Athanasius Kircher, a Man of Misconceptions – Exclusive excerpts

Here are a few brief excerpts from A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, by John Glassie, published by Riverhead Books. Reprinted with permission.

This is the vivid, unconventional story of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century priest-scientist who was either a great genius or a colossal crackpot . . . or a bit of both.

Kircher's interests knew no bounds. From optics to music to magnetism to medicine, he offered up inventions and theories for everything, and they made him famous across Europe. His celebrated museum in Rome featured magic lanterns, speaking statues, the tail of a mermaid, and a brick from the Tower of Babel. Holy Roman Emperors were his patrons, popes were his friends, and in his spare time he collaborated with the Baroque master Bernini.

But Kircher lived during an era of radical transformation, in which the old approach to knowledge — what he called the "art of knowing" — was giving way to the scientific method and modern thought. A Man of Misconceptions traces the rise, success, and eventual fall of this fascinating character as he attempted to come to terms with a changing world.

With humor and insight, John Glassie returns Kircher to his rightful place as one of history's most unforgettable figures.


Sometime in the early 1670s an old Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher began to write a remarkable account of his early life. It told how, by virtue of divine intervention and his own bright mind, he'd come out of nowhere (a small town in the forested region of what is now central Germany) and survived stampeding horses, a painful hernia, and the armies of an insane bishop, among other things, to take his place as one of the intellectual celebrities of the seventeenth century.

As a general rule Kircher never ruined a good story with facts…. but the main story he told was true.



This was the kind of man who pursued his interest in geological matters by lowering himself down into the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius. He spent decades trying to decipher the hieroglyphic texts of ancient Egypt because he believed, along with many others, that they contained mystical wisdom passed down from the time of Adam. He examined all aspects of music and acoustics, and experimented with an algorithmic approach to songwriting. He was among the first to publish a description of what could be seen through a microscope.

Kircher was so prolific and so ingenious that he might have been remembered as a kind of seventeenth-century Leonardo. The problem was that he got so many things wrong…



When Kircher was born … almost every one assumed the Earth was at the center of the universe; at the time of his death almost every educated man willing to be honest with himself understood that it wasn't. (There wasn't much opportunity to become an educated woman, and most of Europe's forty million peasants were not aware of the debate.) At the very least, as the cultural critic Lawrence Weschler once put it, "Europe's mind was blown."



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. His "useless" books were read in the royal courts of London and Paris and in the settlements of New Spain, later called Mexico. They were read, and often funded, by popes and Holy Roman Emperors. And they were read, if not always respected, by the smartest minds of the time.



A secret Jesuit adherent of the Copernican system in the aftermath of the Galileo affair, a debunker of alchemy (at the time Isaac Newton became obsessed with the practice), a collaborator with the artist Gianlorenzo Bernini on two of his most recognizable works, and an influence on Gottfried Leibniz's thinking about the binary system, Kircher, or rather the story of his life, might provide some insight into how we got here after all. One of the biggest characters of all time, he was also surprisingly representative of his own.



The route led through part of the dense and damp Spessart Forest, which [Kircher] described as "altogether horrible and infamous not only for its thieves but also for its host of dangerous wild beasts."

The danger was real enough in this and other wooded tracts of Europe. Robbers were said to kill their victims first and to check their pockets later. One man who traveled through German lands reported that, when caught, the criminals "are racked and tortured to make them confess, and afterwards their executions are very terrible." He saw many "gallows and wheels where thieves were hanged, some fresh and some half rotten, and the carcasses of murderers, broken limb after limb on the wheels." The infamy of the Spessart Forest in particular carries over into the twenty-first century, though today travelers through the region are more likely than anything to stop and enjoy a "Spessart Robber Buffet" along with a little Oktoberfest music.



Within this more urban setting, Kircher went on with his course in philosophy. Now he was the country boy in worn-out shoes, known or whispered to have barely escaped martyrdom at the hands of the Insane Bishop. He was still extremely pious, and still pretending to be a dimwit, but he wouldn't be able to pass himself off that way much longer.



