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Paula Findlen on Athanasius Kircher

Paula Findlen's main interests are the scientific revolution, natural history before Darwin, and the history of medicine; her regional emphasis is on Italy in the age of Galileo. She is a scholar of the history of science and medicine and teaches history of science before it was “science” (which is, after all, a nineteenth-century word). […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
We're coming to you in the Stanford campus.
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There's no equivalent in any other language or idiom for the American slang word "cool."
But that doesn't mean "cool" didn't exist long before the word.
Alsabides was cool.
Cleopatra, Casanova, Bodle, Sherlock Holmes, all pretty cool in retrospect.
It's not elegance.
It's not wit.
It's not swagger.
It's not charisma.
It's Jean-Paul Belmondo with his goal was, or Salvador Dali and his moustache.
When a student writes in a course evaluation, this class has changed my life.
That's deeply gratifying, but it's a different kind of endorsement altogether
when a student writes, "Professor Harrison is way cool."
There is nothing cooler than being cool, except maybe being hot.
Stay tuned friends.
Our show today is about a Jesuit whose 400th birthday was celebrated.
A few years ago with an academic conference at NYU convened under the slogan, "Was Athanasius
Cierker the coolest guy ever or what?"
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"Was Cierker the coolest guy ever?
It all depends on your standards of cool.
He may not make my top ten, but he would probably make my top fifty, maybe even my top thirty."
Athanasius, Cierker, dude of wonders.
That's how the Chronicle of Higher Education headlined him a few years ago.
I'll give you some bio on this master of a hundred arts as he was known so that my guest today can address other matters right off the bat.
Like why this man who spent most of his life as a professor at the Jesuit College in Rome, the famous Colejo Romano, has been reborn as a hero of sorts in our own times.
I'm going to draw liberally here from an article by Larry Wolf in the Boston College magazine that article is titled, "No It All,
Caption, the 17th century Jesuit Athanasius Cierker was said to possess universal understanding.
He didn't, but he may have been the last man to come close."
Cierker was born in Geysa, a small German town in 1602.
His father was a lay lecturer in theology and had been a dictian seminary.
And Athanasius was educated as a Jesuit school.
He came to the Society of Jesus as a novice in 1618, the year marking the beginning of the 30 years war that brought violence, death, and destruction to much of Europe.
Traveling across the terrain of war in Catholic and Protestant armies in the bleak robe of a Jesuit novice,
young Cierker was assaulted and nearly lynched by Protestant soldiers.
He was alive to pursue studies in the natural sciences and classical languages eventually leaving the war zone of the German lands for Avignon in France.
And finally settling in Rome, where he became a teacher, scholar, and author of 30 plus books on subjects ranging from astronomy to cryptology to music.
Science or letters, Cierker was particularly keen to fathom the mysteries of his day.
He invented musical instruments and descended into the crater of Mount Vesuvius, an exploration scientifically summed up in his moon-dusupter Anus, the subterranean world in 1665.
He was a professor who long before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone believed that he had found the secrets of interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphs, and who accordingly deciphered the glyphs inscribed on the obelisks that were
"on display in Rome."
In fact, we now know that Cierker could not readily read these hieroglyphs, but he thought he could, and his prestige was so great that his contemporaries gave him the benefit of the doubt,
supposing that if anyone was genius enough to solve the linguistic riddle of the Egyptian Sphinx, it would have to be Cierker.
Cierker was deeply fascinated by languages, he mastered them, spent a great deal of time considering the history of the tower of Babel,
devised a machine for the translation of multiple languages, and sought to create a universal language for all nations.
Such an ideal language would offer the perfect medium for comprehending universal knowledge, and Cierker's linguistic quest reflected his deep conviction of global intellectual unity and consistency.
Cierker also established a museum in Rome to house his own collection of natural wonders, and ingenious inventions and he published his own expert, and mostly convincing explanations of magnetism, optics, Chinese monuments, and musical harmony to cite a sampling from his range.
Unlike many famous Jesuits of his time, Cierker did not travel widely, but spent most of his life at the Cécóledo Máno and his papers remain largely in Rome.
But as, with most cool dudes, he does have a connection to California, where Stanford University is the home of the Athanasius Cierker Correspondence Project, dedicated to putting online Cierker's entire correspondence with 17th-century Jesuits,
an international network of colleagues, intellectual curiosity and willingness to correspond with Cierker and send a materials nourished the professor's air-yudition.
Wolf goes on, "What has made Cierker so alluring an intellectual figure at the beginning of the 21st century, whether in Rome or New York or California? Perhaps it is the fact that knowledge in our time moved centipurably,
with subspecialty succeeding specialty and understanding, receding from us faster than we can hope to chase it down. Today, science at the most serious level is scarcely accessible to a layman, or indeed to anyone outside the particular discipline, and it would be similarly difficult to find a particle physicist who could write a publishable poem or understand econometrics or DNA sequencing, and so."
A man like Kierkeh, whose range of intellectual accomplishment and influencing compasses magnetism, music, engineering, cabbala languages and sunflower clocks, takes on an antique and heroic shine for us, and we turn him into something odd and therefore cool.
