Daniel Stolzenberg, Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity, University of Chicago Press, 2013.  Review by Clive Prince

The extraordinary seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher is one of the most fascinating and intriguing figures in history. The vast scope of his interests and learning has earned him the sobriquets of ‘the last Renaissance man’ and ‘the last man who knew everything’ – even, according to the title of a conference organised in 2002 by the New York Institute of the Humanities to marked the four-hundredth year of his birth, ‘the Coolest Guy Ever’.

Adding to the cool is a layer of mystery and paradox that makes Kircher a genuine enigma. A priest of the Society of Jesus, the order dedicated to the defence of Catholic doctrine and authority that was spearheading the Counter-Reformation, Kircher nevertheless managed to publish, in Rome itself, works in which he extolled the virtues of pagan magical philosophies and occult systems such as Hermeticism and the Kabbalah – even making positive references to the magical system of John Dee, not just an occultist but a Protestant occultist. What’s not to love? Many have wondered just how he got away with it.

Cool though Kircher undoubtedly is, historians are ambivalent when it comes to his reputation. He lived on the cusp of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and judgement depends largely on whether he is seen as belonging to the former or the latter. On the one hand he performed groundbreaking studies in subjects as far apart as linguistics and medicine. On the other, he is often regarded as something of an anachronism, an individual who clung to the outmoded ‘occult philosophy’ – a synthesis of magical and mystical systems with Hermeticism, Neoplatonism and the Kabbalah at its core which had flourished (and largely driven) the Renaissance - even after it had given way to the new age of scientific rationalism heralded by Descartes. Central to the occult philosophy, and Kircher’s thinking, was the belief in an original source of spiritual wisdom, the priscia theologia, which had been possessed by the ancients, another idea that was to be replaced in the Age of Reason by a more evolutionary model of human progress.  

Consequently, Kircher is seen by many as an archaic figure, viewed in much the same way as one of the exhibits in the collection of curios that he built up from items sent to him by Jesuit missionaries across the continents: fascinating to examine but perhaps not to be taken too seriously. Conversely, the same aspects of his life, work and character make him something of a hero in the esoteric world, as well as to ‘alternative’ historians like myself.

In Egyptian Oedipus, Daniel Stolzenberg, a historian at the University of California, aims to redeem Kircher’s reputation, by showing that the conventional image is based on a misunderstanding of the intellectual environment in which he worked and his place within it. In doing so, he has to correct several misconceptions in the prevailing academic view of seventeenth-century scholarship, which considerably widens the relevance of his study.

Stolzenberg focuses on the aspect of Kircher’s work that did his reputation the most damage for later generations: his claim to have finally deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. He hadn’t, of course. His translations of hieroglyphic inscriptions were a case of wishful – or misapplied - thinking on a heroic scale. Even before Champollion finally cracked the code just short of 200 years later, few were convinced.

The study concentrates on the two key works in which Kircher set out his deciphering method. First was 1650’s Obeliscus Pamphilias, in which he applied his method to inscriptions on an obelisk that Pope Innocent X (of the Pamphili family) commissioned Kircher to re-erect in Rome’s Piazza Navona (and which features prominently in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons). This was followed in 1652-54 by the mammoth three-volume Oedipus Aegypticus – which Stolzenberg describes as a ‘marriage of antiquarianism and esotericism’ – in which he laid out his method in painstaking detail. Kircher cast himself in the role of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, hence the title of his own work and Stolzenberg’s book.

Beginning with context-setting chapters on Kircher’s career, Stolzenberg shows how he used ‘indiscriminate, perhaps unscrupulous, methods’ to climb the scholarly ladder, brownnosing influential figures to get himself to Rome and manoeuvring to win commissions that enabled him to build a reputation and gain important patrons, which numbered two successive popes and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Stolzenberg goes on to paint a vivid picture of Rome’s ‘distinctive scholarly ecosystem’, the only place in Europe where Kircher could pursue the studies in Oriental languages that were his passion. It had the libraries and specialist linguists (needed for the Jesuits’ missionary campaigns) that including Jewish and Muslim converts - Kircher employed two rabbis as research assistants - as well as a large stock of Egyptian obelisks and artefacts left from the days of the Roman Empire.

