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Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus: Sixteenth Century Readers’ Arguments

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            The development of science is of complex nature. Man’s quest to explain phenomena in his environment leads him to think and rationalize. He has leapt and conquered the many questions that once seemed unfathomable, but science proved that there is nothing impossible to a curious mind. However, this quest also became an arena of belief systems, for science’s greatest nemesis, religion, constantly challenged its validity and the two then seemed incompatible even from their conception. Modern western empirical science has surely been the most impressive intellectual development since the 16th century.

Religion, of course, has been around for much longer, and is presently flourishing, perhaps as never before. The relation between these two great cultural forces has been tumultuous, many-faceted, and confusing (Plantinga, par. 1). While religion tries to transcend a physical world into a world more spiritual, science tries to empirically prove that this world and all the things present has a material origin and did not just come out of the blue.

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According to the Center for the Study of Science and Religion, sciences respond to a felt need to understand the world, and religions respond to a felt need for the world to have meaning (Science and Religion, par. 1)

            Revolutionary ideas are difficult to accept especially if it involves debunking current knowledge which the majority believes in.  Scientific truth is largely determined by authority and this has always been so. Today, any new idea must be supported by the weight of existing authorities and expressed in their language. The more radical the idea the more necessary it is to blunt its impact by emphasising its similarities with shared traditions (Hannam, par.1). Acceptance at first may seem illogical and to some can be even ridiculous. Why indeed would a person, taught to believe in a certain idea, would fall for something that sounds so impossible. This is perhaps what most sixteenth century readers felt when an ordinary man back then countered the claim of the used to be authority, the Church, that the Earth is the center of the Universe. Nicholas Copernicus, a physician, lawyer, and church administrator studied the heavenly bodies and discovered that the Church committed an error when it declared that the earth is center of the galaxy and everything else revolves around it. Disturbed by the failure of Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe to follow Aristotle’s requirement for the uniform circular motion of all celestial bodies and determined to eliminate Ptolemy’s equant, an imaginary point around which the bodies seemed to follow that requirement, Copernicus decided that he could achieve his goal only through a heliocentric model. He thereby created a concept of a universe in which the distances of the planets from the sun bore a direct relationship to the size of their orbits (Rabin, par.1). Although Copernicus is a disciple of science, he did not want to stir conflict with the church so he tried to fashion his findings according to the blend of his time. A canon of the Church and a staunch Aristotelian, Copernicus saw himself as returning to a more “pure” Aristotelian description of the heavens by eliminating ad hoc geometric constructions added by Ptolemy to his system. (Pogge, par.2). This is also the reason why Copernicus dedicated his book De Revolutionibus to Pope Paul III and published the book after his death. He knows that his findings would not be easily accepted by the people who have been used to what the church has taught them.

            De Revolutionibus was the book written by Copernicus that contains his ideas on the astronomical bodies that later changed the world and shocked the Church. Copernicus’s book did not create controversy in the years following its publication. Its main idea has been in circulation among astronomers for over 30 years, and a preview of the book’s content, the Narratio Prima of Georg Joachim Rheticus, had been published in 1540 (Copernicus, par.1) This book proved to be a threat to the Church that in 1616 that the implications of Copernicus’ ideas began to sink in and the Church responded by placing De Revolutionibus on the Index of Forbidden Books (the Index Librorum Prohibitorum) pending correction of minor points.  The heliocentric cosmology or the belief that the sun is the center of the universe was later accepted by astronomers after further dissecting the book written by Copernicus. The introduction of a heliocentric system by Copernicus is often considered to be a major blow to the traditional cosmology of his time and an epoch-making event in the history of science (Goldstein, par. 1). The creation of the book however seem to focus more on the mathematical aspect of the heliocentric idea, which in the time of Copernicus, we could assume, few could understand. It is clear from De revolutionibus that the reader is supposed to view mathematical demonstration as the dominant argument. The book claims it is intended for people who can follow this mathematical demonstration for themselves. Few could do so, which means that few would be able to tell that Copernicus had not succeeded in the way that he implies or that some of the techniques he used, like the ‘Tūsī Couple’, do not require a heliocentric hypothesis to improve the model of the heavens (Hannam, par. 20).

            Some of the reasons why sixteenth century readers find it difficult to accept Copernican ideas was that they have been used to Aristotelian division between the heavens and the earthly region, between perfection and corruption. In Aristotle’s physics bodies moved to their natural places. Stones fell because the natural place of heavenly bodies was the center of the universe and that was why the earth was there. Moreover,  accepting Copernicus’s system meant abandoning Aristotelian physics. How would birds find their nest again after they had flown from them? Why does a stone thrown up come straight down if the Earth underneath it is rotating rapidly to the east? Since bodies can only have one sort of motion at a time, how can the Earth have several? And if the Earth is a planet, why should it be the only planet with a moon? (The Galileo Project, par. 7-8).

