Charles Mackay (1814-1889), from Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds


This philosopher, called by Naude, "the zenith and rising sun of all the alchymists," was born at Einsiedeln, near Zurich, in the year 1493. His true name was Hohenheim; to which, as he himself informs us, were prefixed the baptismal names of Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastes Paracelsus. The last of these he chose for his common designation while he was yet a boy; and rendered it, before he died, one of the most famous in the annals of his time. His father, who was a physician, educated his son for the same pursuit. The latter was an apt scholar, and made great progress. By chance the work of Isaac Hollandus fell into his hands, and from that time he became smitten with the mania of the philosopher's stone. All his thoughts henceforth were devoted to metallurgy; and he travelled into Sweden that he might visit the mines of that country, and examine the ores while they yet lay in the bowels of the earth. He also visited Trithemiusat the monastery of Spannheim, and obtained instructions from him in the science of alchymy. Continuing his travels, he proceeded through Prussia and Austria into Turkey, Egypt, and Tatary, and thence returning to Constantinople, learned, as he boasted, the art of transmutation, and became possessed of the elixir vitae. He then established himself as a physician in his native Switzerland at Zurich, and commenced writing works upon alchymy and medicine, which immediately fixed the attention of Europe. Their great obscurity was no impediment to their fame; for the less the author was understood, the more the demonologists, fanatics, and philosopher's-stone-hunters seemed to appreciate him. His fame as a physician kept pace with that which he enjoyed as an alchymist, owing to his having effected some happy cures by means of mercury and opium; drugs unceremoniously condemned by his professional brethren. In the year 1526, he was chosen Professor of Physics and Natural Philosophy in the University of Basle, where his lectures attracted vast numbers of students. He denounced the writings of all former physicians as tending to mislead; and publicly burned the works of Galen and Avicenna, as quacks and impostors. He exclaimed, in presence of the admiring and half-bewildered crowd, who assembled to witness the ceremony, that there was more knowledge in his shoestrings than in the writings of these physicians. Continuing in the same strain, he said all the universities in the world were full of ignorant quacks; but that he, Paracelsus, over flowed with wisdom. "You will all follow my new system," said he, with furious gesticulations, "Avicenna, Galen, Rhazis, Montagnana, Meme -- you will all follow me, ye professors of Paris, Montpellier, Germany, Cologne, and Vienna! and all ye that dwell on the Rhine and the Danube -- ye that inhabit the isles of the sea; and ye also, Italians, Dalmatians, Athenians, Arabians, Jews -- ye will all follow my doctrines, for I am the monarch of medicine!"

But he did not long enjoy the esteem of the good citizens of Basle. It is said that he indulged in wine so freely, as not unfrequently to be seen in the streets in a state of intoxication. This was ruinous for a physician, and his good fame decreased rapidly. His ill fame increased in still greater proportion, especially when he assumed the airs of a sorcerer. He boasted of the legions of spirits at his command; and of one especially, which he kept imprisoned in the hilt of his sword. Wetterus, who lived twenty-seven months in his service, relates that he often threatened to invoke a whole army of demons, and show him the great authority which he could exercise over them. He let it be believed, that the spirit in his sword had custody of the elixir of life, by means of which he could make any one live to be as old as the antediluvians. He also boasted that he had a spirit at his command, called "Azoth," whom he kept imprisoned in a jewel; and in many of the old portraits he is represented with a jewel, inscribed with the word "Azoth," in his hand.

If a sober prophet has little honour in his own country, a drunken one has still less. Paracelsus found it at last convenient to quit Basle, and establish himself at Strasbourg. The immediate cause of this change of residence was as follows: -- A citizen lay at the point of death, and was given over by all the physicians of the town. As a last resource Paracelsus was called in, to whom the sick man promised a magnificent recompence, if by his means he were cured. Paracelsus gave him two small pills, which the man took and rapidly recovered. When he was quite well, Paracelsus sent for his fee; but the citizen had no great opinion of the value of a cure which had been so speedily effected. He had no notion of paying a handful of gold for two pills, although they had saved his life, and he refused to pay more than the usual fee for a single visit. Paracelsus brought an action against him, and lost it. This result so exasperated him, that he left Basle in high dudgeon. He resumed his wandering life, and travelled in Germany and Hungary, supporting himself as he went on the credulity and infatuation of all classes of society. He cast nativities -- told fortunes -- aided those who had money to throw away upon the experiment, to find the philosopher's stone -- prescribed remedies for cows and pigs, and aided in the recovery of stolen goods. After residing successively at Nuremburg, Augsburg, Vienna, and Mindelheim, he retired in the year 1541 to Saltzbourg, and died in a state of abject poverty in the hospital of that town.

