A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, 'Germanus Incredibilis': With a Selection of His Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of His Autobiography by John Edward Fletcher and Elizabeth Fletcher (Aries Book: Brill Academic)
Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit in 17th-century Rome, was an enigma. Intensely pious and a prolific author, he was also a polymath fascinated with everything from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the tiny creatures in his microscope. His correspondence with popes, princes and priests was a window into the restless energy of the period. It showed first-hand the seventeenth-century’s struggle for knowledge in astronomy, microscopy, geology, chemistry, musicology, Egyptology, horology… The list goes on. Kircher’s books reflect the mind-set of 17th-century scholars - endless curiosity and a … read more substantial larding of naiveté: Kircher scorned alchemy as the wishful thinking of charlatans, yet believed in dragons. His life and correspondence provide a key to the transition from the Middle Ages to a new scientific age. This book, though unpublished, has been long quoted and referred to. Awaited by scholars and specialists of Kircher, it is finally available with this edition.
This is the long awaited masterwork on the great polymathic German Jesuit of the seventeenth century, Athanasius Kircher. Scholars have continually acclaimed the work in its thesis form, but now it has at last become widely accessible through publication by Brill. It considers the life, work and correspondence of Kircher, and adds a translation of his autobiography with extensive commentary. The bulk of the work critically evaluates Kircher's extraordinary contributions in many fields - cosmology, geology, linguistics, medicine, mechanics, music, history, art - and covers his relationships with great continental scholars (Peiresc, Huygens, Boyle, etc.) and with patrons of scientific endeavour (especially Christina of Sweden), together with his part in the Jesuits' "Republic of Letters" across the globe, and his influences on subsequent 'greats' (Leibniz, Goethe, etc.). An immense work of patient, careful and astute scholarship. - Prof. Gary Trompf, University of Sydney
Excerpt: Born and raised a Yorkshireman, John Fletcher went on scholarship to Queen Mary College at the University of London, taking his Bachelor of Arts degree under some famous scholars of German, such as the mediaevalist A.T. Hatto and the Renaissance and Baroque specialist Leonard Forster, later Taylorean Professor of German at Oxford. He followed up the completion of his first degree with a Diploma in Education at the University of Durham, making him one of those relatively few university lecturers who had been trained also as teachers.
After Durham John returned to 'Queen Mary' on a postgraduate scholarship, intending to do his Masters of Arts by dissertation under Dr C.V. Bock, who had abandoned Nazi Germany before the War. John's thesis was the one herewith published for the first time on the seventeenth-century German polymath and polyglot Father Athanasius Kircher S.J. His first task was to come to grips with Kircher's vast body of writings on most branches of learning of his age. The second task Dr Bock set him was to edit the immense correspondence from and to Kircher. Both tasks were daunting, since virtually all of Kircher's writings were, of course, not in German, the language along with French that John had been trained in throughout his secondary school life, nor even in classical Latin, which John had only begun learning in the last couple of years of his schooling, but in the still more difficult Latin of the Baroque period. As well, he had to deal with primary and secondary literature in other languages, including early modern and contemporary Italian and Dutch, a reading knowledge of which he taught himself. John's thesis, completed in 1966, must have modelled itself on Kircher's volumes because it ended up in typescript as a huge tome of some 900 pages. These days he would most likely have received a Doctor of Philosophy degree for it, but then at London he received only his Masters as initially planned. In retrospect it seems to have been rather unjust.
John Fletcher continued his research into Kircher all his life and became a foremost authority on this Jesuit scholar. Taking up university appointments in Australia, first at Monash and then at Sydney, he dug away in libraries both in the Antipodes and in Europe. Famous ones included the Vatican Library, the British Museum Library (or British Library as it is now called), but he discovered important local libraries, and above all made great use of the wonderful Herzog August Bibliothek, the Duke Augustus Library, in the lovely old north German town of Wolfenbüttel. John spent periods of leave there often, much of his research being funded through the award to him of a prestigious post-doctoral Alexander von Humboldt scholarship. He was also invited to organize the Library's international conference on Kircher and went on to edit and contribute articles to the resulting book, which appeared in 1988.
Surprisingly, considering his very considerable scholarly output, John never to my knowledge laid a finger on a typewriter key or a computer keyboard in his whole life. He wrote everything out by hand in a script that reduced every letter to its absolute minimum form. The wad of near-illegible pages was then passed to his typist, who in turn rendered them publishable. This probably accounts in great part for the plethora of errors in the typescript of his thesis that have given the main editor of the present book, his widow Elizabeth, and her helpers so much difficulty in preparing it for publication. For one thing, his typist back in England seems to have had no knowledge of foreign languages. And his imminent departure for Australia left him little time to do as thorough a check of her work as he would have wished before submitting his thesis for examination.
As a scholar, John was prolific, both in the breadth of fields he covered and the amount he published. He covered, apart from his work on Kircher, everything from German Baroque and Romantic literature via the history of science to bibliography and German-Australian connections. A checklist of his publications was compiled by his longtime friend and collaborator Dr Wallace Kirsop of Monash University and can be found in the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, 18, 2/3 (1994), 68-80, an issue dedicated to the memory of John Fletcher. The only omission of any significance concerns 'An unrecorded letter of Alexander von Humboldt' in The University of Sydney Archives Record 7 (1 May, 1979): 1-3.
FOREWORD by Joscelyn Godwin
In the early 1960s, when John Fletcher chose the correspondence of Athanasius Kircher for his dissertation topic, almost no attention was being paid to the Jesuit polymath. If it had, the young Germanist might have been warned that the task was too big for a Master's candidate, and advised to concentrate on a limited aspect of it. But there is something about Kircher that tempts scholars to take on the whole man, and this is what Fletcher did, with a panache and thoroughness that have not yet been equalled.
Kircher's fascination operates at several levels. First, there is the idea that emerges most plainly from Fletcher's study: that of Kircher as the universal oracle, the sage who could be counted upon to answer any question. The fact that the answers were sometimes so right (as when he attributed the plague to infection by living organisms), and sometimes so wrong (as in his misreading of the Egyptian hieroglyphs), is irresistible to scholars, who can analyze both types of answer with all the benefits of hindsight. Second, there is his peculiar position in the history of ideas, halfway between mediaeval and early modern world-views. On the one hand, he believed in dragons and demonic magic; on the other, he built precision instruments and tested his theories (for instance, in vulcanology) in field experiments. For a while he was in correspondence with the most eminent scientists of Europe. But while he still lived, the climate of the learned world shifted. The empirical method and the mechanical philosophy proved a more fruitful basis for scientific progress, and Kircher was left behind writing about Noah's Ark.
This brings us to a third reason to be fascinated by Kircher: the psychological state of a brilliant man with unshakeable convictions. Not for one moment in his long life does he seem to have questioned the fundamental, even fundamentalist, doctrines of Catholic Christianity. The Jesuits had hold of him by the time he was ten years old, and their ideals soon became his own. There is no doubt whatever of his sincere Piety, of his devotion to the Virgin Mary, or of his zeal for converting Protestants to the Catholic faith. But his convictions circumscribed all his researches, so that he was temperamentally unable to come to any conclusion incompatible with them. For example, although aware of ancient histories that exceed the biblical or rabbinic estimate of the age of the earth, Kircher did not lend them the slightest credence, to the detriment of his geological, historical, and linguistic studies. Admittedly, there is evidence that he favoured the Copernican cosmology, but could not publicly avow it in the atmosphere following Galileo's downfall. But this was a matter of opinion only, not of church dogma (though often mistakenly thought to be so). Kircher was no secret heretic.
The encyclopaedic breadth of Kircher's authority inspired awe among his contemporaries, and still does. His reputation would have been secured by his work in magnetism alone, or by his theory of light and darkness, his musicology, Egyptology, linguistics, geology, Orientalism, or bacteriology. How did he cover not one but all of these? Of course he had correspondents throughout the world, and some secretarial and research assistance towards the end of his life. And he had time, especially after he was relieved of teaching duties. As a religious, he never had to cook, clean, shop, look for a job, or have to do with women or children. But beyond this spare and dedicated lifestyle, his real secret must have been the gift of remembering all that he read and learned, instead of forgetting 90% of it, as most of us do.
Kircher's breadth impresses all the more today, when the disciplines are more sharply divided. Science is no longer a single field of "natural philosophy", and no Egyptologist writes a history of music. We, as spectators of this fragmentation, may well envy Kircher's freedom to range over the whole of human knowledge. One of the charms of studying him is that it gives one a temporary illusion of recapturing that universality. Whereas we cannot possibly master all his disciplines in their present form, we can leaf through nearly any of his books and get a fair understanding of what he has to teach. His encyclopaedism, with its detail and density of allusions, is another matter, but his own thought is not inherently complex; his scientific writing does not even require calculus.
The single best key to understanding Kircher is to recognize him as a Christian Hermetist, accepting the philosophy of the Corpus Hermeticum insofar as it did not interfere with his Catholicism. In cases of conflict, the Bible took precedence over the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, as, for example, in Kircher's frequent mention of evil demons. Hermetism, being a pagan and polytheistic philosophy, populates its universe with gods, demigods, spirits, and daemons, all of whom may have commerce with mankind. Its fundamental division, as in its parent philosophy, Platonism, is between the spiritual and the material world, with its ethical weight in favour of the former. Kircher's universe, on the other hand, is overshadowed by the fundamental dichotomy of God and Satan, each with his host of angels, vying for possession of human souls. The material world is not evil, but beautifully arranged for Man's benefit if only he will follow God's commandments. It is there to be enjoyed and explored, and the secrets of nature wait for man to discover and exploit them with 'natural magic'. The danger that Hermetism ignores is that evil spirits may seduce us with a simulation of this good magic, and thus gain a foothold in our souls. This made Kircher extremely cautious in his own practice of natural magic, avoiding all commerce with spirits and keeping within the boundaries of what we call technology.
Kircher's universe, too, is layered into material, spiritual, and intellectual worlds, all held together by a web of correspondences and all potentially accessible. This Hermetic chain of being, with its reflection of the macrocosm in the microcosm, is essential to his philosophy. It is the cause of the imprinting of images in stones and the spontaneous generation of insects. It causes the earth to be full of the 'signatures' of higher powers. And since the primary attribute of Kircher's God is Love, this, too, resonates down through all the levels of being, ending in the humble but astonishing phenomenon of magnetism, as the lodestone seeks and clings to iron. Like attracts like; the sunflower turns to face the sun, because it is marked by the solar signature. By the same token, sunflower seeds also turn to face the sun, and can be used to power a simple floating clock. The fact that Kircher and some of his correspondents owned such 'clocks', and believed them to tell the time, casts a shadow on the quality of their empirical science.
