This authoritative and fascinating account of the life and work of the famous Polish astronomer, Mikolaj Kopernik, generally known by the Latinized form of his name, Copernicus, has twenty-five well selected illustrations and an explanatory Foreword by Sir Arthur Eddington. (1) The translation is very good.
Born at Torun, Copernicus studied at the university of Cracow, the capital of Poland, which was then a great State. His interests covered many branches of learning and the arts, but astronomy was his favorite subject. He was a successful medical practitioner, and his knowledge of financial matters was so deep that he was appointed expert adviser to the Polish legislature when a great currency reform was instituted. He traveled and studied in Italy; and when he returned to Poland he played a leading part in political affairs as Canon of the cathedral of Warmia. He was a great defender of liberty against the rapacity of the famous (or infamous) Teutonic Knights, who were finally suppressed in Germany by Napoleon. The last forty years of his life were devoted to the shaping and testing of his revolutionary cosmogony. Personally, his life was stainless; he did all the good he could, and served his country with self-sacrificing devotion. His work in astronomy is a perfect example of the modern "scientific method," a very unusual thing in the Middle Ages; for he never accepted authority without question but gathered all the evidence possible before coming to a conclusion.
The "merest schoolboy" is supposed to know that Copernicus destroyed the doctrine that the earth is the center of the system of sun and planets, by demonstrating that the sun is the true center, and that all the planets, including the earth, revolve around it. This fundamental change of view enabled him to explain many hitherto obscure phenomena, such as the true cause of the seasons, and to determine the inclination of the earth's axis almost exactly, an extremely difficult problem.
But the effect of his work reached much farther than the domain of physical astronomy. It gradually undermined the popular belief that as the earth was the center of the universe everything must have been designed for man, its most intelligent inhabitant. Man's immense importance was demonstrated by the tremendous fact that the Second Person of the Trinity was sent down from heaven for his benefit! But under the logic of Copernicus the conventional explanations of natural phenomena arising from the belief in a personal, anthropomorphic God were seriously shaken, though he probably did not realize what a tremendous storm his great work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs would arouse. His famous successors, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, were, like himself, all devout men — the two latter were strongly inclined toward the mystical interpretation of the universe — yet it was chiefly because of the work of these four outstanding geniuses that for several centuries materialistic views have so largely prevailed in science.
It may be, however, that the mechanistic trend has been useful in clearing away many absurd superstitions in beliefs and methods in preparation for the coming synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, the ideal of Theosophy, which will include a harmonious working between logical reasoning and spiritual intuition. But there is much to say for the anxiety of the learned university professors whose equanimity was disturbed by the Copernican Theory and the later discoveries of Galileo. Not only were their views on the physical structure and laws of the universe — based mostly on erroneous teachings of Aristotle — being undermined, but the very principle of the transcendental or spiritual interpretation of Nature was in danger. How could the new mechanistic physical teachings supported by mathematics, the exact science, be accepted without losing faith in the Divine Government of the universe? Hitherto undisputed teachings of the Church such as that of Joshua stopping the sun in midheaven, taken literally, were no less essential parts of Christian teaching than the Sermon on the Mount. During the Middle Ages the Ancient Wisdom-Teaching which sees the Cosmos as a whole whose parts were intimately interrelated with Divinity, or which was neither more nor less than an expression of the Divine, was never quite lost although obscured by dogmatic theology. Man, the Microcosm or little world, was an image of the Macrocosm, the great universe, "God." His bodily organs were presided over by the corresponding stars, and so even the most incomplete relic of the ancient astrological knowledge was credited in spite of the errors of the exponents.
That man and the universe are fundamentally one and that the physical body of man and the visible universe are only temporary appearances of the Real Man and the Real Universe is the basic principle of the Ancient Wisdom, Theosophy, "the Oriental Tradition," as some have called it. In so far as the new scientific learning with its triumphs in the physical world flung aside the good as well as the foolish aspects of medievalism, it became culturally limited. To its credit it broke down the superstitious belief in authority and corrected the habit of fine-spun speculation without first ascertaining the actual existence of the matter being discussed!
However, man cannot live on husks forever, and we may safely feel that the later misuse of the scientific discoveries of the great pioneers of modern astronomy has only been a temporary hindrance to a higher interpretation of Nature when we observe the recent change in the outlook of some of our most brilliant exponents of astronomy. Sir Arthur Eddington claims that consciousness is the foundation of the universe and not, as so long believed, a by-product; Sir James Jeans writes:
Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter: we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter. . .
In regard to the recent discoveries in astronomy of Cosmic Rhythms, periods of manifestation and quiescence on the largest as well as the smallest scale, and the revelation in physics that matter is only a maya, an aspect of "radiation," whatever that may be, and so forth, an editorial writer in The New York Times recently remarked that "Western Science is being converted to the teachings of the Himalayan Sages" (!) and it is no longer a wild and unscientific proceeding to believe that the universe is made of life abundant, life in innumerable degrees of consciousness. So perhaps if Copernicus could look down from the astronomers" heaven he would rejoice to see that the Ancient Tradition, shorn of its weak points and crudities, is returning to the West.
1. Nicholas Copernicus, 1473-1543. By Dr. Jozef Rudnicki. The Copernicus Quadricentenary Celebration Committee, London. 53 pages. 10s. (return to text)