The 17th Century was a time of tremendous upheaval. The Church was under attack from Protestant rebels who challenged the authority of Rome and the very nature of God. The old world of scholasticism, in which the world of the Bible and the Ancient Philosophers was absolute was being challenged by the new science of observation. Natural philosophers and mathematicians were creating a new way of seeing the world. It was also a time of superstition, by today's standards, during which men and women were burned alive for the crimes of witchcraft and heresy. It was also a time, perhaps the last time in modern history, during which a single man might aspire to understand all of science, and to contribute to every branch. Scientists like Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Fermat, Hook, Boyle and Galileo were such men, and to their names we can add another, less well known, who nonetheless contributed significantly to the growing body of knowledge. His name was Athanasius Kircher,
Kircher was by all accounts, possessed of a singularly brilliant mind, as well as a fierce devotion to faith. He made significant contributions to a wide range of intellectual pursuits, perhaps rivaling da Vinci in that regard. Kircher was an early user of van Leeuwenhoek's microscope, and probably the first to propose that diseases like the Plague were carried by by microorganisms. He studied geology, including vulcanology, and theorized about the nature of fossils, contending, contrary to the accepted wisdom of the time, that they were simply the remains of organisms that had lived in earlier times. He taught mathematics, experimented with pyrotechnics, and is credited with the invention of several devices, including magnetic clock and, possibly, the megaphone. He was fascinated by ancient Egypt, and taught himself Coptic, and correctly connected it to modern Egyptian. He had similar fascination with the ancient history of China, and published a dissertation on Chinese history and culture, one of forty books he was known to have authored. He was also fascinated by the occult, and
Like many of his day, Kircher also believed in a number of theories, histories, and forces we no longer accept today, like spontaneous generation. Unlike many of his better known contemporaries, he was not adverse to creating theories out of very little, like his belief that there was a connection between ancient China and Egypt, and the existence of ancient Christian communities in China. Nonetheless, he was greatly respected for most of his life, and celebrated across Europe as a great scholar- something that helped save his life more than once. Towards the end of the 17thC his reputation began to fade, as other great minds contributed knowledge far beyond Kircher's understanding to mathematics and physics, and by the 20thC his name was mostly forgotten.
But then, late on the 20thC, Kircher was rediscovered by those who appreciated him not so much as a great scientist and scholar but as a fascinating historical character. The publication of Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge in 1979 introduced his name to many. There have been several books on Kircher since, including Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything and Godwin's 2009 Athanasius Kircher?s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge, probably the best single reference on the life of the man.
The volume under review, John Glassie's "A Man of Misconceptions," aims at presenting a full picture of Kircher the man for the popular reader. There's a lot here on those with whom Kircher communicated with and who lived during his time,along with a fair bit of speculation as to his thoughts and those of his contemporaries. Glassie is aided greatly in his reconstructions by the autobiographical writing of Kircher himself, who was not shy about explaining his reasons for his actions, or blowing his own horn, for that matter. The result is a very entertaining read, as well as a fascinating glimpse into a time when the very nature of knowledge and belief was undergoing one of the greatest upheavals in modern history. Does it add anything of consequence to Godwin's book? Probably not, but if you haven't read any of the previous works on Kircher, this book is an excellent place to start.