The Smartest Guy in the Room Got one thing Wrong

The Last Man for All Seasons

“This is the man。”

written by a fellow professor in Rome about Athanasius Kircher。

Athanasius Kircher is considered by some to be the last Renaissance man in Europe。Like Thomas More of a century earlier he was not only a man of erudite knowledge but he was a man of conscience。As Robert Whittington said of More,

“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

Such could be said of Athanasius Kircher。Kircher was a polymath and considered the embodiment of all learning for his time。 Perhaps the last man of the Renaissance to do so。 He was a contemporary of Newton, Decartes, Boyle, and Gallileo。

Born on May 2, 1602 Kircher was the last of nine children born to a professor of philosophy and theology in Germany. Born on the name day of Athanasius, this boy was tutored by a friend of his father who happened to be a Rabbi, skilled in Syriac and Hebrew. He created in this young savant a life-long love for the language of Jesus.

He joined the Society of Jesus at age 17 and began his studies in Paterborn, Germany. Three years later he was sent to Cologne but was separated from his party on an ice flow crossing the Rhine River. Protestant soldiers captured him, beat and dragged him by horse to be hanged. It was in this incident that he showed remarkable courage. For this reason his life was spared by the commander of the Protestant guard who saw the bravery of this boy. Little did this man know that he was releasing to the world one of the most remarkable genius’ the world would ever know.

Kircher  represented an age in which men and women believed they could aquire all knowledge in one place and one mind。 In the case of Kircher,a German Jesuit,it was the beginning of his lifelong facination with the search for a universal language: the language of God。 Kircher, like others,believed he could discover the original language spoken in the Garden of Eden by reconstructing it from ancient languages。 He also studied Coptic, Egyptian, and Chinese in his search for the original and perfect language of God。

Kircher taught Syriac at the University of Wurzburg at age 27。

Kircher was also an adventurer。 His curiosity led him to be lowered into the heart of Mount Aetna and examine firsthand the boiling lava in order to write his book on geology (Mundus subterraneus (Amsterdam, 1665))。 Kircher was an Aristotelian and believed in the power of direct observation。He was one of the first to observe and record sun spots through a telescope。 As a man of adventure Kircher dreamed of going to China。 Kirchers fellow Jesuits considered China a missionary frontier。 Kircher applied twice to go to China。 His application was rejected twice that we know of。 Instead he was appointed to teaching posts in Vienna and Rome。 It was in Rome that he was shown a copy of the Xian-fu monument by Michael Boym。 It was an 8th century record of Christianity in China and the stone inscription was written in both Chinese and Syriac。Kircher had taught Syriac most of his life。Here in one facinating discovery that emerged from China Kircher could combine two of his loves: Syriac and China。He studied Chinese under Michael Boym who had lived in China for many years。 Together they worked to produce Europes first translation of the remarkable Xian-fu stone。

Boyem brought back to Rome with him a Chinese man who also helped Kircher in publishing in 1666 the China Illustrata。

The China Illustrata did more than any other book to introduce China to Europe。 It also labeled the Xian-fu stone as Nestorian。 This unfortunate connection  was part of an elaborate theory of Kirchers to connect the language of Egypt to China and the Xina-fu monument。Kircher believed that Egyptian heiroglphics was closest to the original languae of God。 Coptic and Syriac were not far behind according to his theory。By identifying the Xian-fu stone as Nestorian, Kircher used this as a bridge between the Middle East and China to connect the languages to his theory。

In spite of the fact that most of Kirchers theories were discredited and disproved he did get the connection between Coptic and heiroglyphics right and is considered the father of the study of heiroglyphics。His love of Syriac reintroduced its study into Europe through is publication of the China Illustrata。Invented the world’s first projector, and includes a light source, and a slide, and an optical system, and the screen .

Kircher did not have a mere passing interest in Syriac. He wrote letters in the language and lived and breathed its words. Among the many people with whom he corresponded he wrote a letter to Gabriel Hesron , a Maronite priest from Mount Lebanon.

Letter signed by Kircher to Herson in Syriac

The “Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Chinese Empire,”  summarized all the information known about China – Kircher was in correspondence with more than 760 scientists.

During the 30-year war against the Protestants he fled to Avignon, and then to Rome where he spent the remainder of his life. He applied to go to China twice but was considered too valuable and was assigned to teach. Nevertheless, Rome was the place to be. Jesuit missionaries from around the world came to Rome which was the headquarters of the Jesuits and Kircher had access to the greatest sources of information in the world at that time.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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