Geocentrism Upside-Down image

Geocentrism Upside-Down

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In medieval times, they used to believe that the earth was at the centre of the universe. It played to their sense of importance: the Bible and the church said that man was the pinnacle of creation, so it helped to see the earth as the heart of the created order, the unmovable centre around which everything else revolved. Only when progressive scientists (hooray!) eventually realised that the earth wasn't at the centre of the universe, and finally won the debate despite the objections of the pig-headed ecclesiastical establishment (boo!), did we begin to realise what is now obvious: that human beings aren't really that important, aren't really that central, and don't really have the right to assume that all things revolve around them. Geocentrism got the boot, and human self-importance went with it.

Except that almost the exact opposite is true. So false is the reconstruction above, despite how widespread it is at a popular level, that it could only be believed by people desperate to affirm it in spite of the evidence. Other than the claim that people used to believe the earth was at the centre of the universe, every detail of it is upside-down:

- Medieval thinkers operated with a far humbler view of man’s place in the created order than modern people, by almost every conceivable standard. Anyone who could read Thomas Aquinas and then read the Guardian, yet believe that the medieval world was more self-important than the modern one, could probably believe anything. In many ways, as philosopher Charles Taylor has shown, the key achievement (and, paradoxically, the key cause) of secularism is the possibility of exclusive humanism: a social imaginary in which humanism is existentially satisfying, without any recourse to transcendence or divinity.

- In medieval cosmology, it was the outer circles of the cosmos that were sublime, because they were changeless and pure (and beyond them, of course, was God); the inner spheres were variable, and thus inferior; and the earth itself was changeable, filled with decay and death, and fallen. Geocentrism, as such, was bound up with the earth’s immanence, not its superiority.

- When the “Copernican revolution” did come, it came (as should be obvious) through the work of multiple astronomers working in Christian universities over a period of centuries, towards the end of the High Middle Ages, arguably the most intellectually (not to mention architecturally and artistically) fruitful period of human history. The cosmological paradigm that needed to be shifted, in order for heliocentrism to become thinkable, was not the Christian one, but the Aristotelian one.

- The personal and political shenanigans behind the Galileo affair are far more interesting, and indeed amusing, than the traditional Science vs Religion narrative would have us believe. It certainly was not a matter of “ecclesiastical cover-up” against “intellectual freedom” (as fancifully narrated in one of the most garish abuses of history ever seen in The West Wing); it was actually Pope Urban who had asked for openness to the evidence, and Galileo who had refused to provide it.

So no, the earth is not at the centre of the cosmos, and medieval thinkers believed it was. But before turning this into another argument for the stultification caused by Christianity until liberated by progressive scientism, we should first attend a medieval university, visit a medieval cathedral, read a bit of intellectual history, and calm down.

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