Reformation and Revolution: Copernicus’s Discovery in an Era of Change

  • Heiko A. Oberman
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 26)


This paper is not to be just an interesting commemoration of the historical past. Copernicus has become more than a private scholar who made a scientific discovery. Copernicus has become a symbol if not a syndrome; and it is not easy to define exactly what this symbol stands for, so varied is the reaction to his name and the associations it evokes. The nerves of Western man are hit, titillated, or hurt, and sometimes all of these at once. By no means without precedent, but certainly most intensively, today’s community of scholars and — with a remarkable intuition for essentials — society at large is probing the ultimate questions of man and matter, of time and space.


Fourteenth Century Christian Faith Heavenly Movement Efficient Causality Copernican Revolution 
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  17. This universal vision as the essential advance beyond Ptolemaeus is highlighted by Matthias Schramm in his commemoration address in Tübingen, February 1, 1973, entitled “Die Leistungen des Copernicus.” The author kindly supplied me with his manuscript.Google Scholar
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    See, however, G. W. Coopland: “Of Oresme’s use of experience in the everyday sense little need be said; it is illustrated at every turn and furnishes the most attractive part of his work. It is evidently the result of wide interests and knowledge of his world, although in this connection, again, we discern that strange stopping short of closer and more searching enquiry demanded by modern standards. Of organised and controlled observation in the form of experiment we can find no trace.” Nicole Oresme and the Astrologers. A Study of his Livre de divinacions (Cambridge, Mass., 1952 ), p. 35.Google Scholar
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    Jean Gerson uses for our ’metacosm’ mundus archetypus: “Macrocosmus, est mai or iste mundus exemplatus et productus a mundo archetypo Deo, continens in se univer- sam creaturam, corporalem et spiritualem, ad ipsum Deum finaliter ordinatam. Micro- cosmus, est minor quidem mundus, continens in se duplicem substantiam, corporalem scilicet et spiritualem Dei capacem, ad finem beatitudinis ordinatas.” Opera omnia, Vol. 3, ed. E. du Pin, “Definitiones terminorum ad theologiam moralem pertinentium,” col. 107 B.Google Scholar
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    The wide spread of popular astrology is one of the many indications that the Ara-bian “myth screen” had not been sufficiently effective. See here Manfred Ullmann: “Die Deutungsmöglichkeiten der Planetenstellungen beruhen auf der Gleichsetzung der Planeten mit den Göttern, ein Vorgang, der sich seit dem 6. Jhdt. vor Chr., zunächst bei den Pythagoräern, dann im allgemeinen Sprachgebrauch, eingebürgert hatte. Alle Eigenschaften, Fähigkeiten und Taten der Götter, die in den Mythen ihren Niederschlag gefunden hatten, wurden nun mit den betreffenden Planeten assoziiert und ermöglichten es, die Konstellationen auszudeuten. Für die Araber und Muslime verloren die Namen der Planeten in der Übersetzung ihren Charakter als Götternamen. Aber die Araber übernahmen das komplizierte Gefüge der Deutungsmöglichkeiten, das ihnen ohne den antiken mythologischen Hintergrund ein rein mechanistisches, unerklärbares System bleiben musste.” Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam (Leiden, 1972), p. 348.Google Scholar
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    Conversely, developments in the field of physics show effects on theology. After the Thomistic ontological relation between grace and movement, the new impetus-doctrine transforms “motion” and personalizes the concept of grace. We have pursued the history of theology and the history of the medieval sciences so long in separate depart-ments that we stand only at the very beginning of seeing the interactions between shifts in these fields.Google Scholar
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    Et donques appert par ce que dit est que il ne s’ensuit pas se [=si] Dieu est que le ciel soit et, par consequent, il ne s’ensuit pas que le mouvement du ciel soit, car selon vérité, tout ce depent de la volenté de Dieu franchement sanz ce que il soit aucune nécessité que II face ou produise telles choses ou ait faites et productes perpetuelment, si comme il fu plus a plain déclaré en la fin du XXXIVe chapitre du premier. Item, encore ne s’ensuit il pas se le ciel est que il soit meu, car si comme dit est, Dieu le meut ou fait mouver purement voluntairement. Et selon vérité, ce monstra II ou temps de Josué, quant le soleil se arresta par tant de temps comme dure un jour, car de ce dist l’Escripture: Et una dies facta est quasi due. Et est vraisemblable que lors cessa le mouvement journal de tout le ciel et des planetes et non pas le soleil seulement. Et pour ce disoit le Prophete en recitant ceste chose: Sol et luna steterunt in habitaculo suo, etc. Nicole Oresme, Le Livre du ciel et du monde, Book II, 8. fol. 92 b; ed. cit., p. 364. Cf. Eccl. 46:5; Hab. 3: 11.Google Scholar
  34. 57.
    Or donques, posé que la terre fust meue avecques le ciel ou au contraire du mouve-ment du ciel, il ne s’ensuit pas que pour ce le/(92d) mouvement du ciel cessasi. Et donques ce mouvement, quant est de soy, ne requiert pas de neccessité que la terre repose ou milieu. Item, ce n’est pas impossible que toute la terre soit meue d’autre mouvement ou d’autre maniere: Job IXe: Qui commovet terram de loco suo,… Nicole Oresme, Le Livre du ciel et du monde, Book II, 8. fol. 92 d; ed. cit., p. 366. Cf. Job 9: 6.Google Scholar
  35. 58.
