Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule



Graphic Rule
The Species Problem


AS the last vestiges of Greek skepticism and rationality died out in the West, the pagan heritage of natural philosophy passed to the keeping of the Arabs. The Roman physician Galen (131-201) may be taken as the last Christian layman of importance to ask questions directly of nature, for shortly after his time intellectual activity became the exclusive province of the church. Under the Augustinian injunction, 'Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, for greater is this authority than all the powers of the human mind,' those who were mentally fitted or inclined toward intellectual inquiry were deflected to the study of theology, either as revealed in the sacred writings or as discoverable in mystical experiences; they were impelled by Christian doctrine to seek and study only that which would exalt man and prove his divine nature. If by any chance an observation contrary to scriptural statement or the anthropocentric view intruded itself into their religious meditations they were constrained to hold their senses fallible and their perception erroneous until the fact had been twisted, distorted, mangled beyond all recognition, in order to conform with holy truths.

Yet these holy truths, for their own sake, had to be made reasonable, their internal contradictions explained, their mysteries reconciled wherever possible with common sense. Tertullian, irritated by pagan ridicule, might retort, "I believe because it is absurd," but Tertullian had a measure of credulity rare even in the most devout Christian. Following him there were many better thinkers in the church who, because they did believe, wanted the faith to be made as reasonable as possible. Origen, in his reply to Celsus, Cyril of Alexandria answering Julian the Apostate, Augustine refuting Gnosticism, each had sought in proportion to his lights to reconcile scripture and philosophy. Apologetics, whether construed as an effort to defend Christianity against the criticisms of nonbelievers or as the faith's internal effort to rationalize its mysteries, constituted from the beginning a major intellectual and literary exercise for educated Christians. The first apologetic effort had culminated in the voluminous anti-Gnostic works of Augustine and had paused there, in part because Augustine's solutions were apparently irrefutable (an appearance created as much by the quantity as the quality of his dissertations), and in part because the anti-intellectual attitude of the early medieval church discouraged men from coming to its defense. It required the lapse of centuries, the violence of the Crusades, the Moslem occupation of Spain, the migrations of Jewish and Arab scholars which these military movements promoted, and the artistic and emotional forces underlying the Renaissance to reawaken in Christian consciousness the suspicion that a verbatim knowledge of scripture and of the voluminous works of Augustine was not enough to save the church against intellectual assault.

It is not surprising that when reason, so long asleep, began to reassert itself it was only to the end of expounding the sacred verities that heaven had vouchsafed through the medium of revelation and, if possible, of increasing Christian certitude. Shackled by the necessity of accepting as its premises the a priori conclusions already reached by ten centuries of theological speculation, reason could at best aspire to prove worthy of the title of 'handmaid to the faith' by showing that these were the only conclusions that were possible.

The travail between reason and revelation, historically known as Scholasticism, was destined to result in the admission by both sides that reason and faith are intrinsically incompatible. Indeed, under the influence of Scholasticism reason was strictly forbidden to touch upon theological matters, which were held to be something entirely beyond its province: none the less in this, the second great era of apologetics, even while theology was gaining a number of new and elegant ornaments, reason profited in consequence of the unusual exercises which it encountered.

It was the fortune, or misfortune, of medieval Christianity that its chief inheritance from Hellenic culture was transmitted through Neoplatonism and consisted of those features of Plato's works which were most opposed to the liberal, exploratory Greek spirit. Of Plato's mixed philosophy the Academicians of later centuries chose to emphasize his oracles, his asceticism and his number-mysticism, to the exclusion of his more critical modes of intellection. Ultimately when his followers grew tired of number-mysticism they convinced themselves that only the supersensual is real, a position but slightly removed from Plato's doctrine of Ideas, though one reached independently of Platonic argument the logical niceties of which they were incapable of understanding.

Plotinus and those who followed in the pattern of his thought have been called Neoplatonists, though the identification, however justified historically, does not flatter the 'father of unreason' since Neoplatonism marked the intellectual bankruptcy of the ancient world and the universal acceptance of the crudest superstition. Calling itself a repository of philosophy, it despised as useless the entire cultural heritage which Greece and Rome might otherwise have bequeathed to a barbarian world and the most creditable thing that can be said of it is that it represents absolute religion, unmarred by compromise with the objective world. But Christianity, lacking what could properly be called a philosophy of its own, took Neoplatonism and its doctrine of the supersensual to its heart and made of it a basic tenet of belief. Thereafter the approach to the Supreme One, the search for eternal truth by way of a swooning rapture proved most agreeable to Christian taste and the mystics of the cloister spent hours before the crucifix or an image of the Virgin, enduring hunger and discomfort while they sought that self-hypnosis by which the mind was 'put out of its place' and the soul was united with the Ineffable. The titillating experience came to be looked upon as a special act of grace accorded by God as an encouragement to beginners, a step in the progression towards holiness, or the attainment of a state but little short of saintliness itself.

