- Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity by Daniel Stolzenberg
At the close of his book Daniel Stolzenberg writes, "If this book sells, I thank the strange times we live in" (262). Strange, indeed. Why should anyone today take time to read about Kircher, once exalted as the summit of Jesuit learning and ridiculed thereafter as a vain and well financed charlatan? Stolzenberg is little interested in redeeming Kircher's scholarly status. He calls Kircher "monomaniacal," "bold and reckless," a man of "spectacular shortcomings" who "was quite capable of deliberately misrepresenting his research" (255, 257, 6, 88). But he concludes that Kircher's undeniably exhaustive labors were positive antiquarian accomplishments and that his career is worth study because of what it shows about the emerging scholarly communities that would eventually cast Kircher aside. Egyptian Oedipus won't elevate Kircher's reputation a micron. On the contrary, it exposes still more clearly his shams and deceits. But it carefully explains how Kircher built his career and reputation in the first place, how much it depended on a supportive scholarly network, and why, for a while, Kircher could persuade the seventeenth-century Republic of Letters that he was one of its brightest lights.
The Most Reverend Father Athanasius Kircher (1601/02-1680), professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, won the patronage of popes and the Holy Roman Emperor. He repaid their trust with astounding productivity. In his day Kircher was "one of Europe's most successful scholars," a "quintessential polymath" (35, 4), publishing books on music, magnetism, optics, volcanoes, mechanics, medicine, Coptic, China, the Kabbalah, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and much else, creating the impression of the man who knew everything, or nearly. He hardly depended on mere words. Many of his books were beautifully printed folios, superbly illustrated with foldout copperplate engravings that depicted the Tower of Babel and the decks of Noah's ark or exposed the innards of amazing machines. Regardless of accuracy, these engravings could enthrall a potentate impatient with Latin prose. Stolzenberg enhances his book by following Kircher's lead, including 42 illustrations to show how alluring they are.
Stolzenberg focuses on Kircher's most conspicuous claim to fame: that he could read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Kircher could do no such thing. Erik Iverson called him "the whipping boy of Egyptology," a man who boasted about what he failed to do, a prototype for Pangloss and other pompous know-it-alls. Yet Stolzenberg finds Kircher's quasi-Egyptology worth study for other reasons. Kircher's works exemplify the "conjuncture of empiricism and esotericism in seventeenth-century scholarship" (29). Further, "the character of his life and work as well as the abundance of surviving documentation has proven an ideal subject" for new historiographic approaches to "material culture, sociability, institutions, and scholarly practices" (31). Once proclaimed a master of sciences, Kircher survives as a specimen. [End Page 1215]
Stolzenberg writes, "Above all, this book is a study of knowledge in the making. It treats Kircher's scholarship not as a static system of ideas, but as a process, to a large extent collaborative, that unfolded over time" (32). Kircher might have seemed a singular hero, however temporary, but after Stolzenberg it will be impossible to assert he was a self-made one. He was aided throughout his career by his patrons, influential scholars, and the worldwide network of Jesuits who wrote to him about distant places. Along the way Stolzenberg confirms the views of Arnaldo Momigliano on several points: on the large role Nicolas-Claude de Peiresc played in encouraging Oriental studies in France and Italy; on the importance of antiquarians in stimulating the Italian Renaissance; and on the distrust of erudition in the making of modern science. Stolzenberg looks closely at Kircher's study of Coptic, Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (1636), the first book that brought him international fame; his Obeliscus Pamphilius (1650); and his longest and most ambitious tome, the Oedipus Aegyptiacus (published in four volumes between 1652 and 1654), which presumed to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. Despite their grandeur and ostentation, Kircher...