Surely you remember Hermes Trismegistus? No, he’s not a Levantine con man played by Peter Lorre. He’s much older than that. Older by far than his swanky Graeco-Latin name. According to Augustine, he lived
long before the sages and philosophers of Greece, but after Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, yea, and Moses also: for at the time when Moses was born, was Atlas, Prometheus’s brother, a great astronomer, living, and he was grandfather by the mother’s side to the elder Mercury, who begat the father of this Trismegistus.
Plus, of course, he was Egyptian, this Hermes, this “thrice magisterial” figure (priest, philosopher, king). He was also an invention. We don’t know whose, but by Augustine’s day there were (evidently) manuscript references ready to be copied out by the diligent. Hermes seems to be of the same vintage as the Kabbalah, a tasty morsel in the stew of eclectic philosophy stirred by Jewish mystics.
It’s from this Hermes that we get the word “hermetic,” with its two meanings. First, it refers to a body of writings, blending alchemy, astrology, and speculations on the nature of God, that dates from the early centuries of the Common Era. Second, it means a way of talking that is intelligible only to initiates. That’s why we’re talking about Hermes today. I’m tickled to death by the attraction that high-grade mumbo jumbo exercised upon the Renaissance scholars who tried to parse the ancient obelisks that had been unearthed in the course of re-birthing Rome. The attempt to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics was foredoomed by the widely-held conviction that the obelisks were inscribed with ancient wisdom.
Many believed that Hermes Trismegistus himself had devised the hieroglyphs as a way of preserving and protecting the old wisdom, encoding it in a symbolic language that was universal but also indecipherable to everyone but the truly wise.
So writes John Glassie in his delectable book, A Man of Misconceptions, which I ought to have read when it came out (in 2012) but did not, because, well, why would you read a book about someone who misunderstood just about everything?
Athanasius Kircher — Glassie’s subject — appears, along with his famous Wunderkammer, in what is perhaps the key chapter of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s strange little book, Ways of Curating.
Though the aim of amassing evidence may sound like a rather scientific way to think about collecting [ — bear in mind that Obrist is a top dog in today's art world, which is why he wants to excuse his appearing to be "scientific" — ], it is necessary to remember that the hard distinction between science and art which marks more recent centuries was not evident as late as the sixteenth century. The separation of art and the humanities on the one hand, and science on the other, is a fundamental feature of modern life, but it also constitutes a loss.
Looking back in time can be an invaluable tool for this: pre-modern scholars had a more holistic and comprehensive picture of human life than we do today. The hard division between the rational and the irrational that marks modernity has rendered unclear how science and art might relate to one other [sic] — how each is, perhaps secretly, part of the other. The history of the Wunderkammer — in which artefacts, paintings, specimens, sculptures and geological samples were collected in one place — is also the history of the period in which explanations, facts and the scientific method were first being elaborated. To study the Renaissance is to gain a model for reconnecting art and science, sundered by history. (39-40)
It’s when Obrist writes like this that I regard him as a licensed charlatan. I am not going to dwell on the almost idiotic assertion that history separated science from art; I am going to do no more that to suggest that the “loss” caused by that separation could be made good by humanists’ getting better at math. It’s hard to imagine what good might come of taking seriously the proposition that art and science are “perhaps secretly” the same thing. Obrist himself is not in the business of taking ideas seriously. On the contrary, he looks for ways to enact them — to dramatize them, really, or to turn them into physical exercises, thus draining them of intellectual content and stuffing them in allegory. Obrist is an ideal apologist for a crank like Athanasius Kircher.
Born in 1602, Kircher studied and contributed to the understanding of geology, optics, astronomy, perpetual motion machines, Chinese culture and history, clock design, medicine, mathematics, the civilization of ancient Egypt, and an amazing array of the other subjects. (40-1)
There’s no disputing this — although the mention of perpetual motion machines ought to put you on your guard — but what is the value of all those contributions?
That’s why I’m reading Glassie. Glassie quotes a historian, John Ferguson, who said of Kircher in 1906 that “his works in number, bulk, and uselessness are not surpassed in the whole field of learning.”
Few things are as frightening as the wrong-headed authority. And nothing is more useful to such an authority than a symbolic language that is universal but unintelligible to all but the truly wise. There’s really no arguing with an authority who wields such weapons. Critical minds eventually wise up and simply ignore the wrong-headed authority, but during his sway he can ruin a lot of research projects.
Plato was, of course, the very worst of wrong-headed authorities. Insisting that the five (known) planets, together with the sun and the moon, orbited about the earth in uniform circular motion — each traveling, that is, in a perfect circle, at a constant speed — he wrong-footed astronomy for nearly two thousand years. Plato also privileged explanation over observation. What a cushy life I’d have had, gifted as I am at spinning armchair theories. Having devised my own multi-step program to overcome this addiction (I’ve trained myself to listen for the peculiar pitch that my voice takes on when I embark upon speculations), I had to laugh, last night, when Kathleen asked me, “Who was the first to use the scientific method.” I kept laughing, as a cover, until I was ready to commit to an answer. (Lavoisier — and not because he discovered oxygen.)
Glassie reminds us that pre-modern science was Platonic in its disregard for mathematics: numbers didn’t explain anything. Aristotle, who was sensible rather than elegant, and in other ways as well the opposite of Plato, was a virtuoso of explanations, many of them based a kind of observation that we would call literary rather than scientific. Aside from ignoring the important advice to keep it short, Aristotle was basically a journalist. The object of his reports on the world was not to understand how the world actually works but to make the world understandable to his readers. This approach to reality stopped satisfying the keenest minds in the Fifteenth Century, and by the end of the Seventeenth Century mere explanation was no longer regarded as scientific at all. tou
But the switch from words to numbers did not happen overnight, and Glassie’s book shows that the transformation was so chaotic that to speak of a “scientific revolution” is itself wrong-headed. The term tells us nothing about the complexity of intellectual ferment during what was, after all, the Age of Baroque.
For the moment, I’m savoring the utterly Baroque idea that wisdom ought best be proclaimed, in universal but unintelligible symbols, by the stone faces of obelisks.
And I’m also pondering Obrist’s notion that presenting Athanasius Kircher as an artist gives meaning to his nonsense.
Bon weekend à tous!