Sheila J. Rabin1
Last modified: February 2017
Introduction: The Jesuits in the Historiography of Early Modern Science
The Society of Jesus was first recognized as an order of the Catholic Church in 1540, three years before the publication of De revolutionibus by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). As they were a very well-educated group involved with many of the intellectual trends of their day, one would expect that the Jesuits would have also been involved with new trends in science of the day, and such an assumption is correct. However, it took a long time for the mainstream historiography of early modern science to begin to recognize the Jesuit contributions.
The period in the history of science that concentrates on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has traditionally been called “the Scientific Revolution.”2 This narrative, which held sway for about two hundred years, maintained that it began with the proposal of a heliocentric universe by Copernicus, concentrating on those developments in astronomy and physics that confirmed his hypothesis, and ended with Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and his associates. This was a story of great men of science who, rightly according to its adherents, rejected the Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy that was impeding human understanding of the natural world. As Herbert Butterfield, whose Origins of Modern Science is one of the most popular, readable versions of this narrative, wrote, it “overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world – since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics – it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity.”3 Individuals and institutions that were seen as impeding the progress of science, especially through their adherence to Aristotelian principles, were dismissed as villains in this story. The Catholic Church was a blatantly evil institution because it not only opposed Copernican astronomy but persecuted Galileo for promoting it. Though there were Protestants who criticized Copernicus, most notably Martin Luther,4 “in the long run it was Protestantism which for semi-technical reasons had an elasticity that enabled it to make alliance with the scientific and rationalist movements.”5 The Jesuits rejected the Copernican system and continued to foster Aristotelian philosophy; they stood by the Catholic Church in the Galileo affair; consequently, in this narrative, they were counted among the evil Catholics.
During the last several decades in particular, this narrative of revolution has been questioned.6 It had begun when historians of medieval science insisted that the term “medieval science” was no oxymoron and proved it was worthy of study: there were many important innovations in medieval science and technology and much continuity between the Middle Ages and later periods.7 As most of the intellectuals of the Middle Ages were Catholic clergy or educated by them, this also showed that the Catholic Church was not inherently against progress in science. On the other hand, scholars who focused on early modern science began to notice not just the continuities with medieval science but also the often vast differences between their subject and modern science.8 They have pointed out how the use of the terms “science” and “scientist” was anachronistic, for early modern scholars studied natural philosophy in the universities, and there was no professional class of scientists. In this period subjects that are anathema to today’s scientific community—magic, astrology, alchemy—were studied and accepted as valid scientific pursuits. They included other subjects, like cartography and chronology, in their study of nature. Historians have begun to realize that the focus on Aristotelian philosophy could still be useful, and contributions to the study of science, even in astronomy and physics, could be made without adopting Copernican astronomy. They have begun to understand that progress in unraveling the secrets of the natural world resulted not just from the work of a few giants but also from lesser individuals and from groups. And they have begun to notice that Catholic intellectuals and members of religious orders were importantly engaged in this study: “There was one order, however, that stands out from all others as the scientific order without rival in seventeenth-century Catholicism, and that of course is the Society of Jesus.”9
Science and Mathematics among the Jesuits in Europe
One of the first scholars to call attention to the Jesuit role in the advancement of early modern science was J.L. Heilbron who, writing about electricity, declared, “Knowledge about electricity was kept alive during the seventeenth century by Jesuit polymaths. They also enriched the subject with valuable observations.”10 Heilbron noted that mathematics was a major part of the Jesuit curriculum because it was necessary for the study of astronomy, geography, chronology, military technology, navigation, and surveying, subjects that were important for the sons of aristocrats they were educating who often sought a career in government or the military.11 The Jesuit educators had to be well-trained in these mathematical sciences, and in order to teach them well they had to practice them. Heilbron gives prominence to the Jesuits as both teachers and practitioners in the fields of astronomy and physics in his book, The Sun in the Church. The need to determine the date of the spring equinox to fix the date of Easter had always been a boon to mathematics and observational astronomy in the Middle Ages. The method that Heilbron studied consisted of a hole in the wall of various churches that allowed the sun to shine onto a meridian line on the floor of the church; observers marked the path the sun made. One of the leading observers was Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), after whom NASA’s spacecraft mission to Saturn was named. Cassini was not a Jesuit, but he studied with them, and Heilbron made the case that he pursued his career in astronomy because of them.12 Cassini’s observations using such meridian lines led to the first empirical confirmation of Kepler’s astronomical discoveries, and two Jesuit associates, Giambattista Riccioli (1598–1671) and Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663), verified his observations.13 Another historian of science and mathematics questioned the contention that Aristotelian philosophy was necessarily an impediment to scientific progress. According to Peter Dear, work by Jesuit scholars on astronomy and optics helped foster the idea of experiment in the seventeenth in part because of their Aristotelian roots: “The Aristotelian model of a science adopted by the Jesuits took scientific knowledge to be fundamentally public: scientific demonstration invoked necessary connections between terms formulated in principles that commanded universal assent.”14 Dear studied the work of the Jesuit scholars Giuseppe Biancani (1566–1624) and Christoph Scheiner (1573–1650) and noted that they “employed techniques designed to incorporate recondite, constructed experiences into properly accredited knowledge about the natural world,”15 thereby turning experience into experiment. Both Heilbron and Dear show Jesuits working within a non-Copernican context in astronomy and an Aristotelian tradition in philosophy and yet participating in early modern advances in science in important ways.
