At the beginning of the 16th century, life expectancy in Europe was much shorter that nowadays. Typhus and tuberculosis were fairly common. Influenza and common colds were lethal for undernourished peasants plagued by vermin and lice. Large numbers of deaths took place every winter.
The philosophical lesson from a widespread strategic mistake
Medicine at that time was evolving from mysticism into
science. Renaissance physicians took over the knowledge from ancient
Greece and Rome, developed their own ideas, and began to experiment with
new treatments. The sale of curative herbs and potions was a booming
business, although few of those remedies actually proved beneficial to
When wealthy merchants became sick, they had the means
to pay for the services of the best physicians, from which there were
only a few in each city. Since Universities produced small numbers of
graduates, tending to the sick was a lucrative and prestigious
The discovery of new medical knowledge generated
opportunity and risk. On the one hand, innovative cures benefited
patients and created the basis for further research. On the other hand,
new remedies disrupted the established business of physicians and
Medical practitioners had little incentive to
abandon useless treatments for which they could charge hefty fees. The
discovery of inexpensive natural remedies undermined their incomes and
Historical distance allows us to contemplate the
16th century with a feeling of superiority. When we read about the
beliefs that people upheld five hundred years ago, we react with
amusement. Why did knowledge evolve so slowly? Why did ignorance and
prejudice persist for so long?
Why ignorance and
prejudice often persist for long
The best minds of the 16th century
asked the same questions. Paracelsus (1493-1541) offers a striking
example in the field of medicine. His real name was Theophrastus von
Hohenheim, which he changed himself to Paracelsus. The philosophical
lesson to be learned from his life goes far beyond the scope of medical
We know little of Paracelsus' infancy. Like many
middle-class youths of his time, he must have picked up the rudiments of
Latin through private lessons. A knowledge of Latin was the only formal
requirement to study at European Universities. The choice of subjects
was mostly limited to theology, medicine, and law.
Paracelsus completed his medical studies in Ferrara (Italy), the pest
broke out and began to decimate the population. Those who could afford
it left Ferrara for the countryside in order to avoid contagion. The
poor remained in town and the epidemic wiped out complete families.
municipality hired men to remove the sick from their houses and
transport them to a closed camp outside the city wall, where they would
be abandoned to die. Paracelsus, who was still a medical student, soon
understood that medieval treatments, such as bleeding patients, were
ineffective against the pest.
This realization led him to
experiment with alternative methods. When the pest receded and normal
life returned to Ferrara, Paracelsus presented his new ideas at the
University. To his surprise, his views were met with scepticism and
hostility. The professors in Ferrara did not welcome suggestions that
contradicted inherited knowledge.
After graduation, Paracelsus
travelled extensively throughout Europe. Sometimes, he would settle down
in a city to practice medicine for a year; on other occasions, he would
take up a position as surgeon in one of the armies involved in the wars
that ravaged the Renaissance.
As his medical knowledge and
expertise grew, so did his irritation with the incompetence of fellow
physicians. Thanks to his wide travelling, Paracelsus had accumulated
impressive surgical skills and long experience in the use of herbs and
minerals for curative purposes. In contrast, the average medic in the
16th century possessed only the little knowledge that he had acquired at
Should you tell the truth when it can lead to disastrous consequences?
Paracelsus' effectiveness increased his fame,
but his criticism of ignorant doctors made him many enemies. His
conflicts with colleagues became extreme after he was appointed to teach
medicine at the University of Basel (Switzerland).
perspective of five centuries, we can clearly see how unrealistic
Paracelsus' expectations were. It was undeniable that he had acquired
more knowledge than other physicians; nevertheless, it was chimerical
for him to expect his colleagues to make way for truth when innovation
undermined their livelihoods and reputations.
Is it not unfair
that Paracelsus had to face such a strong resistance? Was his
indignation at his ignorant colleagues not well justified? My point is
that these questions are irrelevant because they are based on incorrect
Unrealistic expectations are hard to discard because
they are based on delusions of entitlement. Paracelsus felt wrongly
entitled to reshape the world according to truth and innovation, even
though the great majority of his contemporaries had vested interests in
clinging to the past.
As a result, Paracelsus was forced to quit
his position at the University of Basel a year later and return to his
itinerant life. Although he was one of the best physicians of his time,
he died in poverty before his 48th birthday.
The fact is that
knowledge, expertise, or desire do not grant magical powers to anyone.
Unrealistic expectations lead to waste and decay. A workable plan is
worth a million debates. Let go of chimerical projects and focus on what
can be reasonably accomplished. Stay away from grandiose undertakings
and concentrate on entrepreneurship, which is the practical way to
For more information about rational living and personal development, I
refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational
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