At the Naysha's Kierkeh, the last man who knew everything in the title of a 2004 book edited by Stanford's Paula Finlin, and so happens at Paula Finlin, professor of history here at Stanford, joins me in the studios today to talk about at the Naysha's Kierkeh. Welcome to the show, Paula.
Thanks Robert, it's a pleasure to be here. I could not resist the whole perception that he is a cool dude. What do you think is cool factors high?
Has this author seems to suggest?
You know, it's a funny thing. I have to say when I saw the title of this conference at NYU that I participated in, so you may be laughed, the idea that a guy who wrote literally tens of thousands,
or at least put under his name tens of thousands of pages of incredibly baroque Latin would become the coolest guy ever, at least at the title.
Seems like this wonderful paradox. And yet I think it does speak to just the peculiar fascination of many of his specific projects and what they look like when you pile them all up together, right?
The piano that's made out of cats, nailing cats, tails down to make them shriek and create some sort of tonal music out of this.
The sunflower clock that supposedly tells time naturally because it's a heliotrope. The real and imaginary languages that he collected, that he tried to put inside machines, I mean, the list goes on as you know.
So there is a kind of stupefied awe, right, at the list of projects, good, bad, real imaginary that we can associate with the name Athanasi's Kierkerer, and perhaps that's the cool factor.
You know, in the realm of intellectual strangeness, you know, he gets a pretty high register.
So is it just the range and expanse and the kind of endless curiosity of the man, or is it the fact that when you actually sit down and linger with some of his speculations, you find that they're not just quacky, but there are some kind of serious endeavor at work there?
I think it's both, right, I think the sort of first reaction is the reaction to the list. And then if you get to know Kierkerer, if you spend some time with the long books, with the letters, with the range of people he knew, the range of things he talked about, and you begin to start to look at how he approaches each of these projects.
For every project that looks sort of like a one-off, something that he did, not necessarily particularly well, there are these other ones where you see a pathway of a mind, and a very fascinating mind at that, that takes us into a really different world.
I mean, one of the reasons I love studying earlier periods in history is exactly that feeling of intellectual dissonance, right, to sort of inhabit minds that simply are not like ours and to try to understand them.
And he is the kind of person that challenges you to do that, because the connections he's making and the way he realizes them don't always resemble what we think we ought to be doing, right, to pursue some sort of project of knowledge or invention.
I couldn't agree with you more about at least that being one of the more fascinating elements of looking at the history of science on the one hand, or just intellectual history on the other, that if you're a phenomenologist like me who believes that historical eras or ages are also frameworks by which reality appears, or makes an appearance, or reveals itself in certain gazes, and that there's a history to the way in which the world appear.
When I, what little I know of Kierkerer's works from the inside, what fascinates me is what mode did the world appear to this span?
How did he see the cosmic reality and geological realities and so forth?
And I suppose that even if it's only at the level of the otherness of his vision, there's something phenomenologically convincing to me about his sheer commitment to his view of the...
Well, there is, I mean, on some level you can say there is a consistent underlying presupposition, right, that everything is interconnected, you know, and that the task of the researcher is to find the way those connections work to make them visible.
And so this is an unwavering conviction that he has. I personally have never seen any reason to question his sincerity of that. I think that is something that he believed from the beginning to the end of his fairly long life.
And then we watch him pursue this and we watch him find things. He has these moments of revelation as when he thinks that he has really figured out what to do with the hieroglyphs.
Or when he thinks that he has figured out the connection between the hieroglyphs and the languages of the Machica that are also finding their way in the Aztec codices.
Chinese materials that are coming through the Jesuit networks and he is sitting in Rome and he is looking at all this stuff and he is gathering at any thinking.
And then of course he keeps stumbling along the way too. So what I love is this sort of firm underlying conviction in relationship to sort of walking through this very thorny landscape, right, in which there are so many exciting questions.
There are so many people with good ideas, interesting things to say, and he is trying to absorb them all. And of course it is very difficult if not impossible task.
He certainly stumbles on a number of empirical issues, but at the same time as you say there is a drive in him towards a kind of encyclopedic unification of all knowledge.
And not just a collection of everything that can be known in a sort of indifferent sort of conglomerate, but rather a search for the underlying principles of unity for all that exists.
And this is part of, on the one hand, you said he is in Rome. He is sitting there in Rome, but Rome is in a different place in this regard because it is the center of an imperial history.
It is also the seat of the church with its notion of a providential universal history.
And it is a center from which everything almost as an employer can be brought together within a certain notion of unity.
So this commitment to unity I think is crucial. How would you historicize and given that you are historian by profession?
When you look at his age and the subsequent century of the 18th century, where encyclopedism was not by any means a quirk of Kirchars, it was actually an entire age, even starting with René Dicat, who actually wins out over the Kirchar type of universalism,
who is presumably the founder of modern metaphysics, he is the founder of an analytic approach to empirical questions.
But even Dicat had a dream of a universal methodis and of knowledge. Of course the 18th century is famous for giving birth to the encyclopedia.
