Hannah Arendt, Neoconservatism and Power-addiction

In her work The Burden of Our Time, Hannah Arendt studies the nature of the imperialist movements in the nineteenth century. She comes to analyze the nature of power within the imperialist state, and how it fundamentally depends upon expansion without limits in order to sustain itself. To obtain this expansion it pursues ideological and military dominance to perpetuate its economic growth. This pursuit, however, must not only be sought for the well being of the empire, but is its full embodiment, and thus expansion is both an end and a means for the survival of this political system. The imperialistic desire for continual expansion, or to “exploit the revolution in military affairs” as it has been expressed by the neoconservative think tank the Project for the New American Century, is a continuing goal of the neoconservative movement of the twenty-first century.

Hannah Arendt categorizes the time between 1884 and 1914 as the period of imperialism, claiming that: “The central inner-European event of the imperialist period was the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, which up to then had been the first class in history to achieve economic pre-eminence without aspiring to political rule” (though other, much earlier dates have been proposed, with many thinking that this period is not yet over). The progress of capitalist society in Europe, which relied upon continuing growth in both production and investment to perpetuate itself, eventually came upon a necessary barrier. The birth of imperialism occurred when the ruling class within the capitalist system was forced to face the physical realities of continual growth in a finite nation. There were national limits to economic expansion that could not be addressed without both economic and political power. Arendt describes how “[t]he bourgeoisie turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be an ultimate political goal of foreign policy”.

This need to expand or perish led to the subsequent imperialist movements that Arendt discusses. The principle of endless expansion was a self-perpetuating necessity for these movements: “Since power is essentially only a means to an end a community based solely on power must decay in the calm of order and stability; its complete security reveals that it is built upon sand”. The stability of this system of governance depended upon ever increasing expenditures of resources and manpower simply to maintain itself. In discussing the imperialist mentality she cites the case of Cecil Rhodes, an English businessman and imperialist who worked to expand Britain’s empire in Africa. Arendt comments on how this one imperialist recognized the problem of the system in which he was involved, but experienced it as a kind of longing:

‘EXPANSION IS everything,’ said Cecil Rhodes, and fell into despair, for every night he saw overhead ‘these stars… these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.’ He had discovered the moving principle of the new imperialist era […] and yet in a flash of wisdom Rhodes recognized at the same moment its inherent insanity and its contradiction to the human condition.

Continual growth of the kind that imperialism needs to sustain itself cannot be maintained upon a single planet.

Some of the key elements of neoconservatism as it has emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries can be defined by the writings of one of its most representative think tanks: the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). The think tank describes itself as being fundamentally dedicated to the principles that “American leadership is good both for America and for the world; [and] that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle” (Project for the New American Century). To obtain these goals the PNAC works to affect public opinion by publishing books and articles in support of its mission statement.

One of these articles, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, pursues the PNAC’s goals by urging for the perpetuation of a Pax Americana. The choice of the term “Pax” harkens back to the days of the Pax Romana and Pax Britannica, periods of relative stability brought about by the military dominance of the old empires. As expressed in the document: “The American peace has proven itself peaceful, stable and durable. It has, over the past decade, provided the geopolitical framework for widespread economic growth and the spread of American principles of liberty and democracy”. It is interesting in this text to note the close relationship between stability and “widespread economic growth,” a notion that almost mirrors Arendt’s comment on the instability of an empire.

There are other comparisons that could be drawn between the two, neoconservatism on the one hand and imperialism on the other. In their book America Alone Stephan Halper and Jonathan Clarke express a concern that as a people: “Today we have convinced ourselves […] that, as Americans, our natural state is war – war that has no dimensions, with elusive enemies […] and with no definition of what constitutes victory and thus with no end in sight”. This sentiment of endless war echoes the sort of stability Arendt mentions in relation to the British Empire, how “this ever-present possibility of war guarantees the Commonwealth a prospect of permanence because it makes it possible for the state to increase its power at the expense of other states”.

