There can be no doubt that both Copernicus and Kepler sought out the same harmony between Man and the Heavens that their ancient predecessors strived to attain. But these two men seem to differ in their perceptions of self and their “place in history”. Although his notion of a heliocentric universe was a departure from earlier doctrines, Copernicus must not be considered a man who sought to stir the pot by challenging the Church’s accepted universe of a central and stationary earth.
Copernicus was certainly not an upstart disregarding the ideas and findings of his predecessors in Astronomy. Copernicus and Ptolemy both sought the same simple geometric elegance in the workings of the heavens. Copernicus saw the same clear lack of uniform motion in the heavenly bodies that Ptolemy sought to account for. To justify the mere possibility of a heliocentric universe Copernicus invokes the names of Hipparchus, Cicero, Plutarch and the Pythagoreans. The inclusion of these well-known antecedents seems to be an attempt to base his radical departure from accepted dogmas on the backs of venerated ancients. Copernicus’ proposal for the movement of the earth and a heliocentric universe has precedence with Aristotle and the Pythagoreans. In regards to those who came before, Copernicus says that although his theories may differ from those of the ancients, his discoveries have only been possible “with their aid, for it was they who first opened the road of inquiry”.
Coming after Copernicus, Kepler’s aim was to “reform astronomical theory.” The introduction to Kepler’s Astronomia Nova contains a great deal of Scripture. Regarding God, Kepler states that the astronomer must “acknowledge His wisdom expressed in the earth’s motion, at once so well hidden and so admirable.” Kepler does however, have a general distaste for those who use the Bible to refute the theory put forth by Copernicus. In one notable case, he urges that certain religious passages be regarded as moral teachings rather than a precise physical account of the Universe. In his view Scripture “also speaks in accordance with human perception when the truth of things is at odds with the sense, whether or not humans are aware of this”.
Through this lens, the word and works of God must somehow be diluted in order for man to grasp them? The scripture can teach morals and those things pertaining to man, but “these words do not concern measurements arrived at by reason.” It’s seems clear that the path to understanding the physical nature of the Universe does not lie through Scripture. We see here something of the juggling act that Kepler attempts. While remaining undoubtedly pious and reverent, he must combat the Bible literalists who apparently seek to invalidate heliocentrism and the theory put forth by Copernicus.
His answer is to debunk the various passages and explain why the Earth must move and the sun must be stationary. For Kepler, and seemingly many other astronomers, number is the handwriting of the Lord. God created the universe with an intelligible plan that can only be glimpsed through the study of the heavens: “The heavenly bodies than whose motion nothing is more admirable, nothing more beautiful, and nothing a better witness to the Creator’s wisdom, for those who take note of it”. The notion that the motion of heavenly bodies can provide us with a glimpse of God’s true nature did not originate with Kepler. The “first mover” had been discussed for many centuries. But this devote introduction shows a man who seeks not worldly fame but rather to better know the universe as a creation of God. In his dedication the Pope Copernicus the duty of the philosopher as “to seek truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason”.
But throughout his work on the heavens Copernicus will invoke the name of God as the Ancients invoked the muses before undertaking a great work. God is not the all powerful creator, but rather an aid in his personal mathematical affairs. That is not to question the man’s piety, however it does seem at times that Copernicus has intuitive curiosity and by nature wishes to know.
This of course raises the bigger question. Whether God wishes for Man to understand his workings and creations. The God of both the New and Old Testaments does not seem to have created Man in order for him to comprehend his works. When Job has lost his faith, God appears out of a whirlwind and asks: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? …Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know!” God shows Job that he is nothing when compared to the Lord. The mortal creature cannot understand the workings of an eternal omnipotent being. Job confesses that he has spoken of “what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” To deign to comprehend God’s creations is to imply that you can somehow understand God, somehow place yourself on equal ground.
A godly man who does not recognize his small meaninglessness nature is not a godly man at all. Thus it would seem that strictly according to Scripture, the Astronomer is spending his life trying to understand the heavens. He is impious and looks to the stars instead of towards the everlasting life to come. The works of Copernicus and Kepler appear to be heresy. Luckily there is another way to view the study of Astronomy.
Throughout his introduction to The Almagest, Ptolemy will use the term “God” just once. He views Astronomy as an extension of Philosophy and describes his task in terms of Platonic forms and speaks of Astronomers as ” lovers of that divine beauty”. Whatever lack of heliocentricity his models may have, Ptolemy does not need to defend his works from religious zealots and cries of heresy. The duty of the astronomer according to Copernicus, Ptolemy and Kepler is discovering the divine nature of the heavens and to pass that information on to others. However two of these men had to invoke the church and it’s institution in order to delve into scientific inquiry. Science and the pursuit of knowledge become fragile and their foundations shaky, when curiosity and “the desire to know” are not sufficient reasons for one’s mental application into their comprehension.
If not understood through the lens of human curiosity, how else can we account for the nature of knowledge itself?