How much does Kirchar belong to this period of history that really did dream of universals?
Oh, I think he is dead on about this. He is at the dead center of that conversation.
And if you take the famous case of the 18th century encyclopedi, I won't remember off the top of my head how many authors are involved, other than the fact that the Shepé Dijocour wrote so many articles single-handedly that perhaps he is the author of the Kirchar of that project in some way.
But one of the signal differences is that that was a collective project by a set of people who designed this, who parceled out the articles.
And instead, with Kirchar, it is clear that he has over time some assistants who in various ways help him develop these projects, perhaps the right parts of it.
But it is all presented under his name and overwhelmingly, it is his project as he has absorbed everything.
So he still belongs to that category of encyclopedias who think that a single mind has to do all this work.
Now if you compare him to someone like Dicat, right?
Well, Dicat's premise is exactly the opposite of Kirchar's right. Dicat says, "You know what? I've seen the world, my curiosity can take me everywhere."
And I find I learn nothing important. I have to shut that out for a while to really think with myself.
I've had the best education that the Jesuits as a matter of fact can offer.
And I have to shut this out too. The book of my mind is so much more important than any of the books out there that I almost need to leave the library to create this new methodis, right? This new universal knowledge.
Well, no wonder why Dicat, who is certainly new of Kirchar, right? Because they overlap in a kind of critical stage in the 1640s, especially in this short period where Kirchar is in southern France.
And that's a network that briefly connects them and makes each other aware of the other projects.
I mean, no wonder Dicat thinks Prima Fache, the Kirchar's projects are all disastrous, right? This is a man who's never seen a book that he wouldn't pick up, absorb.
We would say nowadays probably plagiarize, certainly read in his own particular way, and bring into the conversation.
For him, there's nothing that you should reject as far as information out there to the extent that one should reject anything.
It's premises that counter the religious premise of the project as you alluded to in talking about Rome.
Or of course, the fundamental intellectual premise of the project, right? Things that specific insights, right, that he's quite sure are wrong.
And those are the only things to be rejected. All information is useful.
Yeah, and you raise an interesting issue by comparing him to Dicat on this score.
But at the same time pointing out that he presumed to have all this knowledge in his own mind as an individual, as opposed to kind of division of labor that you get in the 18th century, Aussie Cupid D.
And the reason that this is ironic, if not even oxymoronic, is that Kirchar from what I understand was believed in a kind of universal mind.
And that his mind was basically trying to probe what are the inner workings of a larger universal mind.
And he had a Descartes on the other hand when he shuts out all those distractions and when he shuts out anything that he cannot verify for himself on his own bases.
And therefore, at least puts in brackets, if not repudiates all learning that comes through education and through second hand sources and so forth.
His ego, this thinking substance, this kojitans is a highly limited and fallible entity that has to be very careful how it proceeds.
Therefore, it needs method and it needs scientific standards verification and so forth because it can always be led astray.
And yet he invests everything in this kojit, though, which is a thinking self.
So it's true that Kirchar has a different concept of mind, and what he was perhaps trying to gather all together within his own mind, I think he asked him, "I'm curious what you think he would have said. Is it really my mind or am I just furthering this speculation of another kind of larger transcendent unified intellect or something?"
I think that's right. To me, that's a very nice starting point for drawing the distinction and we could attach that distinction to an absolutely fundamental text for him, which is of course the kind of text that Descartes is not allowing into a system which is the foundational text of the Jesuit Order Ignatius of Loyola's spiritual exercise. There is a spiritual self that when developed and realized in the proper way,
will grasp the world.
And I think that Kirchar in his own eclectic way, he's not an ordinary or typical Jesuit by any means.
There are many different kinds of Jesuits, but most Jesuits don't become best-selling global authors and run internationally famous museums and all these other things that he was known for in his own life. They don't become celebrities.
That's exactly Jesuit is supposed to be modest and he was critiqued internally in the order periodically for not being modest enough about his accomplishments.
In fact, you claim that he's the first public intellectual but the first celebrity intellectual in history or something along those lines.
It's so a way. I wanted to provoke a conversation about that because I was really struck by.
There was a point where I just got really fascinated with just how far his books traveled and what happened when they got deposited in some pretty remote places.
Because of course lots of people in Italy, in Europe, in England, read his stuff.
Of course, given the fact that he was German with important patrons at the Hofzburg-Kurden Vienna, he had a reach into central and eastern Europe.
But then there's the Jesuit, the global missionary network for telling this.
And I became completely fascinated with, I think, two thresholds.
One is not just Kierke writing about China because he's one of the first people to write a kind of best-selling popular encyclopedia about China, translated into more languages than any of his other books.
But his books also go to China with the Jesuit mission.
But I became especially fascinated by Kierke and the Americas.
And this was completely precipitated by my going to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Now quite a few years ago on thousands of years of Mexican art.
And one of the signal pieces there is this very famous, posthumous 18th century portrait of the National Potom, of Mexico, Saguangienes de la Cruz.
And she's there, depicted as a nun.
