Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Urbanus Magnus – The Civilised Man

'Coram magnificos manifeste scalpere nolis Torquendo digitos nares (1312-1313)

In front of grandees, do not openly excavate your nostril by twisting your fingers'

Daniel of Beccles

s prosperity grew in12th century England there was a renewed focus on etiquette and manners. This was a time of cultural renewal which was based on classical models. Along with the elaboration of monastic rules of behaviour (‘customaries’) and the development of ‘household ordinances and serving manuals’, there also appeared a series of Anglo-Latin courtesy poems which gave advice to young men on appropriate aristocratic and Christian behaviour.

One of these ‘books of manners’ was a 3,000 line work called ‘Urbanus Magnus’. This was written by a Danielis Becclesiensis,(today translated as Daniel of Beccles) and was intended to advise men and boys on how to improve their status in a rapidly changing society. Daniel was described by the Tudor chronicler John Bale as having been in the household of King Henry II for over 30 years. His poem covers such subjects as hierarchy, table manners and sex, with a dizzying array of jumps between topics.

The elegy begins:

To be adorned with morals and manners, if you desire, reader, to be venerated, to be noble among lords and lead a civilized life, to be a provident overseer in administering your own property, read and re-read often and keep for ever in your mind these verses which I have decided to write, clad in the lightness of common language, for boy-clerks.

Daniel’s advice starts with a man’s duty to God. He should obey the law and the Commandments; he should be wary of vices and pursue virtues. He should endeavour to perform pious works, love learning and behave in church. He should think of the inevitability of death, the joys of Heaven and the terrors of Hell.

Sex, Marriage and Children

On sexual practice Daniel of Beccles gives detailed advice and displays a somewhat misogynistic attitude towards women. The civilised man, Daniel opines, should not have sex with holy women, his godmothers or relatives; he should flee from masturbators and those who have sex with animals and boys. As a young lad he should not practice homosexuality:

‘as a boy, don’t become another foul Ganymede the boy who slipped filthily, grown old savours filth’.

He also gives somewhat cheerless advice on visiting prostitutes:

‘If you are overcome with erotic desire when you are young and your penis drives you to go to a prostitute, do not go to a common whore; empty your testicles quickly and depart quickly.’

As the poem develops we can see Daniel re-working the Graeco-Roman anti-feminist tradition in warning the reader against lascivious wives and lustful women. Here he may have taken inspiration from the works of Juvenal. One scene of the poem describes a woman lying in bed with her husband, with her thoughts on to her secret lover:

‘The lascivious woman throws herself around the neck of her lover, her fingers give him those secret touches that she denies to her husband in bed; one wicked act with her lover pleases the lascivious adulteress more than a hundred with her husband; women's minds always burn for the forbidden’

Like many of his contemporaries Daniel of Beccles appears convinced that women are naturally sexually voracious. In his words

‘when tempted by sweet words, even a chaste, good, dutiful, devout and kindly woman will resist scarcely anyone’.

He says she is always ready to fornicate "with a cook or a half-wit, a peasant or a ploughman, or a chaplain... what she longs for is a thick, leaping, robust piece of equipment, long, smooth and stiff... such are the things that charm and delight women".

Despite this he says "Whatever your wife does, do not damage your marriage" and he goes on to say "if you are am cuckold, do not whisper a word about it... when you are a cuckold, learn to look up at the ceiling."

He also offers a piece of timeless wisdom when he says:

When there is something you do not want people to know, do not let your wife know it.

Daniel also expertly details how to avoid an awkward and embarrassing situation; a sexual proposition from the lady of the house:

If the wife of your lord turns her eyes on you too often and wantonly looses shameful fires against you, letting you know that she wants to have intercourse with you; if she says, “The whole household and your lord, my husband, shall serve you for ever, you alone shall be my darling, you shall rule everything, everything which belongs to you lord shall be open to you”... consult me, my son; what I counsel is planted in your heart; between two evils, choose the lesser evil; your safer plan is to feign illness, nerve-racking diseases, to go away sensibly and prudently.

Daniel then ends this topic with the subject of children, on whom he seems none too keen:

They cover their clothes with ashes, they make them dirty, they dribble on them; they wipe their noses flowing with filth on their sleeves.

He advises keeping them out of sight when guests are around.

The Household

In the poem Daniel is very concerned with social hierarchy, how one should behave towards ones lord and patron and the way in which you should conduct youself in the household. The first few lines deal with the use of animals:

Let not a brute beast be stabled in the hall, let not a pig or a cat be seen in it; the animals which can be seen in it are the charger and the palfrey, hounds entered to hare, mastiff pups, hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons and merlins.

Daniel then turns to the stabling of horses in the hallway:

When you are about to leave, let your cob be at the door. Do not mount him in the hall.

