Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Quote of the Day

The only text from classical antiquity quoted by H. Blumenberg in Die Genesis der kopemikanischen Welt in which the central position of the Earth amounts to a privilege is from Seneca: "That you may understand how she (viz. Nature) wished us, not merely to behold her, but to gaze upon her, see the position in which she has placed us. She has set us in the center of her creation, and has granted us a view that sweeps the universe (circumspectus)." [De Otio V, 4, in Moral Essays]

At first blush, it looks as if we are reading black on white that man is in the place of honor, and that this place is the center. But a closer look shows that this position hardly redounds to man's advantage. On the contrary. For grammar and in reality, the subject is not man, but nature. What Seneca says is that nature wants to have a spectator, so that she can reveal the plenty of her treasures. The place of man in the middle is scarcely a privilege he could boast of. It bears witness to the almighty producer, nature, who wanted to receive applause and managed her theatre so that her admirers would receive comfortable seats.

As far as my knowledge goes (and it does not go as far as I wish), Freud's contention can be propped up by one text and by one text only. I know of only one mediaeval thinker who confused the two meanings of centrality and grounded an alleged greater worth of man on the fact that his home in the universe, namely the Earth, is located in the latter's center. This thinker lived at the beginning of the 10th century in Bagdad. He was the Jewish theologian and apologist (mutakallim) Saadia Gaon (882-942). He becomes interesting for us because he is utterly out of tune with the rest of the mediaeval concert. I quote a passage from his masterpiece, the apologetical tract Book of Beliefs and of Convictions:

Though we see that the creatures are many in number, nevertheless, we need not be confused in regard to which of them constitutes the goal of creation. For there exists a natural criterion by means of which we can determine which one of all the creatures is the end. When, then, we make our investigation with this criterion as a guide, we find that the goal is man. We arrive at this conclusion in the following manner: Habit and nature (binya) place whatever is most highly prized in the center of things which are themselves not so highly prized. Beginning with the smallest things, therefore, we say that it is noted that the kernel is more precious than the leaves. That is due to the fact that the kernel is more precious than the leaves, because the growth of the plant and its very existence depend upon it. Similarly does the seed from which trees grow, if edible, lodge in the center of the fruit, as happens in the case of the nut. But even if a tree grows from an inedible kernel, this kernel is located in the center of the fruit, as is the case of the date, no attention being paid to the edible portion, which is left on the outside to preserve the kernel. In the same way is the yolk of the egg in the center, because from it springs the young bird and the chicken. Likewise also is the heart of man in the middle of his breast, owing to the fact that it is the seat of the soul and the of the natural heat of the body. So, too, is the power of vision located in the center of the eye because it is by means of it that one is able to see. When, therefore, we see that this situation appertains to many things and then find the earth in the center of the heaven with the heavenly spheres surrounding it on all sides, it becomes clear to us that the thing which was the object of creation must be on [om. v.1.] the earth. Upon further investigation of all its parts we note that the earth and the water are both inanimate, whereas we find that the beasts are irrational. Hence only man is left, which gives us the certainty that he must unquestionably have been the intended purpose of creation.

Thus, we have in Saadia and, apparently, in Saadia only, a clear example of an anthropocentrism grounded on a geocentric cosmology. Let me first underline some points:

1) Saadia does not support a naively teleological world-view. This is shown by what he explains, not without some emphasis, about fruits, like dates or apricots, the aim of which is to be looked for in the kernel, not in the edible rind, and which is not edible for man. Natural phenomena are not seen from the point of view of human use, but in themselves.