Halper and Clarke in their study of neoconservatism go on to describe a world view where: “The here-and-now world in which neo-conservatives see themselves is a world of Hobbesian state-of-nature primitivism and conspiracy where perpetual militarized competition for ascendancy is the norm”. This statement is eerily close to Arendt’s relationship between a Hobbesian world view and empire, as she describes: “Hobbes was the true […] philosopher of the bourgeoisie because he realized that acquisition of wealth conceived as a never-ending process can be guaranteed only by the seizure of political power, for the accumulating process must sooner or later force open all existing territorial limits”.

Dr. Stephen Rosen, a representative for the PNAC, published an article in Harvard Magazine entitled “The Future of War and the American Military: Demography, Technology, and the Politics of Modern Empire”, in which he defined an empire as: “A political unit that has overwhelming superiority in military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behavior of other states”. By this definition Rosen can claim that: “The United States has no rival. We are militarily dominant around the world. Our military spending exceeds that of the next six or seven powers combined, and we have a monopoly on many advanced and not so advanced military technologies”.

This militaristic requirement of empire has several consequences for those outside of the imperial order. Rosen states that the goal of the American Empire is not to combat a rival, but to maintain its imperial position, and imperial order. To this end he describes that “[i]mperial wars to restore order are not so constrained. The maximum amount of force can and should be used as quickly as possible for psychological impact—to demonstrate that the empire cannot be challenged with impunity”. This view of war as a means to subjugate threats to the imperial order, an order that needs expansion to maintain its order, has also been described by Arendt when she talks about exporting power. She describes how:

The first consequence of power export was that the state’s instruments of violence, the police and the army, which in the framework of the nation existed beside, and were controlled by, other national institutions, were separated from this body and promoted to the position of national representatives in uncivilized or weak countries. Here, in backward regions without industries and political organizations, where violence was given more latitude than in any Western country, the so-called laws of capitalism were actually allowed to create realities.

This tendency has also been noted in the neoconservative movement by a number of contemporary observers. In his book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Noam Chomsky examines America’s aggressive foreign policy. In the text he observes how, when dealing with nations outside of the established order, “the West must ‘revert to the tougher methods of an earlier era – force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary, when it comes to dealing with those who still live in the nineteenth-century world of every state for itself’”.

This militaristic trend of empire, both abroad and at home, must also be sustained by an ideology that serves to rationalize the need for endless war and expansion. In the British Empire this ideological necessity of empire found its outlet in the concept of the “white man’s burden”. The idea that served to rationalize Britain’s activities in subjugating foreign peoples combined contempt for the self-determination of “backwards” populations with the paternal insistence that the empire knew best. As Arendt describes: “Racism as a ruling device was used in this society of whites and blacks before imperialism exploited it as a major political idea. Its basis, and its excuse, were still experience itself, a horrifying experience of something alien beyond imagination or comprehension”. The alien nature of strange peoples made it possible to justify how, since those of African decent did show unmistakable signs of being human, “the ‘white men’ could not but reconsider their own humanity and decide that they themselves were more than human and obviously chosen by God to be the gods of black men”.

As described by Chomsky, the ideological descendant of this mentality is still a force behind the western powers new appeal to colonization. He demonstrates the life in what was thought to be an old appeal to paternal infallibility when he quotes Robert Cooper, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, about the need for colonization: “Another currently fashionable formulation of the mission of the enlightened states holds that ‘the need… for colonization is as great as it ever was in the nineteenth century’ to bring to the rest of the world the principles of order, freedom, and justice”.

While overt race-based thinking has been officially discredited in the 21st century, there can be seen within the neoconservative movement many of the same ideologies in what could be called the “democratic man’s burden”. Halper and Clarke express this when they comment that the current neoconservative government in America claims to be providing order, freedom, and justice to all nations on the planet, but “has left much of the world with the impression that it nurses global ambition for dominance and seeks to impose a ‘made in America’ version of democratic governance, often overlooking history and local cultural and political preferences”. This ideology associates democracy, freedom, and American interests as unmistakable synonyms. The belief that American interests are always one and the same with freedom and democracy serves to play the same role that the paternal insistence of racial superiority did to the British Empire. Halper and Clarke describe that after America’s rise to power in 1945, “[t]he new global order was to be subordinated to the needs of the US economy and subject to US political control as much as possible. Washington extended its own regional systems […] on the principle […] that ‘what was good for us was good for the world’”.

