Science in the Age of Copernicus



IT is remarkable that this age, so absorbed in theology and scholarship, should have produced two men of the highest standing in the history of science—Copernicus and Vesalius; and curious that the books that contained their lifeblood should have appeared in oneannus mirabilis, 1543. Some conditions favored science. The discovery of America and the exploration of Asia, the demands of industry and the extension of commerce, turned up knowledge that often contradicted traditional beliefs and encouraged fresh thought. Translations from Greek and Arabic, the printing of Apollonius’s Conies (1537) and the Greek text of Archimedes (1544) stimulated mathematics and physics. But many travelers were liars or careless; printing spread nonsense more widely than knowledge; and scientific instruments, though numerous, were almost primitive. The microscope, the telescope, the thermometer, the barometer, the micrometer, the microchronometer, were still in the future. The Renaissance was enamored of literature and style, politely interested in philosophy, almost indifferent to science. The Renaissance popes were not hostile to science; Leo X and Clement VII listened with open minds to Copernican ideas, and Paul III received without trembling the dedication of Copernicus’s world-shaking Book of Revolutions. But the reaction under Paul IV, the development of the Inquisition in Italy, and the dogmatic decrees of the Council of Trent made scientific studies increasingly difficult and dangerous after 1555.

Protestantism could not favor science, for it based itself on an infallible Bible. Luther rejected the Copnernican astronomy because the Bible told of Joshua commanding the sun—not the earth—to stand still. Melanchthon was inclined to science; he studied mathematics, physics, astronomy, and medicine, and lectured on the history of mathematics in antiquity; but his broad spirit was overwhelmed by the forceful nature of his master, and by the predominance of a narrowed Lutheranism after Luther’s death. Calvin had little use for science; Knox, none.

A discouraging milieu of occultism continued to surround, confuse, and sometimes—as in Cardan and Paracelsus—threaten the sanity of the would-be scientist. Hermetic lore from Egypt, mystical Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism from Greece, the Cabala from Judaism, bemused a thousand groping minds. Legends and miracles infested historiography, and travelers told of fire-breathing dragons and rope-climbing fakirs. Almost any unusual event in public or private life was interpreted as contrived by God or Satan for the warning or edification, the temptation or ruination, of man. Many believed that comets and meteors were fireballs hurled by an angry deity.1 Cheap literature entered every literate home with assurances that baser metals could be turned into gold; and (says a contemporary report) “all the tailors, shoemakers, servants, and maids who hear and read about these things give all the coins they can spare to... perambulating and fraudulent” practitioners of such arts.2 At a trial in England in 1549 William Wycherley, a conjurer, said there were 500 like him in the island.3 Itinerant students in Germany sold magical protections against witches and devils. Charms and talismans guaranteed to divert musket balls were popular with soldiers.4 The Mass itself was often used as a charm to bring rain or sunshine, or victory in war. Prayers for rain were common, and sometimes seemed too successful; in which cases the church bells were rung to warn the heavens to stop.5 In 1526–31 the monks of Troyes formally excommunicated the caterpillars that were plaguing the crops, but added that the interdict would be effective only for lands whose peasants had paid their Church tithes.6

Perhaps more events were ascribed to Satan than to God. “Scarcely a year goes by,” lamented a Protestant writer in 1563, “without the most appalling news from numbers of principalities, towns, and villages, of the shameless and horrible ways in which the prince of hell, by bodily apparition and in all sorts of forms, is trying to extinguish the new and shining light of holy evangel.”7 Luther joined the commonalty in attributing most diseases to demons entering the body—which, after all, is not altogether unlike our current theory. Many believed that diseases were caused by the evil eye or other magical means, and that they could be cured by magic potions—which again is not too far removed from our present practice. Most remedies were administered according to the position of the planets; hence medical students studied astrology.

Astrology verged on science by assuming a rule of law in the universe, and operating largely through experiment. The belief that the movements and positions of the stars determined human events was not quite as general as before; yet there were 30,000 astrologers in Paris in the sixteenth century,8 all ready to cast a horoscope for a coin. Almanacs of astrological predictions were best sellers; Rabelais parodied them in the Pantagruelian Prognostications of Master Alcofribas. Luther and the Sorbonne here agreed with him, and condemned astrology in all its forms. The Church officially frowned upon astrological predictions, as implying determinism and the subjection of the Church to the stars; yet Paul III, one of the greatest minds of the age, “would call no important meeting of the Consistory,” said an ambassador to the papal court, “and would take no trip, without choosing his days and observing the constellations.”9 Francis I, Catherine de Médicis, Charles IX, Julius II, Leo X, and Adrian VI consulted astrologers.10Melanchthon changed the date of Luther’s birth to give him a more propitious horoscope,11 and begged him not to travel under a new moon.12

One astrologer of this period is still popular. Nostradamus was, in French, Michel de Notredame. He professed to be a physician and an astronomer, and was accepted as semi-official astrologer by Catherine de Médicis; she built an observatory for him in Les Halles. In 1564 he predicted a life of ninety years for Charles IX,13 who died ten years later at the age of twenty-four. At his own death (1566) he left a book of prophecies so wisely ambiguous that some line or another could be applied to almost any event in later history.