All dealings with the Lord of the Manor are covered by Daniel, including how you should conduct yourself when he goes to the privy.

“… Eventually, it would be time for the inferior to wait on the lord as he went to bed.... When he sits on the privy in the usual way, take in your hands hay or straw, pick up two bigs wads of hay in your fingers and press them well together. You should prepare to give them to your patron when he wants them. Let the wads be given to him as you stand, not bending the knee. If two together are sitting on a privy, one should not get up while the other is emptying himself."

When the Lord goes to bed, Daniel advises that:

If you are acting as a servant, stand by the bedside; cover your lord’s naked body

Eating and Table Manners

Table manners is another preoccupation of Daniel, in particular the exercise of decorum and delicacy in front of your superiors and guests. Daniel begins

If a fat morsel lies in the dish in front of your companion, do not touch it with your finger, for fear that fingers will be pointed at you as a boor....When your fellow drains his cups, cease eating. Beware of shouting ‘Wassail’ unless you are bidden to do so. While food is visible in your mouth, let your mouth savour no drink; while food is hidden in your mouth, let your tongue not minister to words. The morsel placed in an eater’s mouth should not be so big that he cannot speak properly if he needs to do so. Beware of drinking wine greedily like Bacchus….Sitting at table as a guest, you should not put your elbows on the table. You can put your elbows on your own table but not on someone else’s

Daniel then says that you should not talk with your mouth full of food ('While food is hidden in your mouth, let your tongue not minister to words') and advises against the theft of cutlery:

Spoons which are used for eating do not become your property.

Among his principle concerns is what comes out of the body, as well as what goes into it. He advises:

Do not be a nose-blower at dinner nor a spitter; if a cough attacks you defeat the cough...If you want to belch, be mindful to look at the ceiling.… Do not say ‘Drink first’ when the butler offers you drink. If he says ‘Wassail (Weisheil)’, let your response be ‘Drink hail (Drincheil)’. But if by chance you have a girl as butler, you may properly say ‘Drink first to me, taking an equal share’

According to Daniel only the host himself can urinate in the hall after dinner. The rest, it is clear, should go outside. A man who defecates should find a hidden place in a wood or field and face into the wind. He should then use his left hand to wipe himself. Daniel then adds that it is shameful to attack an enemy who was in this position (‘Do not attack your enemy while he is squatting to defecate’). It was generally wrong to fart indoors.

Daniel also advises doing certain bodily activities in private:

Do not hunt for fleas on your arms or bosom in front of the patron or in front of the servants in the hall....In front of grandees, do not openly evacuate your nostril by twisting your fingers

The book finally ends by attributing the teachings to ‘old king Henry’ and asking for blessings on the author.

Old Henry first taught people lacking style
These courtly lessons set forth in this book

Here ends the ‘Book of the Urbane Man’ by Daniel of Beccles

Now Strike the Sail! And may God that blesses
Elisha give to Daniel heavenly rest

Although perhaps a little dated, much of Daniel’s advice is applicable today. I would especially advise against stabling a horse in your host’s hallway and defecating in it after dinner; find a nice spot in the woods instead.

Further Reading

Please see this 'Urbanus Magnus' article by A.D Frith on my Dad's local history site
The Beccles and District Museum

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Blogging the Question

In an earlier post I whined about how people often misuse a particular logical fallacy. Here's another case: when people use "begs the question" (petitio principii) to mean "forces us to ask..."

People, that's not what "begs the question" means. It means presupposes (begs) what is at question. If an argument begs the question it means it is a circular argument: you are assuming the conclusion in order to argue for said conclusion. Take the following exchange as an example.

"X is true!"
"How do you know?"
"Because X says so."

In order to argue that X is true, the arguer presupposed that X is true. This is obviously fallacious, because it leaves unanswered the interlocutor's question of how we can know that X (and its statements about itself) are true. It begs the question.

Here is a simple way to know whether you are misusing the phrase: if you follow the statement "begs the question" with, you know, a question, then you have invited the mockery and scorn of pedantic philosophers around the world. Instead, substitute the phrase "forces us to ask" or something similar, and your argument will be potentially free of fallacies about fallacies.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Galileo Affair - (3) The Death-Bed Publication

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 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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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Narnia Code

The Narnia Code, inspired by Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia, was broadcast on BBC1 last week. It was on quite late so I recorded it and watched it over the weekend (the link takes you to the show). The show brought back to me just how important a figure C.S. Lewis is.

The show started with a brief review of Lewis’s life up until he began to write the Narnia chronicles. It was illustrated by some poignant vignettes from his life such as the death of his mother, being tutored by the Great Knock and the Inklings arguing in the Eagle and Child pub. These dramatic reconstructions worked extremely well and I could have happily sat through a much longer programme just telling the story of Lewis’s life. Most of the material was based on Surprised by Joy, the autobiography of his early life which I have always felt would make an excellent film.

