The Idea of Nature as Associated with the Idea of Care (Report 2002)

Warren t. Reich asked me officially to write a Report on the relation of Nature and Care (Fürsorge) for him.

He is a Distinguished Research Professor of Religion and Ethics in the Georgetown University Theology Department and Professor Emeritus of Bioethics in the Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is the Director of the Project for the History of Care.

In his Article „History of the Notion of Care“ (1995) Warren T. Reich studies the gender aspect outgoing from the ancient Roman mythological figure of Cura. He investigates the legacy of this divine figure reflecting Heidegger’s and Kierkegaard’s philosophy among other positions.

But the most essential point he missed: Cura or care is a character of Natura or nature, which was personified traditionally as a nourishing and healing female figure: Alma mater, Goddess of health, divine mother. Nature even resembled Maria in the early modern iconography and emblematics. This dimension of care can only be detected by historiography of medicine and science and their respective history of ideas.    


In the history of medicine, the idea of Nature is very closely associated with the the idea of Care. There is one essential assumption in medical theory and practice, which can be found from antiquity until nowadays: the idea of a “healing power of Nature” (vis medicatrix naturae, Naturheilkraft). This assumption has two consequences: (1) Nature is imagined as a doctor in itself (or better: herself); and (2) Nature is the primary physician, the human doctor is only secondary, because he can only cure in accordance with her intentions and laws – and not against them. As we will see, in the iconography of alchemy Nature is often symbolised by female figures: healing Goddess, queen, the Virgin etc. Nature (Latin natura) is like Care (Latin cura) feminine. Therefore, it is reasonable to personify the concept of Nature by gender (“she”). But it is essential to realise, that Nature does not fit in the traditional (dualistic) gender pattern of the cultural history: male as bright, spiritual, and eternal; and female as dark, elemental, and deathly. Obviously, Nature is often imagined as a female figure, but with intrinsic male qualities: She is a medium of the divine power and becomes therefore herself a divine (radiating) power.
It should be mentioned, that the concept of Nature as a healing power is characteristic for the occident (Europe). It is a questionable, whether this situation can be generalised. So, the concept of a natural healing power does not play a comparable role in the Chinese tradition, were Confucianism stressed more the social duties and interrelations, so that medical metaphors correspond to political ones. (E. g.: In Chinese, “cure” is the same term as “rule” in a political sense; cf. Unschuld, 1996)
Our hypothesis is: Nature in the context of the history of (Western) medicine can be identified with Care. Nature cares for the health of man by her actions, outside and inside the human body. There was a strong impact by the Christian tradition: God cares for man by the means of Nature. Nature becomes a medium of the divine creativity. So, Nature as a caring instance reveals only the intentions of God: to protect people from diseases and to cure them. In this way, Care (cura) is at work before man intervenes. She, then, becomes a guide for man, who can only cure and care according to her guidance.
My report gives a general historical overview. It is focussed on the early modern times, when natural magic, alchemy and astrology hat a great impact on medicine by the movement of paracelsianism. The latter emphasised very much the idea of Nature as a general instance not only in regard to the natural healing power, but also in regard to  the intellectual and empirical guide for serious scholars (“philosophers”) In this context, we find the most impressive imagery of Nature/Care, as it is pointed out below by a series of illustrations. We are here confronted with a nodal point in the history of science and medicine: The new (natural) sciences came up and began to develop, whereas the “occult” natural philosophy (mainly neo-platonism) maintained and was implemented in the early modern discourse of the scientific community. The most important cornerstone was the concept of Nature in accordance to the motto: “Reading in the Bible of Nature”! Only when this historical background is taken in mind, one can understand the real (religious and magic) impact of modern aspects of Nature in Medicine (and Science), e. g. in the form of naturopathy (Naturheilkunde).
“Physis” or “natura” in Greek medicine
Nature or natura in Latin is named physis in Greek. In the Hippocratic writings, the idea of Nature as a healing power is stressed very strictly. The principle formula can be read in the sixth book of “Epicemic Diseases” (Epid. V, 1): Noúson phýsies iatroí, i. e. Nature is the healer of the disease (exactly: the Natures are the doctors of the diseases). Nature was imagined as a vital controller of the human organism. The (self-)healing tendencies were only one of its vital expressions. “Nature remains without education and did not learn anything, but nevertheless works dutifully” (Epid. VI, 5) Physicians observed, that sick persons could recover from their illness without medical aid – spontaneously. Obviously, the physis had been at work. It was supposed to regulate the balance of the body humours in the sense of humour pathology.
In this perspective, physis was supposed to be an agent of self-help within the human body, which could fail. In this case, people would fall ill and the doctor’s help would become essential for surviving. It was then the task of the doctor, to support the natural healing power by his artificial healing, in co-operation with Nature and not against it. The Hippocratic doctor had to work as a “servant of Nature” (tês phýseos hyperétes) and not as its master. The idea of the physis implied a useful activity. Probably, it influenced the idea of usefulness in the concept of Nature in Plato and Aristotle. In the Hippocratic tradition, Nature cared for the wealthy state of the human body protecting it from harm and disease and had the power of healing in the case of illness. Only when the power was too weak or failed to work properly, the doctor had to intervene and to support it in accordance to its tendencies.

The dogmatic concept of Greek medicine was formulated by Galen (2nd c.). He fixed the doctrine of humour pathology, which dominated the history of the Western medicine throughout the ages until the modern times. The concept of Galenism was coined by the model of the four body humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm): their balance or harmony meant healthiness (temperate state), their imbalance or disharmony meant disease (intemperate state). Medical therapy aimed at the reversal of the disharmony to achieve harmony. The guideline can be called contraria contrariis (i. e. contrasting disorders by contrasting treatment). The unbalanced state of the disorder should be corrected in accordance with the physis, which was supposed to fight against pathological processes or matter by producing a so-called krisis. The work of Nature was imagined as a dynamic conflict. Medicine could intervene in this conflict and take Nature’s part against harmful factors. Insofar, there was a concordance between the natural dynamics and the artificial intervention, e. g. by blood letting, herbal medicine or diet. The doctor had to support the efforts of the physis.

An example may illustrate the idea of the natural healing power. Bleeding by menstruation was taken for protective action of the female body, drawing out pathogenic materials. In analogy, haemorrhoids appeared to be a benevolent natural action of the body humours in males. The retention of menstrual as well as haemorrhoid bleeding was assumed to cause severe illnesses like melancholy, epilepsy, madness etc. It can be studied in textbooks of the 18th and 19th centuries, how far reaching this concept was. The well-known German doctor and psychiatrist Karl Friedrich Ideler (1796) appreciated nosebleeds in all diseases caused by too large quantities or congestion of blood, like apoplexy, falling sickness or stupor in the consequence of  a suppressed natural bleeding of the body: Suppression of the menstruation in female respectively suppression of the haemorrhoids in male persons. “The third [therapeutic] crisis by bleeding is achieved by the haemorrhoids. You may expect that bleeding in the manly age [im mannbaren Alter].” (Cf. Schott, 1998b, p. 118) Therefore, the Plexus haemorrhoidalis was called the “golden vessel” (güldene Ader, Goldader). The bleeding of the haemorrhoids were an equivalent of blood letting.