Because Christians of the sixteenth century believed in the possibility of obtaining supernatural powers from demons, and because the fear of demons was ingrained in their rearing, they felt an obligation to burn witches. Luther and Calvin seconded Pope Innocent VIII in urging the prosecution of witches. “I would have no compassion on these witches,” said Luther; “I would burn them all.”14 Four were burned at Wittenberg on June 29, 1540; thirty-four at Geneva in 1545.15 The Reformers, of course, had Biblical warrant for these bonfires, and Protestant dependence upon the Scriptures gave new urgency to Exodus 22:18. The Catholic practice of exorcism encouraged the belief in witchcraft by assuming the power of devils lodged in human beings. Luther claimed that his Leipzig opponent, Johannes Eck, had signed a pact with Satan; and Johannes Cochlaeus retorted that Luther was a by-product of Satan’s dalliance with Margaret Luther.16

Accusations of witchcraft were sometimes used to get rid of personal enemies. The accused had a choice of prolonged torture to elicit a confession, or death as the result of a confession; and in sixteenth-century Europe the administration of torture was systematized “with a cold-blooded ferocity unknown... to the heathen nations.”17 Many victims seem to have believed in their own guilt—that they had had transactions, sometimes sexual, with devils.18 Some of the accused committed suicide; a French judge noted fifteen such cases within a year.19 Secular magistrates often exceeded ecclesiastics in the enthusiasm of this persecution. The laws of Henry VIII (1541) punished with death any of several practices ascribed to witches,20 but the Spanish Inquisition branded stories and confessions of witchcraft as the delusions of weak minds, and cautioned its agents (15 3 8) to ignore the popular demand for the burning of witches.21

Fewer voices were raised to protect witches than in defense of heretics, and the heretics themselves believed in witches. But in 1563 Johannes Wier, a physician of Cleves, issued a treatise De praestigiis daemonum (On Demonic Deceptions) which timidly dared to mitigate the mania. He did not question the existence of demons, but suggested that witches were the innocent victims of demonic possession, and were deluded by the Devil into believing the absurdities that they confessed. Women, and persons suffering from illness of body or mind, were, he thought, especially subject to possession by demons. He concluded that witchcraft was not a crime but a disease, and he appealed to the princes of Europe to stop the execution of these helpless women. A few years later Wier replaced himself in his time by writing a detailed description of hell, its leaders, its organization, and its operation.

The spirit of the age spoke in the story of Faust. We first hear of Georg Faust in 1507, in a letter of Johannes Trithemius, who calls him a mountebank; and then in 1513, when Mutianus Rufus accords him no gentler term. Philip Begardi, a Worms physician, wrote in 1539: “Of late years a remarkable man has been traveling through nearly every province, principality, and kingdom .... and has boasted highly of his great skill not only in medicine but in chiromancy, physiognomy, crystal gazing, and other kindred arts... and has not denied that he is called Faustus” 22—i.e., favored or fortunate. The historic Faust seems to have died in 1539—by the Devil wringing his neck, said Melanchthon. Four years later the legend of Faust as in league with the Devil made its appearance in theSermones conviviales of Johannes Gast, a Protestant pastor at Basel. Two old notions combined to transform the historical charlatan into a figure of legend, drama, and art: that man might obtain magic powers by compacts with Satan, and that secular learning is an insolent conceit likely to lead a man to hell. In one phase the legend was supposed to be a Catholic caricature of Luther; in a deeper view it expressed the religious repudiation of “profane” knowledge as opposed to a humble acceptance of the Bible as in itself sufficient erudition and truth. Goethe repudiated the repudiation, and allowed the hunger for knowledge to purify itself by its application to the common good.

The legend of Faust came to bitter life in Henry Cornelius Agrippa. Born of good family at Cologne (1487), he found his way to Paris, and fell in there with some mystics or quacks who claimed esoteric wisdom. Hungry for knowledge and fame, he took up alchemy, studied the Cabala, and became convinced that there was a world of enlightenment unattainable by ordinary perception or reasoning. He sent to Trithemius a manuscript De occulta philosophia, with a personal letter:

I wondered much, and indeed felt indignant, that up to this time no one had arisen to vindicate so sublime and sacred a study from the accusation of impiety. Thus my spirit was aroused, and... I too conceived the desire to philosophize, thinking that I should produce a work not unworthy of praise... if I could vindicate... that ancient Magic, studied by all the wise, purged and freed from the errors of impiety, and endowed with its own reasonable system.23

Trithemius replied with good counsel:

Speak of things public to the public, but of things lofty and secret only to the loftiest and most private of your friends. Hay to an ox and sugar to a parrot. Rightly interpret this, lest you, as some others have been, be trampled down by oxen.24

Whether through caution or lack of a publisher, Agrippa refrained for twenty years from sending his book through the press. The Emperor Maximilian summoned him to war in Italy; he gave a good account of himself on the battlefield, but took occasion to lecture on Plato at the University of Pisa, and to receive degrees in law and medicine at Pavia. He was appointed town advocate at Metz (1518), and soon lost that position by interfering with the prosecution of a young woman accused of witchcraft; he procured her release from the Inquisition, but he thought it wise then to change his habitat (1519). For two years he served Louise of Savoy as physician; however, he entered into so many disputes that she stopped his salary. He moved to Antwerp with his second wife and his children, was made historiographer and court librarian to the Regent Margaret of Austria, and managed to eat regularly. Now he composed his most important work, De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum; he published it in 1530, and then, strangely enough, issued his youthful De occulta philosophia, with a preface disclaiming continued belief in the mystic abracadabra there detailed. The two books together offended all the cognizant world.

