15 August, 2007

Astronomy domine

Funny how differently two historians can metaphorize the same discovery. Here's Christopher Hill, from The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution:
Copernicus's theory had 'democratized the universe' by shattering the hierarchical structure of the heavens, Harvey 'democratized' the human body by dethroning the heart.
While here, at greater length, is Jonathan Sawday, from The Body Emblazoned, discussing this image from the De Humani Corporis Fabrica of Vesalius:
The Fabrica appeared in 1543, the same year that Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium appeared: a remarkable coincidence in the history of discovery of both the macrocosm and the microcosm. But the Vesalian image is suggestive of something more than a coincidence. For in its concentric design Vesalius’ title-page seems to throw down a gauntlet to Copernicus. As Robert S. Westman has demonstrated, Copernican theory—the heliocentric construction of a mathematical universe—rested not only on observation and calculation, but on an aesthetic derived in part from Horatian ideas of decorum, and in part on Neoplatonic ideas of symmetry and order. . . It is not the sun, the title-page of the Fabrica insists, which lies at the centre of the known universe. The world is neither geocentric, nor heliocentric, but uterocentric: the womb is our point of origin, hence its central placement in the image.
Copernicus, representing (for Hill the Marxist) the fight against the Catholic orthodoxy embodied in the Ptolemaic universe, 'democratizes' the universe. Science is one of the heroes of Hill's book, and Harvey and Gilbert stand for the great age of English science, before the rise of the Royal Society. Throughout Hill's works we find an exaltation of everything and everyone associated with democracy—even symbolically. In truth, though, Copernicus cannot be said to have democratized anything—after all, he still propounded a concentric universe with the perfect and imperishable heavens at the periphery. He was still, after all, a decided Platonist.

What could be more different than Sawday's account? The latter compares Copernicus not to the 'democratizing' Harvey—a Royalist, incidentally—but to Vesalius, a committed hierarchist, whose title-page recreates the concentric ordering of the Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmologies. Sawday loves patterns, fragmentations, anatomies, maps, lists, blazons, and so he loves, too, the intricate formal orders that he sees both in the Vesalian page and in the 'Horatian' / 'Neoplatonic' aesthetics of the De Revolutionibus.


Sir G said...

Food for thought for intellectual historians -- how ideas in one area affect ideas in another. Do we really know?

John Cowan said...

No, but there are a lot of soi-disant Structuralists who think they do.

Alias Clio said...

Hill's comment shows the tendency of all Whig historians (even when they are Marxists) to read backwards from the present to interpet the symbols of the past based on the significance they have for us now.

Any one with even a limited knowledge of early modern political thought ought to know that the "re-centering" of the sun by natural science was exploited by absolute monarchy theorists to justify suppressing the power of nobles and the Church and exalting that of the Crown. It wasn't a coincidence that Louis XIV called himself the Sun King. Catholic theologians exploited Copernicus's work as well. They argued that his discovery was analogous to the Church's new theocentricity, reminding men that the heavens did not turn around Man.

Hill, though he is undoubtedly aware of all this, cannot see it because he is blinded by presentism.

Conrad H. Roth said...

To be fair, Hill does address this issue in the much more sophisticated discussion found in this article.

"Catholic theologians exploited Copernicus's work as well. They argued that his discovery was analogous to the Church's new theocentricity, reminding men that the heavens did not turn around Man."

Yes. this is quite interesting; theologians have always found symbolic justification in the structure of the cosmos: after all, before Copernicus it was easy to argue that man could either go down (towards the centre of the earth) or up (towards God, identified with Aristotle's primum mobile). And even as late as Herder (c. 1770), the solar system (in pretty much its modern form) was similarly seen as symbolic of man's place in the moral universe, as I wrote here:

"[Herder] relocates the Great Chain to the planets of the Solar System, stretched out in a hierarchy from the sun. Man lives on a planet midway between the sun, to which all souls strive, and the outer peripheries of the galaxy—he is still symbolically at the centre."

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Conrad H. Roth said...

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