2) The cogency of the reasoning is somewhat undermined by a [sic] unavowed shift in the criterion. Saadia begins with the thesis, gained by way of induction that nature puts what is more important in the center. In this way, he can make plausible that in the universe, too, we have to look for what is most precious in the center. This should lead us to surmise that the Earth is the jewel of the universe. But when Saadia looks at the Earth, he silently gives up his criterion of centrality and introduces a second point of view, i.e. life. This enables him to discard the elements, because they are lifeless. Finally, he adds a third criterion, or reason. This enables him again to discard the animals on behalf of man alone. The criterion of centrality would not suffice. It is not enough, when what must be proved is the greater worth, not of the Earth, but of man. The alternative reading I mentioned above ("the Earth" instead of "on the Earth") may be the trace of the misgivings that dawned on the mind of some copyist who wanted to simplify Saadia's argumentation.

Furthermore, we will have to point out, on the other hand, that Saadia's contention did not remain unchallenged. On the contrary, later thinkers blamed him for according too much worth to man. They did that without their pulling their punches. The most famous -- and at the same time the most outspoken -- of Saadia's critics was probably the highly learned globetrotter and Biblical scholar Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167), whose rationalistic cast of mind is well-known. The clearest passage I could find is a long digression in the second version (shittah akhereth) of his commentary on the Torah, more precisely in his commentary on the first verse of Genesis. The context is a general critique of anthropomorphism, and especially of the idea according to which man is more worthy than than the angels -- a critique that we can find elsewhere in Ibn Ezra. He mentions the tiny size of the Earth. In the universe, it is hardly more than a geometrical point, i.e. a point without dimensions. He then submits Saadia's two examples (the core in the apple and the yolk in the egg) to harsh criticism:

The argument he mentions, i.e. that what is most worthy n the fruit of the apple-tree is the pip, which maintains the species, is no proof either. For this (viz. the apple) is a compound, which the heavens are not. Moreover, the fruit of the apple-tree is more worthy when it comes to actual existence than what is potentially. What he (Saadia) contends, that the chick comes to being from the red part of the egg, i.e., from the yolk, is false, because the yolk is a food for it.

We can distinguish three arguments in Ibn Ezra's critique:

a) We must tell compound things from simple ones. What holds for the former does not necessarily hold for the latter. In realities that are all in one block, like heavens, it does not make sense to distinguish between the aim and the means towards it.

b) Even if we stick to fruit as an example, we should reverse the order of value that Saadia supposes. For the core, that contains the fruit only potentially, cannot be the final aim.

c) In the case of the egg, the yolk, that undoubtedly lies in the middle, is not the seed, but some sort of pantry for the chick.

Unfortunately, Ibn Ezra's critique does not deal with the relationship between the central position of a thing and the increased worth it is supposed to possess. This is all the more surprising in that he could have poked fun at Saadia without the slightest difficulty. The latter relies on the principle that the content is more important than the container. Now, this principle is diametrally [sic] opposed to another, more commonly admitted principle, i.e. the container is more worth than its content. By not remaining with this principle, Saadia gave critique an easy opening.

Rémi Brague
"Geocentrism as a Humiliation for Man"
Medieval Encounters 3 (1997): 187-210
(footnotes omitted)

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

14 comments:

Baerista said...

Another noteworthy publication in this regard, aside from Brague's excellent article, is:
Dennis R. Danielson: "The Great Copernican Cliché", American Journal of Physics 69 (2001): 1029–35.
http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2001AmJPh..69.1029D

Rabbi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rabbi said...

John S. Wilkins had a post on his blog -Evolving Thoughts- titled "Copernicus did not demote Humanity".

Quote: "Stephen Jay Gould was fond of observing that of the two revolutions identified by Freud as having dethroned humanity – Copernicus, and Darwin’s – that Darwin’s was the more revolutionary, because (as he put it) Copernicus and Galileo merely changed our real estate, while Darwin changed our essence. But it is common to say something like this:

… the Catholic Church fought tooth and nail to suppress Galileo’s finding that the earth was not the center of the universe, because they believed that’s where humanity ought to be.

This is a deep misunderstanding. Copernicus did not demote humanity by making the earth not the centre of the universe; he promoted us."

http://evolvingthoughts.net/2009/12/05/copernicus-did-not-demote-humanity/

Rabbi said...

