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The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 18, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0374229795 ISBN-10: 0374229791 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (April 18, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374229791
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374229795
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #848,646 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. If one really wants to understand the contradictions and "intellectual ferment" of the 16th century, says Ball, one should look not at Luther or Copernicus, but at the much-maligned Paracelsus. Born in Switzerland in 1493, Philip Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus, is a figure often more imagined than known. Famous as a doctor of alchemic medicine, he has been compared with Faust and developed a reputation as a miracle worker and charlatan that only grew after his death in 1543. Ball, author of the prize-winning Critical Mass, mixes scant biographical detail with a wide-ranging evocation of the Renaissance worldview to create a fascinating portrait of the man, his age and his historical reputation. Forays into ancient, medieval and Islamic medicine, academic rivalries, the proliferation of publications, and treatments of syphilis all help to recreate the mindset in which doctor and patient lived. Concepts of magic as simply the hidden qualities of nature, and the blurring of poison and medicine demonstrate how what we call science and magic overlapped. Ball produces a vibrant, original portrait of a man of contradictions: "[a] humble braggart, a puerile sage, an invincible loser, a courageous coward, a pious heretic, an honest charlatan...." 50 b&w illus. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

To his successful popular-science titles, Ball adds this biography of an outlandish Renaissance figure. Paracelsus (1493-1541) trained in medicine but ridiculed the profession's medieval scholasticism. Incorrigibly impolitic, he sought to reform medicine with all manner of alchemical means and metatheories that seem strange by modern lights, impudent by those of a civilization in transition from magical to rational thought, and heroic to future Romantic poets. Here is the picture of one man against the world, and Ball makes the most of his sprawling, spendthrift, undisciplined life. A lifelong itinerant, Paracelsus ranged the expanse of Europe, offending, befriending, and moving on. Ball handles the travelogue as a book in itself, parallel to his summaries of Paracelsus' writings on health, alchemy, astrology, and himself. An enlivening portrait that will spark interest in Paracelsus' role in the rise of science. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

The topic ought to be interesting, but I found it hard to get into the book.
David Baum
He does not grasp the healing theories of Paracelsus, nor does he discuss the real legacy of his ideas which are not modern medicine, which he seems to point too.
Archeus Quintessence
As I read along, I found myself wondering why he had chosen to write the book at all.
Harold A. Roth

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The voluminous study written by P. Ball bears evident mark of his profession, that is of his being physicist. One has to appreciat how many historical topics he was able to cover in his book, less impressive is, nevertheless, his ability to discover the most important ones and to explain Paracelsus thought on the ground of the historical context so carefully described. Author's basic despise -- at least that's what I feel in his book -- for questions of theology and religion that, according to him, have at best a historical importance seems to prevent him from better understanding of real problems of Paracelsus, and even of real meaning of his "magic". Well, according to the title, Ball wanted to describe Paracelsus in the context of the "renaissance magic and science", yet this picture would be, and is, distorted if the effort is not made to understand the complex of his thought from his perspective, to find out what for him is important.
Another thing is that Ball works only with english anthologies and even, if I'm not mistaken, only with english written sources in general. Sure, it's not very easy to read Paracelsus in the original Swiss German dialect, yet to me it seems inevitable if one wants to get out of beaten tracks of long rooted, sometimes superficial opinions, and to get inside the text and thoughts.
So, if you want to read a reliable and better balanced study on Paracelsus' natural philosophy as well as on his theology (and you are not craving for an "esoteric" interpretation) read rather Andrew Weeks' nicely short monograph on Paracelsus and keep reservation about Ball's book: historically he seems to have found the proper sources to use, but systematically he's then not going deep enough to discover the "real" Paracelsus.
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26 of 33 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim came from the time of Erasmus, Luther, and Copernicus, and was in his way as influential as those giants, but he is hardly remembered now. Even by the name Paracelsus, which he took following the fashion of the humanists of his day to Latinize their names, he is unknown to most, though he makes personal appearances in the writings of Browning, Borges, Jung, and even A. J. Rowling, and his personal characteristics have been encompassed in the characters of Faust and Prospero. He wrote many books, almost none of which appeared during his lifetime, full of weird attempts to connect everything in the universe with everything else. He understood that matter was permeated by spirit, and that there were influences on both by astral bodies. His writings of occult science and theology are full of secret signs and symbols and neologisms that have defied any subsequent explanation. You don't have to try to get through his books; Philip Ball has done so, and seems to have absorbed every other aspect of medieval and Renaissance thought, to produce _The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science_ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A big, generous, and detailed look at this alchemist's life and times, and importantly his way of thinking, Ball's book is continually surprising about the man, the reactions to him, and his influence.

One of Paracelsus's biggest achievements is that he did renounce the reliance on Aristotle and Galen; he insisted on finding out for himself what was true and not being bound by the prior abstract arguments of what had to be true. He was thus skeptical of the main currents of thought in cosmology and medicine, and in favor of learning from experience.
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27 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Harold A. Roth on November 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I very much looked forward to reading this book, as I have been interested in Paracelsus for many years. But it does not strike me that Ball is interested in Paracelsus. Quite the contrary--throughout the book, he evidences his disdain for Paracelsus. As I read along, I found myself wondering why he had chosen to write the book at all.

Important ideas that Paracelsus is credited with developing or originating are missing in Ball's treatment. For example, the Doctrine of Signatures, which Paracelsus developed and which was taken up by later medical Paracelsians and became widespread, gets hardly any attention. In fact, I learned more about Paracelsian ideas from Principe's recent book on Boyle as alchemist, which I happened to read at the same time. Principe did not feel obliged to sneer at Paracelsus at every turn.

I also found that the organization of the book was problematic. For instance, a chapter might be named for the time Paracelsus spent in Ingolstadt, but that chapter does not actually discuss it.

If you are interested in Paracelsus, this is not the book for you. If, in contrast, you are interested in snickering at the past from what you imagine to be the exalted heights of scientific rationalism, this book will very much gratify your sense of self-importance.
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19 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Archeus Quintessence on August 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I was very excited when I first learned that this biography was going to be published, because there is really not much out there about Paracelsus, and only a small portion of his vast number of works have been published in english. I read Manly P. Hall's small but masterful work, but there is not too much else, in print anyways and easy to obtain.

On the plus side, Mr. Ball does a great job of capturing the historical background to Paracelsus, and he includes many detailed descriptions of life during the Renaissance into the 17th century, and he also illuminates the personalities of many figures that I either have never heard of, or have found only brief information on. In many ways, this is a kind of travel book, and I was fascinated by the amount of traveling Paracelsus did throughout his life, and how many different and exotic places he visited. This portion of the book reads like the movie "Forest Gump", as Paracelsus seems to be at every great event and happening during the height of the Renassaince.

That said, Mr. Ball misses the mark in elucidating the true genius of Paracelsus, and does not explain very well, many of his revolutionary and profound ideas. This is because Mr. Ball either does not understand them himself, or he is just not sympathetic to them. In my opinion, it is a combination of both. At the end of the book, he devotes a mere paragraph for his conclusion, which only highlights where he missed the mark.

He claims that Paracelsus would have been pleased with where science has ended up today, giving us, "sober professionals whose aspirations were typically modest and mundane.. a medicine that works, and understanding of the chemical composition of the macrocosm and microcosm, and (liberation) from the tyranny of the stars..
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