For more than three centuries scientists, historians, and popularizers of science have been repeating the claim that Copernicus “dethroned” earth from its “privileged” central position in the universe. However, a survey of pre-Copernican natural philosophy (which viewed the earth as located in a cosmic sump) and of Copernicans’ own account of the axiological meaning of the new heliocentric astronomy (which exalted earth to the dance of the stars) demonstrates that the cliché about earth’s “demotion” is unwarranted and fit to be discarded.

Richard P. Feynman, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (Addison-Wesley/Helix Books, Reading, MA, 1997), pp. 73–76.
See Aristotle, Physics 296b-297a; in The Works of Aristotle, edited by W. D. Ross (Clarendon, Oxford, 1930), Vol. 2; and R. Osserman’s account of Eratosthenes in Osserman, Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos (Anchor, New York, 1995), pp. 10–15.
Any standard Internet search using the terms “Copernicus AND dethrone” or “Copernicus AND pedestal” will present numerous examples.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, Man’s Place in the Universe: Changing Concepts, edited by David W. Corson (Univ. of Arizona College of Liberal Arts, Tucson, 1977), p. 80. Compare Jürgen Hamel, Nicolaus Copernicus: Leben, Werk und Wirkung (Spektrum Verlag, Heidelberg, 1994), p. 300: “Die ‘Entthronung’ des Menschen, die mit der Verdrängung der Erde aus der Weltmitte erfolgte, war erst der Beginn der Relativierung der Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos.”
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (Random House, New York, 1994), p. 26.
Martin Rees, Before the Beginning (Addison-Wesley/Helix Books, Reading, MA, 1998), p. 100.
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In this paper I consciously refrain from using the familiar term “Copernican principle,” simply because it admits such a range of definition. If it is used merely to imply that geometrically—either, for example, in Newtonian space or in Einsteinian spacetime—there is no unique cosmic centerpoint, then I have no objection to it. The great Copernican cliché, however, can be seen in part (I would argue) as involving an invalid extrapolation of this “bare” Copernican principle.
See Galileo’s concise account of the Aristotelian view of the relationship between the center of the earth and the center of the universe: “The motion of heavy bodies is directly toward the center of the universe, and it happens per accidens that this is toward the center of the earth, because the latter coincides with the former and is united to it.” Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, translated by Stillman Drake, 2nd ed. (Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1967), p. 34.
Aristotle, Physics, Book 4, p. 208b; in The Works of Aristotle, edited by Ross, Vol. 2.
French intellectual historian
claims to have found one, only one, major medieval figure who does see geocentrism as entailing anthropocentrism, namely the Jewish theologian Saadia Gaon (882–942). However, comments Brague, this position “is utterly out of tune with the rest of the mediaeval concert.” See Brague, “Geocentrism as a Humiliation for Man,”
Medieval Encounters
Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, translated by M. Friedländer, 2nd ed. (Dutton, New York, 1919), pp. 118–119 (italics added).
Proclus, In Platonis Timeaeum Commentaria, edited by E. Diehl (Teubner, Leipzig, 1903), pp. 351–352; translated and quoted in Brague, p. 198.
Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, Vol. 2, The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, translated by William Harris Stahl and Richard Johnson with E. L Burge (Columbia U.P., New York, 1977), p. 318 (italics added).
Al-Biruni, The Book of Instruction in the Elements of Astrology, translated by R. Ramsay Wright (Luzac, London, 1934), p. 45.
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Caelo (1272 s.), II, xiii, 1 & xx, no. 7, in Vol. 3, p. 202b of the Leonina edition; translated and quoted by Brague, p. 202.
Because ice is solid, not liquid, it is categorized in Aristotelian physics as earth, not water. The fact that Galileo’s experiments with floating pieces of ice (Discourse on Bodies in Water, 1612) challenged this categorization is partly what made them so controversial.
C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1964), p. 58.
Giovanni Pico, “
Oration on the Dignity of Man,” in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer
et al. (Univ. of Chicago, Chicago, 1948), p. 224. The original phrase is “excrementarias ac foeculentas inferioris mundi partes;” Opera Omnia Ioannis Pici (Basel, 1493), p. 314.
