- Jesuit Science and the End of Nature's Secrets by Mark A. Waddell
AMDG, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the Jesuit mantra, begins (p. 4, with the words oddly permuted) and ends this work (p. 191), but God gets scant mention otherwise: its concern is the seventeenth-century treatment of the 'mysterious' events of nature. This book looks at the problems the Jesuits [End Page 265] faced in reconciling the mysterious forces of what we now call nature with the strengthening Aristotelian approach bequeathed by Aquinas.
What is magic? Or what was it? In the seventeenth century magic was a close neighbour of science, witness Isaac Newton's long interest in alchemy as well as in the theory of motion. The differences between science and magic were, to say the least, blurred. Waddell's book explores the intellectual boundaries through the work of three Jesuits: Niccolò Cabeo, Gaspar Schott, and the well-known Athanasius Kircher. Countless books and papers have been written about Kircher, even in the last few years, so Waddell does not go into detailed analysis but looks rather at Kircher's methodology.
The central thesis is that seventeenth-century Jesuits initially had problems about ontology. Rather than analyse the ontology they presented ways of imitating nature, in particular by constructing marvellous and mysterious machines. Waddell's simple writing splendidly recreates the intellectual atmosphere that surrounded the Jesuits of the period.
Magnetism was a great ally in this process of imitation and much discussion of the change in its ontological status is used to provide a specific example, apart from the fact that one of Waddell's protagonists wrote many tomes on the subject (Kircher, Magnes: sive, De arte magnetica, Rome, 1641). The mysteriousness of nature was thereby, pardon the pun, denatured and brought into the realm of what we now call science. However, in the process, the Aristotelian dependence on sense data for information about the world was juxtaposed with the fallibility of those very senses. For example, Kircher would construct, or depict, models that exploited visual effects and thereby increased understanding of the mysteries of nature. In one instance he invited the viewers to peer into his model and see the distance through mirrors, while at the same time deceiving the observers into believing they were seeing infinity (pp. 111–15). The arguments led the reader to a probable view of the world, or part of it, rather than a view that had a ring of certainty (note that this does not mean a probabilistic view). The use of analogy (barely commented on by Waddell) seems also to have been important and prevalent.
The contrasts between the Jesuits' expositions and those of the Royal Society of London are deftly treated: both sought attention and were trying to popularize science by magical spectacles. Even today the Royal Society lectures for the general public employ spectacle as an attractor.
O'Malley and his co-editors' The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences and the Arts, 1540–1773 (Toronto University Press, 1999), was one of the earlier, but still fairly recent, books to tackle Waddell's concerns, but a literature review in the present book would have been useful for the non-specialist reader. It would also have been good to see more evidence of the seventeenth-century readers' responses to these three authors, though the existence of up to three editions of some of their huge works clearly indicates a significant degree of interest. [End Page 266]
As adumbrated above, the language Waddell uses is a breath of fresh air, since it is purged of jargon, unlike that in many books of our era on theoretical history. My only complaint is with the publication's odd use of capital letters on random occasions in names such as del Rio or della Porta.
In this book Waddell has managed to convey the dilemmas facing seventeenth-century religious trying to reconcile emerging science — the legacy of Aristotle — with the mysteries of nature. He is to be commended on the clarity...