The Philosopher’s Stone:
A Study of the Quest for Perfection and Transmutation
in the works of Paracelsus Theophrastus of Germany
Jesse London Estrin
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements of the Major in Religion at Vassar College
Table of Contents:
2) Paracelsus as Man and Myth
3) First Aspect: The Elementary Realm
4) Second Aspect: The Sidereal Realm
5) Third Aspect: The Celestial Realm
I have become drawn to alchemy because of its capacity to fuel the imagination. Its narrative of transformation – turning base metals into gold – can be used to tell the underlying
story of many life processes. The alchemists believed that just as all metals – if left untouched
within the earth – naturally matured and developed into gold, so all natural processes were guided by a divine teleology. The growth of a tree from a seed, the birth and development of a child, or the generation of a pearl within an oyster all partake of the rich mystery of transmutation. For life itself is a mysterious movement towards perfection, towards progression and evolution. The alchemists saw this evolution as a divine drama, and the art of alchemy as a ritualized attempt to actively participate in this sacred process.
But the quest for perfection and transmutation is also an inquiry into human potential. This potential was understood to be no less than the innate human capacity to seek out, understand, and ultimately experience the Divine. Understanding this trend towards perfection operating within themselves, the alchemists attempted to facilitate the transformation of their souls into purified vessels capable of reflecting God‟s light. Alchemy was seen as an efficient tool, or method, for such a journey into the ineffable. This esoteric mysticism has begun to catch the attention of the modern public; the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is known to have spent the last 15 years of his life devoted to the study of alchemy. He saw in the cracked pages of
alchemical manuscripts a rich symbolism of the human psyche. He perceived in alchemy a universal language of symbols. In the metaphorical imagery and obscure paradoxes of the alchemical literature, Jung witnessed the primordial human struggle to understand ourselves and the world around us. For Jung believed that it was in the human, not nature, that the alchemical process brought to light that which was dark, purged that which was impure, and perfected that which was imperfect.
It is this dedication to the penetration of Nature‟s underlying secrets, and the passionate
urge towards human self-understanding that renders alchemy still relevant to us in the modern age. For alchemy, I believe, is still with us. From the poems of Chaucer and Shakespeare to the modern phenomenon of Harry Potter and Paulo Coelho, mainstream public audiences refuse to lose curiosity in the concept of transmutation. In a certain sense our entire modern civilization is founded on the dream of progression and transformation, in which our capacity to sculpt our own future is limited only by a loss of will or lack of imagination. I believe that our society‟s scientific ventures – from space exploration to natural resource extraction – are themselves
products of a cultural alchemy, that is, the quest for mastery and dominion over both the natural world and the unknown psychic void. It is because of this – the powerful presence of an
unconscious alchemical drive in modern culture – that I believe alchemy to be an important
phenomenon to study, and ultimately to understand.
I decided to write my thesis on Paracelsus in particular because he was a passionate, revolutionary, and controversial alchemist. I was also drawn to the fact that Paracelsus was first and foremost a physician. It appears that almost all of his inquires into Nature and her mysteries - whether through the study of alchemy, chemistry, astrology, or theology - were aimed towards the sole purpose of increasing his capability and efficacy as a doctor. He was as much a reformer
of medicine as he was an adept in alchemy, and he appeared as a startling figure on the horizon of the alchemical scene because of his admonitions to use alchemy to make medicines and not gold. But ultimately it was the strange blend of his pragmatics and speculation, his medicine and mysticism, that spoke to me. It is not frequent that the theoretical and the concrete merge with such harmony, and I was inspired to find a passionate philosopher who was equally devoted to a physical, worldly practice: in this case, healing.
Paracelsus represented for many the passionate desire for wisdom and understanding, the will towards discovery, and for this reason his name is closely associated with the emerging scientific attitude of the Renaissance man. His devotion to both practical sciences and imaginative spirituality reveals a desire to synthesize a holistic philosophy that unifies opposites and obliterates all distinctions between the sacred and the profane. His unconventional emphasis on discovering knowledge through experience foreshadows the modern scientific dictum, even as his poetic religiosity bespeaks of a rich and “active” imagination. Because of this he speaks to our intuitive impulses, our non-rational sensibilities, as much as to our intellect and reason. For Paracelsus was, in many ways, a paradox. But more than that, he became a symbol for something greater than himself. He became a symbol of the “Faustian man,” the experience-hungry
philosopher whose insatiable appetite for knowledge leads him further and further into the unknown.
This symbolism that is now irrevocably intertwined with the historical man Paracelsus is what defines him as a legendary figure. I believe it is for this reason that he continues to speak to us today, four centuries after his death. And it is for this reason that I turn to him now, worlds apart in time and space, in an attempt to shed light on the primordial human desire for perfection and transmutation.
Chapter One: Introduction
Born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, in the late fifteenth century, Paracelsus Theophrastus, otherwise known as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, grew to become a renowned and controversial physician. A true renaissance man and a prolific author, Paracelsus wrote hundreds of treatises on topics as diverse as medicine, chemistry, astrology, natural philosophy, alchemy, occultism and theology. Although recognized as a reformer of sixteenth-century medicine and an early contributor to modern scientific chemistry, it is Paracelsus the alchemist and hermetic philosopher with whom I am concerned for this paper. Much of the scholarship and historiography of Paracelsus, however, remains questionable despite its success in bringing to light this obscure renaissance luminary. Historians, both past and present, have often portrayed him more as a mythologized figure than as a historical personage. The subjective views of his earliest records, written by either his adversaries or his most intimate disciples, blur the line between the mythology and history of the man Paracelsus, and sets the precedent for inaccuracy in later scholarship. The result has been a shadowy and shape-shifting Paracelsus.
Paracelsus gained contradictory reputations for writing extensively on both “empirical” and “speculative” subjects. He was recognized by some as a scientific genius for his academic contribution in the fields of medicine and chemistry, and by others as an illumined sage whose
impact lay more in the sphere of philosophy and mysticism. More modern scholars tend to see to him as a superstitious and medieval man – although his contemporaries used the phrase “fatuous
quack” to describe him more than once – due to his tendency of blurring the fields of empirical
science and speculative philosophy. Such a fusion of disciplines, which in the renaissance mind were hardly separate, makes it more difficult for modern day historians to understand where, specifically, his most significant contributions lie. In the time of Paracelsus, for example, there was simply no distinction between what we would call astronomy and astrology, and likewise philosophy in its various forms could hardly be teased out of the study of medicine. In addition, the concept of “natural philosophy” no longer exists as it once did, subsuming many different
areas of knowledge, and thus any attempt to view his writings through the lens of modern academia, with its clearly differentiated and highly specific fields of knowledge, is bound to prove difficult. It was this blending of interests, which included what we might now call “hard”
and “soft” sciences, that served as one of the cornerstones of his contentious legacy.
One place where Paracelsus‟ spiritual insight and physical practicality converged was in his alchemy. As a systemized effort to transmute and ultimately “perfect” base metals into gold,
this Spagyric art – Paracelsus often used the term Spagyrist to refer to one who practiced alchemy– was certainly engaged with the mysteries of physical matter. At the same time, however, we know that the recipes and processes used to “cook” these metals were also
frequently used as allegorical codes for mystical experiences. By projecting spiritual and psychological dimensions onto the metals in his laboratory, Paracelsus believed he was simultaneously “perfecting” both the matter in his crucible and his very own soul. The nineteenth century chemist Marcellin Berthelot