Jesuits and Clocks

The Catholic church has a history of giving scientists a hard time, but the Jesuits, founded by soldier Ignatius Loyola, were known as the Janissaries of Christianity, and openly embraced top quality child centred education, the theatre – they were pioneers in stage effects – and music and clockwork, all used for converting people.

This is a book on their history, Jesuits II, edited by John O’Malley.

” The clock’s value to the Jesuits was not that it promoted European science; it also represented the higher principles of faith and had strong associations with Christianity in the form of concepts that would have been familiar to the Jesuits and that appealed to them. The clock gave order to chaos, and the relationship of the clock maker and the clock was analogous to that between God and creation. In bringing technology to China, teaching the skill to the Chinese, and making clocks themselves, Jesuits ere serving a higher purpose. ‘Divine Wisdom’ according to Bonaventure, [is] to be found in the illumination of the mechanical arts, the sold purpose of which is the production of works of art. So by offering to instruct the Chinese in clock making, the Jesuits were also aiding their conversion to Christianity. Making clocks became a spiritual exercise as Bonaventure continues ‘in its illumination we can see… incarnation of the word… and the union of the Soul with God – this is true if we consider the production, the effect and the advantage of the work, or if we consider the production, the effect produced. It could not have been coincidental that the theologians placed an emphasis on mechanical principles to illustrate higher matters of the faith and that the Jesuit’s placed an emphasis on these same arts in their proselytization strategies.

But the Jesuits’ success in securing a place for the missions using such skills as the clockmaking contributed to inter-missionary rivalries that fuelled the Rites Controversies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Debate over and criticism of Jesuit activity in China connected with Ricci’s cultural accommodation policies also owe something to the Jesuits’ positions as clockmakers and mechanical conflicts in ideology, between technology and catechism, and over whether to serve the emperor’s needs not, were realities in the lives of the makers at court. The mechanical clock may therefore be seen as a microcosm of Jesuit activity in China; more important, it also seemed as an expansion of the scientific and religious aspects of European culture that the Jesuits sought to introduce to the Chinese court.


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