Several books have presented an overview of Jesuits and science. Mordechai Feingold edited such a volume, and in his introduction he described the Jesuits as “savants” who “were quite open and adventurous in their discussions despite the suspicions that such exchanges, especially with ‘heretics’ could elicit.”16 He pointed out that Jesuit educators discussed much contemporary work that was at odds with their official position, such as Copernican astronomy, adding that “not a few Jesuits incorporated” the very controversial subject of atomism “into their lectures.”17 Feingold’s collection had essays on a wide-ranging number of topics: several on better known Jesuit scholars (Ugo Baldini on Christoph Clavius, Alfredo Dinis on Giambattista Riccioli, Paula Findlen on Athanasius Kircher); several on scientific controversies (Edward Grant on cosmology, William A. Wallace on Jesuits and Galileo, Roger Ariew on Jesuits and Descartes); one on patronage (Martha Baldwin on Jesuit book production); two on Jesuits in less-studied parts of Europe (Victor Navarro on Spain, G.H.W. Vanpaemel on the Low Countries). Agustín Udías wrote a survey of Jesuit contributions to science both before and after the suppression.18 His chapters on pre-suppression work start with the establishment of mathematics in the Jesuit curriculum and end with the open acceptance of the Copernican system in the middle of the eighteenth century with attention to both Jesuits in Europe and the wider world. While his overview of the science by modern Jesuits breaks more new ground,19 in his book he paid more attention to early Jesuit work with meteorology and seismology than has generally been the case, and this formed a bridge between pre-suppression and post-suppression Jesuit science. Udías’s description of Jesuit astronomy complements his earlier work detailing Jesuit observatories around the world,20 and both volumes attest to the breadth of the Jesuit involvement in science.
A number of scholars have concentrated on more limited geographical areas within Europe. Marcus Hellyer focused on the German territories, where, like Dear, he found that Jesuit natural philosophy was transformed “from a largely scholastic body of knowledge and discourse into an experimental, mathematized science.”21 One of his examples was the Jesuit Kaspar Schott (1608–66), who wrote about the air pump. The inventor of this instrument was Otto von Guericke (1602–86), who claimed that it could create a vacuum. But according to Aristotelian physics, a vacuum was impossible. Schott used the pump to experiment with atmospheric air and ignored the issue of the vacuum.22 This is another instance of Jesuits contributing to the advancement of science within their Aristotelian context. Bernard Barthet and Antonella Romano turned to the Jesuits in France. Barthet noted that French Jesuits often used the occult, particularly alchemy, magic, and Kabbalah, to help explain certain phenomena, such as magnetism, motion, matter, and optics, which they studied in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of course, this was in the context of the early modern period when the scientific community considered such occult subjects as providing a valid explanation within science. For Barthet, the use of the occult had another advantage to French Jesuit priests because it gave their scientific pursuits a pastoral side, enabling them “to seek a pedagogy capable of making the human soul sensitive in order to place it on the path of harmony and, consequently, revelation.”23 Romano looked at Jesuit institutions of education and how they implemented the mathematics curriculum from the Collegio Romano in various localities in France.24 She included useful appendices about the Jesuits in France before the suppression, including lists of teachers of mathematics, their places of employment, and other biographical details.
That Udías devoted a chapter of his book and Romano devoted two to Christoph Clavius (1538–1612)25 attests to the fact that no understanding of early modern Jesuit science is possible without knowledge of his place in its history, for he was professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano and laid its foundation. As James Lattis, whose intellectual biography of Clavius is still the standard, noted, he was “a venerable and authoritative educator, who taught and wrote among the Roman Jesuits for nearly half a century” and “an internationally known astronomer and mathematician whose textbooks became standard.”26 Clavius published numerous modern editions of Euclid’s Elements, but this was not the only reason why seventeenth-century Jesuits called him their modern Euclid: it was “also because of the tutelage they had received from his many other textbooks on geometry, arithmetic, and, in particular, astronomy.”27 Clavius wrote several editions of commentaries on the Sphere of Sacrobosco, an important textbook on astronomy from the thirteenth century. Clavius never wavered in his support of Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology; nevertheless, he did not ignore challenges that arose among sixteenth-century astronomers. Lattis looked at the different editions of commentaries on the Sphere and how Clavius handled such developments: he may have rejected the heliocentric universe in Copernicus’s On the Revolutions (1543), but adopted its superior means of describing the precession of the equinoxes; he contended with the findings of the great astronomical observer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), including the sighting of the supernova of 1572, which suggested that Aristotelian belief in the incorruptibility of the heavens was wrong, and his describing the orbit of the comet of 1577 as both sublunar and supralunar, which suggested that Aristotle’s separation of those two spheres was also fallacious. Lattis presented Clavius as an up-to-date scholar who engaged with the most pressing cosmological issues of his day.28
The fact that Clavius rejected the heliocentric cosmos of Copernicus should not be considered a flaw. Very few astronomers, Protestant or Catholic, in the sixteenth century accepted it. The work of Copernicus was incompatible with accepted physics, and there was no observational data to confirm a heliocentric system. The presumed geocentricity of the Bible was only an added reason for considering the Ptolemaic system most probable. But Clavius’s openness to the new is attested by his adoption of Copernicus’s precession calculations for his most lasting contribution to astronomy—the reform of the calendar. Against those scholars, like Butterfield, who thought that Protestantism in the sixteenth century was more amenable to the new astronomy than Catholicism, it should be noted that the Gregorian calendar, which we still use, was not adopted in Protestant England because of religious reasons until the mid-eighteenth century, just about the same time that Jesuits began to teach Copernican astronomy as fact, not hypothesis.
