Monday, January 14, 2013

In Search Of Athanasius Kircher

by Stephen J. Gertz

In 1602, the year of Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher’s birth, the study of nature was called natural philosophy. At his death in 1680 natural philosophy died with him; “science,” as we understand it today - the investigation of the natural world through rational, evidence-based means - had overtaken the old world and Kircher, the most celebrated figure in the world of knowledge of his time.

The 17th century was the most fascinating era in the history of scientific inquiry. It was an estuary for science, the rivers of ancient and medieval thinking about nature meeting and mixing with the nascent sea of rationalism in a fertile zone of transition, diversity, and productivity. Athanasius Kircher was in the middle of it all, a towering figure whose reputation for wisdom, knowledge, and erudition awed his contemporaries of the century’s first generation. The strange, the curious, and the marvelous were his stock and trade. Kircher was the Einstein of his age, a genius, the man with  all the answers, the most famous “scientist”  in the world.

The second generation remained in thrall of him but began to perceive cracks in his work (Leibnitz went from adore to abhor), which covered everything: astronomy, linguistics, microscopy, geology, chemistry, musicology, Egyptology, horology, medicine, magnetism, optics, pneumatics, mathematics, Hermeticism, you name it. He was, as characterized by scholar Paula Findlen, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything,” a grandiose statement yet not without truth. In Kircher’s time, the sciences had not yet split into separate and distinct entities and what was known about each was fairly limited. An omnivorous, insatiably curious intellect could be aware of all that was going on. Kircher was that man, an encyclopedia with legs.

From his base in the Vatican in Rome he stood at the center of The Republic of Letters, the vast international Jesuit network of correspondents. He was the hub through which knowledge from the four corners of the earth passed, collecting information and then distributing it through his letters and books.

By the time the century’s third generation of scientists began to assert themselves, however,  Kircher was old news, his reputation tattering, his life’s work derided. As time passed he was relegated to the scrap-heap and became a curious footnote in the history of science.

That changed in 1966, the year that John E. Fletcher completed his 900-page Master’s thesis on Kircher (published in 2011), the first in-depth inquiry into the man, his work, and his world. The thesis - more a doctoral dissertation - Athanasius Kircher, ‘Gernamus Incredibilia’: A Study of his Life and Works with a Preliminary Report upon his Unpublished Correspondence, opened a big door in academia. By the 1990s, scholars from around the world had rushed through it and the Kircher renaissance was in full flower. His importance in the history of science has been firmly re-established. It is impossible to understand the 17th century without coming to terms with Athanasius Kircher and his legacy.

Now, John Glassie, a former contributing editor to The New York Times Magazine, has written a biography, A Man of Misconceptions, to introduce Kircher to a popular readership. This is important. When we think of science in its modern beginnings we think of Isaac Newton, its father. But Kircher was Newton’s scientific grandfather; he influenced everyone in his heyday and immediate wake, even his dissenters, who were inspired to correct his mistakes. He was ultimately proved wrong about just about everything he wrote about, and he wrote a  lot, over thirty books, each, for the most part, huge tomes lavishly illustrated with some of the century’s finest, most dramatically designed copperplate engravings, all created under Kircher’s direct supervision. His books were must-reads for the 17th century cognoscenti.

It is what he was so wrong about and why that makes Kircher one of the most fascinating characters to have ever trod the world stage.

First edition, 1658.

He believed that inner Earth was populated by demons and goblins - but not pygmy men; don’t be silly. He believed in palingenesis, which has nothing to do with the origins of a certain ex-governor of Alaska but everything to do with regenerating plants from their ashes; he claimed to have done it; alas, no one could replicate his success. A method to heal a wound at a  far distance from the wounded without direct intervention? Sure. A machine that organized the chaos of knowledge into an easily comprehensible order? Done that. Sunflower seeds that tell time? You betcha. Snake stones with magic properties? Why not? Rivers of fire within Earth? You doubt it? Christianity in ancient China,  way before the Jesuits arrived in the 16th century? Kircher saw evidence. The lost mysteries of the universe found in Egyptian hieroglyphics? Kircher was sure he’d discover them.

