A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change

  • John Glassie
  • Riverhead Books
  • 333 pp.
  • December 7, 2012

Reflecting his times, a Jesuit priest in 17th-century Germany speculated on topics from magnetism and music to hieroglyphics and volcanoes.

Reviewed by Paul J. McCarren

In A Man of Misconceptions, John Glassie guides us through the work of many early 17th-century European scholars in order to set a man in his proper milieu: the age of increasing curiosity, research and discovery that we call the scientific revolution. But, just as Glassie’s title doesn’t name the man whose life he recounts, neither does his account quite bring him into focus.

The man’s name was Athanasius Kircher. Born in 1602 in the small town of Geisa, Germany, Kircher spent most of his life as a Jesuit priest who published lengthy works speculating about such wide-ranging topics as hieroglyphics, magnetism, music, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Glassie’s title suggests that he finds Kircher’s notions cockeyed. And his descriptions of Kircher’s application of those notions are often amusing. For example, after telling us about Kircher’s meticulous study of sound waves, he adds that he suggested building a “Delphic Oracle” statue with a “speaking tube” hidden in it so it could be “employed in playful oracles and fictitious consultations with such artifice that not one of its witnesses [will] discern anything concerning its secret construction.” The author admits that some laughs at Kircher’s expense are provoked by the fact that other’s mistakes — especially old theories about the origins and causes of things — can tickle us.

It’s clear, however, that Glassie doesn’t want simply to chuckle at Kircher. In his Foreword, he says, “Athanasius Kircher — an apparently silly man, a somewhat untrustworthy priest, an egomaniac, and an author who inspired one American historian to write in 1906 that ‘his works in number, bulk, and uselessness are not surpassed in the whole field of learning’ — is perhaps not the most likely subject for a biography. Then again, he can just as easily be characterized as an extremely devout person, a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness, who, one way or another, helped advance the cause of humankind. … One of the biggest characters of all time, he was also surprisingly representative of his own.” Glassie doesn’t try to resolve this apparent contradiction. But without any such attempt, his depiction of Kircher’s life leaves me confused.

Glassie hints that such confusion is inevitable because all the great thinkers of the time embodied a paradoxical combination of scientist and quack. He notes, for instance, that Isaac Newton accepted the commonly held notion that insects and worms were “spontaneously generated” in rotting material. He reminds us that since the beginning of the Renaissance, scholars had been excited by the possibility of cracking life’s mysteries with the wisdom found in newly discovered ancient texts. One set of writings that commanded the respect of countless scholars (Copernicus cited them in his defense of a sun-centered universe) were manuscripts attributed, wrongly, to an ancient Egyptian named Hermes Trismegistus. Glassie says scholars assumed these writings contained truths that could explain the unifying reality connecting all things. Even the most rigorous proponents of science’s new method of experimentation and verification had no way to demonstrate that the work of Trismegistus was not as old as they thought.  They simply accepted it as a rich source of profound insights.

But I have the impression that Glassie sees Kircher as a particularly amusing example of someone developing questionable ideas based on faulty information. My impression grew, in part, from his descriptions of how Kircher used to give thanks to heaven for escapes from harm: “the kind of trouble that, he claimed, only the Virgin Mary could get him out of”; “To the extent that he believed he’d been the recipient of divine mercy …”; “The Virgin Mary may have taken a more laissez-faire position on other matters”; “There was little question about what to do [after falling beneath a waterwheel]. ‘With my usual faith I took refuge to the Blessed Virgin.’ ”

Glassie seems to suspect that Kircher’s faith was a pious pose. On the other hand, he notes that Kircher, as a Jesuit, would have learned to practice an exercise recommended by Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, namely: Turn away from self-interest in order to concentrate on the interests of God. He also notes that humanist Jesuits believed that greater love of God resulted from contemplating any experience.

Repeated references to Kircher’s pride and ambition, along with the comments about Kircher’s declarations of faith, sketch a picture of a man promoting the marvels of his discoveries rather than the glory of God. Glassie seems to assume that Kircher didn’t share the Jesuits’ humanist beliefs. He depicts Kircher’s frenetic study and rash of lengthy publications as overheated attempts to draw attention to himself, not as the result of a desire to lead others to grasp what Ignatius Loyola encouraged Jesuits to teach: God is at work in every part of creation.

If Kircher’s purpose in his studies was to deepen others’ delight in God, it should be no surprise to hear him describing his findings with more brio than is proper in a unbiased scientific report. He was not content, for instance, to describe precisely what he saw when he descended into Vesuvius, but also imagined a fiery system stretching to the core of the earth. Such flights of fancy would be risible in someone presenting himself as a modern man of science. But, as Glassie notes, 17th-century scholars were just beginning to distinguish between speculation and experimentation. Is it conceivable that Kircher’s penchant for elaborate, even fantastic conjecture was rooted, at least in part, in a desire to stimulate reflection about God?

From Glassie’s lively and entertaining portrait of Athanasius Kircher, it’s obvious that he enjoys his subject and is impressed by the breadth of his erudition. But without a serious consideration of the possibility that, in addition to being a wooly-headed polymath, Kircher may also have been passionate about testifying to God’s power at work in all things, the picture seems unfinished.

Paul McCarren is a Jesuit priest writing “Simple Guides to the Bible.” He does pastoral ministry at St. Ignatius Church, Chapel Point, and at Loyola Retreat House, Faulkner, both of which are in southern Maryland.

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