Charming nonsense

So, I have mentioned on my other blog that on my last trip to the metropolis I picked up a cheap copy of Joscelyn Godwin’s Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge: A Late Renaissance Philosopher and Scientist (Art and Imagination).

And very nice it is, too. Athanasius Kircher, for those who don’t know of him, was a 17th-century Jesuit who studied everything, from music to historical linguistics to engineering to ancient history to the culture of China. He’s been called “the last polymath,” and while I don’t know about that, the breadth and erudition of his studies is breathtaking. But there’s one aspect of Kircher’s work that sets him apart from contemporaries like Kepler and, I dunno, Newton or whoever:

It’s all bollocks.*

Boulter_N_052815

Like, for instance, Kircher tried to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, but he didn’t really know anything about them and he had a lot of goofball ideas about mysticism, so instead of actually translating them like Jean-Francois Champollion would eventually go on to, he just … made a bunch of stuff up. It’s fascinating from a history-of-science type of perspective, but Egyptologically it’s just a fantasy.

(*I’m sure it’s not all bollocks; dude wrote a billion thing, and I’m sure one or two of ’em are true.)

Or he tried to map the rivers of the world, claiming that each continent has a particular underground source from which all its rivers flow. A fascinating idea, and super interesting in terms of thinking about medieval and post-medieval cosmology. But it’s not actually true.

So far so much the usual in the history of science. Kircher spent a long time on the same highways to nowhere as a lot of other Renaissance and medieval thinkers, he just did it harder, he did it faster and he definitely did it with more love, baby. And there are some amazing engravings; it is really the amazing engravings I bought it for.

But what really makes this book fascinating to me is Joscelyn Godwin, who clearly writes with a lot of love for Kircher. And who wouldn’t? He was clearly an exceptional scholar, thinker and writer. But Godwin is so attached to him that he just can’t accept that, you know, it’s all nonsense.

Or so I thought as I started the book and read passages like this:

Yet there are those who regard the last three centuries of ‘practical results’ as an utter aberration, and modern man as guilty of far worse errors than Kircher ever made. To the mockers of geocentricity they reply that symbolic truth is ultimately of more value than physical information. Are we wiser or better for knowing our earth not as the centre of the universe but as a speck of cosmic dust?

That’s what we call a “category error”.

But as I got into it I began to notice all these remarks about the inward Sun and the “revelations of the Theosophists” and that “the Deluge itself is no fable, but an account of the fate of the mid-Atlantic continent whose remains are even now coming to light.”

And that was when I remembered where I’d heard that name before. They got a bona fide Atlantis believer and Theosophy dude to write this book. At Thames and Hudson! OK, in 1979, but still. It’s like finding a coelacanth. I don’t mean that in a bad way; I’m just surprised.

Hi kids!
Hi kids!

But what bugs me about Godwin’s analysis, and maybe all esoteric readings of history, is that the mystery and power of the trappings is so much greater than the information it supposedly conveys. Godwin tells us, for instance, that:

Kircher concluded that [Egyptian hieroglyphs] enshrined ‘not histories or eulogies of kings, but the highest mysteries of Divinity’ … and spurned any lowlier interpretation. … His interpretation of the hieroglyphs was therefore strictly inductive: he took what he had learnt from later philosophy and read it into them.

“Lowlier” is a funny way of saying “actually correct.” And then this character has the unmitigated gall to say that this mystical interpretation is actually better than the real one.

Are you shitting me?!

Listen, not-present-35-years-ago-guy: I don’t need deep ancient wisdom to tell me a bunch of shit I already know, and, and I’m just spitballing here, but maybe listening to what other cultures actually had to say for themselves instead of erasing it and replacing it with your empty-headed hippiefication of some other culture’s philosophy could be good for the soul? Because I don’t know if I’m better or wiser than guys from the Thirty Years’ fucking War**, but I suspect that openness to actual new knowledge instead of self-comforting psychoblather dressed up in fake Horus hats might be good for the thinkybrain.

It would be a little more acceptable if the answer were something better than wah wah inner light, wah wah world soul, wah wah spiritual enlightenment. If you’re going to give me an ancient secret, I want an alien death ray, minimum. Or at least a terrifying new vista of reality. “Inner Sun” my ass.

To summarise, I like this book and it has a lot of very pretty pictures, and the text is by someone who likes Kircher and is very informed and informative about his work, but he pushed one of my buttons and work has been buying me sodas all afternoon so I’ve had a little more caffeine than is probably good for me. Sorry, Joscelyn Godwin; I’m sure you’re actually a good dude.

(** PS I don’t know if I am wiser than Thirty Years’ War guys, but I have stabbed a lot fewer people.)

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Charming nonsense

3 thoughts on “Charming nonsense

  1. Godwin’s fairly prolific, and everything he writes is of interest if you like occulty or weird stuff. There’s _Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival_, which is every bit as awesome as it sounds. Plus books on Theosophy, Atlantis, and mystery cults. He’s apparently an actual scholar of music history and has done some important translations, so he’s more an academic with some odd ideas rather than a full-time crank.

    1. Yeah, I remembered I knew him by reputation and that his books came highly recommended — although I haven’t read any of them yet. And I agree — this is a good book, and he’s right to say that we have to understand Kircher within the context of the thought of his time. It’s just that he doesn’t complete the circle; he says it’s wrong to judge a Renaissance thinker by modern standards, but the next step — that it might be a mistake to judge modern thought by Renaissance standards — seems to elude him. But yes, as you say, a scholar who is also a believer rather than a kook with a platform.

      EDIT: In fact, “scholar who is also a believer” is probably the second-best type of writer on the esoteric, just below “scholar who is excited about the belief but does not share it.” Give me a good knowledge of the material and some eccentricities over most other approaches any day.

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