Ruysbroek, a great mystic of the fourteenth century, gave a vivid account of religious ecstasy: 'When love has carried us above all things, above the light into the Divine darkness, we are transformed by the eternal Word who is the image of the Father; and, as the air is penetrated by the sun we receive in place the light incomprehensible, embracing and penetrating us. What is this light, if it be not a contemplation of the infinite and an intuition of eternity? We behold that which we are, and we are that which we behold, because our being, without losing anything of its own personality, is united with the Divine truth which includes all divinity.' And a century earlier, Aquinas, the greatest of the Schoolmen, said, 'The higher our mind is raised to the contemplation of spiritual things, the more it is abstracted from sensible things. But the final term at which contemplation can possibly arrive is the Divine substance. Therefore the mind that sees the Divine substance must be wholly divorced from the bodily senses, either by death or by some rapture.'

Where to swoon is to know God and to experience rapture is to discover truth, reason is a broken reed. The Schoolmen began their task with such Neoplatonic bias that when the abridged works of Aristotle were first introduced to the West in the twelfth century they were outrightly condemned as materialistic and destructive to the faith. Shortly, however, it came to be recognized that if properly 'interpreted' Aristotle could be made to serve the ends of faith by aiding in metaphysical speculation, and within a century the pagan naturalist had come to be known as the 'precursor of Christ in nature' even as John the Baptist was the 'precursor of Christ in spirit.' T o prove a point in dogma by means of an Aristotelian argument assumed an importance almost equal to the attainment of ecstasy itself. Thus was born Scholasticism, which may be called an effort to co-ordinate the Neoplatonic doctrine of the mystical nature of reality with the irrefragable and frequently irrational statements of scripture, the co-ordination starting from unsubstantiated premises and being completed by Aristotelian arguments based on order, sequence and relation.

The speculative alchemists of the medieval universities who would fain have transmuted the dross of Aristotle's philosophy into revelation's precious metal were forced, in order to avoid the charge of heresy, to experiment with topics upon which scripture and its ecclesiastic appendices had failed to give the final word. The one topic the discussion of which was least likely to bring them into conflict with authority was that very one upon which Plato and Aristotle had emphatically disagreed, namely the nature of the 'real.' A single sentence, in a Latin translation by Boetius of Porphyry's Isagoge, appears to have been responsible for raising this problem in medieval times, and thus supplying the subject matter for five centuries of disputation. Porphyry's sentence merely called attention to the Platonic distinction, or as it might be, 'relation,' between the singulars of objects and the universals of Ideas: 'I shall omit to speak of genera and species as to whether they subsist in the nature of things or in mere conceptions only; whether, if subsistent, they are bodies or incorporeal; and whether they are separate from, or in and along with, perceptual things; I shall not speak of these, for a matter of this kind is most profound and in need of further study .'

This sentence, raising a question without answering it, was bound to excite curiosity. The vast amount of detailed thinking which Plato and Aristotle had done on the subject was not available to medieval scholars and they were forced to think the matter through anew, only to discover some dangerous implications.

Boetius implies that he himself was rather anti-Platonically inclined, preferring the Aristotelian position that only individual things exist, and that universals, such as genera, species, qualities and like terms which serve to relate different individuals, are but modes of expression convenient for the description of recurring similarities between these individuals. His position was vaguely stated, however, and Scholasticism proper opened on the opposite note, with John Scotus Erigena of the ninth century defending the view that only God is real, and that the world of things and of all experience is but a 'theophany,' an imperfect sensory perception of divinity.

The view that regarded things as real degraded universals to mere names, modes of speech, or synthetic constructions of thought, and hence came to be identified as 'nominalism,' in contradistinction to the Neoplatonic 'realism' which regarded universals as the only true realia. The paradox that, on the one hand, the 'nominalists' asserted that only particular things are real, while on the other the 'realists' asserted that only the universals which are shared in common by particular things are real, the things themselves being but illusions, has always confused this justly famous and important philosophic dispute. Where 'realism' contended for the complete dematerialization of the world of sensory experience, nominalism -- and common sense -- contended for at least some form of reality for material things, if not for outright materialism.

Except for changes in terms introduced by the Neoplatonists and some elaboration in argument, the debate was still at the point where Plato had left it. The chief difference effected by fourteen centuries was that where Plato had been defending the aristocratic tradition against the attacks of the democratic mob, 'realism' was now invoked in defending Christian legend and tradition against the attacks of nominalism.

Nominalism first acquired the magnitude of a heresy when Roscellinus (d. ca. 1125), a canon of Compiègne, refusing to recognize the reality of anything but the individual, the thing which is directly perceived, treated the universal as a mere flatus vocis, a verbal breathing, a manner of speaking. In that case neither wisdom, nor hope, nor faith, nor goodness, exist as realia, but only as figures of speech; nor can one say that three persons can be one 'thing,' for if individuality is real, one individual cannot also be three individuals: either there is one God with three aspects, or there are three Gods. Roscellinus preferred three Gods, for otherwise God and the Holy Ghost must have been incarnate in the Son, and with him have suffered birth and crucifixion. To this the realist Anselm, the most famous theologian of the day, replied, 'How shall he who has not arrived at the understanding how several men are in species one man, comprehend how in that most mysterious nature several persons, each of which is Perfect God, are one God?' The rigid application of Roscellinus's argument threatened more than the nature of the Trinity; it would have degraded original sin, grace, justice, truth, the very Word itself, from realia to verbal breaths. It would have degraded the church from a transcendent Body to a mere human organization, and religion from a divine spirit to mere personal opinion. Roscellinus was severely condemned by a council held at Soissons in 1092 and, in danger of being stoned to death by the angry, orthodox populace, forced to recant his error.

