Theological Basis of Paracelsus’ Tripartite View of Man & Nature And “Tria Prima”

Paracelsus was one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance due to his contribution to the field of science and medicine. However, what is often overlooked in the historical narrative is his theology and how this is manifested in his scientific works. Born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland as Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim in the early 1490s, Paracelsus was exposed to the practice of medicine through his father, a physician. In addition, local monks bolstered his education by teaching him Catholic theology, as well as ideas common in medieval magic and mysticism. With this mish-mosh of various, and at times, opposing ideas Paracelsus developed and pioneered the use of chemical medicine, focusing on the use of salts and minerals to cure diseases of the body. Taken at face value, his medical framework reads much like an extension of medieval alchemy. However, theological ideas are firmly ground in them. Upon close inspection of Paracelsus’ beliefs on the creation of man and universe, one finds that the tripartite view of creation has massive repercussions on his own scientific developments. Paracelsus’ chemical basis of matter, called tria prima (salt, sulfur, and mercury), reflects this tripartite view as well, grounded on Paracelsus’ own understanding of the Holy Trinity. Broadly, it is Paracelsus’ theology that is the main influence on his writings and scientific frameworks.

Paracelsus’ conception of creation of man deviates slightly from Old Testament views, and most importantly, implicates a unique microcosm-macrocosm relationship between man and the universe. The Catholic Church’s teachings of the time enforced that God created the world and mankind ex nihilo, or out of nothing.[1] Paracelsus offered up a similar explanation but he deviated from tradition in that he believed that though God created the universe out of nothing, God created man out of a pre-existing substance.

Man was not born out of nothingness, but was made from a substance . . . God took the limus terrae, the primordial stuff of the earth, and formed man out of this mass . . . limus terrae is also the Great World, and thus man was created from heaven and earth. Limus terrae is an extract of the firmament, of the universe of stars, and at the same time of all the elements.[2]

It is explicit here that Paracelsus believes that mankind was created from limus terrae, a deviation from established Catholic teaching. This only hints at Paracelsus’ negative view of Catholic teachings and the Catholic Church as an institution at the time, which will be explained later. What is more interesting, however, is how the limus terrae effectively positions mankind in the context of the greater universe. By stating that man was created from the same substance as the elements, heaven, and earth, man was thus a reflection of the universe itself. Paracelsus describes man as being a microcosm of the greater universe, compacted into the body and covered in skin, due to man being of the same substance as the greater world.[3] The idea of man as a microcosm, and how it interrelates with the macrocosm is prevalent in most of Paracelsus’ writings, and provides the basis for much of his medical framework. This microcosm-macrocosm belief is not unique to Paracelsus since it was a commonly held belief of most alchemists, and other Renaissance thinkers. For one, Marisilio Ficino was one of the forerunners in the practice of medical astrology, and he highly emphasized the interaction of the body and universe and the effect of the stars on health, which highlights the microcosm-macrocosm concept.[4] How then does Paracelsus’ microcosm-macrocosm concept differ from the other minds of his time? The answer lies in God’s conception of man. As said before, Paracelsus believed that God fashioned man out of limus terrae, but more importantly, God fashioned man in His image. This is an age-old idea in Christian theology, but Paracelsus utilized the concept of images as an imprint of the maker’s likeness to expand his ideas on the nature of mankind.

German Renaissance historian, Andrew Weeks suggests that the idea of images is a unifying theological concept in Paracelsian works. Weeks explain that since man was made in the image of God, man also possesses a kind of tripartite nature like that of God’s (Father, Son, Holy Sprit). “The human creature is also heaven and earth, visible and invisible, and a threefold being of body, sidereal spirit, and soul of the eternal spirit and breath of life.”[5] Here, Weeks validates the idea of the microcosm-macrocosm in Paracelsus’ works since humans reflect the “heaven and earth.” He also suggests the tripartite nature of man in that he is composed of the body, which represents that which is solid and visible, the spirit, which represents the intangible and invisible, and the soul, which represents the principle that galvanizes the two together into a cohesive being. It is in Paracelsus’ own theology about creation as images that one receives a clear picture of how he viewed the nature of man. This idea is especially present in the following excerpt from Astronomia Magna in Weeks’ Paracelsus.

… neither I nor anyone else, can or may know of the image of God, as it is, except for what we understand and abstract from Christ and Scripture . . . it is no less the case that God is the person. In as much as the person is, there is also an image, for a person cannot be without image and image is a form and figure.[6]

Here, the reader is exposed to Paracelsus’ explanation of how Scripture and Christ are used as tools to gain some understanding of who God is. This is particularly interesting since in Christian theology, Christ was the physical manifestation of God and the Scripture is said to contain the Holy Spirit and can be accessed by careful reading. These two represent the “body” and the “spirit,” and God is left as the third and final part of the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, the latter part of the passage affirms the idea that man is an image of God. Thus, these ideas can be applied to each other and it can be gleaned that mankind is tripartite in nature for he is made from God’s image. Here, it is clear how important of a role that theology, specifically Paracelsus’ own theology, plays in his conception of the world around him.