If this strange charlatan found hundreds of admirers during his life, he found thousands after his death. A sect of Paracelsists sprang up in France and Germany, to perpetuate the extravagant doctrines of their founder upon all the sciences, and upon alchymy in particular. The chief leaders were Bodenstein and Dorneus. The following is a summary of his doctrine, founded upon supposed existence of the philosopher's stone; it is worth preserving from its very absurdity, and altogether unparalleled in the history of philosophy:-- First of all, he maintained that the contemplation of the perfection of the Deity sufficed to procure all wisdom and knowledge; that the Bible was the key to the theory of all diseases, and that it was necessary to search into the Apocalypse to know the signification of magic medicine. The man who blindly obeyed the will of God, and who succeeded in identifying himself with the celestial intelligences, possessed the philosopher's stone -- he could cure all diseases, and prolong life to as many centuries as he pleased; it being by the very same means that Adam and the antediluvian patriarchs prolonged theirs. Life was an emanation from the stars -- the sun governed the heart, and the moon the brain. Jupiter governed the liver, Saturn the gall, Mercury the lungs, Mars the bile, and Venus the loins. In the stomach of every human being there dwelt a demon, or intelligence, that was a sort of alchymist in his way, and mixed, in their due proportions, in his crucible, the various aliments that were sent into that grand laboratory the belly. 1 He was proud of the title of magician, and boasted that he kept up a regular correspondence with Galen from hell; and that he often summoned Avicenna from the same regions to dispute with him on the false notions he had promulgated respecting alchymy, and especially regarding potable gold and the elixir of life. He imagined that gold could cure ossification of the heart, and, in fact, all diseases, if it were gold which had been transmuted from an inferior metal by means of the philosopher's stone, and if it were applied under certain conjunctions of the planets. The mere list of the works in which he advances these frantic imaginings, which he called a doctrine, would occupy several pages.


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1 See the article "Paracelsus," by the learned Renaudin, in the "Biographie Universelle."

The X-files episode 4x05 - "The Field Where I Died" starts out with Mulder standing in a grassy field and reading some lines from a poem, thus:

...at times I almost dream
I, too, have spent a life the sages' way,
And tread once more familiar paths. Perchance
I perished in an arrogant self-reliance
Ages ago; and in that act, a prayer
For one more chance went up so earnest, so
Instinct with better light let in by death,
That life was blotted out-not so completely
But scattered wrecks enough of it remain,
Dim memories, as now, when once more seems
The goal in sight again...

This turns out to be a quote from a very long (several thousand lines) poem by Robert Browning called Paracelsus. The original passage that Mulder reads is quoted below:

For me, I estimate their works and them
So rightly, that at times I almost dream
I too have spent a life the sages' way.
And tread once more familiar paths. Perchance
I perished in an arrogant self-reliance
Ages ago; and in that act, a prayer
For one more chance went up so earnest, so
Instinct with better light led in by death,
That life was blotted out--not so completely
But scattered wrecks enough of it remain,
Dim memories, as now, when once more seems
The goal in sight again. All which, indeed,
Is foolish, and only means--the flesh I wear,
The earth I tread, are not more clear to me
Than my belief, explained to you or no.

Paracelsus was born near Zurich in 1493. His father was a country physician with an interest in alchemy which he shared with his son, who would later become the first proponent and theorist of iatrochemistry.

Paracelsus left home to study when he was 14, and traveled widely as a student and later as a roaming physician. It is certain that he studied for some time with Johannes Trithemius, and also that he held a high opinion of himself, particularly in comparison with the academics and academic physicians for whom he often expressed a scathing and witty contempt. His abrasive demeanor and rash temper caused him to lose position after position, and stay on the move. He died in 1541 in Salzburg. Though he was well enough known to be a controversial figure, few of his writings were published while he was alive.

After his death, Paracelsus' writings came to be widely published, and a school of sympathetic thinkers coalesced around his work. The Paracelsians extended Paracelsus' antipathy for academia into their articulation of natural philosophy, and rejected the dominant Aristotelian paradigm as antiquated theory constructed of paganism, strange mathematics, and philosophical baling wire. This rejection of Aristotelian thought led quite naturally to their concurrent rejection of Galen. This picture is not held unequivocally by historians, however, some of whom envision Paracelsian thought as a synergy of Galenic theory (appropriated in a kind of hostile take-over, but appropriated rather than rejected nonetheless) and medieval German mysticism. There is textual foundation for this interpretation as well, as it appears that Paracelsus (while firmly committed to integrating Reformationist theology with his science) was actively engaged in alchemical and magical study - and may have even thought of himself as a kind of magus.

Paracelsus' characteristic refusal to participate in neat self-compartmentalization extended to his practice of speaking in scathing terms about Aristotelians and Galenists while retaining some aspects of their philosophy to bulwark his own. Whether or not these acts of concurrent acceptance and rejection constitute a coherent program of response to his ancients and contemporaries is debatable, but it was certainly a common enough trope in his work. For example, his generally negative assessment of mediaeval alchemists sits strangely with his use of Rupescissian and Lullian methods for extracting quintessence, or ethyl alcohol, from various substances. Paracelsus' philosophy is not always consistent, sometimes contradictory, and challenges the modern reader to read without seeking after for modern coherencies at the expense of medieval coherencies.


Recommended readings:

Paracelsus, Four Treatises

Bruce Moran, The Alchemical World of the German Court: Occult Philosophy and Chemical Medicine in the Circle of Moritz of Hessen

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