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The Copernican Question

The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order

Robert S. Westman
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 704
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  • Book Info
    The Copernican Question
    Book Description:

    In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus publicly defended his hypothesis that the earth is a planet and the sun a body resting near the center of a finite universe. But why did Copernicus make this bold proposal? And why did it matter?The Copernican Questionreframes this pivotal moment in the history of science, centering the story on a conflict over the credibility of astrology that erupted in Italy just as Copernicus arrived in 1496. Copernicus engendered enormous resistance when he sought to protect astrology by reconstituting its astronomical foundations. Robert S. Westman shows that efforts to answer the astrological skeptics became a crucial unifying theme of the early modern scientific movement. His interpretation of this "long sixteenth century," from the 1490s to the 1610s, offers a new framework for understanding the great transformations in natural philosophy in the century that followed.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94816-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Is the Earth motionless at the center of a finite, star-studded sphere, or is it a planet moving in an annual circuit around the center? Medieval scholastic natural philosophers debated all sorts of imaginative questions of this kind: whether there are, or could be, more worlds; if there were several worlds, whether the earth of one could be moved naturally to the center of another; whether the spots appearing on the Moon arise from differences in parts of the Moon or from something external; whether the Earth is fixed in the middle of the world and has the same center...

  6. I Copernicus’s Space of Possibilities

    • 1 The Literature of the Heavens and the Science of the Stars
      (pp. 25-61)

      In the fifteenth century, a vast and complex literature described, explained, and invoked the motions of the heavens and their influences on the Earth. From the 1470s onward, the learning of the heavens, much of it inherited from the ancient and medieval worlds, began to acquire a new sort of accessibility as it was reproduced in the medium of print. This chapter describes the broad contours of that literature and its various classifications. It shows how those categories evolved, how it worked as a body of knowledge, and the peculiar forms that it took in the sixteenth century. This corpus...

    • 2 Constructing the Future
      (pp. 62-75)

      Although divinatory practices were well-known from the time of the Babylonians, print, chronic warfare, the growth of towns and cities, and the arrival of syphilis converged in the late fifteenth century to create a new horizon for astrological forecasting.¹ Copernicus’s arrival in Bologna to continue his studies in 1496 coincided with these emergent conditions. Violence and insecurity were almost continuous from the French invasion of Italy in 1494 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The military historian J. R. Hale wrote of the sixteenth century:

      Wars between individual states and between coalitions of states, civil wars, wars of intervention,...

    • 3 Copernicus and the Crisis of the Bologna Prognosticators, 1496–1500
      (pp. 76-106)

      Copernicus was involved in a culture of astrological prognosticators during his student years in Bologna. Although not a single word about astrology has survived in his writings, a great deal can be said about the specific circumstances that framed his involvement with that subject as a local practice. Indeed, much can be learned about various elements that shaped his early problematic and that pertain to questions unresolved in chapter 1: his map of knowledge domains, the cluster of major questions that preoccupied him for the rest of his life, why the ordering of Venus and Mercury became a matter demanding...

  7. II Confessional and Interconfessional Spaces of Prophecy and Prognostication

    • 4 Between Wittenberg and Rome: THE NEW SYSTEM, ASTROLOGY, AND THE END OF THE WORLD
      (pp. 109-140)

      Copernicus first formulated his new arrangement of the heavens amid the intellectual skepticism and political insecurity of the late fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century prognosticatory culture of the northern Italian university towns. When his mature hypotheses of celestial order finally appeared between 1540 and 1543, however, it was at a time of historic upheaval no less conflicted about the legitimacy of knowledge of astral forces and their effects. Both the Roman church and the German Protestant reform movement were obsessed with world-historical biblical prophecies; but for the Lutherans there was, as Robin Barnes has argued, a uniquely urgent sense of imminent crisis...

    • 5 The Wittenberg Interpretation of Copernicus’s Theory
      (pp. 141-170)

      Copernicus’s reputation as a learned astronomer was established very quickly in the two decades after the appearance of theNarratioandDe Revolutionibus. Although he was highly regarded in Catholic circles before the appearance of his main work, the publication ofDe Revolutionibusnow spread his ideas all over Europe. His name became known, and his main work, in spite of its terse Latin style and its forbidding technical material, was widely read.¹

      How easy it was to grasp is another matter. The remarks of the learned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius were not atypical. Commenting on Copernicus’s discussion of the...