In general, while scholars have acknowledged that Clavius played a defining role as the promoter of Jesuit science, the literature does not really reflect this. Lattis is the only scholar at this point to have devoted a monograph to him, and it concentrates on Clavius’s astronomical contributions; less attention is paid to his mathematics and little to his role as educator. Romano attended to both these, especially his teaching. Papers by Saverio Corradino, Eberhard Knobloch, Giulio A. Lucchetta, and Antonio C. Garibaldi from a 1993 Chieto conference on Clavius and his Jesuit associates looked more closely at his mathematics.29 Ugo Baldini’s chapter in the Feingold volume has appendices that list Clavius’s course materials, his students, and his writings.30 He also noted that more work needed to be done on Clavius’s Algebra and on unpublished material available to Clavius and his collaborators,31 but no one has as of yet followed up on these suggestions.
In 1610, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) published The Starry Messenger in which he presented his astronomical observations with the telescope and claimed that they reinforced Copernicanism. Clavius and his students soon afterwards looked through the telescope. Clavius was unmoved by what he saw, but there had already been hints of Copernican sympathies among some of his students. Then in 1616 came the Catholic Church’s first condemnation of Copernican cosmology; those Jesuit sympathizers abandoned their flirtation with heliocentrism, and Jesuit astronomers would not accept or teach the Copernican system as fact for more than a century.32 But this did not mean a return to Ptolemaic astronomy, not even as modified by Clavius. Galileo’s sightings of sunspots, the phases of Venus, the irregularity of the moon’s surface, and the moons of Jupiter were incompatible with Ptolemaic astronomy, but they could fit the cosmological system developed by Tycho Brahe, who also could not abandon the earth’s centrality. The Tychonic system had five planets revolving around the sun while the sun and the moon revolved around the earth, and it became the preferred cosmology of seventeenth-century Jesuits.
The traditional historiography alleged that the Galileo affair proved that the Catholic Church, and the Jesuits along with them, were anti-science, but the case was far more complex. William A. Wallace spent much of his career working on the Galileo affair, and several of his works show that “in his long career Galileo had contacts with a number of Jesuits; moreover, some of these contacts, particularly those before 1612, proved remarkably fruitful for the development of the ‘new sciences’ in which Galileo was interested. The connections that developed were intellectual, not personal, and their overall influence on Galileo’s science was positive, not negative.”33 Wallace discovered notes in Galileo’s handwriting that suggested that he learned from the Jesuits how to construct a scientific argument and that his debates with them forced him to organize his thoughts more effectively. On the other side, Galileo influenced Jesuit thinkers, such as Giuseppe Biancani (1566–1624), who, despite his arguments against heliocentrism, still embraced Galileo’s ideas about floating bodies in one of his treatises, though it was censored.34 Importantly, as Francesco Paolo de Ceglia pointed out, “what united the Jesuit mathematician and the ‘father of modern science’ was their confidence in a quantitative study of nature.”35 Biancani, like Clavius and other Jesuits, had contacts with the scientific society, the Accademia dei Lincei, of which Galileo and the Jesuit Johann Schreck (Terrentius, 1576–1630) were members.36
The first trial of Galileo in 1616, in which the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) played a major role, resulted in the condemnation of heliocentrism and proscribed Galileo from holding or supporting that doctrine. Then in 1633 a second trial, occasioned by the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), forced him to abjure Copernican cosmology. The church may have erred in establishing geocentrism as doctrine and in pursuing Galileo, but here, too, recent historiography has shown that this was not a simple case of an evil, science-hating church persecuting an innocent man for simply pursuing truth.37
From the religious angle Pietro Redondi tried to turn the issue of the relationship between Galileo and the Jesuits away from Copernicanism when he suggested that Galileo really was guilty of heresy because he promoted atomism in his book The Assayer (1623) so that the lesser charge of his support of heliocentrism saved his life. The Assayer particularly attacked the Jesuit Orazio Grassi (1583–1654). Redondi attributed an anonymous document that accused Galileo of the atomist heresy to Grassi, whom Redondi accused of bearing a grudge against Galileo.38 However, Grassi did not write that document.39 While Redondi still represented the affair as a straight conflict between science and the Catholic Church, Rivka Feldhay chose to explore it as a conflict within the church, between Dominicans and Jesuits. The church condemned the Copernican thesis in 1616 only insofar as it claimed to be a description of the true motions of the planets, but it allowed the thesis to be studied as a hypothesis. Feldhay noted that Jesuits took advantage of this to study Copernicus’s work, but the Dominicans still shunned it. Feldhay maintained that this difference in approach exposed the Jesuits to suspicions of heresy by the Dominicans.40 While Feldhay showed the flexibility of the Jesuit approach to science that often allowed them to immerse themselves in its study and encouraged their contributions, critics have pointed out that Feldhay assumed a monolithic Society of Jesus that did not exist.41 As Irving A. Kelter reminded us, Jesuit theologians and biblical exegetes in this period had no use for Copernican cosmology.42 Feingold, on the other hand, stressed the negative impact that Galileo personally had on Jesuit scientists: “It was Galileo’s deliberate disparagement of the entire professorate of the Roman College that incensed many Jesuits, and in all likelihood strengthened the resolve of conservative philosophers and theologians to oppose the forays of some of their confreres into the new science.”43