What of the Narnia code itself? Ward’s thesis is that each of the seven Narnia books is modelled on the attributes of one of the seven planets in the medieval universe. These are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the Moon. We learnt from the programme that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe represents Jupiter (the bringer of joy as Holst fans will recall), Prince Caspian represents Mars (the god of war), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader represents the Sun and The Silver Chair the Moon. I was slightly annoyed we were not told the planets of the other three books (unless I missed that part) since I had them laid out before me and wanted to know if my guesses were right. I would have thought The Horse and his Boy was Venus, The Last Battle was Saturn and The Magician’s Nephew Mercury, but it has been a long time since I read them.

The experts on the show disagreed about whether Ward’s theory is right, but as I’ve said before I think it is plausible. Like most medievalists, I learnt about the worldview of the Middle Ages at Lewis’s feet, from reading The Discarded Image. One question that the show did not address was why Lewis never let on what he was up to. But then, the really good ideas don’t just provide answers, they also raise interesting new questions. Michael Ward’s theory of the planets is like that.

The last part of the show featured Professors Polkinghorne and Gingerich on the stupidity of seeing science and religion in conflict. This was all very commendable (and Polkinghorne looks good on TV) but looked like padding. When there was so much rich material directly relevant to the thrust of the show, it was not necessary. Instead, we could have seen a debunking of the flat earth myth (a subtle point in the context since Narnia is flat); Dante’s cosmology or references to Chaucer and his astrolabe. It was a good opportunity to talk up the Middle Ages which was not entirely grasped. Michael Ward himself was also a good TV presenter (my wife was very impressed by his smile and manner). Perhaps we will see some more of him in the future.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Galileo Affair - (2) The Cosmic Promotion

Our ancestors lived out of doors ... [And to them, it seemed,] the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars are part of some elegantly configured cosmic clockwork ... put here for a purpose, for our benefit. Who else makes use of them? What else are they good for?

This satisfying demonstration of importance, buttressed by daily observations of the heavens, made the geocentrist conceit a transcultural conceit—taught in the schools, built into the language, part and parcel of great literature and sacred scripture. Dissenters were discouraged, sometimes with torture and death. It is no wonder that for the vast bulk of human history, no one questioned it.

Carl Sagan

The great paradox of humanity is that all the greatest of our intellectual endeavours are perversely mirrored by a crippling diminution of what it is to be human. Having emerged by a slow, bloody march from the primeval slime of the earth we are informed in gloating terms of our complete and total insignificance. Copernicus, we are told, banished the earth from the centre of the universe; Darwin told us our closest ancestors were ‘damn dirty’ apes and Freud informed us that we all secretly fantasise about sleeping with our mothers; although that last vignette might tell us more about the scale of his cocaine habit than the state of the human condition.

The problem is that the first of these humiliations, the overthrow of Geocentrism, doesn’t appear to have been the affront to our ‘naïve self love’ and ignorant religious worldview which Freud portrayed it as. The first crucial point is that the Jewish and Christian scriptures are not supportive of anthropocentric egoism. Instead they proclaim the smallness of mankind, its weakness and its moral incapacity in comparison to the greatness and omni-benevolence of the creator. As the psalmist declares to God:

‘when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them’.

The ancient Jewish picture of the world was vertical. God was above and the abyss lay below. The human race was in-between both in place and value. Among created things we were lower than the angels and higher than plants, animals and inanimate objects. In no sense were we at the centre.

Nor was Aristotle’s system of physics in any way a prop to human arrogance. The earth was at the centre of the universe purely because that was where heavy things would collect by their nature. Since our planet was heavier than water air and fire, it would tend to remain motionless at the centre. Was this an exalted position to be in?. No. The further from the centre the more sublime and beautiful things were, while the closer they were to the centre, the baser and grosser. More refined substances like fire tended upwards while heavy, earthly things tended towards their natural place at the centre of the earth

As Moses Maimonides asserted:

‘In the case of the universe..the nearer the parts are to the centre, the greater is their turbideness, their solidity, their inertness, their dimness and darkness, because they are further away from the loftiest element, from the source of light and brightness’.

The centre of the universe was by far the worst place to be.

As Jim points out in his essay, neither Aristotle nor Ptolemy thought the Earth to be a large part of the universe. Aristotle thought it was of "no great size" compared to the heavenly spheres. Ptolemy says in the Almagest that "The Earth has a ratio of a point to the heavens."