The paradox of Kircher lies in his being so broad in some respects, yet so limited in others. The tension reaches crisis point in his largest and, some say, most futile work, Oedipus aegyptiacus. Here his breadth is evident in the volume devoted to Egyptian history and geography, much of it published for the first time from Hebrew and Arabic sources. In the second volume, the horizon expands to twelve aspects of hieroglyphs, which include Kabbalah, both Hebrew and Arabic, as well as hieroglyphic medicine, music, and mechanics. In the third volume he writes a treatise on the Bembine Table of Isis (a spurious Roman concoction), then at last attacks the deciphering of the hieroglyphic inscriptions on obelisks and other Egyptian remains.
Here his narrowness appears. Although he possessed the ultra-rare instance of a genuine, ancient translation of an obelisk inscription he had already pooh-poohed it: how could it merely hymn the praises of the Pharaoh Rameses? The obelisks were so grand, they had to be about the profound mysteries of Hermetic theology. And with this interpretive grid firmly in place, Kircher proceeded to mistranslate the hieroglyphs. The attempt was nothing short of heroic, and it made perfect sense to him.
Those who are attracted by the whole man will find ample grounds for their affection here. By his own standards, and by those of any earlier time, Kircher led an exemplary life, enriching the world of learning, furthering natural philosophy, and enjoining piety and respect for the wonders of God's creation. He was as generous a correspondent as he was a host in his own museum. When people began to laugh behind his back, he retreated with dignity into pious observance and fund-raising for his beloved shrine at Mentorella. He spent his last months in a state of second childhood, his memory gone. His great folios gathered dust in libraries, like megalithic foundation stones buried beneath the soil, on which others, almost unknowingly, would raise monuments to the grandeurs and follies of their own epochs.
INTRODUCTION: ATHANASIUS KIRCHER AS ESOTERIC THINKER AND THE STATE OF KIRCHER SCHOLARSHIP by Garry Trompf
The late John Fletcher's Masters thesis must be one of the most sought after in the world. It opens windows on to Catholic scholarship in the Baroque period like no other study, showing the constant interactions between researchers and experimenters that made the so-called scientific revolution possible. Hitherto most post-War and contemporary studies have concentrated on the Protestant edge in the development of modern science in the seventeenth century, even if much attention has been given to Cartesianism. But Fletcher's thesis takes us into another world centred on Rome and the captivating influences of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, whose work energized a host of figures across Christendom in fields as diverse as mathematics and music, optics and magnetism, epidemiology and Egyptology. Kircher will seem to many of us today as an index to Baroque extravagances, displaying an intellectual license that parallels the embellishments and dramatic motifs in the architecture and art of the time. Larger than life itself though he might seem, however, he was a founder figure of various disciplines—of geology (certainly vulcanology), musicology (as a surveyor of musical forms), museum curatorship, Coptology, to name a few—and might be claimed today as the first theorist of gravity and a long-term originator of the moving pictures (with his magic lantern shows). Through his many enthusiasms, moreover, he was the conduit of others' pursuits in the rapidly widening horizon of knowledge that marks the later Renaissance.
Since this book is included in a series focusing on texts and studies in western esotericism it is not inappropriate to ask at the onset if his role in such various spheres of knowledge justifies our attention to him as an esoteric thinker. It has recently been contended, in the authoritative Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, that despite Kircher's attempts to unify all his work according to 'a pansophical logic', with all parts of knowledge unified 'according to combinatory and analogical principles,' his 'stance with respect to esoteric sciences remains ambivalent'. There is still more a debate to be had, it seems, as to whether 'all attempts to recruit him for or against an esoteric viewpoint are in vain'.' If one were to assess his opus on the basis of preconceived categories about esotericism, indeed, or of being consonant with the air de famille the eminent Antoine Faivre has famously characterized, one might wonder whether Kircher quite passes the test.2 For a start, he was an orthodox Jesuit to the core and kept a keen eye out for heresy; and since there were some expressions of seventeenth century esoteric thought that had strong associations with Protestantism, or with the risky business of finding teachers of Truth outside the Christian fold, we might already expect some of the reserve that scholars have already detected.' He was irritated by current defenders of alchemy, to take one attitude in point, and his theory of living nature, or of correspondences between the natural and ethereal orders was not as pronounced in his thought as is often supposed. His concerns with empirical observation and measurement are often given that special edge over his speculative tendencies to convey the deliberate impression of leaving certain styles of traditional thinking behind. More perhaps because he sought to resolve the inner contradictions of intellectual life of his time, Kircher nonetheless 'fits the bill' as someone engaged in currents of thought usually called 'esoteric'; for did he not play at being Cabbalist, Hermetist, even magus? As a Christian Cabbalist, he sought to prove that Catholicity and Trinitarian faith could be consolidated, not weakened, by embracing all spheres and lines of knowledge. In a 'mirror of mystical Kabbala' that he arranged schematically, for example, he saw the 72 identifiable languages of the world corresponding to 72 names of God in the Hebrew tradition, all centred around the divine tetragrammaton (which, given a middle letter shin, made up Jeshuah or Jesus as Logos). Elsewhere he was eager to list signs of Trinitarian thought in non-Biblical traditions; and in a diagram significantly entitled the 'Hermetic Theotechnia', he saw the twelve divinity-types of the pagan system reflecting aspects of the one Sun (and thus ultimately the monotheistic source) of religion.
These are all signs of a sensibility scholars are currently marking out as 'esotericizing'. In any case, it is by now rather old-fashioned to quibble too much about 'boundary issues' or labour an essentialist position. If, as Wouter Hanegraaff wisely advises, Western esotericism acts as an 'umbrella' concept or 'general label' denoting 'a series of specific currents ... that display certain similarities and are historically related,' then Kircher certainly pursued esoteric interests in this 'typological' sense. Put another way, his work shows one among a number of modes or styles of thought within a plurality (rather than uniform body) of esoteric traditions, following Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's modelling.' To specify matters, Thomas Leinkauf has recently placed the Kircherian enterprise in the mould of a prevenient quest among European savants for a universal knowledge or wisdom,6 and Kircher embodied this pursuit with eclectic gusto, expressing the interrelationships between branches of scientia with such evocative rhetorical inventions as 'Tunis, Arca, Sphinx, Musurgia, Phonurgia, Magnes, Tariffa, Poligraphia, Lingua, Ars'. As a result, the esoteric implications or signals of his way of thinking are clear enough: his world, and both his experiments and discoveries in it, are replete with mystery and the arcane. From mathematics to musical chords, hieroglyphs to subterranean waterways, the cosmos contains covert marvels waiting to be laid bare, and all his disclosures of surprise and enchantment bespoke for him the provident workings of God. The universe is indeed alive with possibilities, dynamic (indeed 'evolving') in its forms, which include the extraordinary accomplishments of humans, who construct instruments to test nature's secrets, who compose harmonies of song reflective of hidden principles of concord, or create systems of writing that, while looking to be an unruly Babel, still point to the divine Word. Kircher, we observe, is not a formulator of 'universal natural laws', on a quest paralleling that of Galileo, Descartes or Newton. He was prepossessed by the operations of things per se, for it was sufficient that light worked in certain ways, that normally imperceptible organisms produced sickness, that musical notation and hieroglyphs had to follow a certain order to produce beauty or intelligibility, and so on. If he acquainted himself with the works of famed 'occultists'—Dee, Drebbel and Fludd, to name but three—it was to test whether they were right experimentally (in their cases with regard to magnetism)! Some will want to characterize his as a pre-modern approach, yet such a move has become démodé as an interpretative stance; he was there with the best of his peers trying to isolate the specific properties and behaviour patterns of nature's components—from shifting shadows to molten lava—even while explanations he gave will now often seem over-speculative, and even though he kept up an interest in highly traditional subjects, such as Noah's ark. He was more a man of devices than general principles, and if, with his appeals to the idea of ars magna, we might see him as deciphering the hidden registrations of the cosmos like a mediaeval man, or in trying to surpass a Paracelsus and a Dee in upgrading the `great arts', even in wanting his instruments deliberately designed to be open to metaphysical possibilities,' he was bent on unravelling God's mysteries with cutting-edge data and experimentalism. Everything that is lost is waiting to be found, or re-found, everything latent ready to be worked, albeit advisedly for God's not Man's glory.
However we define the limits of Kircher's esoteric propensities (especially with current expectations in mind), there can be no doubt that he breathed the same air as thinkers cast as esotericist by modern definitions—self-inscribing 'theosophists,' alchemists, Behmenists and the like—just as he did with those embracing a more conventional fideism and with more thoroughgoing protagonists of 'new science'. The evidence presented in this book about the mixture and sometimes blending of these currents clearly justify its inclusion in the Aries book series. This book is just as much about a small host of scholars in Kircher's ken as about the man himself. It is John Fletcher's re-creation of a whole milieu, indeed, that marks the brilliance of this study, with an extraordinary polymath (if partly among other polymaths) standing tallest in the middle of his fellow researchers and many captivated correspondents. Fletcher has reconstructed the intellectual theatre of such mental discovery, intensity and excitement, that the idea of 'natural magic' better sums up its ethos than the lamer terms of 'natural philosophy' or 'science' more associated with the alleged 'Enlightenment' to come.
What, now, of the current state of Kircher studies? Scholarship concerning his opus, as can be expected, has moved on beyond the time Fletcher's thesis was submitted in 1966, although not so quickly until quite recently. When in 2004 Paula Findlen put together a fine symposium entitled Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man who Knew Everything she put it aptly for the 1980s, the decade when she started researching Kircher, that interest in the great man was minimal outside 'the Internationalen Athanasius Kircher Forschungsgesellschaft (f. 1968) and the Australian scholar John Fletcher' In all fairness, perhaps that did not seem to account for the independent explorations of the Anglo-American Joscelyn Godwin, who, although confining his most serious study to Kircherian musicology, produced what is the best known and most popular book on the Jesuit, full of captivating iconography, including intimations of esoterica, from the illustrations in Kircher's large tomes.'' Godwin was the one most concerned to examine Kircher vis-a-vis the 'occultist tradition' when Fletcher brought together specialists (mainly German Forschungsgesellschaft members) under the auspices of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, in October 1980. The published results of this conference—coming out as late as 1988 in Fletcher's edited volume Kircher and seine Beziehungen zum gelehrten Europa seiner Zeit—foreshadowed the spate of collective energy to come. By the late 1980s theses were well in the making to place Kircher in the history of scientific method, Martha Baldwin's look at his 'magnetic philosophy' being most relevant for the study of the esoteric tradition;" but most of the new published research on the great Jesuit's Herculean labours was to arrive in a flood around the turn of the millennium. Five 'archetypically placed' symposia followed in succession. In 2000 came Magie des Wissens: Athanasius Kircher 1602-1680, made possible by the collaboration of newly interested German scholars—Christoph Daxelmüller dominant among them—when the University of Würzburg secured German-wide institutional support to honour one of her most famous professors!4 Then Findlen and others organized a Stanford conference to mark Kircher's 400th birthday, whose results, published in 2001 and 2004, convey the impression of a `new' Kircher, one who had not been studied and appreciated enough." With much of her own work concentrated on early modern Italian Museum Studies, Findlen knew well that the quadricentennial celebrations would also affect Rome, where there was an attempt to recreate the Museum Kircherianum, a simposio of useful articles and splendid illustrations being integral to the effort." By 2007, after a conference at Udine two years earlier, the fifth symposium appeared, another Italian one, under the direction of Federico Vercellone and Alessandro Bertinetti, locating Kircher within the later-Renaissance, early-modern quest for una scienza universale.
