Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Would you rather be knowledgeable on a variety of topics, or an expert on just one topic? Today’s emphasis on academic specialization supports the latter—we rarely encounter someone with multiple PhDs in unrelated fields. Rarely do we go beyond the question or suggest the obvious third option: what if we could be an expert in a range of disciplines?

Modern academic world, meet Athanasius Kircher.

Portrait of Athanasius Kircher

Portrait of Athanasius Kircher, Mundus Subterraneus. Amstelodami : Apud Joannem Janssonium & Elizeum Weyerstraten anno MDCLXV. Q155 .K58 1665 Jesuitica, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Kircher, a Jesuit priest of the German Enlightenment, has been referred to as “The Last Man Who Knew Everything” for attempting to be a polymathic scholar. Kircher published nearly 40 works on a diverse range of subjects, from linguistics and Egyptology to geology and medicine. Despite his powerful resume, however, history has forgotten him for one simple reason: Kircher was wrong about almost everything.

Kircher dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge. Kircher was born in 1602 in Fulda (now Hesse), Germany. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1628, and taught in Germany before fleeing from the Thirty Years War to Rome in 1630. Kircher taught at the Collegio Romano until granted full leave to study, experiment, and write. He remained in Rome for the rest of his life. Upon his death in 1680, Kircher’s heart was buried in Santuario della Mentorella, a church which he helped renovate earlier in his life.

Kircher is infamous for firmly defending outlandish claims. Kircher did not just posit ideas recklessly, he often pursued them recklessly. Kircher once lowered himself into a just-erupted Mount Vesuvius to better understand the inner workings of volcanoes. Albeit a bit dramatic, Kircher’s dedication to the hidden systems of geology produced one of his more famous (though fanciful) diagrams of the earth.

Illustration from Mundus Subterraneus.

Illustration from Mundus Subterraneus. Amstelodami : Apud Joannem Janssonium & Elizeum Weyerstraten anno MDCLXV. Q155 .K58 1655 Jesuitica, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

sunflowerclock

A depiction of the Sunflower Clock, Magnes Sive de Arte Magnetica. Coloniae Aggrippinae; Apud lodocvm Kalcoven, 1643. Print. QC751 .K58 1643 Jesuitica Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

In addition to risking bodily harm for science, Kircher also attempted seemingly nonsensical experiments. For such an example, we need look no further than his legendary sunflower clock. In his work Magnes Sive de Arte Magnetica (1641), Kircher proposed that a plant’s attraction to the sun mimics a magnet’s attraction to its polar charge. Using this theory, a sunflower placed in water should follow the course of the sun throughout the day, thus acting as a rather accurate sundial.

As it turns out, Kircher’s sunflower clock is not a workable design. This seems not to matter; many other scientists attempted to reproduce this experiment, opening additional inquiries into the idea of magnetism and, for Kircher’s contemporaries, a heliocentric world.  This may be exactly what Kircher intended—rather than attempt a truly workable sunflower clock, Kircher might instead have wanted to show the potential of scientific imagination and inquiry.

Kircher’s imagination did not stop at the boundaries of science. His interest in history and linguistics led him to the field of Egyptology, which before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone remained virtually indecipherable. Kircher thought Egyptian society fiercely important to European culture, and so doggedly studied and promoted it. He attempted to develop a key to hieroglyphics. In one of his more famous blunders on this topic, Kircher mistakenly translated one text as “The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis; the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis.” We now know it to mean simply “Osiris says.” His work in this area–however inaccurate–began the academic study of Egyptian society and today Kircher is widely considered the Father of Egyptology.

Illustration of Bembine Tablet

Center of Bembine Tablet, on which Kircher based his interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Oedipus Aegyptiacus. Romae : Ex typographia Vitalis Mascardi MDCLII-MDCLIV. PJ1093 .K564 1652 Oversize, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Indeed, Kircher did not always miss the mark. We have many instances in which Kircher’s work prompted new findings in its respective discipline. Such an example is found in his Scrutinium Physico-Medicum in which he notes little “worms” in the blood of plague victims. Here, Kircher suggests a rough precursor to a germ theory of microorganisms which, although hinted at by an earlier physician, was not fully discovered until the 18th century.

scrutinium

Athanasius Kircher. Scrutinium Physico-Medicum. Lipsiæ : Apud hæred. Schüreri & Götzii : Typis Bauerianis 1659. RC171 .K57 1659, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

This, however, is one of the more controversial stories of Kircher– did he really see bacteria as early as 1658? Kircher’s microscope would not have been strong enough to show such minuscule beings; he must have mistaken the red blood cells of the victim as plague bacteria. Nevertheless, Kircher did arrive at the correct conclusion and tailored medical care appropriately: he implemented quarantines, burned the belongings of plague victims, and encouraged the use of face masks. However misidentified Kircher’s observations, his conclusions prove advanced for his time.

Truthfully, I may be giving too much credit to Kircher. Although famous during his lifetime, he was ridiculed as a hoax and a “scholarly windbag” by his contemporaries. It well may be that Kircher was a showman, intent on using his natural talents to gain notoriety and wealth. He could simply have been a confident fool who believed too strongly in his imagination. Or, perhaps Kircher was an intellectual powerhouse, unafraid to risk the dangerous or test the illogical for the chance of understanding the world around him. The question of his reputation remains controversial to this day, and is one which the readers are welcome to decide for themselves.

 

 

maddie

  • Madeline George, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Boston College, Class of 2019

 

Works Consulted:

Brauen, Fred. “Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680).” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 43, no. 1, 1982, pp. 129–134. JSTOR. Web.

De Vorsey, Louis. “Mapping the world below: Athanasius Kircher and his subterranean world.” Mercator’s World, vol. 8, no. 2, Mar-Apr 2003, pp. 28. Academic Onefile. Web.

Kircher, Athanasius. Magnes, Siue, De Arte Magnetica Opus Tripartitum. Coloniae Aggrippinae; Apud lodocvm Kalcoven, 1643. Print. John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Rehding, Alexander. “Music-Historical Egyptomania, 1650-1950.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 75, no. 4, Oct 2014, pp 545-580. Literature Online, ProQuest. Web.

Reilly, Conor. “Father Athanasius Kircher, S.J.: Master of an Hundred Arts.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 44, no. 176, 1955, pp. 457–468. JSTOR. Web.

Waddell, Mark A. “Magic and artifice in the collection of Athanasius Kircher.” Endeavor, vol. 34, no. 1, March 2010, pp. 30-34. ScienceDirect. Web.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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