Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher was a German clergyman and scholar (1601-1680). While active as a Jesuit, he devoted himself to learning with a wide range of intellectual interests. He was known for his erudition. He is regarded as the founder of Egyptology. He wrote on a wide range of subjects, including astronomy, geography, mathematics, and music. 

Kircher’s Life

 Athanasius Kircher was born in Geisa, Germany, to a family of theologians. He studied Greek and Hebrew at a Jesuit school and joined the Jesuits in his late teens. While living in Paderborn and Cologne, he devoted himself to a wide range of studies, including theology and mathematics. This formed the basis of his erudite character.

 Around 1624, Kircher taught mathematics and Hebrew at the Jesuit college in Heiligenstadt. However, the Jesuits’ activities in Germany became increasingly difficult. For the Thirty Years’ War was in full swing in Germany at this time.

 Therefore, when Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor, offered him the position of professor of mathematics to succeed Kepler, he declined it. Kircher moved to Avignon, France, in 1631. In 1634, at the invitation of the Pope, he moved to Rome. From then on, Kircher settled here and devoted himself to research.

 In Rome

 The scope of his research was wide-ranging. In geology, Kircher adopted the empiricist approach that was developing at the time. He visited the crater of Vesuvius in Naples famous for the ancient ruins of Pompeii shortly after its eruption and observed it. He published a theoretical book on geology entitled “The Underground World”. He was also interested in physics and optics, which were developing during the scientific revolution of the time. He also built experimental equipment to test hypotheses.

 Kircher was also an accomplished geographer and historian. For example, he was interested in East Asia. From the mid-16th century, the Jesuits began a full-scale missionary effort in Japan, China, India, and other countries. Local missionaries gathered information on their customs and religion and sent it to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. This information was shared widely among the Jesuits.

Kircher made use of the results. For example, he printed Sanskrit specimens sent from India. As for China, Nestorianism, which had been condemned as a heresy in the early Middle Ages, had reached China. Also later, during the Yuan dynasty, the Franciscans were engaged in missionary work. However, as a result of the collapse of the Yuan empire, the safety of travel was lost and this missionary activity ceased. Moreover, they gradually became forgotten even within the Catholic Church. But in the early 17th century, these former Christian contacts with China began to be rediscovered. Kircher took advantage of this. For example, he interpreted Christianity as having had an influence in China since ancient times (In fact, Nestorianism was recognised as “景教” in China and Japan). Such research would contribute to the promotion of Chinoiserie (Chinese taste) in Europe.

 Kircher was also interested in astronomy and astrology: in the first half of the 17th century, Galileo’s geocentric theory was challenged as heretical by the religious courts of the Catholic Church. For a long time, therefore, it was thought that the old Ptolemaic astronomy, which was defended by the Catholic Church, was in direct conflict with the new Copernican and Galilean geocentric theories. Today’s research, however, suggests that this simplistic view is not appropriate.

 For example, Kircher recognized the importance of the new discoveries of Galileo and Kepler,. He also adopted the empiricist approach of using a telescope to actually confirm them. In this context, he tried to make difficult adjustments between Galileo and Ptolemy. Tycho Brahe had worked out a compromise: the sun and moon would revolve around the immovable earth, and the other planets would revolve around the sun. The Jesuits supported this.

At the same time, Kircher tried to take advantage of the occult elements in astrology and other areas where they seemed appropriate, without devaluing them. He was not stubbornly opposed to the geocentric theory of the Scientific Revolution, but were seeking a new form of Catholic astronomy.

 In these connections, Kircher’s study of ancient Egypt is important. For example, he attempted to decipher hieroglyphics and is regarded as the founder of Egyptology.

 Kircher published his “Oedipus Aegyptiacus”. In it, he argued that the history of civilization is a battle between the superstitious black magic of Egypt and the white magic of the Christian Church. According to Kircher, the infamous Egyptian superstitions spread to Greece and Rome, then to the Arab world, Africa, India, China and Japan, and the Americas. In contrast, God gave the truth as Hebrew wisdom through Adam and Eve, and showed the same truth to the Egyptians through the ancient Hermes. This is said to be shown in the true Kabbalah and hieroglyphics. This white magical truth was inherited by the Catholic Church. Kircher developed an interest in Hermetic thought and became one of the greatest Hermeticists of the 17th century.

 Hermetic thought was associated with occult thought and also contributed to the scientific revolution of the time. Hermeticism was esoteric and associated with Kabbalah, alchemy, tarot reading, and astrology. On the other hand, in the 17th century, Newton, Kepler, Galileo, and others who contributed to the scientific revolution were influenced by Hermesian thought. This is because Hermesian thought was also associated with numerology and emphasized mathematics. It also emphasized experimentation. Therefore, it had an affinity with the scientific revolution. Kircher was an erudite who possessed both occult thought and the scientific revolution.

 He was also interested in music and wrote books. He created the Aeolian harp.

 Through his correspondence with various people, Kircher gained new inspiration and disseminated these erudite findings. He also played an important role as an intellectual hub.

Athanasius Kircher

Recommended or Selected References

R.J.W.エヴァンズ『バロックの王国』新井皓士訳, 慶應義塾大学出版会, 2013

Joscelyn Godwin, Athanasius Kircher’s theatre of the world, Thames & Hudson, 2015

Daniel Stolzenberg, The great art of knowing : the baroque encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher,tanford University Libraries, 2001