The heliocentric theory had a profound and negative impact on the Church. It was condemned by the Church, but Copernicus was careful during his life not to incur its wrath, unlike Galileo after him. For fear of censure, he delayed publication of his findings.
Great-thinkers article on Copernicus
Yeah, the objections to heliocentrism were merely academic, and not at all likely to get Copernicus into any trouble (unless you count the derisive laughs of academics as trouble). That Copernicus guy... what a card. He was so afraid of being laughed at that he chose to publish his work only at the very end of his life. Right?
Sarcastic comment by Doctor Logic
It has become widely believed that Copernicus delayed publication of 'On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies' until he was near death because he feared the inevitable reprisal from Rome. This conjures a romantic image of the great man on his deathbed, thumbing through the final published copy of his masterpiece before lying back and closing his eyes for the final time, knowing that the dangerous idea contained within it would cause outrage amongst the establishment. Even he could not have suspected that his treatise would begin the struggle between rationality and superstition and awaken Western Civilisation from its slumbers. Or so the legend goes.
Unfortunately the task of the modern historian is to act as the great killjoy, slicing through the mythology and uncovering the more mundane truth; and, the cynic might say, to construct a few hoary myths of his own. Andrew Dickson White’s portrayal of Copernicus in ‘A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’ was as a man living in fear for his life. When he eventually did publish his thesis, it was in Nuremberg with a grovelling preface inserted by the Lutheran clergyman Andreas Osiander. Thus, Dickson White wrote, ‘the greatest and most ennobling, perhaps, of scientific truths’ was ‘forced, in coming before the world, to sneak and crawl’. Copernicus’s death placed him ‘beyond the reach of the conscientious men who would have blotted his reputation and perhaps destroyed his life’. This however, is to project a later development onto a past event and as Jerome J. Langford points out in ‘Galileo, Science, and the Church’ A.D White’s assertion is ‘considered false by most serious scholars today’. As the historians of science David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers wrote, in a jointly authored article:
White's picture of unremitting religious hostility to heliocentrism is no longer defensible-if, indeed, it ever was. If Copernicus had any genuine fear of publication, it was the reaction of scientists, not clerics, that worried him. Other churchmen before him- Nicole Oresme (a bishop) in the fourteenth century and Nicholas of Cusa (a cardinal) in the fifteenth-had freely discussed the possible motion of the earth, and there was no reason to suppose that the reappearance of this idea in the sixteenth century would cause a religious stir. Indeed, various churchmen, including a bishop and a cardinal, urged Copernicus to publish his book, which appeared with a dedication to Pope Paul III. Had Copernicus lived beyond its publication in 1543, it is highly improbable that he would have felt any hostility or suffered any persecution. The church simply had more important things to worry about than a new astronomical or cosmological system. Although a few critics noticed and opposed the Copernican system, organized Catholic opposition did not appear until the seventeenth century.
In time Copernicanism would be considered controversial and heretical for reasons we will look at in a future instalment, but within the lifetime of the great astronomer the atmosphere was greatly different. At the time of his death in 1543 the Catholic Church was in the early stages of the Reformation and had not yet adopted the fortress mentality it would later fall into. Not until 1616 and the actions of Galileo was Copernicus’s book to be suspended until corrected and only after the Galileo affair ended in 1633 would Copernicianism be actually declared heretical.
In fact, as the record shows, high officials in the Catholic Church - such as the Bishop of Culm, Tiedemann Giese - actively encouraged Copernicus to develop his model for both intellectual and practical reasons. A good one being that accurate astronomical models were needed in order to be able to predict the date of the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (Easter). In 1530 Copernicus circulated an outline of his astronomy amongst friends called ‘Commentariolus’. This attracted widespread attention and in 1533 Pope Clement VII requested Johann Widmanstadt to deliver a public lecture on the Copernican theory in the Vatican gardens. The Pope having been favourably impressed (he presented Widmanstadt with a rare Greek manuscript) Nicholas Cardinal Schoenburg wrote to Copernicus urging him to publish the complete details. The letter, which was included in De Revolutionibus reads:
Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you, and also to congratulate our contemporaries among whom you enjoyed such great prestige. For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe; that the eighth heaven remain perpetually motionless and fixed; and that, together with the elements included in its sphere, the moon, situated between the heavens of Mars and Venus, revolves around the sun in the period of a year. I have also learned that you have written an exposition of this whole system of astronomy, and have computed the planetary motions and set them down in tables, to the greatest admiration of all. Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject. Moreover, I have instructed Theodoric of Reden to have everything copied in your quarters at my expense and dispatched to me. If you gratify my desire in this matter, you will see that you are dealing with a man who is zealous for your reputation and eager to do justice to so fine a talent. Farewell.