Following this theme of self deprecation, Thomas Aquinus declares that:

‘in the universe, earth – that all the spheres encircle and that, as for place, lies in the centre, is the most material and coarsest (ignobilissima) of all bodies’

According to the accepted cosmology of the period therefore, our miserable sphere was located at the bottom of the celestial hierarchy, considered too unworthy to be part of the heavens due to its imperfect and sinful nature and with hell and purgatory placed by Dante at the its core, the very centre of the universe. Our planet stood in dismal contrast to the heavenly firmament above, a realm of perfection derived from Plato's Theory of Forms with the realm of God beyond.

As Michael de Montaigne wrote:

"The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man and withal the proudest. he feels and sees himself 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, the most remote from the heavenly arch"

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola followed this theme, referring to earth in delightful terms as occupying ‘the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world’

Thus, as Dennis R Danielson points out in a recent essay ‘The Copernican Demotion of Humans’:

‘the greater obstacle to Copernican theory was almost two millennia of a physics according to which the gross earth was obviously down and the glorious sun was obviously up. Accordingly the first semi-official response to the Revolutions, written by a Dominican friar but framed in transparently Aristotelian terms complained that “Copernicus puts the indestructible sun in a place subject to destruction”. Rather scandalously , heliocentrism was seen as ‘exalting’ the position of humankind in the universe and pulling the earth out of the cosmic slump that Copernicus’s predecessors thought it occupied- and conversely placing the sun into that central yet tainted location’.

In order to counter this impression, Copernicus and his assistant Rheticus were keen to enhance the status of the centre by suggesting it was a throne, a fitting place for the majestic sun to govern the planets. The earth had been effectively promoted to the status of a star ‘moving among the planets as one of them’.

As Danielson explains, the relocation was often seen in positive terms except by those who preferred that the gross earth be put in its proper place. The English clergyman John Wilkins for example, opposed those who presumed that ‘the earth is of a more ignoble substance than any other planets, consisting of a more base and vile matter’ that ‘the centre is the worst place’ and that is where the earth should be.

Kepler saw the new cosmology as offering humanity a new cosmic advantage. Because man had been created for contemplation:

‘he could not remain at rest in the center..but must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform his observations…There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth. For, in the first place, it is exactly in the middle of the principal globes…Above it are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Within the embrace of its orbit run Venus and Mercury, while at the centre the sun rotates.’

Galileo railed against those who argued:

‘principally on the grounds that it has neither motion nor light, that the earth must be excluded from the dance of the stars. For I will prove that the earth does have motion, that it surpasses the moon in brightness, and that it is not the sump where the universe's filth and ephemera collect.’

Since the earth’s meteoric rise from a cesspool at the centre of the Aristotelian universe to an exalted position amongst the stars looks like a stunning promotion, where did the idea of cosmic demotion come from?. Like a substantial number of the world’s delusions it appears to have come from the French enlightenment. According to Danielson:

‘it was Cyrano de Bergerac who associated pre-Copernican geocentrism with the “insupportable arrogance of Mankinde, which fancies, that nature was onley created to serve it’. Most influentially, the science popularizer Bernard de Bouvier de Fontenelle’s Discourse on the Plurality of Worlds complimented Copernicus who ‘takes the earth and throws it out of the center of the world’- for his’ design was to abate the vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the universe’.

This retrospectively imposed dethronement became the standard account during the enlightenment. The myth serves a valuable purpose. It allows the proponent to wallow in smugness and intellectual superiority at the naivety of his forebears. It also forms a great centrepiece in the grand narrative of materialism; the inevitable unmasking of humanity and exposure of its cosmic insignificance. Yet it is not at all clear that the great scale of the universe is any cause for despair. For example, when Cotton Mather looked out at the stars through his telescope he proclaimed:

'Great God, what a variety of world's hast thou created!. How stupendous are the displays of thy greatness and of thy glory'

Calvin's conclusion about the human condition was that:

"If God had formed us of the stuff of the sun or the stars, or if he had created any other celestial matter out of which man could have been made, then we might have said that our beginning was honourable. ... But ... we are all made of mud, and this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole of our boots, or in our shoes. We are full of it, we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and outside."

Ironically we do appear to be made out of stardust. The universe we see is greater than anything he could have imagined; provided, that is, you ditch the misery tinted spectacles.

The Galileo Affair - (1) The Problem with Heliocentrism

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Size Doesn't Matter, part 2

Update (Oct. 17, 2014): I temporarily removed the content of this post because it has some similarities with an article I wrote that was published in an academic journal about a year ago. Even though a blogpost probably doesn't count as having previously published the material, I took the content of this post offline in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, with the intention of restoring it after a year had passed. Since it's been a year, the original post is below.