This system which treats American interests as the interests of all is expressed in the PNAC document Rebuilding America’s Defenses, in which American led global security is continually lauded as the only way to maintain peace: “At no time in history has the international security order been as conducive to American interests and ideals”. The challenge for the coming century is to preserve and enhance this “American peace”. In this way any nation or ideology that threatens America’s interests must necessarily be a threat to the complete fabric of human society, and thus justly subjugated. As plainly expressed by Rosen: “we are in the business of bringing down hostile governments and creating governments favorable to us […] imperial strategy focuses on preventing the emergence of powerful, hostile challengers to the empire: by war if necessary, but by imperial assimilation if possible”.

In Rosen’s neoconservative interpretation of warfare he makes it clear that “[i]mperial wars end, but imperial garrisons must be left in place for decades to ensure order and stability”. In many ways this process of “bringing down” governments and leaving military personnel in the name of American, and thus world, interests is similar to the situation under the British mandate system as described by Arendt. The English set themselves up as the “guardians of the self-determination of peoples. And this despite the fact that they started at once to misuse the mandate system by ‘indirect rule,’ a method which permits the administrator to govern a people ‘not directly but through the medium of their own tribal and local authorities’”.

This mentality is inextricably tied with the treatment of power as both a means and an end in itself. Ever increasing power, despite the ideological claims used to pursue it, cannot continue forever. As Arendt says, it is contrary to the human condition. In America Alone, Halper and Clarke propose an ultimatum for the survival of the then present neoconservative government in the United States: “either there must be a compelling rationale for this administration’s policy […] that links means to ends identifying realizable objectives or today’s neo-conservative policies must be subject to radical surgery and replaced with new productive and achievable objectives”.

With its pursuit of imperial power and its dependency on never-ending economic growth, the neoconservative movement of today shares many things in common with the mentalities analyzed in Hannah Arendt’s study of older imperial movements. As such it is subject to the same driving passion that plagued the imperialism of Cecil Rhodes. It must expand, but the earth is finite. The PNAC’s call for military dominance of space and cyber-space may be an effort to “annex the planets” and thus find a means for further growth, but this has yet to be seen. It’s also quite conceivable that even the endless progress envisioned by many futurists and “singularitarians” could not have developed into its present form without the girding epistemic and financial support of modern neoconservative imperialism. It evinces a powerful, overwhelming force poorly understood and regulated by those within its grasp. Indeed, by definition, dependent on this state of ignorance for its fullest manifestation. The drive for the endless expansion that the neoconservative mentality needs to sustain itself, as opposed to its human cost in perpetuating an unending, almost vampiric, relation to power, can be summarized in the words of Dr. Stephen Rosen: “as Pericles pointed out to his fellow Athenians, they might think it a fine thing to give up their empire, but they would find that empires are like tyrannies: they may have been wrong to take, but they are dangerous to let go”.

For More Information:




Arendt, Hannah. The Burden of Our Time. London: Secker & Warburg, 1951.

Chomsky, Noam. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.

Halper, Stephen and Jonathan Clarke. America Alone. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004.

Project for the New American Century. William Kristol. 13 April 2005.

Project for the New American century. 15 April 2005. <http://www.newamericancentury.org/index.html&gt;

Project for the New American Century. Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century. Washington: Project for the New American Century, 2000.

Rosen, Stephen. “The Future of War and the American Military: Demography, Technology, and the Politics of Modern Empire.” Harvard Magazine May- June 2002: 30-32.

The Cat With Hands

When trying to understand the differences between concepts of terror, horror and the uncanny with a friend recently I was introduced to this particularly startling short film directed by Robert Morgan. While for me the narrative does border on the simply frightening, both in its style and content I cannot deny its uncanny character. The somewhat waxy animation seems to play on the theory of the uncanny valley, while the thematic blurring of the line of identity and of boundaries between mind and world, all speak to its powerful effect upon the human faculty of awe.

