Renaissance Cosmology

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 objiciat—“let 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 Donne’s poem, An Anatomy of the World (1611):

And new Philosophy call all in doubt...
And freely men confess that this world’s 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 heaven’s Powers rebelled
in Fire’s force, and by the histories
of Pyrrha and Deucalian there lies,
The like of water’s impetuity,
In part concurring with divinity—
The Priests of Egypt gazing at the stars,
Are said to see the World’s sad ruins past,
That had betide by Fire and Water’s 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 Man’s 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 s’il 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.”)


  1. Of Learned Ignorance, Transl. by Germain Heron (New Haven, 1954), Bk. II ch. XI-XII, 107-118
  2. Johannes Funck, Chronologia cum commentariis chronologic is ab initio mundi (Nürenberg, 1545).
  3. “De vanitate circulorum et anni illius mundani phantasia platonica et aliorum.” Opera latine conscripta, Ed. by F. Fiorentino (Napoli, 1879), 1,1,367.
  4. “Differentias et singularum differentiarum irregularitatem.” Op. cit., 1.1,372.
  5. Cf. A. Corsano, II pensiero di Giordano Bruno nel suo svolgimento storico (Firenze, 1940), 249-264.