I’m looking forward to reading Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, The Tyranny of Cliches. From reviews, one of the myths he takes down is the notion that the Galilean revolution destroyed the classical view of man as the most important thing in the universe. More specifically, in the classical view of the world, the universe consists of a series of concentric spheres with Earth at the center and the sun, moon and stars situated like studs on various shells rotating about the Earth. This cosmology reflected (so the myth goes) the innocent but arrogant classical belief that man is the most important thing in the world. In the process of destroying the geocentric view of the universe that flowed from arrogant anthropocentrism, Galileo taught man a lesson in humility.
problem with the myth, as many before Goldberg have pointed out, is
that the center of the universe in classical cosmology is not a place of
honor. Earth is at the center of the universe in the sense that a drain
pipe is at the center of a toilet. It’s where everything repulsive ends
up that that isn’t welcome at more august stations in the universe.
Even the matter here on Earth is, for Aristotle, of a lesser kind than
the matter of the moon and stars. In fact, one of the key discoveries of
Galileo that destroyed the old Aristotelian cosmology was the existence
of craters on the moon. Celestial matter wasn’t supposed to be
“corruptible” the way it is on Earth; but if the moon can get knocked
around and beat up just like a something here on Earth, then there is
nothing special about it with respect to Earthly objects. In a sense, it
could be said that Galileo didn’t knock down man and Earth, but he
knocked down everything else.
Galileo did not destroy the classical view of man as the most important
thing in the universe, because the classical view did not think of man
as the most important thing; there were plenty of things more important,
including God and angels. But there is a counter-myth that arises from
this understanding; the counter-myth that since the
Galileo-proved-man-isn’t-the-most-important-thing myth is false, that
Galileo and the Copernican revolution in general did not have a
revolutionary cultural/philosophical impact.
In fact, it did have
a revolutionary cultural/philosophical effect, one that is even more
profound than if the effect had been merely to demote man in the natural
hierarchy. For even a demoted man is part of a hierarchy,
and hierarchy and order are the essence of the classical view of the
world. The Aristotelian view of the world is one of profound unity and
order; the hierarchy of the Earth at the center/bottom, with the
celestial objects on various spheres, is not only a physical hierarchy
but a moral one. The stars are better things
than the things on Earth, and the meaning of the universe is wrapped up
in its physical structure. Dante profoundly mediated on this in his Divine Comedy.
Hell is at the center of Earth, Purgatory is a mountain reaching from
the Earth up to the Heavens, and Heaven itself is located among the
celestial objects. To travel from Hell to Heaven is to travel a road
that is physical and moral, every piece of which bears meaningful
relationship to the whole.
Copernican revolution did something far more serious than merely
demoting man in the hierarchy. It destroyed the hierarchy altogether.
When the geocentric understanding of the world was undermined, the
philosophical, cultural and even social order entwined with it was
challenged as well. This is why the Church took such a serious view of
Galileo’s publications. They had truly revolutionary implications in a
way we have difficulty understanding today. Our view of the world,
post-Enlightenment, tends to be fractured and piecemeal. We have
political theories, physical theories, social theories, etc. Two men can
share identical views of physics but hold opposite political ideas, as
we can have both Marxist and Liberal-Democratic physicists. A revolution
in physics holds no political implications, and vice-versa. But for
classical man, physical revolutions certainly could have political
implications, as well as religious and philosophical implications.
Galileo did far more than move man down the prison cell-block. He
destroyed an entire world.
if we adopt the self-interpretation of the Enlightenment, he destroyed
the prison. The elegantly integrated and complete classical view of the
world may have been beautiful, but it was also a prison. It imprisoned
man philosophically, religiously, scientifically and socially. It is
hard not to be swept along with the passion of Enlightenment pioneers
like d’Holbach, Bacon and Kant. Man, finally, was coming into his
maturity, finally throwing off comforting illusions and taking charge of
himself and his destiny in the cold light of things as they are. He
has, after millenia, knocked the lock off his cell door and pushed open
the creaking door. But what he finds is not what he expected. He
encounters no prison guard to usher him back to his cell, or a warden to
announce his release and direct him to his home. He finds no one and
nothing to indicate what he should do with his newfound freedom. He sees
that his prison was merely a cave in which he happened to fall at some
forgotten moment in the distant past, and finds no indication of where
his home might be or how to build one.
we should reject the myth that Galileo knocked man off from his
privileged place in the universe. But we should not fall into the
mistake of thinking that he didn’t do something even more disturbing.