Spring Books | Published:

Renaissance magic and mysticism

Nature volume 441, pages 152153 (11 May 2006) | Download Citation

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The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science

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Heinemann/Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 2006. 448 pp. £20/$26 03742297910434011347

One has to admire Philip Ball's courageous undertaking in writing a biography of Paracelsus, arguably the most controversial medical writer in the Renaissance. Not only are the works of Paracelsus' own hand extremely difficult to read and understand but, more importantly, historical reconstructions of his life and thoughts complicate the picture to such an extent that it is hard to write a ‘fair’ biography.

Paracelsus is known for being a failed physician; a psychiatric subject in the casebooks of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung; a German national hero during the Nazi period; and the founder of biochemistry. Ball, however, sets Paracelsus in the social, religious and cultural life of his time, a refreshing move away from the tendency to describe early ‘scientists’ as the forerunners of today's scientific developments.

Ball is aware of the historiographic difficulties surrounding the life and work of Paracelsus. His account starts with a brief discussion of how magic and occult forces were accepted parts of early modern science. In addition, Ball acknowledges the close connection between early modern natural philosophy, Renaissance humanism and Reformation religion. In so doing, he follows a fairly recent trend in the history of science and medicine in which religion and science are seen as mutually shaping fields of knowledge.

In The Devil's Doctor, Ball convincingly shows that in order to understand Paracelsus' work and personality we must accept that “in the philosophy of Paracelsus science and rationalism do not compete with mysticism and superstition but blend with it, producing a world that now seems at the same time wonderful and bizarre”.

Paracelsus, or Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, spoke to the imagination. He is said to have ridden a magical white horse, to have cured many incurable diseases, and to have carried an enormous sword with magical powers, as well as the secret elixir of life. His name was linked with those of Faust and Martin Luther, and among the many miracles he allegedly performed was the creation of a living, human-like being.

Today, Paracelsus appears as a hero in the magical world of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. Yet, perhaps because of the intricate mixture of paracelsian magic, metallurgy, medicine and alchemy, the historical Paracelsus has received comparatively little attention. By presenting the work of Paracelsus, including all the contradictions and neologisms, as an intensely personal enterprise embedded in Renaissance life, Ball circumvents many of the historical difficulties and comes up with an excellent biography that is relevant for historians and general readers alike.

Ball takes events in the life of Paracelsus as starting points for discussing the Renaissance world. For instance, when discussing Paracelsus' life as a vagabond, Ball speaks about the difficulties of travelling in early modern Europe. His discussion of the alchemy of Paracelsus transforms into a discussion of economic growth and the power of miners, and his religious and political views are compared to those of reformers and princes. Ball speaks of Paracelsus' views on astrology in relation to the astronomy of Copernicus and his followers. And last but not least, Ball writes extensively about the traditional (galenic) medicine and chemistry that Paracelsus challenged. The book's illustrations provide a vivid picture of the time and further enliven Ball's account.

This approach is brave and enriching but is also a little overwhelming. At times Paracelsus disappears into the background, and the reader is in danger of getting lost in detailed descriptions of Renaissance culture. Moreover, in a book as ambitious as this it is almost unavoidable that the terminology becomes at times confusing. Much of Paracelsus' work teeters on the brink of the spiritual, and his own vocabulary often seems puzzling to modern readers.

The difficulty in understanding Paracelsus' neologisms and expressions is clearly visible in this book. Ball, for instance, is often wobbly in calling details of Paracelsus' work ‘mechanical’, ‘spiritual’ or ‘materialistic’. Sometimes it is not clear whether he adopts Paracelsus' own words or gives them a modern, and therefore different, meaning. For example, Ball maintains that Paracelsus' concentration of nature's potencies in the preparation of medicines was “not mechanical” (presumably in a modern sense), but on the next page he states that, according to Paracelsus, the powers of the stars permeate “mechanically” through the Universe (thereby referring to Paracelsus' own words). In both cases Ball refers to the working of invisible powers, but apparently these are mechanical in one case but not in the other, leaving it unclear what Paracelsus meant when he spoke of the mechanical working of the invisible forces of nature. The same goes for the important paracelsian distinction between the material and the spiritual, which at times makes Ball's description of Paracelsus' thoughts somewhat bewildering.

To be fair to Ball, he does explain many of Paracelsus' neologisms, but he also has the tendency to follow Jung in maintaining that the language used by Paracelsus must be seen symbolically as an expression of his unconscious mind. It is too easy to argue that, for this reason, the lexicons provided by scholars of Paracelsus must be taken “with a pinch of Paracelsian salt”. To my mind, one of the most urgent tasks of the historian is to find out what precisely Paracelsus meant. Without making this effort, the description of his work can only remain superficial.

This criticism notwithstanding, The Devil's Doctor is a fascinating read, rich in content and hugely entertaining. Moreover, it shows that magic was as much at the root of modern science as were the famous discoveries of our modern scientific heroes. It is this awareness that makes Ball's account of Paracelsus essential reading for historians and scientists alike.

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  1. Rina Knoeff is in the Faculty of Arts, University of Leiden, 2300 RA Leiden, the Netherlands.

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