Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), in his De docta ignorantia,
denied the qualitative difference between heaven and earth. He also rejected
the rest ot the related propositions of Aristotelian metaphysics, claiming
that the earth is not perfectly spherical and that the orbits of the planets
are not perfectly circular.1
He claimed that heavenly motions do not nave stability as an inherent
quality, and formulated the hypothesis that some statements of ancient
writers may be explained by their having seen a sky different from what
was seen in his time. He defined science as learned ignorance,
because it is impossible to formulate an exact, eternal, and absolute
description of the physical universe.
The position of Copernicus (1475-1543) was relatively conservative
in that he combined heliocentrism with the traditional conception of circular
movements (around the sun) and of a limited universe bounded by the sphere
of the fixed stars. The opposition to Copernicus was determined by the
realization that by giving mathematical structure to the heliocentric
theory he lent support to the subversion of metaphysics that had been
associated with Nicolas of Cusa.
Questioning of the text of Genesis began as a result of
the Copernican theory: if the Earth is nothing but a planet revolving
around the sun, one may doubt that its creation was the result of a providential
dispensation. A son-in-law of Osiander, the editor of Copernicus, uttered
the first frank challenge to the divine authority of the biblical narrative:
neque mibi quisquam Judaeorum fabulas objiciatlet no
one bring to me Jewish fables as arguments.2
Scholars began to doubt the notion that the universe had been created
once and forever. They started to investigate ancient chronology, and
laid down the foundations of geology and paleontology.
In the age of the Reformation some religious apologists
argued that a distinction must be made between the creation of the universe
as a whole and the creation of the Earth: the biblical text referred to
the latter creation.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), in his last and greatest work,
De immenso et innumerabilibus, published just after his imprisonment,
made clear the meaning of the assertion of the principle of indifferenza
della natura. He denied the existence of a providential order in nature
and hence of the stability of the solar system which is linked with the
doctrine of circular movements; declared that only their imperfect astronomical
observations permitted earlier scholars to believe that the heavenly bodies
move in circles and in the long run return to their original position3
and pointed out that astronomical movements are bound to be infinitely
complex.4 The belief in
the simple and regular motion of the planets, he continued, is a delusory
product of astrological thinking, laboring under the faith or hope
that nature conforms to the rules of geometry (sub fide vel spe
geometricantis naturae). It is necessary to free mathematical astronomy
from Platonic and Pythagorean metaphysical accretions. From the relativity
of motion follows the relativity of time; since no completely regular
motion can be discovered, and since we possess no records which can prove
that all the heavenly bodies have taken up exactly the same positions
with regard to the Earth as those previously occupied by them and that
their motions are rigidly regular, no absolute motion of time can be found.5
The new conception of nature is epitomized in John Donnes
poem, An Anatomy of the World (1611):
And new Philosophy
call all in doubt...
And freely men confess that this worlds spent,
When in the planets, and the Firmament
They seek so many new; then see that this
Is crumbled out again to his Atomies.
Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone. . .
So, of the Stars, which boast that they do run
In Circle still, none ends where he begun.
All their proportions lame, it sinks, it swells.
Velikovsky has been scorned
for blending the study of astronomy with that of geology, ancient traditions,
ancient chronology, and ancient science. But in so doing he has followed
the path of Renaissance scholars, since such a course is inevitable once
the dogmatic belief in the incorruptibility of the solar system has been
questioned. The new astronomy brought forth a series of studies of ancient
traditions and chronology, and effected the birth of interest in Egyptian
and Mesopotamian science. For instance. Father Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680)
founded the study of geology with his Mundus Subterraneus, while
he initiated the study of Egyptian science with his Oedipus Aegyptiacus.
In Vicissitudo Rerum (1600) John Norden refers to these speculations
that have been revived by Velikovsky:
The antique Poets
in their Poems telled
Under their fondest Fables, Mysteries:
By Phaethon, how heavens Powers rebelled
in Fires force, and by the histories
of Pyrrha and Deucalian there lies,
The like of waters impetuity,
In part concurring with divinity—
The Priests of Egypt gazing at the stars,
Are said to see the Worlds sad ruins past,
That had betide by Fire and Waters jars:
And how the World inconstant and unchaste,
Assailed by these, cannot alike stand fast.
Earthquakes and Wars, Famine, Hate, and Pest,
Bring perils to the Earth, and Mans Unrest.
Sir Walter Raleigh in his
History of the World (1616) wondered how it could happen that the
phases of Venus just discovered by Galileo seem to have been known to
ancient authors. He listed the authorities who state that at the time
of the flood of Ogyges so great a miracle happened in the star of
Venus, as never was seen before or after-times: for the colour, the size,
the figure, and the course of it were changed. The catastrophe associated
with the name of Ogyges, a time mark for ancient Greeks, took place simultaneously
with Venus complete metamorphosis. This statement made by Varro,
the most learned of all the Romans, on the authority of earlier
scientists should have provoked interest in the time of Newton, when the
working of the solar system was elevated to the state of a most exact
science. But, whereas the gleaning of information from ancient authors
contributed to more than one discovery of the new age of astronomy (the
very heliocentric theory had been advanced on the authority of Greek and
Roman writers), Newton pulled down the curtain on the use of ancient sources
as an inspiration for astronomical research. The notion that the solar
system may have a history became (in the name of the new religion of science)
as sacrilegious as it had been for the scholastics (Saint Augustine, 354-430
A.D., had taken a different position, on the authority of classical authors).
On the eve of the establishment of Newtonian cosmology,
the speculation on cosmic cataclysms had become so commonplace that in
1672 Molière , in his satire on the ladies who, captured by the
new passion for science, studied astronomy, could make a joke of it (Les
femmes savantes. Act IV, Scene III):
Je viens vous annoncer une grande nouvelle:
Nous avons en dormant, madame, echappé belle,
Un monde près de nous a passe tout du long;
Est chu tout au travers de notre tourbillon,
Et sil eut en chemin rencontré notre terre,
Elle eut été brisée en morceaux comme verre.
(I have come to tell you a great piece of news.
We have. Madam, while sleeping, had a narrow escape.
A world has passed by us, has fallen across
our vortex, and if it had on its way met our Earth,
it would have broken it into pieces like glass.)
Learned Ignorance, Transl. by Germain Heron (New Haven, 1954),
Bk. II ch. XI-XII, 107-118
- Johannes Funck, Chronologia cum commentariis
chronologic is ab initio mundi (Nürenberg, 1545).
- De vanitate circulorum et anni illius
mundani phantasia platonica et aliorum. Opera latine conscripta,
Ed. by F. Fiorentino (Napoli, 1879), 1,1,367.
- Differentias et singularum
differentiarum irregularitatem. Op. cit., 1.1,372.
- Cf. A. Corsano, II pensiero
di Giordano Bruno nel suo svolgimento storico (Firenze, 1940),