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Nicolaus Copernicus on Philosophical Precedents for Heliocentrism

On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), cited in Western Civilization: A Brief History, Jackson S. Spielvogel (Cengage Learning: 2010; original 1543), p. 344.

For a long time, then, I reflected on this confusion in the astronomical traditions concerning the derivation of the motions of the universe’s spheres. I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world. For this reason I undertook the task of rereading the works of all the philosophers which I could obtain to learn whether anyone had ever proposed other motions of the universe’s spheres than those expounded by the teachers of astronomy in the schools. And in fact first I found in Cicero that Hicetas supposed the earth to move. Later I also discovered in Plutarch that certain others were of this opinion. I have decided to set his words down here, so that they may be available to everyone: “Some think that the eart remains at rest. But Philolaus the Pythagorean believes that, like the sun and moon, it revolves around the fire in an oblique circle. Heraclides of Pontus and Exphantus the Pythagorean make the earth move, not in a progressive motion, but like a wheel in a rotation from the west to east about its own center.”

Therefore, having obtained the opportunity from these sources, I too began to consider the mobility of the earth. And though the idea seemed absurd, nevertheless I know that others before me had been granted the freedom to imagine any circles whatever for the purpose of explaining the heavenly phenomena. Hence I that that I too would be readily permitted to ascertain whether explanations sounder than those of my predecessors could be found for the revolution of the celestial spheres on the assumption of some motion of the earth.

Having thus assumed the motions which I ascribe to the earth later on in the volume, by long and intense study I finally found that if the motions of the other planets are correlated with the orbiting of the earth, and are computed for the revolution of each planet, not only do their phenomena follow therefrom but also the order and size of all the planets and spheres, and heaven itself is so linked together that in no portion of it can anything be shifted without disrupting the remaining parts and the universe as a whole…

Hence I feel no shame in asserting that this whole region engirdled by the moon, and the center of the earth, traverse this grand circle amid the rest of the planets in an annual revolution around the sun. Near the sun is the center of the universe. Moreover, since the sun remains stationary, whatever appears as a motion of the sun is really due rather to the motion of the earth.

One thought on “Nicolaus Copernicus on Philosophical Precedents for Heliocentrism

  1. AbbyP says:

    According to the Chicago Tribune, there are individuals who reject the ideas that the Earth isn’t really flat and isn’t the middle of the universe. I found this here: Catholic sect challenges Galileo and the heliocentric model.

    A specific group of ultra-conservative Catholics from the Society of St. Pius X deny heliocentrism in support of the geocentric model, as an example. This comes despite the truth that the Catholic establishment hasn’t really supported geocentrism after the 13th century.

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