Nature and the imagery of light


In general, the imagery of light plays an important role in medical history. It symbolises in particular the healing power of Nature corresponding to the idea of a vital power (Lebenskraft) which was supposed to circulate as a luminous fluid or “spirit”in the nerves. The polarity of lightness and darkness can be found at all times of cultural history. Light as a male characteristic symbolises divinity, eterniy, spirituality, wellness, and fiery (imponderable) substances; whereas darkness as a female characteristic represents the evil, dead, danger, and disease. The cross cultural pattern for this polarity is the imagery of day and night. Consequently, the sun is identified as a symbol of divine majestic glamour and male power, whereas the moon signals darkness, discomfort and female weakness. In the tradition of humour pathology (i. g. galenism) the gender polarity is especially stressed: the male qualities are warm and dry, opposing the female ones being cold and wet.


Apparitions of light symbolised in the tradition of religious mysticism the emanation of the divinity influencing (influence in German: ein-fließen, Ein-fluß)– literally spoken – natural things. Insofar, religious mysticism was connected with a sort of natural mysticism. Jacob Böhme was a visionary, who did not only use religious sources, but was also fed by the thought of Paracelsian alchemy. In his writings there are many allusions to light. The relation of light and fire was important for him: “I would like to give you another example of fire and light / the fire shows us by its painfulness / the Nature in the science (Szientz) / and the light shows us the divine fire of love / for the light is also a fire / but a giving fire / and it hands over itself to all things / and in this there are life and essence, air / and a spiritual fluid / and in this oily water the dear fire of the light lives, because it is the food of the light …” (Böhme, 1623; translation H. S.)


“In the light of Nature”: Paracelsian natural philosophy


The concepts of light and fire can also be found quite frequently in the work of Paracelsus. They reveal theological, natural mystical, and alchemical aspects. I emphasis only a few quotations of Paracelsus. The “light of Nature” is called within the human body also the “light of the microcosm” (liecht microcosmi): “The light of Nature is an eternal light, because it comes from the angels and stays in the souls, where there is no death. But the deadly light dies, that is the deadly school master.” The light is taken for a “noble master” (edler lehrmeister), teaching his disciple, doctor or natural philosopher. The light of Nature is only lit by the Holy Spirit. The greater light of the Holy Spirit, the more extensive the light, from where all science and knowledge originates.


Light would also create life as a “living fire” (lebenig feur). Gold is taken for “pure” (lauter) or “frozen fire” as well. The Holy Spirit is the power igniting fire in natural things. The divine or heavenly fire appears white, whereas the evil or diabolic and pathogenic fire appears as a “black” or “dark fire”. (Cf. Schott, 1998a, p. 278 ff.)


The remarkable Paracelsian imagery of light leads to further questions. On the one hand one may ask, whether Paracelsus himself had visionary or mystical experiences leading him to those metaphors. Was his term “light of Nature” therefore more than just a theoretical rhetoric? Most of the scholars refuse the assumption, that Paracelsus experienced himself natural mysticism. But in my opinion it seems to be possible, even if there is no biographical proof (ibd., p. 283 f.). On the other hand it is until nowadays unclear, whether respectively in which way Paracelsus was influenced by the tradition of cabbala. Especially in the tradition of the Jewish mysticism the divine light emanating from God and penetrating Nature was very important.


By the way; Giordano Bruno used in his treatise “On Magic” (De magia) the imagery of light too, demonstrating the correlation of the divine and natural world. “So the descent through the universe to the living beings starts from God. He is on the top of the ladder, pure actor, acting potency and purest light. At the deepest roots of the ladder there is the matter, darkness, and the pure passive potency… In between the deepest and the highest grade there are the medium species: those, who are more above participate in the light and the act of the acting power, but those, who are more below participate in the darkness and the passive potency and power.” (Bruno, 1999, p. 119 f.)

The Rosicrucean manifestos in the early 17th century follow the Paracelsian perspective and also present an imagery of light. The “light of God” (Liecht von Gott) is mentioned in the “Confessio fraternitatis” (1815), that can be perceived in a characteristic manner by members of the secret society (i. e. the Rosicrucean brotherhood). In the “chemical wedding” (chymische Hochzeit) (1616) a miraculous intensification of the sun light happens: It is directed from the mirrors at all of the walls of a castle hall to a golden globe (Guldene Kugel) hanging in the middle radiating such a glamour (glantz),  that nobody could open the eyes. (Cf. Schott, 1998a, p. 293)

Nature as a magician (maga): the archeus in the stomach (Paracelsus)

It is remarkable, that Paracelsus, who criticised Galenism radically, nevertheless also stressed the importance of the hypochondrium and the digestive organs – even stronger than the heavily attacked “pigs of humour pathology” (Humoristensäue)! This paper is not the convenient place to deal with the adventurous life and work of Paracelsus between the Middle Ages and the modern times, between religion and natural science, magic and empirical medicine. Here, I will only outline the crucial point of his anthropology: i. e. the continuous correspondence between microcosm (man) and macrocosm (world) in the meaning of alchemy.

Nature itself (as vulcanus) works like an alchemist, is in herself a sort of magician (maga, a female magician) preparing natural things – but not “to their end”. It is the task of man as a “philosopher” (philosophus, i. e. a doctor or pharmacist) to complete the industry of Nature. The medical alchemy turns out to be an “art of separation” (Scheidekunst), which separates the poison (German: Gift) from the efficient medicine  and excretes the waste or faeces (German: Schlacke) to get the pure essence of the drug (arcanum). In accordance to the principles of the microcosm-macrocosm-model “like up (in heaven) – so below (on earth)” and “like outside – so inside” the alchemy outside in Nature and laboratory is corresponds to the alchemy inside the human body, precisely in the stomach, working similarly. In the Paracelsian view, the stomach is the central organ located in the middle of the human body, where the “life spirit” (spiritus vitae) is seated and the soul is rooted. Paracelsus also uses the terms geist microcosmi, archeus, or vulcanus. He calls them the alchemical artists.

In his treatise Labyrinthus medicorum errantium (1537/48) he displays the analogy of natural and artificial, inner and outer alchemy, stomach and kitchen (i. e. laboratory): “alchimia ist ein kunst, vulcanus ist der künstler in ir …  das ist alchimia, das ist der schmelzer der vulcanus heist. Was das feur tut, ist alchimia, auch in er kuchen [Küche], auch im ofen. Was auch das feur regirt, das ist vulcanus, auch der koch, auch der stubenheizer.” (Alchemy is the art, vulcanus is the artist of it. … alchemy is the melter called vulcanus. What rules the fire, that is vulcanus, also the cook, also the boilerman.) In his “example” (Exempel), i. e. a parable or simile, of the bread, Paracelsus shows, how the inner alchemist in the stomach (alchimia microcosmi) is able to complete and perfect the whole process of natural alchemy:  There is a development from the growing of the grainand to harvest it to the making of bread, eating it, and digesting it. “also folgt der archeus, der inwendig vulcanus hernach, der weiß zu circulirn und praeparirn …, wie die kunst selbst vermag mit sublimirn, destillirn, reverberirn etc.; dan die artes [alchemistischen Künste] sind alle im menschen als wol in der eußerlichen alchemei …” (Paracelsus ed. Sudhoff, vol. 11, p. 188 sq.) (Now, the archeus, the vulcanus inside continues, who knows to circulate and prepare …, as the art itself is able to sublimate, distil, to reverb [?] etc.; for  the arts are all together as well inside man as in the outer alchemy …”)

So, the medical anthropology of Paracelsus focuses on the alchemical idea of the archeus. But its localisation in the stomach is not to understand anatomically in a modern sense. It is just the abdominal  region of the cardia (German: Magenmund), where heart and stomach come together, the hypochondrium, the centre of the body, the origin of life and disease. There is a special term in German, still used in the 19th century: namely Herzgrube, which means “hollow of the heart”.