The Occult Philosophy urged that as the human soul pervades and governs the body, so the spiritus mundi pervades and governs the universe; that this great reservoir of soul-force can be tapped by a mind morally purified and patiently instructed in Magian ways. So reinforced, the mind can discover the hidden qualities of objects, numbers, letters, words, can penetrate the secrets of the stars, and can gain mastery over the forces of the earth and the demons of the air. The book circulated widely, and its many posthumous editions led to legends about Agrippa’s compact with a devil, who accompanied him in the guise of his dog,25 and enabled him to fly over the globe and sleep in the moon.26

The vicissitudes of life abated Agrippa’s claims on supersensual experience; he learned that no magic or alchemy could feed his family or keep him out of jail for debt. He turned in angry disillusionment upon the pursuit of knowledge, and wrote at the age of thirty-nine On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences, the most skeptical book of the sixteenth century before Montaigne. “I well perceive,” ran his exordium, “what a bloody battle I have to fight.... First of all, the lousy (pediculose) grammarians will make a stir, and... peevish poets, trifle-selling historians, blustering orators, obstinate logicians .... fatal astrologers .... monstrous magicians .... contentious philosophers ....” All knowledge is uncertain, all science is vain, and “to know nothing is the happiest life.” It was knowledge that destroyed the happiness of Adam and Eve; it was Socrates’s confession of ignorance that brought him content and fame. “All sciences are only the ordinances and opinions of men, as injurious as profitable, as pestilent as wholesome, as ill as good, in no part perfect, but doubtful and full of error and contention.” 27

Agrippa begins his devastation with the alphabet, and upbraids it for its bewildering inconsistencies of pronunciation. He laughs at the grammarians, whose exceptions are more numerous than their rules, and who are repeatedly outvoted by the people. Poets are madmen; no one “well in his wits” can write poetry. Most history is a fable; not une fable convenue, as Voltaire would mistakenly call it, but an ever-changing fable which each historian and generation transforms anew. Oratory is the seduction of the mind by eloquence into error. Occultism is a sham; his own book about it, Agrippa now warns, was “false, or, if you will, lying”; if formerly he practiced astrology, magic, divination, alchemy, and other such “nesciences,” it was mostly through the importunate solicitation of patrons demanding esoteric knowledge, and able to pay. The Cabala is “nothing else but a pestilent superstition.” As for the philosophers, the self-canceling diversity of their opinions puts them out of court; we may leave them to refute one another. So far as philosophy seeks to deduce morality from reason, it is stultified by the irrational contrariety of morals in place and time; “whereof it cometh to pass that that which at one time was vice, another time is accounted virtue, and that which in one place is virtue, in another is vice.” The arts and occupations are as vitiated as the sciences with falsehood and vanity. Every court is “a school of corrupt customs, and a refuge of detestable wickedness.” Trade is treachery. Treasurers are thieves; their hands are sticky with bird-lime, their fingers end in hooks. War is the slaughter of many in the sport of the few. Medicine is “a certain art of manslaughter,” and often “there is more danger in the physician and the medicine than in the sickness itself.”

What is the upshot of all this? If science is transient opinion, and philosophy is the vain speculation of mental maggots on the nature of the infinite, what shall a man live by? Only by the Word of God as revealed in the Bible. This has an evangelical ring, and indeed, scattered among Agrippa’s doubts, are sundry affirmations of reform. He rejects the temporal power of the popes, and even their spiritual authority when this contravenes Scripture. He denounces the Inquisition as persuading men not with reason and Scripture but with “fire and faggots.” He wishes the Church would spend less on cathedrals and more on charity. But he goes beyond the Reformers when he admits that the authors of the Old and the New Testament were liable to error. Christ alone is always right and true; Him only should we trust; in Him is the last refuge of the mind and the soul.

Agrippa enjoyed the furor caused by his rampage, but he paid for the pleasure through his remaining years. Charles V demanded that he recant his criticism of the Church. When he refused, his salary was cut short. Imprisoned for debt, he laid responsibility on the Emperor, who was behind in payments to his court historiographer. Cardinal Campeggio and the Bishop of Liège secured his release, but Charles banished him from Imperial territory (1531). Agrippa moved to Lyons, where, says an uncertain tradition, he was again imprisoned for debt. Set free, he passed on to Grenoble; and there, aged forty-eight, he died. Probably he had a share in forming the skepticism of Montaigne, but his only popular book was on the occultism that he had renounced. Occult thought and practices flourished to the end of the century.

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