These are the sorts of things that Kircher whole-heartedly embraced. It was not unreasonable, then, for Glassie to have subtitled his bio, The Life of an Eccentric in a World of Change.

Third edition, 1678. (First edition, 1664, i.e. 1665).

Yet “eccentric”  is a misnomer. It is only in retrospect that Kircher can be viewed so and only out of context. The comic possibilities in his life and work are certainly apparent - Kircher, in his autobiography, a posthumously published (1684), slight octavo volume of 78 pages, inadvertently keys into them, his early years related as a sort of Perils of Pauline as told by a somewhat pompous dignitary astonished at every footstep by each adventure, his survival, and the grace of God and the Virgin Mary. Glassie often tends to mine the comedy of Kircher, a rich vein to be sure but not the mother lode.

When Kircher was wrong, he was very wrong. His published a formula for squaring the circle that met with scorn and outright amusement by his fellow mathematicians. Contemporaries, often friends, wrote entire books refuting Kircher. Italian poet and scientist, Francesco Redi (1626-1698), devoted his Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl’insetti (1668) and Esperienze intorno a diverse cose naturali (1671) to demolishing Kircher’s ideas on regeneration and spontaneous generation. When he later wrote a letter to Kircher outlining the negatives in Kircher’s claim of the miraculous healing powers of the snake-stone, that did it.

From Kircher's Arca Noë (Noah's Ark, 1675).

Kircher never responded to his challengers; he had surrogates handle the dissenters. His disciple and assistant, Guiseppe Petrucci, wrote Prodromo apologetico alli studi Chircheriani (1677) to attack the “envious and strident ignorance of his unjust accusers.” As seen in  the book's engraved title-page, Petrucci is writing a very long scroll to the heavens while sitting on the back of Kircher's critics, symbolized by a crocodile with a cherub on its beak to keep its mouth shut, Kircher's books at his feet with vultures picking at them; there was a lot to defend.

But when Kircher was right, he was dead-on correct. In Scrutinium Physico-Medicum...Pestis (1658), he was the first to propose the germ theory of contagion, the most significant contribution to medicine since William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in 1628 (De Motu Cordis). He correctly gleaned the relationship between heiroglyphics and the Egyptian Coptic language. There are other examples. His convictions were absolute and unshakeable.

Engraved title page to  Petrucci's
Prodromo apologetico alli studi Chircheriani (1677).

He had, however, a soft-spot for the curious and strange, and was often persuaded by the slimmest evidence of the incredible. But he was not alone in that. To one degree or another, every natural philosopher and serious thinker of the 17th century was fascinated by what nature was revealing to them in their observations and studies. It was a world of marvels and wonders all to the glory of God and the majesty of His creation, often strange and bizarre but, as was slowly becoming manifest, knowable in a reliable way.

From the early 1630s through the late 1660s, Kircher’s influence was felt everywhere in the sciences and other areas of intellectual inquiry. He was the elephant in the Vatican, second only to the Pope in public awareness but probably more interesting as a tourist attraction for visiting dignitaries, of which there was a steady stream. Making the pilgrimage to see him and his museum of natural curiosities and marvelous machines was like a trip to Disneyland with Walt as personal guide. (He loved building ooh-ahh sundials, clocks, and machines; he was a gadget freak. Born in the 20th century but with 17th century perspective, Kircher might have invented Magic Fingers: A Miraculous Device to Bring the Muscles of the Human Body and the Mind Into a State of Complete Blissful Relaxation While in a Supine Position Upon a Mattress in a Cheap Roadside Hostelry). Kircher can be accused of many things but eccentric is not one of them. He was completely of his time and no one thought him nutty. He was the most distinguished citizen of the  world of knowledge. The rationalists of the era did not grow up in a vacuum.

For the last six years it has been my ongoing privilege to be deeply involved in building the world’s finest collection, public or private, of Kircher’s books in all significant editions and translations and more: first editions of books that influenced him, that he influenced, were dedicated to him, referred to him and his work, positively or negatively, and/or were written by a significant friend or correspondent (there were many), in the finest copies obtainable. The client is a man of vision. One day Athanasius Kircher and His World will be donated to the collector’s alma mater where it will dwarf in size and scope the Kircher collections at Stanford and Brigham Young universities. Reading all the significant literature in English about him including many of Fletcher's papers, identifying, finding, putting each book into perspective within Kircher’s universe and writings, and composing a compelling story for the client continues to be a personal joy as well as a professional responsibility.