It is often pointed out that the size of the universe as conceived by the ancients and medievals was much, much smaller than we have discovered it to be. This is certainly true. They believed that the universe consisted of the solar system: the Sun, Moon, planets (out to Saturn, the furthest planet they knew of), and a sphere of stars. Even if they had our knowledge of the solar system and the distance from Earth to Neptune, their conception of the universe was orders of magnitude smaller than we know it to be. Doesn't this demonstrate that we have removed any spectre of significance that they might have applied to the Earth?

Well, no, actually. It is true that modern science has demonstrated that the universe is incomparably larger than the premoderns believed. But this is not the same thing as showing that they believed the Earth to be the largest thing in the universe, much less that the universe itself is small.

An excellent book on this is Measuring the Universe: Cosmic Dimensions from Aristarchus to Halley by Albert Van Helden. He goes into some detail with the specific calculations given by ancient and medieval cosmologists, so if you want more detail it's an excellent resource. Unfortunately only the first 40 pages or so are given to ancient and medieval views. Another author who comments on this, specifically as it touches on Christianity, is C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image, as well as chapter 7 of Miracles. Interestingly (or ironically, depending on your point of view), Van Helden takes issue with Lewis regarding Roger Bacon's Opus Maius. I think it's based on a misunderstanding, but I won't go into it here. (Update: I address their disagreement in an addendum.)

As a simple matter of fact, the ancients and medievals believed that the universe was larger that we can imagine, and that the Earth should be considered a mathematical point, infinitely small, within it. In the fourth century BC Aristotle, Eudoxus, and Calippus argued for a spherical Earth, and this was the consensus model thereafter. The significance of this is, as Van Helden argues, "One of the postulates of spherical astronomy is that the Earth can be considered a mere point in relation to the spheres of the heavenly bodies." This belief allowed them to assume "that the Sun's rays striking the Earth are parallel, even at locations far removed from each other" on the Earth's surface. Aristotle, for example, wrote in De Caelo 2:14 that "our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size," pointing out that even a small change of location on Earth (from Greece to Cyprus to Egypt) results in different stars being seen. Others followed this belief, such as Eratosthenes (third century BC), Hipparchus (second century BC), and finally Ptolemy (second century AD) whose system became the accepted cosmological model in the Middle Ages. Ptolemy specifically wrote in Almagest 1:5 that, "The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point."

In Planetary Hypotheses, Ptolemy used the mathematical models and parallaxes he had calculated in Almagest to determine the sizes and distances of the planets and the stars. In determining the distances of the planets, Ptolemy employed the Aristotelian doctrine that there are no empty spaces between spheres, known as the "nesting spheres" framework. As such, Van Helden states, "The greatest geocentric distance of one planet therefore had to equal the least distance of the next higher planet." Thus the furthest distance of the last planet (Saturn) equalled the distance to the sphere of fixed stars. Using this, Ptolemy calculated the distance to the sphere of stars as 19,865 earth radii, which translates to approximately 80 million miles or 130 million kilometers (using Eratosthenes' measurement for the Earth's radius). In fact, Ptolemy states that this may only be the minimum distance: "if all the distances have been given correctly, the volumes are also in accord with what we have said. If the distances are greater than those we described, then these sizes are the minimum values possible."

Ptolemy's system completely dominated astronomy until the Modern Age. According to Van Helden:

From the second to the sixteenth century, astronomy was a commentary on Ptolemy. No man ever wielded posthumously such a pervasive and long-lived authority in astronomy, and it is to be doubted that anyone ever will again. Ptolemy's work superseded the efforts of all his predecessors -- surely one of the main reasons why so few of their works have survived -- and it defined the astronomical problems for his successors, at least until the time of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

In the sixth century AD, Boethius had the character Philosophia in The Consolation of Philosophy (one of the most widely-read books throughout the Middle Ages) tell him that the Earth is so small and the universe so large that the former should be treated as a mathematical point. Almagest was translated into Arabic three times in the ninth century AD, and Planetary Hypotheses was as well (only once though). Among the many Muslim commentators were al-Farghānī, Thābit ibn Qurra, and al-Battānī. The Christian West was heavily influenced by the Muslim astronomers, and their works (as well as Ptolemy's) were translated into Latin, beginning in the twelfth century. Van Helden writes, "it is fair to say that virtually all educated persons after about 1250 were familiar with the principle of nesting spheres and the cosmic dimensions derived from it." As with the Muslims, the Christians accepted Ptolemy's cosmic distances, only fine-tuning them here and there. Campanus, for example, gave the distance to the sphere of the stars as 22,612 earth radii, which translates to over 73 million miles using a more accurate measurement of the Earth's radius as 3,245 miles. One of the most prominent scientists to comment on Ptolemy was Roger Bacon. He gave the distances of the astronomical objects in miles, putting the distance to the sphere of fixed stars at 65,357,500 miles. Since this is essentially the radius of a sphere, Bacon doubled it to reach a diameter of 130,715,000 miles, and multiplied this by pi to reach the universe's circumference at 410,818,517 miles (and three-sevenths).

