In almost all textbooks we are told that Nicolas Copernicus introduced to the world the idea of a heliocentric or sun-centered universe. We are also told in these texts that Copernicus arrived at his thesis through careful observations of the sky, and was one of the great thinkers who introduced to the world the scientific method of deriving theory from observation. Copernicus was an intellectual giant in his time, but many of our modern assumptions about him are projections from modern narrative.
Copernicus loved cosmology and astronomy, and had mastered basic cosmological theory early in life at the University of Krakow. He had learned all about the geocentric cosmos of Aristotle and Ptolemy. He also learned that there were problems with it. There were many slight errors throughout Ptolemy’s tables when compared to actual observations. In Krakow Copernicus met Albert Brudzewski, a professor of astronomy who was deeply skeptical of the geocentric system. Copernicus followed the teachings of Brudzewski and started a life long pursuit of astronomical studies.
Despite his passion, Copernicus graduated in law and medicine, and lived a professional life of administrator and physician for his uncle at the Prince-Bishopric of Warmia’s castle at Heilsberg. During his career, he always kept up his cosmological studies. He met the astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara who was also testing Ptolemies theories. Copernicus became the assistant to Novara de Ferrara, and together they performed what may have been Copnericus’s first actual astronomical observation to test certain aspects of the Ptolmeic model. In March of 1497, at the age of 24, Copernicus observed the occultation of the star Aldebaran by the Moon, and helped show that the distance of the Moon from the Earth is the same whether the Moon was full or in phase. According to the Ptolemaic model, the epicycles of the Moon would have produced variations in distance.
In 1500 Copernicus also observed a lunar eclipse caused by the shadow of the Earth over the Moon when the Earth lay between the Sun and Moon. The occultation of Aldebaran and the lunar eclipse are the two observations we know he made before he started posing his heliocentric theory. It is clear that these observations in and of themselves were insufficient to prove such a system, or even hypothesize such a system. It should also be clear that there was a community of astronomers who were pushing the Ptolemaic model from every direction, and the work of Brudzewski and Novara de Ferrara must have been highly influential for Copernicus himself.
What is less known is the fact that during his education, Copernicus was calculating his hypothesis of the sun-centered sky primarily from texts and not scientific observations—these would come later. Copernicus collected manuscripts containing the works of Pythagoras, Aristarchos, Cleomedes, Cicero, Pliny, Plutarch, Plato, Philolaus, and Heraclides. He scoured libraries and book collections as he traveled throughout Europe performing his clerical and administrative duties as canon.
Sometime in the first decade of the 1500’s he had a good grasp of his heliocentric theory, but as yet no real idea how to prove it. He published his masterwork, De Revolutionibus in 1543, the year of his death. Why did it take him so long to publish his work? Copernicus spent over 30 years trying to pin down the mathematical and geometric proofs for his heliocentric model, but never succeeded. In fact, despite brilliant research and thinking, the heliocentric model of Copernicus was a rewritten form of Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmos, with cycles and epicycles of all the planets. Copernicus even added to the number of epicycles in his model, making his new system a little more cumbersome than the old. Copernicus was a perfectionist, and he spent many years working on his tables and observations to make sure what he observed fit his theory. In the end, he could not get the math to fit the model, and he knew it.
