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I Don’t Think Kircher Knew C++

January 27, 2012

In our century, the name Athanasius Kircher has become synonymous with the Renaissance and the concept of the “Renaissance Man.” Several years ago, a book came out with the title Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. If that doesn’t pique your curiosity in this seventeenth century scholar then I don’t know what will. Still, the title suggests something interesting: the Rationalist movement of the early eighteenth century ushered in so much new knowledge and so many new ways of thinking about the world and our relationship to it that the idea of “knowing everything” suddenly seemed impossible. Today, the idea that a person could know everything worth knowing is laughable. Wikipedia leaves us quiet and humble in the face of the staggering volume of knowledge that has accumulated over the last fifty years.

The Last Renaissance Man

Kircher studied everything: Egyptian hieroglyphics (before the Rosetta Stone, so you can only imagine how that went), magnetism, linguistics, diseases, Sinology, comparative religion, music theory, and on and on. All the man did was think. His contemplations resulted in some 40 published books. But Kircher wasn’t some obscure pedant. In fact, Kircher was the first scientist able to support himself off of the sale of his books! According to his Wikipedia bio, he “corresponded with over 760 scientists, physicians and above all his fellow Jesuits in all parts of the globe.” That’s staggering! Even in the age of near-instant communication, that’s a truly mind-blowing figure. He was a prolific writer, thinker, and inventor. When something interested him, he studied it.

So what can Kircher teach us about the modern world? A lot, as it turns out.

A typical Kircher drawing: The Art of Light and Shadow

Kircher’s insatiable appetite for information ought to serve as an inspiration in an era that emphasizes specialization (either in academia or in industry). If you are interested in a topic, then learn it. Who cares that you’re an IT specialist? Go ahead and learn all about the Ottoman Empire. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that breadth of knowledge and variety of interest is perhaps more valuable than a true specialist. Workers with the capability to think abstractly (and if you’re in any doubt about Kircher’s abstract thought, just look at his drawing, above) provide far more value in the New Economy than a specialist. Why? Anyone can specialize. If you offer no value to your employer aside from the fact that you can program, don’t be surprised when your job gets shipped to a college graduate in India who is willing to do the work at a fraction of the cost.

You can’t know everything. You probably never could (although Kircher gave it the old college try). But why not take a page from the Last Man Who Knew Everything and give it a try yourself. Maybe you’re like me and want to learn some basic programming. Do it. Take that community college class. Read that scholarly tome that’s been sitting on your shelf for the last decade. Take a day off work and go to a museum. We have been trained to believe that there’s no value in the Humanities. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the words of the great David Foster Wallace: “That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

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