THE MOST OUTSPOKEN ALCHEMIST
And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? (NewT:Revelation 5:2)
Wilhelm von Hohenheim came from the old Swabian noble family of the Bombaste
of Hohenheim. But the little family castle in Pfannigen was in other hands.
He himself had no possessions save a good education and a training as
physician. He lived in great poverty on his small practise in Maria
Einsiedeln in Switerland. He made no improvement in his financial situtation
when in 1492 he married the equally poor matron of the infirmary at Maria
Einsiedeln. The two had only a little house, not far from Eindiedeln, by
the Devil's Bridge over the Siehl. There, at the foot of the Etzel, was
born in 1493 their only child, Philipp Theophrastus. The boy grew up amid
the pine cones on a frugal diet of cheese, milk, and oatcake. His small
pleasures were those of the goatherd and cowherd boys. But his education
was strict, careful, and precise. His father and his mother taught him
reading, writing, arithmetic, and a little Latin and natural science.
When the mother died in 1502, Wilhelm von Hohenheim went with his little son to Villach in Carinthia, where he had been offered a post as physician to the miners and foundrymen. This move from the quiet Swiss village to the flourishing Carinthian mining basin was the deciding factor in the great career of the young Hohenheim. For both father and son it was a material advance, away from the cheese-milk-oats rations.
After the professional void of Maria Einsiedeln, there were here a hundred new problems for a physician. And the eager scholar in Wilhelm von Hohenheim now found opportunities of exchanging experiences with other educated men and of engaging in discussions. It had been a journey from a spiritual desert to a spiritual oasis.
Mines physician in these valleys abounding in metals--that was the profession for which the elder Hohenheim now trained his son. His son should be a better mines physician than he--a physician acquainted not only with the maladies of miners and smelters and with the poisonous vapours and saline waters, but with the diseases and virtues of metals.
So Wilhelm Hohenheim taught the bright fourteen-year-old not only the elements of medicine but also those of metallurgy and chemistry. And all his father's scientist friends were delighted with the young lad and shared in the boy's education from their fund of knowledge. One of the first and the most influential of these men was Bishop Scheit of Seckau. He was a man of exceptional learning, and his Augustinian monastery in Upper Styria had a library of ten thousand volumes. After the early death of the bishop his library remained at the service of the studious Theophrastus.
Other friends were Bishop Matthaeus Schacht, Suffragen Phrysingen, the Deacon of Ybbs, and the Bishop of Lavant in Lower Carinthia. The bishop's see of Lavant then belong to the archbishopric of Bamberg, and it must have been particularly from that source that young Theophrastus gained his knowledge of the works of Abbot Johannes Trithemius and the monk Basil Valentine.
In this way the doctrines of medical he align and the alchemistic view of nature became inextricably associated in the youngman's mind. The firm foundation was laid for the cosmology of the later Theophrastus Bombastus Paracelsus, who saw in the command of alchemy the source of the healing of all that was morbid, including, therefore, the sickness of man.
The environment in which he grew up made certain that young Theophrastus von Hohenheim should not merely engage in hairsplitting among philosophical notions. To go among the foundries, with the motley radiance of their furnaces, to inhale poisonous fumes, and to see the glittering crystalline ore change into shining white metal, were the adventurous joys of his leisure. Foundrymasters and ore testers were always ready to show the eager, clever son of their mining physician things that they jealously withheld from every grown-up as mysteries of their craft.
It was not surprising that when his father sent young Theophrast to Basle University in 1509, the youth stood out among the young students. But Theophrast had already too sound a basis of naturalist knowledge to be able to rest content with the conventional arid type of medical science based entirely on Aristotle and Galen. He cut short his studies in Switzerland and returned to Carinthia.
Theophrast von Hohenheim seems now to have determined to learn from practical men the composition and sybthesis of metallic and other substances. He found that most of the professors at the Universities knew nothing about these things, and consequently did no more than repeat obsolete rubbish from well-thumbed volumes. And for a physician whose one concern was to heal, the true composition of things must be the all-important basis of all study.
"It is the giving of Health that makes the Physician, and their Works that make Masters and Doctors, not Emperor, not Pope, nor Faculty nor Privilegia nor any University."
So wrote Theophrast von Hohenheim, and he went into the metal-smelting laboratories in order to learn what the physicians of his time despised - chemistry. At that time the wealthy Fuggers of Augsburg owned the Schwatz silver mine, and the "Edel und Vest Siegmund Fueger" himself came to the laboratories to watch new processes in alchemy. This rich Fugger gave Theophrast many opportunities in his laboratories and the advice of his laboratory workers.
