We are often told that Europeans, in the medieval times, believed that Earth was at the center of the universe, and therefore especially good and important. An anthropocentric point of view flattered human vanity, according to this story. Sigmund Freud was perhaps its most famous representative. He wrote:
Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages on its naïve self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ‘ego’ of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psychoanalysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely. –Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
So Freud’s idea is that human beings have been humbled by the discoveries of science. In Freud’s story, theology represents pride, while science represents the virtue of humility. Mature, thoughtful people are supposed to be humble, but immature or reckless people are prideful. Science is both intellectually and morally progressive, as against retrograde theology, according to Freud, and his version of the conflict thesis, which we looked at in a previous article. First there was Copernicus, then Darwin, and now he himself, Freud, the psychoanalyst. Not only science in general but Freud’s scientific ideas in particular are cast in the role of God’s undertaker. So while humanity is being knocked off its perch, so to speak, by science, Freud is also elevating himself and his own importance to the enterprise. Though Freud’s prophecy turned out to be somewhat less than self-fulfilling (who puts Freud in the same class as Darwin, in our time?), the general structure of the narrative remains persistent. Indeed, it has even worked its way into our common language. When we say that someone thinks the world revolves around them, we’re saying they’re prideful and unrealistic—by implication, just like those medieval people who thought the universe revolved around them. So, it’s clearly a potent story. But is it true?
Well, it certainly is true that for many people, science has taken the place of theology as the area of knowledge that is concerned with the most vital truths, and can even answer questions about ultimate meaning and purpose. But what about the historical claim? Did Copernicus humble human beings by showing that they were not so important, after all? (There will be much to say about Darwin in future articles.)
According to Arthur O. Lovejoy, and his book, The Great Chain of Being (introduced in my last essay), the medieval conception of the cosmos (again partly inherited from the Greeks, in particular Aristotle and Ptolemy, and partly from Hebrew Scripture) put human beings near the center of things, but not at the center. The center of the universe was actually hell, not Earth. The theory was that since the heavens were perfect (they are, after all, very beautiful), and life on earth (manifestly) is not, there is a kind of gradation of perfections. The higher up one goes, the more perfect things are. The lower one goes, the less perfect. So the worst place would be at the center, and the worst place that medieval people knew about was hell. That’s why Dante, in his trip to hell, descends into the earth, and why the severity of the offenses and their corresponding punishments increases as he descends through the levels, down to the absolute center, where he encounters Satan. So, hell is at the center of the universe, the heavens at the farthest reaches.
In old (or deliberately archaic) books, one sometimes finds references to the “sublunar realm,” invariably associated with laments about the sad state of the world. There are also references to the “music of the spheres,” a kind of celestial choir that fills the universe with perfect music, which we, because of our imperfections, cannot hear. The “sublunar” part was, originally, intended in a quite literal sense. The moon was thought to demarcate Earth and its near-environs from the first of a series of crystalline spheres. Each planet was nested within one of these spheres, and their rotation was what accounted for the motion of the planets. So, as they rotated, they would naturally produce sounds, and, in the nature of the case, very beautiful sounds. That was the music of the spheres. Since the moon was set within the lowest of the crystalline spheres, a reference to our sublunar realm indicated a kind of descent, from the realm of perfection to our sadly imperfect world.
From this point of view, finding out that the earth was not in the center of the cosmos could actually be very liberating. True, it was not set within a spatial hierarchy of descending grades of perfection, and that did tend to disrupt this corner of the medieval world-picture—but since that hierarchy was very much to the prejudice of Earth and its inhabitants, and had put Earth so close to hell, having it disrupted was more of a promotion than a demotion. When the stars were revealed to be bodies more or less like our sun, the earth and the solar system became, not a cosmic sewer toward which all things vile naturally fell, but a legitimate, co-equal citizen with the rest of the heavenly bodies. This was, in fact, one of the reasons used to argue against Copernican astronomy—not that it demoted human beings, but that it unduly promoted them. As Arthur O. Lovejoy relates:
Thus [sixteenth century philosopher, Michel] Montaigne, still adhering to the older astronomy, could consistently describe man’s dwelling-place as ‘the filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house.’ How, then, he demanded, could a creature native to it and fellow-lodger with ‘the lowest of the three orders of animals’ (i.e., land animals) dare in imagination to place himself above the circle of the moon, and reduce heaven under his feet? ‘By what authority,’ asks Montaigne, can man assume that ‘this admirable moving of heaven’s vault, the eternal light of these lamps rolling so proudly over his head … were established and continue so many ages for his commodity and service?’ John Wilkins in 1640 mentions, as one of the arguments still advanced against the Copernican system, that drawn ‘from the vileness of our earth, because it consists of a more sordid and base matter than any other part of the world; and therefore must be situated in the centre, which is the worst place, and at the greatest distance from those purer incorruptible bodies, the heavens.’ It is sufficiently evident from such passages that the geocentric cosmography served rather for man’s humiliation than for his exaltation, and that Copernicanism was opposed partly on the ground that it assigned too dignified and lofty a position to his dwelling-place.’ –The Great Chain of Being
This is not to say, however, that the earth was not important in the medieval conception of things. It certainly was—just not on account of its spatial location. What really made the earth significant was that it was the site of God’s redemptive plan for humanity. It was, indeed, the only place where the drama of sin and salvation was being played out. In the medieval conception of life, each soul was the object of ferocious struggle, waged between the angels of heaven and the demons of hell. So what happened in an individual’s life had importance not just to themselves, but to all the inhabitants of the supernatural realm. If not exactly pleasant, to be caught between these two warring parties, each ruthless and demanding in their own way (Christ the judge was somewhat more prominent in the medieval imagination than the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” beloved of modern, liberal Protestantism), it was at any rate a confirmation of one’s own importance, i.e., that one was worth the attention in the first place. Once the inhabitants of the supernatural realm were obliterated, then the cosmic significance of human beings really could be put in doubt. True, one is important to oneself and to one’s friends and family (hopefully), but if one is only important to temporal, finite beings like oneself, then one is only important in a subjective sense, not objectively, and that does seem to entail a demotion.
So this particular part of the progress narrative is really not true. Other parts might be, but the view that Copernicus dethroned human beings from the center of the universe, and thereby humbled a theologically inspired, anthropocentric pride, is not. But that’s not to say that astronomy did not create challenges for Christian theology. It did, but not the kind that Freud had in mind. As we’ll see in a future article, the real trouble was with the doctrine of the incarnation, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.