The Visible and the Invisible. From Alchemy to Paracelsus

  • Massimo Luigi Bianchi
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 140)


Though topics and doctrines that may be defined as alchemical stand out visibly in Paracelsus’s work, and he is remembered particularly for this aspect of his thought, his relationship with alchemy cannot be described as a simple repetition of its traditional themes.1 In various places in his works he is anxious to distance himself from the traditional teaching by criticizing its tenets, aspirations and methods. The alchemy he advocates does not have as its objective the making of gold and silver. According to what one reads in Vom Terpentin, he does not wish for any more practitioners of this kind2; and, in the sections of Paragranum devoted to alchemy, he insists that the discipline’s worth is to be evaluated in terms which have nothing to do with the ennobling of metals.3 He also blames alchemists for the erroneous doctrine that ascribes the generation of metals only to Sulphur and Mercurius, without taking Sal into account.4 Though alchemical discoveries are indeed notable they seem to have occurred regardless of their discoverers’ intentions and to have been to some extent fortuitous (Nun hat die alchimia treffenlich vil groβer arcana an tag bracht: wiewol sie nit gesucht sind worden);5 in De vita longa his criticism of the traditional authorities, Lull, Repescissa, Arnald of Villanova, Albert and Thomas, on individual aspects of alchemical technique is always negative.6 Paracelsus does refer to the traditional alchemical doctrines in his works, but he re-elaborates them and develops them in various directions. It is a question not simply of revising this or that positive doctrine handed down by tradition, but of a meditation on the whole of alchemy. While explaining its basic hypotheses and general principles, Paracelsus extends the field of its application well beyond the confines established by tradition. This reflection cuts so deep, and the traditional alchemical conception is taken to such a level of generalization, that its basic ideas assume a theoretical significance and—as we aim to show—become the schemata on which Paracelsus models his own concept of knowledge.