Realism found its outstanding opponent in Peter Abelard (1079-1142) whose love for Heloise, the niece of Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame, has supplied a classic tale of romance and tragedy. Abelard devoted his early life, when his students were numbered by the thousands and before his mutilation by Fulbert, to refuting Anselm who, in Abelard's opinion, 'was that sort of a man that if anyone went to him in uncertainty, he returned more uncertain still. He was wonderful to hear, but at once failed if you questioned him. He kindled a fire not to give light, but to fill the house with smoke.' It was Anselm's motto that 'I believe in order to understand,' while Abelard accepted that 'Doubt is the road to inquiry, and by inquiry we perceive the truth.' Anselm esteemed authority; Abelard replied, 'How, then, is the faith of any people, however false, to be refuted, though it may have arrived at such a pitch of blindness as to confess some idol to be the creator both of heaven and earth? As, according to your own admission, you cannot reason upon matters of faith, you have no right to attack others upon a matter with regard to which you think you ought yourself to be unassailed.' 'A doctrine is believed not because God has said it, but because we are convinced by reason that it is so.' In his Sic et Non he listed one by one the many points upon which the infallible fathers had violently disagreed with each other, thus publicly advertising the vulnerability of the dogma and its need for philosophic rehabilitation.

In Abelard's last years he lived in a cabin of stubble and reeds, or in flight from one monastery to another, but always with a large following. In ever-increasing ill repute with the church, and having been repeatedly condemned, he came into conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux, was denounced as a heretic by the Council of Sens (1141), and died on the way to Rome to plead his cause. But his heresies, 'by inquiry we perceive the truth ... a doctrine is believed ... because we are convinced by reason that it is so,' lived after him to set the problems for the next three hundred years.

The saintly Bernard, in answering Abelard, declared: 'Faith is not an opinion but a certitude. "The substance of things hoped for," says the Apostle, not the phantasies of empty conjecture. You hear, the substance. You may not dispute on the faith as you please, you may not wander here and there through wastes of opinion, the byways of error. By the name substance something certain and fixed is placed before you; you are enclosed within boundaries, you are restrained within unchanging limits.'

Bernard, like Anselm, was a realist of the purest sort. Faith was substance, enduring truth, the ultimate reality; opinion and reason were chimeric deceptions, perversions, or at best fragments, of the truth. For Abelard 'things' were substance and enduring truth and, if not the ultimate reality, at least one reliable means for its discovery. The process of discovery was by doubt and inquiry. Even scripture might be translated or read erroneously, and should be interpreted with care. Abelard's heresies so stimulated imitation that the Council of Toulouse (1129) declared it a sin for the laity to possess a Bible or to read the Psalter or the Breviary in the vernacular, lest the precious body of revelation be soiled by error of interpretation. Any attempt to reason about the faith implied its vulnerability, if it did not threaten its destruction -- the more so since, at the moment, the use of reason was most strongly defended by the hated pagan Arabs who conceived deity as immanent in matter itself, who denied the possibility of creation from nothing, and who were led by logic to the denial of personal immortality.

It seemed at the opening of the thirteenth century, when the works of Aristotle and of Plato and much else representing the intellectual wealth of ancient Greece were being carried to the West, that Christianity could neither tolerate the infusion of any reason nor yet survive without it. The creed faced a crisis second only to that of the days of Constantine. It was saved from its dilemma by the Scholastic adroitness of Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274), to whom belongs the credit for so thorough a rehabilitation of Christian philosophy that the scriptures and dogma were assured of safety for many centuries.

It has been said of Albertus Magnus that he reproduced the whole philosophy of Aristotle in systematic order and remodeled it to meet the requirements of ecclesiastic dogma; while his pupil Aquinas refined the master's thought with such perfection that he has been called the 'greatest of all Christian philosophers'; with Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory, Aquinas ranks as one of the five great Fathers and, by the encyclical of Leo XIII (1879), his teachings, presented chiefly in the Summa Theologiae and Summa contra Gentiles, were made the model of philosophy and theology throughout the Roman Catholic Church. With few exceptions they represent also the definitive beliefs of the Protestant sects.

The central theme in the writings of Aquinas, which incorporate the contributions of his teacher Albertus, is that there are two sources of knowledge: revelation, which affords the truths of theology, and reason, which affords other forms of truth. Theological knowledge is unique and represents an ultimate, absolute truth which is to be strictly distinguished from all natural knowledge or personal experience. Revelation presents men with theological truths through the channels of scripture and the councils and traditions of the church, and these are to be believed even when reason cannot understand them. Thus, revelation has afforded certain truths about God, such as the nature of the Trinity, that transcend human reason; reason unaided by revelation could discover the existence of God, but never his triune being. Other truths afforded by revelation and which reason alone could never discover are the creation of the world out of nothing, and the incarnation; Duns Scotus added to this list the knowledge of God as omnipotent and as the chief end of man, and the incorruptibility and immortality of the soul.

