Title of the course May 20, 2011 Interpretation of Copernicus in the 16th Century The drastic changes in arts and sciences that occurred in the Renaissance period had outstanding consequences for the further development of Western civilization…
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This essay will deal with the interpretations of Copernican cosmology among his contemporaries, with special attention being paid to views on Copernican theory exhibited by leading theologians of the epoch, both Catholic and Protestant. In addition, an account of interpretations of Copernicus in non-European historical environment will be presented, with Ottoman Empire serving as a case study. It will be argued that the dominant interpretations of Copernican astronomy in the 16th century were far from overwhelmingly hostile, as might be inferred from the treatment of Giordano Bruno and later Galileo Galilei, and that established ecclesiastical authorities in most cases lacked a coherent policy towards Copernicans until the 17th century. THE EARLY LUTHERAN RESPONSE TO THE COPERNICAN THEORY. MELANCHTHON, RHETICUS AND THE WITTENBERG INTERPRETATION Although the notion of existential hostility of Lutheran thinkers towards Copernican astronomy, presented by White in his famous account of Luther’s alleged derisory remark on Copernicus (White 1:126-7), is widespread, it seems that such a conclusion would be premature. While Kuhn asserts that Luther and Melanchthon viewed Copernican theory as contravening the Scripture and constituting near blasphemy (Kuhn 191), Barker and Westman strongly oppose such a view, instead suggesting that the attitude of Lutherans to Copernicanism was more nuanced (Barker; Westman, “The Copernicans and the Churches”). First of all, it is significant that the presentation of Copernican heliocentric theory itself was conducted not by Copernicus himself, but by Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574), a young mathematician from the University of Wittenberg, which was the spiritual centre of Lutheran current in the Reformation (Westman, “The Copernicans and the Churches” 81). In fact, Rheticus was entrusted by Copernicus with publishing Narratio Prima, the draft version of the Copernican master work, De Revolutionibus, in 1540. Together with another Lutheran scholar, Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), Rheticus published De Revolutionibus itself in 1543, with a special notice that the latter was an astronomical and mathematical, rather than philosophical, work. It is assumed that this notice was added in order to prevent possible backlash by conservative theologians and scholastics against Copernican theory (Westman, “The Copernicans and the Churches” 81). Such interpretation of Copernicus’s work, i.e. not as a work aimed at uncovering physical truth, but as a mathematical treatise that was merely to provide mathematically consistent observations was to become a basis for the so-called Wittenberg Interpretation of Copernicus. It is interesting to note that Melanchthon seems to have been initially critical of Copernicus’s ideas, but later acknowledged their validity, especially with regard to Copernican planetary parameters and theory of moon movements (Westman, “The Melanchthon Circle”). Although Melanchthon never recognized the claims of Copernican heliocentrists with respect to cosmological issues, he obviously regarded Copernicus’s mathematical calculations on celestial body movements as superior to the Ptolemean ones. Melanchthon dismissed Copernican observation on the earth’s motion, finding it to be incompatible with the Scripture and the Aristotelian idea of simple motion, according to which each simple body has only one type of motion inherent in it (Westman, “
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