The Devil Doctor Paracelsus And The World Of Renaissance Magic And Science

The Devil Doctor Paracelsus And The World Of Renaissance Magic And Science Cover

Book: The Devil Doctor Paracelsus And The World Of Renaissance Magic And Science by Philip Ball

To his successful popular-science titles, Ball adds this biography of an outlandish Renaissance figure. Paracelsus (1493-1541) trained in medicine but ridiculed the profession's medieval scholasticism. Incorrigibly impolitic, he sought to reform medicine with all manner of alchemical means and metatheories that seem strange by modern lights, impudent by those of a civilization in transition from magical to rational thought, and heroic to future Romantic poets. Here is the picture of one man against the world, and Ball makes the most of his sprawling, spendthrift, undisciplined life. A lifelong itinerant, Paracelsus ranged the expanse of Europe, offending, befriending, and moving on. Ball handles the travelogue as a book in itself, parallel to his summaries of Paracelsus' writings on health, alchemy, astrology, and himself. An enlivening portrait that will spark interest in Paracelsus' role in the rise of science. One of Paracelsus's biggest achievements is that he did renounce the reliance on Aristotle and Galen; he insisted on finding out for himself what was true and not being bound by the prior abstract arguments of what had to be true. He was thus skeptical of the main currents of thought in cosmology and medicine, and in favor of learning from experience. Without a systematic methodology, however, he assimilated magical and alchemical thought in his own idiosyncratic way, taking what he fancied and fitting it in to his grand scheme. Even Ball admits that Paracelsus made no major discovery that is still part of science. So what is the fascination (and to be sure, the subject of this fine biography comes across as a fascinating man)? It turns out that he had some good ideas and useful practical applications. He emphasized the power of natural remedies, rather than the moribund concepts of balancing humors that were the standards of his age. Much of his success as a doctor was due to his advocacy of minimal treatment, rather than the phlebotomy, cautery, or amputations by which other doctors could turn even minor ailments into mortal injuries. He evaluated the sicknesses of miners and wrote the first manual of occupational health. At risk to himself, he investigated the plague. He believed that chemical processes, not demons, were responsible for madnesses of different kinds. When other medics considered the illnesses of women beneath their attention, he wrote specifically about them. At a time when it was unusual for anyone to venture more than a few miles from home, Ball chronicles Paracelsus's travels to Germany, Spain, Britain, Russia, Egypt and Greece. He was from time to time a military surgeon or royal physician, depending upon what the needs were and how his luck held out. Sometime he had to travel because a city or university expelled him; he never avoided disputes or criticism. If one really wants to understand the contradictions and "intellectual ferment" of the 16th century, says Ball, one should look not at Luther or Copernicus, but at the much-maligned Paracelsus. Born in Switzerland in 1493, Philip Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus, is a figure often more imagined than known. Famous as a doctor of alchemic medicine, he has been compared with Faust and developed a reputation as a miracle worker and charlatan that only grew after his death in 1543. Ball, author of the prize-winning Critical Mass, mixes scant biographical detail with a wide-ranging evocation of the Renaissance worldview to create a fascinating portrait of the man, his age and his historical reputation. Forays into ancient, medieval and Islamic medicine, academic rivalries, the proliferation of publications, and treatments of syphilis all help to recreate the mindset in which doctor and patient lived. Concepts of magic as simply the hidden qualities of nature, and the blurring of poison and medicine demonstrate how what we call science and magic overlapped. Ball produces a vibrant, original portrait of a man of contradictions: "[a] humble braggart, a puerile sage, an invincible loser, a courageous coward, a pious heretic, an honest charlatan...." The Devil's Doctor is a remarkably well written biography of Paracelsus as well as social history of his life time, that period in European History when the Scholastic mindset of the Medieval was being challenged by the coming Enlightenment. Ball, who writes with great clarity and skillful organization shows Paracelsus as a unique individual in the middle of this social revolution, not seeing the whole picture, but living on both sides of the split. An alchemist who grew up in a mining region of Switzerland where the Manipulation of metals was prevelant he received a scolastic education in medicine. He left early because he realized that the medicine of the Greeks no longer served. He sought out the best teachers and herbalists to educate himself and was recognized as one of the best doctors of his time. He grew up in the Roman church, but thought, wrote, and preached independently his own brand of Spirituality barely escaping condemnation for heresy. I had read bits and pieces about Paracelsus over the years, but gathered almost nothing about the man. By putting Paracelsus in his time and many places (the man traveled a get deal for the times), Ball has made him real and his significance to European, and so world, history understandable. I can't say I disliked anything about this book. Except, maybe, the fact that Paracelsus was associated with so many interesting characters who deserved books of their own, which I'll probably never find. I highly recommend this book to those interested in this period of history even if they scoff at alchemy. If they scoff, Ball will give them a better Understanding of its significance to the period.

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