A True Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
Dedicated to the common good and, for that, prosecuted
Through the enumeration of these qualities (see part 1), Paracelsus was, in a way, describing himself. We will try to demonstrate this throughout this study. But, let us anticipate some of his main aptitudes and values as a person, beyond the ones he had as a doctor. He never, for example, stopped healing the poor even if they couldn’t pay him. He had spontaneous impulses toward charity, altruism and moderation. On his grave stone today we can also read that Paracelsus was “one who honored himself for having distributed all his possessions among the poor”. This is what he really did and left written in his testament. He made great commitments to improve the situation of the poor, and because of that his life and work turned into a permanent struggle, without rest, against the privileged ones, against the powerful and, in general, against social injustices. And in this arduous task he was not concerned about losing friendships or influential relationships, or even running the risk of a death sentence. He was never guided by the desire to make money or obtain power. His knowledge and dexterity in the art of healing could have permitted him to have a comfortable and calm economic and social life. Instead, he lived the majority of his life as a poor man, without a fixed residence and without properties, but always willing to lend service to the needy, no matter who they were. He worked without rest and with humility till his death.
He never accepted renunciation of his principles or of his reformative medical and social work. It was perhaps the only thing he didn’t renounce. He was always willing to proclaim valiantly and energetically his new ideas and to act accordingly. It was precisely such loyalty which caused him to be harassed, humiliated and threatened by many influential enemies, especially the academic doctors and apothecaries with interests based on the particular tradition which he, deliberately, challenged. For this he paid with social and academic marginalization and was even prosecuted politically and judicially. All his life he suffered constant and exhausting persecution by those in power. They didn’t forgive him for trying to overturn the axioms of the speculative philosophers of the time, and of the orthodox doctors, based still in the scholastic medieval medicine, the main representatives of which were especially Galen, Avicenna, Mesua and Rhases.15 They didn’t even forgive him for trying to end the economic privileges sustained on abuses of power.
For this, he also suffered prosecution in the form of dangerous accusations and suspicions thrown at him to despise, humiliate, or even condemn him to the maximum penalty. The gravest accusations he was subjected to were those of various practices of witchcraft, including alleged works by demonic means, and that of heresy.16 In those times both imputations were considered crimes deserving of death. Luckily, he was able to escape from those who wanted to judge him for those crimes, though his works, especially the written ones, even worsened those accusations, since he had many problems with ecclesiastic and civil censorship. Due to this, a good part of this written work couldn’t be published until after his death.
In many cases, even the enigmatic style of his writings didn’t help him escape from such censorship. On the contrary, on many occasions, this style led to him being accused of writing unintelligible ravings under the effects of some intoxication or some insanity. Indeed, another one of the most wide spread accusation against Paracelsus was that he was a drunk. He was also accused, always with little foundation, of being very dirty, especially because they said he would never take off his clothes even not when going to bed. Furthermore it was said he was grumpy, vain and proud, or had a very “bad temper”.17 And because of this, he had to face so many conflicts in life: with doctors, with academicians, with apothecaries, with civil and religious authorities, even with monarchs and rich people… But we think all these accusations lack foundation: the one of being a drunk, without a doubt, came from his frequent visits to taverns with the intention of approaching the most humble and marginalized people. In some cities, the local authorities expressed their opposition to the presence of Paracelsus at the taverns because they said he would take the opportunity to preach in them, and they would curse him, calling him a drunk and an agitator.18 On one occasion, he defended himself from such accusation in the following manner: “You denounce me because sometimes I speak the truth in taverns and hospitals, against useless pilgrimages to the churches, luxurious festivals, prayers and futile fasts, alms, tithes, confessions, sacraments and priestly rules and observations. You accuse me of being a drunk because you say that taverns are not appropriate for the truth. But you remain quiet and it pleases you when in the taverns I advise people to give you offerings. If this is correct in the guest houses, then you should admit that the truth can also be said in the guest houses.”19
His great social and professional commitment with the humble people forced him to approach and relate to them, even if that forced him to visit places of bad reputation or “not too healthy or hygienic.” Precisely, the accusation of not being too clean was also related to these visits. In his case, it must be taken into consideration that it was especially his almost perpetual state of being a pilgrim, without permanent house or roof, which very often contributed to his appearance as a vagabond. On the other hand, one author has related this last accusation with the fact that when he used to start something he hardly ate, drank or kept clean until he had finished his work.20
There is also a lack of foundation in relation to his alleged “bad temper” in his conflicts with the authorities. From a serious analysis of his life one can easily reach the conclusion that the majority of conflicts he had to face were due rather to his reformist positions threatening to undermine the privileges of the powerful than to his temper. Certainly, his energetic, active and valiant nature may have given an image of being a bit unsociable or intransigent to this distinguished doctor, especially when people associated Paracelsus with disputes, battles and confrontations with the authorities. But in no case did such disputes derive from his conflictive nature, but from his fight for scientific truth and social justice. We will try to demonstrate this throughout this study.
Unfortunately, even after his death his figure and work continued to be of little appeal on the part of the political, religious and scientific authorities. According to the historian Charles Webster, Paracelsus has been the only one among the great thinkers of the scientific revolution who has not been absorbed within the modern system of knowledge, maintaining his status as outsider and iconoclast.21 His hermetic and occultist philosophy, which brought him to collect within his theories elements considered as mystic and magic, along with other ones valued as scientific, ended up invalidating him within the “official” history of science. In the present, this history continues to have great reservations in recognizing Paracelsus and his work as truly scientific; although there is no doubt that his medical and scientific thought had a positive effect in the medicine practiced from the XVIIth century to our present time.
…to be continued
Compiled by Jordi Pomés
15 BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor. Paracelsus and the world of Renaissance magic and science, Nueva York, F.S.G., 2006.
16 DELGADO, Honorio, Paracelso, Buenos Aires, Losada,1944.
17 HARTMANN, F., The life of Paracelsus, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., s.f.
18 JUNG, Carl G., Paracélsica, Barcelona, Kairós, 1988.
19 KOYRE, Alexandre, Místicos, espirituales y alquimistas del siglo XVI alemán, Madrid, Akal, 1981.
20 KUMAR, K.P., Paracelso. El iniciado. Conferencia dada en diciembre de 1999 en Einsiedeln (Suiza).(inédito)
21 MROSEK, Sabine, “La vida de Paracelso”en Paracelsus. Health & Healing, núm. 1, 2 y 3, 2003-2004.