She's in this imaginary library where you can read the bindings on every book.
So I was busy reading that and there was Kierke.
And this sort of sent me off on this whole itinerary to understand what the American readers of my Roman author were doing thousands of miles away.
It turned out to be a fascinating aspect of the story of global celebrity through books.
So the international order of these society of Jesus with Jesuits was also part of his epic ambition.
Exactly. That's another thing to say. What makes them different than someone like Descartes or Isaac Newton even.
Well, you know, all of these people have networks of scholars and other contacts.
They write letters, they get information, they get instruments, specimens, observations, all sorts of information and objects go back and forth.
I mean, there's a whole network of exchange that's intellectual, commercial, religious.
But a few networks are as smoothly oiled and universal as the Jesuit missionary network.
There's a whole system of bringing information to Rome.
So to be in Rome, to be a Jesuit in Rome in this second century of the Jesuit order was to be in a very special place.
And to the extent that we can say, what was Kirkker's real talent, I think his real talent was fully understanding the possibilities of what it meant to arrive in that kind of place and knowing what to do with it.
You know, not there were many people in Rome who had no idea what to do with that.
And I loved thinking about this feedback loop in which all these things come to him, but then he sends out these books filled with text and images about everything he's
digested. Yeah, you just sit back, everything will come to you.
Yeah. And I guess I've sometimes I feel like Stanford's the same way.
If you can see, if you do it the right way, you can stay here and have not everything, but a lot just come your way.
It's a, I remember a book of the snail and the mollusk, but there's two strategies for gathering food.
One is, you know, the snail that has to go out and search for it.
The mollusk just sits on the rock and lets everything that the ocean's currents come to it in terms of nutrients and so forth.
But you got to be on the right rock and he was in. Exactly. He was on quite a rock. He was the Herochmollusk. No question.
That's good. So he's, so everyone talks about him as a polymath, which is obviously the case.
But a polymath is someone who knows very many things. We've been trying to say there's more than just many.
It's the unity of the many and so forth. But let's review just a few of the things that particularly interested in him.
And in my case, interest me, his fascination with geology is one of them.
He is well known, was well known for having descended into Vesuvius and the crater of Vesuvius prior to his eruption.
That's one case of the snail. He actually goes in person rather than reading accounts of it.
And he thought that the subterranean world, which is not visible to the human eye or the human experience.
But it's a world of interconnections, of a kind of web of interrelations that seems so perfect for his sort of syncretism. Do you agree?
I think so. I mean, I think you're right. This is one of the few times in his life that he has an experience in travel that actually creates a project.
This is right after he's arrived in Rome. He takes this trip to southern Italy. He's been asked to accompany a dignitary all the way down to Malta and back.
He's overwhelmed by this. And he then spends decades of his life from, I think, first he works in a way draw a picture of what he thought he saw to sort of collect maybe the experience right of the moment.
Then he goes back and he thinks about it and he thinks about how this interconnects with projects like his trying to figure out whether magnetism really is the holy grail of physics.
He's been already researching this for more than a decade at the time. He has this experience of Vesuvius and also Etna that both erupts within some short period of each other that he happens to see both.
He's really now struck by the... After all, he's a northern European arrived in southern Italy and he's seeing southern Italy on fire.
He's now seeing that just a physical structure right of the chilcosm. It's dynamic, it's movement, what does this mean? What lies beneath?
And so I think at that point we need to then think of him as a guy who treats the earth like he treats the hieroglyphs. Right now he starts... There's a mystery underneath this. How can I start peeling this away? What information do I need to put this all together?
And I do think personally that the subterranean world is one of his most important and successful books in the sense that it is a truly unique encyclopedia. It's a very different way of looking at the world that yes, absorbs lots of old things, but also puts lots of new data down about ocean currents, observations about where the concentration is of active volcanoes, which can only come from the kind of age he lives in, right?
Which is the sort of more mature phase of European conquest and colonialism, as well as Jesuit missionaries. People really have good information about what's different about different parts of the earth.
But he's not just trying to write about the surface of nature. He has a few things to say about that, but I was struck years ago about the fact that he wasn't, unlike many naturalists in this period, he wasn't really that interested in cataloging every animal or plant, but it was what lay beneath.
So in this respect, Stephen J. Gould was absolutely right to say that here, Chris, should be included among the early figures who helped to construct the sciences of geology and paleontology.
And we shouldn't just simply dismiss him because some of the things he says in this book turn out to be absolutely wrong, say about fossils.
But they're next to things that are absolutely right about fossils too.
And so he's talking about the giants that used to rule the earth or the pignies that might lie beneath the surface and whether the hmongkey list is absolutely real.
But then he's tracing all these wonderful ocean currents and the magnetic resonance because these are the current questions that are absolutely fresh and new. It's all there in this book with these beautiful illustrations too.
I've always said that one of the most innovative things, which, here, perhaps even were to his publisher then himself, more than any of his publishers, Janssen and Amsterdam, was the quality of the images, the visualization right of the projects was so compelling.