The idea of a new, reconsidered Kircher has much to do with the thriving industry on the so-called 'scientific revolution' of the seventeenth century. Some very strong positions have been taken in debates over the origins and development of modern science, and we should not be surprised that some have taken the presence of religious ideas in scientific thought as components that have been, or should have been, slowly left behind in a secularizing process. Some scholars consider religious elements real irritants: once, when I read a paper about how Newton's conservative approach to the Bible inspired his science, a philosopher soon walked out; he later said that he simply could not bear to think of so great a mind holding such views! Among those on the neo-Positivist side of the fence, seeing little of value in Kircher, we find the Florentine Paolo Rossi championing the strong opinion— echoing Andrew Dickson White's old view of a 'warfare' between science and theology—that scientific progress always occurs when investigators shed reliance on traditional religious beliefs!' In a little less negative position, but nonetheless selectively treating only those aspects of Kircher's work that connect with mediaeval preconceptions, lies the eminent historian of science Lynn Thorndike. Other analysts, picking up on a by-now long-term cue from works by Sir Herbert Butterfield, Alistair Crombie and others, have come to take the constant interchange between religious and scientific scholarly endeavour almost for granted. Failing to admit, for example, that the Jesuits made an immense contribution to modern science, however questionable a reputation they have received in anticlerical quarters, would be for the best critical scholars a kind of methodological anachronism, making old partisan outlooks stick when studied empathy and careful 'placement' of minds should now be the order of the day. And of course there remains an outlook Dame Frances Yates is famous for having defended with flair, that modern science could not have emerged independently of 'traditional', more especially esoterico-Hermetist, interests. One only has to read Betty Jo Dobbs on Newton's ponderings of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, or Robert Wikman on the thoroughly Hermetic methods of Linnaeus, to appreciate her case. This debate between competing interpretations about the nature of science and modernity will go on, and assessments of Kircher's wide-reaching work will be inevitably entailed. When classicist Isaac Casaubon famously punctured the ancient date for the Corpus Hermeticum, for example, reading it as Hellenistic philosophy, Kircher went on merrily as if nothing had happened.24 Casaubon's findings only made the grounds for his historical speculations unsteady; he could still be justified in receiving inspiration for his science from Hermetic insights and methods. For another example, consider the pressure on Kircher not to speak in favour of the Copernican model of the universe, after Galileo's silencing and house arrest (1633-42). Yet the Father cunningly conveyed his heliocentric views in a piece of visionary fiction, Itinerarium exstaticum coeleste (1656), and in doing so he taught that stars were like suns in an overwhelmingly vast universe and that our sun unleashed the `panspermic' powers of the earth (shades of the controversial Bruno), showing better than anyone else at the same time—and it is a neglected point—that pro-Copernicanism was not usually espoused simply out of 'scientific rationalism'.
Because of the very extent of his polymathy, an extolling of Kircher's greatness will surely persist, as shows in an acclamation of him not so long ago as a man with 'a voracious appetite for knowledge and an original mind' that 'earned him 'the reputation as the German Leonardo da Vinci'. In the more recent Findlen collection, though, some very cautious notes are sounded. Peter Miller for one, gauges that Kircher's approach to language study, more particularly Coptology, was magico-mystagogical and incautious, and clearly not suiting the more critical mind of his friend and sober savant Nicolas Claude Peiresc, who wrote of him that he had an unfortunate 'habit of letting himself be persuaded by all things at the slightest appearance'. On many scores, Kircherian promises—about a sunflower clock, the secrets of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the universality of magnetism, for three—lacked substantiation; but in an extraordinary range of spheres Kircher was always provocative and, whether unwittingly or convincingly, commonly 'on the mark'.
However the ongoing debates pan out as research goes on, John Fletcher's overview of Kircher's labours as we have it in this present work has`two advantages. First, nothing exists anywhere else in print that covers so many of the fields of knowledge embraced by Kircher's researches, and no work better contextualizes the great churchman's accomplishments within the scientific endeavours of his day." Secondly, Fletcher executes a remarkable balancing act in giving credit to Kircher where it is due on the one hand and warning about the better claims of others to the discoveries often alleged to be his on the other. To be sure, Fletcher shows little concern for some quite fascinating items on the 'incredible' German's agenda, dealing with his `steganographic' interest in a coded writing for rulers, for instance, more in connection with his correspondence, and saying virtually nothing about Kircher's political theory." Yet the Anglo-Australian's almost total encompassment of the extraordinary range of Kircher's interests is simply unparalleled as an individual effort," let alone the ordering and digestion of the mass of the Jesuit's correspondence, well before the name and geographical indices by the Eastern Europeans Wiktor Gramatowski and Marjan Rebernik, with their 2001 Epistolae Kircherianae.
To others must go the credit of exploring Kircher's thought in terms of the complex currents we have come to name 'esoteric'. Fletcher does not spot any temper or pursuit of wisdom that might go by that name, and characteristically skirts around the relevant issues. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see Esotericism and Hermeticism developing into a crucial field in the discipline of Religious Studies. Joscelyn Godwin, one of the makers of that field, led the way, and it is fitting that he celebrates the awesome learning in this book with his Foreword. He was indeed at the forefront of studying Kircher against the background of western esoteric traditions, most notably in an article within the collective volume edited by Fletcher in 1988. There, Godwin first discusses Kircher's theory of correspondences between the archetypal," angelic, sidereal and elemental worlds, and then his ambiguous relations to magic, astrology, alchemy and Kabbala—initially negative, but nonetheless trying to recover something of them that could chime with Christian truth. Magnetism, bespeaking 'great energies which move the very World and its Soul', binding them in `secret knots', gave the workings of the universe enough mystery and magic. That hardly sat ill at ease with the overall thrust of Christian messages about the wonders of Creation; and Kircher's contempt for beliefs about material gain and astrological influence in alchemy had much to do with Swiss-German Paracelsus's obfuscation of traditional mediaeval alchemy with which Kircher retained some affinity." This does not make Kircher a mediaeval, mind you, but an empirical arbiter concerned to preserve what is most sensible in a great tradition and to hold on to it as not being out of kilter with any new findings of his time.
Godwin was mildly criticized for being something of a 'true believer', unnecessarily defensive about Kircheriana as a part of the whole history of occultism he became well known for exploring. But he did allow space for considering the Jesuit in a whole trajectory of human thought frequently neglected by intellectual historians, just as Carl Jung had done in discussing Kircher's 'Gnostic' side, more particularly his view that at Creation God had to work with Chaos and that he chose to leave chaotic elements in the universe until the End of Time." Godwin has now his opportunity to expound his views more fully in his large recently published study Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World, which inter alia acknowledges Fletcher's mastery of Kircheriana and seeks to complement his work." Besides, much contemporary mental energy by others has clearly confirmed still more clearly that Kircher's opera can and should be examined within the richly veined history of Western esoteric thought. Among recent studies, Tara Nummedal has paid attention to the way Kircher's writings on geological or subterranean matters involved imagining cavernous `metallic' and lapidifying juices' that strive towards perfection—in a way that, like the alchemists, allowed for transmutation in nature, and that took the German's justification of metallurgy into 'the dangerous territory of natural magic'. Martha Baldwin, in her related work, always sensed that Kircher's theory of cosmic magnetism linked him to a large tradition of esoteric knowing;4' and as Grantley McDonald nicely confirms, Kircher's musicology develops lines of Marsilio Ficino's Neoplatonic music theory as it was affecting German lands in the seventeenth century.42 Daniel Stolzenberg rightly discerned that Kircher espoused a special version of prisca theologia or sapientia—for him true wisdom being traceable back to antediluvian Hermes (the biblical Enoch of Gen. 5:19-22, cf. Jude 14)—and thus he had his own ideas about using 'ancient non-Christian theologies' to confirm the true God's care of the nations in all of the world's history (or `macrohistory', as I have called it)." Noel Malcolm has capped off matters by demonstrating how concerned Kircher was that sacred wisdom, such as the `secret doctrines of the Egyptians' (as mystically understood according to his readings), should not fall into 'the wrong hands', and thus be kept hidden 'from the common people' Malcolm has reminded us, as Godwin did early on, that Kircher was much captivated by the arcane and recondite, and thus very often with the secretive; and this aspect of the Western esoteric tradition should never be underestimated. That is true especially for Kircher's case, because most of the profound, mystical truths he wanted to guard from the masses were more semeiological, more concerned with sensibly marvellous signs and symbols valuable for Biblical and Catholic authority, than they were with the interior search we associate with the likes of Boehme, Oetinger, von Eckartshausen and others who are often cherished as paragons of Christian esoterism.
And so we are left with Fletcher's masterpiece, in need of context in ongoing scholarship as we have sought to give it here, but lasting in its monumental erudition, its balance and its breadth of approach to 'the incredible German'. Over and above his analysis of Kircher's achieve ments, Fletcher supplies in these present volumes the fullest account of the Jesuit's world of correspondents and the subjects of interest he shared with them,'" together with the first published translation of Kircher's autobiography. Perhaps, since the time Fletcher wrote his thesis, more work has been done on Kircher's collaborators,47 and versions of the latter's books are now more accessible to scholars than in the decades just after the Second World War." But this hardly detracts from the immense value of his researches.
I commend Elizabeth Fletcher for persisting with her late husband's unpublished materials and editing them in so able a way. It took great patience and care, while the typing and checking of foreign languages was not done without her financial generosity, all in honour of her husband's great learning. My own role in this production has been to adjust Fletcher's manuscript to meet the requirements of this Series. Many technical problems had to be handled. Where, in rare cases, grammatical problems arose, or bridges had to made between inadequately connected paragraphs, the text was slightly altered. When stylistic inconsistencies occurred, the author's own propensities were used, for example in the first citation of journal articles, where he more often than not spelt out all the details (and not just author, article title and page number). He preferred leaving capitalization of proper names in Latin when quoting sources, for another example, and this has now been consistently applied. The tendencies in the thesis have also dictated the degree of italicization: thus any quotation in a foreign language has been left in plain font. Where they had been omitted or with initials only the first names of scholars referred to in the text have been inserted, except for later writers (from the nineteenth century onwards).
Because John's original typist evidently did not know French or German, or at least not very well, there was much inconsistency in the spelling of these languages in the thesis. However, many quotations were in seventeenth and eighteenth century forms of these two languages, which were themselves not yet fully standardized. In checking the German names, titles and quotations, Professor Brian Taylor, who is a specialist in early modern German, mainly followed his own lights, though he did do some checking, for example, in Zedler's Universal-Lexicon, whenever he was uncertain of a spelling or form. In the case of early French, he followed the guidelines set out in J. Vianey's Les Prosateurs du XVP siecle. The main feature in comparison with modern French is that accents were used far less on words, apart from on final syllables. Where I was uncertain about the absence or addition of accents, I was grateful to be able to consult Professor Taylor and so achieve as accurate a rendering as possible. His biographical sketch of John Fletcher published in this volume should also be acknowledged.