Faith takes precedence over reason and guides the seeker to truth when reason is as yet undeveloped. Because it transcends reason, faith might be thought by some to be contrary to it; but this is impossible, for the lesser light, Aquinas says, is not darkened by the greater, but is on the contrary increased, as the light of the air is increased by that of the sun.

In Aquinas, Neoplatonism won its Scholastic victory but only by the admission that reason and faith could not stand equally, that the one had to be subordinate to the other; and hence the persistent ecclesiastic tradition that reason shall not deny the articles of faith or the accumulated body of revelation. In Aquinas, philosophical realism also won a victory, but not without such fluxion in its definitions that John of Salisbury in the next century was able to enumerate thirteen different varieties of interpretation; and even in the work of Aquinas himself, the individual and universal alternate as realia more or less as is convenient. For example, individual men are real (agreeing with Aristotle) and there is no 'universal man' in nature (denying Plato); yet the universal idea of man exists in the Divine Mind and constitutes the essence or source of being of all individuals (in conformity with Neoplatonism).

In Aquinas's view the quasi-divine, universal essence, which he designated by the word quidditas -- that which gives a man, for example, his 'manness' -- transforms itself in an individual man by a process of 'individuation,' which consists of the quantitative division and ordering of the matter of which the individual is composed, roughly as a man might build himself a house by sorting out and joining lumber. Conversely, essence withdraws from individuation by the reversal of this ordering process. Thus essence precedes existence and infinitely transcends it in importance.

By this premise Aquinas was enabled to establish the immortality of the soul without recourse to the crude doctrine of the resurrection of the body, without the limitations of Aristotle's rational soul, and with the complete abandonment of Aristotle's concept that substance and things exist of themselves and follow their own laws. In New Testament Christianity the resurrection was frankly of the body, either this body or a replica mystically fabricated anew for the purpose. For Tertullian, the soul was corporeal and handed on from parent to child as by a budding process, as part and parcel of the flesh; for Origen it was an incorporeal spirit, but one which required a body for its housing; while in Jerome's view, God was daily making new souls to fit the new bodies which were being made by human generation. For Aquinas these dualistic difficulties are avoided by his Neoplatonic definition of soul-stuff as ultimate substance, body as derivative pattern. The spiritual essence or quidditas is conceived to possess rationality and all the vegetative, sensitive, appetitive and motive functions of the body, essentially all the attributes of personality; and, since it itself forms the body by the 'division of matter,' it is free to abandon it, as the man who has built a house is free to move out of the completed structure and let it fall to pieces. Each soul is created by God for the purpose of 'individuating' a particular body, and partakes of the nature of an Aristotelian 'thing' in that a particular soul is not identical with any other soul. But it enjoys the nature of a Platonic universal in that it transcends the process of individuation and therefore of physical and corruptible being; and yet among universals it is a distinct species not to be subsumed by any other universal. It is assured, therefore, of an independent, individual existence throughout whatever duration universals themselves may exist.

Whatever difficulties the belief in personal survival after death may have hitherto presented, they were for the time being resolved by Aquinas's arguments and the church could well place him in its philosophical hierarchy far above Plato, the inventor of the doctrine of supersensual reality. In any case Plato had been a pagan and his arguments, lacking the guidance of faith and revelation, could at best produce only half-truths fraught with danger to men's souls.

If Aquinas was skillful in aiding reason to understand the immortal soul of faith, he was no less competent in aiding her to a proper knowledge of other angelic beings, the lore of which had been taken over by the church from the apocryphal literature. In Slavonic Enoch (before 70) myriads of supernatural beings had been depicted as attending the sun and regulating the courses of the stars, while in Ethiopic Enoch (166 to 64 B.C.) they controlled the lightning and the workings of the rain, frost, hail and snow. They numbered ten thousand times ten thousand, four hundred alone being required to take the sun's crown to God at sunset and return it in the morning. Although their nature was that of flame and fire, and their splendor equal to the stars, they were not wholly different from men in that some of them had descended to earth to take human wives. They were divided into several ranks and arranged themselves accordingly on the steps leading to the throne of God, the four archangels of the throne, Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, commanding the legions of lesser beings and acting as special emissaries from God to man, as when Gabriel conducted Enoch to heaven, when Raphael healed Tobit's blindness, and when Uriel was sent to Ezra. Angels went up and down the ladder of Jacob's dream, and succored Daniel when he was in the lion's den; and, in the Apocalypse of Baruch (80-150), when Jerusalem was destroyed four angels stood at the four corners of the city with lamps and accomplished its ruin. The angel whose chief function it was to bring death first made his appearance in this work.

The author of the pseudo-Christian Hermas (97-142) elaborated the doctrine of guardian angels, and Justin stated that 'God committed the care of men and all things under heaven to angels whom He set over these'; the heathen gods, he asserted, were the evil demons who were born of the intercourse of the fallen angels with women of earth. Many of the church fathers accepted the apocryphal angelology and developed it freely. It was Tertullian's view that the baptismal water receives its healing properties from an angel, that an angel announces in heaven every marriage which is blessed by the church, while another records the sins of Christians, as for example, when they go to the theater. Tertullian, who was always literal minded, was perhaps the first Christian to propound that angels flew by means of wings.