For More Information:



Emilie Autumn, March 15th 2011, Toronto

It was a delight to be able to attend an Emilie Autumn concert this Tuesday at the Mod Club. Apparently it was the second to last time that this particular series of acts will be put on since she has many new and exciting things planed for future shows.

Not only a event of victorindustrial musical might, Emilie and her Bloody Crumpets: Captain Maggot, The Blessed Contessa and The Naughty Veronica performed a dramatic, interactive and burlesque series of skits to go along with it. There were stilts, cannibalism, fire, swords and spoons and “tea” and an occasional barrage of cupcakes for the audience below. There was also a great deal of extra tea and chewed cookies for the people closest to the stage, not my cup of strange, but the ladies in front seemed quite enthused.

The opening was particularly well done, and showed a careful and lovingly choreographed sense of the epic as each of the bloody crumpets emerged from behind a screen within a decrepit clock with Emilie emerging last, masked and sporting a rat’s tail, uncanny and charming at once.

Sometimes it is possible to get the feeling that Emilie doesn’t like men. Considering her history it is sad and understandable, but it’s also clear that she’s actively works against this broad sentiment, and it is a testament to her bravery and endurance. During Tuesday’s performance, she took a little time to comment on how great it was that there were now so many male plague rats, which was great, and they were welcome to the asylum any time, the only difference is they don’t get to stay the night.

I’ve picked up a copy of Emilie’s book, and hope to write a review of it when my academic duties permit, but until then remember ladies and gentlemen, spread the plague, and enjoy your tea.

For More Information:


Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals

Undine Rising from the Waters. Chauncey Bradley Ives, 1810-1894

Among Paracelsus’ collected works, few have presented as many problems to scholars as his Liber de Nymphis, Sylphis, Pygmaeis et Salamandris et de Caeteris Spiritibus. At the beginning of the 20th century it was considered by some to be a fake that did not even display a basic understanding of his philosophy. Others passed it over as “a charming little book” that may have some place as a precursor to Freudian psychology. In 1941 this ambivalent reception in the English-speaking world caused the historian Henry E. Sigerist to lament the lack of scholarship on elemental spirits in Paracelsus’ world view, yet Walter Pagel treated the subject only briefly in his skillful 1958 work Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance.

Despite this trend, there is indeed much to be said about the role of elemental spirits in Paracelsus’ understanding of nature. The crux of the matter rests in his microcosmic epistemology and the role that human nature played in dictating the contents of nature itself. Since he placed intelligence and the experience of natural phenomenon squarely in the realm of nature, as opposed to that of the divine, it made sense to incorporate natural, non-human intelligences in order to complete this microcosmic conception of the human being. In short, it was intelligences other than those possessed by human beings that justified our understanding of natural phenomenon.

There are several kinds of knowing in Paracelsus’ extant writings. In his Opus Paramirum he describes the two kinds of earthly knowledge as “that of experience and that of our own cleverness”. Experience is the teacher of the physician; the other is largely based on hearsay and hubris. The physician gains experience when “he plies the Vulcanic art in transmuting, forging, reducing, solving, perfecting with all the processing pertaining to such work”. This experience is what he calls the light of Nature, which allows all the things in the natural world to be discovered. It is not merely a method of understanding the visible world, but the only way that human beings can engage its deeper principles. Paracelsus was certain that the visible world was a secondary phenomenon. The invisible part of the world is more important and can only be discovered through the light of Nature, as he asserts in the Paramirum: “We men on earth, what do we know about phenomena without the light of Nature? It is the light of Nature that makes invisible things visible”.