Stolzenberg then traces the development of Kircher’s ideas about hieroglyphs, shows how they were applied in Obeliscus and Oedipus, and finally examines scholarly reactions to his claims, both at the time and in later centuries.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Egyptian Oedipus is Stolzenberg’s reconstruction of the mindset of the time, an appreciation of which is needed to understand ideas that, from a modern perspective, seem not only incongruous but positively bizarre. The most conspicuous is the widespread belief – held even within the upper echelons of the Church and shared by some popes – that ancient pagan traditions such as Hermeticism were not necessarily incompatible with Christian doctrine, and could even shed light on it, in much the same way that the Old Testament books were accepted in the Christian canon while the Jews themselves were reviled.

At the core of this belief was the notion, ubiquitous in European culture (not just in Christianity’s notion of the Fall, but also found in, for example, Greek philosophy) that humanity began with a more perfect understanding of nature and the cosmos but gradually lost or corrupted that knowledge. That ancient wisdom survived, albeit in a fragmented form, in the form of the now-unreadable hieroglyph inscriptions and in texts such as the Chaldean Oracles. For Kircher, the most important vehicle for this transmission was the Hermetic Corpus, believed to be the work of the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus. Kircher was convinced that the Hermetic books preserved the religion, philosophy and science of the high point of the Egyptian civilisation. As Stolzenberg writes, Kircher used ‘the story of Hermes Trismegistus and the spread of Egyptian knowledge as the basis of a universal history that situated all known civilisations in a single, coherent, chronological narrative’, which ‘united Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, and Catholic popes in a single tradition.’

And, since according to legend Hermes had invented hieroglyphs, they too preserved the Egyptian sacred science. Kircher reasoned that the Hermetic books therefore provided the key to deciphering them. In short, ‘Kircher could translate the hieroglyphs because he already knew what they said.’ Consequently, there is a lot about the occult philosophy in his two works on the subject, on the logic that the reader had to be familiar with it in order to follow his argument.

Kircher’s belief that the literary sources he used derived from the same time, place and theology as the inscriptions he was attempting to translate meant his work was built on a false foundation; we now know the inscriptions Kircher believed were effectively quotes from the Hermetica are in reality inscriptions honouring pharaohs or gods. However, the contrast between his flawed reasoning about hieroglyphs and the brilliance and intellectual rigour he displayed in his works on a myriad other subjects, gave rise to the notion that his hieroglyphic studies were not the simple result of bad scholarship but of Kircher having an ulterior motive that either blinded him to the flaws or made him not care about them.

The received view in academia is that Kircher’s real motive was not scholarly but ideological: he wanted to provide support for the Catholic Church’s claim to universal authority, which included ‘a desire to master the pagan past’, as well as to ‘provide ideological sustenance to Jesuit missionary endeavours.’

Stolzenberg challenges this view head-on, arguing that it suffers from serious weaknesses, the most major being that it simultaneously exaggerates the importance with which the occult philosophy was regarded within Catholicism and underestimates its significance in wider European culture. Stolzenberg argues that, by the standards of the time, ‘the fusion of occult philosophy and empirical historical research found in Kircher’s hieroglyphic studies was not anomalous.’ Neither was the reconstruction of ‘sacred history’ on which Kircher based his theories; its basic framework ‘went virtually unchallenged before the second half of the seventeenth century and retained favor with the majority of scholars long afterward.’

Stolzenberg also points out that, if propagandising had been Kircher’s intention, it’s surprising that he didn’t spell it out; indeed, he notes that ‘More unusual than Kircher’s beliefs about Egyptian wisdom was the secondary role that Christian apologetics played in his study of the hieroglyphs.’ And in any case the Jesuits had no particular missionary interest in Egypt, concentrating rather on China at that time.

Stolzenberg argues that the received view has got Kircher’s means and ends the wrong way round: Kircher didn’t want to decipher hieroglyphs in order to bolster the occult philosophy, but used the occult philosophy to decipher hieroglyphs. In other words, Kircher was doing exactly what he said he was doing.