Armed with new practical knowledge, Theophrast von Hohenheim went once more to a University. This time it was Ferrara, and it is said that he there gained a doctorate.
Here in Northern Italy Theophrast von Hohenheim may also have come under the influence of the occult alchemist thought of Agrippa von Nettesheim, for Theophrast himself writes of the Green Table of Hermes Trismegistos:
"And thought nothing of this is mentioned by thine accredited Fathers and false Prophets, yet the ancient Smaragdine Table shows more of art and experience of Philosophy, of Alchemy, and of Magic, than can ever be conceived by thee and by the company."
But Theophrastus Paracelsus did not use this philosophy for a return to aesthetics. He did not build himself a golden castle in Spain. He wanted to help men, and he learned where the great Roger Bacon had also learnt. The greatness of Theophrastus Bombastus Paracelsus lies there, in his open mindedness:
"I have learnt from Barbers, Cuppers, old Women, Gypsies, Hangmen, and Knackers."
Not that such intercourse as this brought any better repute than in our day! In his independence of spirit Theophrastus arrived with his reputation just where Agrippa von Nettesheim was landed by his unwelcome philosophy. But the orthodox did not only whisper about Theophrastus Paracelsus, they published their opinion in word and in writing . . . But he also had better replies to make:
"He who is but a believer and no philosophus, is no sage in faith. It is best for the believer to be a wise man and a man of ingenuity, that he may know what it is that he believes. A fool that believes is dead in his belief. That man is rich who knows God in His works and believes in him through them, not as a blind man believes in colour."
It is true that in his book Paragranum Theophrastus Paracelsus had hard words for those physicains who never dreamed of looking up from the pages of books to cast a single glance at the working and the composition of the substances in the world. Of these physicians he writes:
"They are despisers of philosophy, despisers of astronomy, despisers of alchemy, dispisers of virtue. How can they remain not despised of the sick?"
What he has learnt from such physicians, Paracelsus deems valueless:
"That which I have learnt from you, that has the drift snow consumed, and I have thrown into Saint John's Fire all books, in order that all ill-fortune may go into the winds with the smoke."
Paracelsus asks those physicians the secret of life and decay, and gives answer to them:
"What makes the pears ripen, and what brings forth the grapes? Nothing but the alchemy of Nature! What makes milk from grass? What makes wine from barren earth? It is the natural digestion. And as external nature pursues alchemy, so must the physician bring things to ripening."
In his book Archidoxa, later printed at Strasberg, Paracelsus carries his system of substances beyond the four elements and the quintessence. He adds to it a superstructure of the impalpable, the world of the Arcana. His system of the still incomprehensible is bound up with the similar alchemistic conceptions of the transmutation of base metals.
He regards the Material Prima as the first Arcanum. He explains it as a seed from which, like the plants of the field, new youth grows in men to a new summer and new years.
The Arcanum of the philosopher's stone also proceeds from the philosophy of the conversion of lead into gold. It agrees so well with what it was always possible to expect of the virtues of the philosopher's stone, that the arcanic philosopher's stone of Theophrastus Paracelsus is in truth the eternal philosopher's stone of all alchemy:
"Lapis Philosphorum, which is the other Arcanum, has its effectin another form. Just as a fire cleans the solid and torn skin of the Salamander, and makes it pure and clean, as though it were new born, so does the Lapis Philosophorum purify the body, cleansing it of all filth, and giving it new young powers."
Living quicksilver, Mercurius Vitae, is the third Arcanum of Paracelsus, and the Tincture is his fourth. Just as the Tincture makes gold out of silver and other metals, so here it tinctures the body, takes away the bad qualities, dullness and courseness, and by purification makes it most noble and eternal.
Of all these Arcana it was the experiments with living quicksilver that made Paracelsus famous for all time. He suceeded in fighting the most dangerous disease of his day, regarded as incurable--syphilis.
In spite of all the opposition, Theophrast von Hohenheim did more for medicine than many a highly resepted physician, and did more practical work with metals in alchemy than many an alchemistic writer. It is in his book Archidoxa that Paracelsus claims, over and above his other achievements, to have found the true philosopher's stone, the converter of metals:
"For my treasure lies still at Weyden in Friauli, in the hospital. It is a jewel for which neither the Roman Leo nor the German Karl can pay. Though the name of the Signet Star was given among your secrets, it is recognized by none but the disciples of the divine Stagirite."
[From The Goldmakers, by K. K. Doberer; pages 92 to 100. Boldface added.]