Two Revolutions

PtolemyClaudius Ptolemy of Alexandria
(c.90-c.168 CE)

Nicolaus CopernicusNicolaus Copernicus
[Old City Hall, Torun (Poland)]

Out of all this increased interest in nature and science, this preoccupation with investigation and mathematics and method, the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw take shape a veritable new universe — that is, a very small number of enlightened minds saw it.

Two great revolutions in thought had occurred, and the course of intellectual history since that time is primarily the record of the gradual penetra­tion into the beliefs of men of the significant consequences of those revolutions. The eighteenth century became the period of the “Enlightenment” because these consequences were spreading so rapidly amongst the middle classes; in the late nineteenth century science can almost be said to have struck the popular imagination, and there are few literate men alive in the West today who, even when they preserve habits of thought that descend from an earlier period, do not harbor side by side with these old ideas a belief in the new world of nature.

These two revolutions broke the bonds of the medieval world, of the neatly ordered hierarchy of beings all leading up to one supreme power, and made that bandbox affair forever impossible for the emanci­pated mind. Slowly but surely the various compromises that men effected to ease for themselves the shock of the plunge into the strange new universe have broken down, until today few who think are unaware of the far-reaching significance of the Copernican and Cartesian revolutions. The former seemed at first merely to overthrow the authority of Ptolemy; in reality it swept man out of his proud position as the central figure and end of the universe, and made him a tiny speck on a third-rate planet revolving about a tenth-rate sun drifting in an endless cosmic ocean. The absolute insignificance of man before the mighty and relentless will of Calvin’s stern deity seems pomp and glory indeed compared with the place to which he has been relegated by modern astronomy.

(384-322 BCE)
[>>Musée du Louvre, Paris]

René DescartesRené Descartes
[>>Musée du Louvre, Paris]

But following swiftly upon this discovery came the even more momentous Cartesian revolution, which made Aristotle’s fate far [227] worse than Ptolemy’s: while the latter had been refuted in his own field, the former was swept aside with all his works as quite irrele­vant and unimportant. Purposes gave way to mathematics, human will and foresight to immutable and inflexible mechanical order. Throughout the whole vast windy stretches of infinity, in stone and plant and animal, no­where in this universe was there another being like man, nowhere a being who felt and suffered, loved and feared and hoped, who thought and knew. Man was alone, quite alone, in a vast and complex cosmic machine. Gone were the angelic hosts, gone the devils and their pranks, gone the daily miracles of supernatural intervention, gone even was man’s imploring cry of prayer. Somewhere, perhaps, in the distant regions whither the eye of man could not penetrate, somewhere beyond the possibility of attainment by human senses, there dwelt the Great Power that had made all this, a Power inflexible and unalterable by human wishes, yet perhaps a Power whose infinite wisdom had comprehended even lowly man in his great cosmic schemes.

Ptolemaic SystemThe Ptolemaic Universe
From: Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660)

Digges UniverseThe New Universe
From: Leonard Digges, A Prognostication Everlasting (1576) — a new edition, and with new materials prepared by his son, Thomas Digges (1546-1595)

The minds of men remained for two centuries firm in this faith; to give up, in spite of all the absence of any evidence of sense, this deep-felt hope that man was still cared for, that his good had a place in the heart of almighty power, that he was not alone, was more than the soul could bear. Of all that medieval world, one thing alone was left for those who entered whole-heartedly into this great cold universe — the faith in a Creator in whose image man was made, in a wise and loving Father who had built all this vast machinery for the good of man. Why he had wasted all this power on puny man was not for man to inquire; if his world lay open to the inquiring intellect, the meaning of his ways was past finding out. This last fond rem­nant of the Christian epic it was left for the nineteenth century, not indeed to refute, for faith can never be disproved, but to make, for many at least, irrelevant and unimportant. For them, man too became a mere part of this vast machine; its finest flower, perhaps — perhaps a cosmic accident and mistake. That eternal cry of the soul, “Why?” the answer came, Ignoramus — nay, Ignorabimus.[1]

— John Herman Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind: a survey of the intellectual background of the present age (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1940), pp. 226-27.

[1] Latin: “We do not know, and we will not know.”