Franz Anton Mesmer

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Eighteenth century Europe witnessed the culmination and confusion of collective reform and reorganization. The inspiration and force of the myriad movements fostered by the Rosicrucians and Freemasons energized the aspirations of whole classes of individuals who nursed old social wounds and nurtured a vast vision of the future. The corruption and internal weakness of the ancien regime was revealed in its rapid and chaotic collapse, and the release of the powers of conflicting human wills obscured definitive signs of spiritual and social rebirth.

Stationed like centres of dynamic control, four heroic beings guided men through the events of the times towards a deeper realization of unity and profounder conviction of universal brotherhood – Franz Anton Mesmer, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Cagliostro and the Comte de Saint Germain. Each played a precise, though largely hidden, role in a subtle revolution of the human mind. H.P.Blavatsky wrote of Mesmer:

It was the Council of 'Luxor' which selected him – according to the orders of the 'Great Brotherhood' – to act in the XVIIIth century as their usual pioneer, sent in the last quarter of every century to enlighten a small portion of the Western nations in occult lore.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) was born in Swabia on May 23. At age nine he entered a monastery school. He received a scholarship at fifteen and transferred to the University of Ingolstadt three years later. After a careful study of Descartes and Wolff, Mesmer turned to an examination of the thought of Paracelsus and his work won him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Though he studied law for a time in Vienna, his love of the writings of Paracelsus led him to take up medicine. His examinations complete at age thirty-two, he wrote a Paracelsist thesis entitled De Planetarium Influxu on the influence of the planets upon the human body. He suggested that the planets gave off emanations which flowed into and through all life by "intensification and remission." Though a controversial and visionary work, his superior understanding of medical practice gained him his medical degree in 1766.

Mesmer displayed an abiding sensitivity to the needs of the poor, regularly ministering to them without charge, while earning his living from treating those who could monetarily afford his attention. He also devoted time to music. Leopold Mozart came to him for treatment and soon Mesmer met young Wolfgang Amadeus, whose prodigious genius he immediately recognized. In 1768 Mesmer married a widow ten years his senior and constructed a palatial mansion on the Landstrasse, a Viennese neighbourhood known for its Rosicrucian residents. The property included charming rococo gardens and a little theatre.

During this pleasant period in his life Mesmer frequently entertained and played music with Hayden and Mozart. When Mozart offered his first opera for performance at age twelve, the Director of the Imperial Opera refused to perform it on the grounds that no one of his age could have written it. Mesmer immediately arranged for the work to be performed in his own theatre. In gratitude for his friendship, Mozart paid a permanent musical compliment to Mesmer in Cosi Fan Tutti.

In 1773 and 1774 Mesmer took Franziska Osterlin into his own home for care and treatment. She suffered from frequent convulsions which in turn caused severe pain in her ears, delirium, vomiting and fainting. A minute study of her symptoms suggested that the movement of the universal fluid could be easily observed in the phenomena exhibited. Mesmer was convinced that this fluid flowed through both animate and inanimate bodies. In organic nature it was most easily observed in the properties of magnetism, and Mesmer called its correlate in the human body 'Animal Magnetism.' Convinced that the temporary relief he had provided periodically could become a permanent cure if reinforced properly, Mesmer procured several magnets from the Jesuit Father Hell, Professor of Astronomy at Vienna, and used them to bring the convulsions to a halt. The girl improved and eventually regained perfect health, married and had children.

These experiments taught Mesmer that the power of the magnet itself was not the source of the curative effect. Since the 'General Agent' or animal magnetism could not count as the specific cause of the cure, Mesmer realized that the power to direct the currents, which cleansed and restored the nerves of the patient, was intimately bound up with the will of the physician. Mesmer reported his findings to Father Hell, who immediately published them under his own name. He claimed that the shape and size of the magnets effected the cures when fitted appropriately to the condition, and hailed the magnet as the panacea for all disorders. Mesmer knew that both assertions were false and published an announcement of the nature of animal magnetism, but Father Hell's renown as an astronomer drew away public attention.

Mesmer called on Baron von Stoerck, President of the Faculty of Medicine at Vienna and Chief Physician to the Empress Maria Theresa, to witness his operations and cures. The Baron replied that he wanted to hear nothing of the theory and method of animal magnetism, for it might compromise the Faculty. Mesmer responded to this rebuff by publishing a Letter to a Foreign Physician in January, 1775. He noted that animal magnetism displayed properties analogous to electricity and magnetism.

All bodies are, like the magnet, capable of communicating this magnetic principle; this fluid penetrates everything and can be stored up and concentrated, like the electric fluid; it acts at a distance; animate bodies are divided into two classes, one being susceptible to this magnetism and the other to an opposite quality which suppresses its action.