From the third century Christians were wont to pray to angels, Constantine dedicating a church to Michael, and at the Second Council of Nicaea (787) the worship of angelic beings was formally approved, the cultus still retaining technically, if not in practice, the approval of the Protestant as well as the Catholic church.

In the fifth century there appeared a work on angelology entitled The Celestial Hierarchy, an amalgam of Neoplatonism, principles of liturgic and sacramental doctrine, priestly function and heterogeneous pagan elements. The author was unknown, but in time the work was attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. First cited by a Constantinople council in 533, Pseudo-Dionysius did not become widely known in the West until after 827, when the Byzantine emperor sent a copy to Louis the Pious; it was translated by John Scotus Erigena and thereafter exerted a profound influence on Christian thought and the art and poetry of the Middle Ages. Pseudo-Dionysius divided the celestial hierarchy, which intervenes between the Triune God and earth, into three triads, each consisting of three classes of angelic beings, thus establishing inhabitants for each of the nine planetary spheres. The highest triad consisted of the seraphim, cherubim and thrones, the intermediate triad of dominions, virtues and powers, the lowest triad of principalities, archangels and angels. As the highest triad, which is nearest God, contemplates the divine effulgence and reflects it onward to the second, the third and more specifically angelic triad ministers immediately to men.

Although writers from Erigena onward followed Pseudo-Dionysius closely, this authority left so many gaps unfilled that angelology afforded a favorite subject for Scholastic speculation. It remained for Aquinas to perfect this mass of theory and to unify it with cosmology. As presented in his monumental Summa, angels are, like other universals, altogether incorporeal, of a genus comparable to, though not identical with, the essence of the human soul. Like the human soul, they have cognition and will, the latter functioning only in the direction of good, but they do not exercise the functions of life and do not know passion. (The angels of the Genesis legend have by all authorities been specifically described as fallen.) They can foresee the future to a limited extent, and enjoy a knowledge of God which, if still imperfect, is more intimate than man enjoys. They can be localized, and cannot be in more than one place at a time. Satan and his demon cohorts differ from the angels who remained in grace only because, of their free will, they sinned in pride and envy; these evil ones have a double abode, hell, where they care for the damned, and the air of the earth, where they incite men to evil.

Original sin Aquinas conceived to be a disordered condition of the soul brought on by pride, the deformity being both self-revealing and self-propagating in the concupiscent act. 'All men, who are born of Adam, can be considered as one man, so far as they agree in the nature which they receive from their first parent ... and just as murder is not imputed to a man's hand except as part of his body, so original sin is not guilt by reason of the will of each individual man, but by reason of the will of Adam.'

Logically it is but a step in Aquinas's thought from the disordered nature of man to the discovery of man's inborn predilection for evil, and it is not surprising to find that he was one of the first to insist that all magic is witchcraft and all witchcraft heresy; that he was one of the first to defend the application of the death penalty to heretics; that as a young man he saw and apparently approved the Albigensian crusade or that shortly after his time the persecution of witchcraft spread like a plague throughout the whole of Europe.

As the system of Aquinas appears in the Paradiso of Dante, the Scala naturale of Giovanni Maffeik and other cosmological treatises of the Scholastic period, the creation assumes a beauty and a vastness not hitherto imagined. The earth is no longer a flat plain inclosed by four walls and solidly covered by the firmament, the sun, moon, and stars being hung from this vaulted ceiling; but it has become a globe at the center of ten successive, transparent spheres each rotated by angels and carrying one or more of the heavenly bodies. Nearest the earth is the sphere of the moon; next is that of Mercury, next Venus, and next the sun; the three next carry Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; the eighth is spangled with the stars; next is a sphere of purest, transparent crystal, a suitable encasement for the magnificent, slowly revolving cosmos; and outermost is the primum mobile which at once communicates the heavenly powers of rotation to the inner spheres, and separates these spheres from the Empyrean, the great void which is filled with a light and which no one can enter, where sits enthroned the mighty Triune God. In attendance upon the Divine Person are the celestial hosts of seraphim, cherubim and thrones, who incessantly chant divine praises in anthems of surpassing beauty; dominions, virtues and powers receive the divine commands, attend the heavens, sun, moon, planets and the stars, open and shut the windows of heaven, and on occasion direct a thunderbolt or comet toward the wicked; and the principalities, archangels and angels protect religion and bear the prayers of the saints to the foot of God's throne, intercede in the affairs of men, and act as guardians of nations and of kingdoms. Above the world God sits in awful majesty, contemplating, enjoying, ordering, listening to the music of the spheres even as he contemplates the delights of paradise, the pains of purgatory, and the tortures of the inferno in the center of the earth where Lucifer, once the divine favorite, is now immovably fixed in ice, sharing the punishments of the proud and damned.


