In my scholarship, I often write about the Rosicrucian phenomenon that appeared I the first decades of the seventeenth century. In Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England, I have a chapter entitled “The Rosicrucian Mysticism of Henry and Thomas Vaughan” and in The Submerged Reality, I have one on the Paracelsian physician and Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd, and recently I edited an edition of the seventeenth-century alchemical fantasy, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. So when I hear the word “Rosicrucian,” I don’t immediately think of quasi-Masonic fraternal orders devoted to esoteric ritual or occult trivia. In fact, I don’t think of such groups as Rosicrucian at all. In those cases, “Rosicrucian” is a glittering generality, a mirror that receives the projected reflection of the ego. This is not to say that such groups don’t have interesting doctrines; but they don’t obtain as Rosicrucian, at least in the seventeenth-century understanding of the word.
Actually, what I do think of when I hear the word “Rosicrucian” is medicine. The Vaughans were both physicians, and Henry issued translations of Heinrich Nollius’s Hermetick Physic and The Chymists Key in 1655 and 1657, respectively. Fludd and his German counterpart Michael Maier were also physicians, Fludd a respected member of the Royal College of Physicians and Maier, the private physician of Emperor Rudolf II. These were hardly fringe figures, though the medicine all of these men practiced was deeply indebted to the Swiss medical wonderworker, Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better know to posterity as Paracelsus. Were these medical professionals alive in our own cultural context, they would no doubt be practicing what we now call “alternative medicine.” Unfortunately, today’s reigning medical archons don’t consider alternative medicine as proper medicine at all, and many insurance providers won’t cover patients seeking these paths; and many alternative practitioners, to be honest, don’t want to fall into the snares of bureaucratic interference in the art of healing, whether it be from the realms of government or corporations.
In the Fama Fraternitatis, the Rosicrucian manifesto first published in 1614, we find a sketch of the mythic background of the order, a sketch, more importantly, that outlines the Rosicrucian ethos. The art of healing is listed first among their list of commitments: “That none of them should profess any other thing than to cure the sick, and that gratis.”
“To cure the sick, and that gratis”: these words strike me with hope, but that hope is compromised by living in a medical culture too ensconced with governmental control and capitalistic desires. The pharmaceutical companies pump billions of dollars into advertising ($30 billion in one year, according to The Los Angeles Times) a practice outlawed in most civilized countries. Money is a most addictive drug, and media conglomerates are addicted to BigPharma’s supply chain and are always looking for the next fix. BigPharma certainly seems to be interested in medicine, but I’m not all that convinced that it’s interested in health. Prove me wrong. While we’re waiting, don’t plan on any rigorous journalistic investigation of BigPharma as a matter of course, especially when it comes to using third world populations as human guinea pigs (a “best business practice”), a method darkly illustrated in John le Carré’s book The Constant Gardener, later turned into a film directed by Fernando Meirelles.
Another commitment mentioned in the Fama may appear unobtrusive at first: “After such a most laudable sort they did spend their lives; and although they were free from all diseases and pain, yet notwithstanding they could not live and pass their time appointed by God” (my emphasis). This line, probably more than any other, has haunted my imagination for much of the past thirty years or so. What is our time appointed by God? The medical establishment has invested much time and treasure into prolonging life, but it does not seem that it has invested similar resources into prolonging health. Indeed, the “4 out of 5 doctors” who recommended margarine instead of butter and saccharine instead of sugar did much to decrease the health of people—while standing on a platform of almost godlike authority. I suspect that their nefarious “research” promoted in the 1970s has much to do with the explosion in Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers we see today, sufferers like my mother and a beloved aunt. Where’s a class-action lawsuit when you need one?
I often contemplate the approaching “appointed time.” Further on in the Fama, we read: “The what secret soever we have learned of the book M. (although before our eyes we behold the image and pattern of the world) yet there are not shewn unto us our misfortunes, nor the hour of death, the which is known only to God himself, who thereby would have us keep in a continual readiness.”
The readiness is all.
You can hear me talking more about Rosicrucianism on the Post-Structuralist Tent Revival podcast.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutzand Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.