In the seventeenth century, even a simple magnetic trick like this had the potential to impress: here was true natural magic. As opposed to astral influence, devil incantation, godly intervention, and other invisible forces whose existence could only be assumed, magnetism, an invisible and apparently immaterial power, produced very real, reliable effects on the material world. It was believed by many to function, on earth and everywhere, almost as a living spirit.

As a thirteenth-century tract had it, for example, the lodestone "restores husbands to wives and increases elegance and charm in speech." It also cured "dropsy, spleen, fox mange, and burn." Magnetic plasters, made from shavings of iron or lodestone, were commonly applied to the body to draw out ill humors; magnets themselves were swallowed to draw them up from within. A kind of magnetic attraction, or sympathy, was also assumed to be behind the widely accepted healing action of weapon salve, used to treat men wounded on the battlefield. To make it, blood or tissue of the victim was mixed into the salve and then applied — to the weapon that had injured him.



Kircher couldn't really have been too surprised, either to find himself in Rome or to be expected there. He'd indicated in a couple of letters that he planned to see the city and its Egyptian obelisks before going on to Vienna. He also knew, or hoped, that Peiresc's letters to Cardinal Barberini might finally succeed, and that there was still a chance he could be reassigned. And that's exactly what happened during the time he said his boat was bobbing around like a cork on the Tyrrhenian Sea…. But it should go without saying at this point that Kircher wasn't above feigning a little surprise when it suited him, and this story — that he just happened to end up in Rome, only to find out that he'd been reassigned, to Rome — was subsequently repeated so many times that he may have eventually believed it himself.



Vesuvius at that time was merely smoking. But its first major eruption in centuries had occurred fairly recently, in 1631. Kircher hired "an honest country-man, for a true and skillful companion," and the two began hiking their way up to the forty-two-hundred-foot summit at midnight. (Perhaps the reason for leaving at that hour was to be able to see in the dark anything that might be molten. Or maybe the idea was to allow for a full day of exploration once they got there.) The way was "difficult, rough, uneven, and steep."

When they finally reached the top, Kircher looked down into the crater. "I thought I beheld the habitation of Hell," he wrote, "wherein nothing seemed to be much wanting besides the horrid fantasms and apparitions of Devils." He heard "horrible bellowings and roarings" and there was "an unexpressible stink." The smoke and fire and stench "continually belch'd forth out of eleven several places, and made me in like manner belch, and as it were, vomit back again, at it."

When the morning light came, Kircher recalled, "I chose a safe and secure place to set my feet sure upon, which was a huge Rock, of a plain surface, to which there lay open an avenue, by a descent of the mountain very far. . . . And so I went down unto it."



In a section of The Magnet that Kircher said was worth the price of the whole book, he argued that magnetism was at work in the well-known cure for the bite of a certain spider found around the southern Italian town of Taranto. This "tarantula," as it is called, has almost nothing in common with the much larger, hairy, and dangerous North American spider that was later given the same name. In fact, the Italian tarantula is now known to be basically harmless. But in Kircher's time, every summer, people who claimed they were bitten by the tarantula exhibited an array of troubling symptoms: delusions (imagining themselves as expert swordsmen, for example, or as ducks or fish), listlessness, jumpiness, twitchiness, giddiness, lethargy, unusual and excessive thirst for wine. Afflicted women ran around exposing themselves. Men experienced unrelenting erections. They could be cured only by certain kinds of up-tempo songs, "tarantellas," to which they responded involuntarily in the form of a frenetic dance. The playing and dancing went on for hours. The cure could take anywhere from three to eight days. During this time villagers who had been bitten in previous years often experienced a recurrence of the disease from hearing the music, and began dancing as well.

In a way that exemplifies the pre-modern approach to scientific matters, the existence of the disease and the efficacy of the treatment were not really in doubt. The question was not whether the music worked — or whether the bite caused such symptoms in the first place, or whether people might actually want to get "bitten" so that they could indulge in the cure. The only question was how the music worked, and many intellectuals speculated about the answer…

Excerpted from A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, John Glassie