Yeah, I'm glad you said that because when you look at some of these manuscript pages and your serial illustrations, you can say, okay, maybe he might have been wrong on the science of it.
But he is seeing things there that maybe he had a flawed mechanism of explanation for, but there was a direct phenomenological engagement with his phenomenon and the subterranean world as one.
Would you say that fossils is part of that same impulse that he had, geologically oriented.
There were a lot of interest in fossils by various scholars at the time.
I mean, even Leonardo Da Vinci was speculating about how you could find apparently marine fossils on land and so forth.
But the importance of fossils for Kirikur seems to take on a different sort of valence when connected to his interest in the subterranean world than interconnectedness.
Yeah, I mean, he is, I think on the one hand, you know, he sees fossils of this constant unfolding, right, of the replication of things out there in the world.
And this wonderful image that I have, and others have often pointed people to out of this book, which is entitled The Works of Nature, the Painter, where he brings together all the sort of replications that he brings that he puts under the category fossils, which can include
the manderex anthropomorphic landscapes, lots of things we wouldn't consider to be fossils, alphabet's carved in stone, but also things that are fossils, right, and echinoid, fish that has, you know, fossilized, you know, over time.
So he has all of that. But then at the same time, he is also thinking about fossils as a manifestation of the surface manifestation of all this activity over time, right, all this geologic activity.
And at the point that his book appears, there's a kind of thin line of people who have talked about that, but there isn't a real fully formed argument.
Well, Anthony Grafton claims somewhere that he discovered deep time in that geological sense.
It's an interesting question. I mean, I would argue that there's a set of people in the 1660s and 70s who all kind of simultaneously do that, but they do that in conversation with each other's projects.
And characters have been on the early side of that indeed, you know, and people who respond strongly and harshly to him are doing so in the late 1660s and 70s.
So I mean, he is helping to generate a conversation. I mean, this is an instance of a project that really, if we want to think of it this way, this is a nice way also to abstract one of the things I like about him.
Okay, so some aspects of what he says are dead ends, but he opens up the conversation and in the second and third stages of this conversation, we now have a new and fresh and productive and really quite exciting and even coherent, viable for the long-term explanation of what a fossil is or that there are strata in the earth.
Right, I mean, this is the work of his contemporary stano who knew Kierkeh, who converted to Catholicism in the process of this.
And many others as well. It's also what we see in someone like Leibniz who as a young man wrote fan letters to Kierkeh because of so many of their projects intersect and not just fossils, right, China, language.
But then when we look at the end game for Leibniz, we see a very different result, right. Leibniz does make, I think almost an each instance, something new and different out of it. But I've always liked to say that the starting point for him was growing up with Kierkeh.
But didn't he end up having a certain kind of contempt for Kierkeh's science?
Absolutely, right. I mean, that's again this, what I love about looking at the sort of stages of these encyclopedic projects and maybe just generally, you know, the evolution of knowledge is that, you know, to eventually you have to give up what you stand on, right.
I mean, we don't just stand on the shoulders of giants, eventually we kick them into the dust. And that's what that next generation is going to do.
And so, you know, if Kierkeh is, you know, the hero of a certain intellectual world, say in the middle of his career in the 1650s and '60s where he's producing so many books and there are so many people just dazzled by what he's doing.
You know, the small chords of criticism that are there from the start grow. And so, yes, by the time you read the mature Leibniz, he's going to give you the long list of everything that's wrong.
I wanted to remember that list because it's quite entertaining and, you know, again, it kind of creates the image of not the guy who knows everything but the guy who knew nothing.
But that's a gross exaggeration because then you step back and see that the origins of Leibniz project is indeed out of all those books.
So on this issue of deep time that, is it your understanding that Kierkeh not been a Jesuit that he could, he probably would have gotten into a lot more trouble with the church than he did.
And that being a Jesuit almost gave him a cover because he actually suggests covertly that the Egyptian, when he has a list of kings, for example, that they have to go way far back older than what the Bible tells us is the
beginning of things. Does he get away with something just because of his belonging to that order?
You know, it's not even so much belonging to the order as being a special kind of celebrity within the order and beyond within the Catholic world.
But I think when you look at, as we've been able to in recent years, when you look at the kind of editorial process that went on about getting a book published as a Jesuit, we can basically read internal book reviews when they've survived from other Jesuits who act as the censors, the quality control and we, you know, we see what they're anxious about with different books and they're all sorts of things.
And with somebody like here, you can see that there are a number of projects in which if people had really wanted to make an issue of the arguments that he was pushing, they could have created controversies.
But largely they don't. Usually the most touchy issues, saying his work on astronomy, are taken care of internally by the editorial processes.
I think the questions that you raise about chronology, that's when I see in other instances as well. I don't think that people fully realized in the mid 17th century, they were going to do by the end of the century or by the 18th century, what the implications were.
I don't, I think that this is an early enough stage in that conversation, unlike say the debates about Copernicus, you know, where people have really arrived, especially by 1633 with the trial of Galileo, they really have an opinion, they know what Catholic orthodoxy is on astronomy, and there's a very clear line that if you violate that, you know, there are certain ways you can be ambiguous, but if you violate that, no, you know, things will happen or it needs to be corrected.
