A True Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known by the name of Paracelsus, was a great thinker and a scientific, social and religious German reformer of the XVI century, and most of all, known for his contributions in the field of medicine. Indeed, Paracelsus laid great part of the scientific foundations from which medicine would develop starting from the modern times in the western world; and he finished this work with its extraordinary practice as a doctor, being an exceptional professional of the medicine which cured almost all. In addition, he excelled in the social and religious fields. In the latter sphere, he denounced how far Catholics and Protestants were, in general, from following the authentic wisdom of Christ, while searching and making known the common sources of the different religions. In the social field he was greatly committed to the problems and social and economic injustices of his time, while making great effort to end them, trying to follow and really put into practice the biblical teachings. However, even though his work and religious and social thought were very important, they ended up being eclipsed by his great contribution in the field of medicine and by his virtues as a medical doctor and healer; perhaps one of the best humanity has given us. However, the present inscription which appears in his tomb says of him, without exaggeration, that he was a “medicine doctor of great renown, which art healed splendidly, even the most terrible wounds, leprosy, gout, dropsy and other illnesses seemingly incurable.” (1)
However, in life he was not recognized by everyone. On the contrary, he had to endure much harassment, disdain, mistreatment and prosecution, especially from the part of the established scientific, political and religious power which felt questioned, and in some instances threatened, by his thought and work, as well as its innovative nature, which put into question some of the privileges held by those authorities. He needed great dosages of bravery and spirit of dedication to face the constant torment he was subjected to until the very moment of his death. In this sense, his life offers us an example of courage, fortitude, sacrifice and renunciation in many aspects. In addition to his brilliant intelligence were those virtues which he developed throughout his life, along with great dosages of kindness, generosity and general sensibility towards the needy and the marginalized, which make him an archetype of a person most extraordinary.
In the framework of the so called Renaissance, in the dawn of the modern era, Paracelsus was able to contribute with his work to set the basis for a new era of hope despite coinciding, as we will see, with one of the most dramatic crisis of the western civilization. During the life of Paracelsus fundamental changes in the way of thinking and feeling took place, especially in the western world. In addition to witnessing the serious tumbling of the civil and religious powers (for example, the triumph of Protestantism with the consequent decline of Catholicism), the XVI century saw the birth of science –modern science, with its spirit of empiric research– as it is presently known and with its new definition of man and his individual power in the world. All scientific disciplines were radically transformed by the heat of the discovery of the modern press, with its prodigious propagation and the revolution it was igniting in the customs and thought. Copernicus (1473-1543) revolutionized astronomy; Andreas Vesalius (1513-1564), anatomy; Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), philosophy and theology; the intrepid explorer navigators discovered new routes to bring closer East and West, demonstrating also that the Earth was round. Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, a year before the birth of Paracelsus; and Vasco de Gama found a new route to arrive to the East Indies, six years after, in 1498, through the Cape of Good Hope.
Thus, in this context of revolutionary changes, Paracelsus revolutionized medicine, science, and, partly and with less apparent transcendence, religion and social thought.
A great medical reformer
It can be said that Paracelsus opened a new chapter in the history of medicine, rewriting, almost from zero, the foundation of this science, and advocated a new medical science based on experimentation, observation, and a new natural philosophy. For this, many gave him the name of the Luther of medicine. Because, if Luther had tried to reform religion during the same time in which Paracelsus lived, the latter, without a doubt, was a renewed reformer of medicine. Or better said, a revolutionary of medicine, capable of empathically rejecting the old medieval scholastic medicine that was dominating until the XVIth century, and at the same time, establishing valid foundations in which to build a new medicine with scientific basis: he was a forerunner as far as integrating medicine and chemistry; introducing the practice of metal cures and opium; pioneer of biochemistry; discoverer of electro-magnetism three centuries before Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851) was recognized as the official finder of said phenomenon; discoverer of the properties of the magnet, and with them of animal magnetism, more than two centuries before Mesmer and mesmerism made it popular.(2) He was even a pioneer of empiric psychology and psychological therapy of astro-medicine. Paracelsus, in all, knew how to describe the causes of illnesses that afflicted humanity, the occult relations between physiology and psychology and the specific remedies of each one of the body ailments.
Even though there are some who state that Paracelsus had the secrets and laws of nature revealed to him, one thing is for sure: his unbreakable faith in the curative virtues of the surrounding nature drove him toward important innovations and discoveries in this sphere. To him, the best book that exists from which to learn, not only medicine but all kinds of wisdom needed for men, is nature itself. He opened channels to scientific investigations of nature and obtained an independent position for the knowledge of it in the face of the academic authority of the time.
