Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Man at the Center of the Universe

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.

The 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.

So 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.

The 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.

Or, 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.

So 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.

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