            Another factor was that Copernican ideas clashed with the Bible. A stationary Sun and moving Earth had conflict with many biblical passages. Protestants and Catholics dismissed heliocentrism on these grounds. In the long run Protestants accepted heliocentrism somewhat more quickly. Catholics had to be more cautious in the religious climate of the Counter Reformation (The Galileo Project, par. 10). The first reaction against the heliocentric system described in Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus came not from the Catholic Church but from German Protestants, namely Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, though mostly in passing (there was not, as is sometimes mis-portrayed, a direct assault on Copernicanism). Calvin also weighed in during a sermon, but less explicitly than Luther, and not mentioning Copernicus by name. Contrary to the standard mythology, until the counter-Reformation of the 17th century the Roman Catholic Church was initially indifferent to Copernicus (Pogge, par. 1). According to Singham (par. 6) Copernicus’ proposal raised many gigantic problems for the believing Christian. If, for example, the earth were merely one of six planets, how were the stories of the Fall and of the Salvation, with their immense bearing on Christian life, to be preserved? If there were other bodies essentially like the earth, God’s goodness would surely necessitate that they, too, be inhabited.

            The main thrust of opposition to Copernicus is that it clashes with the Bible. There are two similar doctrinal bases for these objections. For the Reformist (later called “Protestant”) the objection is based upon a doctrine of strict “Scriptural Inerrancy,” the idea that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are the literally true, divinely dictated word of God. For the Catholic, there was an amplification of an earlier doctrinal tradition that came out of the Council of Trent regarding the truth of the scriptures. This doctrine held that where the words of the scripture demonstrably contradicted the evidence of nature, they are to be treated as allegory or metaphor.

            To an educated person in the first half of the sixteenth century, the belief that the Earth was a stationary sphere in the centre of the universe was as well grounded as our own heliocentric cosmology is today. The first and most important reason for believing something not directly accessible to the senses in the sixteenth century was, as it still is today, that of authority. There were three forms that carried weight – the religious tradition, the philosophical tradition and experience (Hannam, par. 3). Because of a well grounded foundation on the geocentric idea, even scientists like Tycho Brahe would devise a hybrid geostatic heliocentric system in which the Moon and Sun went around the earth but the planets went around the Sun. In this system the  elegance and harmony of the Copernican system were married to the solidity of a central and stable Earth so that Aristotelian physics culd be maintained. And by 1600 there were still very few astronomers who accepted Coperniacn system. (The Galileo Project, par. 11).

            The heliocentric ideas of Copernicus published in his De Revolutionibus is now considered by many as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science which changed man’s view of the world. It is only unfortunate that Copernicus had to die before he can actually present it to the public. But there is no blaming here. We cannot judge Copernicus’ decision simply because during his time, he has reputation to take care of. After all, he comes from a well-to-do family and creating a wave of revolutionary ideas might endanger him and his families. And how about the sixteenth century reader who failed to see the arguments of Copernicus? They can’t also be blamed because just like us, they are just following the traditions of the past. The church that played a big role in the rejection and acceptance of the heliocentric model is a testament to the institution’s testament to its domain. They are the authority at that time so people believed them.


The Galileo Project. 1995. Rice University. 15 Oct. 2008. <http://galileo.rice.edu/sci/theories/copernican_system.html>.

Singham, Mano. “The Role of Protestant Opposition to Copernicus.” Mano Singham’s Web Journal. 15 Oct. 2008. <http://blog.case.edu/singham/2005/04/index>

Pogge, Richard W. 1996. Some Notes on the Theological Response to Copernicus. 16 Oct. 2008. <http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Essays/Copernic.html>

Science and Religion: Conflicts and Occasional Agreements. Religious Tolerance. 16 Oct. 2008. http://www.religioustolerance.org/sci_rel.htm

Copernicus De Revolutionibus. High Atitude Observatory. 16 Oct. 2008. <http://www.hao.ucar.edu/Public/education/bios/derevolutionibus.html>

Plantinga, Alvin. 2007. Religion and Science. 16 Oct. 2008. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-science/>

Hannam, James. 2003. Copernicus and His Revolutions. 16 Oct. 2008. <http://www.bede.org.uk/copernicus.htm>


Cite this Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus: Sixteenth Century Readers’ Arguments

Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus: Sixteenth Century Readers’ Arguments. (2016, Oct 07). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/copernicus-de-revolutionibus-sixteenth-century-readers-arguments/

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