In his writing Labyrinthus medicorum errantium he wrote: “Man is born to fall down. Now, there are two [helpers] in the light of Nature raising  him: the internal physician [inwendige artzt] with his internal medicine, they are borne and given him in the conception … But the external physician begins only to work, when the inborn is down, burned out [abgezappelt], tired; then he turns over his duty to the external one.” (Paracelsus ed. Sudhoff, vol. 11, 198 sq.; cf. Schott, 1987, p.462)  This idea follows the classic concept of supporting the weakened physis (i. e. healing power of Nature).

So, Paracelsus established the metaphor of an “internal doctor” or “inner alchemist”. Nature within the human body corresponds with Nature outside: Generally, Nature worked like a magician, like an alchemist – Nature herself was declared to be the prime alchemist. In this way, “natural magic” became the main concept of paracelsianism. Paracelsus used the metaphor of the “first” or “internal” doctor to describe the internal Nature of man, of microcosm. “You should realise, that a doctor should really know, where the Nature aims at. For it is the first doctor, man is the second. Where Nature begins, there shall the doctor help, that it goes out at that location. Nature is a better doctor than man.” The practical guideline is clear: The “external doctor” (auswendige Arzt) has to subordinate himself to the “internal doctor” (inwendige Arzt) i. e. Nature and to co-operate with her.

Imitation and Perfection of Nature: Two principles of natural magic 

But Paracelsus went further. He presumed an interplay between microcosm (man) and macrocosm (environment, universe) constituted by subtle correspondences between similar things inside and outside the human body, which seemed to be linked spiritually. The Paracelsian microcosm-macrocosm-model implied two principles of natural magic:

  • The principle of imitation: Nature itself appeared as a secret or disguised  magician, a maga, a teacher of adepts. The “philosopher” (as a scientist, alchemist, or physician) had to study the magic Nature and to learn her secret methods. The motto was: Learning by imitating Nature. All the work of a “philosopher” should be done “in the light of Nature”. Therefore, one could characterise the Paracelsian program of “experience and science” (experientia et scientia) as a claim for enlightenment. But imitation included the tendency of perfection transcending the act of mere reproduction or repetition.
  • The principle of perfection: The “philosopher” should perfect the natural process by his art of alchemy. This opened a very new perspective. The products of Nature, e. g. the plants or metals appeared to be still imperfect in their natural stage. Only a “philosopher” was able to perfect the natural product by refining and purifying it getting an arcanum, a pure spiritual remedy. The alchemical procedure meant both: imitating and perfecting Nature as the only way to conquer the “seed” (samen) of a disease by producing specific drugs (arcana).

Alchemy and it’s laboratory work were the adequate fields of performing the principles of natural magic for medical purposes. They displayed an impressive imagery (see below).

The Paracelsian  “philosophers” (scholarly doctors and alchemists) refused demonology, sorcery, and quackery as superstition and fraud. Nevertheless, their manipulations and healing practices resembled them in many aspects. The corresponding imagery influenced medical anthropology and sensory perception in the following centuries: e. g. archeus (“internal alchemist”, vulcanus) meaning the life-principle (Lebensgeist). Its domicile is not the brain, but the upper abdomen (hypochondrium) and the organs located there, particularly stomach and spleen. All the metaphors relevant to visceral activities like “kitchen”, “oven”, “digestion” etc. were of great importance for science and (chemical) medicine, which began to flourish in early modern times.

Paracelsus defined alchemy in the Labyrinthus medicorum errantium: “That is the melter (Schmelzer) , his name is vulcanus; what the fire makes, is alchemy- also in the kitchen, also in the oven. What the fire rules, that is vulcanus, – also the cook, also the boilerman (Heizer). – The same happens with the medicine (Arznei); it is created by God, but has not yet been made up to the end, but is hidden in the waste (Schlacken). Now vulcanus has got the duty to take away the waste from the medicine.” (Paracelsus, ed. Peuckert, vol. 2, p. 463)

The following “parable (Exempel) of the bread” illustrates the argumentation of Paracelsus very well: “Nature produces the prime matter (primam materiam) until the harvest; then alchemy cuts, grinds, bakes to the mouth (bis zum Maul); now, prima and media materia  is finished and the alchemy of the microcosm (alchimia microcosmi) starts. It has the prime mater in the mouth, that is bread, it chews it, that is it’s first work; then there is the other matter in the stomach which digests and is transformed into blood and flesh, the ultima materia (last matter). … So Nature procedes and deals with us as the creatures of God.” (l. c., p. 464) The vulcanus in the macrocosm, especially located in mountains, corresponds to the archeus in the microcosm and both correspond to the alchemist in his laboratory or medical practice. The latter does not only imitate the former, but moreover brings his work to an end: “That is alchemy: what does not have come to an end, to bring to an end.” (l. c. )

Archeus – Nature as the “life spirit” (van Helmont)

Now, we should look at the most important Paracelsian scholar of the 17th century, namley Johann Baptist van Helmont. In his “Ortus medicinae”, which was translated congenially by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth under the title “Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst” (1683), van Helmont reports his dream vision of the “tomb of the truth” (Grab der Wahrheit), which is hidden in the darkness of the earth. In the corresponding illustration, we can see besides van Helmont himself Paracelsus, holding a torch in his hand approaching the tomb. (Illustration 1: van Helmont, 1683, fronitspiece) At the same time people from above are digging a sort of light channel. Light symbolises here in the first line scientific enlightenment by (chemical) research of the hidden Nature. Van Helmont, more precisely than Paracelsus, combined the metaphor of light with the concept of Archeus (spiritus vitae, Lebensgeist). The spiritus vitae is imagined as a glancing matter and was even perceived personally by his self-experimentation. Van Helmont noticed the poisoning effects of a special herb called “monk’s hood” or aconite (Eisenhut in German) and could find out by chance the location of the soul (Lager der Seele): “I felt quite distinctly … that the sensuousness and the movement without harm was disseminated throughout the whole body; the entire power, however, to reflect, would reside noticeably and sensitively in the hypochondrium (Herzgrube)… as if, so to speak, then the mind would consider all its intentions at this place.  … without any input by the head … In the consequence, I have learned … that the reason would beam in a shining manner up to the head … that a strange light would ascend out of the hypochondrium.” (cf. Schott, 2001, p. 300) So, the archeus resides in the stomach (hypochondrium) beaming up to the head.