Athanasius Kirchers Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to
Search for Universal Knowledge by Joscelyn Godwin (Inner Traditions)
Linguist, archaeologist, and exceptional scholar, Athanasius Kircher
(1602-1680) was the last true Renaissance man. By profession a
Jesuit priest, he made himself an authority on almost every subject
under the sun. To Kircher the entire world was a glorious
manifestation of God, and his exploration was both a scientific
quest and a religious experience. His works on Egyptology (he is
credited with being the first Egyptologist), music, optics,
magnetism, geology, and comparative religion were the definitive
tests of their time--and yet they represent only a part of his vast
range of knowledge. A Christian Hermeticist in the mold of Marsilio
Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, his work also examined alchemy, the
Kabbalah, and the Egyptian Mystery tradition exemplified by Hermes
Trismegistus. Kircher was the first to map ocean currents; the
first to offer a comprehensive theory of vulcanism; the first to
compile an encyclopedia on China, a dictionary of Coptic, a book
dedicated solely to acoustics; the first to construct a machine for
coding messages and another for composing music. His museum in Rome
was among the most famous "cabinets of curiosities," visited by
everybody in the intellectual world.
The Hermetic cast of Kircher's thought, which was foreign to the concerns of those propelling the Age of Reason, coupled with the breadth of his interests, caused many of his contributions to be widely overlooked--an oversight now masterfully rectified by Joscelyn Godwin. It has been said that Kircher could think only in images. While this is an exaggeration, 400 of the stunning engravings that are a distinguishing feature of his work are included here so we may fully appreciate, learn from, and see for ourselves the life work, philosophy, and achievements of "the last man who knew everything."
JOSCELYN GODWIN, musicologist and translator, is a professor of music at Colgate University. He first explored the life and work of Athanasius Kircher in 1979 in his book A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge. Godwin was educated at Cambridge and Cornell Universities and has authored and edited many books on Hermeticism and music, including Music, Mysteries and Magic: A Sourcebook; The Golden Thread, The Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, and Arktos: The Polar Myth. He is also known for his translations of the works of such figures as Fabre d'Olivet and Julius Evola and the first complete English translation of Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. He lives in New York state.
Excerpt: Athanasius Kircher stands out against the background of his time like some rugged headland jutting into the sea — perhaps one of those formations in which the imaginative eye discerns a monstrous face. The tides swirl busily around it, but it stands aloof, proud, and oblivious of the erosion of its base. Then, one day, it collapses. A few rocks remain visible at low tide, but for the rest the seas wash over it as though it had never been.
That, with a little poetic exaggeration, has been Kircher's fate among the tides of history. Held in awe during his lifetime for his universal knowledge, he died an all but forgotten curiosity. His books were occasionally noticed, maybe for the wrong reasons but for ones to which we heartily subscribe. No longer were they repositories of ultimate wisdom: they became portals into a land in which truth is no longer the quarry. Wonderland has its own truths, one of which is the irony with which it helps us view our own.
There is a kind of tourism of the past that consists in visiting mental monuments, especially the ones most different from those at home. This book is an invitation to visit Kircher's mind, to whose quirks, dreams and inventions his illustrators gave memorable form. What did he think and feel as he leafed through his own books, hot off the press? To what inner world, what quality of soul, did these images serve as windows? And did his readers feel the same?
Up to a point, the answer must be yes. Kircher's books, if they did not achieve immortality, won the penultimate accolade of commercial success, as they poured by the cartload from the presses of Rome and Amsterdam. He had his legions of readers and, at need, defenders, especially in his own militant order, the Society of Jesus. What he was doing struck a certain chord, though one increasingly at variance with the predominant harmonies. Even after his time there were those who preferred his style, and tried to replay the tremendous concords of his certainty. For others, and they have had the last word, it was this certainty that, turning to hubris, ensured his eclipse.
René Descartes (1596-1650), raised like Kircher by the Jesuits and no less a Catholic, proposed that philosophy should make a fresh start on the basis, not of inherited certainties but of doubt. Although nearly all of Descartes' pet theories were discarded — for example, the existence of 'innate ideas', the mind—body connection at the pineal gland, the mechanistic biology that sees animals as machines, the arguments for the existence of God—his philosophical method was something so new, so stimulating, that it fathered an entire genealogy of philosophers, who now constitute the canon. Like him, they sought a philosophizing free from sacred authority, free from erudition and the wisdom of the ancients, in fact free from everything that Kircher revered.
While Descartes led a reclusive and shifting life, mostly outside France, his best friend and agent was Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), a friar of the Order of Minims. As firmly based in his Paris convent as Kircher would be in the Collegium Romanum, Mersenne's first mission was to purge the learned world of any taint of Hermetism and magic, using as his vehicle a stupendous commentary on Genesis. This task accomplished, his work lay on the borderline between philosophy and science. He found that experimental science was best advanced by assuming a mechanistic philosophy and employing a mathematical approach. These would become cornerstones of the scientific method, as would be the very idea that science advances, with its consequent future-centred attitude. Mersenne was also one of the century's great net-workers, corresponding with the learned of Europe and coordinating their researches. It was he who introduced Galileo's work to France after the great scientist's condemnation, and with it the debate over the Copernican system and the shortcomings of Aristotelian physics.
Aristotle had few friends in this era, outside the schoolrooms. The new experimental scientists discredited one after another of his dogmas, whether concerning the disposition of the heavens, the laws of physics, or the physiology of animals. At the same time, adepts of the magical, alchemical and Hermetic philosophies reproved Aristotle for having rejected the higher wisdom, as they saw it, of his master Plato.
Mersenne's deathbed was attended by his friend and fellow priest Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), another of the circle of mechanistic philosophers. To Aristotle's four elements, Gassendi opposed another classical system, the atomic theory of Epicurus, which would prove a lasting model for chemistry if not for physics. He also joined Mersenne in polemics against Robert Fludd (1574-1637), the Paracelsian doctor whose devotion to the World-Soul and the Hermetic doctrine of correspondences (which we will find in its ripest development in Kircher) seemed to them worse even than the stultified Aristotelianism of the schools.
These French philosophers helped to form an intellectual climate in which both philosophy and science could get on with their business without interference from religious dogmas on the one hand, or occult beliefs on the other. This business was what Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had defined as the `Great Instauration', the restoration of humanity to its birthright of command over nature. Bacon's combination of commonsense philosophy with the experimental method, which he was the first to define, made him the godfather of the Scientific Revolution. From Bacon came the inductive principle of using experiments to discover the laws of nature, rather than taking the laws as already known; and also the assumption that progress in scientific knowledge is useful to mankind. His fictitious travelogue The New Atlantis, with its depiction of a utopia blessed with advanced technology, was an inspiration to the groups that would later coalesce to form the Royal Society.
These men all managed to avoid the collision of their philosophies with the religious authorities, unlike the two famous victims of the latter: Giordano Bruno (1548-160o) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Although Bruno was originally a Dominican monk, he developed a mystic pantheism coloured by Hermeticism and magic, and a corresponding contempt for Judeo-Christian doctrines. Straying over into astronomy, he accepted the Copernican doctrine on metaphysical grounds (the sun being the proper centre of all), and went further to posit the infinity of the universe and the plurality of worlds. These notions threatened the biblical creation story and the scheme of Christian salvation, both of which presupposed a single world and a single Incarnation. For his obduracy in promoting his doctrines, he was burned at the stake.
Galileo escaped Bruno's fate but was condemned in 1633 to permanent house arrest. Strictly speaking, his offence was not his embrace of the heliocentric system, which had been given its latest and most persuasive form by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish churchman. It was Galileo's presumption, as a layman, to interpret the Bible so as to make it fit. This is what got him into trouble with the Church in 1616, from which he emerged with a mere caution, forbidden to 'hold, teach or defend' the theory. What caused much worse trouble was his disobedience when in 1632 he published his Dialogue on the Two World Systems. The accession to the papacy of his patron Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644; Pope from 1623) and the encouragement of his friends had emboldened him to believe the decree of 1616 past history. It was not. Galileo's mockery of the modern Aristotelians who dominated the universities had already made him enemies, and the ludicrous character in his book who defended the geocentric system seemed an outright insult to the Pope, who happened to hold that opinion.
Bruno and Galileo were minds of the very first order, self-confident, impatient with stupidity and ultimately foolhardy. This is not to excuse the religious establishment that made martyrs of them, far from it. But it does help one to appreciate the skill of Kircher and others similarly gifted, who steered through those perilous rapids unharmed. At what cost of personal integrity and the cohabitation of contrary beliefs, we shall never know, but we cannot blame them.
Galileo's achievement was twofold. First, he proved the power of technology to extend the reach of the senses and gather information from which natural laws could be induced. This he did by training his telescope on the sun, moon and planets, and noticing phenomena that could only be 'saved' (i.e. explained), by discarding the Aristotelian dogma of perfect and immutable heavens, and the Ptolemaic system that placed the earth motionless at the centre of the universe. Second, he showed that problems in physics and mechanics are best solved by mathematical methods.
None of this was of much importance to Kircher's type of science. Certainly it was experimental, but the end result of his experiments was not so much the advancement of knowledge as the making of some new machine to entertain a patron or adorn his Museum. He never paid much attention to the possibilities of the telescope or the microscope, preferring the more dramatic effects of magnetism and the magic lantern. When Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) revolutionized the science of timekeeping in 1657 by inventing the pendulum clock, Kircher was still busy devising new sundials.
Galileo's condemnation and abjuration sent a shudder through the 'Republic of Letters', as Europe's relatively freethinking savants called themselves. Among his defenders, to the point of protesting to the Pope, was Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637). A member of the regional parliament of Aix-en-Provence, Peiresc was one of the Republic's chief nodes, somewhat as Mersenne was and as Kircher would become. In fact, it was Kircher who brought him the bad news about Galileo in August 1633.
With Peiresc, the emphasis moves from the natural sciences to the sciences of the past, such as chronology, philology, archaeology, palaeography and numismatics. The raw materials here are not simply knowledge, but the tangible remnants of antiquity, and in the place of the experimental scientist is the collector, which Peiresc was and, again, Kircher would be. With them came the transition from the cabinet of curiosities — the Kunst- and Wunderkammer — to the study collection that we know as a museum. Peiresc's most precious possessions were his manuscripts in oriental languages, and much of his correspondence and organizing skill went into acquiring them and finding experts to study them. Kircher was one such expert, whom Peiresc valued chiefly as a pioneer of Coptic studies. Yet the fact that Kircher was snatched from Peiresc's research team in order to become a professor of mathematics shows how irrelevant was the notion of specialization. All of the people mentioned so far were intellectual omnivores, collecting knowledge with no concept of today's disciplinary boundaries. As the telescope and microscope extended the sense of sight, the early museums were tools for the extension of the mind beyond its natural limits of time and space. A collection of coins might yield clues about ancient dynasties, and these in turn could be correlated with the Bible to arrive at a more accurate picture of the past. Artefacts from the Indies or the Americas, from Africa or the Ottoman Empire, bore witness to peoples formerly beyond the ken of Europeans, to their peculiar habits and beliefs; and these, too, could be used to supplement the skimpy account of the population of the globe as given in Genesis.
