ODD TRUTHS: PARACELSUS THE REBEL

The nineteenth-century occultist Eliphas Levi praised Paracelsus as a kind of crazy wisdom guru. He pictured the Swiss doctor and alchemist as a frequently drunk “maniac”, who had been more powerful than the most “celebrated magnetists”. Levi’s views were typical of the romanticism of his era, but similar sentiments were also expressed by Paracelsus’s contemporaries.

Line engraving portrait of Paracelsus. image via Wellcome Library.

Line engraving portrait of Paracelsus. Image via Wellcome Library.

In his De medicina nova (published in 1572) Thomas Erastus writes that Paracelsus would summon a “troop of devils” whenever he was inebriated. Johannes Oporinus, Paracelsus’s former apprentice, also describes his master as irritable, ostentatious, and dangerous in a famous letter. The following summary of Oporinus’s description is from Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance by Walter Pagel:

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In Paracelsus’s own mind, he was the greatest genius of all time. He saw himself as the “monarch of all physicians”, wiser than Galen, Avicenna, and Aristotle combined. During his brief stint as professor of medicine at the University of Basel, he tossed Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine (the standard university medical textbook at the time) into the city’s St John’s Day bonfire.

Portrait of Paracelsus. Image via Wellcome Library.

Portrait of Paracelsus. Image via Wellcome Library.

Despite his controversial personality, Paracelsus can’t be dismissed as a vain miser or curmudgeon. He was a crusader of sorts who was opposed to book-learning and dependance on Scholastic literature. Instead of adopting the dogmas of his academic peers, Paracelsus advocated for a kind of evidence-based methodology. His investigative tool was the “light of nature”, a form of knowledge that had to be acquired through experience. This concept was a central part of Paracelsus’s infamous rough-and-tumble philosophy and exhibitionism. It also helped him to develop unique theories about pathology and psychology. For example, he proposed the idea of a “belief-spirit” (glaubengeist), a social contagion that could infect communities. This glaubengeist (roughly equivalent to the nineteenth-century thoughtform) incubated hysterias and other “invisible” diseases through the psychosomatic power of faith. Paracelsus also believed that this same effect could be the mechanism of sorcerous, telepathic interactions.

Engraving of Paracelsus by W Hollar after a painting by Rubens. Image via the Wellcome Library.

Engraving of Paracelsus by W Hollar after a painting by Rubens. Image via the Wellcome Library.

Ultimately, it was Paracelsus’s dramatic and rebellious nature that ensured his fruitful afterlife in the literature of Percy and Mary Shelley. The Shelleys, like Levi, were touched by the stories of Paracelsus’s legendary experiments. Those anecdotes, passed down through the ages, were the direct result of his iconoclastic career and rejection of the status quo.

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