Van Helmont’s plea for the abdominal soul is strong. He argues against the over-estimation of the brain and stresses, “that the stomach rules more over the head, than the head over the stomach”. For the stomach is the centre, the root of the human life; “from where the beams [of the vital spirit] can go up as well as down.” So, the brain is illuminated by ascending beams from the “cardia” like a sun. The mental enlightenment, elucidation starts from stomach and spleen, which is called the “sun and cook” of the stomach. The connection of divine and natural light is also very remarkable in van Helmont’s work, although he emphasised more than Paracelsus the internal physiological processes within the human Body.


Stomach and spleen as the ruling (double) centre (van Helmont)


Van Helmont dealt with the theory of the “life spirit” much more systematically than Paracelsus did, and created sophisticated argumentations to explain its location and its physiological and pathological functioning in the abdomen. The “life spirit” (archeus) represents Nature within man, caring for his wealthy state. For van Helmont it is quite clear, that the cardia (Magenmund) is the real source of the soul (Brunn-Quell der Seele), as he experienced it impressively by a self experiment. He reports the situation, when he detected the location of the soul by a to study the effect of the poison of a special herb (Aconitum Napellus) in his own body: “I felt quite clearly, … that the sensitivity and motion would spread without distortion  from the head into the whole body; whereas the whole power to reflect reasonably was located remarkably and perceptibly in the cardia (Hertzgrube) … as if reason would calculate and think there … any influence from the head seemed to be blocked. … I have learned by this event, … that reason beams in a shining manner up to the head, … that a light arises from the cardia … But all powers of reason stay external in regard to the brain and are in a way asleep as far as they are not illuminated out of the cardia (Hertzgrube).” (Van Helmont, 1683, p. 886) (translation from the German edition by Knorr von Rosenroth – H. S.) Van Helmont stresses very impressively the idea of the abdominal soul and argues against the overestimation of the cerebral soul. I finds, “that the stomach rules more the head, than the head rules the stomach”. For the stomach is the centre, the root of the human body, “from where the beams [of the life spirit] conveniently can go up as well as down.” So, the brain is illuminated by rising beams from the cardia, like from a sun.

But van Helmont goes further than Paracelsus, describing the life spirit as a “double ruler” (Duumviratus, zweyherriges Regiment). In the stomach there is “a double cook: one originates from the spleen, the other one belongs to the stomach itself.” The spleen would spend the stomach a power of fermentation through many arteries, it is therefore so to speak its sun and cook. Van Helmont uses here even the metaphor of the married couple to illustrate the co-operation of both organs. The first movement comes from the spleen, and the first sensitivity from the stomach: “So, the stomach is the perfection of the spleen, and the spleen is the perfection of the stomach.” Although van Helmont refutes generally the Paracelsian concept of microcosm and macrocosm and its astrological implications, he keeps the traditional view, that Saturn as an evil star can influence man by the spleen. Imagination and fantasy can produce there pathogenic images (ideae morbosae) impressing the life spirit like a germ in the cardia so heavily, that a “germinal” (sämliche) disease develops. Nowadays, we might say, that van Helmont anticipated here the idea of parasitology respectively bacteriology as well as the idea of  psychosomatic medicine. 

Above all, van Helmont tried to explain the origin of the plague by this concept. Before him, Paracelsus had identified the “dispair” (Verzweiflung ) as the cause of the plague. Now, van Helmont expounds an elaborated theory of the aetiology of the plague as the paradigm of a general aetiology. Especially the images of fright, awful visions were supposed to produce the image of plague (partially propagated by the spleen) in the cardia containing the poison of pestilence. These images were thought tp be “extraordinarily toxic and powerful enough to pollute the life spirit” and to provoke the plague. 

Van Helmont also criticized the ignorance of the old and new scholars, who would take the “crisis” for natural help e. g. by the moon without knowing, that in fact the life spirit (Lebensgeist, archeus) would act (van Helmont, 1683, p. 948/23) – only imitating natural things, e. g. the moon. The whole Nature works magically or spiritually (geist-artig). Even in bodies without mind and free will, the imagination (Einbildung, phantasia) is an active power: it sends it’s image (bildliches Wesen) combining it with the “beam of the passive thing” (mit dem Strahl des leidenden Dinges). This model of an encounter between a sender a receiver is essential for the natural magic, i. e. the magic of Nature. But the intellect (eigentliche Verstand) of magic and imagination (magica & phantasia) itself can only be found in creatures endowed with reason (van Helmont, 1683, p. 1038/152). Van Helmont refused generally the microcosm-macrocosm-analogy of Paracelsus. Nevertheless he also alluded to astrology, when he claimed e. g. in the Tumulus Pestis (11th chapter)  that the spleen would correspond with the vital spirit (lebendiger Geist) of Saturn causing hypochondria.

Like Paracelsus, van Helmont maintained the two principles of imitation and perfection throughout his work (see belos). He accentuated mainly the imagery of imagination (animal phantasticum, phantasy) to describe physiological and pathological processes, and anthropomorphised the interplay of organs. Whereas Paracelsus claimed the action of Nature as a model for magic medicine, van Helmont emphasised more the human reason as a model for the magic of Nature. The polarity of man and Nature (i. e. human reason and “reason” within natural things) implied a certain hierarchy: Only man could perfect and transcend Nature, even when Nature was the teacher and treasure of all magic stuff. How could this mystery happen?

Religion: the complementary side of alchemy

The most important requirement of the Paracelsian concept of natural magic was the religious attitude. The alchemical procedures in the light of Nature could only work, when they – at the same time – happened in the “light of God” or “in the light of the Holy Spirit”. The ultimate authority was neither man nor Nature, but God himself. Imitation and perfection of Nature were only possible and  permitted, when they were performed with humility. The feature of Paracelsianism in regard to religion was coined by different sources. I can only summarise here the most important ones: (a) neo-Plalatonism, (b) the identification of Nature with the Bible, (c) the Jewish respectively Christian kabbalah, and (d) the impetus to reform or even revolutionise science and society.

Paracelsian neo-Platonism was very well analysed by Walter Pagel (1962), and the famous slogan of reading in the Bible of Nature – fundamental for the dogma of signatures (Signaturenlehre) – was broadly noticed by the scholars of cultural historiography. But the impact of the Kabbalah, the Jewish tradition of religious mysticism, is yet unclear and is still a major problem for interpreters. Pagel mentions: “Paraccelsus has in common with the Kabbalah the analogies of macrocosm and microcosm, and therefore he resorted in his terminology and ideology to similar conclusions, interpretations, and allegories. It will be hardly proven, that he gained special and specifically alchemical knowledge from the Kaballah.” (Pagel, 1962, p.88) Another religious motif of the Paracelsian movement was the idea of a social reform or even revolution corresponding to the moral guidelines of natural philosophy. The claim for a general reformation of society with religious humility along scientific enlightenment –  which e. g. the Rosicrucian movement in the early 17th century propagated – was strongly influenced by Paracelsianism and Paracelsus in particular, as Roland Edighoffer (1998) pointed out.