In the Republic of Letters, Catholics and Protestants alike agreed with Galileo that the Bible was not given to mankind in order to teach us science, but to show the way to salvation. However, while this attitude spelled freedom for physics, mechanics and even astronomy, it did not benefit the sciences of the past. The book of Genesis spoke unambiguously of the Creation in six days, the ages of the patriarchs, the universal deluge and the origin of languages. No interpretation that respected the numbers in that text could yield a creation date of more than six thousand years ago. Even Isaac Newton (1642-1727) accepted it, as he spent his old age poring over chronology and its counterpart, prophecy. Until this time barrier was broken, no progress was possible in understanding the processes of geology or astronomy, the taxonomy of animals and plants, the development of human capabilities and languages, the populating of the globe, the origin and extinction of species, to say nothing of evolution. Kircher's efforts were therefore doomed to obsolescence.
Newton, of course, was a heliocentrist. Living when and where he did, he did not fear the fate of Galileo or feel obliged, like Kircher and Gassendi, to sign on to the compromise system of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), according to which the planets move around the sun while the sun moves around the static earth. More important to Newton were the discoveries and conclusions of Tycho's assistant Johann Kepler (1571-1630), who had broken the perfect circles that shaped all previous cosmologies (including Copernicus's). Through a dogged devotion to accuracy in observation and tabulation, Kepler had been led to the conclusion that the planets move in elliptical orbits, with the sun at one of their foci. His further conclusion, that God planned the proportions of their orbits on the basis of musical consonances, did not long survive, but it goes to show the continued relevance, to some scientists, of the classical as well as the biblical past. In this case, it was the Pythagorean doctrine of the Harmony of the Spheres, an important element of Kircher's cosmology and one which Newton, too, believed to conceal true physical principles.
The informal groups and corresponding circles of the earlier seventeenth century gave way in the latter part to more formal academies. The Accademia del Cimento, founded in Florence in 1657, continued in the tradition of its native son Galileo, and enjoyed the protection and participation of the Medici. It set the new style in which all religious issues were set aside, as was all reliance on Aristotelian or scholastic authority. The emphasis was solely on making experiments and evaluating the results (cimento means `assaying'). England followed in 1665 with the Royal Academy, whose name indicates its level of patronage; France in 1666 with the Académie des Sciences, founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert with royal assent. While they served a certain national pride, these academies were international in membership and scope. The first secretary of the Royal Academy was a German, Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677); Christiaan Huygens, who was brought to Paris as the new institution's chief research fellow, was a Dutch Protestant.
The academies instituted a new way of gathering and diffusing knowledge that has remained valid to the present day. Through collaborative research, peer review (instituted by Oldenburg) and periodical publication, findings could be shared, commented on and added to in a continuous self-correcting process. Kircher's method of compiling facts through erudition and correspondence and enshrining them in encyclopaedic works could not compete. While the motor of the new science was conversation, Kircher's was a monologue. At the same time, though, he had the advantage of the Society of Jesus, unequalled in its numbers, educational level and worldwide distribution.
The Society had many scientists and scholars in its ranks, but for all their brilliance, furthering science and scholarship was not their prime purpose. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), hoped to win the whole world for Christ. This first meant converting the heathens, notably Spain's nearest neighbours, the Muslims of North Africa. With the voyages of discovery, the field expanded commensurately, and the Society's missions were soon installed throughout the Old and New Worlds. But making Christians out of heathens was not enough. In Europe, the order lent its energies to the Counter-Reformation, whereby the Catholic Church tried by all means to suppress the rising tide of Protestantism.
Jesuit education had two levels. First, the colleges prepared the Society's members for a life of total devotion to the Christian cause. This included a thorough grounding in the arts and sciences, in theology, and in a system of self-discipline through Ignatius's 'Spiritual Exercises'. Second, there were the schools for laypeople, which were always of such a high quality that even Protestants would send their sons to them. The Jesuits valued learning; they regarded the world as potentially good, and worth knowing and enjoying, though they themselves, as soldiers of Christ, were indifferent to its pleasures. They also knew the appeal of the arts to the human mind and emotions. Drama, music, poetry and the visual arts all played a part in Jesuit education, though never lacking a moral or religious subtext.
Kircher was educated, worked and died in this spiritual hothouse. But in the world outside the Society he spent ten years as a refugee, and the rest of his adult life as an emigrant. His native Germany was devastated before his eyes in the series of conflicts known as the Thirty Years War.
Ever since 1555, with the Peace of Augsburg, the Catholic and Lutheran principalities of Germany had coexisted under the principle that each ruler should determine the form of Christianity to be followed by his or her subjects. (If Kircher had been born a few miles away, say in Calvinist Schmalkalden, his life would have taken a very different course.) The policy of conformity led to resentment among dissenters, especially the Calvinists who had not been included in the original settlement. Leagues were formed, nominally in self-defence against possible attack by the other side.
The Bohemian nobility set the spark to the tinder when in 1619 they elected Frederick Count Palatine, a Calvinist, as their king. This made possible a Protestant majority among the seven traditional Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Count Palatine of the Rhine and the King of Bohemia; the Duke of Saxony and the Margrave of Brandenburg, already Protestants; and the Catholic Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier). It was a situation that the fanatical Ferdinand of Styria, heir presumptive to the imperial throne, could not countenance. His suppression of the Bohemian rebels led to general war, with Denmark, Sweden and eventually France entering against the Empire and Spain. Much of the fighting was done by mercenary soldiers, who left unimaginable misery throughout much of present-day Germany.
What is most surprising, considering the wholesale slaughter, famine, disease and destruction ofproperty, is the cultural achievement of those Germans who stayed behind. For instance, in 1617 Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen (15791650), who had been admitted to the Accademia della Crusca while in Italy, founded a society in emulation of that literary academy. This, the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruitful Society'), existed to further the German language as a proper vehicle for literature and scholarship. It met in Köthen with few interruptions for the duration of the war, counting among its members most of the century's important literary figures. Among the most eminent was Martin Opitz (1597-1639), who translated the ideals of Italian humanist poetry into his native tongue, and with the composer Heinrich Schatz (1585167z) created the first German opera (Dafne,1627). Schutz, the greatest German composer up to his time, served the Saxon electoral court in Dresden from 1615 until his death, except for a few years spent in Italy and Denmark. Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664) and Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (16211676) grew up amid the turmoil to emerge, respectively, as the exemplary poet and dramatist, and the first novelist of the German baroque. The Lutheran pastor and mystical writer Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654), who in his youth helped to create the myth of the Rosicrucians, twice lost his home and his library. He fled to the independent city of Nuremberg, and returned to pass the last decade of the war as court preacher in Stuttgart. Thanks to these and many lesser lights, the postwar generation of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) did not arise from a vacuum.
The Peace of Westphalia (1648) ended the war with a complicated transfer of territory, money and blame, and with Habsburg power, both Spanish and Austrian, much diminished. It was immediately followed by dire events in two of Europe's chief monarchies. In England, King Charles I was beheaded (1649) and the interregnum of the Commonwealth began. France witnessed the 'Fronde' (1648-1653), a sequence of skirmishes between the monarchy (represented, in the king's minority, by Cardinal Mazarin), certain nobles and the parliament. The English monarchy was restored with Charles II (ruled 1660-1685), and in 1661 Louis XIV (ruled 1643-1715) took over absolute power.
As for the Holy Roman Empire, its story was one of gradual decline. It did not exactly lose the Thirty Years War, but it had begun it with the high ambitions of Ferdinand II (ruled 1619-1637) to restore the entire empire to the Catholic faith; and it ended it with Ferdinand III (ruled 1637-1657) conceding to the German princes the right to conduct their own foreign and internal affairs. Conflicts with the France of Louis XIV and the assaults of the Ottoman Turks on its eastern borders blighted the reign of Leopold I (ruled 1657-1705), though none of this prevented all three emperors from generously supporting artists, musicians and scholars.
For the second half of the war, Kircher was secure in his Roman home, and a spectator of one of the most grandiose periods of papal rule. The Papal States had grown ever since the popes returned from Avignon, and now they stretched from Terracina, south of Rome, to Bologna and Ferrara in the north, Rimini and Ancona on the Adriatic coast: an area larger than the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The south of the peninsula, Sicily, Sardinia and the Duchy of Milan belonged to the Spanish Habsburgs and were ruled from Naples by a Viceroy. France dominated the northwest in an unhappy series of invasions. The Republics of Genoa and Venice maintained their independence, though their great days of controlling the trade routes were over.
The Pope was thus responsible not just for the Church but for a state, with all the headaches and expenses of raising armies, fortifying his cities and keeping the nobles in check. Whereas in most states, dynastic rule ensured continuity, the papacy lurched in succession around the great Roman families, each using the enormous papal income to further its wealth and status. That is why Rome boasts so many outsize palaces, notably (from our period) Palazzo Barberini, built by Urban VIII; Palazzo Pamphili on Piazza Navona, built by Innocent X; and Palazzo Chigi (now a seat of government), acquired by Alexander VII. Patronage of the arts and culture was part and parcel of this ambition, in which each Pope sought to make his reign more glorious than the last. The competition stopped, however, with the three last Popes of Kircher's lifetime: Clement IX, Clement X and Innocent XI. They were respectively too short-reigned, too old and too earnest to behave as their predecessors had done, and papal largesse was never the same again.
Outside Europe, the great voyages of discovery were over, the heyday of colonization not yet begun. The seventeenth century was the great era of the missionaries, who established themselves in the wake of the trade routes. The Jesuits rivalled the Franciscans in their global reach, and easily exceeded them in their curiosity and penetration of native cultures. There were Jesuit missions — and martyrs — all over the New World, from Tierra del Fuego to Canada. In Asia and Africa, their fortunes were affected by the rivalry of the Portuguese and Dutch, but wherever Portugal was installed, notably in Goa on the southeast coast of India, Jesuit churches rose in astonishing echoes of baroque Rome. For a while the Society's envoys were welcome at the court of the Mughal Emperor, ruler of most of India, and at that of the Emperor of China. Their monuments remain in Macao on the Chinese coast, and in the Philippines. In Japan they were at first tolerated, then cruelly put down.
Kircher, who lacked nothing in stamina or physical and moral courage, yearned to be a missionary but was denied his ambition. So for all his global vision, he never saw much of the world. Perhaps this is one reason that he was prone to believe every report that came in his mailbag. But it is this that makes him so fascinating, and, for all his apparent oddness, probably more representative of his times than any of the canonized saints of progress.