From a more purely scientific standpoint, Galileo did not succeed in proving the Copernican thesis. Galileo and Christoph Scheiner wrote a series of vitriolic letters on their observations and interpretations of sunspots.44 Galileo maintained that they reinforced his support of the Copernican thesis. Galileo abandoned his observations of sunspots in 1613, two years after he announced them, but Scheiner, who had also announced his observations that year, continued daily observations for seventeen years; his Rosa ursina sive Sol, the most detailed work about sunspots at the time, was written between 1627 and 1630. Scheiner explained the existence of sunspots within the Tychonic system, “a rational alternative, which could not be disproved for two centuries,” according to astronomers Oddbjørn Engvold and Jack Zirker.45 Christopher M. Graney studied the New Almagest by Riccioli and showed that as late as 1651, when that work was published, almost two decades after the Galileo trial, the Tychonic system made yet more sense than the Copernican system. Riccioli’s work gave arguments on both sides regarding both systems, and he resurrected and updated two arguments first enunciated by Tycho that supported his system over the Copernican: a ball dropped from a tower on a moving earth would not fall straight down and the difference in star size as the earth moved closer could not be observed; in 1651 the Copernicans still no answer to these charges.46
Athanasius Kircher (1602–80), like Clavius, occupied the chair of mathematics in the Collegio Romano. But unlike Clavius, Kircher was a very colorful figure, so much so that he was the subject of a recent popular biography.47 In addition, there were museum exhibitions in Rome and in Stanford devoted to Kircher48 and art books depicting the fine illustrations from his many works.49 Kircher was a prolific writer and wrote on numerous subjects of interest to his contemporaries, not just science and mathematics; he was the hub of a vast network of Jesuit correspondents and, consequently, a filter of information; his museum at the Collegio Romano had a huge collection of antiquities and curiosities, but it was also a laboratory for studying and experimenting with the natural world; and he contended with such scientific issues as magnetism, electricity, volcanoes, fossils, cosmology, and disease.
Paula Findlen was a pioneer in incorporating the study of museums within the framework of the history of science; Kircher was one of the heroes of her book, Possessing Nature.50 She later edited a volume about him, Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, which treated many different aspects of this polymath: his biography; a sampling of his work (Egyptology, Kabbalah, chronology, cosmology, paleontology, magnetism); the dissemination of his work; relations beyond Europe; and the historical context in which he worked.51 It is a good introduction to Kircher. Another valuable introduction is provided by the posthumously published book by the well-known Kircher scholar John Edward Fletcher. It consists principally of an edited and updated version of the author’s 1966 master’s thesis, an early date for recognizing the value in Kircher’s multifaceted work. Some of the author’s views of Kircher would have been questioned by more recent historiography, but Fletcher appreciated Kircher’s “active inquiry” in science and his being a “mine of information” for contemporaries, but he maintained that Kircher included “golden ears of wheat among the chaff.”52
Several books have focused on single facets of Kircher’s work. Harald Siebert explored cosmological issues in Kircher’s Ecstatic Journey (1656) and suggested that this work should be considered an early work of science fiction comparable to Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634).53 Unlike Kepler’s work, however, which described the Copernican system as seen from the moon, Kircher presented space travel within the Tychonic system. His use of the Tychonic system allowed Kircher “to argue for the possibility of the physical phenomenon of magnetism of the Copernicans” while he denied “the argument for the motion of the earth.”54 In its time, Ecstatic Journey was a significant work in cosmology. Moving into the “softer” sciences, Daniel Stolzenberg examined Kircher’s Egyptian Oedipus (1655). This study purported to solve hieroglyphics; Kircher’s grasp of the subject was poor, but, according to Stolzenberg, such “textual criticism was relatively less important than the preliminary tasks of discovering and disseminating new materials.”55 Though wrong in his assumptions, Kircher fostered the discipline of archaeology through this work. Indeed, this was typical of the meaning of much of Kircher’s work for his contemporaries: they discussed whatever he wrote and they tried to duplicate his experiments. If he was wrong, as he often was, he helped others achieve the correct answers. As Findlen noted, “Scholars read and responded to his encyclopedias because they represented an intriguing stage in the evolution of many different scholarly disciplines, often all in the same thick volume.”56 Kircher may not have always been forward-looking from a modern perspective, but he influenced the work of those who were; thus, he was necessary to the advance of science.