It is a fascinating fact, that natural philosophy and religion played an important role in early modern science and medicine. Both were very closely connected. It is almost impossible to differentiate between both approaches or attitudes. The reason for that is quite simple: Nature herself  was estimated as a mirror of divinity, a magic mirror of God’s will, and a medium for human beings. Imitating and perfecting Nature was much more than just a support for the weakened physis. It was a sort of worship and revelation rooting in the Jewish-Christian tradition.

“Electric medicine” and “animal magnetism”: Revelations of the hidden Nature


The production and application of electricity in the age of enlightenment was a great event in the history of medicine and science. In the first half of the 18th century, the electrical machine and the bottle of Leiden were constructed, so that for the first time in history a sparkling natural power could be provoked artificially. Lightning, spark, enlightenment, beam or shock described not only the sensual perception of the artificially produced electricity (by friction), but were also metaphors for the mental reception of this artificially provoked natural phenomenon. The flooding of the “electric fire” through of the body by could be seen, felt and communicated. The electrical phenomena of light fascinated scientists and artists, but also the unlearned public. The fascination was induced by a sort of “theology of electricity” (Ernst Benz). Former speculations of natural philosophy and magic on the “light of Nature” with the corresponding religious implications seemed now to be ready for demonstration by scientists. Theosophists an pietists were especially impressed. The Swabian pietist Friedrich Christian Oetinger assumed, that electricity would open a secret science of magic (cf. Schott, 1998b, p. 294). The “electric fire” was taken for the divine light. In this theological perspective, the electric light effects like lightning and sparks were interpreted as manifestations of occult natural powers. (Illustrations see below)


We can only mention the electrotherapy of those days, which was applied against palsies of all kind. A special application was the “electric medicine” consisting in water, wine, tea or other potions, which had been “saturated by electrical matter”. In “The Electric Medicine” (Die electrische Medicin) by J. G. Schäffer, a textbook published in 1766,  we can read, that electric water “poured out of the bottle in the dark … looks like bright fluid fire.” (Cf. Schott, 1998b, p. 230) Electrical experiments for the amusement of the public were quite popular. E. g. an “electric halo” was produced by an apparatus in the form of a crown, which was put on the head. So, it was possible to provoke a glamorous aura by “electrification” especially of young ladies. The famous British scholar Joseph Priestley mentioned, that this experiment set all “electrifiers” of Europe in motion. (Priestley, 1772, p. 101 sq.)


When Franz Anton Mesmer inaugurated his so-called animal magnetism in 1775, he was strongly influence by his experience of electricity (and mineral magnetism). He refers often to the imagery of light and fire. So, he characterised the essence of magnetism as an “invisible fire” (Mesmer, 1818, p. 18 and 110), which he also called “vital fire” (Lebensfeuer). It is invisible, not perceptible by the common senses.


The association of light, fire, ether, fluid, tone is typical for Mesmer’s terminology. So, he explains e. g. : “This fire is originally an artificial product, which I have provoked and ignited in a certain way in my person unifying and concentrating the factor of the natural magnetism to such a degree, that the this fire could be produced. Experience has proven, that the working agent has got something of the Nature of fire, but it is not at all a substance, but a motion, like the tone in the air or the light in the ether … it is in a subtle order, surpassing all others in refinement and motility.” (ibd., p. 110) In Mesmer’s words, magnetising can also be characterised as a “communication of the vital fire” (Mitteilung des Lebensfeuers; cf. Schott, 1982). It is imagined as the transference of the “invisible fire”. (Illustration 2: “Magnetic cure” at the end of the 18th c., from: E. Sibley: A Key to magic & the Occult Sciences, ca. 1800) Thought and intention can also be sent by the motion of the “fluid series” (Flutreihen) in the nervous system and the brain, even across long distance. Therefore, telepathy is a natural (physical) process in Mesmers’s view.


In his fundamental textbook on “mesmerism” (Mesmerismus oder das System der Wechselwirkungen), edited by Wolfart 1814, we find apart from the above mentioned imagery of light an interesting sketch by Mesmer,  titled “The eye of God” (Auge Gottes). (Illustration see below) From the eye within the triangle beams of light radiate down to the material world. These eye-beams signify the origin of the creating power of God setting the bodies of the universe swinging in two main circles: the archetype of the magnetic current (Grundbild der Magnetströmung). This “eye of God” is well known in cultural history and was especially displayed as an emblem ofdisplayed free masonry.

When animal magnetism was taken over by doctors and scholars in the romantic period, the imagery of light was applied to physiological and nervous processes within the body. The natural philosopher Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert pointed out, that in somnambulism the “common sense” (Gemeingefühl) was sharpened. Then, the “inner light” of persons in the magnetic sleep would flow through the whole body. (Schubert, 1808, p. 299) Another example is the visualisation of the so-called ganglion-system or solar plexus during the somnabulistic state. Justinus Kerner reported in 1829, how the “Seeress of Prevorst” (Die Seherin von Prevorst) could percieve her nervous spirit (Nervengeist) in her stomach. (Illustration 3: visualisation of the solar plexus by the “Seeress of Prevorst”; from Kerner, 1829) She called it her “sun circle” (Sonnenkreis). “She said: she would see a sun in her stomach region [i. e. solar plexus] moving slowly, and she wished to be able to open her eyes, because of not to be forced to see this sun any longer.” (Kerner, 1829, p. 317)

Natural philosphy and its modern consequences

The imagery of light in natural philosophy and science was essential to demonstrate the action of Nature: magic correspondences inside and outside the human body. Sun shine or lightning and other metaphors of macrocosm were used to illustrate the more or less hidden processes within microcosm, i. e. the human body. It is very remarkable, that the Paracelsian imagery can be followed up until romanticism in the early 19th century. Electricity, mesmerism and galvanism supported very intensively speculations and investigations in regard to contemporary concepts of neuro-physiology. The Paracelsian view of natural magic was adapted to the new scientific advancements in medicine. The break happened, when the modern natural sciences triumphed at the middle of the century. Then, the idea of a vital spirit (Lebensgeist), a magnetic fluid, was refuted, and consequently the imagery of light disappeared from the scientific discourse, too. Nevertheless, the tradition of occultism was continued beyond the official borders of science. I may just remind you of the naturopathy (Naturheilkunde) and its further development as so-called alternative medicine including magic methods like aura diagnosis or “magnetic healing” (Magnetopathie), based on paracelsian and mesmeric ideas. Here, at the threshold of the modern period, we can observe the whole range of the imagery of light again.