Some of these other issues, they're still trying to figure out, you know, and debating whether, you know, it really is a heresy or not or a problem, you know, on the way to a heresy.
But yeah, I'm struck by, I think that, I think that Kirk does, you know, he, there was an intellectual openness about the guy that I enjoy even within his strictures, I mean that, that, that, you know, he followed his projects to their logical conclusion as far back in human time or natural time as he,
could have envisioned, and as the evidence provided, in the same way that he also tried to travel through his mind and his books and letters as far out there in the world to all these places he could never go, because in the end he was, what was he, he was a Jesuit who really had wanted to travel to be a missionary who had been denied that because as order decided he was too valuable to send out on missions that his job was instead to be who he was in Rome.
Which I think he ultimately is a Catholic in the best sense of the term. Exactly. Exactly. I have to say that, that I think he was, you know, and people, when you see all these Protestants who interact with him who come to Rome in part to meet him to see his museum and really see what's there, you know, the guy who makes these books, they always, you know, they leave you with the impression that he was very open, you know, if somewhat peculiar person.
So there's so many aspects of his career that we could discuss, but we shouldn't neglect to mention his collaboration with Bernini.
So two of Bernini's famous Roman monuments, there's the obelisk atop the fountain of the four rivers in Piacinovona, and there's another obelisk on the elephant in Santa Maria, I mean, I mean, in Rome.
And I think Anthony Graft and his quoted in one of these things I was reading in preparation for today, saying that, you know, for a long time I thought Kierker was a fool, and then I stood in Piacinovona and I had a revelation.
What do you think brought about that conversion in Graft and when he was there in Piacinovona where Bernini's obelisk, I think it was a suggestion of, was it not a suggestion of Kierker's that he incorporate the obelisk?
You know, I never had sure about that. People sort of debate about, I mean, his role there. I mean, there's no question that he is the obelisk consultant of mid-17th century Rome.
I mean, that's, you know, a phrase a number of us have used to describe him because he's the guy who's going to read the inscriptions, he's going to tell you what it means.
He's going to help you, you know, create the explanation in Latin at the bottom. Did he suggest ideas about the iconography that's, you know, I think that's still open to debate, right, you know, how much of that is Bernini, how much is the patriot, how much is, you know, I wouldn't assign him the primary role, that's for sure, but there is definitely a collaboration.
You know, and to go back to your initial question of what was it about standing in a place like Piazza Navona, the changed Tony Grafton's mind, right, that this wasn't just a guy who, you know, went down the wrong path and almost deliberately misunderstood the hieroglyphs, right, as many Egyptologists have said, but for the Roseetta Stone, right, you know.
Well, you know, what is it you see then, especially there even more than in front of Bernini's elephant, is you see a man who participated in the making of one of the most important monuments in one of the most important spaces in Rome.
And then you start to think about that, that this is somebody, this is not just a mind producing books, right, but this is somebody who also is producing experience and it's a lasting experience and it's an experience we can still have, right, we can't visit his museum, which was also the ultimate experience like the oblisk, I think.
We can't visit his museum, save through the 1678 catalog done at the end of his life, save through the temporary, last temporary reconstruction of this museum for an exhibit that was done around the time we also were doing things here at Stanford.
And in in Balazzo, Vinny and see a you know, so the last there's been no permanent reconstruction of that, but but we still have this, you know, we still we can go into some of the most important spaces.
And so it's a reminder of a moment in time when Rome is a cosmopolitan early modern cosmopolitan city truly emerged and we can imagine here her staking his claim in the making of that not as the primary player right that belongs to the popes to Bernini etc., but as yet another figure right who's contributing to these things.
But actually he's a major architect or source for the mentor Edla monastery for this for this this interesting little shrine so here we go back to this idea that it's often and I made this mistake myself when I first was working on Kierkerer of course I know he was a Jesuit but it's easy to just get absorbed in the intellectual itineraries of the project and you know to sort of follow through the story of fossils or the hieroglyphs and and yes, be aware that it's all very Catholic but not really think about him as a man of faith.
And yet you see you know that that late in life you know he helps to renovate a shrine that was very meaningful to him.
You know that he seems to spend a lot of time on when he could get away from Rome, you know that he also used for some of his acoustical experiments because it's up on a hill.
You know he jokes about sort of tricking you know peasants with some of his you know megaphones and other kinds of acoustic devices, you know that he would use from the top or or or or you know trying to convince them that the sort of flying.
The sort of flying dragon balloon he'd created wasn't real you know so to sort of make them understand what a true miracle was by by you know deceiving them with one of his inventions.
These seem to have done a number of things in this place but also to have restored you know an ancient shrine of Christianity and to have probably seen it as a place where he could truly be in his spiritual exercises right in the way that a Jesuit should fulfilling his vows.
This meant mentally lies that it's a trying for saint you've sent to stack your Natalia.
Exactly yeah I you stay sir you still I never know either a stack you know for me as well you know and and yes it's you know the the Christianity found in nature right you know illuminated through the horns of a stag as I recall.
