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Sources: 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

scientific truths.