The idea of an original healing power of Nature caring for the wealthy state of man came down in the Western (European) medical tradition until nowadays. It became a main principle of modern naturopathy (Naturheilkunde) originating in the early 19th century. About 1800, the medical aim to support Nature became rather prominent in Germany. It was deeply influenced on the one hand by the impact of the pedagogic health advice of doctors according to the principles of enlightenment, and on the other hand by speculations on the “vitality” (Lebenskraft) of the human body according to natural philosophy in the period of romanticism. Medicine about 1800 still maintained more or less the traditional concept of physis which can be very well shown in the work of Christian Wilhelm Hufeland. He stressed the therapeutic principle contraria contrariis according to the humoral pathology – the opposite of natural magic. Nevertheless, Hufeland flirted with contemporary aspects of it; he alluded to Mesmer’s animal magnetism and it’s fluid theory, when he identified vitality (Lebenskraft) more or less with the magnetic power (magnetische Kraft) of living bodies – even more subtle and penetrating than light, electricity, or (mineral) magnetism. (Hufeland, 1860. P.31) Hufeland stressed to support natural processes to create a wealthy longevity. His position was taken over by the lay movement of naturopathy (Naturheilbewegung) in the later 19th century. Insofar, it is even very popular within alternative or complementary medicine today. (Cf. Rotschuh, 1983)

But the legacy of the Paracelsian concept of natural magic is not really represented in Hufeland’s work and in the following theory of  naturopathy (Naturheilkunde). It can rather be identified with mesmerism and it’s off-springs inside and outside the academic medicine, from somnambulism to hypnotism, from spiritualism to parapsychology. Franz Anton Mesmer argued, that his animal magnetism was based on “my theory of imitation” (“meiner Nachahmungs-Theorie”; Mesmer, 1781, p.16). The magnetic powers of natural things should be evoked by special techniques of magnetising, the explicit task of the magnetiser was to imitate Nature. And Mesmer declared, that Nature was not only a master for the physical (i. e. medical) treatment, but also a master for the moral (i. e. pedagogical) general education.

In my opinion, Sigmund Freud secretly took over some moments of natural magic, when he created his theory of the “Unconscious”. Of course, there was no longer the alchemical aim of imitating and perfecting Nature in spiritualising matter in a laboratory, but the psychological aim of educating and improving the neurotic person remained. The brutal instincts ruling the neurotic person should be overcome by strengthening the Ego (Ichstärkung) to achieve a self-conscious autonomy. The alchemical process shows some analogies with the emancipatory self-education in the sense of psychoanalysis, which can also be traced in Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. (Cf. Schott, 1997)


Iconographical representations of the (divine) Nature and Care

Nature is represented by the imagery of light, beams, fire, but also by configurations alluding to specific persons, especially virgins respectively St. Mary, or to human organs, especially the eye. In the following, a series of icons are shown throughout the modern times. It is remarkable, that religious connotations are always present. Nature cannot be clearly separated from God, its divine origin. We focus here primarily on the iconography of alchemy and natural magic in early modern times, because it is most instructive for are purpose: Nature was symbolised and personified in many ways. Generally, there is a combination (a manifest or invisible “chain”) of three links: God – Nature – Man. Never before and never afterwards this constellation was so self-evident and essential than in this period. Even William Harvey, who detected the blood circulatien (1628) stressed the analogy of sun and heart!

After the heliocentric “revolution” by Copernicus, the divine origin of Nature was identified with the sun corresponding with the heart inside the human body. There is a scale of “light”: Firstly the divine light, secondly the light of Nature (licht der natur, Paraclesus). You cannot work in the light of Nature e. g. as a scholarly doctor or pharmacist without recognising the divine light ruling the light of Nature. There are four different levels: (a) God as the origin of life animating Nature, (b) Nature as an intermediate (female) magician teaching the alchemist, (c) the alchemist as an adept imitating Nature in accordance to the will of God, and (d) the artificially manipulated Nature as a medical source of healing power.

(a) God as the origin of life

The Paracelsian and Rosicrucian author Robert Fludd created very impressive emblems showing the role of Nature in regard to the microcosm-macrocosm-relation. The remark “All spiritual and invisible glamour (splendor) comes from God” is illustrated by a personalised sun with fiery radiating beams. (Illustration 4: from R. Fludd, Clavis philosophiae et alchymiae, Frankfurt 1633) The divine light shines on all natural things, but it becomes differently assimilated: the subtle heart reflects its glance, the crude heart absorbs it. (Illustration 5: from R. Fludd, Philosophia sacra, Frankfurt 1626; Roob, 1996, p. 256) In this way, God communicates directly with man, as it is reported in mysticism (e. g. Jakob Böhme). This tradition is far reaching. Even the founder of the so-called animal magnetism Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) published in his final textbook Mesmerismus, oder das System der Wechselwirkungen (1814) a drawing titled “The eye of God”. Within a triangle an open eye can be seen, from which beams emanate downwards mowing in two different currents the material matter. (Illustration 6: from Mesmer, 1814) Mesmer’s “eye of God” is only a late modification of the topic. The Hebrew tetragram (JHWH) within a triangle symbolises the divine origin of all natural powers, like Robert Fludd has depicted it. (Illustration 7: from R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, Oppenheim 1617; Roob, 1996, p.467) Instead of the eye respectively the tetragram we see here the three heavens (fire, ether, elemental) and the earth in the centre. In the Aula subterranea, edited by L. Ercker and Johannes Hiskia Cardilucius (1672/73) we see the emanating beams from a divine sun influencing matter on earth with their sidereal power of the planets. (Illustration 8: Aula subterranea, title page from Bachmann/Hofmeier, 1999, p.125) The picture reminds us of the emanation of light from an electric globe (see below).

(b) Nature as healing power and guide for the magicians (alchemists)

One illustration of Fludd is titled Integrae Naturae speculum Artisque imago (i. e. Mirror of the whole Nature and image of the art). (Illustration 9: R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, vol. 1, Oppenheim 1617; Roob, 1996, p.501) The “golden chain” leads from the hand of God to the Virgin Nature and further from her to the “ape of art”. The latter symbolises the knowledge and skill to imitate Nature. I this emblematic drawing Nature connects the divine fiery heaven with the sidereal “ether” heaven and the sub-lunar elemental world. Nature nourishes all natural things like a wet nurse. “On her breast is the true sun, on her stomach the moon.” Her heart gives light to the stars and her womb, the spirit of the moon, is thought to work like a filter for sidereal influences to the earth.

Also Michael Maier represented Nature as a young woman (with delicious fruits) in his Atlanta fugiens (Oppenheim 1618). (Illustration 10: cf. Roob, 1996, 505) “Your guide shall be Nature” is the motto. His illustration stresses the idea, that the philosopher, i. e. researcher has to follow in her foot steps. This coincides with the principle of alchemical laboratory work, to imitate and complete Nature – like an ape in a non-pejorative sense. According to Maier the adept has to combine four things: Nature, reason, experience and the studies of scholarly literature. The foot steps symbolise the signs, the stick means reason, the glasses experience and the reading of scholarly literature the lantern “giving light to the reader”.