So the picture and David Wilson did this fun little diagramic reconstruction in the Museum of Jurassic Technology down in Southern California you know it's one of the number of reconstructions that that Wilson has done so which I was very appreciative he chose that.
There's also very Catholic that his heart, Kirkers heart is buried in Mento della and his body elsewhere is like Saint Catherine and so many other people.
There's a bit of you know and you see that this autobiography this very odd autobiography there's just been a critical edition done in France of this which I'm looking forward to you know to reading and seeing you know what people have found but you know he the autobiography that he writes at the end of his life you know does set up all these kinds of.
Quasi miracles right I mean there is this kind of I on some level we could say that that that character was imagining that he might have some of the ingredients to be the making of a scholar saint.
Never fully arrived there but you know it's it's kind of right up there with one of my favorite moments in the writing of his most loyal disciple the German Jesuit Caspar shot or shot talks about characters a dream of becoming Pope.
You know which is something I went on at length about and the introduction to the last minute and everything because I was so tickled by this bizarre image of what he would have been like as Pope.
Yeah, new vision of what Pope could be.
Maybe we lost something there.
You mentioned his work with acoustics there in Mento della he was extremely interested in music and theories of music and cosmic harmony and especially bird song this is another very important commitment that he had.
And I'm sure he probably thought bird songs were somehow related to subterranean phenomenon ocean currents and all that kind of stuff so it becomes extremely.
That's right bird songs echo chambers also right I mean he definitely knows about some of the famous echo chambers the caves right near Naples etc.
Yeah lots and lots of things.
And then his inventions are pretty they make quite a quite a list to go through so the magnetic clock for example which is something that you get a lot of images of in the literature on him.
He had automatons I think you mentioned that at the beginning of the show even kind of primitive megaphones talking about echo chambers and so forth.
He sometimes accredited with chanine and the magic lantern but it turns out that he actually did something similar to the catotrophic lamp whatever that is not quite a magic lantern but what do you make of this dimension of his activity.
Well this is where we see you know he's a man of his time in this other way that I think the starting point for his inventing is.
Probably an early fascination with natural magic because again this is you know going back to his complications as a jazz would he somebody who's very fascinated with the occult with alchemy magic with.
Amulets with all sorts of you know things that you know bring in the power of nature the power of the supernatural beyond nature to you and so I think that he's a tinkerer he's making all sorts of things he I think he probably has been inspired by an early reading of one of the best sellers of the previous century.
Which is the neapolitan majors jump at least a de la porta natural magic. You know which gives you so many I mean so many of his devices sort of start from the writings of people like de la porta or the writings of even far more ancient.
People right you know who write on automata you know the newmatic Greek newmatic machines for instance he's part of it is an antiquarian project to replicate every ancient machine.
You know and surpass them and part of it is that modern project that he of course is a man of the age of the scientific instrument right the you know the telescope the microscope the barometer the thermometer the air pump.
You know all appear in his century in the first half to two thirds of his century and they get better and they generate other instruments and all those two are there and are being used.
So I think he I mean he he imagines that everything interesting needs to be demonstrated through machine you know I think there's that idea.
This is one of the things that got me joking you know that he was a kind of baroque Leonardo basically you know and and except that he published everything and you know and and and I and I said that partly because I saw how fascinated readers were with the pictures and descriptions of machines those are that's a part of Kierkerer's legacy that has a very long after life including these multiple claims.
These multiple claims on the web that he was the inventor of the magic lantern and therefore the inventor of cinematography and you know and you know again there's a really nice articles that have shown it's a much more complicated story but.
You know he's in there at an early phase right whatever you think of it and certainly his image of the magic lantern is the most important most reproduced image.
Yeah right of a projection of an image from this period.
Well soon enough he's going to be the inventor of the internet exactly in minutes of that because the internet would be a figure for what his vision of the totality of knowledge would.
Might represent in some kind of material pragmatic form I guess.
You know I see here a picture this is again from the Larry Wolf thing that I began with about.
There's portraits of all the poly maps and Kierkerer's portrait is right at the center of it.
But it is quite interesting to look at this list because you have your Giordano Bruno Thomas young galileo Emile du Chatele Lewis Carol.
Stephen Jay Gould you mentioned Stephen Jay Gould he's he makes it on this list Thomas Jefferson Voltaire and Kierkerer so.
He had some definite relations to some of these predecessors as you mentioned Leonardo da Vinci he's the one who comes to my mind as the one that is most similar in terms of certain kind of interest scientific machines fossils.
The harnessing the forces the energy forces of wind or you know water and so forth.
Giordano Bruno though there's a pretty interesting article by Ingrid Roland in your collection there by her and the relationship between Giordano Bruno and Kierkerer on their kind of cosmology.
Kierkerer never wrote the book on cosmogony that he was going to do he was getting probably too close to the controversy with Galileo and the heliocentrism and so forth.
But she makes a pretty good case for how Bruno's heretical doctrine that God needs the world every bit as much as the world needs God because God's mind is so infinitely fertile.
