'Master of 100 Arts' inspires Jesuit education today

The 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher was interested in everything and drew on a syncretism of art and religion with science, writes Fr Peter Hosking SJ

Education in a Jesuit school tries to create a sense of wonder and mystery in learning about God’s creation. There are always new things to be discovered. A few months ago, four new elements were added to the periodic table. Scientists working in Japan, Russia and the US have named elements with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118. Sometimes education requires intellectual curiosity, imagination and elegant ways of thinking.

Jesuit education affirms the radical goodness of the world ‘charged with the grandeur of God’, and it regards every element of creation as worthy of study and contemplation, capable of endless exploration. Neptune was a planet discovered by mathematical rather than observational means independently by astronomer Urbain Le Verrier from France and mathematician John Adams from Britain between 1843 and 1846. People had noted that movements in the orbit of Uranus could not be explained other than by the presence of another yet unknown planet. Le Verrier and Adams worked with teams to calculate where this planet could be and then scanned the skies to observe it did in fact exist.

Things we take for granted had to be designed at some point by smart and creative people. For example, the mathematical symbol plus (+) was introduced by Nicole Oresme in 1360. Oresme was a French genius who worked in astrology and mathematics especially in understanding coordinates and the power of fractions. The minus sign (-) was used by Johannes Widman in 1489. The symbol for multiply (×) was used by William Oughtred in 1618. Oughtred was an English mathematician and minister. He developed the slide rule and refined the principles of trigonometry. The symbol divide (÷) by Johann Rahn in 1650. Rahn was a Swiss mathematician who collaborated with the Englishman John Pell. The symbol for infinity (?) by John Wallis in 1655. There are many pioneers of algebra, geometry and calculus all of whom had to think with innovation and ingenuity.

The intellectual formation of our students includes a growing ability to reason reflectively, logically, and critically. Good teachers promote a framework of inquiry in which a value system is acquired through a process of wrestling with competing points of view. John Harrison (1693-1776) was an English carpenter and clockmaker who invented the marine chronometer, to solve the problem of calculating longitude while at sea. His solution revolutionised navigation and greatly increased the safety of long-distance sea travel. Earlier methods attempted to compare local time with the known time at a reference place, such as Greenwich or Paris. The methods relied on astronomical observations that were reliant on the predictable nature of the motions of different heavenly bodies. Harrison dared to imagine a mechanical solution and found an elegant discovery that integrated astronomy, navigation and clock making. He designed a reliable clock that could keep the time of the reference place. Dava Sobel wrote a best-selling book on Harrison’s work: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Harrison has relatives at St Aloysius’ today. And we hope his spirit of elegance and endeavour inspires us all.

The Kircher Library in the Senior School is named after Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680). He was known as the Master of One Hundred Arts and has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps of consolation to some, it is reassuring to know that he saw himself as an accident-prone dimwit as a young man. He taught in the Universities at Würtzberg and Avignon before being posted to the Jesuit University in Rome where he spent most of his life devoted to scholarly research. He was an extraordinary person. He encouraged the appropriation of the sciences into the curriculum and lectured in mathematics, ethics, physics, and oriental languages. He led discussions on malaria, the plague, magnetism and gravity. His understanding of the evolutionary process enabled him to suggest the germ theory of disease and attributed the plague to tiny animals that he had observed under a microscope. He published books on Egyptology, geology, and music theory. He knew 20 languages. He studied hieroglyphics and his work enabled scientists to know what to look for when interpreting the Rosetta stone. He wrote about sundials, the Egyptian language and calendars, and he mapped the legendary lost city of Atlantis.

Kircher collected an impressive array of antiquities and scientific equipment, and founded one of the first public museums. He wanted to be a missionary in China, but the importance of his teaching meant he was unable to realise this dream. However, that did not prevent him writing a massive treatise on China that included mythology, cartography and Chinese characters. He wrote on symbolic logic, and devised mathematical tables. His interest in mechanical devices meant he played a part in inventing calculators, and led him to devise the lantern slide, the forerunner of projectors, as well as engineering megaphones. Kircher was interested in everything and drew on a syncretism of art and religion with science. Towards the end of his life, his reputation declined as the rationalist era emerged. Rene Descartes (himself a Jesuit alumnus) described Kircher as ‘more quacksalver than savant’. However, in this postmodern era, many are being drawn again to his eclecticism, transcendence of academic boundaries, taste for trivia and technomania.

Fr Peter Hosking SJ is Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, NSW. This article first appeared in the college newsletter The Gonzagan.