God cares for Nature and therefore Nature can care for Man, if he – as a philosopher or magician – is able to recognise the hidden secrets and to study them properly. Nature becomes a medium for Man to meet God. The topic “Bible of Nature” (biblia naturae) became quite popular during the early modern times. Hermann Boerhaave published Jan Swammerdam’s famous book on the insects under this title (Dutch: Bybel der Natuure; Latin: Biblia Naturae) (Illustrations 11 and 12: Title pages) Nature was identified not only with the Virgin (St. Mary), but also with sophia (wisdom), the mystical bride of the philosphers. The picture by Hieronymus Reussner shows a tree growing out of a mercurial (virginal) mother: Nature. (Illustration 13: H. Reussner, Pandora, Basel 1588; Roob, 1996, p.503) The religious connotations are obvious: Mercury is identified with Mary, because it conceives the “solution of heaven” (semen) like her and produces the purified lapis (stone of wisdom, Christ). In a graphic of the 1785 displaying secret figures of the Rosicrucians (Altona 1785), sophia (“Virgin Sophia”) is a female emanation of God. (Illustration 14: cf. Roob, 1996, p.502) His word is transferred into matter by the womb respectively foetus of Nature: “Fiat natura”.

Albrecht Dürer’s wood-cut Philosophia (1502) shows Nature as a queen on her throne. (Illustration 15: from C. Celtis, Amores, Nürnberg 1502; Roob, 1996, p.507) The Latin inscription below says: “What belongs to heaven and earth, air and water, and what concerns the things of human life, also the fiery God in the whole universe: I, Philosophia, bear all this in my chest.” Maybe, the title copper etching of A. Kircher’s Ars magna sciendi (Amsterdam 1669) refers to Dürer. (Illustration 16: cf. Roob, p.508) The identification of Sophia with Nature means, that Nature is the first philosopher providing also the first aid, the primary care for mankind – because of its divine origin. In Hans Burgkmair’s (1473-1531) painting the figures of a healing Goddess, Mary, Sophia, and Nature are blended. The queen of heaven sends here light beams down St. John on Patmos. (Illustration 17: painting in Alte Pinakothek, Munich) These beams are symbols of the divine power, the Holy Spirit, which has at the same time a healing effect. This motive can also be clearly seen on a drawing, depicted by a schizophrenic patient named Fritz Fendt about 1910, which belongs to the Prinzhorn Collection at the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Heidelberg. (Illustration 18: reproduced in Schott, 1986) Here, the healing beams go out from the finger tips of a healing Goddess – probably Hygieia with the Asclepian snake- down to the earth, influencing the poor imprisoned patient. They shall demonstrate the “power of suggestion”.

Amulets like “miraculous medals” are known throughout the cultural history in all regions of the globe. It is interesting, that within the Catholic tradition there are practises of religious and magic healing still nowadays. The “miraculous medal” (wuntertätige Medaille)  of the “Aktion Deutschland braucht Mariens Hilfe” (i. e. campaign Germany needs Mary’s help). (Illustration 19: public flyer) It goes back to a vision of a nun in Paris 1830. Mary appeared her and gave her the order, to propagate the medal. The announcement promises “healing of severe diseases, protection from accidents …” The healing power of Nature is here personified by the virtue of Mary, an interesting confusion of divine and natural powers, which was so typical the alchemical approach in the early modern times, as we have noticed above.

(c) The alchemist as an adept imitating Nature

A miniature of Jean Perréal from 1516 shows a direct encounter of Nature and the alchemist. (Illustration 20: cf. Roob, 1996, p.504) The figure of Nature is a mixture of a seducing naked girl, a wise woman, an angel, and a queen. She urges the alchemist to leave his mechanical laboratory (opus mechanice) and to learn in her realm. The tree symbolises the earthly germ of all metals, animals and plants, which is separated by the (natural) alchemical process to the highest flower of the elixir (“vegetable gold”). Alchemy follows Nature, but tries to shorten the process of maturation. Nature cares for the maturation of necessary things for man: e. g. plants and metals. It is the task of man, to accelerate this natural process and to complete it.

The work of the alchemist was focused on the immanent alchemical procedures of Nature itself, which he tries to imitate and accelerate. The copper etching by Matthäus Merian illustrating the Opus medico-chymicum by J. D. Mylius (1618) shows the alchemist or magician surrounded by a wood of metals. (Illustration 21: cf. Roob, 1996, p.465) He separates vertically by his opus magnum day and night, sun and moon, fire and water, sulphur and mercury. On the right, the hunter Aktaion with the head of a stag represents the researching philosopher looking at the naked Diana (at the same time Luna) symbolising Nature. This image is characteristic for the Rosicrucian ideology, by which Merian was influenced. Another picture shows the alchemist Henning Brand, who detected 1669 in his search for the prima materia the phosphor in the urine. He looks at the beaming retort adoring the self-revealing Nature. (Illustration 22: from Alchimia – Idologie und Technologie, ed. by E.E. Ploss et a., Munich 1970, p.4)

(d) The artificially modified Nature

There is a sort of “second Nature”, produced by man, but still imagined as an off-spring of Nature itself. The paradigm of electricity is most significant. When it appeared in the early 18th century for the first time in history, the electrical phenomena gave to the contemporaries the impression of a divine power penetrating in a magic way not only the “ether” but also the nerves within the (human) body by the nerve fluid. The so-called bottle of Leyden was the first electrical capacitor, long before the battery was invented by Volta about 1800. Abbé Nollet shows in Figure 15 of his Essai on electrification (French ed.: Paris 1746) an electric globe radiating like a sun (Illustration 23: from Nollet [1746]). When we compare it with Fludd’s representation of the sun in the early 17th century, when artificial electricity was absolutely unknown, we recognise the philosophical respectively religious implications in their physical outfit. In the era of enlightenment, electricity was still felt in the perspective of magic and alchemy. Ernst Benz (1971) coined therefore the term “theology of electricity” (Theologie der Elektrizität). This feeling becomes very evident in the frontispiece of Abbé de Sans: “Guérison de la Paralysie par l’Électricité” (Paris 1778), where an “electrical globe” is shown with a halo, which reminds of a divine source of magic (healing) power like the sun. (Illustration 24: from Abé de Sans [1778]) It is remarkable, that at the same time (about 1775), when this “elecrical globe” was produced, Franz Anton Mesmer founded his concept of “animal magnetism” in Vienna and the exorcist Johann Joseph Gaßner became famous by his mass cures in South Germany. One illustration (there are also others) shows, how the healing power of a divine light originates from a symbol of a spiritual sun (“the triumphant name of Jesus”), whereas  the natural sun shines besides it.(Illustration 25: cf. Hanauer, 1985, Abb. 8) The heavenly power is obviously strong enough, to pull out, to expel  the demon.


Naturopathy (Naturheilkunde) and the “unconscious” (Freud)

The idea of an original healing power of Nature within the human body has come down in the Western (European) medical tradition until nowadays. It became a main principle of modern naturopathy (Naturheilkunde) originating in the early 19th century. About 1800, the medical aim to support Nature became rather prominent in Germany. It was deeply influenced on the one hand by the impact of the pedagogic health advice of doctors according to the principles of enlightenment, and on the other hand by speculations on the “vitality” (Lebenskraft) of the human body according to natural philosophy in the period of romanticism. Medicine about 1800 still maintained more or less the traditional concept of physis which can be very well shown in the work of Christian Wilhelm Hufeland. He stressed the therapeutic principle contraria contrariis according to the humoral pathology – the opposite of natural magic. Nevertheless, Hufeland flirted with contemporary aspects of it; he alluded to Mesmer’s animal magnetism and it’s fluid theory, when he identified vitality (Lebenskraft) more or less with the magnetic power (magnetische Kraft) of living bodies – even more subtle and penetrating than light, electricity, or (mineral) magnetism. (Hufeland, 1860. P.31) Hufeland stressed to support natural processes to create a wealthy longevity. His position was taken over by the lay movement of naturopathy (Naturheilbewegung) in the later 19th century. Insofar, it is even very popular within alternative or complementary medicine today. We have to mention here the brillant study by Karl Eduard Rothschuh (1983) dealing with the development of modern naturopathy: Naturheilbewegung, Reformbewegung, Alternativbewegung.