Ptolemy's astronomy was firmly embedded in medieval society. According to Van Helden, "the Ptolemaic cosmic dimensions can be found throughout the spectrum of the literature of the High Middle Ages, from the technical to the popular." As such, it obviously exerted influence in other genres of writing. He cites the thirteenth century French poem Image du Monde, The South English Legendary from the same century (also cited by Lewis), and Dante's Convivio. Lewis writes in Miracles

More than seventeen hundred years ago Ptolemy taught that in relation to the distance of the fixed stars the whole Earth must be regarded as a point with no magnitude. His astronomical system was universally accepted in the Dark and Middle Ages. The insignificance of Earth was as much a commonplace to Boethius, King Alfred, Dante, and Chaucer as it is to Mr. H. G. Wells or Professor Haldane. Statements to the contrary in modern books are due to ignorance.

The real question is quite different from what we commonly suppose. The real question is why the spatial insignificance of Earth, after being asserted by Christian philosophers, sung by Christian poets, and commented on by Christian moralists for some fifteen centuries, without the slightest suspicion that it conflicted with their theology, should suddenly in quite modern times have been set up as a stock argument against Christianity and enjoyed, in that capacity, a brilliant career.

So why are we so willing to believe the premoderns thought the Earth was the largest thing in a small universe? Part of it, no doubt, is because we compare their conception of the universe's size with our own and recognize that we know the universe to be unimaginably larger than they thought it to be. What this fails to recognize, however, is that they were starting with an unimaginable size. The universe was, to the premoderns, larger than we can fathom. Multiplying an unfathomable size by a thousand, a million, or even by another unfathomable size, yields ... an unfathomable size. The specific differences can be mathematically expressed of course, and they have a great deal of value for our understanding of the universe. But as far as the human imagination is concerned, the modern "discovery" that the universe is larger than we can imagine was something everyone already knew. As Lewis writes in Discarded Image, "the fact that the height of the stars in the medieval astronomy is very small compared with their distance in the modern, will turn out not to have the kind of importance you anticipated. For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same. Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined; and the more imagination we have the better we shall know this."

However, Lewis argues, there is a possible counter-argument to all of this. Many times in premodern literature, characters are taken outside of Earth to the sphere of the Moon, or even of the fixed stars. From this vantage point, they then look down upon Earth, and see all kinds of details which would be impossible to see from a great distance. Doesn't this suggest that they did not really perceive the distances to be very great? Lewis's answer:

The impossibility, under the supposed conditions, of such visual experiences is obvious to us because we have grown up from childhood under the influence of pictures that aimed at the maximum of illusion and strictly observed the laws of perspective. We are mistaken if we suppose that mere commonsense, without any such training, will enable men to see an imaginary scene, or even to see the world they are living in, as we all see it today. Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. Nature, for Chaucer, is all foreground; we never get a landscape. And neither poets nor artists were much interested in the strict illusionism of later periods. The relative size of objects in the visible arts is determined more by the emphasis the artist wishes to lay upon them than by their sizes in the real world or by their distance. Whatever details we are meant to see will be shown whether they would really be visible or not. I believe Dante would have been quite capable of knowing that he could not have seen Asia and Cadiz from the stellatum and nevertheless putting them in. Centuries later Milton makes Raphael look down from the gate of Heaven, that is, from a point outside the whole sidereal universe -- 'distance inexpressible By Numbers that have name' (VIII, 113) -- and see not only Earth, not only continents on Earth, not only Eden, but cedar trees (V, 257-61).

Thus, these examples do not demonstrate that the ancients and medievals thought the universe was small, or even that its size was imaginable. On the contrary, they recognized that the universe was larger than we can fathom, and that the Earth was, for all practical purposes, an infinitely small point within it.

Another possible counter-argument might be that, even if the premoderns clearly believed the universe to be unimaginably large, they still believed the Earth to be the largest -- and therefore most important -- thing in it. But this is simply false. Aristotle argued in De Caelo that "compared with the stars it [the Earth] is not of great size." Lewis points out that Cicero, in Somnium Scipionis, recognized "that the stars were globes which easily outstripped the Earth in size. ... This passage was constantly in the minds of succeeding writers. The insignificance (by cosmic standards) of the Earth became as much a commonplace to the medieval, as to the modern, thinker; it was part of the moralists' stock-in-trade, used, as Cicero uses it (xix), to mortify human ambition." Besides Cicero, Lewis also lists Chalcidius and Macrobius as believing, "like everyone else," that the Earth was smaller than the smallest star, and argues that this belief was held throughout the Middle Ages. According to the Ptolemaic system, only Venus, Mercury, and the Moon were smaller than the Earth (which, in fact, they are); everything else was larger. With Ptolemy's system achieving near universal assent in the Middle Ages, these sizes almost never varied.

