Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Zwinger, Theodor

Born: 2 August 1533, Basel
Died: 10 March 1588, Basel
  • Tomáš NejeschlebaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_574-1


Humanist, physician, philosopher, and polymath, Theodor Zwinger first studied under the anti-Aristotelian Petrus Ramus in Paris and later in the bastion of Aristotelianism in Padua. He became one of the most influential late humanists of Basel. He published commentaries on Galen and Hippocrates and commentaries on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Politics. He is also the author of books on ethics, history, and travel. Despite his earlier dissent with Paracelsianism, he later accepted certain Paracelsian concepts. His book entitled Theatrum humanae vitae, comprising thousands of pages of “encyclopedical” contemporary knowledge, was extremely influential up until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Alternate Names


Theodor Zwinger was born into a renowned Basel humanist family as the nephew of the famous Basel printer Oporinus. Theodor received a private humanist education in his native city through his stepfather, the humanist Conrad Lycosthenes. He continued in his studies in Lyon over the years 1548–1651 where he simultaneously worked in a printing shop. He moved to Paris in 1551 where he studied under Petrus Ramus. Zwinger studied medicine in Padua under Bassiano Landi as of 1553 where he obtained his doctorate in 1559. After his return from Italy, Theodor Zwinger opened up a private medical practice in Basel. In this period Zwinger edited in Basel the works of the Italian Platonist Francesco Cattani da Diacceto (Zwinger 1563) and also published commentaries on Galen (Zwinger 1561). Here and in his later works, Zwinger frequently employed the method of division of a subject by means of tables, which he derived either from his Paduan medical studies (Fortuna 1993) or from Petrus Ramus (Gilly 1977, 1979).

Zwinger became professor of Greek at the University of Basel in 1565, professor of ethics in 1571, and professor of theoretical medicine as of 1580. In the realm of practical philosophy, Zwinger commented on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (Zwinger 1566) and Politics (Zwinger 1582) and wrote works dealing with ethics (Zwinger 1575), which followed in the Aristotelian tradition. Zwinger combined both the use of tables as a method of presenting ethics and enumerating examples of vice and virtues with the aim of connecting up ethical philosophical theory and the practice of living (Lines 2007).

Zwinger, as a pupil of Paduan medicine, initially dissented from Paracelsus and Paracelsianism. After his edition of Hippocrates (Zwinger 1579), however, Zwinger began to appreciate certain parts of Paracelsian medicine due to its emphasis on experience which was in his view similar to Hippocrates (Gilly 1977, 1979). Zwinger was intrigued by Paracelsus’ work, specifically by his efforts in healing by means of powers hidden in nature (Zwinger 1610). He criticized, in contrast, Paracelsus’ lack of interest in anatomy (Portmann 1987). Theodor Zwinger was later in contact with the Paracelsian physician Petrus Severinus (Shackelford 2004) and may have been a teacher of Heinrich Khunrath and Andreas Libavius (Forshaw 2008).

The most renowned work by Theodor Zwinger was the comprehensive compilation of contemporary knowledge entitled Theatrum humanae vitae, first published in 1565 (Zedelmaier 2008). This systematically ordered knowledge, presented with the help of tables, had a double goal: theoretical knowledge and a practical attitude to the world, i.e., an ethical approach. Zwinger distinguishes between two equal sources of knowledge: theory on the one hand and experience and history on the other, which deals with particulars and provides exempla (Blair 2005). The first edition of the Theatrum contained 1,400 pages (Zwinger 1565) and the third edition from 1586 as many as 4,500 (Zwinger 1586). The Theatrum was reworked in 1631 by the Catholic Laurentius Beyerlinck into eight volumes of 7,500 pages plus an index and was printed in this form five times up until 1707.



