Warfare of Science/Theology

Author: Andrew Dickson White

II. the Heliocentric Theory.

But, on the other hand, there had been planted, long before, the germs of a heliocentric theory. In the sixth century before our era, Pythagoras, and after him Philolaus, had suggested the movement of the earth and planets about a central fire; and, three centuries later, Aristarchus had restated the main truth with striking precision. Here comes in a proof that the antagonism between theological and scientific methods is not confined to Christianity; for this statement brought upon Aristarchus the charge of blasphemy, and drew after it a cloud of prejudice which hid the truth for six hundred years. Not until the fifth century of our era did it timidly appear in the thoughts of Martianus Capella: then it was again lost to sight for a thousand years, until in the fifteenth century, distorted and imperfect, it appeared in the writings of Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa.

But in the shade cast by the vast system which had grown from the minds of the great theologians and from the heart of the great poet there had come to this truth neither bloom nor fruitage.

Quietly, however, the soil was receiving enrichment and the air warmth. The processes of mathematics were constantly improved, the heavenly bodies were steadily observed, and at length appeared, far from the centres of thought, on the borders of Poland, a plain, simple-minded scholar, who first fairly uttered to the modern world the truth—now so commonplace, then so astounding—that the sun and planets do not revolve about the earth, but that the earth and planets revolve about the sun: this man was Nicholas Copernicus.

Copernicus had been a professor at Rome, and even as early as 1500 had announced his doctrine there, but more in the way of a scientific curiosity or paradox, as it had been previously held by Cardinal de Cusa, than as the statement of a system representing a great fact in Nature. About thirty years later one of his disciples, Widmanstadt, had explained it to Clement VII; but it still remained a mere hypothesis, and soon, like so many others, disappeared from the public view. But to Copernicus, steadily studying the subject, it became more and more a reality, and as this truth grew within him he seemed to feel that at Rome he was no longer safe. To announce his discovery there as a theory or a paradox might amuse the papal court, but to announce it as a truth—as THE truth—was a far different matter. He therefore returned to his little town in Poland.

To publish his thought as it had now developed was evidently dangerous even there, and for more than thirty years it lay slumbering in the mind of Copernicus and of the friends to whom he had privately intrusted it.

At last he prepared his great work on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, and dedicated it to the Pope himself. He next sought a place of publication. He dared not send it to Rome, for there were the rulers of the older Church ready to seize it; he dared not send it to Wittenberg, for there were the leaders of Protestantism no less hostile; he therefore intrusted it to Osiander, at Nuremberg.[45]

[45] For the germs of heliocentric theory planted long before, see Sir G. C. Lewis; and for a succinct statement of the claims of Pythagoras, Philolaus, Aristarchus, and Martianus Capella, see Hoefer, Hisoire de l’Astronomie, 1873, p. 107 et seq.; also Heller, Geschichte der Physik, Stuttgart, 1882, vol. i, pp. 12, 13; also pp. 99 et seq. For germs among thinkers of India, see Whewell, vol. i, p. 277; also Whitney, Oriental and Linguistic Studies, New York, 1874; Essay on the Lunar Zodiac, p. 345. For the views of Vincent of Beauvais, see his Speculum Naturale, lib. xvi, cap. 21. For Cardinal d’Ailly’s view, see his treatise De Concordia Astronomicae Veritatis cum Theologia (in his Ymago Mundi and separately). For general statement of De Cusa’s work, see Draper, Intellectual Development of Europe, p. 512. For skilful use of De Cusa’s view in order to mitigate censure upon the Church for its treatment of Copernicus’s discovery, see an article in the Catholic World for January, 1869. For a very exact statement, in the spirit of judicial fairness, see Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences, p. 275, and pp. 379, 380. In the latter, Whewell cites the exact words of De Cusa in the De Docta Ignorantia, and sums up in these words: "This train of thought might be a preparation for the reception of the Copernican system; but it is very different from the doctrine that the sun is the centre of the planetary system." Whewell says: "De Cusa propounded the doctrine of the motion of the earth more as a paradox than as a reality. We can not consider this as any distinct anticipation of a profound and consistent view of the truth." On De Cusa, see also Heller, vol. i, p. 216. For Aristotle’s views, and their elaboration by St. Thomas Aquinas, see the De Coelo et Mundo, sec. xx, and elsewhere in the latter. It is curious to see how even such a biographer as Archbishop Vaughan slurs over the angelic Doctor’s errors. See Vaughan’s Life and Labours of St. Thomas of Aquin, pp. 459, 460.