Mutual Conversion Alchemical Transformation Alchemical Text Alchemical Technique 
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  1. 1.
    Paracelsus’s alchemical ideas have been examined in a number of specialist articles. For the purposes of the present article, as well as the sections devoted to alchemy in the monographic works by W. Pagel, Das medizinische Weltbild des Paracelsus. Seine Zusammenhänge mit Neuplatonismus und Gnosis (Wiesbaden, 1962), pp. 17-22; Paracelsus. Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of Renaissance (Basle-New York, 1982), pp. 258-78, particular reference has been made to the following: E. Darmstaedter, “Arznei und Alchemie. Paracelsus-Studien”, Studien zur Geschichte der Medizin, 20 (1931), pp. 1–77; W. Ganzenmüller, “Paracelsus und die Alchemie des Mittelalters”, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Technologie und Alchemie (Weinheim, 1956), pp. 300-14.Google Scholar
  2. R.P. Multhauf, “Medical Chemistry and‘The Paracelsians’”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 30 (1956), pp. 329–46.Google Scholar
  3. W. Schneider, “Der Wandel des Arzneischatzes im 17. Jhdt und Paracelsus”, Sudhoffs Archiv, 45 (1961), pp. 201–205.Google Scholar
  4. T.P. Sherlock, “The Chemical Work of Paracelsus”, Ambix, 3 (1948), pp. 33–52.Google Scholar
  5. G. Urdang, “How Chemicals entered the Official Pharmacopoeias”, Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences, 7 (1954), pp. 303–14.Google Scholar
  6. P. Waiden, “Paracelsus als Chemiker”, Zeitschrift für angewandte Chemie, 54 (1941), pp. 421–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 44.
    Opus paramirum, W I, 9, p. 48: “darumb so sol der arzt wissen das alle krankheiten in den dreien Substanzen ligent und nit in den 4 elementen. was die element kraft haben oder was sie sind, dasselbig trift die arznei der Ursachen nit an der humorum halben; sie sind matres, in was weg zeigt sein capitel an”; Labyrinthus medicorum errantium, W I, 11, p. 213: “so habt ir auch ungezweifelt get wissen, das die elementen nichts geben alein entpfahen. zu gleicher weis wie ein frau on einen man nicht geschwengert mag werden, also die elementen frauen von iren mannen entpfahen als von dem obern vulcanischen, wie auch dises exempel ausweist. der apfel wechst aus seinem samen und der sam ist der apfel und ist sperma vulcani. aber in den elementen entpfacht er matricem, in derselbigen nimpt er sein narung, Substanz, form und das volkomen wesen, und mage dahin komen, das daraus wird, das werden sol nach inhalt seiner praedestination, wie ein kint das volkomen von seiner muter kompt. also seind die elementen nit ursach der krankheiten, sonder der sam der in sie geseet wird und also in inen wechst in sein lezt wesen und materiam, aus welchem wir wachsen und aus welchem erwachsen die krankheit kompt”. Concerning Paracelsus’s doctrine of the elements, see R. Hooykaas, “Die Elementenlehre des Paracelsus”, Janus, 39 (1935), pp. 175–78.Google Scholar
  8. 50.
    Arnald of Villanova, Liber dictus thesaurus thesaurorum et rosarium philosophorum, in J.J. Manget, Bibliotheca chemica curiosa (Geneva, 1702), vol. I, p. 676: “Habet virtutem efficacem super omnes alias medicorum medicinas omnem sanandi infirmitatem, tarn in calidis quam in frigidis aegritudinibus, eo quod est occultae et subtilis naturae: Conservat sanitatem: roborat firmitatem et virtutem: et de sene facit juvenem, et omnem expellit aegritudinem: venenum declinat a corde: arterias humectat: contenta in pulmone dissolvit: ulceratum consolidat: sanguinem mundificat: contenta in spiritualibus purgat, et ea munda conservat”; see also Magistri Raymundi Lulli Testamentum, ibid., vol. I, p. 763: “Alchymia est una pars naturalis philosophiae occultae coelica, magis necessaria, quae constituit et facit unam artem et scientiam, quae non omnibus est nota, et docet mundare et purificare omnes lapides preciosos non perfectos, sed decisos, et ponere ad verum temperamentum, et omnia humana corpora lapsa et infirma restituere, et ad verum temperamentum reducere et optimam sanitatem”; Clangor buccinae, ibid., vol. II, p. 147: “Et sciendum quod antiqui sapientes, quatuor principales effectus sive virtutes in hac gloriosa thesauri area, consolatrice et adjutrice scientia repererunt. Primo dicitur corpus humanum a multis infirmitatibus sanare, secundo corpora imperfecta metallica restaurare. Tertio, lapides ignobiles in gemmas quasdam pretiosas transmutare. Quarto omne vitrum ductile sive malleabile facere. De primo consenserunt omnes Philosophi: Quod quando lapis aematites perfecte rubificatus fuerit, non solum facit mirabilia in corporibus solidis, sed et in corpore humano, de quo non est dubium. Nam omnem infirmitatem ab intra sumendo curat, ab extra sanat tingendo. Dicunt enim Philosophi, quod si datum fuerit de eo in aqua, vel in vino tepido paraliticis, freneticis, hydropicis, leprosis, curat eos”.Google Scholar
  9. 51.
    Johannes de Rupescissa, De consideratione quintae essentiae rerum omnium (Basel, 1573), p. 117: “Tribus modis aurum fieri potest: primo est aurum naturale seu minerae, secundo aurum alchymicum, tertium aurum philosophorum: ex effectu autem sie discernuntur: nam aurum alchymicum in potu datum non laetificat cor hominis, sed nocet, quia ex corrosivis compositum est, et vulnus ex eo factum tumescit. Aurum vero naturale datum in potu nihil agit, quia taliter ut comestum est, excernitur. Aurum autem lapidis philosophorum est solum quod quaeritur in nutrimentum, et etiam liberat leprosos et omnem infirmitatem datum in potu vel comestum, et vocatur aurum Dei”. Concerning medieval distillation techniques, as well the possible influence on Paracelsus of the De cons. quintae ess. by Rupescissa or the texts depending on it, as the pseudo-lullian De secretis naturae, the Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus by H. Brunschwygk (1500), the Coelum philosophorum of Ulstad (1525)-in which text, distillation is discussed in its application to medicinal substances-, see F. Sherwood Taylor, “The Idea of the Quintessence”, in E.A. Underwood (ed.), Science, Medicine and History. Essays in Honour of C. Singer (Oxford, 1953), vol. I, pp. 247-55; R.P. Multhauf, “Medical Chemistry and “The Paracelsians” “ (n. 1); id., “John of Rupescissa and the Origin of Medical Chemistry”, Isis, 45 (1954), pp. 359–67; id., “The Significance of Distillation in Renaissance Medical Chemistry”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 30 (1956), pp. 329-46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. R. Halleux, “Les ouvrages alchimiques de Jean de Rupescissa”, in Histoire littéraire de la France, 41 (Paris, 1981), pp. 242–77.Google Scholar