Most members of the scientific community continued to confuse animal magnetism with the powers of the magnet and questioned the veracity of Mesmer's experiments. Nevertheless, when Mesmer travelled to Berne and Zurich, the doctors there were amazed by his treatment of cases pronounced hopeless. The Elector of Bavaria consulted Mesiner in Munich and the Bavarian Academy of Science made him a member, while the Augsburg Academy praised him.

In 1776 Mesmer was visited by the Comte de Saint Germain. The meeting was kept in strictest confidence by both men, though it appears that they discussed the highest aspects of magnetism and the need to sever completely animal magnetism from the magnet. Mesmer later wrote:

The desire to refute such errors once for all, and to do justice to truth, determined me to make no further use of electricity or of the magnet from 1776 onwards.

Mesmer's house was now a convalescent hospital. Several patients were freed from nervous disorders, including blindness. Herr von Paradis, Secretary to the Emperor and Empress of Austria, had a daughter, Marie-Therese, who had become blind inexplicably at the age of three. She was awarded a pension by the Empress and was known in the court. After years of fruitless attempts to alleviate her condition, Miss Paradis was given over to Mesmer's care. The titanic effort to restore her sight took time and suffered several setbacks, but eventually her sight fully returned. Herr von Paradis published a full account of the cure in newspapers and publicly expressed his gratitude. Officers from the Faculty of Medicine witnessed the results, and even Baron von Stoerck apologized for having previously ignored Mesmer's work.

Several outraged physicians declared that the cure was fraudulent and an imposture because Miss Paradis could not recognize and name the objects she allegedly saw for the first time in her life. Rumours and court intrigues suggested that, since Miss Paradis could see, her pension should be withdrawn, and even that the father was part of a plot to deceive the medical profession. Twice Miss Paradis was taken out of Mesmer's care, and after several violent scenes in which Miss Paradis protested her forcible removal, her blindness and convulsions returned. Herr von Paradis then declared the cure a fraud and joined a chorus of voices calling for a royal condemnation of Mesmer. Though a number of high officials including the Aulic Councillor and the Director of the State Chancellery testified on behalf of his methods and discoveries, Mesmer felt the strain of exhaustion. He left Vienna and travelled to relax and gain some repose.

Arriving in Paris in February, 1778, he was treated kindly by the Paris Faculty and given the patronage of Marie Antoinette. To prove his system, he accepted the most wretched cases the Faculty and hospitals could provide, and effected cures which elicited their praise. Now visited by both French and Austrian nobility, and supported by Dr. d'Eslon, Physician to the Comte d'Artois, the Princess de Lamballe and Prince de Condé, the Duc de Bourbon and Lafayette, Mesmer found the security and interest Vienna had refused to give. He converted the Hotel Bouillon into a hospital and treated patients without charge.

Mesmer published A History of the Discovery of Animal Magnetism in 1779, in which he recounted his experiments, and he appended to it twenty-seven propositions. He declared that:

Experience alone will scatter the clouds and shed light on this important truth: that Nature affords a universal means of healing and preserving men.

The first six propositions assert the existence and cyclic activity of animal magnetism:

1. There exists a mutual influence between the Heavenly Bodies, the Earth and Animate Bodies.
2. A universally distributed and continuous fluid, which is quite without vacuum and of an incomparably rarefied nature, and which by its nature is capable of receiving, propagating and communicating all the impressions of movement, is the means of this influence.
3. This reciprocal action is subordinated to mechanical laws that are hitherto unknown.
4. This action results in alternate effects which may be regarded as an Ebb and Flow.
5. This ebb and flow is more or less general, more or less particular, more or less composite according to the nature of the causes determining it.
6. It is by this operation (the most universal of those presented by Nature) that the activity ratios are set up between the heavenly bodies, the earth and its component parts.

The next four propositions explain the relation of animal magnetism to matter and draw an analogy with the magnet:

7. The properties of Matter and the Organic Body depend on this operation.
8. The animal body sustains the alternate effects of this agent, which by insinuating itself into the substance of the nerves, affects them at once.
9. It is particularly manifest in the human body that the agent has properties similar to those of the magnet; different and opposite poles may likewise be distinguished which can be changed, communicated, destroyed and strengthened; even the phenomenon of dipping is observed.
10. This property of the animal body, which brings it under the influence of the heavenly bodies and the reciprocal actions of those surrounding it, as shown by its analogy with the Magnet, induced me to term it ANIMAL MAGNETISM.

After three propositions on the communicability of animal magnetism, Mesmer compares its activity to that of light, sound and electricity:

14. Its action is exerted at a distance, without the aid of an intermediate body.
15. It is intensified and reflected by mirrors, just like light.
16. It is communicated, propagated and intensified by sound.
17. This magnetic property may be stored up, concentrated and transported.

