Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Comic Case Against Junk Science, 1715

by Stephen J. Gertz

"Scientists" as theatrical performers dazzling a crowd with B.S.

It is an extremely rare book, with only three copies of the first edition (and no subsequent editions) coming to auction within the last thirty-six years, the most recent in 1980. It is De Charlataneria eruditorum declamationes duae by Johann Burkhard Mencke, a scathing satire deriding the affectations and pretensions of the world of science past, to wit, the pre-Newtonian and Leibnitz universe of mid-seventeenth century scientific inquiry when science was groping toward reason and rationalism while still bound to ancient, unproven theories and religious doctrine. It is a world personified by the great Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680).

At the time of his death in 1680, Athanasius Kircher, the most famous scientist of his day, had already begun to fade from importance as a new generation, weaned on a strict, rigorous, and rationalistic approach to scientific inquiry and rejecting the imprecise and often credulous approach and flat-out wrong conclusions to the sciences that Kircher represented, came to prominence. Within a generation, Kircher, whose books had once marveled the world, had fallen into such disrepute that a strong backlash against him became manifest and he was made the subject of satiric ridicule. Whispering had begun while he was still alive. After his death, the community cranked up the volume.

"In 1715, a year before Leibniz dismissed Kircher's famous interpretative translations of the hieroglyphs, Johann Burkhard Mencke (1674 - 1732) immortalized the image of Kircher as the most foolish of polymaths in his De Charlataneria eruditorum (The Charlatanry of the Learned) when he described three different pranks played on the German Jesuit... Mencke's devastatingly funny portrait of Kircher... limit[s] our vision only to what people saw in retrospect..." (Findlen, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, p. 7-8).

Mencke writes: "But how some people will allow themselves to be imposed on witness those wheeler dealers in all antiquity, to name none but the biggest by far, Athanasius Kircher and Jacobus Gronovius. There were at Rome some high-spirited young men who heard that a building was to be erected somewhere in the city and decided to test Kircher's intelligence. So they arranged for a dirty old stone to be buried secretly on that site and scribbled on it with various amazing figures made up for the occasion. What could it be? The foundations of the new building were thrown up and the stone was removed - a new record of antiquity to be admired for its very integrity. Ask Oedipus, go to Kircher. He took one look at the stone and jumped for joy, tapping the ground with his feet. He instantly began to interpret the circles, crosses and all the signs together so grandly and plausibly that the like was never seen before" (English translation of 1937).

He goes on; the Jesuit Kircher as the clown prince of science, an idiot in its village, which, at the time, certainly  seemed a fair assessment of a man who stood astride the old and new in the sciences, forward-thinking yet unyieldingly and hopelessly wedded to the past, natural magic, and to Catholic orthodoxies that clouded his judgment and hamstrung his conclusions, more a fascinating and flawed Merlin than modern scientist. When the Renaissance crashed into the Age of Reason the collision occurred at Kircher's doorstep and the wizard's wand was bent out of shape.

De Charlataneria eruditorum remains the most searing public rebuke of Kircher and his ilk, certainly the most popular evidence (it went through six editions, the sixth and last issued in 1786, with early translations into French, Dutch, German, Spanish, and  Italian)  of how far the mighty had fallen in so short a period of time, but, in retrospect, an unfair and parochial view of the man and his place in the stellar firmament of the history of knowledge. Once rejected and derided he can no longer be dismissed; the laughs must be stifled and the man given his just and well-earned due as the bridge between the old and new. Though he was often mistaken (sometimes wildly so), his influence upon contemporary science and scientists cannot be underestimated; his work inspired many of the "new" crop of scientists who, by rejecting Kircher, were led to deeper understanding and ultimate truths. Indeed, it was through Kircher's dissemination of scientific knowledge through his vast network of correspondents that scientists throughout Europe knew what their fellows were up to.

H.L. Mencken, who spent a great deal of his time debunking nonsense and quackery but was not, despite sharing the same name and similarity of  interests, related to Mencke (often known as Mencken), edited, provided notes, and wrote the preface to the first translation into English (1937) of De Charlataneria eruditorum.

"De Charlataneria eruditorum was a great success. 'It produced in its time,' says Conrad Müller, 'a veritable firestorm (einen wahren Sturm). Leibnitz, in a Latin letter to Mencke on December 15, 1715, hailed it as 'elegantissime'" (H.L. Mencken).

Mencke was a renowned scholar in Leipzig. His father-in-law, J.F. Gleditsch - the most respected printer-publisher in Leipzig - published De Charlataneria eruditorum, which was immediately banned in the city due to indelicate references to persons past with close relatives present.

Title page.
(Image skewed to reflect content).

[KIRCHER, Athanasius]. MENCKE, Johann Burkhard. De Charlataneria eruditorum declamationes duae. Lipsiae: J.F. Gleditsch, 1715.

First edition. Octavo. [xiv],154, [vi] pp. Engraved frontispiece.

Graesse IV, 485. Goedeke III, 350, 14.5.


  1. What he said!

    I'm always torn on the subject of Kircher. He provided such wonderfully eccentric baroque polymathic notions that one feels compelled to defend and protect our Jesuit friend. If we assail him with rationality, we disturb the fantasy of a beloved slightly kooky take on the world. I prefer to think of AK as a great marketer with a slightly mad product.


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email