In the first century of the Christian Era God had disclosed the proper order of the universe to one Claudius Ptolemaeus, subsequently known as Ptolemy, an Egyptian mathematician and astronomer. In a monumental work on pure mathematics, geography and astronomy, which in the Middle Ages came to be called the Almagest, Ptolemy had applied himself to the question: What regular and determined motions being assumed would fully account for the phenomena presented by the heavenly bodies? According to the theory he developed the sun and planets revolve about the earth in essentially circular orbits, deviations from a uniformly circular course being explained by small revolutions also of a circular nature superimposed on the prime geocentric path. The unknown author of the treatises ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite had developed the Ptolemaic theory with reference to angelology and other Christian doctrines, and in subsequent centuries the great esteem accorded this work, as being written by Paul's Athenian convert and therefore virtually by Paul himself, coupled with the reverence due the ancient name of Ptolemy, established the geocentric theory in Christian conviction. Whatever debate might be admissible on the orders of angelic beings or the deviations of the planetary bodies from circular orbits, the central fact that the sun and planets in their motions were subservient to the earth, that the earth was the center of the cosmos, remained unassailable.

The geocentric theory had been kept intact, though tottering, for fourteen centuries by the addition of epicycle upon epicycle until astronomical theory had become a dizzying maze of complex motions. When, in 1400 [sic, should be 1500], Copernicus at first conceived that planetary motion could be reduced to simple orbits if it be supposed that the earth, along with the other planets, revolved around the sun (as had been accepted by Pythagoras, Aristarchus and Eratosthenes) he himself treated the idea as a rational paradox such as must occasionally arise where reason stumbles in her effort to keep in step with her mistress, faith. As continued application to the problem over a period of many years convinced him that the heliocentric interpretation was no paradox, but a supremely important natural truth, he dared not discuss the matter in this light in Rome and returned to his native Poland to co-ordinate and reduce the heliocentric system to writing. His book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) ready for publication, he entrusted it to a friend, Osiander, to be privately printed, not daring to risk the usual printing channels for fear that it might be condemned and destroyed by either Catholics or Protestants. When at last the volume was put in the author's hands he lay dying and never knew how his conviction had been betrayed: Osiander had lacked the courage to launch the book as a statement of fact and had inserted in it a groveling preface in which it was made to appear that Copernicus considered the doctrine of the earth's movement, not as truth, but as a fanciful hypothesis.

Osiander's preface served its purpose and the movement of the earth, as an idle hypothesis, failed to stir the church or even to command serious attention among astronomers. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), with instruments of greater precision than had hitherto been available, added many new astronomical observations, but either from deference to ecclesiastic authority or from his own inertia rejected the heliocentric scheme and in its place erected a hybrid theory which kept the earth at the center of the universe while permitting the planets to revolve about the sun. Kepler (1571-1630) abandoned the perfect circle as the proper course for the planets to pursue, and with it the necessity of epicycles, by resolving the planetary motions into elliptical orbits which had the sun as one of their foci, but he cautiously left the question of the earth's mobility undiscussed. The greatest mathematical and astronomical teachers of the time, whether Catholic or Protestant, dared not mention the Copernican doctrine to their classes, and the only man known to have openly defended it, Giordano Bruno, was, after seven years' imprisonment, excommunicated in 1600 and burned in Rome. True, Bruno was lacking in proper ecclesiastic respect, for he denounced the monks, scoffed at the mysteries of faith, called the Jewish records myths, and laughed at miracles as magical tricks. So probably he would have burned in any case, but his example served to deter others from unguarded rashness.

Yet ten years after Bruno's death the motion of the earth passed from hypothesis into fact. It had been argued against Copernicus, "If your doctrine is true, Venus (because it lies between the earth and the sun) would show phases like the moon." To which Copernicus had answered, "You are right; I know not what to say; but God is good, and will in time find an answer to the objection." God gave the answer in the telescope of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), which disclosed that when closest to the earth Venus presents a crescentic face. It was in either 1611 or 1612 that Galileo made the discovery that was destined to dry the spring of revelation. Long engaged in physical experiments, Galileo's interest in force and motion had been awakened when as a boy of seventeen he had observed that the lamp in the cathedral of Pisa invariably completed its oscillations in equal periods, however large their range. In studies extending over a period of thirty years, he found it profitable to think of motion in terms of law instead of angelic beings and quasi-animate powers -- he had, it has been said, 'brought motion down to earth by way of an inclined plane.'

When in September of 1604 a new star burst forth in the constellation of Serpentarius, Galileo had used the spectacular nova to refute the doctrine of the incorruptibility of the heavens, and here and on other occasions he had revealed his bias toward the heliocentric theory. Hearing in 1609 a description of the 'trunk and cylinder,' recently invented by Johannes Lippershey of Middleburg, which magnified distant objects, he produced after one night's meditation on the principles of refraction a telescope of threefold magnifying power, which he shortly improved to a power of thirty-two. The instrument afforded him unheard of revelations. In the Sidereus Nuncius, published in Venice in 1610, he astonished the world by announcing that there were mountains on the moon; that the dark portion of this body dimly visible between the crescentic tips was faintly illuminated by light reflected from the earth; that the Milky Way was a congeries of stars, as were the great nebulae; that Jupiter was possessed of satellites which revolved around the mother planet. In the next year he announced the presence of dark 'spots' upon the sun, and, shortly afterwards, the occurrence of phases on the planet Venus. To Galileo it seemed that these and other evidences, which anyone could see with his telescope and understand with simple diagrams, should serve to convince the most skeptical of the truth of the heliocentric doctrine, and he frankly engaged in written and public argument in defense of Copernicus, terming the earth one of several planets revolving about the sun.