Jim wrote "As far as my knowledge goes (and it does not go as far as I wish), Freud's contention can be propped up by one text and by one text only. I know of only one mediaeval thinker who confused the two meanings of centrality and grounded an alleged greater worth of man on the fact that his home in the universe, namely the Earth, is located in the latter's center."

Jim, does Peter Lombard qualify?

“Just as man is made for the sake of God – that is, that he
may serve Him –so the universe is made for the sake of man – that is, that it may serve him; therefore is man placed at the middle point of the universe,
that he may both serve and be served.”

Sorry, but I cannot give you the reference for this quote, but I have seen it quoted frequently.

The Ubiquitous said...

Rabbi: I thought that medievals generally considered the central part of the cosmos to be less privileged and honored than the heavens. Or so someone has told me. This, if true, would mean Mr. Lombard's attributed thought, even if true, was an aberration rather than representative, which is really the point that matters.

Baerista said...

The Lombard quote in question seems to trace back to that endless treasure trove of bullshit about the history of science that is Andrew Dickson White's "A History of Warefore of Science with Theology". If that is indeed the case, there is a good chance that it is a fabrication on White's part, who was a proven and notorious liar.

Rabbi said...

Baerista said...

"The Lombard quote in question seems to trace back to that endless treasure trove of bullshit about the history of science that is Andrew Dickson White's "A History of Warfare of Science with Theology". If that is indeed the case, there is a good chance that it is a fabrication on White's part, who was a proven and notorious liar."

I have found this quote referred to in a number of science books, but I cannot find a reference other than the quote being attributed to Peter Lombard's Sentences.
Other than that, the source appears to be that of A.D. White's "A History of Warfare of Science with Theology".

Although, should the quote be a genuine saying of Lombard's, I would be interested in a reference if someone could provide one.

Rabbi said...

The Ubiquitous said...

Rabbi: I thought that medievals generally considered the central part of the cosmos to be less privileged and honored than the heavens. Or so someone has told me. This, if true, would mean Mr. Lombard's attributed thought, even if true, was an aberration rather than representative, which is really the point that matters.

I thought that the Lombard quote (should it prove to be Lombard's) was possibly a belief that was held before Aristotelian Philosophy was baptized into Christian theology.

But I am a welder, not a Historian.

Jim S. said...

Rabbi: first, just to clarify, this entire post is a quote from someone else, not something I wrote. Second, Lombard's Sentences are available online in parallel Latin and English here: http://www.franciscan-archive.org/lombardus/I-Sent.html. I very much doubt you'll find anything like that for the reasons already alluded to in the post and in the other comments. Apart from Saadia the universal position in the Christian Middle Ages was that the center of the universe was the least prestigious, least honorable place -- which is why hell was even more precisely at the center than the surface of the earth. It's an urban myth that they took the center to be a position of prestige, it was precisely the opposite. C. S. Lewis called the medieval cosmology "anthropo-peripheral -- we are creatures of the margin." The earth wasn't at the center so much as it was at the bottom of the universe. Good things, heavenly things, were up; bad things, earthly hellish things, were down.

Rabbi said...

Jim thanks for the reference. I have searched Lombard's "Sentences" and found the quote. I must confess that it reads very differently to me (in English) than the interpretation that White gives in his "History Vol 1, page 117 on "The Development of the New Sacred System of Astronomy-the pseudo Dionysius, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, 116,117.