In contrast, the light of wisdom was the kind of knowledge that was derived directly from God. The light of Nature is given by God as a gift which will allow humankind to achieve its own perfection. It is in this doctrine that Paracelsus is at his most  radical, for he claims that:  “God has created nothing in its final form”. He justifies this notion by his belief that: “[t]o every existing thing God has allotted a time to grow in, lest it ripen prematurely”. Yet at the same time as the light of Nature allows humankind to participate in the perfecting of existence, he nevertheless believes that divine knowledge is still fundamentally above it in a realm of its own. As he says:  “In matters eternal it is belief that makes all things visible, in matters corporeal it is the light of Nature that reveals all things invisible”. The eternal and divine can only be learned from God, while the perishable and earthly, those things capable of transformation, can be achieved by earthly beings through the light of Nature. The consequence of this is that this kind of knowing operates in a semi-independent relationship to divine wisdom, and this is why Paracelsus admits that medicines derived from the light of Nature work on pagans, even though the wisdom that made them potent was a manifestation of the Christian God.

The light of Nature operates in man because he is a microcosm of everything which is in nature. To understand this it is necessary to understand the way in which God created man, for, according to Paracelsus: “Each thing to be explained in the light of Nature must be related to the first Creation”. God created the world out of nothing, but he made man out of the world, or the limus terrae which he also calls the “flesh from Adam”. Since man was made from this limus terrae he contained the essence of all things, “from all creatures, all elements, all stars in heaven and earth, all properties, essences, and natures, that was extracted [from the world] which was most subtle and most excellent in all, and this was united into one mass”. Thus man was made as a microcosm, or little world. Paracelsus also calls him the “quintessence” because he is composed of the four elements, and yet is “beyond the four elements out of which he has been extracted as a nucleus”. In our discussion of elemental spirits, which are composed of only one element rather than the flesh from Adam, this microcosmic quality of man will have profound implications.

Emblemata 29 from Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens, 1617

The elementals that Paracelsus describes in Liber de Nymphis are detailed in a startling array of relations. Water people are nymphs, who are also sometimes called undina, and when they produce monstrous offspring these are called sirens or monks. Air people are sylphs, and also go by the name sylvestres, whose monstrous offspring are giants. Likewise the mountain people are pygmies, also gnomi. When they give rise to monstrosities these beings are called dwarves. Near the end of the work Paracelsus also introduces mani into the list of names of non-monstrous mountain people. Fire people are salamanders, also called vulcani, whose monsters are will-o’-the-wisps.

Here Paracelsus makes it clear that he is using the popular names of the creatures he is attempting to describe, claiming: “The names have been given them by people who did not understand them”. This gives the reader an insight into how the following account of these fantastical creatures will differ from others. While it is evident that Paracelsus is using previous sources in mythology, folklore and religion, he is nevertheless presenting a new account of them. In this treatise he offers an expansion of his own philosophical system, and attempts to work out the nature of elementals on his own terms. This reworking is made more important because “in the Scriptures nothing special is written about these things, what to make of them or how to explore them”.

The elementals are beings who are half spirit and half man, capable of traversing through objects and traveling like spirits, but still subject to hunger and disease. Paracelsus maintains that they are people, but not the flesh from Adam, and thus do not possess an immortal soul. In this regard they are more like animals. However, they are to be treated well, and agreements made with them are binding, for “although they are beasts, they have all the reason of man, except the soul”. He makes it clear that these creatures live completely in the sphere of their respective elements. For example, everything that salamanders would regularly interact with, their food, cloths, sicknesses and cures, would all be manifestations of the fiery principle. In this regard each elemental world is a mirror of the actual one except not made from composite elements. This has the added effect that the different elementals do not have access to the worlds of the other three, yet they can all interact with our composite world. As Paracelsus writes: “Each has his special abode, but they appear to man, […] so that he may recognize and see how marvelous God is in his works, that He does not leave any element void and empty, without having great wonders in them”. This is because the composite world in which mankind lives intersects with the elemental worlds, whereas the elements themselves do not “mix”, since they are pure principles.

Paracelsus describes their position in the natural order to be that of signs and indicators of things to come, or as guardians of natural treasures. They also serve as a warning to man that God never had to populate the world with human beings, but could have done so with other intelligent entities. This warning is even more pronounced since, when monsters are born among the elementals, they foretell some coming catastrophe. Aside from this it seems as if the world they live in is totally separate from that of man, with the possible exception of serving mankind (as in the case of earth and fire people) or marrying them (as is the case with water and air people).