He was quickly answered by the faithful: his method was absurd -- the divinely appointed way to arrive at the truth in astronomy was by theological reasoning on the texts of scripture; Genesis said that the moon was 'a great light' and to argue otherwise impugned the sacred text. The Bible showed by all applicable parallels that there were only seven planets: this was proved by the seven golden candlesticks of the Apocalypse, by the seven branched candlesticks of the tabernacle, by the seven churches of Asia, by the fact that the foetus is perfectly formed at seven months, and so on. It was declared that 'to see the satellites of Jupiter, men had to make an instrument which would create them'; and in any case 'they were invisible to the naked eye and therefore can have no influence on the earth, and therefore they would be useless, and therefore do not exist.' The Dominican Caccini preached a sermon on the punning text, 'Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?' and before he ended he declared that 'geometry is of the devil,' that 'mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies.' Men in high places, both within and without the church, hurled at the astronomer the dreaded epithets of 'heretic' and 'atheist' and asserted that the 'pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation'; that 'it casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation'; that it upset the whole basis of theology. 'If the earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it cannot be that any such great things have been done specially for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace their origin to Noah's ark? How can they have been redeemed by the Saviour?'

The cry increased that Galileo be handed over to the inquisition. To be certain of its ground Rome wanted evidence in writing and, aware that Galileo had written the Benedictine astronomer Castelli certain letters dealing with the apparent contradictions between scripture and the new astronomy, the archbishop begged Castelli to let him see them. Castelli declined and the archbishop, even while he was writing bitter denunciations of Galileo to the inquisition, approached him again professing the greatest admiration for Galileo's genius and a sincere desire to know more of his discoveries. Castelli still refusing to betray his friend, Rome resorted to open attack. In 1615 Galileo was summoned before the inquisition, which examined him on two propositions extracted from some letters he had written on sunspots; after a month of prayer and deliberation, the holy court rendered a unanimous decision: 'The first proposition, that the sun is the center and does not revolve about the earth, is foolish, absurd, false in theology, and heretical, because expressly contrary to Holy Scripture'; and 'the second proposition, that the earth is not the center but revolves about the sun, is absurd, false in philosophy, and, from a theological point of view at least, opposed to the true faith.'

At the instigation of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine confronted Galileo and endeavored to convince him of his errors. Under the threat of imprisonment in the dungeons of the inquisition, Bellarmine commanded him, 'in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole Congregation of the Holy Office, to relinquish altogether the opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth moves, nor henceforth to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing.' This injunction Galileo acquiesced in and promised to obey. A fortnight later the Congregation of the Index, under the instructions of the pope, decreed that 'the doctrine of the double motion of the earth about its axis and about the sun is false, and entirely contrary to Holy Scripture'; and the writings of Copernicus and all others that affirmed the motion of the earth were interdicted and this condemnation placed upon the Index, which was shortly made infallible by the usual papal bull giving its monitions the essential ex cathedra papal sanction.

For some ten years Galileo remained silent. Then on the death of Paul V and the accession as Urban VIII of Cardinal Barberini, who had at one time seemed liberal and sympathetic to the Copernican theory, he conceived new hopes and began to speak again of his allegiance to the heliocentric doctrine. Quickly he found himself the object of renewed denunciation: 'The opinion of the earth's motion is of all heresies the most abominable, the most pernicious, the most scandalous; the immovability of the earth is thrice sacred; argument against the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and the incarnation, should be tolerated sooner than argument to prove that the earth moves.' In the face of these attacks he prepared a treatise in the form of a dialogue presenting the arguments for and against the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems, and applied to the Holy Office for permission to have it printed. After eight years of argument permission was given, on the condition that the Dialogo be prefaced by a declaration that the Copernican theory was exhibited as a play of the imagination only. When this appeared in 1632, to the consternation of the church it immediately met with great success, the pious preface being laughed at by all except the priests. Urban VIII was especially offended to find his own arguments profanely put into the mouth of one of the persons in the dialogue, only of course to be refuted. The sale of the work was hastily forbidden and Galileo was again commanded before the inquisition. In vain did his one influential friend, Castelli, urge that he had been entirely respectful to the church and that "nothing that can be done can now hinder the earth from revolving"; Castelli was dismissed in disgrace and banished for his contumacy, and Galileo was dragged before the dreaded tribunal. He was imprisoned, deprived of any defender or adviser, threatened with chains and probably with torture. Sick in body and mind, knowing the methods and powers of the inquisition, remembering Giordano Bruno who a few years before had been burned for heresy, and others who for stubborn opinions had died in dungeon, he yielded to the demands of Urban and the inquisitors and pronounced publicly his recantation:

"I, Galileo, being in my seventieth year, being a prisoner and on my knees, and before your Eminence, having before my eyes the Holy Gospel, which I touch with my hands, abjure, curse, and detest the error and the heresy of the movement of the earth."