He suggests that there is some positive opposing force which a few bodies contain and which has characteristics similar to animal magnetism. Then he explains the difference between animal and mineral magnetism and shows the relation between them:

20. The Magnet, both natural and artificial, together with other substances, is susceptible to Animal Magnetism, and even to the opposing property, without its effect on iron and the needle undergoing any alteration in either case; this proves that the principle of Animal Magnetism differs essentially from that of mineral magnetism.
21. This system will furnish fresh explanations as to the nature of Fire and Light, as well as the theory of attraction, ebb and flow, the magnet and electricity.
22. It will make known that the magnet and artificial electricity only have, as regards illnesses, properties which they share with several other agents provided by Nature, and that if useful effects have been derived from the use of the latter, they are due to Animal Magnetism.

Mesmer concludes with the observation that animal magnetism can cure nervous disorders directly and other disorders indirectly." It can be used with medicines, though it presupposes a new theory of disease. When mastered, however, it enables the physician to perfect his art so that he may treat without fear of doing harm and ''alleviate the sufferings of humanity."

France offered Mesmer a pension in 1780, and he lived for a time in comparative peace. In 1782 he joined Saint-Martin, Saint Germain and Cagliostro at the Wilhelmsbad Masonic Convention. Though they rarely came together in public, they were Masons and members of Fratres Lucis and kept in private communication. A year later, Mesmer founded the Order of Universal Harmony, ostensibly for instruction in animal magnetism, but secretly for teaching the ancient healing practices of the Asclepieia or temples of healing. Within a year the orthodox academies had renewed their old attacks, and King Louis ordered an investigation of Mesmer's theories and treatments in March, 1784.

The academies appointed a committee which included in its membership Benjamin Franklin, then American Ambassador to France, Baille the astronomer, Lavoisier the chemist and Jussieu the botanist. Despite pressure from the academies, their commitment to observation in science prevented them from denying the efficacy of Mesmer's cures, but their crude empirical and Aristotelian conceptions of man made it quite impossible for them to believe in a principle – animal magnetism – which could not be directly perceived physically. Their report, issued August 11, 1784, affirmed the existence of remarkable cures, but held that since animal magnetism is not itself directly observable, it cannot exist, and therefore the cures must be due to the imagination of the patients themselves. Thus, on the basis of a principle which is not acceptable in science, and even though the cures were admitted and the committee warned against any such action, Mesmer was denounced as an impostor. Mesmer found himself in the midst of social and political upheaval. In 1791 the revolution forced him, now penniless, to leave France. He retired to the small town of Frauenfeld near Zurich and quietly ministered to the local peasantry without revealing his identity.

A thin volume, Memoire of F. A. Mesmer, appeared in 1799. Once again he explained the fundamentals of his theory, but now he plunged to the very core of the magnetic operation.

We possess an interior sense which is in connection with the whole of the universe, and which might be considered as an extension of sight. We possess the faculty of sensing in the universal harmony the connection between events and beings with our own conservation. . . . The communication of the will rests upon a kind of convention between two wills, which might be called being in rapport.

The key to the healing use of animal magnetism is the will of the physician. Its state – the quality of the desire and intention which motivates it – is critical to the cure. Hence only those who are qualified in terms of strength and purity of will can successfully repeat Mesmer's experiments.

After Napoleon Bonaparte's accession to power, Mesmer was awarded a new pension. Recalled to Paris, Mesmer found a fresh atmosphere of acceptance and witnessed the steady spread of his fame. By 1812 the King of Prussia and the German Academy offered him money and honours, but he refused to travel again. He wished, he said, to devote himself exclusively to the practice of his method, so that humanity "may no longer be exposed to the incalculable hazards of the use of drugs and their application." On March 15, 1815, he quietly abandoned the world after listening to a musical piece composed by Mozart and played on his copy of the set of musical glasses designed by Athanasius Kircher. The Royal Society of Paris and the German government posthumously offered prizes for the best treatise on Mesmerism, and a number of students furthered his experiments.

Honoured in the nineteenth century but largely unnoticed except by the intuitive few in the twentieth, Mesmer has left a clear delineation of the basis of mental and physiological health. If there is a turning from pathological conceptions of medicine towards an understanding and practice founded in vitality and harmony, then a grateful humanity will be ready to appreciate Mesmer. Nora Wydenbruck reviewing his vast and permanent achievements – in medicine, social work and elevation of the human spirit – concludes:

Seen from the vantage-point of history, when the tangled threads of human destiny appear coordinated in the pattern of the whole great web, Mesmer's life seems like a strand of shining gold.