In fact, even if we ignore this -- even if we assume for the sake of argument that the premoderns thought the Earth was larger than the stars, the planets, and the Sun -- we still cannot ascribe any significance to it based on this. On this view, the Earth would still not be the largest object: "The furthest sphere, Dante's maggior corpo is, quite simply and finally, the largest object in existence." In their cosmology, there was no such thing as empty space; all of the vast distances between the stars and planets were completely filled, and as such, each sphere constituted an object of overwhelming size. In comparison to the most distant sphere, that of the fixed stars, the Earth was, as far as our imaginations are concerned, infinitely small.

Thus, the claim that the premoderns believed the Earth and its inhabitants significant because it was the largest thing in a small universe doesn't even get off the ground. They thought the Earth was one of the smallest things in an unfathomably large universe. While modern science has certainly corrected their cosmology on many points, it has not altered this part of the picture. If they did think an object's significance was related to its size, then they would have concluded that the Earth is one of the least important, significant, or valuable places in the universe.

Update (11 Aug): (see also part 1 and part 3)

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Was Jesus' Resurrection an Urban Legend?

Last Easter I argued that Jesus' resurrection cannot be explained in terms of mythology. But I also pointed out that people who think Jesus is a myth equivocate between whether they mean "mythology" or "urban legend." While mythology takes a long time to develop, urban legends are just stories that have been passed along throughout society. Since they do not result from a long process of mythologization -- where at some point the story is misinterpreted or corrupted -- either the person(s) who first told the story experienced something they misunderstood for something else, or they didn't. If they didn't, they must have known that they didn't (i.e. they made it up), although I suppose insanity could be a possible explanation as well. If they did experience something which they subsequently misunderstood, it was either something outside the person or it was something inside the person's mind (i.e. a hallucination). Thus an urban legend must have at least one of the following causes: the person who originally told the the story 1. simply made it up (for example, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster); 2. was insane; 3. hallucinated; or 4. experienced something which he mistook for something else (such as Elvis and UFO sightings).

Now the problem with saying that Jesus' resurrection was an urban legend is that it cannot fit into any of these categories.

1. There are two reasons mitigating against the idea that the early Christians made up the resurrection: first, the resurrection of Jesus was significantly different from the Jewish concept of resurrection, not to mention pagan concepts of the afterlife. The Jewish concept was that everyone who has ever lived would be resurrected at the end of the world. Jesus' resurrection is that of an individual man in the midst of history. No one has ever explained how the idea of Jesus' resurrection would even occur to anyone if it hadn't actually happened.

Second, the people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive from the dead were willing to experience horrific deaths rather than deny that it happened. If they just made it up, what possible motivation could they have had for this?

2. The writings of the early Christians show no signs of mental instability. On the contrary, they make up some of the most inspirational writings ever written. Paul is widely considered one of the greatest minds of the ancient world.

3. The first reason why Jesus' resurrection appearances cannot be ascribed to hallucination is the same as the first reason why the early Christians couldn't have just made it up: Jesus' resurrection contradicted the fundamental Jewish concept of resurrection. Hallucinations are projections of the mind; one cannot hallucinate something that isn't already present in the mind. So it's a straightforward syllogism:

a) Hallucinations can only be of what is already conceived.
b) The early Christians could not have conceived of Jesus' resurrection (because it contradicted the Jewish concept of resurrection).
c) Therefore, the early Christians could not have hallucinated Jesus' resurrection.

As William Lane Craig has written, if the disciples were to hallucinate Jesus after his death, they would have hallucinated something that fit into the religious paradigm they accepted, such as Jesus having been assumed into heaven. They wouldn't have had hallucinations of Jesus risen from the dead.

The second reason the hallucination theory doesn't work is more obvious: Jesus appeared to groups of people. Hallucinations are individual experiences, there is no such thing as a collective hallucination. Again, a hallucination is a projection of the mind. For more than one person to hallucinate the exact same thing at the exact same time is implausible in the extreme.

4. There are two reasons countering the idea that people experienced something which they mistakenly took to be Jesus alive from the dead. First is that these weren't brief glimpses experienced by people who didn't personally know Jesus. They were groups of people who knew him intimately, and they spoke with and physically touched "whatever it was." It is a category mistake to compare Jesus' resurrection appearances with catching a brief glimpse of someone with long sideburns in a crowd and thinking it's Elvis, or seeing nondescript lights in the sky and thinking that they're alien spacecraft.