Other Work on Jesuits in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe
Some works have appeared on other noted Jesuit scholars. Franz Daxecker wrote on a small volume on Christoph Scheiner that included details about his life, correspondence, and scientific contributions, particularly in optics.57 Michael John Gorman discussed the work in mathematics of Christoph Grienberger (1561–1636), Clavius’s successor in the Collegio Romano, and Grienberger’s involvement in the Galileo affair and included editions of documents the author attributed to Grienberger.58 Alfred Dinis showed that Giambattista Riccioli made significant contributions in arithmetic, geometry, optics, gnomonics, geography, and chronology, in addition to his work in astronomy.59 Domenico Bertoloni Meli discussed how Riccioli’s experiments with pendulums and falling bodies expanded our knowledge of mechanics.60 And papers from the 1998 conference in Rome celebrating the quadricentennial of Riccioli’s birth examined, among other issues, his contributions to astronomy and mechanics.61 J.L. Heilbron introduced the work by Niccolò Cabeo (1586–1650) on magnetism.62
Eighteenth-Century Jesuit Science
In the last decade of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, the contributions of Jesuits toward the advancement of science slowed as Aristotelian natural philosophy proved an increasingly greater impediment to participation in the scientific community. Juan Casanovas and Agustín Udías suggested that the big change resulted with the general congregation of 1730, which supported the acquisition of natural knowledge gained from mathematical principles and experiment, made Jesuit education once again conducive to scientific study.63 Just a few years before Roger Boscovich (1711–87) had come to study at the Collegio Romano, and he would prove to be both a great scientist and impetus for a revival of scientific study that Steven Harris claimed was the “richest and most productive era” in early modern Jesuit science, outdoing the seventeenth century.64 Boscovich’s contributions to science have had some recognition even in the modern scientific community; for example, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg expressed appreciation of his attempt to come up with a unified force theory.65 But recent literature on him is relatively scant. The most complete biography appeared in the publication of a conference proceedings occasioned by the two-hundredth anniversary of the appearance of his most important scientific work Theory of Natural Philosophy (1758).66 The tome edited by Piers Bursill-Hall, also a conference proceedings, concentrated on his scientific contributions and has chapters on his ideas and experiments on mechanics, optics, matter theory, mathematics, probability, and earth sciences. He criticized Newton’s idea of absolute time and space, though it was based on matter theory so that he was not a precursor to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.67 On the other hand, his experiments with light and his correct observation that the terrestrial aberration was caused by the effect of the motion of the light source and the observer followed by more than a century of reaction to and expansion on his ideas led more directly to Einsteinian relativity.68 His method for correcting discordant observations was utilized in the highly influential celestial mechanics of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827).69 Boscovich also may have persuaded Pope Benedict XIV to lift the prohibition against books that defended the motion of the earth.70 But what about the explosion in Jesuit science occasioned by Boscovich? The leader has received virtually all the attention, though Harris provided tantalizing statistics about the books and articles written and provided a list of Jesuit commentaries on Boscovich’s Theory of Natural Philosophy.71
Jesuit Missions in Asia and the Americas
Less than a decade after the establishment of the Society of Jesus in 1540, Jesuit missionaries were already traveling to Asia and the Americas.72 These missionaries brought with them their education, and they corresponded with their confrères in Europe. They also brought along scientific instruments, including telescopes, and among their activities as they traveled, they made new measurements of both the earth and the sky, adding important corrections to maps of both.
The influence of the Jesuit mission to China was so important for the development of Chinese mathematics and astronomy that Joseph Needham, in his groundbreaking work, Science and Civilization in China, devoted a section to seventeenth-century Jesuit contributions.73 Needham broke with the prevalent view at the time that advanced science was primarily a European phenomenon, but he maintained the Copernican bias regarding its development. As a result, while Needham acknowledged that the Jesuits brought to the Chinese Euclidean geometry, the use of geometry in charting the movements of celestial bodies and in surveying, superior methods of predicting eclipses, new methods of computing, and new scientific instruments, including the telescope, Needham blamed the Jesuits for effectively forcing Ptolemaic astronomy on the Chinese and retarding their acceptance of Copernican astronomy.74 Needham apparently did not realize that in the seventeenth century, Jesuits taught Tychonic, not Ptolemaic, astronomy, and as the Jesuits began to accept and teach heliocentric astronomy in the eighteenth century, “Chinese literati thought the presentations [by Jesuit Michel Benoit (1715–74)] too incoherent to take seriously.”75 Early modern Chinese scholars could reject heliocentrism without the Jesuits compelling them.
