The Incredible German. No, I am sorry, this is not an entry about pope Benedict XVI. This posting deals with the German Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher (1601/1602–1680), a famous 17th century scholar, whose intellectual biography was recently published: A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, ‘Germanus Incredibilis’. It is a good opportunity for me to let you in on one of my intellectual interests.
I have had a fascination for Kircher and Kircher studies since secondary school. In the late 1970s, I saw a Dutch television documentary about two gentlemen, Olaf Hein and Helmut Kastel who wanted to edit the Opera Omnia. Hein and Kastel, president and vice-president of the Internationale Athanasius Kircher Forschungsgesellschaft, were shown during a visit to Rome and the Vatican. There they hoped to find financial support.*
Kircher’s interests, thoughts, and ideas seemed so odd to me, that I could not determine whether the documentary was a hoax or a true story. To my amazement, however, the encyclopaedia at my local library said that Athanasius Kircher was not a fictional character but a real historical figure.
In fact, Kircher was an astonishing intellectual and prolific writer, who once was thought to have unravelled the secrets of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Writing wonderfully illustrated books about volcanology, sinology, musicology, microscopic research, medicine, technology, or Egyptology, the German Jesuit combined vast knowledge and great learning with a remarkable lack of judgement. An over-imaginative mind and unsubstantiated assertions went hand in hand with great insights and discoveries. For example, Kircher rightly postulated that the plague was passed on by microscopically small animals.
The foreword to this new publication gives three clear reasons why the Incredible German is so captivating. First, Kircher was a ‘universal oracle’, who had an answer to every question. Second, Kircher’s thinking was halfway the Middle Ages and Early Modernity. He believed in dragons, yet tested his theories in field experiments. Third, Athanasius Kircher was a man of unshakable religious beliefs, which took precedence over all other considerations. This peculiar blend greatly appealed to me.
Indeed, A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, ‘Germanus Incredibilis’ is an incredibly expensive book, but, written by the late John Edward Fletcher, an eminent Kircher specialist, it is worth every penny. It is a testimony to a truly incredible man. (FH)
J.E. Fletcher, A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, ‘Germanus Incredibilis’: With a Selection of His Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of His Autobiography, E. Fletcher (ed.), Leiden (Brill) 2011, xxxiv+622 p. (= Aries Book Series. Texts and Studies in Western Esotericism, vol. 12), € 184.00. Read the Table of Content.
*I found out recently that the project of Hein and Kastel has not yet yielded results. Meanwhile, the Dutch Kircher connoisseur Anton Haakman claims that their project was a scam.