For example, virtually all New Testament scholars agree that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul is quoting a creed which dates to within a few years of Jesus' crucifixion. This creed claims, among other things, that after Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to the apostles, to Jesus' brother James, and to a group of 500 people at once. The appearance to the apostles has multiple independent attestation, being further described in the Gospels of Luke and John. James opposed his brother during his ministry, but something convinced him that his brother rose from the dead, since he preferred to be put to death rather than deny it. And Elvis never appeared to 500 people at once after his death.

Second, if the early followers merely mistook something else for Jesus alive from the dead, what exactly was it? The difficulty of anything other than Jesus himself giving the early Christians the impression of Jesus raised from the dead has led to absurdities. One philosopher (not a New Testament scholar) has suggested that Jesus must have had an evil twin. If that's the alternative to believing in the resurrection, then there's just no contest.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Jesus' Crucifixion and the Problem of Evil

Good Friday celebrates Jesus' crucifixion and death. The reason this is called "good" is because of what it accomplished: the salvation of the world. This illustrates an important point about the Christian response to the problem of evil. God didn't merely bring a good thing out of an evil event; he brought the greatest good out of the worst event. The greater the evil, the greater the good that God can bring out of it. The crucifixion is the only event where we're able to see what God did through it to a significant extent, because Jesus' resurrection is the "first fruits" of God's ultimate plan. So for all the other evils in life, we're essentially in the same position as Jesus' disciples were on Holy Saturday, without any certainty of what good God will accomplish through them. But the Christian knows that God can bring good out of even the most horrific evils, because one of the most horrific evils that ever occurred has brought about our reconciliation with God.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

The Western and the Irrational

The problem with the plot of Stagecoach, John Ford’s classic western, is that it is just one cliché after another. [Spoilers follow] For instance, there is a motley band of misfits and characters thrown together by adversity who must learn to get along. We get John Wayne’s outlaw turned hero and the inevitable pregnant woman who gives birth half way through. The stunt work is impressive but comes straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And would you believe it, the cavalry ride over the hill in the nick of time at the finale. [Spoilers end]

What’s that? You say that Stagecoach was made in 1939 before all its motifs were mercilessly plundered by other directors. So it’s not derivative at all but so influential that it now seems familiar even to people who have never seen it before.

If E.R. Dodds was alive today, he’d be familiar with the way that seminal work can become jaded because it becomes commonplace. His lectures on The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1953, revolutionised our view of the ancient world. He repopulated it with oracles and gods, fate and the transmigration of souls. But reading the book now, it actually appears quite tame. When he first alerted us to the cult of Asclepius it was utterly alien to what we expected of classical Greeks. Dodds dismissed the cult as so much tosh. But nowadays a miraculous cure of blindness forms part of the plot line in the standard Greek course for schools. We have left Dodds far behind. Like Stagecoach, The Greeks and the Irrational has been so assimilated that it no longer shocks or even surprises.

As we have learnt more about the ancient world we have realised that of course they were irrational. The heroes of reason were just so much upper class froth floating on a seething population with more deities and rituals than you could shake a stick at. Today we try not to be too judgemental about this. But Dodds was appalled by what he had discovered. He saw the rise of reason in the fifth and fourth centuries BC as a thoroughly good thing and the subsequent decline into neo-Platonism, astrology and Hermetism as a complete disaster. Christianity was a symptom of the rot that had set in centuries before.

When we watch Stagecoach today, the simply dichotomy between good whites and bad Indians is shockingly racist. Dodds is almost as bad. He regularly refers to primitives as if that word is an acceptable category for non-Europeans. More touchingly, for him Freud is still a cutting edge thinker whose theories are entering into their prime as a universal explanation of human behaviour. What shocked or thrilled Dodd’s contemporaries is normal to us. But, like John Ford, he also carried some of the commonplace attitudes of his age that now appear hopelessly out of date.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Armarium Magnus and C.S. Lewis

Two announcements of interesting things.

Tim O'Neill, a medievalist who used to give me valuable support on the old Internet Infidels discussion boards, has a new blog devoted to reviewing medieval history books. It's called Armarium Magnus which I understand is Latin for big bookcase. These are proper detailed reviews that are well worth reading either when you are considering whether to buy the book, or even as a crib so you don't have to. I've added Tim's site to our select list of favourite blogs on the right and recommend it highly, especially if it continues as well as it has started.

Secondly, news of a secret code that might actually exist! The producers have alerted me to a show scheduled for 10.35pm on Thursday 16th April on BBC1. It's called the Narnia Code and suggests that C.S. Lewis left clues in the Narnia chronicles such that each of the seven books represents one of the seven traditional planets (the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). The reason that I'm ready to be convinced by this is that it sounds like the kind of literary folly that would have appealed to the author of The Discarded Image. The book of the show, Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, is already available. My video is set.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009