As to Copernicus’s danger at Rome, the Catholic World for January, 1869, cites a speech of the Archbishop of Mechlin before the University of Louvain, to the effect that Copernicus defended his theory at Rome, in 1500, before two thousand scholars; also, that another professor taught the system in 1528, and was made apostolic notary by Clement VIII. All this, even if the doctrines taught were identical with Copernicus as finally developed—which is simply not the case—avails nothing against the overwhelming testimony that Copernicus felt himself in danger—testimony which the after-history of the Copernican theory renders invincible. The very title of Fromundus’s book, already cited, published within a few miles of the archbishop’s own cathedral, and sanctioned expressly by the theological faculty of that same University of Louvain in 1630, utterly refutes the archbishop’s idea that the Church was inclined to treat Copernicus kindly. The title is as follows: Ant-Aristarchus sive Orbis-Terrae Immobilis, in quo decretum S. Congregationis S. R. E. Cardinal. an. M.DC.XVI adversus Pythagorico-Copernicanos editum defenditur, Antverpiae, MDCXXI. L’Epinois, Galilee, Paris, 1867, lays stress, p. 14, on the broaching of the doctrine by De Cusa in 1435, and by Widmanstadt in 1533, and their kind treatment by Eugenius IV and Clement VII; but this is absolutely worthless in denying the papal policy afterward. Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, vol. i, pp. 217, 218, while admitting that De Cusa and Widmanstadt sustained this theory and received honors from their respective popes, shows that, when the Church gave it serious consideration, it was condemned. There is nothing in this view unreasonable. It would be a parallel case to that of Leo X, at first inclined toward Luther and others, in their "squabbles with the envious friars," and afterward forced to oppose them. That Copernicus felt the danger, is evident, among other things, by the expression in the preface: "Statim me explodendum cum tali opinione clamitant." For dangers at Wittenberg, see Lange, as above, vol. i, p. 217.

But Osiander’s courage failed him: he dared not launch the new thought boldly. He wrote a grovelling preface, endeavouring to excuse Copernicus for his novel idea, and in this he inserted the apologetic lie that Copernicus had propounded the doctrine of the earth’s movement not as a fact, but as a hypothesis. He declared that it was lawful for an astronomer to indulge his imagination, and that this was what Copernicus had done.

Thus was the greatest and most ennobling, perhaps, of scientific truths—a truth not less ennobling to religion than to science—forced, in coming before the world, to sneak and crawl.[46]

[46] Osiander, in a letter to Copernicus, dated April 20, 1541, had endeavored to reconcile him to such a procedure, and ends by saying, "Sic enim placidiores reddideris peripatheticos et theologos quos contradicturos metuis." See Apologia Tychonis in Kepler’s Opera Omnia, Frisch’s edition, vol. i, p. 246. Kepler holds Osiander entirely responsible for this preface. Bertrand, in his Fondateurs de l"astronomie moderne, gives its text, and thinks it possible that Copernicus may have yielded "in pure condescension toward his disciple." But this idea is utterly at variance with expressions in Copernicus’s own dedicatory letter to the Pope, which follows the preface. For a good summary of the argument, see Figuier, Savants de la Renaissance, pp. 378, 379; see also citation from Gassendi’s Life of Copernicus, in Flammarion, Vie de Copernic, p. 124. Mr. John Fiske, accurate as he usually is, in his Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy appears to have followed Laplace, Delambre, and Petit into the error of supposing that Copernicus, and not Osiander, is responsible for the preface. For the latest proofs, see Menzer’s translation of Copernicus’s work, Thorn, 1879, notes on pp. 3 and 4 of the appendix.

On the 24th of May, 1543, the newly printed book arrived at the house of Copernicus. It was put into his hands; but he was on his deathbed. A few hours later he was beyond the reach of the conscientious men who would have blotted his reputation and perhaps have destroyed his life.

Yet not wholly beyond their reach. Even death could not be trusted to shield him. There seems to have been fear of vengeance upon his corpse, for on his tombstone was placed no record of his lifelong labours, no mention of his great discovery; but there was graven upon it simply a prayer: "I ask not the grace accorded to Paul; not that given to Peter; give me only the favour which Thou didst show to the thief on the cross."

Not till thirty years after did a friend dare write on his tombstone a memorial of his discovery.[47]

[47] See Flammarion, Vie de Copernic, p. 190.

