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Paracelsus: The Man Beneath the Myth

Abstract: Paracelsus––whose unorthodox beliefs and volatile temperament caused him to be ostracized from his contemporaries in the tightly knit academic and medical communities, where gossip and scandal circulated with relative ease in spite of the spacial limitations under which mail couriers then operated––was thought of as an agent of the Devil. Though history has been kinder to him, his association with the black arts remains irrevocable––for in a 1942 speech before the Royal Society of Medicine, H. P. Bayon described Paracelsus as “not a harbinger of light.” This paper seeks to uncover the man beneath the myth, and then, hopefully, to set at rest the idea that Paracelsus was anything but an ordinary (and godly) man with ideas and ideals ahead of his time, ideas and ideals that, unfortunately for his reputation, were unsettling to his contemporaries. On a separate note, this paper also attempts to demonstrate the folly of basing one’s opinion of someone or something off of a reputation that, more often than not, is fabricated from half-baked rumors and ill-conceived exaggerations. Read the rest of this entry

Review of “The Ghost Map”

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.  By Steven Johnson.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.  Print.  Pp. xviii+302.  $16.00.

This tightly-written triumph of historical nonfiction, written by Steven Johnson, author of seven other books including the national bestseller Everything Bad Is Good for You, follows two eminently prolific individuals––the taciturn yet brilliant Dr. John Snow, and the genial and equally perceptive Rev. Henry Whitehead––as their lives briefly intertwine when an unprecedentedly intense outbreak of cholera devastates a swathe of Victorian London.  Johnson describes how, in the span of a few weeks during the summer and fall of 1854, these two tenacious men join forces to propose a pioneering solution to what then was medicine’s most befuddling conundrum: a waterborne theory of cholera.  The implications of their explanation for cholera’s spread, though not immediately realized––Snow and Whitehead’s seminal achievement is recognized only shortly after the Great Stink of 1858, posthumously in Snow’s case––are unfavorable for the continued survival of the then-preponderant miasmatic theory of disease. Read the rest of this entry

A Journalist’s Duty

Over a century ago, a new breed of journalist, derogatorily referred to as the muckraker, made its mark in an America beset by so-called captains of industry (or robber barons) who, single-minded as they were in their pursuit of unbounded wealth, went to any lengths to achieve their wildest dreams.  The muckraker was a champion of the underprivileged and underserved, a purveyor of truth who, at great personal and professional risk, kept the public abreast of important events, and thereby forestalled the government from exploiting its citizens’ ignorance and cheating them of their constitutionally-mandated inalienable rights.  The muckraker was courageously un-conformist and anti-Establishment, someone who, by being unstintingly blunt in depicting the misdeeds perpetrated by the corporate giants that presided over America’s ‘gilded age’, served as a catalyst for reform and improved the lives of millions. Read the rest of this entry

Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic Pharaoh, and the Amarna Revolution

Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

Lost to humanity for three millennia until “[t]he Prussian exploration expedition of 1842-45 gave special attention” (Niebuhr & Hutchison, 1901, p. 1) to the ruins of a great city along the eastern bank of the Nile at what is now known as el-Amarna in Middle Egypt, Amenhotep IV (or Akhenaten, as he was later called) was a figure unlike any other in Egyptian history. Ruling Egypt as Pharaoh for less than two decades from ca. 1353-1336 B.C., Akhenaten nonetheless distinguished himself as an apostate who discarded a spiritual tradition that stretched unbroken for nearly two thousand years. Rejecting the Theban god Amun who, joined with Re at the start of the New Kingdom era (ca. 1539 B.C.), became Amun-Re, Akhenaten is said to have devoted himself to the worship of “a manifestation of the sun god” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 4), the Aten. Since Akhenaten’s discovery at el-Amarna, where he built a city called Akhet-Aten (which translates as “The Horizon of the Aten” [Brewer, 2012, p. 163]), his devotion to the Aten has branded him a monotheist and invited speculation about his motives for shunning Egyptian polytheism. Such is the public’s interest in Akhenaten that some, myself included, wonder about a connection between Atenism and the genesis of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic monotheistic tradition; it should be noted, however, that though the biblical Exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred only a century after Akhenaten’s reign (ca. 1250-1200 B.C.), and Moses himself is said to have lived during Akhenaten’s reign, there exists nothing but circumstantial evidence (if even that) to support any such connection. In any case, Egyptologists have since cast doubt on Akhenaten’s status as a monotheist, instead postulating that he was a henotheist (someone who worships one god, but accepts the existence of other gods) or an atheist. But whatever Akhenaten’s religious beliefs, he remains an enigmatic figure worthy of further study. Thus are Akhenaten and his short-lived religious movement, now known as the Amarna revolution, the subject of this paper. Read the rest of this entry

Freedom in Post-World War II America

In his 1941 Annual Message to Congress (aka the State of the Union address), President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.”[1] Christened the Four Freedoms, they included the freedoms of speech and worship, and the freedoms from want and fear. The first two freedoms, their meanings self-evident, need not be defined; the latter two, however, are less explicit. Roosevelt, in the same address, described those latter two––the freedoms from want and fear, respectively––as follows: “the economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants . . . [and] the world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression . . .” The Four Freedoms, American leaders made abundantly clear, embodied that which set the U.S. apart from and above its enemies in Europe (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy) and the Far East (Imperial Japan), and its grudging communist ally the Soviet Union. They also “provided a crucial language of national unity . . . [for t]he message seemed to be that Americans were fighting to preserve freedoms enjoyed individually or within the family rather than in the larger public world.”[2] However, once World War II ended, the Four Freedoms were eventually subsumed into the larger framework of America’s blueprint for winning the Cold War against its ideological counterpart the Soviet Union. Freedom, at least in the initial stages of the Cold War, became less an empowerment of the individual and his/her civil liberties, and more a habit of unquestioned devotion to the American cause, and of cultural and political conformity in the face of encroaching communism. Unchecked material consumption, perhaps buoyed by the U.S.’s postwar economic prosperity, became a staple of the American way of life, so much so that Vice-President Richard Nixon, in 1959, described to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “a conception of freedom centered on economic abundance and consumer choice . . .”[3]; indeed, one might argue that this consumer culture sweetened America’s otherwise unpalatable crackdown on homegrown communism. The U.S., in any case, soon underwent a backlash against this constraining statism, and Americans rediscovered their political autonomy, a development that culminated in the successive civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1950s and 60s. Read the rest of this entry

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