He always worked with an encyclopedic methodology, effectively striving to substitute the not so rigorous, superficial and purely superstitious content that magic, alchemy and chiromancy may have had at that moment, with a more empiric and efficient knowledge. In other words, he tried to turn these specializations into applicable and effective disciplines.(3) He worked with a clinical eye to extract latent cabalistic and symbolic meanings from many phenomena, visualizing consistencies in the different fields of knowledge.(4) For that, his medical and scientific thinking was able to have a positive bearing on the development of modern naturalism, science and medicine practiced from the XVIIth century until the present day. Paracelsus must be contemplated as a crucial point of reference on the path leading from medieval magic to modern science. (5)
With Paracelsus there was a consistent natural philosophy based on a medical perspective of man and the surprisingly modern world.(6) From such natural philosophy, he also knew how to place the foundational stones of many new medical and naturopathic trends, including the homeopathic teachings of Hahnemann, which would develop in the centuries following their existence.(7) Today, Paracelsus would be the advocate of those specializations that are excluded, in great measure, from the medicine represented in universities; i.e., osteopathy, magnetopathy, iridology, the different dietetic sciences and theories, spells, etc. (8)
Without a doubt, Paracelsus was assisted by the resurgence, within the group of sciences and arts, of Neo Platonism and Gnosticism, two almost identical currents of thought in which there were, mixed in a way of syncretism, Eastern beliefs and ideas of Greek philosophy, mainly Plato and Pythagoras. We must not forget that such doctrines, besides their natural magic, astronomy, alchemy, and a vision of the Unity of all kingdoms of creation, were arts and ideas greatly appreciated and valued during the Renaissance. On the other hand, if the Renaissance represented the revival of man as a totality and the anthropocentric vision of the world, Paracelsus could be considered to be a true exponent of that era as stated by Pagel, a specialist in science history. (9)
But in his time, Paracelsus was not well interpreted by the majority. The majority of the doctors of his time didn’t understand that, for him, the authentic medicine, its study and investigation, should be established upon four great pillars: philosophy, astronomy, alchemy and the personal virtues of the doctor. He cultivated them all because, besides being a doctor, he was also an alchemist, a naturalist, a philosopher, an astrologer, a theologian and also a philanthropist. These pillars undermined the professional codices of the medicine of the time. In 1527, possibly when Paracelsus achieved greater social recognition, since he had obtained a post as a professor at the University of Basel, he said: “The time has come to bring medicine to its ancient dignity, to purify it from the influence of the barbarians and purge their mistakes. We will have to do it not by strictly adhering to the rules of the ancients, but by exclusively studying nature and utilizing the experience we have acquired in long years of experience… ”. (10)
The everyday medical practice that he exercised throughout his life, in which he utilized many healing methods and the example of his life, demonstrate to us, more than his theoretical books, his value and quality as a healer and reformer of medicine. Throughout his life he was appreciated as a professional authority and his advice was sought by urban and country men, even though he always insisted that he was merely a mediator of the Lord and that He is the only healer. (11)
In any case, he was a very good mediator who possessed the virtues and wisdom which, according to himself, a good doctor should possess as a person. He was not referring to wisdom in terms of knowledge, since the latter -according to him- was not enough for a doctor, but in terms of “knowing how to be and act”. Paracelsus cultivated brilliantly many personal virtues and, when he talked about the requirements and qualities a good doctor should have, without a doubt he was describing himself; at the same time, he was giving the keys to the professional success of a doctor, beyond the scientific knowledge he must have. That is why he said in relation to this: “One of the most necessary requirements for a doctor is perfect purity and honesty of purpose. He must be free from ambition, vanity, envy, shamelessness, ostentation and self-arrogance because these vices are the result of ignorance and are incompatible with the light of divine wisdom, which has to illumine the mind of a true doctor.” (12) He summarized in seven statements the minimum qualities every doctor must have:
- he must not consider himself competent to cure all cases;
- he must study daily and learn experiences from others;
- he must treat each case with sure knowledge and never must abandon or renounce any case;
- he must always be temperate, serious, chaste, live with honesty and not be proud;
- he must always consider first the need of the patient before his own need, and he must exercise his art, not for his own benefit and honoraries, but for the good of the patient; he must pay the utmost attention to his patient, trying to achieve good harmony between him and the patient;
- he must take all precautions that experience and knowledge suggest to him so he is not attacked by the illness; and
- he must not maintain any house of bad reputation, nor be an executioner, nor a renegade, nor to belong to priesthood in any way. (13)
Thus, according to Paracelsus, a good doctor –among other things– must be humble, a hard worker, patient, loyal, pure, of tender heart, of enthusiastic spirit, self-sacrificing, and honest in purpose, all in a way that his highest virtue is love. The good doctor, Paracelsus used to say, “must give his patient his greatest attention, must identify himself with his same soul and heart, and that cannot be done without charity and benevolence.” (14)
…to be continued
Compiled by Jordi Pomés