The preface of Osiander, pretending that the book of Copernicus suggested a hypothesis instead of announcing a truth, served its purpose well. During nearly seventy years the Church authorities evidently thought it best not to stir the matter, and in some cases professors like Calganini were allowed to present the new view purely as a hypothesis. There were, indeed, mutterings from time to time on the theological side, but there was no great demonstration against the system until 1616. Then, when the Copernican doctrine was upheld by Galileo as a TRUTH, and proved to be a truth by his telescope, the book was taken in hand by the Roman curia. The statements of Copernicus were condemned, "until they should be corrected"; and the corrections required were simply such as would substitute for his conclusions the old Ptolemaic theory.

That this was their purpose was seen in that year when Galileo was forbidden to teach or discuss the Copernican theory, and when were forbidden "all books which affirm the motion of the earth." Henceforth to read the work of Copernicus was to risk damnation, and the world accepted the decree.[48] The strongest minds were thus held fast. If they could not believe the old system, they must PRETEND that they believed it;—and this, even after the great circumnavigation of the globe had done so much to open the eyes of the world! Very striking is the case of the eminent Jesuit missionary Joseph Acosta, whose great work on the Natural and Moral History of the Indies, published in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, exploded so many astronomical and geographical errors. Though at times curiously credulous, he told the truth as far as he dared; but as to the movement of the heavenly bodies he remained orthodox—declaring, "I have seen the two poles, whereon the heavens turn as upon their axletrees."

[48] The authorities deciding this matter in accordance with the wishes of Pope V and Cardinal Bellarmine were the Congregation of the Index, or cardinals having charge of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Recent desperate attempts to fasten the responsibility on them as individuals seem ridiculous in view of the simple fact that their work was sanctioned by the highest Church authority, and required to be universally accepted by the Church. Eleven different editions of the Index in my own possession prove this. Nearly all of these declare on their title-pages that they are issued by order of the pontiff of the period, and each is preface by a special papal bull or letter. See especially the Index of 1664, issued under order of Alexander VII, and that of 1761, under Benedict XIV. Copernicus’s statements were prohibited in the Index "donec corrigantur." Kepler said that it ought to be worded "donec explicetur." See Bertand, Fondateurs de l’Astronomie moderne, p. 57. De Morgan, pp. 57-60, gives the corrections required by the Index of 1620. Their main aim seems to be to reduce Copernicus to the grovelling level of Osiander, making his discovery a mere hypothesis; but occasionally they require a virtual giving up of the whole Copernican doctrine—e.g., "correction" insisted upon for chap. viii, p. 6. For a scholarly account of the relation between Prohibitory and Expurgatory Indexes to each other, see Mendham, Literary Policy of the Church of Rome; also Reusch, Index der verbotenen Bucher, Bonn, 1855, vol. ii, chaps i and ii. For a brief but very careful statement, see Gebler, Galileo Galilei, English translation, London, 1879, chap. i; see also Addis and Arnold’s Catholic Dictionary, article Galileo, p.8.

There was, indeed, in Europe one man who might have done much to check this current of unreason which was to sweep away so many thoughtful men on the one hand from scientific knowledge, and so many on the other from Christianity. This was Peter Apian. He was one of the great mathematical and astronomical scholars of the time. His brilliant abilities had made him the astronomical teacher of the Emperor Charles V. His work on geography had brought him a world-wide reputation; his work on astronomy brought him a patent of nobility; his improvements in mathematical processes and astronomical instruments brought him the praise of Kepler and a place in the history of science: never had a true man better opportunity to do a great deed. When Copernicus’s work appeared, Apian was at the height of his reputation and power: a quiet, earnest plea from him, even if it had been only for ordinary fairness and a suspension of judgment, must have carried much weight. His devoted pupil, Charles V, who sat on the thrones of Germany and Spain, must at least have given a hearing to such a plea. But, unfortunately, Apian was a professor in an institution of learning under the strictest Church control—the University of Ingolstadt. His foremost duty was to teach SAFE science—to keep science within the line of scriptural truth as interpreted by theological professors. His great opportunity was lost. Apian continued to maunder over the Ptolemaic theory and astrology in his lecture-room. The attack on the Copernican theory he neither supported nor opposed; he was silent; and the cause of his silence should never be forgotten so long as any Church asserts its title to control university instruction.[49]

[49] For Joseph Acosta’s statement, see the translation of his History, published by the Hakluyt Society, chap. ii. For Peter Apian, see Madler, Geschichte der Astronomie, Braunschweig, 1873, vol. i, p. 141. For evidences of the special favour of Charles V,see Delambre, Histoire de l’Astronomie au Moyen Age, p. 390; also Bruhns, in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie. For an attempted apology for him, see Gunther, Peter and Philipp Apian, Prag, 1822, p. 62.

