Nicolas Copernicus

In the whole range of human science, no subject is calculated to excite such sublime ideas as astronomy; and to its study, therefore, the greatest minds have been directed both in ancient and modern times. Ancient, however, as are the investigations into the relations of the heavenly bodies, a correct idea of the planetary system was scarcely known before the sixteenth century of the Christian era. The theory generally received on that subject by the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Greeks, and other ancient nations, and which continued predominant till a comparatively recent period, described the earth as the center of all bodies occupying space, while the Moon, Venus, Mercury, the Sun, the planets, and the stars, revolved around it on a succession of solid spheres, at different distances, and at different rates of speed, so as to produce the appearances which are daily and nightly presented to our eyes in the heavens. Six centuries before the commencement of our era, Anaximander, Pythagoras, and other Grecian philosophers, had conceived some faint notion of a more correct system; but when they ventured to suggest that the sun was a fixed body, and that the earth was only one of a set of planets moving round it, they experienced so much persecution on account of the inconsistency of their doctrines with the religious ideas of the people, that they failed to establish their theory on a permanent basis. When learning and the arts revived in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, some attention was paid in the universities to astronomy; but the system taught was no better than that which Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other ancient astronomers had sanctioned, and which represented the sun and planets as moving round the earth. The time at length arrived for the revival of the correct notions entertained by Anaximander and Pythagoras.

NICOLAS COPERNICUS, the modern to whom the honor of reviving that doctrine is due, was born, February 19, 1473, at Thorn, on the Vistula a place now included in the dominions of the king of Prussia. The father of Copernicus was a native of Westphalia, a part of Germany: he had chanced to settle at Thorn, as a surgeon, about ten years before the birth of his son. Young Copernicus was educated for the profession of medicine at the university of Cracow; but his favorite studies were mathematics, perspective, astronomy, and painting. At an early age, inspired by an eager wish to distinguish himself in astronomy, he proceeded to Italy, and studied that science at the university of Bologna. It is supposed that a discovery of his teacher Dominic Maria, respecting the changes of the axis of the earth, was what first awakened his mind to the errors of the planetary system then taught. From Bologna he proceeded to Rome, where for some time he taught mathematics with great success - pursuing all the while, as far as circumstances would permit, his astronomical observations.

When he afterwards returned to his native country, his maternal uncle, the bishop of Ermeland, appointed him a canon in the cathedral of Frauenburg, and at the same time he was nominated by the inhabitants of his native town to be archdeacon in one of their churches. He then resolved to devote his life to three objects the performance of his clerical duties, gratuitous medical attendance on the poor, and the pursuit of his favorite studies. His residence was established in one of the houses belonging to the canons of Frauenburg, on the brow of a height near the cathedral, where astronomical observations could be conducted under very favorable circumstances and in its walls are still to be seen the openings which he made, in order to observe the passage of stars across the meridian. It is supposed to have been about the year 1507 that he first became convinced of the superiority of the planetary theory of Pythagoras. He determined, however, to be very cautious in adopting, and still more cautious in announcing, an opinion so much at variance with the ordinary ideas of mankind. Mathematical instruments were in that age very rude, and the telescope had not been invented. The only implements which Copernicus had for making observations were two, coarsely framed of firwood, with measures marked by lines of ink. Thus provided, he devoted himself for several years to the inquiries necessary for proving his theory and at length, about the year 1530, he had completed a work, in which the whole system was expounded namely, the immobility of the sun in the centre of the planetary system while its apparent motion, and the alternations of day and night, were to be attributed to the annual and diurnal movements of the earth. The real distances of the planets, and the declination of the pole of the earth, were also explained.

The doctrines of Copernicus were already known to a considerable number of learned and comparatively enlightened persons, who received them with due respect; and it is creditable to the Romish church that several of its dignitaries were among the number. But the bulk of mankind, including their religious teachers, were then comparatively ignorant, and accordingly prejudiced; and however firm the conviction of the astronomer as to the truth of his theory, he yet hesitated to make it public, dreading the opposition it would have to encounter - seeing that it opposed the inveterate prejudices of the learned, and the illusory testimony of the senses. In reasoning, they acted under the guidance of rules which made it scarcely possible for them to ascertain truth, or to acknowledge it when it was presented to them in the clearest light. If anything had been said in former times by a person whose memory they respected, they would not willingly listen to anything which contradicted, or seemed to contradict it. They walked, in short, by authority, and not by the dictates of reflection; and the consequence was, that every new truth which experience or the inquiries of the best minds brought forth, had to contend with the less worthy notions which had come down from earlier and darker ages. Amongst the opinions received by them, was that which represented the earth as the immovable centre of the universe. It was sanctioned by the greatest men of ancient times; it had long been taught; it was conformable to the common appearances of things; and various passages in the Scriptures were believed to assert it, though in reality those passages only do not contradict (and this probably for wise purposes) the ordinary ideas of mankind respecting the stability of the earth. Copernicus only acted, therefore, with necessary caution, when he hesitated to publish the work which had cost him the labor of so many years.

Rheticus, one of the friends to whom he had communicated his theory, at length, in 1540, ventured to give an outline of it to the world in a small pamphlet, which he published without his name. As this excited no disapprobation, the same person reprinted it next year with his name. In both publications the doctrines were ascribed openly to Nicolas. Copernicus. About the same time, a learned man, Erasmus Reinhold, in a work which he published, spoke of the new doctrines with the greatest respect, and styled their author a second Ptolemy; for it often happens that the greatest compliment that can be paid to the discoverer of truth, is to mention him in the same breath with some founder of error. Copernicus now allowed himself to be persuaded by his friends to publish his work; and it was accordingly put to press at Nuremburg, under the care of some learned persons of that city. But he was now an old man, and it was not his lot to live to see the book published. As soon as it was printed, a copy of it was sent to him by his friend Rheticus, but it only reached him, May 23, 1543, a few hours before he expired. He appeared to be scarcely conscious of the object to which so many years of his life had been devoted. But his mission was accomplished. Committed to the perpetuating operations of the infant printing-press, all danger was over of losing the germ of those great and fertile truths which in our days render astronomy the most perfect of sciences.

The theory of Copernicus was thus brought before the world; but, whether from the death of the philosopher, or because little disturbance of popular notions was anticipated from so learned a work, or from whatever other circumstances, it was visited with no marks of reprobation from any quarter at the time. In proportion, however, as it became known, so did its opponents increase. Those were the days when the fagot and stake made short work with those who presumed to strike out a course of thinking for themselves; and though the author of the system and its immediate adopters passed unmolested, yet during the century which ensued were its followers and supporters persecuted with all the zeal and cruelty that bigotry and ignorant prejudice could devise. Truth, however, is imperishable; and, though repressed and retarded for a season, is ever sure to take its right place among the established beliefs of mankind. And thus it has been with the Copernican theory, whose importance to the progress of accurate science we cannot in reality over-estimate. To form anything like an adequate idea of the value of its author's services to the cause of science, we must place ourselves back in the time and circumstances which saw their birth. Then, it must be remembered, the want of telescopes rendered all appearances in the sky much more difficult of explanation than they would have been a century later. The accumulated errors and superstitions of fourteen centuries were not to be easily shaken and removed neither were the prejudices and dogmas of the learned to be disturbed with impunity. What might have been astronomical science, was, even in the writings of the fathers, little better than a mass of absurd and subtle disquisitions on the substance of the heavens and the heavenly bodies. All these Copernicus had to surmount and the elaboration of his theory presents an ever memorable example of the power of patient and earnest thought in the investigation of a complicated subject, and acuteness of discrimination between the true and the fallacious.