April 20, 2008

The Science of Paracelsus

Paracelsus was an early modern medical chemist- his writings were incredibly influential in the early history of science, in the study of the occult, in the histories of medicine and of chemistry. He wandered through central Europe- Germany and Switzerland mainly though he also went to Scandinavia, Hungary, Russia, France and Asian Turkey. Paracelsus was responsible for the fact that we call zinc, zinc. He was a wandering quack, often despised by contemporary physicians but often also in advance of many of their theories- he beleived in equal proportions things that we would now consider madness and some things which anticipate some of the discoveries of modern medicine. His medicine was not a proper science, as we would see it, based upon evidence and subject to hypothesis- rather as I hope will become clear in this article Paracelsus believed that medicine might be derived from metaphysical and theological views, in much the same way as many ancient philosophers sought to harmonise science and philosophy, testing each by their coherence with each other, rather than their correspondence with what we all see in the world.

I mention Paracelsus, largely because of Cedric Beidatsch's interesting article in Eras, an Australian history journal. Beidatsch is interested in Paracelsus's views on love- and though I don't know much about Paracelsus and therefore cannot vouch for Beidatsch's work, what he has uncovered is, if true, very interesting. He argues that basically Paracelsus's medicine and theology rests upon a pretty unique view of the way that love works. For a moment its worth going back to Plato. In the Symposium, a dialogue about love, one of the speakers argues that originally every human being was a hermaphrodite, and that they were split up by a vengeful God, and that ever since we have been striving to find our other halfs- hence the strength of the emotion of love and its fixation on one object is the fixation of a disunited human upon its other part. Its worth thinking about that, partly because I am sure Paracelsus would have been aware of the doctrine, but also because the idea provides a useful entree to Paracelsus's thought when he like Plato approached the problem of love. You see ultimately we ought to be more promiscuous than we are: this emotion of love which comes across us for one or a couple of objects out of several thousands is something that needs to be explained. Plato, at one point, explained it by reference to this idea of a split human being: Paracelsus argued that we were not split but we were created so as to have a perfect partner. He argued that God had created us and predestined us for one particular partner.

Some interesting implications flowed from this view. Paracelsus believed that we would always meet this partner eventually: providence would direct that we did, unless sin turned that providence aside. He argued that amongst such sins, we should reckon the marriage contract. The marriage contract was an attempt to bind us where no bounds were neccessary: ultimately only a sinner would break from their lover. It was also an attempt to fix us within the bounds of an artificial matrimony- marriage and inheritance could in his view distort our actual mission which was to find the love that God intended for us, in favour of finding property or power or family pride. Paracelsus believed that such love was embedded in our very natures- our chemistry was orientated to this kind of love. He found that his alchemical investigations, not to mention his theological speculations about the nature of God cemented this perspective. The construction of the human body reflected the importance of love to our health. God himself, Paracelsus held, was the product of these forces- and within the depths of the divine nature was concealed a love between God and Mary which had produced the Holy Spirit and the Son, the second and third persons of the Trinity. This structure radiating downwards provided him with some of the theses that he wanted to cure people with, but also with the ways that he understood God and the nature of our obligations to each other.

Obviously most of this is completely mad. But what is interesting about it is what it says about the way that Paracelsus and many of those who followed him, most of which probably did not understand the full ramifications of his doctrine worked. Our science and our metaphysics are actually not often related- we tend to make science empirical and metaphysics philosophical. For Paracelsus consistency between the two was much more important than it is to us- metaphysical conclusions determined things about how one would seek to cure phsyical problems. Furthermore for Paracelsus the explanation had to be complete- he sought completeness and consequently sought consistency all the way up and down the spectrum of knowledge. Every area represented an analogy of every other area- the world worked by consistent rules. Much of modern science rests on the idea that we are actually ignorant and that we have to be sceptical about what we can know. Paracelsus differed from a modern scientist because the basis of his science was not the derivation of theory from empirical matter, or from mathematics (then to be validated by empirical data) but he derived his ideas from the logical extension of metaphysical and ethical principles. He expected nature to conform to the moral world and vice versa and he expected to see a complete system.

In that sense he represents a man very much of his times and from that perspective the way his attitudes work, especially if they are as bizarre as Beidatsch suggests, reflects the different nature of science as he understood it from the way that we understand the same process.

2 comments:

Semaj Mahgih said...

The marriage contract was an attempt to bind us where no bounds were neccessary: ultimately only a sinner would break from their lover. It was also an attempt to fix us within the bounds of an artificial matrimony- marriage and inheritance could in his view distort our actual mission which was to find the love that God intended for us ...

It is simply the sanest way to arrange the bringing up of children which is a necessary item for the health of a society.

Gracchi said...

Oh James I don't disagree with you- Paracelsus would disagree with you because he saw it as an unneccessary form. The question of whether you were married was a question of insignificance and to stress it and award privileges on the basis of this legal man made contract was to him a sin, because it placed the legality over the love. Perhaps I'm not explaining his doctrine well- but I must reinforce that its not mine! :)