Primary Literature

  1. Zwinger, Theodor. 1561. In Galeni Librum De Constitutione Artis Medicae, Tabulae et Commentarii. Basileae: Oporinus.Google Scholar
  2. Zwinger, Theodor. 1563. Opera omnia Francisci Catanei Diacetii Patricii Florentini, Philosophi Summi. Basileae: Petri et Perna.Google Scholar
  3. Zwinger, Theodor. 1565. Theatrum vitae humanae, omnium fere eorum, quae in hominem cadere possunt, bonorum atque malorum exempla historica, ethicae philosophiae praeceptis accomodata, et in XIX. libros digesta […]. Basileae: Frobenius.Google Scholar
  4. Zwinger, Theodor. 1566. Aristotelis Stagiritae De Moribus ad Nicomachum Libri Decem. Basileae: Oporinus.Google Scholar
  5. Zwinger, Theodor. 1575. Morum philosophia poetica. Basileae: Episcopius.Google Scholar
  6. Zwinger, Theodor. 1579. Hippocratis Coi Asclepiadeae gentis sacrae coryphaei Viginti duo Commentarii Tabulis illustrate. Basileae: Episcopius.Google Scholar
  7. Zwinger, Theodor. 1582. Aristotelis Politicorum libri octo, scholiis, tabulis quinetiam in tres priores libros illustrati. Basileae: Episcopius.Google Scholar
  8. Zwinger, Theodor. 1586. Theatrum humanae vitae […]. Tertiatione nouem voluminibus locupletatum, interpolatum, renouatum. Basileae: Episcopius.Google Scholar
  9. Zwinger, Theodor. 1610. Physiologia Medica. Basileae: Henricpetri.Google Scholar

Secondary Literature

  1. Blair, Ann. 2005. Historia in Zwinger’s Theatrum Humanae Vitae. In Historia. Empiricism and erudition in early Modern Europe, ed. Gianna Pomata and Nancy G. Siraisi, 269–296. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  2. Forshaw, Peter J. 2008. ‘Paradoxes, absurdities, and madness’: Conflict over alchemy, magic and medicine in the works of Andreas Libavius and Heinrich Khunrath. Early Science and Medicine 13(1). Brill: 53–81.Google Scholar
  3. Fortuna, Stefania. 1993. Galen’s De constitutione artis medicae in the Renaissance. The Classical Quarterly 43(1). Cambridge University Press: 302–319.Google Scholar
  4. Gilly, Carlos. 1977, 1979. Zwischen Erfahrung und Spekulation: Theodor Zwinger und die religiöse und kulturelle Krise seiner Zeit. Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 77,79: 57–137, 125–233.Google Scholar
  5. Lines, David. 2007. Theodor Zwinger’s vision of ethics: Three unpublished writings. In Ethik – Wissenschaft Oder Lebenskunst? Modelle Der Normenbegründung von Der Antike Bis Zur Frühen Neuzeit, ed. Sabrina Ebbersmeyer and Eckhard Kessler, 243–265. Berlin: LIT.Google Scholar
  6. Portmann, Marie-Luise. 1987. Paracelsus Im Urteil von Theodor Zwinger. Nova Acta Paracelsica. Neue Folge 2: 15–32.Google Scholar
  7. Shackelford, Jole. 2004. A philosophical path for paracelsian medicine: The ideas, intellectual context, and influence of Petrus Severinus (1540/2–1602), Acta Historica Scientiarum Naturalium et Medicinalium. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.Google Scholar
  8. Zedelmaier, Helmut. 2008. Navigieren im Textuniversum. Theodor Zwingers Theatrum vitae humanae. In Dimensionen der Theatrum-Metapher in der Frühen Neuzeit. Ordnung und Representation von Wissen, ed. Flemming Schock, Oswald Bauer, and Ariane Koller, 113–135. Hannover: Wehrhahn.Google Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Renaissance Texts, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of ArtsPalacky UniversityOlomoucCzech Republic

Section editors and affiliations

  • Paul Richard Blum
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyLoyola University MarylandBaltimoreUSA