    Hardly more cautious is the explicit of a physics commentary, Quaestiones, assigned to Buridan: “Tu melius scribe, qui dixeris hoc fore vile/Si melius fuerit, plus tibi laudis erit!” Quoted by Pierre Duhem, Le Système du monde, op. cit., Vol. 4, p. 132. The same desideratum from the inversed perspective is formulated by John Murdoch in his ’Philosophy and the enterprise of science in the later Middle Ages’, The Interaction of Science and Philosophy, ed. by Y. Elkana ( Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1974 ), pp. 51 - 74.Google Scholar
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    With all respect for my fellow country man, E. J. Dijksterhuis, who belongs to the pioneers in the history of science, I cannot share his view of Parisian nominalism. “Dat er in hunne werken van eenige verdere ontwikkeling der vruchtbare, maar nog geheel onontgonnen denkbeelden, die deze theorie bevatte, geen sprake is, typeert de deca- dentie, waarin de Scholastiek vervallen was; toch waardeert men tenminste in de Parijsche philosophen van dezen tijd, dat ze althans het goede wisten te behouden, wanneer men in dezelfde periode de Italianen op mechanisch gebied ziet terugkeeren tot de te Parijs reeds lang overwonnen Aristotelisch-Averroistische dwalingen.” Val en worp. Een Bijdrage tot de Geschiedenis der Mechanica van Aristoteles tot Newton (Groningen, 1924); Hoofdstuk II: Val en Worp in de Scholastiek, pp. 117-121; p. 118.Google Scholar
  37. 61.
    Quarto nunc primum accedam ad hoc opus, quod et tibi in mentem venit, ut hypothesibus artem astronomicam liberarem, solis contentus observationibus. Atque utinam haberemus omnium aetatum observationes idque iuxta nostras capiendi observations rationes traditas, quas omnino iudico easdem esse, quibus primi artis indaga- tores usi sunt, et talem tablularum modum exquisiverimus, quod non perpetua opus haberent emendatione.… Habeo etiam prae manibus novas de rerum natura philo- sophandi rationes, ex sola naturae contemplatione, omnibus antiquorum scriptis sepositis. “ K. H. Burmeister, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 188. Cf.: ”Gegen Ende seines Lebens versuchte Rheticus aus seinen reichen Erfahrungen als Astronom, Arzt und Chemiker ein neues philosophisches System aufzubauen, dessen Grundlage nur die Natur sein sollte: 4ex sola naturae contemplatione’. Nur von daher, so schrieb er 1568 an Ramus, wolle er seine Naturphilosophie begründen. Er verzichte dabei auf alle Schriften der Alten. Diese Forderung hatte Rheticus, wie wir wissen, für Medizin, Astronomie und Astrologie ebenfalls aufgestellt. K. H. Burmeister, op. cit., Vol. 1, Humanist und Wegbereiter der modernen Naturwissenschaften (Wiesbaden, 1967 ), p. 173.Google Scholar
  38. 62.
    See the - in other respects - excellent study by Francis A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, 2nd ed. (London, 1971), pp. 241-243. The Sun-analogies and Hermetic traditions - alluded to by Copernicus in his Preface - are certainly im- portant characteristics of a movement we can trace from protohumanism (Richard de Bury’s library, used by Bradwardine and Holcot) to Pico and Reuchlin. See Eugenio Garin, Portraits from the Quattrocento, 2nd ed. (New York, 1972) pp. 145-149. Wayne Shumaker, The occult sciences in the Renaissance. A study in intellectual patterns. (Berkeley, 1972), pp. 201 ff; on the sun, ibid. p. 221. For a perspective on Copernicus’s discovery this tradition does not help us a step further. Here A. Koyre’s evaluation of the parallel case of Cusanus applies. See note 5. The -scientific and regressive impact of Renaissance “occultism” should be clearly seen. This should not be over¬looked out of respect for the pre-modern ideal of comprehensive scholarship operative behind it. This perspective is particularly pertinent, since such claims continue to be advanced: “Renaissance Hermeticism prepared the way emotionally for the accep¬tance of Copernicus’ revolutionized universal structure. In this case, then, scientific advance was spurred by the renewed interest in the magical Hermetic religion of the world.” Peter J. French, John Dee. The World of an Elizabethan Magus (London, 1972 ), p. 103.Google Scholar
  39. 63.
    characteristic of all discoveries from which new sorts of phenomena emerge. Those characteristics include: the previous awareness of anomaly, the gradual and simultaneous emergence of both observational and conceptual recognition, and the consequent change of paradigm categories and procedures often accompanied by resistence. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago- London, 1969 ), p. 63.Google Scholar
  40. 64.
    And as Randall has shown, the Paduan Aristotelians a century later dominated the climate of thought with which Copernicus must have become familiar during his Italian study years. Cf. John Herman Randall, The School of Padua and the Emergence of Modern Science, Saggi e testi I (Padova, 1961), p. 24 f.; p. 71 if.Google Scholar
  41. 66.
    There may not be much time left to adjust to the secular cosmos, since a post- secular cosmology is appearing on the intellectual horizon. Cf. Karl R. Popper: “Thus we live in an open universe. We could not make this discovery before there was human knowledge. But once we have made the discovery there is no reason to think that the openness depends exclusively upon the existence of human knowledge. It is much more reasonable to reject all views of a closed universe - that of a causally as well as that of a probabilistically closed universe; thus rejecting the closed universe envisaged by La-place, as well as the one envisaged by quantum mechanics. Our universe is partly causal, partly probabilistic, and partly open: it is emergent.” ’Indeterminism is Not Enough’, Encounter 40 (1973), 20 - 26; 26.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht-Holland 1975

Authors and Affiliations

  • Heiko A. Oberman
    • 1
  1. 1.Universität TübingenUSA

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