1902 Encyclopedia > Alchemy > Alchemy - Paracelsus and his Influence

(Part 6)



Tempting as the subject is, we must not linger either on the philosophical doctrine or the medical system of this extraordinary man, for fear of encroaching on the article MEDICINE or the article PARACELSUS. We only wish to show that he is the pioneer of modern chemists, and the prophet of a revolution in general science. Those who only know Bacon in manuals of philosophy are never tired of repeating that the great English philosopher is the father of experimental science. This is true, indeed, in the sense that Bacon insisted with inexhaustible eloquence on the necessity of experimental science, but it is false if it means that Bacon inaugurated modern science by personal experiments. It was this popular conception of Bacon which Liebig attacked, and he thus found no difficulty in drawing up a long and crushing indictment. Bacon was the prophet of experimentation, and this title is sufficient to secure his fame against the abuse of modern dogmatists, who think that science increases little by little, with here a fact and there an idea, without a single pause, a single relapse or revolution. Few take the trouble to consider how far Bacon's philosophy belongs to the past; most are satisfied with cut and dry phrases about the part he played in modern science. Just in the same way, Paracelsus, the great innovator, who thought himself even more enfranchised from the bondage of Aristotle and Galen than he really was, is dispatched with ready-made phrases, but, unlike Bacon, he gets nothing but ridicule and abuse. Madman, charlatan, impostor-no name is too bad for him with the historians; and yet they are forced to confess that this impudent adventurer brought about a necessary revolution. Thomas Thomson is very severe; he goes so far as to reproach Paracelsus with declining the word tonitru. He would have wished, forsooth, the revolutionist of Basle to have delivered before his young and enthusiastic audience "the sober lectures of a professor in a university." Dryasdusts are fond of falling into such anachronisms; a far truer estimate of Paracelsus has been given us by Mr Browning in the drama which bears his name. There are self-deceived visionaries who are always thinking that the problem is solved, who compose eleborate romances with which enthusiasts are enchanted. Raymond Lully was one of this class. There are spirits of light who point out and trace the road along which humanity travels slowly in their wake. Bacon belongs to the first category, but has played the part of a genius of the second order. Thirdly, there are souls of fire always enveloped in clouds, from which ever and anon the lightnings of genius flash forth, who bear humanity towards a goal foreseen rather than seen by themselves, by a rough and rugged road with endless turns and windings. Such a nature was Paracelsus. His pride was more towering than the mountains of his native Switzerland. He believed that through him a new race, the Germans, were destined to succeed to science. The Greeks, the Arabians, and the Italians, their immediate disciples, had had their day with him, and through him the German era was to begin. He studied under Trithema, the abbot of Spanheim, and under his father, a distinguished alchemist: Agrippa was his fellow-student. Afterwards he resorted to strange masters-old wives and workmen, his beloved miners, who confided to him their secrets. He was the greatest traveler in that age of scientific travelers. Lastly, he practiced medicine as the doctor of the poor, and inaugurated lectures in the vulgar tongue. Van Helmont, his real successor, who inherited his goodness of nature, establishment clinical medicine, i.e., lessons at the beside of the patients. Stahl, who inherited his arrogance and his love of symbolism, developed from one of the ideas of his master the phlogistic theory, the elaboration of which theory was for chemistry a prosperous period of incubation, while from the refutation of this theory the science may be truly said to date its birth. Paracelsus's work, like his genius, oscillates perpetually between magic and science, but what has not been sufficiently observed is, that science invariably ends by carrying the day. if, for instance, he is giving us "the green lion," a recipe for making gold, he ends by breaking a lance with the seekers for gold: - "A way with these false disciples who hold that this divine science, which they dishonour and prostitute, has no other end but that of making gold and silver. True alchemy has but one aim and object, to extract the quintessence of things, and to prepare arcane, tinctures, and elixirs, which may restore to man the health and soundness he has lost." He beards the "white-gloved" disciples of Galen, and, in spite of their juleps and draughts, asserts that alchemy is indispensable, and that without it there is no such thing as medical knowledge. He rejects the easy explanation of the universe by means of an entity, stigmatizing it as paganity, meaning thereby a necessary consequence of paganism, which as a theosophist he holds in abhorrence. He rejects the favourite instrument of the schoolmen, the syllogism. Nature, as he views it, is not a clear and intelligible system of which the form declares the essence; no, it is mysterious. There is a spirit at work beneath the outside shell. What is written on this shell no one can read but the initiated who have learned to separate the real and the apparent. "At the sae time, everything is not active. To separate the active portion (the spirit) of this outside shell from the passive, is the proper province of alchemy." Thus we see that with Paracelsus alchemy ceased to be the search for the first principles of bodies, and made one step in advance towards chemistry. His innate genius for medicine, as he boasted, but more truly his noble heart, urged him to learn a study which better satisfied his pride, but which had not the practical usefulness of medical chemistry to recommend it. The name introchemics marks this transition from alchemy to chemistry. A remarkable saying of Paracelsus shows us the close connection between his alchemy and his medicine; "Vila ignis, corpus lignum." This notion of the importance of combustion was taken up again by Becker and his disciple Stahl, the inventors of the term phlogiston, which they thought was of an earthy nature, because resin, phosphorus, sulphur, and other combustible bodies are insoluble in water. Paracelsus was too well initiated in the cabalistic theory of astral light, which symbolized the universal agent of light and heat, to have accepted such a gross materialistic theory. A distinguished Frenchman of the present century, who prided himself on being a followed of the cabalists, has in one of his novels, called La Peau & Chagrin, reproduced the theory of Paracelsus, vita ignis corpus lignum. Each act, each wish of the possessor of the talisman, causes the skin to shrink; and Mr Huxley, in his remarkable lecture on The Physical Basis of Life, has not been ashamed to borrow this lllustration from Baltic. What renders Paracelsus's saying so valuable is, that it is neither materialistic nor spiritualistic, but merely dynamical.

