Sunday, April 10, 2011

Far, far from Heaven

Although those in the the Middle Ages were woefully wrong about the earth being at the center of the universe, the argument that they were egotistically motivated to believe that because it elevated the importance of humanity may be just about the reverse of the truth. I have begun reading James Hannam's The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. The second chapter includes this passage:
Another modern misconception about the medieval Christian world-view is that people thought the central position of the earth meant that it was somehow exalted. In fact, to the medieval mind, the reverse was the case. The universe was a hierarchy and the further from the earth you travelled, the closer to Heaven you came. At the center, underneath our feet, the Christian tradition placed Hell. Then, surpassed in wickedness only by the infernal pit, was our earth of change and decay. Above us, acting as a boundary between the earthly and the heavenly, was the sphere of the moon. This marked the dividing line between the perfect unchanging heavens and the transient sub-lunar region containing humanity, which was doomed to die. Next, there were the crystalline spheres of the seven planets—the moon, the sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—eternally orbiting with uniform, circular motion. The spheres were thought to consist of a transparent and imperishable fifth element called ether or quintessence. Above them were the fixed stars whose positions relative to each other never appeared to change. Beyond even them was the firmament, and outside that was the realm of God. This hierarchical system gave people absolute directions of up and down, one towards the heavens and one down to earth at the bottom of the celestial ladder. To move the earth away from the centre of the universe was not to downgrade its importance but to raise it up toward the stars.

The attraction of this model of the universe was its harmonious order. Everything had its correct place in the celestial hierarchy and it provided an exemplar for good governance on earth. Harmony was especially important to the theory.  .... [pp. 31-32]
James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, Washington, D.C., 2011, pp. 31-32.