Glassie’s book was a pleasure to read, even if, at times, I was frustrated by his reliance on entertainment to put Kircher across. After six years of immersion I feel as if I know the man. But readers who love interesting non-fiction narratives, are attracted to the unusual (which is just about all of us), love to learn about fascinating people and interesting times and have some fun, too, will enjoy A Man of Misconceptions.

MATHER, Cotton. The Christian Philosopher:
A Collection of the Best Discoveries in Nature,
With Religious Improvements.
First edition, London: 1721.
Second edition, Boston: 1815.

In 1721, forty-one years after Kircher’s death, the esteemed Jesuit came to America via the first book written by an American (and the first book, period) to introduce the new world of science and its marvels to the Colonies. The Christian Philosopher: a Collection of the Best Discoveries in Nature with Religious Improvements cites Kircher and often, his work presented on a par with that of Robert Boyle, Hooke, and Newton, with some of the dubious claims of Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus (1665) accepted at face value. It was written by Cotton Mather, the Puritan pastor of Boston’s North Church, prolific writer, controversial figure in the Salem Witch Trials, and proud member of the Royal Society of Science perhaps best known as Ichabod Crane’s favorite author. In 1815, just shy of a hundred years after its initial publication, The Christian Philosopher was reprinted in an edition published in Boston in 1815, an early year in the Second Great Awakening, the religious revival movement that swept through the United States during the  the 19th century. 

With this book Kircher’s shadow has stretched across the centuries to influence modern Americans. How else to explain Marshal B. Gardner’s A Journey to the Earth’s Interior (1913, reprinted 1920) “showing the Earth bisected centrally through the polar openings and at right angles to the Equator, giving a clear view of the central sun and interior continents and oceans,” a work of pure gibberish and pseudo-science all dressed-up with charts, diagrams, and yes, an illustration of a “working model” of Marshall’s Earth with central Sun. Pyramid power, magnetic bracelets with curative powers, magic rocks in Sedona, Arizona, healing crystals - the New Age movement - is Kircher-land, the 17th century re-asserting itself to declare, I'm still here. Significantly, within Mather’s subtitle was an ill-omen of things to come: “With Religious Improvements,” science mediated by dogmatic faith, the very thing that doomed Kircher. His belief that the world of nature was a magical place whose laws conformed to Catholic tradition was the achilles heel that lamed his thinking,  ultimately too loose and credulous.

There is evidence that toward the end of his life Kircher may have understood that science had changed forever and his critical thinking left something to be desired.

"In the forty years in which I have played a role in this theater of all people," he wrote to the mystic poet Quirinus Kulmann (1651-1689), "I have learned from frequent experience how much trouble may result from an inconsidered piece of writing."

Receipt for a cashed letter of exchange signed by Kircher,
April 21, 1667.

In the end, if Kircher was eccentric it was only in his belief that alchemy was nonsense and its practitioners charlatans at a time when it was still popularly accepted. In later life and after his death Kircher was accused by some of being a charlatan.

It is the supreme irony of seventeenth century science that its greatest paragon of rationalism, the man whose work changed the world and whose methodology became standard, had a dark secret that the Royal Society kept hidden for hundreds of years, suppressing his manuscript papers on the subject lest his towering contributions be stained and deeply discounted. His first and foremost passion, which he pursued to the end of his life, was scorned. It was an embarrassment.  It was so Old World. It was charlatanism. It was a scandal.

Isaac Newton was a dedicated alchemist. You can take  a man out of the 17th century but you can't take the 17th century out of  the man.

All images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.


  1. Fascinating man and subject of inquiry; not so much an eccentric figure as, perhaps, a prophetic one. Not in the sense of a soothsayer or predictor, but as a proclaimer or spokesman for the Theater of the World as a moral construct.

  2. I am trying to find out how many species Kircher allowed on the Ark. I have not been able to locate this in the Arca Noë. Any ideas?


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