Athanasius Kircher in Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245

Athanasius Kircher in Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245

(Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245, published July 1, features entries on Athanasius Kircher and the Gotthold Ephraim Lessing plays Emilia Galotti and Nathan the Wise. This is the opening passage of the Kircher entry)

Athanasius Kircher

1601/02-1680

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Salvatore Imbroll) German scientist, linguist, mathematician, theologian, essayist, and philosopher.

 

A prominent late-Renaissance Neoplatonist and polymath, Athanasius Kircher is often characterized as the last person who could entertain the possibility of mastering all known subjects. He was an inventor, geographer, geologist, Egyptologist, musicologist, naturalist, linguist, curator, astronomer, horologist, physicist, explorer, mathematician, and historian. In more than thirty books, many of them lavishly illustrated, multivolume works, he detailed his enthusiasms, speculations, and experiments, often drawing on a wide array of sources. His works circulated in many countries since they were composed in Latin, the scholarly lingua franca of his era. In Kircher’s lifetime, visitors frequented his personal “museum,” where his collections and inventions were kept on display.

This illustration by Kircher depicts his idea of the Earth's internal fires. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

This illustration by Kircher depicts his idea of the Earth’s internal fires. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite his great renown Kircher’s reputation faded rapidly after his death. This was due in part to his place in the rapidly changing world of science, history, and linguistics, as well as his exclusive use of Latin. Although Latin made his work universally available to scholars of his time, European vernaculars had begun to appeal to a growing readership, including a rising nobility. Many of these readers were incapable of following basic Latin, much less the complex style of Kircher. More important, his worldview was that of a late-medieval scholar, an outlook that was under increasing attack from empirical science. At a time when science was becoming more secular and philosophy more skeptical, Kircher was still engaged in an attempt to reconcile biblical teachings with natural phenomena through a vision of the cosmos as harmoniously and divinely ordered. Finally, his books typically combined actual observations and insights with large amounts of unsubstantiated information and sometimes fantastic speculation. Taken together, these qualities tied Kircher’s work to a form of scholarship that had lost much of its relevance by the end of his life. However, several currents of modern scholarship have converged to bring about new interest in his work, and Kircher is now generally viewed by specialists as an uncommonly interesting figure whose career coincided with the transition from a richly imaginative Renaissance world to Enlightenment rationalism.

 

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(Read the full 124-page Kircher entry in Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245. The academic advisor for this entry is James Hardin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina)

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