    • 6 Varieties of Astrological Credibility
      (pp. 171-193)

      In the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the surging tide of prognosticatory activity exacerbated tensions among different claimants to foreknowledge. Although early modern popes and cardinals were notorious consumers of astrological advice, leading theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, were united in the belief that their god alone had secure knowledge of the future. Yet the stars and planets were a constant reminder of the residual presence and power of the pagan gods and their secular virtues as well as the threat of purely natural determination.¹ The worry about such pagan residues involved theologians in demarcationist practices. They strove to...

    • 7 Foreknowledge, Skepticism, and Celestial Order in Rome
      (pp. 194-220)

      Paul III, the pope to whom Copernicus carefully and elegantly crafted the dedication toDe Revolutionibus, knew where to seek astrological advice on the most propitious moment to lay the cornerstone of the wing of the Vatican palace named after his family; but there is no evidence that his astrologers advised him beforehand about the arrival of a technical work on planetary theory. Paul was deeply preoccupied with other matters. Voices urging spiritual and institutional renewal and reform had been growing louder for more than a century.¹ By the mid-sixteenth century, the Roman Church was deeply preoccupied with affirming its...

  8. III Accommodating Unanticipated, Singular Novelties

    • 8 Planetary Order, Astronomical Reform, and the Extraordinary Course of Nature
      (pp. 223-258)

      Attention to the science of astronomy, already so well sustained in the Wittenberg cultural sphere, received an unexpected boost with the dramatic and unheralded arrival of two apparitions in the skies of the 1570s. One of these was a brilliant entity—represented variously as a meteor, a comet, or a new star—that appeared in 1572 and remained until May 1574; the other—represented almost universally as a “bearded star” or comet—could be seen for just over two months between November 1577 and January 1578. These unforeseen appearances, taken to be evidence of God’s extraordinary capacity to intervene in...

    • 9 The Second-Generation Copernicans MAESTLIN AND DIGGES
      (pp. 259-280)

      A generation can be thought of as defining for a group of practitioners a space of temporally bound experiences and conceptual possibilities. The generation informed by the Wittenberg consensus, born largely in the 1540s, was the cohort that, by the 1570s—and most dramatically in the 1580s—began actively to engage the full text ofDe Revolutionibus. Because of the expectation, shaped by recent science, that revolutionary change ought to occur relatively rapidly, this delayed development is of a sort that one might have expected to occur—but which did not—in the first decade or two after 1543. Indeed,...

    • 10 A Proliferation of Readings
      (pp. 281-306)

      In the 1580s, second-generation interpreters ofDe Revolutionibus, mostly Nullists, rapidly produced a spate of new readings. These readings opened up issues that Copernicus himself had tersely bounded off (such as the universe’s infinitude), merely used as a piece of his main argument (the Capellan arrangement of Venus and Mercury), altogether neglected to develop (heliocentric and geocentric transformations), or treated ambiguously (the ontology of the spheres). Planetary order, left out of consideration by the Wittenbergers, now moved from liminal to central consideration, making it at times a matter of aggressive advocacy and defense of priority. That a planetary arrangement—a hypothesis,...

  9. IV Securing the Divine Plan

    • 11 The Emergence of Kepler’s Copernican Representation
      (pp. 309-335)

      At the end of the 1580s, Copernicus’s theory was one alternative amid a proliferating field of representations of celestial order. Copernicus’s proponents were distributed among different networks—and also largely separated by them. Yet the Wittenberg interpretation had made certain parts of Copernicus’s work both familiar and credible. References to Copernican parameters in academic textbooks were common from the 1550s onward. Heavenly practitioners of all stripes were using Reinhold’s Copernican planetary tables. Copernican planetary modeling practices had made serious inroads among a small group of unusually capable students ofDe Revolutionibus. Still, nearly fifty years after the appearance ofDe...

    • 12 Kepler’s Early Audiences, 1596–1600
      (pp. 336-350)

      Kepler’s early representation of the heavens embodied an unprecedented convergence of elements in the political space of the Tübingen theological orthodoxy. TheMysterium Cosmographicumaimed for a rigorous justification of the loose aesthetic standard that Copernicus had used to warrant a strong sense ofworld system, one that involved an interdependency of elements. This mathematical aesthetic never quite shook off all traces of its origins in classical literary theory (Horace), architecture (Vitruvius), music (Boethius), and art (Alberti), but Kepler tried the new tack of wedding it to a theological physics and a metaphysics of geometrical archetypes. His arguing of a...

