‘The world is bound by secret knots’ – Athanasius Kircher

The Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) is one of history’s more intriguing figures. Possessed of a profound erudition – a cursory selection of his interests includes mathematics, physics, magnetism, music, philosophy, astronomy, geology, cartography, zoology, archaeology, Egyptology and Sinology – he achieved great renown in his own time, and yet, has slid into a near-total obscurity.

As Alan Cutler tells us in The Seashell on the Mountaintop (Penguin, 2003),
“Hardly remembered today, Kircher was a giant among seventeenth-century scholars. Straddling the divide between the expansive scholarship of the Renaissance and the focused data-collecting of the emerging scientific age, he was one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain.”

Some of Kircher’s better-known work includes: proposing that the earth was riddled with channels of fire and water, after lowering himself into an active volcano to observe its inner workings; a scientific demonstration of the folly of the tower of Babel; determining that germs were the cause of disease.

Kircher’s lasting legacy, however, has been his prodigious outpouring of scientific tomes, copiously illustrated – at times fantastically so – by a variety of highly-skilled artists, in order to better articulate his often startling and marvellous postulations (the dragons of China; subterranean fires coursing through the earth; a map of the sun). It is both the rich imagery in these books as well as the man behind them that form the focus of Joscelyn Godwin’s recent book, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World. Godwin, a Professor of Music at Colgate University, is a long-time Kircher scholar, and proves to be a hugely knowledgeable and delightfully droll guide to this fascinating seventeenth-century personification of the intersection of science, art and the imagination. And a guide is imperative: as Godwin tells us, “…in order for modern people to enjoy this kind of activity, most of them need a helping hand across the gulf of history, culture, religion and erudition that yawns between Kircher’s age and ours…”

It is hard not to wonder how a figure of such esteemed standing could disappear so completely from popular scientific history. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, one of the few contemporary institutions to feature a long-standing exhibit dedicated to Kircher, throws some light on this:
“A contemporary of Newton, Boyle, Leibniz and Descartes, Kircher’s rightful place in the history of science has been shrouded by his attempt to forge a unified world view out of traditional Biblical historicism and the emerging secular scientific theory of knowledge.”

And this is worth dwelling on: his unending quest for knowledge was inextricably coupled with a strictly Catholic background, at a time when western science was beginning to loosen itself from the shackles of the church. This proved disastrous for Kircher’s scientific standing in the long run, as he became increasingly isolated within an archaic tradition that insisted on subsuming science to further the ends of religion. In addition to this, as Godwin tells us, Kircher’s very way of working was to fall by the wayside:

“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.”

Of course, the vaster portion of his writings has been relegated to the status of an oddity, as his innate obligation to take the bible literally “… acted as a straitjacket on Kircher’s brilliant mind.” And though he “… was at the centre of the world’s most efficient and best-educated network” (The Society of Jesus), he was also “… prone to believe every report that came in his mailbag.” But it is precisely these qualities, coupled with an indefatigable spirit of enquiry, “… that make(s) him so fascinating and, for all his apparent oddness, probably more representative of his times than any of the canonized saints of progress.”

Making the utmost of his situation, station, and formidable intellect, Athanasius Kircher embarked on a life-long, all-encompassing scientific enterprise of a most improbable scale. And though the empirical value of his work has long since been consigned to the dusty hallways of forgotten science, his books continue to embody a singular bent of mind, seamlessly blending together the worlds of science, theology and the fantastic.

The Vienna Review, 03/2009