We here at the Star Chamber wish you all a pleasant winding down of summer. Sad though it is to admit it, the end is nigh. All you autumn-lovers can gear up and get giddy, but I think I’ll take a nap from September to next April.
Four years after appropriating the name of an obscure sixteenth century physician, Paracelsus has finally decided it’s time to explain why. Perhaps this is because the good doctor gave us alcohol, or at least its current name, and therefore he deserves at least an explanation. Al-kohl used to be the name of black eye paint, but for mysterious reasons he decided to apply the name to spirit of wine instead.
Here’s mud in your eye.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a doctor, medical theorist, philosopher, theologian, and mystic who lived in and around what is now Switzerland. According to his own description, he was one of the great thinkers of his age: “I tell you, my shoestrings know more than you and all your schoolmasters, Galen and Avicenna, and all your high schools. If you can’t accept that as true, lay both cures on the scales and see how they tip.”
According to some of his contemporaries, he was a drunk, profane, combative, intransigent, and egotistical to the point of megalomania. His writings, of which he left behind a great many, are difficult to decipher and rambling, often contradictory. Because of their large size and wide-ranging nature, it is possible to find in them the Paracelsus that you seek. In this, he is the mirror of the age from which he is encountered.
He is sometimes described as the father of modern medicine, in that he decried the rote scholasticism of medieval doctors who learned only from the ancient texts (like those of Galen and Avicenna referred to above) and never from their patients. In fact, he so violently opposed the unquestioning acceptance of received medical wisdom that he took the singularly unpopular step of publicly burning the medical texts of the University of Basel. Furthermore, he promoted the concept that disease was caused by external agents and that it could be cured by chemical substances. He believed in experiment and verification. If you read his works carefully looking for an enlightened proto-scientist like Galileo, you will find one. On the other hand, if you look for a dogmatic medieval magician or a bigoted pedant, you will find each of these. The man was all over the map.
What is indisputable about him is this: he was an inspired and inspiring anti-authoritarian standing in the chaos astride two ages. He spoke loudly, if not clearly, and exemplified independent thought even when it cost him dearly. His motto was Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest. Let no man belong to another that can belong to himself.
Here’s why I find him interesting: he burns fiercely in the coals between science and mysticism. His very contradictions are interesting because he neither fears nor is deterred by them. He was neither the last of the magicians nor the first of the scientists but a strange amalgam of both. The sixteenth century was the time of the Reformation, the end of the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the modern era. Up until that time, religion, philosophy, and science were more or less cut from the same cloth. Since the sixteenth century, science and philosophy have parted paths. To me, Paracelsus is the man standing at the fork in the road.
Physics, or rather science in general, used to be called Natural Philosophy. Why was the philosophy part stripped off? Philosophy can be thought of as a subject on which you can never ultimately settle debates. But when the natural philosophers found themselves agreeing more often than not, it was time to give science a name and a faculty lounge all to itself. As the philosopher Norman Campbell says, “Science is the study of those judgments concerning which universal agreement can be obtained.” Consider that to the ancient Greeks, statements like “the sun is vast hot rock” and “the heart is the seat of the soul” are both philosophical suppositions, whereas today we view one of them as a provable error in scientific fact.
You have to slice reality into pretty thin strips in order to shine light through it. If, on the other hand, you want to serve yourself a big juicy slab of it, surgical steel might not suit your needs. It is my personal opinion that, whether acknowledged or not, ultimately some sort mystical appreciation of reality is the battery pack for all science. I don’t seek to prove that statement, but at the same time I ask myself, How could it be otherwise? I am vaguely embarrassed to talk about science and mysticism in the same breath. It sounds trite and unhip in my mouth. Then I picture sharp-tongued old Paracelsus standing at the fork in the road, mixing and matching to his heart’s content amid the cacophony of an age being born and an age passing away. That’s why I find him inspiring.
And that’s why I lifted his name.