Sunday, 4 April 2010

A Humble Abode. — “It has often been said that the older picture of the world in space was peculiarly fitted to give man a high sense of his own importance and dignity; and some modern writers have made much of this supposed implication of the pre-Copernican astronomy. Man occupied, we are told, the central place in the universe, and round the planet of his habitation all the vast, unpeopled spheres obsequiously revolved. But the actual tendency of the geocentric system was, for the medieval mind, precisely the opposite. For the centre of the world was not a position of honor; it was rather the place farthest removed from the Empyrean, the bottom of the creation, to which its dregs and baser elements sank. The actual centre, indeed, was Hell; in the spatial sense the medieval world was literally diabolocentric.” 

Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1964), pp.101-2.


bgc said...

Very nice point.

The _modern_ view of the universe is something like the following:

on the one hand each man's life is a meaningless spark in eternity and infinity;

on the other hand, each man's pride needs continually to be sustained and inflated, he must be provided with frequent pleasures and protected from any subjective discomfort,

and, most importantly, he requires to be distracted from awareness that his life is a meaningless spark in eternity and infinity by a wide and expanding range of lifestyle choices.

In short, the bottom line (for moderns) is that life is a delusion and living should be dedicated to maintaining that delusion.

Ivan said...

I too have read of the conceit of the pre-Copernicans in imagining that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe. Armed with this illusion, the medieval peasants and lords swaggered like Texans, masters of all they survey. How dare they! If I am not mistaken this was a bugbear for the humble poseur, Bertrand Russell. When the truth is that the medievals knowing that they are sinners, were content to live in the Universe's equivalent of the outhouse as appropriate to their condition.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Nevertheless, in some ways a more exalted position than just living on an insignificant speck orbiting a negligible spark.

At least attention was being paid.

Deogolwulf said...

As the weird belief, that the earth is an insignificant speck, is without rational ground, founded upon neither empirical science nor speculative philosophy, and seems to be some kind of irrational and emotional response to spatial vastness, it is to the good name of the medievals that they did not hold it.

They knew the world to be vast beyond finite imagining, and the earth to be a point in comparison, as a passage in one of the most widely read books of the middle-ages shows:—

“Thou hast learned by astronomicall demonstrations that the compasse of the whole earth compared to the scope of heaven is no bigger then a pinne’s point, which is as much to say, as that it hath no bignesse at all.”

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, tr. I.T., ed. W. Anderson (Arundel: Centaur Press, 1963), Bk.II., p.56.

— but rightly they drew no falsehood therefrom.

There are no signs or significances without minds, and so, in minding your words, I must ask: insignificant to whom? Not to the medievals, not to me, and surely not to you either, nihilistic chic notwithstanding. I should think that you might even find things smaller than the earth — your words or your wife — to have some significance. All the same, if you simply mean that mindless objects do not stand as signs, and are thereby insignificant, to one another, then you make a banal and truistic point, wherewith a medieval could easily agree. Should we — “insignificant specks on a insignificant speck” — find it significant?