“Nature, made of the Universe, is one and its origin can only be the eternal Unity”
Paracelsus (1493-1541), born Theophrastus von Hohenheim, was a physician, polymath and nature philosopher.
His worldview represented a late and creative flowering of the old organic gnosis later forced underground by industrial capitalist newthink.
Paracelsus was a learned man but his knowledge was also folk-knowledge. He talked with, and learned from, everyone he met in his constant wanderings across Europe: alchemists, wise women, vagabonds, peasants and miners.
Born in Switzerland, he wrote in his native German, rather than in Latin as was customary at the time, finding the language of the Roman Empire too rigid and linear for the ideas he wanted to express.
He sided with the people against the hierarchies of power and in 1525 he took part in the peasants’ uprising in Salzburg.
The philosophy espoused by Paracelsus is based on a holistic concept of living nature.
He declared: “Nature, made of the Universe, is one and its origin can only be the eternal Unity. It is a vast organism in which natural things harmonise and sympathise between themselves”. (1)
Animating all this was “the vital energy of the Universe (Spiritus Mundi)”, (2) a “fundamental, invisible, vital, vitalising force”. (3)
Lucien Braun summarises Paracelsus’s idea of nature thus: “It is indeed everything that we see before our eyes: trees, minerals, animals, diseases, birth, death… But what it gives us is always something else as well: the manifestation of a ‘deeper’ reality – although for the time being we cannot define this depth more clearly. Nature is simultaneously visible and invisible: visible in form, invisible in power – but the two aspects are intimately bound”. (4)
He explains how, for Paracelsus, “the Great World shines in every being, in every plant, in every mineral”. (5) It does so by means of a subsidiary principle, a star or Gestirn, which lies behind each particular physical form. A specific seed grows into a specific tree because of this inner essence manifesting itself.
“It’s advisable, therefore, not to remain on the superficial level of things, or to look merely at the determination of forms. On the contrary, we should never consider a visible determination without at the same time considering the agency presupposed by this determination, in other words the invisible and secret force behind the principle of its manifestation. This is how we must read nature, everywhere: in the intimate unity of the visible and the invisible”. (6)
For Paracelsus, nature had to be the object of all his studies and reflections: “What is philosophy if not the discovery of invisible nature?”, (7) he asked.
But he did not see himself as a mere outside observer of nature, as the modern scientist claims to be.
“According to Paracelsus, the real philosopher no longer belongs to himself, but serves nature”, writes Patrick Rivière. (8) More than serving nature, he is nature, serving itself. The philosopher and his philosophy are both part of the self-revealing of nature. Through him, nature knows itself – if he allows it to.
Paracelsus spent his life speaking out against dogmatism, against the fixed orthodoxy of Medieval medicine, against the exploitation of the poor: “in short”, says Braun, “against everything which he regarded as artifice or convention”. (9)
It is, therefore, nothing less than tragic that the breadth of his thinking, the opening-out of the human spirit that he represented, was to be closed down again by new waves of artifice and convention, new modern versions of dogmatism and orthodoxy.
The rationalism of the Enlightenment brought with it all the scientific, positivist thinking that fitted so well with the pragmatic realities of the capitalists’ Industrial Revolution.
There was no more place for open-ended thinking, for the embracing of paradox, for the awareness that the mysteries of the universe must ultimately lie beyond the complete grasp of human beings.
The multi-dimensionality of wisdom was replaced by the one-dimensionality of mere knowledge and “knowledge is truth externalised, displaced, thrown off centre. It was, for Paracelsus, something like sin”. (10)
Nature as seen by Paracelsus was not something that could readily be flattened out into a scientific theory or mathematical equation.
As Braun says: “Nature, despite all the attempts at interpreting it, cannot be tied down (capitur): it instantly eludes all concept. It bursts the banks of language.
“And Paracelsus’s work can only be an impossible attempt to express with words (nearly 8,000 pages of them!) something which has always been thought by its author to stretch beyond the possibilities of plain logic”. (11)
The new industrial society needed a new definition of nature that could be expressed in its own restricted scientific language and which would “correspond with the new consciousness that man (now bourgeois) had of himself”. (12)
Thus, in the centuries following Paracelsus’s death, we see the ideological construction of “a nature which was inert (and thus artless, lifeless), which was conceived in mechanical terms and was therefore open to mechanisation and boundless manipulation”. (13)
Braun writes that when Paracelsus pondered what philosophy was “if not the discovery of invisible nature”, he went on to declare that “all philosophy which deviates from that goal is sham-philosophy (Schaumphilosophie) and is like fungus growing on a tree and remaining outside it”. (14)
There are no philosophies more sham than those favoured by industrial capitalism: they completely reject, and cannot even comprehend, the traditional understanding of nature as something that reveals itself through us and in us.
Braun comments that Paracelsus’s organic vision is “at complete odds” with everything taught to us by modern subjectivism, which tries to explain the world on the basis of the capacities and categories of the individual subject.
“There, the world would become an image of myself. Here, it’s the World which tries to know itself and find its fulfilment through the human being”. (15)
“Freedom for Paracelsus is anything but the arbitrary will of the subject,” says Braun. “It is not defined on the basis of the subject, of the will of the subject. Instead, it’s an act of letting-be, letting nature illuminate itself in us”. (16)
Video link: Lecture. The Secrets of Paracelsus’ medicine (49 mins)
1. Paracelsus, cit. Patrick Rivière, Paracelse: medicin-alchimiste, “philosophe par le feu” (Paris: Éditions de Vecchi, 2008), p. 97.
2. Rivière, p. 58.
3. Roland Edighoffer, Préface, in Lucien Braun, Paracelse (Paris-Geneva: Éditions Slatkine, 1995) p. x.
4. Braun p. 36.
5. Braun pp.158-59.
6. Braun, p. 37.
7. Paracelsus, Sämtliche Werke, VIII, 71, cit. Braun p. 51.
8. Rivière, p. 91.
9. Braun, p. 11.
10. Braun p. 34.
11. Braun p. 31.
12. Braun p. 43.
14. Braun p. 51.
15. Braun, pp. 157-58.
16. Braun, pp. 45-46.