Peter Lombard says, quote:

« And for this reason, if it be asked, “For what reason was man and/or Angel created?”, one can respond with a brief sermon:  “On account of His Goodness”.  Wherefore (St.) Augustine in the book On Christian Doctrine (says):6  “Because God is good, we are; and inasmuch as we are, we are good” ».
And if there is asked, “For what has the rational creature been created?”, one responds:  “To praise God, to serve him, (and) to enjoy Him”; in which it, not God, profits.  For God, perfect and full of Most High Goodness, can neither be increased nor diminished.  Therefore, that the rational creature has been made by God, must be referred to the Goodness of the Creator and to the utility of the creature ».7  « When, therefore, it is asked, “For what reason and/or for what has the rational creature been made?”, one can respond in the briefest manner:  “For the sake of God’s Goodness, and its own utility.”  Namely, it is useful for it to serve God and to enjoy Him ».  « Therefore Angel and man is said to have been made for God’s sake [propter Deum], not because God, the Creator and most highly blest, needed the service [officio] of either of the two, (He) who does not need our goods,8 but so that (each) would serve Him and enjoy Him, whom to serve is to reign.  For in this the one serving profits, not Him whom is served ».  « And just as man has been made for God’s sake, that is, so that he might serve Him, so the world has been made for man’s sake, that is, so that it might serve him.  Therefore man has been placed in the middle, so that he might be served and himself serve, so that he might accept from each side [utrinque],9 and the whole might redound [reflueret] to the good of man, both the obsequium which he accepts, and which he pays out.  For thus has God willed that He be served by man, so that by that servitude not God, but man, serving, might be helped; and He willed, that the world would serve man, and from this, similarly, that man might be helped.  Therefore the whole good belonged to man, both what has been done for his sake, and (that Good) for the sake of which he has been made.  For all, as the Apostle says,10 are ours, namely (things) superior and equal and inferior.  Indeed (things) superior are ours to thoroughly enjoy, such as God the Trinity, (things) equal to live with [ad convivendum], that is the Angels, who, even if they are now superior to us, in the future they will be (our) equals; who even now belong to us, because they are for our use, just as the things of lords are said “to belong” to (His) household servants, not to the lord, but because they are for their use.  And the Angels themselves in certain passages11 of Scripture are said “to serve” us, so long as they are sent in ministry for our sake ». (Second Book of Sentences, Distinction 1, Part II, Chapter IV)

http://www.franciscan-archive.org/lombardus/opera/ls2-01.html
Below is the reference that A.D. White gives.
Peter Lombard, Sent, II,i,-IV,i,6,7.

Rabbi said...

Jim, in the English it looks like Lombard is saying that man is placed between the world and God so that the world can aid man. Man then, being aided by the world can then serve God.

Here is the passage under discussion in Latin for those with the language skills.

.7 « Cum ergo quaeritur, quare vel ad quid facta sit rationalis creatura, brevissime responderi potest: propter Dei bonitatem, et suam utilitatem. Utile nempe ipsi est servire Deo et frui eo ». « Factus ergo Angelus sive homo propter Deum dicitur esse, non quia creator Deus et summe beatus alterutrius indiguerit officio, qui bonorum nostrorum non eget,8 sed ut serviret ei ac frueretur eo, cui servire regnare est. In hoc enim proficit serviens, non ille cui servitur ». « Et sicut factus est homo propter Deum, id est, ut ei serviret, ita mundus factus est propter hominem, scilicet ut ei serviret. Positus est ergo homo in medio, ut et ei serviretur et ipse serviret, ut acciperet utrinque,9 et reflueret totum ad bonum hominis, et quod accepit obsequium, et quod impendit. Ita enim voluit Deus sibi ab homine serviri, ut ea servitute non Deus, sed homo serviens iuvaretur; et voluit, ut mundus serviret homini, et exinde similiter iuvaretur homo. Totum igitur bonum hominis erat, et quod factum est propter ipsum, et propter quod factus est ipse.

Rabbi said...

Can we say that another A.D. White myth has been busted?

Baerista said...

This sounds much more like it. Chances are, this was a deliberate mis-translation on White's part. Great job finding the passage!

Jim S. said...

Yeah, kudos Rabbi. I'm really surprised there was anything in the Sentences that statement was even based off of, but at least now we can see how it was twisted. Good job.