Doubtless many will exclaim against the Roman Catholic Church for this; but the simple truth is that Protestantism was no less zealous against the new scientific doctrine. All branches of the Protestant Church—Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican—vied with each other in denouncing the Copernican doctrine as contrary to Scripture; and, at a later period, the Puritans showed the same tendency.

Said Martin Luther: "People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth." Melanchthon, mild as he was, was not behind Luther in condemning Copernicus. In his treatise on the Elements of Physics, published six years after Copernicus’s death, he says: "The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun revolves....Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it." Melanchthon then cites the passages in the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, which he declares assert positively and clearly that the earth stands fast and that the sun moves around it, and adds eight other proofs of his proposition that "the earth can be nowhere if not in the centre of the universe." So earnest does this mildest of the Reformers become, that he suggests severe measures to restrain such impious teachings as those of Copernicus.[50]

[50] See the Tischreden in the Walsch edition of Luther’s Works, 1743, vol. xxii, p. 2260; also Melanchthon’s Initia Doctrinae Physicae. This treatise is cited under a mistaken title by the Catholic World, September, 1870. The correct title is as given above; it will be found in the Corpus Reformatorum, vol. xiii (ed. Bretschneider, Halle, 1846), pp. 216, 217. See also Madler, vol. i, p. 176; also Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, vol. i, p. 217; also Prowe, Ueber die Abhangigkeit des Copernicus, Thorn, 1865, p. 4; also note, pp. 5, 6, where text is given in full.

While Lutheranism was thus condemning the theory of the earth’s movement, other branches of the Protestant Church did not remain behind. Calvin took the lead, in his Commentary on Genesis, by condemning all who asserted that the earth is not at the centre of the universe. He clinched the matter by the usual reference to the first verse of the ninety-third Psalm, and asked, "Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" Turretin, Calvin’s famous successor, even after Kepler and Newton had virtually completed the theory of Copernicus and Galileo, put forth his compendium of theology, in which he proved, from a multitude of scriptural texts, that the heavens, sun, and moon move about the earth, which stands still in the centre. In England we see similar theological efforts, even after they had become evidently futile. Hutchinson’s Moses’s Principia, Dr. Samuel Pike’s Sacred Philosophy, the writings of Horne, Bishop Horsley, and President Forbes contain most earnest attacks upon the ideas of Newton, such attacks being based upon Scripture. Dr. John Owen, so famous in the annals of Puritanism, declared the Copernican system a "delusive and arbitrary hypothesis, contrary to Scripture"; and even John Wesley declared the new ideas to "tend toward infidelity."[51]

[51] On the teachings on Protestantism as regards the Copernican theory, see citations in Canon Farrar’s History of Interpretation, preface, xviii; also Rev. Dr. Shields, of Princeton, The Final Philosophy, pp. 60, 61.

And Protestant peoples were not a whit behind Catholic in following out such teachings. The people of Elbing made themselves merry over a farce in which Copernicus was the main object of ridicule. The people of Nuremberg, a Protestant stronghold, caused a medal to be struck with inscriptions ridiculing the philosopher and his theory.

Why the people at large took this view is easily understood when we note the attitude of the guardians of learning, both Catholic and Protestant, in that age. It throws great light upon sundry claims by modern theologians to take charge of public instruction and of the evolution of science. So important was it thought to have "sound learning" guarded and "safe science" taught, that in many of the universities, as late as the end of the seventeenth century, professors were forced to take an oath not to hold the "Pythagorean"—that is, the Copernican—idea as to the movement of the heavenly bodies. As the contest went on, professors were forbidden to make known to students the facts revealed by the telescope. Special orders to this effect were issued by the ecclesiastical authorities to the universities and colleges of Pisa, Innspruck, Louvain, Douay, Salamanca, and others. During generations we find the authorities of these Universities boasting that these godless doctrines were kept away from their students. It is touching to hear such boasts made then, just as it is touching now to hear sundry excellent university authorities boast that they discourage the reading of Mill, Spencer, and Darwin. Nor were such attempts to keep the truth from students confined to the Roman Catholic institutions of learning. Strange as it may seem, nowhere were the facts confirming the Copernican theory more carefully kept out of sight than at Wittenberg—the university of Luther and Melanchthon. About the middle of the sixteenth century there were at that centre of Protestant instruction two astronomers of a very high order, Rheticus and Reinhold; both of these, after thorough study, had convinced themselves that the Copernican system was true, but neither of them was allowed to tell this truth to his students. Neither in his lecture announcements nor in his published works did Rheticus venture to make the new system known, and he at last gave up his professorship and left Wittenberg, that he might have freedom to seek and tell the truth. Reinhold was even more wretchedly humiliated. Convinced of the truth of the new theory, he was obliged to advocate the old; if he mentioned the Copernican ideas, he was compelled to overlay them with the Ptolemaic. Even this was not thought safe enough, and in 1571 the subject was intrusted to Peucer. He was eminently "sound," and denounced the Copernican theory in his lectures as "absurd, and unfit to be introduced into the schools."