This is not a criticism. The genius of Copernicus was tenacity and will. When scientific cosmology is heavily influenced by an empowered religious culture, to change a scientific hypothesis may require more than scientific acumen, but also a great deal of moral courage. He broke out from standard convention and dared to think differently than the accepted norm. This alone should have put him in the history books. But it is clear that his primer for his heliocentric theory was not his astronomical observations, but his preformulated theory. Where did he get that? As already noted, he got it from the influence of his contemporaries, but especially from the writings of ancient texts. In fact, Copernicus admits as much in his own words:
I therefore went to the trouble of reading anew the books of all philosophers on which I could lay hands to find out whether someone did not hold the opinion that there existed other motions of the heavenly bodies than assumed by those who taught the mathematical sciences in the schools. And thus I found first in Cicero that Hiketas had held the belief that the earth moves. Afterwards I found Plutarch [it is actually psuedo-Plutarch] that others have also held this opinion. But others hold that the earth moves; thus Philolaus the Pythagoriean held that it revolves round the Fire in an oblique circle like the sun and moon. Herakleides of Pontus and Ekphantus the Pythagorean also suppose the earth to move, though not in a progressive motion, but after the manner of a wheel, turning upon an axle about its own center from west to east. (Koestler 207)
Copernicus was convinced that the ancients had known secrets that had not been passed down. This was actually common belief throughout Europe from the days of the Renaissance. One of the ancient thinkers he cites is Heraclides of Pontus, who was a student of Plato. What is known for certain is that Heraclides asserted that the earth rotates on its own axis, just as Copernicus had read. Heraclides also believed that the planets of Mercury and Venus rotated around the sun on epicycles, anticipating the system of Tycho Brahe some two thousand years later (Gottschalk 81-2). Furthermore, several late writers attribute a heliocentric theory of the heavens to Heraclides, but no known fragment or early source explicitly states the case; we must assume that either later theories and ideas were placed upon Heraclides’ science or that there was another tradition that has been lost from our sources.
More compellingly, the Pythagorean Philolaus is cited by Copernicus as one of the early Greek philosophers who believed in a heliocentric system; in fact, the Copernican system was originally called Philolaica after this Greek philosopher (Kahn 26). The problem with the cosmological system of Philolaus is that he makes the Earth orbit not the sun, but a central Fire; all the planets including the sun revolve around this central Fire. In other words, there is a second sun around which the heavenly spheres rotate and from which our own sun receives its light. Aristotle in his On the Heavens articulates this strange cosmology:
As to [the earth’s] position there is some difference of opinion. Most people—all, in fact, who regard the whole heaven as finite—says it lies at the center. But the Italian philosophers known as the Pythagoreans take the contrary view. At the center, they say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the center. [. . .] The Pythagoreans [. . .] hold that the most important part of the world, which is the center, should be most strictly guarded, and name it, or rather the fire which occupies that place, the “Guard-house of Zeus” (qtd. in Temple, Crystal 271)
Many scholars have wrestled over this idea attributed to Philolaus. It is clear that these early Greek thinkers were using mathematics and understood the Earth to be moving in a circular orbit (unlike Aristotle and Ptolemy). Yet disappointingly, the system described by Philolaus does not seem to correspond to any kind of real scientific observation, leaving most commentators on this teaching to acquiesce, “despite the presence of some genuine technical knowledge [. . .] the system of Philolaus taken as a whole seems less like scientific astronomy than like symbolical speculation” (Kahn 26).
This disappointment derives from strictly modern cosmological thinking. This central fire of Philolaus belonged to a very old cosmovision that predated the Greeks. This Central Fire or second sun is the heaven above the heavens and the source of all material manifestation. It is the apeiron; the realm above the fixed stars, the heavenly abode beyond Plato’s cave, the super celestial region of Orphic cosmology. It is called the Guardhouse of Zeus, and this designation was also known by other names: “the Hearth of the Universe, [. . .] the Tower or Watch-tower of Zeus, the Throne of Zeus, the House of Zeus, the Mother of the Gods, the Altar, Bond and Measure of Nature” (Heath 164). And further, “In this central fire is located the governing principle, the force which directs the movement and activity of the universe” (Heath 164). Pindar assigns to this archetypal region of the cosmos the home of immortals and the blessed dead: “But, whosoever, while dwelling in either world, have thrice been courageous in keeping their souls pure from all deeds of wrong, pass by the highway of Zeus unto the tower of Cronos, where the ocean-breezes blow around the Islands of the Blest” (Sandys 25).