And yet just because they are signs of some divine wisdom does not place them outside of the natural world. As Paracelsus had already claimed in his Opus Paramirum: “If one was to regard such events as Christ’s resurrection [and the wonders of the Saints] as natural phenomena and signs, then Christ’s words ‘there will be great signs’ would be confirmed”. It is only people’s ignorance which causes them to see divine signs in nature as manifestations of the supernatural. Strangely, in this way there is no substantial difference between the resurrection of Christ and the existence of elemental spirits, for both are natural phenomenon which point the way to higher spiritual truths, but which themselves are still fundamentally natural. As Paracelsus continues: “if Christ had not talked of such signs, who would be so bold as to search so thoroughly for them in Nature? Who would not grasp the hub of Nature from whence these signs come?”

Despite the reason he gives for examining them, Paracelsus’ view that monsters are signs of coming catastrophe is not unique to the elemental spirits, nor can it fully explain his efforts to incorporate them into his understanding of the natural world. In his Astronomia Magna he had already laid down that: “Monsters are frequently born of birds, beasts, fish, worms, and even men, and these are a presage of a future calamity that will come upon man”. Elementals do not exist only to act as signs, however, but also serve as guardians of the unfolding of nature’s treasures.

In his Astronomia Magna Paracelsus had already laid down that: “God does not want His secrets to be [merely] visible; it is His will that they become manifest and knowable through the works of man who has been created in order to make them visible”. This promise of mankind’s knowledge unfolding into nature is again echoed in the concluding paragraphs of Liber de Nymphis in which Paracelsus enumerates a cause for the spirits which is still unknown, but will become manifest at the end of days. The elemental’s secret cause is likewise manifest in their second role in the unfolding of natural knowledge, for as Paracelsus describes: “God has set guardians over nature, for all things, and he left nothing unguarded”. This task in part falls to the nature spirits, who make and protect what Paracelsus calls “tremendous treasures, in tremendous quantities”. These treasures “are guarded by [the nature spirits], are kept hidden and secret so that they may not be found until the time for it has come”.

These treasures could be seen as mineral wealth, as Paracelsus attests to in the case of the mountain people, but there is also a sense that they are more than that, and have a larger part to play in the unfolding of nature. In the treaties we see him write that: “Everything must come out, creature, nature, spirit, evil and good, outside and inside, and all arts, and all doctrines, teachings and what has been created”. It seems, then, far more likely that the treasures to which Paracelsus is referring are not merely precious metals in the traditional sense, but the power and knowledge present in the elements themselves, which also happen to be present within the metals. This would be in accordance with Paracelsus’ view of the invisible virtues of natural objects, as well as with his firm belief in mankind’s growth into perfection. From this it can be inferred that there is another reason why Paracelsus may have strove to incorporate elementals into his philosophy that encapsulates all of these roles. This is their necessary existence in nature for the completion of the microcosm that is man.

In this regard the elementals’ great natural intelligence must be considered. Paracelsus consistently attributes to the elemental spirits an almost limitless wealth of knowledge. In Liber de Nymphis, he says of them that: “They also know all future affairs, present affairs and the past, which are not apparent but are hidden”. In his Concerning the Nature of Things he describes “giants, pigmies, and other marvelous people, who are the instruments of great things, […] and know all secret and hidden matters”. This consistency is important, since in some ways Paracelsus’ treatment of the spirits is inconsistent. This is particularly evident in regards to what creatures he accepts as being either elemental or monstrosity and their means of generation. In the Astronomia Magna they make an appearance as Inanimatum and some creatures he will later classify as monsters are described as elementals. Here Paracelsus also writes that they are spontaneously generated, rather than born from a man and woman of their kind as he does later in Liber de Nymphis. In his Concerning the Nature of Things the elementals are likewise claimed to be produced by the homunculus, rather than being born. Despite this, throughout his various treatments the concept of their great intelligence remains constant.

