Was the Copernican model a demotion for human beings?

In this post, we will look at one particular myth surrounding the Copernican story, the one that says that Copernican ideas were opposed because they implied a demotion for human beings.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium, his epic work describing a heliocentric system, in 1543 the year of his death. Until then, Ptolemy’s geocentric model described in his Almagest had been the one used for studying planetary motions. In this model, the Earth was at the center of the universe and every celestial body orbited about the center. The Almagest was the “first systematic mathematical treatise to give a complete, detailed, and quantitative account of all the celestial motions.” (Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, p. 72) This work was so good and its methods so powerful, that it provided the framework for astronomical calculations for nearly 1500 years. It was the framework that guided Copernicus’ own work.

One of the key elements of the folklore surrounding the Copernican revolution is that the idea of a heliocentric system was opposed because it dethroned the Earth from its privileged central position as the center of the universe. It is believed that religious authorities (mainly the Roman Catholic Church) wanted to retain the geocentric model because human beings were God’s special creation and since they lived on the Earth it seemed only right that the Earth should be at the center of the universe. So Copernican ideas were opposed because they seemed to imply a demotion for humans and were thus a blow to human pride.

This view of history can be found in the statements of eminent people such as geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky who in 1973 (on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth) wrote that with Copernicus, the Earth “was dethroned from its presumed centrality and preeminence.” Carl Sagan described Copernicanism as the first of a series of “Great Demotions…delivered to human pride.” Britain’s Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees said “It is over 400 years since Copernicus dethroned the Earth from the privileged position that Ptolemy’s cosmology accorded it.” Sigmund Freud said that Copernicus caused an outrage against humankind’s “naïve self-love.” Biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon said that: “Since Copernicus first suggested that Terra Firma might not be located at the center of the cosmos, most of the remaining vestiges of human specialness have come into doubt.”

Dennis R. Danielson in his article The Great Copernican Cliché (American Journal of Physics, vol. 69, October 2001, p. 1029-1035) tries to sweep away this particular aspect of the Copernican folklore. (The above quotes are from that article.)

The first point that Danielson makes is that the Earth was not believed (even by Aristotle) to be the center of the universe, it was thought to be at the center of the universe, and the distinction is important. It was believed that there was a center of the universe (defined as the center of the large outer sphere in which the stars were embedded) and that matter was drawn to that center. This was why the Earth, being the most massive body (the other elements being water, air, and fire) ended up motionless at the center. There was nothing anthropomorphic in this idea. It was quite physical and naturalistic.

Danielson further points out that the center of the universe was not considered, at that time, a desirable place to be. “In most medieval interpretations of Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s cosmology, earth’s position at the center of the universe was taken as evidence not of its importance but (to use a term still in circulation) its grossness.”

In fact, it was believed by ancient and medieval Arabic, Jewish, and Christian thought that the center was the worst part of the universe, the basement, the sump, where all the muck was collected, so being at the center was not worn as a badge of pride. Danielson points out that in Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy, hell itself is in the inner core of the Earth, which is close to the very center of the universe, consistent with it being considered a foul place. Dante also speaks of hell in ways consistent with Aristotelian dynamics, not as full of flames (because fire is up in the sky, displaced by the heavier earth) but as frozen and immobile.

Danielson quotes medieval writers describing the location of the Earth as “the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world” and that we humans are “lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, and most remote from the heavenly arch.” Cardinal Bellarmine in 1615 says “the earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world”, again emphasizing the low status of the center, since the center is very far from heaven.

By contrast, heaven was ‘up’ and the further up you went in the sky, away from the center, the better it was. So what Copernicus was suggesting, by putting the Sun at the center and the Earth in orbit around it was really a promotion for the Earth and its inhabitants, taking them closer to the heavens.

So when did this history get inverted so that now we believe the opposite? Danielson is unable to pinpoint when exactly the present erroneous view that it was a demotion gained supremacy but he says that from 1650 onwards you can find some writers making that claim and that by the time you get to writer, scientist, and philosopher Goethe (1749-1832) the new belief had taken hold completely. Goethe himself wrote:

Perhaps no discovery or opinion ever produced a greater effect on the human spirit than did the teaching of Copernicus. No sooner was the earth recognized as being round and self-contained, than it was obliged to relinquish the colossal privilege of being the center of the world.

We see that Goethe manages to propagate two historical distortions in that one small paragraph, first repeating the notion of the Earth being found to be round only around the time of Copernicus (and which we refuted earlier in the posting about Columbus), and then that the Copernican revolution was a demotion for humans.

So why and how did this revisionist view of history gain supremacy? It is hard to tell but Danielson suggests some reasons. One is that after the heliocentric model had been well established, the location of the Sun did come to be perceived as a special and privileged place, since all the planets revolved around it, and the Earth was simply one of many planets. So people read back into history the newly believed excellence of the center and imposed that belief retrospectively on the pre-Copernicans.

Another possibility is that the story of humankind’s demotion became a form of perverse pride for human beings. As Danielson says:

[T]he trick of this supposed dethronement is that, while purportedly rendering “Man” less cosmically and metaphysically important, it actually enthrones us modern “scientific humans” in all our enlightened superiority. It declares in effect, “We’re truly very special because we’ve shown that we’re not so special.” (emphasis in original)

But if, in reality, at the time of Copernicus and for some time after, the heliocentric model was seen as a promotion for humans and not a demotion, why was the model opposed? When exactly did the opposition arise? And by whom? In future posts we will look at these and other elements of the Copernican folklore and see what turns up.

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