Kircher has a fair claim to be the most learned savant of his age. His works on Egyptology, music, optics, magnetism, geology, linguistics and comparative religion were each definitive for their time. But history has not been kind to him, for several reasons. First, he wrote only in Latin, while other scholars were turning to the vernacular. Second, the breadth of his interests makes it almost impossible to appreciate his work as a whole. Third, his adherence to a Christian Hermetism rooted his thought in a set of assumptions that the world of science and learning was already discarding. Yet while his work was a tardy monument to the Renaissance ideal of universal knowledge, its celebration of the natural world opened new fields of study that heralded the age of secular science.
Kircher was born in Geisa, near the city of Fulda in that little-known region at the geographical centre of today's Germany. He writes in his autobiography' that he began life at three in the morning on the Feast of Saint Athanasius, 2 May 1602 —hence his name, which is Greek for 'immortal'. His father, Johann Kircher, had worked until 1599 as an Amstvogt (bailiff) in Haselstein, administering affairs and justice for the local lord, the Prince-Abbot of Fulda. Then he moved to Geisa for a two-year period as Stadtschultheiss (mayor), before retiring into private life on his comfortable fortune.' Athanasius was the last of nine children from Johann's marriage with Anna Gansheck, daughter of a burgher from Fulda.
Two snapshots of Fulda history lend grim colour to these bland facts. From 1602 to 1606, under the rule of the witch-hunter Balthasar Nuss, no fewer than 26o witches were burned in that city.' During the same four years, the Prince-Abbot Balthasar von Dernbach expelled the Protestants (Lutherans and Calvinists) from Fulda, and the small town of Geisa, formerly of mixed religion, was formally 'recatholicized'.
Kircher's autobiography takes no note of the atmosphere of sectarian hatred and paranoia that must have overshadowed his childhood. From his account, it was a time filled with adventure, in which his pride and curiosity repeatedly led to a fall, to prayer and then to a miraculous rescue. At least four times he escaped an early death: from being caught in a mill-race; from falling under the feet of racing horses; from getting lost in a forest; and from gangrene contracted while skating. Already in his youth he felt favoured by God and marked out for some special destiny — perhaps even sainthood, for as Anton Haakman, most sly and perceptive of Kircherians, observes, 'Kircher wrote his very own hagiography, taking care to insert a number of miracles sufficient for canonization"
Kircher was first educated by his father, now retired and the possessor of a fine library. At the age of ten or eleven he was sent in the footsteps of his brothers to the Jesuits' Gymnasium in Fulda, a school of some 50o boys. Before he left at the age of 16, he had learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and presumably at some point had made the lifetime commitment to a monastic career. After failing in his first application, to the Jesuit College in Mainz, he was admitted as a novice to the college at Paderborn in 1618.7
By 162o his novitiate was completed and his first vows taken, but the onset of the Thirty Years War interrupted his education. The advance of the fiercely anti-Jesuit Duke Christian of Brunswick prompted him, with two companions, to flee in January 1622. They struggled for three days through deep snow, penniless and begging their food, until a Catholic nobleman took them in. After a week at the Jesuit College at Münster they were advised to continue to Cologne. Passing through Düsseldorf they came to the frozen Rhine and proceeded to cross it. Halfway across, a piece of ice broke loose and Kircher was carried away on it. His companions expected never to see him again. But he succeeded in swimming through the freezing water to the bank, and walking for three hours until he reached the haven of the Jesuit College in Neuss.
Kircher duly completed his course in scholastic philosophy in Cologne, then in 1623 was transferred to Koblenz to study humanities and teach Greek at the Jesuit School. Up to now he had humbly concealed his true abilities, but when he gave up his pretence of mediocrity, he aroused so much jealousy that his superiors transferred him again, this time to the college at Heiligenstadt. The journey was a dangerous one through Protestant territory, but Kircher obstinately refused to wear a disguise, saying: 'I would rather die in the robes of my order than travel undisturbed in worldly dress...' This nearly transpired, as he was ambushed by Protestant soldiers. After stripping and beating him, they prepared to hang him from the nearest tree. But his calm demeanour so moved one of the men that he persuaded his comrades to spare the young Jesuit's life, and even to give him back his property.
Heiligenstadt was reached without further incident, and here the 23-yearold Kircher taught mathematics, Hebrew and Syrian.' When in 1625 delegates of the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz visited the college, Kircher arranged an astonishing entertainment of moving scenery and fireworks. Some onlookers feared that it was done by black magic, until he explained how it worked. As a result, he was summoned to the Archbishop's court at Aschaffenburg to make more such curiosities, and to draw up a survey of the principality, which he completed in only three months. Perhaps it was this commission, done with the help of the magnetic compass, that suggested the subject of Kircher's first book, Ars Magnesia (The magnetic art', 1631).
On the Archbishop-Elector's death, Kircher returned to Mainz for another four years. Although nominally studying theology, he managed to acquire a telescope, through which he observed the then unexplained phenomenon of sunspots. In 1628 he was ordained priest and entered his Tertianship (spiritual preparation for the ministry) at Gau um Speyer. A new world of humanistic learning opened there when he first saw pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphs, probably in Herwart von Hohenburg's Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum, and longed to understand them." But he could not yet pursue this interest, as he was next sent to teach at Würzburg. In 163o he petitioned to go as a missionary to China, but was refused. The next year the Swedish army entered the region. In another miraculous episode, Kircher was granted the gift of prophecy and saw in a vision armed men drilling in the college courtyard; he was able to warn his fellows and the Würzburg College was hastily disbanded. Abandoning all his manuscripts, he took refuge in Mainz.
During his absence, one of his noble pupils, Johannes Jakob Schweigkard von Freihausen, took care of the publication of Ars Magnesia and obtained its dedication to the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg. The first part of the book describes magnetic phenomena and experiments, largely based on William Gilbert's De Magnete (1600). Kircher's explanation of magnetism, unlike Gilbert's more mechanistic one, is that things have an innate appetite or inclination towards their own good. In the second part, he discusses the deviations of compass needles and the use of magnets in medicine. He entertains the possibility of perpetual motion by using magnets, and describes magnetic tricks and toys. Thus his first work announces his characteristic blend of mathematics and experimental science with Hermetic philosophy and a delight in natural and artificial wonders.
Now that there was no future in Germany for a promising young Jesuit scholar, Kircher's superiors allowed him, with many others, to go to France. He passed through Lyon in 1632 on the way to Avignon, there to teach mathematics, philosophy and oriental languages. For the Avignon Jesuit College he designed an elaborate clock, described in his Primitiae Gnomonicae Catoptricae (First fruits of the reflective sundial', 1635). Just as Ars Magnesia is a sketch for the large-scale Magnes, this short book on optics and sundials anticipates his later Ars Magna Lucis.
In France Kircher entered a new, cosmopolitan world of learning, thanks to Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, member of the Parliament at Aix and a wealthy collector and patron of scholarship." Through Peiresc, Kircher met Pierre Gassendi and started a correspondence with Marin Mersenne, both men of universal learning and wide connections. Peiresc was particularly interested in having Kircher work on deciphering his collection of Ethiopian, Arabic and Coptic manuscripts. This resulted in the foundational work of all Coptic studies, Prodromus Coptus (Introduction to Coptic', 1636).12 The book contains the first Coptic grammar, for which a special typeface was cast, and argues (correctly) that Coptic bears a relationship to the language of ancient Egypt. At the end of the book, Kircher published the projected table of contents of a much larger, three-part work, which he already knew would be titled fEdipus /Egyptiacus.
Kircher already saw himself as a new Oedipus, who would solve the Sphingian riddle of the hieroglyphs, but his linguistic research was again interrupted in 1633, when he was summoned by the Habsburg Emperor to be Professor of Mathematics in either Vienna or Trieste." Peiresc and other patrons of Kircher's linguistic work lodged influential complaints, and consequently, when Kircher broke his long journey in Rome, he was ordered to stay there. He was appointed to the Roman College, the hub of the whole Jesuit order, as Professor of Mathematics, with a special commission from the Pope's nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, to study hieroglyphs. This was to be his home until his death."
When Kircher arrived in Rome, the scientific world was still reeling from the Galileo affair. The elderly scientist, once a friend of the Barberini Pope, had been hauled before the Inquisition in April 1633 and forced to desist from `holding and teaching' the Copernican theory. In the previous year, Urban VIII had published a severe bull against astrologers, to counter the suspicion that had rested on him ever since he had summoned Tommaso Campanella to perform astrological magic for him." By 1634 the atmosphere had turned sufficiently sour that Campanella, aided by Cardinal Barberini, slipped out of Rome and ended his days in France. Under these circumstances, a polymathic and enquiring mind like Kircher's had to be careful.
Kircher made only one further journey outside Italy.' In 1636, at least partly through his influence, Friedrich, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt (1616-1682), was converted to Catholicism: a great catch for the Roman Church." Wishing to travel in Italy, the young Landgrave chose two compatriots as companions: his confessor, Kircher, and his tutor, Lucas Holsten. As the party moved south to Sicily, Kircher took every opportunity to explore new areas of natural science. He was keen to see Syracuse, to ascertain whether in 212 BC Archimedes could have used a burning-mirror to destroy the Roman fleet at anchor there. In a Messina monastery library he discovered a Greek musical manuscript," and perhaps the legendary Book of Enoch, reputedly written by the deathless patriarch before the Flood."
After Sicily, the party sailed to Malta, which the Landgrave, a Knight of the Order of Malta, had visited in the previous year. Kircher's presence was a welcome diversion to the Jesuits there, for whom he invented the rotating astronomical device described in Specula Melitensis Encyclica CCircular Maltese mirror', 1638),21 and he began a lasting friendship with the Apostolic Delegate, Fabio Chigi, the future Pope Alexander VII. Otherwise the island had little to offer Kircher and his ambitions, and after intervention in high places," he was ordered back to Rome. The delay was timely, for in March 1638, on the homeward journey, he witnessed the eruptions of Etna and Stromboli and the destruction of the island of St Euphemia. When he reached Naples, Vesuvius was threatening to erupt, too. The insatiable Kircher climbed the volcano and had himself lowered into the crater to observe the process more closely. This experience would form the kernel of his great work on the Subterranean World.
Now Kircher began to publish his major works, creating an encyclopaedia on a different scientific or antiquarian subject every three or four years. First he returned to the subject of magnetism, with Magnes ("The magnet', 1641). One object of the work was to counter the magnetic argument for the Copernican theory, with which Kircher had flirted in his Avignon period but which now, after Galileo's condemnation, was anathema to the orthodox circles on which he depended for his career. Otherwise Magnes develops the same range of themes as the earlier work on the subject, especially the Hermetic idea of universal attraction and repulsion. This manifested itself as much in Kircher's 'sunflower clock', which turned to face the sun, as in the music of the Tarantella, which dislodged the poison of the tarantula spider from the bloodstream. At its highest level, it was the same magnetic force that attracted the human soul to God.