Urban and his inquisitors, striving frantically to save their faith, could not foresee that in forcing Galileo's recantation they were bringing their priestly profession, their theology, the very impulse of mysticism which motivated their religious belief, into perpetual ill repute; that the debasement of the intellect which they intended by the act ironically foreshadowed the time when the Holy Bible upon which they forced an old man of seventy to swear falsely, should itself be debased -- not merely revealed to be a collection of ancient lore and of the perverted wishful thinkings of a heterodox Jewish sect driven frantic by the fear of Doomsday, but brought into disdain as an instrument that throughout its history had been put to such evil uses that men would no longer be willing to swear upon it.

For two hundred and two years, from 1633 until 1835, at the infallible dictate of the pope and under the orders of the Holy Congregation, the earth stood still, at the center of the universe. Immediately following Galileo's condemnation Urban and the Holy Congregation ordered his sentence and recantation sent to all papal nuncios in Europe, as well as to all archbishops, bishops and inquisitors in Italy, in order that 'you and all professors of philosophy and mathematics may have knowledge of it, that they may know why we proceeded against the said Galileo, and recognize the gravity of his error, in order that they may avoid it, and thus not incur the penalties which they would have to suffer in case they fell into the same.' After 1664 there was prefixed to the Index of the church, forbidding 'all writings which affirm the motion of the earth,' a bull signed by the reigning pope, thereby after each interregnum infallibly arresting any motion. The theologians had been urged to make clear by tongue and pen to all people why it was absurd to believe that the earth should move, and a mass of books appeared reiterating all the evidences from scripture, with here and there an original argument such as that 'animals, which move, have limbs and muscles; the earth has no limbs and muscles, therefore, it does not move. It is the angels who make Saturn, Jupiter, the sun, etc., turn round. If the earth revolves, it must also have an angel in the center to set it in motion; but only devils live there; it would therefore be a devil who would impart motion to the earth' ... 'The planets, the sun, the fixed stars, all belong to one species, namely that of stars. It seems, therefore, to be a grievous wrong to place the earth, which is a sink of impurity, among these heavenly bodies, which are pure and divine things.' 'The Copernican theory of the earth's motion is against the nature of the earth itself, because the earth is not only cold but contains in itself the principle of cold; but cold is opposed to motion, and even destroys it -- as is evident in animals, which become motionless when they become cold.'

The doctrine of the movement of the earth was at first vigorously opposed among the Protestants: referring to Copernicus, Luther wrote, 'People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, nor the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.' Melanchthon in his Elements of Physics suggested severe measures to restrain such impious teachings; '... it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious ... the earth can be nowhere if not in the center of the universe.' And Calvin: 'Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?'

Yet inevitably as the Copernican doctrine and the telescope continued to explore the heavens with ever increasing profit, the theologians gradually retreated behind a barrage of rhetoric, or evaded the matter as immaterial to the faith, or utilized the expedient of compromise, as suggested by the Jesuit mathematician Boscovich: 'As for me, full of respect for the Holy Scriptures and the decree of the Holy Inquisition, I regard the earth as immovable; nevertheless, for simplicity in explanation I will argue as if the earth moves; for it is proved that of the two hypotheses the appearances favour this idea.' With Newton, Halley and Huygens, the heliocentric astronomy was accepted by even such Protestant divines as Cotton Mather. Yet it could be urged against Newton by a devout antagonist that by his statement of the law of gravitation he 'took from God that direct action on his works so constantly ascribed to him in scripture, and transferred it to material mechanism.'

In 1820, Settele, the professor of astronomy at Rome, wrote a text in which the Copernican system was taken for granted, but prior to its publication he was required by the Master of the Sacred Palaces to revise the work and treat the doctrine as a mere hypothesis. Settele appealed to Pope Pius VII, who referred the matter to the Congregation of the Holy Office. On the sixteenth of August, 1820, this body reported that Settele might teach the Copernican system as truth established. It was not, however, until 1835 that there appeared an edition of the Index from which the condemnation of works defending the double motion of the earth was dropped, thus formally permitting it to move again. Yet to set the earth in motion was easier than for the church to rescind its infallibility. In 1867, after two centuries of evasions and misrepresentations of the question, the true charges against Galileo and the personal responsibility of Pope Paul and Pope Urban in his condemnation were made known by the publication of the correspondence and trial records by L'Epinois; and in 1870 the Reverend Mr. Roberts, a Roman Catholic clergyman in England, reviewed the records and frankly exhibited the incontrovertible evidences that the papacy had committed itself and its infallibility against the movement of the earth. It was also in 1870 that there appeared the Vatican definition which significantly restricted papal infallibility to matters of dogma and morals. In 1885 another eminent Catholic, St. George Mivart, suggested that the Almighty had allowed the pope and the church to fall into complete error in regard to the movement of the earth in order to teach them that astronomy is outside their province.

The danger of all argument which lays deception to the Deity is patent: if God has not revealed the true order of the universe, then it may be that neither has he revealed the true order of salvation. Either he did deliberately deceive the prophets and apostolic writers, and all subsequent church councils, in respect to faith and morals as well as cosmology, or his own wisdom did not transcend their human and erroneous beliefs, or these human agents were very fallible vehicles of revelation and must be accordingly 'restricted.' If the first two propositions are held to be intolerable, the third presents the danger that restriction may continue under the pressure of new necessities until the residuum of revelation, in respect to faith and morals, as well as cosmology, is nihil.

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