Not the centre but the garbage can.

It is a commonly held and widespread myth, that is unfortunately continually repeated in both popular and academic books, that one of the main reasons for the rejection of Copernicanism in the Early Modern period was the fact that it displaced the earth from its ‘privileged’ position at the centre of the then known universe. The truth is that the earth’s position was regarded as anything but privileged and was more considered the garbage can of the universe as is nicely illustrated by this quote from Otto von Guericke from 1672:

CHAPTER 7

OBJECTIONS OF THE ASTRONOMERS AND NATURAL PHILOSOPHERS TO THE COPERNICAN SYSTEM

Since, however, almost everyone has been of the conviction that the earth is immobile since it is a heavy body, the dregs, as it were, of the universe and for this reason situated in the middle or the lowest region of the heaven

Otto von Guericke; The New (So-Called) Magdeburg Experiments of Otto von Guericke, trans. with pref. by Margaret Glover Foley Ames. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1994, pp 15 – 16. (my emphasis)

7 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

7 responses to “Not the centre but the garbage can.

  1. Pingback: Not the centre but the garbage can. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. I’ve always thought the ‘we’re the center of the universe because we are special’ argument was a bit shallow. It seemed to me that Aristotle’s physical arguments would be the real reason for keeping us there…and as you nicely point out with OvG – the earth is really at the bottom of the pit really in terms of specialness.

  3. The Christian version of this cosmography adds a dynamic, if not melodramatic, element to the Aristotelian account. For Aristotle, the center was indeed the natural place for the dregs of the world; but it was (literally) inferior, not evil since evil is a notion decidedly alien to his ethics. Anyhow, for Aristotle the world was eternal so his picture is rather static. For the Christians, on the other hand, for whom the world was not only temporary but coming to an end in the near future, Earth and its hellish center are swiftly filling to the brim with spiritual as well as physical dreck like a cess pool that can never be pumped out, which I guess, is one of the reasons that time must end. I’m reminded of certain marine arthropods that have blind digestive tracks and never shit, unless you imagine their deaths as a sort of definitive act of defecation. The puritans would have appreciated this piece of natural history, which would provide them with a type for individual and collective death: “The costive soul at last releases/the stinking corpse as if t’were feces.”

  4. Kniffler

    I’ve have always taken ‘privileged’ in that kind of thing to mean ‘particular’, rather than ‘exulted’. Even if being at the centre was the base position, it still suggested a cosmos that was built according to a moral order, with humanity in mind. I supposed it was that anthropocentric view that Copernicanism threatened, and which caused it to be rejected.

    Am I wrong? Being too generous to various popular and academic books?

    • No. The argument is very much that in the pre-Copernican Christian/Aristotelian world the earth occupied an exulted position at the centre of the world (where world means solar system/universe).

      • Hi Thony,

        It is true that a lot of people make the mistake you identify, but it is not obvious that once we rid ourselves of the idea that the centre is somehow special and better, that we thereby lose the alleged role for geocentrism in Christian thought.

        One aspect of geocentrism is that it provides a spatial structure which makes the earth ‘below’ and the heavens ‘above’. Now the doctrine of a Future State is essential to Christianity and the spatial structure of geocentrism gives an analogy between the celestial heavens above the earth and the spiritual heaven ‘above’ (as in, better then) this temporal existence. There is no need to think anyone believed it was literally true that (spiritual) heaven is located in (celestial) heaven for this analogy to be a very powerful weapon for the Christian preacher.

        [Though I should note that some of us sent to Sunday School as young children can remember a time when we did literally believe that, and were encouraged in that belief by our teachers. Also, the Ascension appears to be both spatial and spiritual in the Gospels and is consistently represented spatially in medieval art.]

        While I am generally pretty open to the sort of move you are making here, I think this one needs a bit more evidence. I would love to see it if you have it.

        Cheers,

        Tom

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