To clinch anti-scientific ideas more firmly into German Protestant teaching, Rector Hensel wrote a text-book for schools entitled The Restored Mosaic System of the World, which showed the Copernican astronomy to be unscriptural.

Doubtless this has a far-off sound; yet its echo comes very near modern Protestantism in the expulsion of Dr. Woodrow by the Presbyterian authorities in South Carolina; the expulsion of Prof. Winchell by the Methodist Episcopal authorities in Tennessee; the expulsion of Prof. Toy by Baptist authorities in Kentucky; the expulsion of the professors at Beyrout under authority of American Protestant divines—all for holding the doctrines of modern science, and in the last years of the nineteenth century.[52]

[52] For treatment of Copernican ideas by the people, see The Catholic World, as above; also Melanchthon, ubi supra; also Prowe, Copernicus, Berlin, 1883, vol. i, p. 269, note; also pp. 279, 280; also Madler, i, p.167. For Rector Hensel, see Rev. Dr. Shield’s Final Philosophy, p. 60. For details of recent Protestant efforts against evolution doctrines, see the chapter on the Fall of Man and Anthropology in this work.

But the new truth could not be concealed; it could neither be laughed down nor frowned down. Many minds had received it, but within the hearing of the papacy only one tongue appears to have dared to utter it clearly. This new warrior was that strange mortal, Giordano Bruno. He was hunted from land to land, until at last he turned on his pursuers with fearful invectives. For this he was entrapped at Venice, imprisoned during six years in the dungeons of the Inquisition at Rome, then burned alive, and his ashes scattered to the winds. Still, the new truth lived on.

Ten years after the martyrdom of Bruno the truth of Copernicus’s doctrine was established by the telescope of Galileo.[53]

[53] For Bruno, see Bartholmess, Vie de Jordano Bruno, Paris, 1846, vol. i, p.121 and pp. 212 et seq.; also Berti, Vita di Giordano Bruno, Firenze, 1868, chap. xvi; also Whewell, vol. i, pp. 272, 273. That Whewell is somewhat hasty in attributing Bruno’s punishment entirely to the Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante will be evident, in spite of Montucla, to anyone who reads the account of the persecution in Bartholmess or Berti; and even if Whewell be right, the Spaccio would never have been written but for Bruno’s indignation at ecclesiastical oppression. See Tiraboschi, vol. vii, pp. 466 et seq.

Herein was fulfilled one of the most touching of prophecies. Years before, the opponents of Copernicus had said to him, "If your doctrines were true, Venus would show phases like the moon." Copernicus answered: "You are right; I know not what to say; but God is good, and will in time find an answer to this objection." The God-given answer came when, in 1611, the rude telescope of Galileo showed the phases of Venus.[54]

[54] For the relation of these discoveries to Copernicus’s work, see Delambre, Histoire de l’Astronomie moderne, discours preliminaire, p. xiv; also Laplace, Systeme du Monde, vol. i, p. 326; and for more careful statements, Kepler’s Opera Omnia, edit. Frisch, tome ii, p. 464. For Copernicus’s prophecy, see Cantu, Histoire Univerelle, vol. xv, p. 473. (Cantu was an eminent Roman Catholic.)


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Chicago: Andrew Dickson White, "II. The Heliocentric Theory.," Warfare of Science/Theology, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Warfare of Science/Theology (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L2A8NR6JMEY2MKK.

MLA: White, Andrew Dickson. "II. The Heliocentric Theory." Warfare of Science/Theology, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Warfare of Science/Theology, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L2A8NR6JMEY2MKK.

Harvard: White, AD, 'II. The Heliocentric Theory.' in Warfare of Science/Theology, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Warfare of Science/Theology, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L2A8NR6JMEY2MKK.