Paracelsus image

Portrait Presumed to be of Paracelsus (1493-1541) by Quentin Metsys

Another instance of Paracelsus's oscillating between the modern and the ancient world is seen in the hesitation he shows when discussing the influence of the planets over the internal organs of the body. Sometimes he seems to take the symbol for the thing itself, but he ends by admitting only the parallelism of the marcocosm and the microcosm. When he assigns the brain to the moon and the heart to the sun, he seems to say: "I do not think with Plato that the brain is all; it is but the reflector and guide - the heart is the regulator of the organism. I place my archeus a little above the heart, as a connecting-link between the nervous and sanguine circulation, as Hippocrates has his enormon." If he had lived in calmer, times, and known the true Aristotle, paracelsus would have allowed that morphe [Gk.] does not represent the entelekheia [Gk.] of the Stagyrite, that energeia [Gk.] is the true meaning. But in those times of false Aristolelianism the Spagirism of Paracelsus was pitted against the Stagyrism of Aristotle. By making the viscera the seat of diseases, Paracelsus claims to be the founder of the organicists; by his chemistry of the blood-mercury which evaporates, sulphur which burns, salt which is constant-he is answerable for the blunderings of Maitre Purgon; by his archeus, the grand motor and regulator of the astrology of the body, he is the ancestor in a direct line of animism, and collaterally of modern Hippocratism or vitalism of the Montoellier school. In short, it is hard to name anything that cannot be found in the works of this mad genius, who, in spite of the jars and jolts of his wild career, still manages to keep the road without upsetting either at Paris or Montpellier. What, we may ask, would modern therapeutics be without the opium and mercury of Paracelsus - without the laudanum of his discipline Quercetan, physician to Henry IV., &c? When this charlatan had substituted for astrological influence a simple parallelism, it was easy for Van Helmont to rid modern science of this simple parallelism. Besides all this, Paracelsus was a real doctor. The death of Erasmus's friend, whom he was attending, did him less harm than the cure of another patient, who was dining with him ninety-nine days after he had been pronounced in extremis; more fatal still was the case of Cornelius de Liechtenfels, who, when cured by him of the gout, refused to pay his benefactor the stipulated price. Paracelsus would not hold his tongue or submit to the magistrates, and in consequence had to resign his professorship at Basle. A double interest attaches to this story; it hastened Paracelsus's death, and it proves that he would never have accepted the vis medicatrix naturoe of Stahl. We have seen that those strange bodies which escape from the retorts of the masters of the sacred art were called by them souls; their successors, on a closer acquaintance with them, called them spirits. Basil Valentin and Paracelsus, recognizing their importance in the transmutation of bodies, gave to them the name of mercury. Van Helmont studied them more minutely, and invented the name gas. He was acquainted with carbonic acid under the name of woody gas. But his ignorance of the action of the oxygen of the atmosphere prevented him from making the fundamental distinctions between experiments performed in a closed vessel and in one open to the air. Priestly, Lavoisier, and Scheele by the use of the test-tube and the balance (both Van Helmonth and Stahl had also turned the balance to good account), weighed and tested the results of ancient alchemy. Hence modern chemistry was born. But we must in justice add that the work had already been begun by men of genius, such as Bernard Palissy; Boyle the eminent critic and experimentalist, Homberg, the two Geoffroys, Margraff, Bergmann, Rouelle the master of Lavoisier, who may be called the Diderot of chemistry. Moreover, the most important discoveries in chemistry have been made by men who combined with chemical experiments a marked taste for alchemic theories. We may instance Glauber, ablest of mystics; Kunkel, who thought he had found in the "shining pills" of his phosphorus mirabilis as efficacious a remedy as the potable gold in which he also believed; Glaser the alchemist, master of Lemery, who has been called father of chemistry; Robert Fludd, &c.

It is curious to observe that soon after chemistry was established as a science there as a regular deluge of searchers for the philosopher's stone. The limits of this article prevent us from giving a full list of their names. Suffice it to mention, among Frenchmen, de Lisle, who died in the Bastile of the wounds his guardians inflicted on him to extort his secret; among Englishmen, Dr Price, who committed suicide to escape from a public trial of his pretended discovery. As to the theoretical possibility of making gold, the great French chemist Dumas considered that a solution might be found in the doctrine of isomerism; and the great English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy refused to pronounce that the alchemists must be wrong.

Related articles:
Paracelsus and Chemical Medicine

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