Renaissance Italy Essay

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Copernicus challenged the accepted viewpoint of the Christian West that the Earth stood still as the centermost point of the Universe. This tradition stemmed from the Ptolemaic model of a geocentric universe and correlated well with the religious tradition of the Church that the Earth was where God Himself became Man and walked among His children. Thus, the Earth had a special significance and should be thought of as being the center of the Universe in order to support the notion that people were important to God. Aside from this theological tradition were the scientific or observational facts that Ptolemy had used to describe the geocentric model of the universe, accounting for the movements of the stars, sun and moon. However, as Copernicus pointed out, there was an alternate view of the movements of the stars—the heliocentric model, which could also be found among the work of earlier scholars, scientists and even philosophers. For example, Copernicus in his letter to Pope Paul III, which was used for the former’s preface to his books on the Revolutions, Copernicus stated that he “undertook the task of rereading the works of all the philosophers which I could obtain to learn whether anyone had ever proposed other motions of the universe’s spheres than those expounded by the teachers of astronomy in the schools” (Copernicus, 1543, p. 4). Knowing full well that the Church had adopted the Ptolemaic model as the basis for the Christian conception of the universe up to that point, Copernicus attempted to show that his model could also be viewed as traditional, since it aligned with many of the respected philosopher’s sense of the order of the cosmos, too. Accused of being revolutionary and even possibly heretical for his deviation from tradition, Copernicus sought to clarify his view and make it seem more sympathetic to those in authority over him. This paper will show how and why Copernicus, who actually helped launch the revolution in thinking regarding the view of the solar system, wanted to ground his perspective within a traditional context in order to make it more appealing to the world that was highly attuned to being traditional.

Nicholas Schonberg, Cardinal of Capua had written to Copernicus in 1536 regarding the latter’s formulation of a “new cosmology” in which the scientists put forward the position “that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe; that the eighth heave remains 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.” This praise of a new cosmology might have flattered Copernicus but it also spelled trouble: Rome was not interested in having a new cosmology come along to challenge the cosmology it already promoted—nor were very many people, as Copernicus himself would state in his letter to the Pope: “Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conceptions that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heaven as its center would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves” (Copernicus, 1543, p. 3).
In order to appear sane, Copernicus wanted to show that he was aware of popular opinion, of the philosophical tradition that supported it, and of the science that grew up around it. Thus, he states that he chose only to pass his views along to a few friends, in the tradition of Pythagoreans who did not declare his findings from the rooftops but rather confided them in secret to people of their own community lest they should be scorned by others. But as word had gotten out, he felt compelled to defend himself and his position—and, so as not to seem like a revolutionary who was out to overturn the Church, he aimed to show that his views had support among the ancients—philosophers and scientists who had also arrived at the same viewpoint but whose works had not been observed by many people over the centuries.

By cloaking his work in the gauze of tradition, Copernicus felt he could make his model look more satisfactory and less threatening to the Church and to the Christian West. Copernicus also appealed to the good reputation had had cultivated among other churchmen to show that there was no need for the Church as a whole to view him unfavorably: after all, Cardinal Schonberg was among his friends, as was Bishop Giese—and Copernicus wrote to the Pope saying that these traditional churchmen fully supported his aims, discoveries, model and scholarship. It was they, Copernicus pledged, who compelled him to publish his works.

He also pointed out that even….....

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Copernicus. (1543). Selections. Nuremberg: Johannes Petreius.

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