Lingua AEgyptiaca Restituta (The Egyptian language restored', 1643) is another case of Kircher's expansion of an earlier work. He used the information from the traveller Pietro della Valle to compile a vocabulary of Coptic, Latin and Arabic in parallel columns. This was the book that helped Champollion decipher the Rosetta Stone nearly two hundred years later. It includes material on Egyptian chronology, weights and measures, fauna, flora, place names and philosophical terms. The book was dedicated to Emperor Ferdinand III, marking Kircher's breakthrough into the highest realms of patronage. Imitating the sobriquet of the mythical philosopher-king of Egypt, Hermes Trismegistus, Kircher addresses his patron as Rex Trismegistus, 'Thrice-Greatest King'.
Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The great art of light and shadow', 1646) was the first of Kircher's books to be organized along symbolic lines: its ten books are represented as the ten strings of the instrument with which the Psalmist declares he will praise God (Psalm 143:9). The work overlaps with Magnes in several places. It treats of eclipses, comets and astrological influences, also of phosphorescence, colour, optics, timekeeping and sundials. It includes the first printed picture of Saturn, flanked by two ellipses (which were how the rings appeared in Kircher's telescope), and devices for projecting images. The true magic lantern, however, would not appear until the second edition (1671).
In 1646 the Roman College relieved Kircher from teaching and in effect gave him a research fellowship for life. As his fame grew, so too did his correspondence. The Jesuit missionaries, for whom mathematics and technology were an important part of their training, sent back scientific reports from every corner of the globe. Receiving these from Chile, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Tunisia, Aleppo, Isfahan, Agra, Surat, Goa, Manila, Guam and from most of Europe, Kircher was at the centre of the world's most efficient and best-educated network. He was the first to hear of any new discovery, and eager to share it with the world and with his swelling list of royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastical patrons.
Musurgia Universalis (Universal music-making', 165o) does for sound what Ars Magna Lucis did for light." Coming at the point where the newly expressive style of opera was superseding the earlier style of imitative counterpoint, it announces the 'doctrine of the affections' that underlies the former. However, unlike the Italian academies, whose studies of ancient Greek music had given birth to the new style, Kircher's ideal was the music of the ancient Hebrews; King David, rather than Orpheus or Pythagoras, was his model of the supreme musician. Musurgia begins with an exhaustive treatment of ancient music and mathematical tuning theory, ultimately based on the divine archetype of number. Kircher then describes all the musical genres and instruments current in his day. Natural magic is never far away, as he explains acoustical marvels, megaphones, eavesdropping devices, talking statues and Aeolian harps. Always practical, he gives directions for a composing machine, and offers samples of his own composition (see Ill. 9.1). About 1,500 copies of the book were printed, of which one was sent to every Jesuit college, 30o were given to Jesuits converging on Rome for the election of a new Superior-General, and 352 were distributed throughout Europe."
Kircher was committed to the free exchange of information, irrespective of nationality or religion. Thus he sent a copy of Musurgia to August the Younger, Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg." This led to a long correspondence and friendship with the Protestant ruler and bibliophile, to many gifts of money from the Duke, and to Kircher's reciprocal gift of his most precious manuscript, the fifth-century Syrian Gospels now in the Herzog-August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Kircher never succeeded in his gentle efforts to convert Duke August to Catholicism, but he did play a discreet role in the spectacular conversion and abdication of Queen Christina of Sweden (reigned 1632-1654), having been in correspondence with her for at least seven years before she abdicated. He dedicated Itinerarium Exstaticum to her, and entertained her in his museum.'
His growing reputation as a linguist made Kircher the obvious person to consult when Pope Innocent X decided to re-erect a fallen obelisk and to restore its inscription. In Obeliscus Pamphilius (The Pamphilian obelisk', 1650), Kircher set out his principles for interpreting the Egyptian hieroglyphs as statements of Hermetic wisdom.' Although he already knew their language (Coptic), he read the hieroglyphs as a purely symbolic writing, rather than a verbal or alphabetical one, hence missing the path that eventually led Champollion, with the help of the Rosetta Stone, to their true decipherment.
This field of research came to fruition in Kircher's next and longest book, the long-awaited Oedipus Aegyptiacus (The Egyptian Oedipus', 1652-1654)where he assembled all that was known about the history and geography of Egypt, carrying out almost exactly his plan of twenty years earlier. His longtime patron Archduke Leopold Wilhelm negotiated a gift of 3,00o scudi from Emperor Ferdinand III, which covered more than half the cost of printing, and multiple dedications of the various sections ensured further gifts from those thus honoured. In seeking the meaning of the hieroglyphs, Kircher plumbed the sources of the 'ancient theology' as understood in the Renaissance: the Book of Enoch, the writings attributed to Zoroaster, Orpheus, Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, Plato, Proclus, the Greek myths, the Chaldaean Oracles, and the Hebrew Kabbalah. He had no doubt that there was authentic sacred wisdom in the heathen nations, and especially in Egypt, as the cradle of arts and sciences after the universal Deluge and the place where both Moses and Jesus had been educated. Kircher paid no attention to the proof by the Protestant philologist Isaac Casaubon that the writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus dated from the early centuries AD. This made him almost the last in the chain of Christian Hermeticists that had begun with Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in fifteenth-century Florence. At the same time, through extending his study of ancient religion to include the new discoveries in India, China, Japan and the Americas, he was the first to take a global approach to the subject.
Kircher's next work, Itinerarium Exstaticum (Testate journey', 1656) uses the fictional device of recounting a dream." The author, called `Theodidactus' (Taught by God), is led by the angel Cosmiel on a journey away from the earth, through the regions of the moon, sun and planets. While he does not hesitate to make use of Galileo's observations, Kircher's cosmology is geocentric." Jesuit policy favoured the scheme of Tycho Brahe, who believed that the planets go round the sun, which in turn goes round the earth. Kircher says that the heavenly bodies are not, as in Aristotle's teaching, of a different substance from earth. The planets are uninhabited, but each one, and every star, has its Intelligence or angel. They send down influences in accordance with their traditional astrological characters, some of them seemingly evil but necessary to the general economy, for the universe was created for the sake of the earth, the earth for the sake of man, and man in order to love and know God.
The 'ecstatic journey' met with considerable criticism, though attempts to censor the work failed. Rather than reply to his enemies himself, Kircher allowed the loyal Kaspar Schott to prepare a second edition, greatly augmented with notes and detailed answers to the critical points, and publish it in Germany (Iter Extaticum, 1660), where the watchdogs of orthodoxy were less vigilant than in Rome.
The second volume of the work, Iter Extaticum II (1657) takes Theodidactus on a voyage in the opposite direction, beneath the surface of the earth. The book is advertised as the prelude to Mundus Subterraneus, a work that had been in preparation for many years. Here another angel, Hydriel, teaches his charge about the circulation of the seas, sucked in at the North Pole and spewed out at the South, and takes him on a terrifying journey from one pole to the other.
Cosmiel returns to teach him about the circulation of fire in the bowels of the earth and to lead him through the subterranean channels that link sea to sea. There is much discussion of how creatures are generated from the seeds enclosed in the earth, the growth of birds and fish, and the nature of whales. Kircher is here among the first to suggest that mountains rise and fall following natural movements in the earth's crust.
In 1656 the bubonic plague broke out in Rome, and the Jesuit College isolated itself behind locked doors." While some fathers went out to tend the sick, Kircher used his microscope to seek the cause of the epidemic. In Scrutinium Physico-Medicum (Thysio-medical investigation', 1658), he summarizes the three types of explanation of the disease. One rests on the Hermetic medicine of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa; the second on religious and moral causes; the third on official medicine. Kircher rejects the tendency to seek a scapegoat or to blame the epidemic on anyone but ourselves, whom God periodically visits, as in biblical times, with trials of our faith in Him. On a practical level, Kircher examined the blood of the victims under a microscope and saw 'animalcules'. While his instrument was not nearly powerful enough to have shown the actual plague bacillus, he may have seen the largest types of bacteria, and in any case was the first to suggest that disease may be caused by germs, rather than by imbalance of the humours, devilry and so on." At the same time, he recommended wearing a dead toad around the neck, not out of any superstitious belief but as a scientifically proven 'magnet': as toads are notoriously poisonous and covered with unpleasant swellings, they naturally attract the poisonous vapours that cause such swellings in humans."
Another phenomenon that the seemingly omniscient Kircher was invited to explain was the appearance of cross-shaped markings on the garments of those exposed to the fall of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius." In Diatribe de Prodigiosis Crucibus (`Discourse on the prodigious crosses', 1661), he blames it merely on the effect of ashes staining the cross-woven fabrics, but does consider such natural events as divinely ordained. Kircher's linguistic interests next led to Polygraphia Nova ('New polygraphy', 1663)." In a typically Jesuit combination, it contains both material for a universal language, and a treatise on secret writing and cryptography. The noblest of his patrons were also given a special chest with movable slats that enabled them to encode secret political messages, but although everyone admired them, there is no evidence that they were ever used for this purpose.
Fabio Chigi, now Pope, was responsible for a new climate of reconciliation between the formerly warring sects within Christianity, and it was with his sanction that Kircher turned to a Protestant printer for his next works.' In August 1661 he signed an independent contract with the Amsterdam publisher Joannes Jansson van Waesberge, who offered 2,200 scudi for all of Kircher's stock of books published in Rome, along with their copperplates, woodblocks, characters and punches." It took another four years for the first fruits of this relationship to appear in print: this was Mundus Subterraneus (`The subterranean world', 1664-1665),' which her had mostly finished a decade earlier under the title of Geocosmus. It expands the themes of IterExtaticum II, appealing to a wider public through lavish illustrations, and develops his earlier theories of vulcanism and the generation of animals and plants. Convinced that even frogs and mice can arise through spontaneous generation, Kircher explains that the Creator has infused in the massa chaotica (chaotic mass) of the earth a panspermia rerum or semen universale (universal seed of things) endowed with vis radiativa (radiating energy). This is the source of all bodily existence, growing as circumstances allow into all manner of creatures. Other themes in Mundus Subterraneus on which Kircher's opinions are of historical interest are the tides, alchemy, petrefaction and palingenesis (the resurrection of dead matter, e.g. of a plant from its ashes). The whole work is less a scientific treatise than a pageant of the wonders of creation, intended to induce love and respect for the Creator. At the same time, it opened up many new areas to popular and scientific discussion.
By now Kircher was a celebrity. His portrait, engraved in 1655 by Cornelius Bloemaert, was published as the frontispiece to Mundus Subterraneus. Visitors to Rome sought interviews with him, or at least entry to the museum that he was assembling in the Jesuit College. Holding an important place in the history of museums, this collection had begun with the donation of Peiresc's Egyptian objects. It grew as objects arrived from the various Jesuit missions, including natural freaks and enigmas such as stones with designs imprinted on them (another result, Kircher thought, of the 'universal seeds'). Kircher added ingenious machines of his own design, based on tricks of magnetism, acoustics and optics. The museum was raided for souvenirs after his death, and fell into decay. After the confiscation of Jesuit property in 1870 the remaining contents were dispersed to various Italian museums, and little remains of it today, while the building now houses a Urea (secondary school).