Rome, 1 November 1536
Having received this letter however, Copernicus still relented to publish. Later on he gave his reasons for his reticence as:
‘the scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion, almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken’
Without any direct evidence of the earth’s motion, Copernicus was going to find it very hard to convince the sceptics. The academic establishment of the time was conservative and controlled by devoted Aristotelians who were interested in preserving the status quo. As Marie Boas Hall points out in The Scientific Renaissance:
'Copernicus knew that his theory was both novel and strange. He feared lest it should be regarded as absurd as well and he himself, as he put it “hissed off the stage”...Fear of ridicule is not a very noble motive for withholding publication, perhaps, but it can be a real one : Galileo felt something of this half a century later and there seems no reason not to believe Copernicus when he says it influenced him strongly’
Copernicus had been more than willing to circulate his theory in manuscript form. This was his society’s equivalent of submitting a paper to technical specialists. Formal publication however, would expose his ideas to criticism by everyone. As Boas explains:
‘Actual publication of the De Revolutionibus exposed the Copernican system, as its author knew would happen, to comment and criticism by all and sundry – humanists, scholastics, astrologers, mathematicians, crackpots, ecclesiastics – for any educated man in the sixteenth century fancied himself competent to pass judgement on astronomical theories...as a public figure of some not he was vulnerable to public disdain from university professors and his superiors in the church, quite capable of judging astronomical theory. But as he remarked disarmingly in his dedication, the Pope, by his ‘influence and judgement can readily hold the slanderers from biting’
In the event however, the news of Copernicus’s work spread and in 1539 he was visited by a young German professor called Georg Rheticus. Rheticus would become an enthusiastic supporter of the astronomer, and produced a well written summery of his work called ‘First Report’. This having produced interest, Rheticus obtained a manuscript of ‘De Revolutionibus’ and set off in 1541 to obtain its publication. At Leipzig, he secured a professorship and, having become embroiled in a scandal involving a homosexual affair with one of his students, he gave the manuscript to Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian to organise the printing.
Osiander was familiar with Copernicus’s work and had written to him suggesting that to ‘mollify the peripatetics and theologians whose opposition you fear’ he should include some words to suggest the heliocentric theory was a hypothesis. Instead, a suitable preface would placate the scholarly community by empahsising that Copernicus's theory was based on a series of assumptions and hence cannot claim ultimate truth. The aim of this was as Osiander put it:
'In that way, the potential opponents will be lured away from massive criticism to more intensive research; and through newly gained respect and a lack of counter arguments be moved to fairness and ultimately to acceptance...Aristotelians and theologians will be easily placated if they hear that the same motion as perceived can be explained by means of different hypothesis'
Copernicus was unhappy with this since it had always been his aim to show the true structure of the planetary system rather than some mathematical fiction. Kepler, who saw Copenicus's reply to Osiander said that the astronomer had had no intention of complying with his idea and had decided to maintain his own opinion 'even though the science should be damaged'.
In the event however Osiander did publish a unsigned preface suggesting the heliocentric theory was a hypothesis for computation. Rheticus was furious at this and tried to publish a corrected version without success. Bishop Giese was also outraged, describing the preface as a 'fraud' and writing to Rheticus with the aim of having the preface denounced to the Senate of Nuremberg.
In the event however, Osiander's motives were far from malicious. Osiander was following the custom of the Middle ages which was to propound new theories as hypotheses whose truth remained to be tested in the public forum; this reflected a tradition of instrumentalism that had been applied to astronomy since the time of Ptolemy. He was also making an honest attempt to disarm the defenders of the Aristotelian position and at most he was guilty of an error of judgement. In the event, the label 'hypothesis' applied to the heliocentric theory did open a way for the wide dissemination of its main principles and prepared the ground for the acceptance of the new cosmology.
The printing was completed in 1543 shortly before Copernicus’s death . Of the 4 to 500 copies which were printed, that of Rheticus survives. On the flyleaf is a poem in Greek which reads:
Stranger : What is this book?
Philosopher : A new one, with all kinds of good things in it.
Stranger : Oh Zeus!, how great a wonder do I see! The earth whirls everywhere in aethereal space
Philosopher : But do not merely wonder, nor condemn such a good thing As the ignorant do before they understand But examine and ponder all these things
By the time Galileo turned to astronomy in a serious way, the political situation had changed and the ignorant would have their day.
The Galileo Affair - (2) The Cosmic Promotion
The Galileo Affair - (1) The Problem with Heliocentrism
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