as a system of
dogmatic and fantastic pseudo-philosophy. The following quotation may
serve as an illustration.
All these recipes which are prepared for elemental diseases,
consist of six things, two of which are from the planets, two
from the elements, and two from narcotics. For although they
can be composed of three things, one out of each being taken,
yet these are too weak for healing purposes. Now there are two
which derive from the planets, because they conciliate and
correct medicine; two derive from the elements, in order that
the grade of the disease may be overcome. Lastly, two are from
the narcotics, because the four parts already mentioned are
too weak of themselves to expel a disease before the crisis.
Observe then, concerning composition, to forestall the
critical day. Recipes prepared in this manner, are very
helpful for diseases in all degrees of acuteness.
Paracelsus was the first to promulgate the theory of the existence of
magnetic properties in the human body, maintaining that the latter was
endowed with a double magnetism, of which one portion attracted to
itself the planets, and was nourished by them; whence came wisdom,
thought, and the senses. The other portion attracted to itself the
elements; whence came flesh and blood. He also asserted that the
attractive and hidden virtue of man resembles that of amber and of the
magnet, and that this virtue may be employed by healthy persons for the
cure of disease in others. Thus probably originated the idea which
developed into Animal Magnetism, and from it Anton Mesmer is said to
have derived inspiration some two hundred years later. Paracelsus died
at Salzburg, Austria, in 1541.
In the words of that eminent English divine, Thomas Fuller (1608-1661),
Paracelsus boasted of more than he could do, did more cures seemingly
than really, more cures really than lawfully, of more parts than
learning, of more fame than parts, a better physician than a man, and a
better chirurgeon than physician.
Paracelsus was a very prince among quacks, for probably no man ever
talked more loudly and ostentatiously or made vainer pretensions. He was
emphatically a knavish practitioner of medicine, a master of the art of
puffery, and was phenomenally successful in achieving notoriety.
Whatever his natural talent may have been, says Edward Meryon,
M.D., he placed himself in the category with those of the same
nature, who have ever been ready to purchase this world's riches at the
ruinous price of character and reputation.
The system of Paracelsus was founded upon mysticism and fanaticism of
the grossest kind. The chief aim of his doctrine was the blending of
mysticism and therapeutics, and the creation thereby of a false science,
wherewith he sought to exert an influence over the ignorant classes.
According to the cabalistic doctrine, the various events of life and all
natural phenomena are due to influences exerted by gods, devils, and the
stars. Each member and principal organ of the human body was supposed to
correspond with some planet or constellation. Similar foolish ideas were
widely prevalent, especially in Germany. Paracelsus was an ignoramus,
who affected to despise all the sciences, because of his lack of
knowledge of them. While prating much about divine light as the source
of all learning and culture, his boorish mien and rude manners afforded
evidence that he did not profit much by its happy influence.
The Paracelsians maintained that life is a perpetual germinative
process, controlled by the archaeus or vital force, which was supposed
to preside over all organic phenomena. The principal archaeus was
believed to have its residence in the stomach, but subordinates guarded
the interests of the other important bodily organs.
Nature was sufficient for the cure of the majority of ills. But when
the internal physician, the man himself, was tired or incapable, some
remedy had to be applied, which should antagonize the spiritual seed of
the disease. Such remedies, known as arcana, were alleged to
possess marvellous efficiency, but their composition was kept secret.
That is to say, they were quack medicines.
Paracelsus maintained that a man who, by abstraction of all sensuous
influences, and by child-like submission to the will of God, has made
himself a partaker of the heavenly intelligence, becomes thereby
possessed of the philosopher's stone. He is never at a loss. All
creatures on earth and powers in heaven are submissive to him; he can
cure all diseases, and can himself live as long as he chooses, for he
holds the elixir of life, which Adam and the early fathers employed
before the Flood, and by which they attained to great longevity.
The philosopher's stone, known also as the great elixir, or the red
tincture, when shaken in very small quantity into melted silver, lead
or other metal, was said to transmute it into gold. In minute doses it
was supposed to prolong life and restore youth, and was then called
elixir vitae. Says Ben Jonson in "The Alchemist" (1610), "He
that has once the Flower of the Sun, the perfect Ruby which we call
Elixir . . . by its virtue can confer honour, love, respect, long
life; give safety, valour, yea and victory, to whom he will. In eight
and twenty days he'll make an old man of fourscore a child."
Paracelsus was foremost among a group of extraordinary characters, who
claimed to be the representatives of science at the close of the Middle
Ages. These men were of a bold, inquisitive temper, and with all their
faults, they had a noble thirst for knowledge. "Better the wildest
guess-work, than that perfect torpor which follows the parrot-like
repetition of the words of a predecessor!" These irregular
practitioners, however impetuous and ill-balanced, were pioneers in
opening up new fields of investigation, and in exploring new paths,
which facilitated the progress of their successors in the search for
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