on 31 August 2008
The history of scientific thought has always been a subject which has enamoured me. The story of how mankind, the most psychologically sophisticated organism to have multiplied under the Sun, reared himself from dark millennia of ignorance, to fashion, in the last two centuries or so, a scientific theory which can explain some of the most eminently complex natural phenomena which encompass him and reside within him, is a fascinating one. And the age which just preludes his expanding comprehension of the universe, the Renaissance, is arguably the most fascinating epoch of this long quest for knowledge; it is a period of transition, when people, like the subject of this biography, began to shun the dogma of long-dead Greek philosophers, and placed increasing value on the methods of empiricism, which, of course, anticipated modern, experimental scientific technique. However, despite this emerging progressiveness, philosophic and scholastic conservatism stubbornly resisted a revision of its outdated teachings. The physician Paracelsus, an opponent to this academic adulation of Galen, Hippocrates and other classical thinkers was a major force of this revolution, and is the subject of Philip Ball's great little biography.
Although seen by many as a reformer, it is important that we do not over-emphasise Paracelsus's achievements, although there were some notable ones. 15th and 16th century Europe was still a heavily superstitious place, where alchemy was a credible pursuit, where magic, demons and witches were still discussed with the utmost seriousness and candour by respected academics. And all these falsehoods coloured almost every facet of Paracelsus's writings and philosophy, from his chemistry (or alchemy), biology, astronomy/astrology, medicine and theology. This is not to say that he was small-minded or foolish, he was simply a product of his time; the reason his name has fallen out of favour, so to speak, is that his contribution to modern science is, in reality, negligible, aside the likes of Copernicus, Vesalius, who really did shape modern theory.
So why study him? Firstly, he was a central figure in that period of science's history, and that he did challenge scholastic orthodoxy, and proposed reforms to medicine, much of which's spirit survives now, even if his own theories were really as erroneous as those he fought. Secondly, he is an immensely interesting character; bombastic, uncouth, arrogant, proud, but also committed, and propelled by a genuine desire to do good; and Ball's biography does a fantastic job of presenting a fair picture of, I suspect, a seriously misunderstood man.
Ball's lucid, penetrating and richly illustrated study is a pleasure to read; although to regard it as a strict biographical study would be misleading. It is the narrative of Paracelsus's life which binds the book in place, but it is as much a study of the Renaissance itself, with lengthy asides on various topics including Luther and the Protestant movement, medicine and disease, humanism, alchemy and many other digressions. These never become tiresome; indeed, they form a pivotal portion of the book, and all are relevant to the case of Paracelsus. There was hardly a dry moment; the abundant quotations which Ball extracts from Paracelsus's explosive tracts act as a fine illustration of Paracelsus's thought and Ball's analysis of these were informed and insightful. A balanced picture of the mystic is offered; Paracelsus, throughout history and up to today has had many antagonists and supporters, and Ball finds a comfortable position between the two camps, he both sympathises and criticises Paracelsus; loathed by the medical orthodoxy of the time, he was forced to travel around Europe after being banished from various towns, although Ball recognises that, to a large extent, this exile was due in large part to his inflammatory attitude and often immense arrogance; Ball's impartiallity is refreshing and strengthens the credibility of the book. The prospect of this book being bettered seems entirely remote; Ball's execution of this study is impressive indeed.
To anybody interested in this time of mysticism and magic, when demonology and astrology was as respectable a study as chemistry, medicine and astronomy; where eccentrics and wizards toured this tumultuous continent with tales of fantasy and folklore; or even a look at medical, chemical and theological history, look no further than this wonderful and entertaining little book.