Mathematics was central to the success of the Jesuit mission in China. As Florence Hsia cleverly put it, “had Chinese auditors been more interested in the niceties of French or Italian cuisine than in Aristotelian cosmology or Tychonic instrumentation, the present book might well be a history of Jesuit chefs in the Celestial Empire.”76 Hsia told the story of the early Jesuit mission to China and its success in not only establishing their presence and acceptance there but also in presenting their story to Europeans. Her parameters were two books about that mission, De christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (1615) by Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and Voyage de Siam des pères jésuites (1688) by Guy Tachard (1651–1712). Hsia showed how the Jesuits used mathematics to make inroads into scholarly Chinese society; they presented their way as “a model for imitation”77 for other missionaries.
Qiong Zhang left the mathematics of the sky for the mathematics of the earth as she narrated the story of the effect of Western cartography introduced by the Jesuits on Chinese mapmaking. She described how Ricci introduced a more accurate, European map to replace the late Ming map that had China in the center of a square earth surrounded by four seas. It took the Chinese much longer to accept Ricci’s map than it took to accept his astronomy and mathematics, but its eventual adoption allowed China to participate more fully in early modern trade and geopolitics: “[T]he Chinese vision of the physical dimension of the world was much enlarged as a result of intellectual exchange with the Jesuits and the Chinese engagement with the larger early modern world, especially with the maritime Europeans.”78
As can be gathered from both Hsia’s and Zhang’s books, Matteo Ricci was crucial to the success of the China mission. He had studied mathematics and astronomy with Clavius at the Collegio Romano and was himself a gifted mathematician. He was not the first Jesuit in China when he arrived in 1582, but he realized that success depended on acceptance of the Jesuits by the ruling class. To achieve that acceptance he mastered Chinese and Confucian writings; he dressed and behaved like a Mandarin; he used mathematics and science to interest the Chinese. He introduced them to European instruments such as a chiming clock, which enchanted them. The Chinese imperial calendar depended on the prediction of eclipses, and Ricci showed them that European astronomy was better for that goal. He also taught Euclidean geometry to the Chinese elite and translated Euclid’s Elements into Chinese.
Ricci was another colorful figure, and, like Kircher, he attracted a non-scholar to write a popular biography.79 More important is the biography by Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, which went into depth regarding all aspects of Ricci’s career in China: teacher, author, translator, scholar, diplomat, priest, and missionary. But Ricci’s success depended most on his abilities in science and mathematics: “With his expertise in mathematics and astronomy, his library of western books and western scientific instruments, Ricci, the Master of the Way, was worthy of the attention of Confucian literati.”80
The continuing success of the mission was ensured by the Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians who followed Ricci and became directors of the Beijing Imperial Observatory from 1644 to 1773. Agustín Udías provided general overviews of their contributions.81 There are monographs on the first two directors, Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88).82 Schall and Verbiest also carried out the reform of the Chinese calendar.
In studies of Jesuit contributions in the New World cartography and natural history have attracted the most attention. As noted with China, mapmaking was very important in the age of discovery, and Jesuit missionaries to the Americas were involved here as well. David Buisseret gave an overview of Jesuit involvement in cartography in Central and South America, including reproductions of thirty Jesuit maps.83 Ernest Burrus focused on cartography in Mexico and on the work of the Jesuit Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645–1711), in particular.84
Andrés Prieto’s important book on the Jesuit missions in the Spanish colonial empires in the Americas underscored the context for the study of the natural world that helped the Jesuits adapt to conditions unique to this area: “Both the practical and theological challenges presented by autochthonous cultures and the need to survive in what was often an aggressive and unfamiliar environment forced the missionaries to describe, explain, and utilize nature and the indigenous lore about it.”85 Jesuits in South America often left the cities to live among the inhabitants; they had to learn the local languages, customs, and nature in order to survive. And Prieto interestingly pointed out the effect of their need to compete with local shamans to succeed in their missions: “Since shamans drew their authority and prestige mainly from their ability as healers, the missionaries were forced to assume the role of medicine men in the missions if they were to displace them as spiritual leaders. Under these circumstances, the knowledge of the medicinal uses of local flora was of paramount importance for the missionaries.”86 The Jesuits were enjoined from studying medicine so that they would not compete with other orders, but they had the education to adapt to the needs of their localities. And like their confrères in other parts of the world, the Jesuits in South America had to fit their understanding of nature into an Aristotelian framework. But Aristotle had claimed that life was impossible in the torrid zone. So how could a missionary in Peru, not far from the equator deal with this? In the case of José de Acosta (1539–1600), he corrected Aristotle’s mistakes using Aristotelian precepts to soften his deviations from the master.87 José Sánchez Labrador (1717–98) of Paraguay and his associates continued the work on the understanding of the natural world.88
The tight network of the Society of Jesus has left a huge trove of letters and other unpublished manuscripts, in addition to the published books, that give the scholar important sources to examine, and increasingly they have been taking advantage of it. As a result, a lot of work has been done uncovering significant contributions of Jesuits to early modern science, and, especially regarding the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an increasingly large number of books and articles are being published.89 Nevertheless, much remains to be done. Scholars need to continue to study the work of the individual Jesuits who were active in exploring the natural world—Riccioli, Grimaldi, Biancani, Scheiner, Schott, Grassi, Cabeo, Tachard, and many others. Even the work of Clavius, Kircher, Ricci, and Boscovich has not been exhausted. Little has been written about Boscovich’s associates and students, and studies of their works will add to our understanding of eighteenth-century science. More work needs to be done on the missions, not only in Latin America and China, but also India and Japan. But already it is clear that, contrary to the traditional historiography of the period known as the scientific revolution, we cannot grasp that subject without including the many positive contributions of Jesuits, and recent overviews reflect this.90 Alas, overviews of eighteenth-century science are not so enlightened.