One of the reasons that Kircher has been regarded as such a failure (and his works motivated by propagandising rather than objective scholarship) is that he lived at a time in which the Hermetic texts, which were so central to his case, had – supposedly - been exposed as a fraud. In 1614 the Protestant philologist Isaac Casaubon had published a critique in which he demonstrated that they were the product of the Greek-dominated Egypt of the early Christian centuries, not of the pyramid age.

However, as Stolzenberg shows, this criticism of Kircher is based on several misconceptions. One is that he simply ignored Casaubon, even though he must have been aware of his work. Stolzenberg demonstrates that Kircher did deal with his critique, and supplied counter-arguments; he just never mentioned Casaubon by name.

More importantly, Casaubon’s attack was far from the comprehensive, overnight demolition of the Hermetica it is now believed to have been. Stolzenberg concludes that ‘Despite the rapid diffusion of Casaubon’s critique, its impact was more limited than is often imagined’ and that ‘the prevailing chronology of the fate of occult philosophy, which was based on an overestimation of the effect of Casaubon’s dating of the Hermetic Corpus, must be revised’.

Moreover, there were weaknesses in Casaubon’s case that were recognised by Kircher and others. Kircher argued that even if the texts had been written in the Egypt of the Hellenistic period, it didn’t automatically follow that they couldn’t represent the genuine teachings of Hermes Trismegistus; it simply meant that those teachings had been committed to writing at that time. As Stolzenberg acknowledges, Kircher had a valid point. Indeed, as he points out, recent research has revealed evidence of the influence of native Egyptian religious thought on the Hermetica. Kircher’s may therefore have been right – or more accurately not entirely wrong - in his essential view of the Hermetica; it was his assumption that the inscriptions on the obelisks related to it that was his big mistake.

Interestingly, although Stolzenberg successfully overturns the prevailing academic image, the Kircher that emerges from his study is one that fits the image of him held in alternative and esoteric circles rather more neatly: a genuine, not a pretend, devotee of the occult philosophy that, if anything, he held more sacred than his Catholicism. This has given rise to a more conspiratorial version of the ‘hidden agenda’ theory: that Kircher used his hieroglyphic works as a vehicle to promote the occult philosophy for its own sake - perhaps even to undermine the Church from within.

As Stolzenberg is working squarely within the academic camp he doesn’t feel the need to address this, apart from a brief, two-sentence mention of fellow academic Ingrid Rowland’s argument that Kircher was a ‘clandestine disciple’ of the heretic occult philosopher Giordano Bruno, which he counters with the simple statement that ‘there is no reason to interpret Kircher’s avowed antiquarian agenda as a ruse to propagate heterodox ideas’. However, he does acknowledge that inconsistencies in Kircher’s references to the occult philosophy – ‘wavering between positive and negative opinions of certain beliefs or practices’ - mean that ‘what Kircher really thought is beyond our grasp’.

Moreover, Stolzenberg agrees that Kircher included brief condemnations of certain beliefs and practices merely as a matter of form or as simple bottom-covering, writing that there are ‘good reasons to be sceptical of the negative value judgements Kircher attached to various heterodox teachings, including many traditions associated with occult philosophy.’ He also shows that Kircher went ‘beyond the bounds of legitimate opinion as defined by the Society of Jesus’.

Stolzenberg’s analysis of the report of the panel of Church censors, drawn from Kircher’s own order, the Jesuits, to which he had to submit his manuscripts before his books could be printed, also gives food for thought. The reports, which remarkably still survive, show that although the panel passed his discussions of the relevant pagan and magical systems and principles, seeing their relevance to his argument, they instructed him to cut sections in which he explained how to practice them, as this might encourage blasphemous and heretical activities. Astoundingly, these passages appear unchanged in the published books; Kircher seems to have simply ignored the censors’ demands. As Stolzenberg observes, this can only be because he went over their heads; after all, he did have the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor as patrons. The intriguing question is why he was so adamant that these passages be published; as the censors noted, they weren’t necessary for his argument.

Egyptian Oedipus is a fine piece of scholarly research, written in an academic but accessible style, which is also of value to those with an interest in the history of European esotericism, not just because of its treatment of Kircher but also through the light it sheds on the place of the occult philosophy in his day. But the man still emerges as enigmatic, paradoxical – and cool – as ever.

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