  10. V Conflicted Modernizers at the Turn of the Century

    • 13 The Third-Generation Copernicans GALILEO AND KEPLER
      (pp. 353-381)

      The Kepler-Galileo relationship has a pronounced historiographical profile: two great figures, both members of the same age cohort, both followers of Copernicus, highly visible within and eventually across their own social networks, each productive of a remarkable trail of new claims and discoveries that wedded mathematics and natural philosophy—who yet scarcely communicated directly with one another. The failures of that relationship would have heavy consequences for seventeenth-century heavenly science and natural philosophy. Followers of Kepler and Galileo went in quite different directions. If viewed from the perspective of the 1580s, the Kepler-Galileo relationship seems no more than a special...

    • 14 The Naturalist Turn and Celestial Order CONSTRUCTING THE NOVA OF 1604
      (pp. 382-402)

      Sixteen hundred and four was a year of great astrological import for the prognosticators. It was supposed to mark the return of Saturn and Jupiter to conjunction in the Fiery Trigon (at 8° in the sign of Sagittarius) after eight centuries (see figure 75). One defined this astrologically significant zone by connecting the midpoints of every fourth zodiacal sign (each separated by 120°). Each trigon or triplicity thereby contained three signs with the same elemental and gendered nature. For example, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius together formed the triangle of aggressive, masculine fire signs, while Taurus, Capricorn and Virgo constituted a...

    • 15 How Kepler’s New Star Traveled to England
      (pp. 403-416)

      Although Kepler’sDe Stella Novais a difficult, unruly, and, at times, indigestible book for modern readers (for whom no translation exists), it had broad appeal for different contemporary groups. As with the 1572 event, Kepler described a novelty that required no special technical skill to observe. Even the technical claim from parallax that it was astellawas far less controversial than in 1572. Lorenzini, the hapless opponent of parallax, was something of a soft target for Kepler—as he was for Capra, Mauri, and, much later, Galileo. Moreover, Kepler’s systematic attack on Pico and in defense of a...

  11. VI The Modernizers, Recurrent Novelties, and Celestial Order

    • 16 The Struggle for Order
      (pp. 419-433)

      For celestial modernizers of the early seventeenth century, the problematic that had been emerging since the 1570s began to show signs of consensus: recurrent events (planets), the subject of the science of the stars, and nonrecurrent events (comets and new stars) somehow seemed to belong together in the realm of ordinary rather than extraordinary phenomena. Galileo’s discoveries at the end of the first decade would further reinforce the sense that the heavens contained recurrent phenomena, marvels that, even if hidden, were still part of the natural order. But how did any of this pertain to the Copernican question? Was it...

      (pp. 434-454)

      The Copernican question is a subset of a larger problem: How did modernizers win credibility for new theoretical knowledge? The issue has already received considerable attention in earlier chapters. This chapter critically examines some recent, alternative proposals, with special focus on Galileo. There are two central issues. One concerns the nature and centrality of patronage as a kind of early modern sociability, the other the degree to which court sociabilities or aristocratic status in some way gave legitimacy to conditions of belief.

      In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the typical celestial practitioner earned a living and official institutional status...

    • 18 How Galileo’s Recurrent Novelties Traveled
      (pp. 455-484)

      Some influential interpreters of theSidereus Nunciushave underscored Galileo’s straightforward empiricist style in reporting observations and avoiding aggressive, systematic theorizing. An important function of this reading has been to dissociate Galileo from the Copernican convictions that he so clearly expressed in the 1597 letters to Mazzoni and Kepler. According to Drake, Galileo “lost faith in [Copernicanism] from 1605 until 1610.” Galileo’s silence on the Copernican question during those years allowed Drake to burnish an originary image of Galileo as the first modern scientific persona, at one with the temper of the nineteenth-century physicists James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz...

  12. CONCLUSION. The Great Controversy
    (pp. 485-514)

    At the end of the seventeenth century, the European social order was still a world of privilege, faith, and tradition. The distribution of land, positions, wealth, and status favored churches, monarchies, princes, aristocrats, and pockets of rich merchants and bankers. Universities fitted comfortably into this order; they were hierarchically structured, exclusively male foundations supported by princely and ecclesiastical benefactors. The university, the monarchical or princely state, and the Church constituted the three pillars of cultural authority—the principal structures of these still-traditional societies.¹ Within these arrangements, representations of celestial order and the future were advanced by men who identified themselves...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 515-604)
    (pp. 605-648)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 649-681)