The Paracelsan Slip

The Paracelsan Slip

Alchemy may have greatly influenced Descartes when he drove a wedge between matter and psyche with his formulation of cogito ergo sum. Carl Jung believed that when the alchemists equated Christ with the lapis philosophorum, it “had the effect of channeling the religious numen into physical nature and ultimately into matter itself…” (Psychology and Alchemy, p. 227). By projecting the numinous reality into physika, matter became something to be understood at all cost. Thus, the seed of modern science was planted and would soon flourish in the coming centuries. 

Matter was viewed by the alchemists as containing the lumen naturae, the Light of Nature, or, as the Bible calls him, the Light of the World, which is, of course, Christ. By distinguishing the lumen naturae from the lumen revelatio, the light of revelation, which came via the Holy Spirit, the alchemists clearly split off matter from spirit. By putting such an emphasis on the light in matter, they unwittingly influenced others after them to view reality in this dichotomous fashion. A division between knowledge and faith still influences the debates of our day.

Jung claimed the alchemists “put their art on the level of divine revelation and regarded it as at least an essential complement to the work of redemption” (CW 14, 344). They thought they were redeeming Nature by freeing the light trapped within matter, thus saving the Soul of the World.

Paracelsus was one of Jung’s favorite philosophers, but he, too, made statements to the effect of bringing about the so-called mind/body problem:

There are … two kinds of knowledge in this world: an eternal and a temporal.The eternal springs directly from the light of the Holy Spirit, but the other directly from the light of Nature (Jung’s CW 13, 149).

The following statements from Jung paint a fascinating picture of how a brilliant mind, in this case that of Paracelsus, can be unwittingly led down the wrong path:

The authenticity of one’s own experience of nature against the authority of tradition is a basic theme of Paracelsan think­ing. On this principle he based his attack on the medical schools, and his pupils carried the revolution even further by attack­ing Aristotelian philosophy. It was an attitude that opened the way for the scientific investigation of nature and helped to emancipate natural science from the authority of tradition. Though this liberating act had the most fruitful consequences, it also led to that conflict between knowledge and faith which poisoned the spiritual atmosphere of the nineteenth century in particular. Paracelsus naturally had no inkling of the possibility of these late repercussions. As a medieval Christian, he still lived in a unitary world and did not feel the two sources of knowl­edge, the divine and the natural, as the conflict it later turned out to be (ibid).

Jung traced the this line of demarcation from the alchemists to Paracelsus to Faust to Nietzsche, and down to our day when science and technology rule the world and have slain the Divine.

Medieval alchemy prepared the way for the greatest intervention in the divine world order that man has ever attempted: alchemy was the dawn of the scientific age, when the daemon of the scientific spirit compelled the forces of nature to serve man to an extent that had never been known before. It was from the spirit of alchemy that Goethe wrought the figure of the “superman” Faust, and this superman led Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to declare that God was dead and to proclaim the will to give birth to the superman, to “create a god for yourself out of your seven devils.” Here we find the true roots, the preparatory processes deep in the psyche, which unleashed the forces at work in the world today. Science and technology have indeed conquered the world, but whether the psyche has gained anything is another matter (CW 13, 163).

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