It is important to consider how the tripartite view of human nature effectively developed Paracelsus’ views on the natural world, and ultimately, the chemical principles that facilitate the natural world’s processes. The intellectual historian, Charles Webster extends the tripartite principle into nature, suggesting that Paracelsus also viewed that everything that existed in the natural world was also comprised of three entities.[7] In Paracelsus’ mind, the tripartite view of nature was acceptable not out of convenience, but with the logical deduction that since God was the maker of the natural world, surely the maker would also impart a Trinitarian principle in it, just like with the creation of man.[8] Thus, if the microcosm-macrocosm principle still holds and the entirety of creation was comprised of three entities, it is no surprise that Paracelsus developed a tripartite view of the chemical basis of matter. Called the tria prima, Paracelsus utilized the salt, mercury and sulfur as the three key substances.

Heaven and earth have been created out of nothingness, but they are composed of three things – mercurius [mercury], sulphur [sulfur], and sal [salt] . . . Of these same three things the planets and all the stars consist; and not only the stars but all bodies that grow and are born from them. And just as the Great World [macrocosm] is thus built upon the three primordial substances, so man – the Little World [microcosm] – was composed of the same substances. Thus man, too, is nothing but mercury, sulphur and salt.[9]

As Paracelsus outlined in a passage above from Astronomia Magna, he utilized the idea of the microcosm-macrocosm to suggest that man is composed of the tria prima since the stars and everything else in the macrocosm is composed of these three substances as well. These three substances were not completely radical. Medieval alchemists have long since recognized their importance, mercury in particular for its transformative ability to not only exist as a shiny metal in coloring, but it also has the viscosity and movement of a liquid.[10] In this regard, Paracelsus’ incorporation of mercury and sulfur into his chemical theory was not particularly groundbreaking. However, what is innovative about the tria prima is the fact that salt is given equal importance as the other two. Biblically, salt is given great importance in the Old Testament in that it was one of the vital components in performing ritual sacrifices to God.[11] Thus, Paracelsus incorporated salt in his tria prima due to its inherent biblical authority. Furthermore, Paracelsus discredited the hierarchy that medieval alchemists placed on these elements. By doing this, each component is given equal importance, which emphasized the Trinitarian nature of the tria prima in that each substance was equally vital in unity.[12] His reliance on theological canon to give credibility to his principles is evident. It is in this regard that Paracelsus truly differed from his medieval predecessors.

The tria prima not only explained the physical composition of the natural world, but it also explained it in terms of qualities, and it is these qualities that also facilitated the understanding of how diseases worked within the human body. In addition, the tria prima’s qualities also reflect an understanding of the Holy Trinity. Physically, the tria prima’s physical attributes did not differ from the established alchemical knowledge. However, Paracelsus ascribed the three substances with specific characteristics. Mercury had the quality of mystery, spirituosity, and power; salt had the quality of coagulation and preservation, and sulfur had the quality of substance and solidity.[13] With these qualities in mind, Paracelsus argued in On the Miners’ Sickness and Other Miners’ Diseases (1538) that diseases came to be (in particular, a lung disease specific to miners) as a result of manifesting these qualities.

Know then also concerning the lung-sickness that it comes through the power of the stars in that their peculiar characters are boiled out, settling on the lungs in three different ways: in a mercurial manner like a sublimated smoke that coagulates, like a salt spirit what passes from resolution to coagulation, and thirdly, like a sulphur which is precipitated on the walls by roasting.[14]

The tria prima served as the basis for understanding the way diseases manifested in the body. The nature of the disease was separated into its three components, and then settled in the lungs based on their individual qualities. The sickness then arises as the “precipitation” on the walls of the lungs. Furthermore, Paracelsus noted the effect of the stars in this passage. It is evident here that the microcosm-macrocosm idea is at play in that the sickness comes from the stars, and since the body is a mirror of the universe, the same sickness can manifest itself within the body. Consequently, one can also interpret these qualities as reflective of the Holy Trinity. Sulfur’s quality of precipitation into a solid material is analogous to Christ (God’s physical manifestation on earth); salt’s quality of coagulation is akin to the Holy Spirit, and mercury’s quality of sublimation and invisibility is representative of God. This interpretation is not surprising since Paracelsus, as established, truly relied on the theology to develop and hone his scientific framework.