For more bibliographical information, consult Boston College Jesuit Bibliography: The New Sommervogel Online (NSO).
^ Back to text5. Butterfield, 70. Even relatively recently Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) suggested that the literal reading of the Bible by the Protestants impelled them toward a more accurate “reading” of nature.
^ Back to text6. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston called attention to the fact that they did not use the term “scientific revolution” in their introduction to volume 3, which covers early modern science, of The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1–17, here 12. Some of the authors do, however, use the phrase. Though Steven Shapin had titled his textbook about early modern science The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), he memorably warned the reader, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it” (1).
^ Back to text7. See, for example, Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1923–58); Pierre Duhem, Le système du monde: Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic, 10 vols. (Paris: A. Hermann, 1913–59), and the English abridgement, Medieval Cosmology: Theories of Infinity, Place, Time, Void, and the Plurality of Worlds, ed. and trans. Roger Ariew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Anneliese Maier, Die Vorläufer Galileis im 14. Jahrhundert (Rome: Edizioni di “Storia e Letteratura,” 1949); Lynn White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966); and more recently Edward Grant, The Foundation of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
^ Back to text8. In addition to the Park and Daston volume noted above, see, for example, David C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman, eds., Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Margaret J. Osler, ed., Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Pamela H. Smith, “Science on the Move: Trends in the History of Early Modern Science,” Renaissance Quarterly 62 (2009): 345–75.
^ Back to text9. William B. Ashworth, Jr., “Catholicism and Early Modern Science,” in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, 136–66 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 154.
^ Back to text10. J.L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries: A Study of Early Modern Physics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 101. The chapter on the Jesuits was reprinted in Heilbron, Elements of Early Modern Physics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
^ Back to text11. For background on Jesuit education in Europe before the suppression, see Paul F. Grendler, “Jesuit Schools in Europe: A Historiographical Essay,” Journal of Jesuit Studies, no. 1 (2014): 7–25 (doi: 10.1163/22141332-00101002).
^ Back to text14. Peter Dear, Discipline and Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995), 44. Dear first proposed the idea that the Jesuits contributed significantly to the concept of experiment in his article, “Jesuit Mathematical Science and the Reconstitution of Experience in the Early Seventeenth Century,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 18 (1987): 122–64.
^ Back to text19. See also his article “Jesuit Contribution to Science 1814–2000: A Historiographical Essay,” in Jesuit Historiography Online, ed. Robert A. Maryks (Leiden: Brill, 2016), (http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2468-7723_jho_COM_192552).
^ Back to text23. Bernard Barthet, Science, histoire et thématiques ésotériques chez les jésuites en France (1680–1764) (Bordeaux: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2012), 50: “rechercher une pédagogie capable de sensibiliser l’âme humaine pour la placer sur le chemin de l’harmonie et, partant, de la révélation.”
^ Back to text33. William A. Wallace, “Galileo’s Jesuit Connections and Their Influence on His Science,” in Feingold, Jesuit Science, 99–126, here 99. See also Wallace, Galileo and His Sources: The Heritage of the Collegio Romano in Galileo’s Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) and Wallace, trans. Galileo’s Early Notebooks (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977). Roger Ariew showed that there was a similarly complex situation in the relationship between the Jesuits and Descartes in “Descartes and the Jesuits: Doubt, Novelty, and the Eucharist,” in Feingold, Jesuit Science, 157–94.
^ Back to text35. Francesco Paolo De Ceglia, “Additio illa non videtur edenda: Giuseppe Biancani, Reader of Galileo in an Unedited Censored Text,” in Mordechai Feingold, ed., The New Science and Jesuit Science: Seventeenth Century Perspectives (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003), 159–186, here 159.
^ Back to text36. David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) wrote about Galileo’s relations with Jesuit scientists through the academy.
^ Back to text37. See, for example, J.L. Heilbron, Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Annibale Fantoli, Galileo for Copernicanism and for the Church (Vatican: Vatican Observatory, 1996); and Richard J. Blackwell, Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), esp. chap. 4 on Galileo’s relations with Christoph Scheiner. William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas, Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), went to extreme lengths trying to prove that Galileo was totally to blame and the church totally innocent in the affair.