It's so productive and needing to create a whole wide diversity of things in order to realize it's innate ideas that that's why we have such an incredibly diverse rich inexhaustible world of phenomena because the over abundant the pan spare me this whole notion of the universal seed that has to come to fruition is what lies at the origin of the cosmos as a whole that Bruno had some doctrines very.
Very similar or sympathetic to you know prior so clearly he had read Giordano Bruno and was careful you know not to align himself with him but there is a sympathy there now.
Yeah I think so in certain parts right I mean again as you say done carefully and in that respect there I mean Kierkerer is not that different than Galileo who also carefully erases Bruno from all of his work and yet anybody who reads the work of Giordano Bruno right the world's most very well.
The word is the world's most famous heritage you know burned in 1600 and Galileo side by side can see you know the pathway and this ecstatic voyage or ecstatic journey you know that you need to make exactly this it in it.
In that adiam that Kierkerer you know produces almost as a kind of dream in many ways I mean it isn't interesting book to compare to the story of Galileo's dialogue because it's clearly written it's it's it's it's a fable of you know astronomy the astronomy of his time it's written in a literary format that's a dialogue imagination it's a dialogue it is a dialogue and it's one of many dialogues I think that carefully imitate the most famous heretical dialogue right.
You know condemn dialogue and and and and you see him and at the same time it's also definitely been inspired by the absolute heretic because he's Lutheran Kepler's you know bit of science fiction writing right his so many of his you know lunar dream.
But but you know Bruno has to be part of that I mean I I often think you know in terms of his cosmology what what Kierkerer was one of he was so he was so typical of this period that he more or less sat down and worked his way through the index of prohibited books and he read all those authors that were personal interest to him you know Paris selces you know the sort of radical you know German you know.
prophet medical you know revolutionary you know Cardano you know the astrologer you know physician de la porta you know the the the the the the magis from Naples and Bruno the you know the heretic again from Southern Italy Campanela also I mean he you know he read in red in red and he and and and and then he saw what he could make of these things and again it is it is one of the great.
paradoxes of this world that all those books could be condemned in what he would do with them or others at the time would not be right that you could you could bake something that would end up not ending up on the index of prohibited books out of all that.
Definitely at that yeah and he also it's a voyage is like Dante's going into the epic because he goes from the earth into the into the spheres and he and he kind of completely deconstructs the Aristotelian premise that there's this fifth you know crystalline element exactly is very like many Jesuits of his generation he's he's.
he's he's by no means you know and adhering of Aristotle I mean you know there is a kind of Aristotelianism in his work but it is so subsumed in all the other things he's brought in.
And when he sits down finally to write his version of a treaties on methodology which his Jesuit editor's thought was one of his worst books and really thought should not have been published this great art of knowing I mean what is he picky picks Raymond lull not Aristotle is his model of what he's going to update not take heart either.
Right but Raymond lull this you know alchemist.
Capitalistic you know late medieval you know Spanish philosopher.
Well I don't know how deep the you know the Kierker enthusiasm or cult goes in in our times but I think it's an excellent sign if there is such a one because.
We have after centuries of.
Science and knowledge being under the.
A second of the regime of analysis.
He got into the kind of point where the synthetic drive has to start coming into play sooner or later otherwise as.
We're going to get to that point where the there's going to be a whole breakdown of the very phenomenon of understanding.
In the name of just a massing knowledge and information and this is what he I I take him to have been driven ultimately by a desire to understand.
The whole picture and.
I think our sciences have become not only so specialized but so as a terror in themselves that the possibility of an understanding in this classical sense synthetic sense.
Is becoming more and more the implausible unless someone starts making a creative probably imaginative effort more even than an intellectual effort.
And I that's why I ultimately seem as a as a great champion of the human imagination and the role that imagination plays in knowledge.
That's right and as you say of the creative synthesis you know I mean again.
Okay so you know that the results are often flawed but if you don't try right without the attempt.
We won't arrive at a good synthesis either you know and and in the process you learn some interesting things along the way you create some new machines you.
Put on a show and Rome you know you do all these different things and of course your books keep rolling off the presses you know for those readers.
Well it's been a fascinating discussion with you Paul I want to remind artists we've been speaking with Professor Paula Finland from the history department here at Stanford where she specializes among other things in the history of science and.
And is the editor of this book we've been referring to a number of times in the past hour about Kierker the last man who knew everything.
And as your introduction Paula adds to that or did he.
Open question but I think you've done a great job convincing us that he knew quite a bit for his own age.
So thanks again for coming on.
And we'll have you on in the future talk more about issues related to the history of science.
It was a pleasure thanks.
I must be careful now in my status.
Years of calculations and the stress.
My science is waiting nearly complete.
One glass will last for nearly a week.
Let me not get down.
I'm walking with no one.
If I stumble from exhaustion.
These buckets are heavy.
Fill them with water.
I can ask these people.
I should have followed.
I'm going to have to go.
I'm going to have to go.
I'm going to have to go.
I'm going to have to go.
I'm going to have to go.
I'm going to have to go.
I'm going to have to go.