The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change
by Douglas Messerli
By coincidence, just as I completed reading Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès fiction, Where Tigers Are at Home—in which one of the central stories concerns the seventeenth-century priest Athanasius Kircher—my companion brought home from the local bookstore a recent biography of Kircher, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions.
Like the Blas de Roblès work, Glassie recounts Kircher’s very active life, from his birth in Fulda in the then Holy Roman Empire (as Voltaire quipped, “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor a Empire”) to his long tenure as the caretaker of his celebrated museum in the Vatican. And like the fiction, Glassie one by one recounts Kircher’s vast array of interests: geology, optics, microbiology, sculpture, medicine, languages (in particular his attempt to read the Egyptian hieroglyphs), philosophy, mathematics, theology, and all things Chinese. Kircher has often been described as the last man to master all knowledge. But in the age of Tycho Brahe, René Decartes, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton—in short, at the beginning of what we now recognize as modern science—nearly of all Kircher’s theories regarding these numerous topics have since been proven wrong. A determinedly brilliant Jesuit, Kircher misread texts, jiggled facts, and theorized through fantastical conjectures a world in which everything was interrelated, pointing to the hand of God. Although for most of his life the priest was seen as one of the most learned men of the world, and was sought out and corresponded with nearly every major figure of the day, by the end of his life he was perceived by many as a kind of crackpot, famed for his theories based on little experimentation and great imagination.
Glassie engagingly recounts the events of this “adventurer’s” life—a man who at one point had himself lowered into the erupting cone of Mount Vesuvius—and reveals Kircher’s numerous “misconceptions” along the way:
Many of Kircher’s actual ideas today seem wildly off base, if not simply bizarre. Contrary to Kircher’s thinking, for instance, there is nothing occult or divine about magnetism. There is no such thing as universal sperm. And there is no network of fires and oceans leading to the center of the Earth. It’s fair to say that from the viewpoint of modern science Kircher has been something of a joke.
The author, nonetheless, paints a somewhat positive picture of the “lying scientist” simply by giving us a larger context of how science in this dawning modernist world was generally perceived. As Glassie points out, “Of course, modern science didn’t exist in 1602,” the year of Kircher’s birth. Despite his wondrous ideas, Galileo too was wrong about a great many things. And Newton, apart from his influential ideas, continued to practice alchemy throughout his life, while Kircher dismissed alchemy early on.
If nothing else, Kircher’s utter fascination with all forces of the earth might stand as a grand attempt, akin to that of the Renaissance thinkers, to connect all knowledge. He perceived thought in general as “the art of knowing,” which he attempted to delineate in dozens and dozens of Latin tomes. It was Kircher who inspired Bernini to sculpt “The Fountain of Four Rivers” in Rome. And as Glassie reveals, Kircher’s grand misconceptions influenced scores of writers and thinkers throughout the centuries.
Kircher’s theories of magnetism, for example, were highly influential upon the eighteenth-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer; in fact, the priest’s fascination with magnetism seems somewhat prescient today, since, according to Kircher, the significance of magnetism has steadily increased across every scientific and technological field. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz claimed that Kircher influenced much of his early thinking and inspiration. And although the old priest was utterly wrong in his interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphics, he was right to associate them with Coptic, and had he further studied that relationship he might have cracked the code that was later achieved through the discovery of the Rosetta stone by Napoleon’s forces in Egypt. Poe quotes Kircher in his story “A Descent into the Maelström,” and Jules Verne’s famed A Journey to the Center of the Earth was almost entirely based on ideas by the “German egoist,” a character also in the story itself. Nearly all of the writings and teachings of the nineteenth-century “psychic” Madame Blavatsky, expressed in Theosophy, are cribbed from Kircher’s writings. The list of later influences, misguided or benign, continues through the centuries.
Finally, one simply has to pause in awe and wonderment with regard to Kircher’s voluminous activities. Although one might perceive him as nearly always misguided and often a fraud, science certainly would have been less interesting without him.