 It is interesting to note that much of Paracelsus’ theology falls in line with Catholic dogma: his ideas on Creation and the Trinitarian view of God does not differ that much from doctrine. However, it is his application of this theology to the view of mankind and the chemical basis of matter that does set him apart from medieval alchemists and other thinkers of his time. At its core, Paracelsian theological beliefs are not radical, but it is how these beliefs are translated onto scientific writing (and often, propagandistic in tone due to his personality) that is quite radical and represents a break from the Renaissance norm. Set in the religiopolitically tumultuous milieu of 1530s Germany, a time that marked the high period of Protestant Reformation, Paracelsus’ reforming attitudes were directed towards the exclusivity of medical academia. As Andrew Wear, a member of the Academic Unit of Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London, explains in, Paracelsus attacked the established learned tradition with his tria prima in that it completely disregarded the Galenic tradition of the time.[15] He viewed humoral theory as an archaic institution, false and insufficient in explaining the ways in which the world worked. Further, Paracelsus believed in the spiritual nature of the world, as evident in his tripartite view, and humoral theory does not adequately take this into account. Most importantly, Paracelsus wanted to break down the learned medical tradition since it relied on outdated texts and observations from ancients who knew nothing of his world and time. Paracelsus worked to effectively shift the focus on relying on the old authors of medicine to one’s own experiences of the nature around mankind.[16] This shift from reliance on texts to pure observation is in itself in line with Renaissance trends. For one, Andreas Vesalius’ new anatomy was representative of the advances in dissections and knowledge of the human body, and Vesalius relied on experience as the primary teacher in exploring the wonders of the human body.[17] However, Vesalius still operated under Galenic thought, and respected the ancients unlike Paracelsus. In the end, it is clear that it is Paracelsus’ tria prima and tripartite views, and not the theology behind them that placed Paracelsus in a precarious position within Renaissance trends: on one hand, he advocated the dissolution of learned medical tradition completely, which few of his contemporaries agreed with, and on the other hand, his way of doing so – the shift to observation as the only way of learning – is not revolutionary for people like Vesalius agreed and advocated this as well.

It is evident that Paracelsus’ works were greatly influenced by established Christian doctrine. His belief on the creation of man from the image of God imbued mankind with a tripartite nature. This tripartite nature thus became omnipresent in all of creation, and from this idea came Paracelsus’ tria prima. The tria prima on its surface explained the chemical basis of matter and even how diseases came to be. Digging more deeply, the tria prima actually reflects the nature of the Holy Trinity, which further bolsters the idea that Paracelsus relied heavily on theology as his main guide to establishing his scientific and medical framework. With that said, Paracelsus’ science also effectively undermined the authority of ancient authors as valid sources in the study of medicine, made especially visible in his writings in the context of the Reformation in 1530s Germany. The intersectional nature of religion and medicine is something that the modern audience does not see often since the two are often seen as conflicting forces. It is evident from this analysis of Paracelsus’ theology that science and religious beliefs freely interact, building each other up to new heights. It is Paracelsus’ theological discourse that allowed him to not only develop the ideas behind the nature of man, but it also allowed him to extend theology in the development of his chemical beliefs, grounded on the tria prima. As stated before, he fits right in with the other great minds of his time like Ficino and Vesalius due to his reliance on the microcosm-macrocosm idea and observation as teacher, respectively. This warrants the question: to what extent was Paracelsus an innovator or a rebel? In the end, however innovative and rebellious Paracelsus might have been, he was a product of his time. His scientific developments grounded on theology were indeed radical set in the context of traditional academic institutions that pervaded Renaissance Europe. However, this radicalism is what was expected of an intellectual character such as Paracelsus due to the rise of the Reformation, and the swiftly changing sociopolitical and religious currents of his time.


[1] Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time, 133

[2] Paracelsus, and Jolande Jacobi. Selected Writings. Astronomia Magna (1537/38), translated excerpt, 16.

[3] Paracelsus, and Jolande Jacobi. Selected Writings. Schriften über Kometen, Erdbeben, Friedbogen, Himmelszeichen (1531/34), translated excerpt, 17.

[4] Alisha Rankin. “Astrological and Alchemical Medicine.” Lecture.

[5] Andrew Weeks. Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation, 113.

[6] Andrew Weeks. Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation.111. Excerpt from Astronomia Magna.

[7] Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time, 135.

[8] Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time, 136

[9] Paracelsus, and Jolande Jacobi. Selected Writings. Astronomia Magna (1537/38), translated excerpt, 19.

[10] Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time,137

[11] Leviticus 2:13

[12] Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time, 137

[13] Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time, 138

[14] Paracelsus. Four Treatises of Theophrastus Von Hohenheim, Called Paracelsus, 59

[15] Andrew Wear. The Western Medical Tradition: 800 B.C. to A.D. 1800, 313

[16] Andrew Wear. The Western Medical Tradition: 800 B.C. to A.D. 1800, 315.

[17] Andrew Wear. The Western Medical Tradition: 800 B.C. to A.D. 1800, 273-280

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Mark Bernardo

Trying to learn a bit about everything.

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