We are breaching into yet another religious vision of eternity. The Central Fire was the home of the gods and the Blessed Isles where all the good souls dwelt. It empowered the universe. Its light gave the power to the Sun in the sky, for according to the Pythagoreans, the Sun’s light was only reflected light, receiving its luminescence from the true hearth of the universe. This was neither a geocentric nor heliocentric system, at least in purely spacial terms. It was a mythogenic system with one foot planted in celestial mechanics and the other foot pitched deep into the ontology of the soul. This was the cosmology of the mystery endowments of Greece and Rome, as the Roman Emperor Julian hints:
Some say then, even though all men are not ready to believe it, that the sun travels in the starless heavens far above the region of the fixed stars. And on this theory he will not be stationed midmost among the planets but midway between the three worlds: that is, according to the hypothesis of the mysteries. [. . .] For the priests of the mysteries tell us what they have been taught by the gods or might daemons, whereas the astronomers make plausible hypotheses from the harmony that they observe in the visible spheres. It is proper, no doubt, to approve the astronomers as well, but where any man thinks it better to believe the priests of the mysteries, him I admire and revere, both in jest and earnest. And so much for that, as the saying is. (qtd. In Leisegant 202)
This Sun in the heavens was not midmost the planets (interestingly, even in the geocentric system of Aristotle and Ptolemy the Sun was at the center of all the planets); the Sun of this system was at the center of the three tiered cosmos. It was the true center of life, the source of life, the cause and being of life.
Such grand metaphysics was a result of an ontological cosmos that sought to explain more than spacial logistics, but the essence and origin of all things. This was the cosmology that the geocentrists rejected, describing the universe in purely physical terms. Ironically, this spatial, clockwork universe was adopted by the Christians to underwrite their theological cosmovision. And even more ironically, it was the cosmology that Copernicus would use to counter the geocentric universe. It was a metaphysics that conceived the microcosm every bit as important as the macrocosm, and perhaps could be described as the “Hubble Deep Field of the Soul.”
All cosmologies are philosophies. Even in our hyper-materialist era of positivists and cosmological nihilism, the Big Bang remains a religious cosmovision because it is a metaphysics predicated on social values of its own. The center of the universe has shifted yet again within its confines; specifically there is no center, for it is a relativistic universe through and through. But perhaps the cosmology of Philolaus is not done yet. For the cosmology of Philolaus is first and foremost archetypal, and it speaks to Man’s central role in the transcendent function of creation. As such, the Central Fire has a correspondence in the spark of life in the soul of all living things. Perhaps science will come around again to this cosmology, in a different dress and with different rhetoric, but with the same ideological perspective?
Copernicus published his magnum opus in 1543, the year of his death. His courageous vision opened the doors to further speculation and experimentation. Men like Kepler and Galileo would pick up this torch and further explore the universe with a new vision of the mind. Significantly, both Kepler and Galileo would err in their speculations as well. Kepler believed that the distance of the planets could be described within the geometric relationships of the platonic solids. Curiously, he placed the entire solar system within the figure of the cube representing the planetary sphere of Saturn. Pythagoras, by the way, identified the Central Fire as a cube.
Kepler also figured the mathematical formulas for the planetary movements, and rewrote centuries of cosmological perspective by showing that the planets did not move in circles but in ellipses. Galileo attempted to prove the heliocentric theory using sea tides. Unlike Kepler, who rightly theorized that the tides were caused by the Moon, Galileo believed they were caused by the Earth’s motion as it orbited the Sun. Another failed attempt. But he also used a telescope, pointing at Jupiter, and discovered that it had several moons of its own. Then he discovered that the Earth’s moon was roughly textured, the planets looked different than stars, and that the Sun had spots. All of these anomalies served to weaken the geocentric cosmos, with its perfects spheres, circles, and cycles.
I write more of this cosmology in my forthcoming book, Mythos and Cosmos, Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age, due to be published in the summer of 2015.