^ Back to text42. Irving A. Kelter, “The Refusal to Accommodate: Jesuit Exegetes and the Copernican System,” rev. version in Ernan McMullin, ed., The Church and Galileo, 38–53 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005; orig. pub. 1995).
^ Back to text44. See Galileo Galilei and Christoph Scheiner, On Sunspots, trans. Eileen Reeves and Albert Van Helden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) for complete English translations of the letters and extensive introductions and commentary.
^ Back to text46. Christopher M. Graney, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), esp. chap. 9, “The Telescope against Copernicus.”
^ Back to text47. John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change (New York: Riverhead, 2012). Unfortunately, like too many popularizations of historical figures, the author is “a man of misconceptions” regarding the times and his subject.
^ Back to text48. Ingrid Rowland, The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Daniel Stolzenberg, ed., The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
^ Back to text49. Joscelyn Godwin’s initial book, Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979) was followed up by a much more extensive work with over four hundred illustrations, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: His Life, Work, and the Search for Universal Knowledge (Rochester, VT: Inner Tradition, 2009).
^ Back to text50. Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). See also Findlen, “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” in Park and Daston, 290–305.
^ Back to text52. John Edward Fletcher, A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, “Germanus Incredibilis,” With a Selection of his Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of his Autobiography, ed. Elizabeth Fletcher (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 134. These quotes are in the chapter “A Scientist before Rational Science,” a title which betrays the original date of the writing.
^ Back to text53. Harald Siebert, Die große kosmologische Kontroverse: Rekonstruktionsversuche anhand des Itinerarium exstaticum von Athanasius Kircher SJ (1602–1680) (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006), 50.
^ Back to text61. Maria Teresa Borgato, ed., Giambattista Riccioli e il merito scientifico dei gesuiti nell’età barocca (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2002). See esp. Ugo Baldini, “Riccioli e Grimaldi,” 1–48; Alfredo Dinis, “Was Riccioli a Secret Copernican?,” 49–78; Maria Teresa Borgato, “Riccioli e la caduta dei gravi,” 80–119; Juan Casanovas, “Riccioli e l’astronomia dopo Kepler,” 119–32; Fabrizio Bònoli, “Riccioli e gli strumenti dell’astronomia,” 133–58; Jacques Gapaillard, “Les travaux géodésiques de Riccioli, 159–78.
^ Back to text63. Juan Casanovas, “Boscovich’s Early Astronomical Studies at the Collegio Romano,” in R.J. Boscovich: Vita e attivita scientifica; His Life and Scientific Work, ed. Piers Bursill–Hall, (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1993), 237–44, here 240; Udías, Jesuit Contribution, 69.
^ Back to text66. Elizabeth Hill, “Biographical Essay,” in Lancelot Law Whyte, ed., Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J., F.R.S., 1711–1787: Studies of His Life and Work on the 250th Anniversary of His Birth, 17–101 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961).
^ Back to text79. Michela Fontana, Matteo Ricci: Un gesuita alla corte dei Ming (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 2005); English trans. by Paul Metcalfe, Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Ming Court (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). While good overall, its view of Chinese science relies completely on Needham and, consequently, is unreliable for Ricci’s scientific contributions.
^ Back to text82. Alfons Väth, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, S.J. Missionar in China, kaiserlicher Astronom und Ratgeber am Hofe Pekins 1592–1666: Ein Lebens und Zeitbild (reprint, Nettetal: Steyler, 1991); Noël Golvers, Ferdinand Verbiest, S. J. (1623–1688) and the Chinese Heaven (Louvain: Leuven University Press, 2003).
^ Back to text83. David Buisseret, “Jesuit Cartography in Central and South America,” in Jesuit Encounters in the New World: Jesuit Chroniclers, Geographers, Educators and Missionaries in the Americas, 1549–1767, eds. Joseph A. Gagliano and Charles E. Ronan, 113–62 (Rome: Institutum Historicum S.I., 1997).
^ Back to text84. Ernest Burrus, La obra cartográfica de la Provincia Mexicana de la Compañía de Jesús (1567–1967), 2 vols. (Madrid: José Porrúa Toranzo, 1967); Burrus, Kino and the Cartography of Northwestern New Spain (Tucson: Arizona Pioneers' Historical Society, 1965).
^ Back to text88. Hector Sainz-Olleros, Helios Sainz-Olleros, Francisco Suárez-Cardona and Miguel Vázquez de Castro, José Sánchez Labrador y los naturalistas jesuitas del Río de la Plata (Madrid: Ministerio de Obras Públicas, 1989).
^ Back to text89. I found it extremely difficult to finish this article because of the appearance of yet another article or book on some aspect of Jesuit science. I dread to think of how much I left out that has already been published, and how soon this article will be out-of-date because of new publications.
^ Back to text90. See, for example, Peter Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences, 2d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009; orig. pub. 2001); and Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris, Baroque Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).