  11. 56.
    Arnald of Villanova, Flos florum, TC 3, p. 134: “Dixerunt etiam quidam philosophi: Nisi corpora vertatis in incorporea, et non corpora in corpora, id est de corpore spiritum, et e contra, nondum operandi regulam invenistis: et verum dicunt. Nam primo corpus fit aqua, id est Philosophorum Mercurius, et sic fit incorporeum: deinde in conversione spiritus in aquam, fit corpus. Et ideo quidam dixerunt: Convene naturas, et quod quaeris, invenies: hoc est verum”. See also Liber de magni lapidis compositione et operatione, TC 3, p. 9: “nam fecit artifex ascendere a terra in coelum quandam materiam vel substantiam spiritualem: et quum postea ipsa materia, vel substantia spiritualis facta congelatur, et fixatur, et in lapidem convertitur, tunc facit descendere de coelo in terram, et materiam vel substantiam spiritualem iterato facit corporalem. Et sic patet, quod sicut natura facit de corpore spiritum, et de spiritu corpus in generatione mineralium et metallorum: ita et nos in generatione artificiali lapidis mineralis per artificium nostrum mirabile, facimus corpora spiritus, et spiritus corpora”; Thesaurus philosophiae, TC 3, p. 151: “Praeparatio autem harum rerum a principio usque ad finem est aqua fixa, honorata: nam illa manifestant tincturam in projectione: et ipsa est mediatrix inter contraria, et ipsa eadem est principium, medium et ultimum. Intelligens ipsam, apprehendit sapientiam. Dixerunt etiam quidam Philosophi: Nisi corpus vertatis in non corpora, et incorporea in corpora, regulam veritatis non invenistis: et verum dicunt”; Albertus Magnus, De concordantia philosophorum in lapide, TC 4, pp. 813–814: “Et subdit Plato in quarto: Converte naturas, et quod quaeris invenies. Item alius, occulta manifesta, et manifesta occulta, et invenies magisterium. Item ad ipsam viam facit quod dicit quidam philosophus in Turba, nisi corpora incorporea feceritis, et incorporea corporea, nondum regulam operandi invenistis”; Guilelmus Tecenensis, Lilium de spinis evulsum, ibid., TC 4, p. 892: “Elementa igitur igne diligenter cocta laetantur, et anima vertitur in corpus, et corpus vertitur in animam, et in alienas vertuntur naturas, eo quod liquefactum quod est corpus, fit non liquefactum, humidum vero spissum et siccum corpus fit spiritus, et spiritus fit tingens, fortis, contra ignem pugnans. Quare Arisleus philosophus ait: Converte elementa et quod quaeris invenies”.Google Scholar
  12. 59.
    M. Turāb ‘Ali, H.E. Stapleton, M. Hidāyat Husain, “Three Arabic Treatises on Alchemy by Muhammad ibn Umail (10th century A.D.)”, Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 12,1, (1933), p. 183 (corresponding to TC 5, p. 226): “Et quod dixerunt verba nostra in manifesto sunt corporalia, et in occulto spiritualia, quae cum audivimus, quaesivimus cognitionem hujus occulti. Spirituale quidem occultaverunt, et manifestaverunt per aliud, ad res corporales. Hoc non potest intelligi nisi per sensus exteriores, et veram rationem et intellectum, (...) et non apprehendimus ab eis, quae percepimus in manifesto auditu. Veruntamen inquirimus occultum, quod occultum occultaverunt sensui nostro, quod si non esset, nou extraheretur quod cogitavernut in cordibus suis”; ibid., p. 187 (TC 5, p. 229): “Est autem opus mihi ut sapiens sim, ut aperta mini incerta sint, et noverim occulta, ut exponam verba sapientum, et perveniam per illam expositionem ad veritatem ac manifestationem eorum, ut post manifestationem manifestatur studentibus in illis, et (non) aperiatur fastidientibus et impatientibus et sufficientiam habentibus in his, quae prae manibus habent ex ignorantia”; ibid. (TC 5, p. 230): “Veruntamen si sim magnae rationis in scientia, et aperti fuerint tropi mihi eorum occulti, et manifestum est mihi quod occultaverunt, et hoc apprehendi per scientiam quod occultaverunt, (...) debeo recte hoc appropinquare intellectui successorum meorum, sermonibus in aperto velatis, significantibus intellectum occultum et velatum, ut hoc sit apertum et velatum. Est autem apertum studiosis, et sapientibus, et intelligentibus, et investigantibus, velatum autem minus intelligentibus”.Google Scholar
  13. 68.
    In the way it conceives of the relationship between visible and invisible, the alchemical concept can be compared to medieval symbolism. See, for example, Hugo Sancti Victoris, Expos. in Hier. Cael., III, Migne, P.L., 175, 960: “Symbolum [...], id est coaptatio visibilium formarum ad demonstrationem rei invisibilis propositarum”. Cited in T. Gregory, “Forme di conoscenza e ideali di sapere nella cultura medievale”, Giornale critico della filosofia italiana, 69 (1988), p. 12.Google Scholar
  14. 69.
    As is commonly known, following the work of the Freudian H. Silberer, Probleme der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik (Vienna, 1914), the issue of the links between mental processes and alchemical symbolism was taken up mainly by Jung and his school. By C.G. Jung, see Psychologie und Alchemie (Zurich, 1944); Die Psychologie der Übertragung (Zurich, 1946); Mysterium conjunctionis. Untersuchung über die Trennung und Zusammensetzung der seelischen Gegensätze in der Alchemie (Zürich, 1955–56); Alchemical Studies (Princeton, 1967). The salient aspects of Jung’s interpretation of alchemy are summarized in a recent article by M. Pereira, “Il paradigma della trasformazione. L’alchimia nel Mysterium conjunctionis di C. G Jung”, aut aut, 229-30 (1989), pp. 197–217. With regard to the comments made above, their aim is to call attention to the relationship between psychoanalysis and alchemy, not so much from the standpoint of content (parallels and analogies between alchemical symbolism and the images which mark the stages of what Jung calls a process of individuation), but rather from a purely formal standpoint, and to point out that both alchemy and psychoanalysis set out to go beyond the immediately apparent (an image, a symbol or a symptom in psychoanalysis; manifest qualities in the raw material of the lapis in alchemy) towards the latent content which it at once masks and expresses. It is also possible that the two aspects (content and form) are interconnected.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

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  • Massimo Luigi Bianchi

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