Montaigne, “
An Apology of Raymond Sebond,” in The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton (Bell, London, 1892), Vol. 2, p. 134.
Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty (Oxford U.P., New York, 1980), p. 40; Mathematics in Western Culture (Allen and Unwin, London, 1954), p. 117.
Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus (1543), excerpt as translated in The Book of the Cosmos, edited by Dennis R. Danielson (Perseus/Helix, Cambridge, MA, 2000), p. 106.
Fernand Hallyn, The Poetic Structure of the World, translated by Donald M. Leslie (Zone, New York, 1990), p. 58.
See, for example, Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Univ. of Chicago, Chicago, 1996), p. 24; A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Harvard U.P., Cambridge, MA, 1936), Chap. 4; and also Hallyn, Polanyi, and Blumenberg in Refs. 24, 44, and 45, respectively.
Copernicus, On the Revolutions, edited by Jerzy Dobrzycki, translated by Edward Rosen (Johns Hopkins U.P., Baltimore, 1978), p. xvii. (The original phrase is: “Solem imum mundi, adeoque medium locum obtinere.”)
Copernicus, De revolutionibus 1.10; excerpt as translated in The Book of the Cosmos, p. 117.
Cardinal Robert Bellarmine to Foscarini (12 April 1615), in The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, edited and translated by Maurice A. Finocchiaro (Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1989), p. 68 (italics added).
The Galileo Affair, p. 84 (italics added).
Galileo, Sidereus Nuncius (Venice, 1610), folio 15r: “aequa grataque permutatione rependit Tellus parem illuminationem ipsi Lunae, quale & ipsa à Luna … recipit.”
Ibid., folio 16r: “qui eam à Stellarum corea arcendam esse iactitant, ex eo potissimum, quod à motu, & à lumine sit vacua: vaga enim illam, ac Lunam splendore superantem, non autem sordium, mundanarumque secum sentinam, esse demonstrabimus, & naturalibus quoque rationibus sexcentis confirmabimus.”
Galileo, Dialogue, p. 37.
Kepler’s Conversation with Galileo’s Sidereal Messenger (1610), translated by Edward Rosen (Johnson Reprint, New York, 1965), p. 45 (italics added).
Ibid., p. 46.
Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis (Liveright, New York, 1935), p. 252.
Terrence Deacon, “Giving up the Ghost: The Epic of Spiritual Emergence,” Science & Spirit, 10, 16–17.
John Donne, An Anatomy of the World (London, 1611); Blaise Pascal, Pensées (ca. 1650), from Thoughts, translated by W. F. Trotter (Collier, New York, 1910), p. 78; Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1638; Vintage Books, New York, 1977), second partition, p. 57.
Clearly the “plurality of worlds” debate and the “infinitizing” of the universe in writers as diverse as Bruno and Newton played a major role in occasioning this kind of anxiety.
John Wilkins, The Mathematical and Philosophical Works (Cass, London, 1970), pp. 190–191.
Cyrano de Bergerac, Les états et Empire de la lune (Paris, 1656), and Thomas Burnet, Telluris Theoria sacra (London, 1681), both quoted by Paolo Rossi, “Nobility of Man and Plurality of Worlds,” in Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance, edited by Allen G. Debus (Science History, New York, 1972), Vol. 2, pp. 131–162 (pp. 151, 155).
Bernard Le Bouvier de Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes, 1686; The Theory or System of Several New Inhabited Worlds, translated by Aphra Behn (London, 1700), p. 16.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, “Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre,” in Goethes Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe (Christian Wegner Verlag, Hamburg, 1960), Vol. 14, p. 81: “Doch unter allen Entdeckungen und Überzeugungen möchte nichts eine größere Wirkung auf den menschlichen Geist hervorgebracht haben, als die Lehre des Kopernikus. Kaum war die Welt als rund anerkannt und in sich selbst abgeschlossen, so sollte sie auf das ungeheure Vorrecht Verzicht tun, der Mittelpunkt des Weltalls zu sein.”
Peter Douglas Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (Springer-Verlag/Copernicus, New York, 2000).
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Univ. of Chicago, Chicago, 1958), p. 5.
Hans Blumenberg, The Genesis of the Copernican World, translated by Robert M. Wallace (MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1987), p. 685.
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