But the legacy of the Paracelsian concept of natural magic is not purely represented in Hufeland’s work and in the following theory of  naturopathy (Naturheilkunde), which emphasised vitalism (the concept of the “vital power”, Lebenskraft), but did not really follow the idea of natural magic (simile principle, sympathetic cures etc.). It can rather be identified with mesmerism and it’s off-springs inside and outside the academic medicine, from somnambulism to hypnotism, from spiritualism to parapsychology. Franz Anton Mesmer e. g. argued, that his animal magnetism was based on “my theory of imitation” (“meiner Nachahmungs-Theorie”; Mesmer, 1781, p.16). The magnetic powers of natural things should be evoked by special techniques of magnetising, the explicit task of the magnetiser was to imitate Nature. And Mesmer declared, that Nature was not only a master for the physical (i. e. medical) treatment, but also a master for the moral (i. e. pedagogical) general education.

In my opinion, Sigmund Freud secretly took over some moments of natural magic, when he created his theory of the “Unconscious” (cf. Schott, 1986). Of course, there was no longer the alchemical aim of imitating and perfecting Nature in spiritualising matter in a laboratory, but the psychological aim of educating and improving the neurotic person remained. The brutal instincts ruling the neurotic person should be overcome by strengthening the Ego (Ichstärkung) to achieve a self-conscious autonomy. The alchemical process shows some analogies with the emancipatory self-education in the sense of psychoanalysis, which can also be traced in Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. (Cf. Schott, 1997)


Nature/Care in (the history of) literature 

The idea of Nature/Care is a very common topic in the history of literature. This paper cannot deal with this subject in detail. Only two examples, taken from well-known authors :

In his  “Essais”, Montaigne makes many allusions to Nature as a caring power within the human body. So, he discusses e. g. the right way to encounter one’s disease. We should give them free passage and schuld them not suppress unduly, then they will disappear more easily. He concludes: “Give nature a little her own right, she knows her business better than we do.” (Montaigne ed. Stilett, p. 68)

Goethe, who was very aware of (Paracelsian) natural philsophy, wrote to Lavater (letter from 14th of Octobre, 1782): “Großen Dank verdient die Natur, daß sie in die Existenz eines jeden lebendigen Wesens auch so viel Heilungskraft gelegt hat, daß es sich, wenn es an dem einen oder dem anderen Ende zerrissen wird, selbst wieder flicken kann; und was sind die tausendfältigen Religionen anders als tausendfache Äußerungen dieser Heilungskraft.” Goethe exposes here accurately the traditional idea of Nature/Care: Nature cares for the integrity of living beings and repairs them, when they are torne “at one end or another”.


Final Remarks – Summary


The paper demonstrates the close association of the idea of Nature with the idea of Care. This association can be traced throughout the history of (at least European or Western) medicine, from antiquity until nowadays. The concept of the healing power of nature (vis medicatrix naturae, Heilkraft der Natur) is a basic assumption as well in theory as in practice, best expressed by the common proverb: Natura sanat, medicus curat (the nature heals, the physician cures) going back to the origins of the Greek medicine. This idea implies, that Nature is superior to man and cares for patients like a physician. The paper is focused on the tradition of natural magic (Paracelsianism) in the early modern times and its transformation in the 18th century, when mesmerism influenced “romantic” medicine (and initiated modern psychotherapy and psychoanalyis). The idea of a careful Nature respectively a natural Care was then highly estimated, but not at all unique, because it was more or less popular at all times. It would be an interesting task, to write in this perspective a new history of medicine, which has not been done so far – apart from the unique study by Max Neuburger (1926). Moreover, such a project would signal a new approach to medical ethics and its historical roots. Human Care can only work properly and in truth, when it is based on the Care of Nature, when it works in accordance with “her”.


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Schott, H. (1987): Natura sanat – die Heilkraft der Natur im Spiegel der Geschichte. Universitas 5: 459-470.

Schott, H. (1998a): „In the Light of Nature“: The Imagery of Paracelsus. In: Systèmes de pensée précartésiens. Hrsg. Ilana Zinguer und Heinz Schott. Paris: Honoré Champion, S. 277-301.

Schott, H. (ed.) (1998): Der sympathetische Arzt. Texte zur Medizin im 18. Jahrhundert. Munich.

Schott, H. (Hrsg.) (1998b): Der Sympathetische Arzt. Texte zur Medizin im 18. Jahrhundert. Hrsg. Heinz Schott. München: C.H.Beck.

Schott, H. (2001): „Lebensgeist“ – Alchimist in unserem Bauch. Das Menschenbild des Paracelsus und seine Nachwirkungen. Deutsches Ärzteblatt 7/2001, S. 383-385.

Schubert, G. H. (1808): Ansichten von der Nachtseite der Naturwissenschaft. 3. Aufl. Dresden: Arnold, 1827.

Unschuld, P. U. (1996): Die chinesische Medizin nimmt Gestalt an. Der klassische Text “Huang Di neijing”. In: Meilensteine der Medizin, ed. ba Heinz Schott. Dortmund, pp. 74-81.


  1. Johannes auf Patmos; painting by Hans Bergkmayer (1473-1531; Alte Pinakothek München.
  2. „Die Macht der hypnotischen Suggestion“, sketch by Fritz Fent, 26.9.1911; Museum Sammlung Prinzhorn, Heidelberg.
  3. Johann Baptist van Helmont‘s drawing of the tomb of the truth („Grab der Wahrheit“); from: Christian Knorr von Rosenroth: Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst. Sulzbach 1683.
  4. Experiement with the „bottle of Leiden“; from: Abbé Nollet: Abhandlung über die Elektrisierung der Körper. Venedig 1747. (ital. Ausgabe)
  5. The electrifying globe („Eletrisierkugel“) with halo; frontispiece from: Abbé de Sans: Guérison de la Paralysie, par l’Èlecricité. Paris (Includes the report of a miraculous healing of a nun by electrotherapy)
  6. „Beatification“, das miralce or the electrical crown or halo; from B. Rackstraw: Miscellaneous observations … London
  7. „Magnetic cure“ at the end of the 18th century; from: E. Sibley: A Key to magic & the Occult Sciences, ca. 1800.
  8. The eye of God („Auge Gottes“), skech by F. A. Mesmer; from: K. Chr. Wolfart (ed.): „Mesmerismus oder das System der Wechselwirkungen …“. Berlin 1814.
  9. The imagination of radiating light in the solar plexus; from J. Kerner: Die Seherin von Prevorst … Stuttgart