A true Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
A great religious reformer
Paracelsus had the same great faith in Nature as he had in God. He was a great believer.
There is a strong influence of spirituality in all his scientific, medical and social work.
Logically, with a hermetic or occultist alchemist like him, his scientific or medical thinking was intimately connected to a spiritual or theological thinking. It is important to keep in mind that this theological thinking was also very important for Paracelsus; according to himself, it is as important as his scientific work. In this religious environment he also wanted to break mould. Thus, we can consider him a great religious reformer. But, not because he was trying to build or set the foundation for a new religion, nor was he trying to emphatically break with Rome and the papacy as, for example, Luther did precisely in the same time and area in which Paracelsus was moving. He did not wish any other religious division. He always considered himself a good Christian and did not want anymore divisions within Christianity. Although as all the authentic reformers of his time, mainly humanists, he did wish for the humanization of Christianity – to rediscover the authentic and true teachings of Christ and to connect to the alchemist and neo platonic philosophy, and in a sense oriental philosophy, as we will comment on further.
On the other hand, as all reformists, he wished to end the despotism of the Catholic Church, which in those times had an enormous power; an oppressive power exercised with arbitrariness and intransigence and with inquisitorial procedures as a means to combat, above all, heresy. This power was at the same time jeopardized with social and political injustices with the existing aristocracy as well as the civic order of society. The ecclesiastic hierarchy was mainly corrupt and ignorant, starting with the papacy itself and continuing with the cardinals and bishops, while an important part of the low clergy did not escape from apathy and ignorance.
Paracelsus could not approve of this situation of which he himself was a potential victim of the first order. A significant fact is that Paracelsus publicly burnt, before Luther would, a papal bull, for acting against certain privileges related to corrupt practices of the ecclesiastic hierarchy (1). On the other hand, he had to be very careful with his writings and discourses related to religion, since they could have easily been the object of an inquisitorial act of public penance for exposing heterodox doctrines. That is why many of his writings are written in a not too clear and enigmatic style. This however, did not prevent the church from considering him, at least until the XIX century, Gnostic heretic and Arian (2), despite being considered himself always loyal to this church; it did not stop him from questioning with vehemence the excessive power of the priests as conscience keepers. That is why he said once: “The knowledge our priests possess does not come from God, they learn it from each other. They are not certain of the truth they teach; that is why they argue, cheat and prevaricate; make mistakes and fall into illusion, taking their own opinions as if they were divine wisdom” (3).
In tune with the humanist reformers of the time
The longing for reform that Paracelsus had in this field made him align well with the known humanist religious reformers of his time. With them, he shared the criticism of the ecclesiastical powers, the need for reforms and, above all, the demand for religious and intellectual freedom. We have already mentioned that these reformers always gave him their support, and in many occasions, he established deep friendship with them and they even protected him from some persecutions. It was no coincidence that in cities or regions where the humanist circles had good relationship with the political power, like in Basel –already analyzed in detail – or Colmar or Saint Gall or Carinthia, Paracelsus found the best opportunities to carry out his reformist work. In Colmar, where he arrived in 1528, shortly after leaving Basel, he established a friendship with the mayor himself, Hieronymus Boner, a humanist, translator of Plutarch, Demosthenes and Thucydides, and he was welcomed in the humanist circle of the city officials. This facilitated the fulfillment of a great task as a doctor of the city, obtaining many patients and being admired like in no other place (4). In Saint Gall, where he lived during a good part of 1531, he was totally supported and protected by the important humanist and reformer Vadianus, who –let’s remember- had been the professor of Paracelsus in his youth. When Paracelsus arrived at Saint Gall, Vadianus was the city mayor and at the same time the city doctor, and was able to introduce him to many of his influential friends like Bartholomeu Schowinger. With his support, Paracelsus built an important chemical laboratory in this city. In addition, in Saint Gall he was able to finish writing his great Opus Paramirum, which contains his basic medical doctrines (5). In Carinthia he dedicated his work Carinthian Trilogy to the authorities of his country in the form of a country chronicle (6).
It is also important in this section to remember and emphasize the friendship Paracelsus developed with the great reformist Erasmus, with whom he shared the vision of a just, equitable and peaceful Christian community, along with the criticism of Luther, the great leader of the protestant reform. In fact, until 1524, before the peasant revolts, Paracelsus was a great admirer of Luther, of whom he acknowledged his enthusiasm for religious and intellectual freedom. Paracelsus even wrote a dedicatory letter to Luther and to his confederates in Wittenberg (7). But when the social and peasant problem broke out and Luther harshly condemned the revolts and placed himself on the side of the lords and princes, the admiration ceased. The support that humanist reformers had given Luther up to that moment also ceased. Paracelsus, and the humanists like Erasmus, could not accept Luther’s lack of sensitivity for the problems of the most disadvantaged social sectors. The commitment that Lutheranism acquired with the aristocracy ended up involving him, as well as part of Catholicism, with social and political injustices. On the other hand, the renaissance humanists like Paracelsus could not approve the lack of confidence in the belief and the reasoning of the Lutherans, according to which, man can only be saved by the grace of God and not by its deeds.
Above the religious struggles and wars of his time
It is easy to understand how Paracelsus was above the religious struggles and wars of his time which mainly confronted Catholics and Protestants. He did not place himself in favor of any of the opposed fields in these struggles, which he rather considered futile. The most obvious reason for his “neutrality” was explained by him, stating that, “In the end, whether they be Papists, Lutherans, Baptists, Zwinglians, all of them were ready to glorify themselves as the sole possessors of the holy spirit.” (8). One group he did feel sympathy towards, was the free thinker spiritualists, among whom the non-dogmatic liberal Protestants, like Sebastian Franck and Hans Denck could be included. Despite being protestant, they advocated for progress and reform without violence or dogmas, and maintained themselves spiritually independent, from the pope as much as from Luther. There are also some authors who state that the religious, ethical and social thinking of Paracelsus was in the line of the so called Brothers of the Spirit, the Anabaptist and the exponents of the “popular pantheism” of the Middle Ages and of the Reform era (9). However, we must not forget that Paracelsus cannot be identified within any spiritual group. He repeatedly stated his independence of religious thought, insisting that it is the duty of a true Christian to reject all schools, leaders and doctrines except the simple truth of the Bible (10). Hence he insisted in establishing himself as a champion of religious freedom and asked the future emperor of Austria, Ferdinand I, to try to exercise his political power to maintain religious peace, freedom of conscience and the unity of the Sacred Empire (11).
And all of this, despite the fact that he always considered himself an obedient and humble Christian and, as we have mentioned, loyal to the catholic church, which he always wanted to see unified and which authority he recognized (12). He always admired the great saints of the church and was a fervent believer of the Bible. In fact, let us remember that he grew up and was educated under the guidance of ecclesiastics –among them four bishops and one abbot- and he received his basic education in monastic schools. His profound knowledge of religion and philosophy in general, and in particular the Bible, makes sense because of his association with clergymen as a youth. He tried to support the doctrines he taught with quotes from the Bible (13). He knew that book so well that he described himself as “doctor of the Sacred Scriptures” (14). About these scriptures, he used to say that they were the foundation of all philosophy and natural science, and that the Bible had the key to the Truth (15). The Old Testament and the Apocalypses of Saint John were the only scriptures he quoted, especially the passages about Moses, Elias, Enoch, David, Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, and John, since he believed they were the authentic magicians, cabalists and seers of the Old Testament (16). He believed in them and quoted them to give strength to his investigations and statements on science, medicine and theology which he tried to demonstrate to his contemporaries. We have already said that the Bible was one of the very few books he possessed at the moment of death.