Kircher's recreation was exploring the countryside surrounding Rome. In 1661, while searching for antiquities south of Tivoli, he found the ruins of an old sanctuary built by the Emperor Constantine at Mentorella, the legendary site of St Eustace's vision of Christ between the horns of a stag. Kircher arranged for the restoration of its church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and of the chapel of St Eustace, begging donations from the Emperor and his other influential friends. It became a place of pilgrimage and his favourite retreat. He described the place and its history in his first topographical work, Historia Eustachio-Mariana (`Eustachian and Marian history', 1665).
Arithmologia (`Arithmology', 1665) is, in John Fletcher's words, 'a dull and lengthy treatise written in strict conformity with the mathematical trends of the seventeenth century, and containing little of interest'." It does, however, include a treatment of the Kabbalistic and magical uses of number. Kircher did not approve of magic, in the sense of supernatural operations. But his Hermetic world view, based on the correspondence of all levels of being, did allow for influences to travel from higher to lower levels — for example, from the planets to plants and the human body. To exploit these correspondences and to harness the occult or hidden forces in matter was natural magic, shading imperceptibly into what we call technology. At the summit of the Hermetic chain of being is the mind of God, which seems to contain number as the archetype of archetypes. This is the 'true and licit mystery' mentioned in the subtitle of the work.
The unearthing of a broken obelisk near the former Temple of Isis, and the decision of Pope Alexander VII to re-erect it, led to Obeliscus Egyptiacus (1666). The side facing the ground was not visible, but Kircher, after studying and translating the other three sides, successfully predicted the hieroglyphs that would be found on it. This convinced any further doubters that he had correctly solved the mystery of the hieroglyphs.
The reports of Jesuit missionaries to the Far East enabled Kircher to compile China Monumentis Illustrata (`China illustrated with monuments', 1667), one of his least original works but in many ways the most important historically, as it was the foundation of oriental studies." It contained new documents on oriental geography, geology, botany, zoology, religion and language, including the first picture of the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet, the first Chinese vocabulary, and the first reproduction of the Sanskrit alphabet and grammar. Kircher attributed all oriental religions to the deviation of Noah's son Cham, who had polluted the original true religion with polytheism, idolatry, and demonic magic. Alone among Kircher's books, China was translated during his lifetime into French, Dutch and German, and partially into English.
A short third book on magnetism, Magneticum Naturae Regnum (The magnetic kingdom of nature', 1667), contains Kircher's last thoughts on sympathies and antipathies in the animal, vegetable and mineral realms. It was probably the new phenomena from the East, such as the reputed snake-stone from India that cured snakebite, that prompted him to write on the subject once again." His main efforts during the mid-1660s went into the composition of Ars Magna Sciendi (`The great art of knowledge', 1669), his most ambitious attempt to lay a foundation for all possible knowledge. He appears to have known nothing of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1620), in which the experimental method is suggested as a way of finding out things unknown; not, as Kircher used it, as a way of confirming a world view already fixed. He ignored René Descartes' Discourse on Method (1636), which approached the problem of knowledge from a standpoint of ignorance. There was no scepticism or nominalism about Kircher, who assumed that since everything in the universe was connected, it was all knowable if only one had a framework into which to fit it. The framework in this case was a blend of Aristotelian and Thomistic logic with the categories of Ramon Llull, the fourteenth-century Mallorcan mystic. Kircher developed a symbolic language for syllogistic and other statements, based on his own expansion of Lull's categories.
Kircher's wanderings in the countryside now gave birth to Latium (1671), a topography of the region around Rome, illustrated with imaginative reconstructions of the ancient Roman villas, as well as the modern ones." A companion work treating the region around Florence, Iter Hetruscum
(Tuscan journey') remained unpublished and appears to be lost." Splendor et Gloria Domus Joanniae (The splendour and glory of the house of Juan'), 0therwise titled Principis Christiani Archetypon Politicum (Political archetype of a Christian prince', 1672), is a study of the ideal ruler, illustrated with emblems. It is an atypical and sycophantic work, made for a Spanish patron."
Alth0ugh Phonurgia Nova ('New phonurgy [acoustics]', 1673) is largely taken verbatim fr0m Musurgia Universalis, it has the distinction of being the first book ever dedicated entirely to the science of acoustics. It describes the propagation and amplification 0f sound through devices such as the speaking trumpet.
Arca Noe (N0ah's Ark', 1675) and Turris Babel (The Tower of Babel', 1679) form a pair, expensively designed by the publisher Jansson as an illustrated compendium of prehistory." To combat the growing scepticism about the Bible, Kircher pr0ves that the Ark could have contained all the necessary animals, and that all 0f mankind descends from Noah. He strives to reconcile the Bible with 0ther s0urces of ancient history, holding firmly to 3984 BC as the date 0f Creation. In Turris Babel he continues the story to show how the world was rep0pulated after the Fl0od, and how the original language of mankind (Hebrew) split into today's 72 or more tongues. His treatment of the Tower of Babel and the Seven Wonders of the ancient world belongs within the Jesuit traditi0n 0f mystical architecture and the Art of Memory."
Kircher returned once more to Egyptology in Sphinx Mystagoga (` The Sphinx, teacher 0f the mysteries', 1676), to interpret the hieroglyphs on some mummy cases recently brought to Europe. It includes a lengthy discourse on ancient beliefs in metempsych0sis and reincarnation, which he vigorously refutes. Kircher's last work, befitting one whose career had begun as a professor of mathematics, was Tariffa Kircheriana (Kircherian table', 1679), treating the squaring 0f the circle, trigonometry, and musical proportion." It was issued with a c0mprehensive set of multiplication tables (as was necessary in pre-l0garithmic days), furnished by Benedetto Benedetti.
In Kircher's last year, Jansson published a digest of experiments drawn fr0m his many works: Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis (Kircher's experimental physi0l0gy', 1680), compiled by J.S. Kestler. As Brian Merrill says," it sh0ws what a g00d editor could have made of Kircher's own work. Kircher himself had by n0w withdrawn from public life. Suffering his share of the ailments 0f 0ld age, he gave himself increasingly to spiritual exercises, and died 0n the same day as his friend the sculptor Bernini: 27 November 1680.
On Music: Excerpt: Kircher’s mastery of music is one of his most
unexpected traits. While musical talent typically shows itself in
childhood and leads to a lifelong involvement with performance
and/or composition, Kircher’s biography reveals nothing of the sort.
Only once does he mention having had any musical training or
inclination in his youth; he never tells anecdotes linking himself
with music, and no biographer has shown him doing anything musical.
Yet music is not easily learned in later life, while to compose
counterpoint, play it on the keyboard, or read it from the score in
one’s head is no light achievement at any age. Could Kircher do it?
He himself answers the question in the preface to Musurgia with a spirited defence, saying that just because he does not perform music or compose for money, it does not mean that he is incompetent. ‘The Prince of Venosa [Gesualdo] was not a musician by trade; so was he ignorant of it? Did the great kings Ptolemy and Alfonso, in not professing music or astronomy, know nothing of them?’ The idea, he adds, is insolent and absurd! From an early age he has worked at all the noble arts and sciences, including music both theoretical and practical, with attentive study and diligent practice.
While many pieces in Musurgia Universalis are unattributed and may be by him, Kircher states plainly that he composed the example of how to handle three-part writing. He says that the voices can begin together, or else one can lead and the others follow, observing the rules of harmony, diminution and syncopation. In its short compass, this Paradigma Melothesias omnibus numeris absolutae (example of free composition in all rhythms) contains at least eight different motifs, each treated imitatively and having its own ‘affect’ or mood. Typical of Kircher’s zeal to classify and display the variety of the world, he has here composed a musical microcosm, a sort of miniature specimen chest. Equally typical, he says that his piece ‘describes the soul moved towards God in harmonic affection’. As for the myriad other compositions and musical examples in Musurgia, Kircher admits that he had help, and no wonder: at over 1,200 pages it remained for centuries the most comprehensive work on music by a single author.
Musurgia opens with the anatomy of the musical parts of man and beast: the ear and the voice. The first engraving shows the outer ear and its parts, and the small bones of the middle ear, namely the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup. The small frames beneath compare these bones in the hearing apparatus of man, calf, horse, dog, hare, cat, sheep, goat, mouse and pig.
The text describes the three semicircular canals, but says that they have been omitted from the engraving because of the difficulty of illustrating them. More important to Kircher is the question of what sort of air is contained in these chambers, which he assumes to be totally isolated from the outside air. He thinks that it must be similar to the air that is treated in the lungs before it is allowed to reach the heart, or the air that enters the nostrils and must be ‘prepared’ before it can penetrate the brain. This treatment modifies the temperature and humidity of the air, enabling it to nourish the animal spirits. This leads him to consider theories of sound. Some say that it is a real and independent entity, while others, that it only exists as perception. He takes the middle path: sound really exists as waves propagated in the air, but also ‘the sounds of sonorous objects reach the auditive potential by the emission of species’.
In terms such as ‘species’ and ‘spirits’ we hear the struggle of Aristotelian metaphysics to bridge the gap between objective reality and subjective perception. The problems were of a different order when Kircher came to the vocal organs.
Who can easily explain the great variety of vocal production in animals? We hear the querulous voice of the toad, the plaints of the mourning dove, the cuckoo’s call, the sweet trilling of the nightingale, the piping of swallows, the cock’s crow, the trumpeting of elephants, the bleating of sheep, the lowing of cattle, the barking of dogs, and we wonder what meaning of love, hatred, anger, indignation, sorrow or lamenting lies in them.
Kircher defines the voice thus: ‘The voice is the sound produced by an animal from the glottis through the striking of exhaled air, for expressing the affects of the soul’. Consequently he excludes the buzzing or chirping of insects, and, for that matter, the voice that reputedly issued from the stomach of the Pythoness (the prophetic priestess of the Delphic Oracle). The voice of the frog was a borderline case, about whose cause even Aristotle was uncertain, but Kircher settled the matter by experiment. ‘We excited [a croak] in a recently dead frog by inserting a pipe through the ribs and into the trachea, then strongly blowing out the water collected in the gullet’. He concluded that the frog’s croak is not really a ‘voice’, but is caused by air violently expelled from the lungs and meeting with moisture: in short, a belch.
The often-reproduced plate of birdsongs shows the song of the nightingale transcribed into musical notation, and the songs of the cock, hen (B: laying an egg; C: gathering her chicks), cuckoo, quail and parrot. The latter has been taught to say ‘Hello!’ in Greek; but that is nothing compared to a bird of the lark species, called gallandra, as we read in the accompanying text. A learned Portuguese friar, Damianus à Fonseca, kept a pet gallandra in his ‘museum’ and trained it to rattle off the Litany of the Saints, and much else, in a quasi-human voice. Kircher would never have believed this, had not he and others witnessed the bird’s performance in Father Damianus’s cell on 16 March 1648.
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