Providence and Alchemy: Paracelsus on How Knowledge Unfolded, Matter Developed, and Bodies Might Be Perfected.
AuthorSparling, Andrew Walter
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Theophrastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (1493–1541), a medical reformer and lay theologian, maintained throughout his voluminous writings that providence operated everywhere in the Creation to bring about change and to make the unknown known. Every sort of development or revelation was part of the wonderful, orderly, and preordained unfolding of God’s plan for the world. A term that Paracelsus used broadly for providential transformation was ‘alchemy.’ Contrary to the current consensus view in the scholarship, however, I show that in addition to this broad usage of the term, Paracelsus remained a believer in and practitioner of metallic transmutation also. By connecting Paracelsus’s providential outlook to his alchemical interests, including his transmutational interests, I revise our understanding of the ways in which early modern science, magic, and religion could sometimes develop—not as domains with clear boundaries in mutual interaction, but maybe as one tangled thing, viewed from three different angles. The dissertation is based on extensive close reading of Paracelsus’s texts, which amount to somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75 million words. The texts have traditionally been divided into “theological and religious” on the one hand and “medical and scientific” on the other, a distinction that must be set aside on methodological grounds. A methodological problem less easily solved is how to write intellectual history about a person who, although an intellectual, was not a scholar. Paracelsus bragged about not having read a book in decades, and he may have had little formal education. His brand of free-form disquisition, which he called Theoric, engaged with philosophy but did not belong to philosophy (considered either as a discipline or genre). Overall I find deeper continuities than have generally been supposed between both Paracelsus and his ancient and medieval predecessors on the one hand and his early modern successors on the other. Those findings confirm and extend the general tendency in the Paracelsus scholarship of the last twenty years or so to see Paracelsus as first and foremost a Reformation figure, with deep roots in medieval Christian traditions. In particular I argue that Paracelsus’s views about providence and alchemy must be understood in terms of the inheritance of Augustinianism. Chapter one serves as the introduction. Chapter two describes knowledge-sharing in the Christian community, which Paracelsus saw as a moral economy, operating within providential time. With the Last Days upon them, the chosen few were to band together in relationships of Christian reciprocity and pool not only their tools and goods but also their know-how—with an eye, when Armageddon came, to defending themselves. Chapter three examines the role that natural objects (chiefly stones and plants) were supposed to play in the providential disclosure of their own purposes. The objects bore external signs, indicating what use human beings could make of them. They also carried “knowledge” (scientia) within them, which people who wished to acquire expertise needed somehow to absorb. Chapter four considers two types of metaphysical and material (?) entities that lay somehow at the heart of natural objects: essences and seeds. Seeds developed, or were responsible for things’ developing. Essences were atemporal and already complete. Sometimes, though, essences could operate in seedlike ways.Chapter five describes what in one text Paracelsus termed the “transcoloration” of gold: the improvement of an anemic specimen into a more golden one. This was alchemy of a peculiar sort, which did not involve the transmutation of one metal into another. In chapter six I show that according to Paracelsus metallic transmutations occurred naturally and could also be performed artificially. In one text he appears to advertise his skills, in search of an alchemical patron. In chapter seven, finally, the conclusion, I show that Paracelsus’s later disciples paid attention to the clues that he had left them in his writings. The flowering of Paracelsian transmutational alchemy in the late-sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries did not, as has generally been supposed, entail a break with the teachings of the master.