This intelligence is largely based on the relationship between the elemental spirits and the natural world. Hall states that “in the

Consider the head "in nature" behind the figure of Paracelsus

case of elemental spirits, soul [spirit] and body are not differentiated because these creatures have not been individualized as man has been”. This puts them in a more immediate relationship with the light of Nature, since they are only composed of a natural body and heavenly (astral) spirit, both of which are fully in the domain of nature. Pagel observes that this demonstrates the ambivalent condition of man in nature. As he says: “[Man] has ‘bought’ his freedom and mastery of the elements at the price of detachment and ignorance – remaining far below the ‘wisdom, art, [and] activity’ of these intermediate beings”. Even though man is a microcosm, having a reflection of all things within him, his very completeness leads him to follow the slow unfolding of the light of Nature itself, rather than having the knowledge inborn within him. Unlike the elementals, which are purely composed of the corruptible elements, humankind also has an immortal soul, which enables their freedom, but separates them from the immediacy of nature.

This is the point at which the distinction between the light of wisdom and the light of Nature becomes crucial. While Paracelsus fully acknowledges the primacy of the light of wisdom, it expresses itself in part through the largely self contained properties of nature. The distinction of the two realms is a recurring motif in most of his writings. Thus it is in his Liber Prologi in Vitam Beatam that he tells us the saint works through God alone, but the magus works through nature. In his Opus Paramirum he again reminds his readers that there are two distinct kinds of reason, one from the Holy Ghost and one from nature. While these two kinds of knowledge are not mutually exclusive, natural wisdom being a path to religious wisdom, they have two fundamentally different ways of expressing themselves in the world. That which can be learned and experienced in nature has as its first source nature itself, while that which can be learned about the divine must come from the divine in the form of saints or Scripture.

Intelligence, either rational or experiential, is in nature, because it is other than man’s soul. Thus, since man is a microcosm of nature, and “Nature is the world and all it contains”, it follows that this man-like intelligence must be found in other parts of the natural world. These intelligences would not have a soul, which is fundamentally beyond the elements, but must nevertheless exist for man’s knowledge to be possible as a natural phenomenon. In order for man to be able to learn anything from the light of Nature, there must first be other intelligences within nature itself. These spirits reflect every facet of human existence in its purely natural form and are a vital component of the microcosmic world of man that makes natural knowledge itself possible. Like everything else in the natural world, however, they also serve a religious function in their role as signs and omens, as well as in their duty as guardians of nature’s unfolding to mankind.

The elemental spirits, while going by conventional titles, are largely of Paracelsus’ own creation. The reasoning he gives, that they act as signs and guardians of the unfolding of nature, is only half sufficient to understand their importance to his larger worldview. In the case of signs, monsters of any kind act to serve the same functions as monsters produced from the elementals, and they seem to exemplify the same prophetic role as comets. In their function as guardians of natural treasures, the elementals are participating in the unfolding of nature. Yet even here little thought is given to why this process should be guided by the intermediary intelligences of the spirits, rather than being immanent in nature itself. They are a reminder that God could put in the world other intelligences aside from man, and it is their very otherness, yet intelligence and all pervasiveness which is their defining characteristic in the Paracelsian corpus. They occupy every perishable element with natural intelligence which likewise allows man to have knowledge of every element. This is their implicit, but fundamental position in Paracelsus’ thought. Since man is seen as a microcosm of nature, and intelligence itself is a part of nature, there must be other intelligences in nature whose intelligence mankind shares. More than this, in order for mankind to have knowledge of the various elements it is necessary that each should have a man-like intelligence occupying it as a precondition of human knowledge.

English scholars would therefore be wise to give more consideration to the seemingly whimsical incorporation of the elementals into Paracelsus’ system of thought, for they are just as much a logical necessity of his world view as are the elements themselves or the microcosm. It is a view that we have perhaps lost touch with, given our contemporary insistence on the uniqueness and importance of the human intelligence in natural law. Despite this it is a view which, for Paracelsus, provided the possibility of human knowledge itself, and which lifted up, by degrees, the concealing veil around the natural world until the end of days, when each thing would be perfectly understood in light of the wisdom of God.

J.D. Mylius’ Opus medico-chymicum, 1618

For More Information:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.

Hall, Manly Palmer. The Mystical and Medical Philosophy of Paracelsus. Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1964.

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