Nicholaus Copernicus

Coperincus"Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the centre of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind - for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic, religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of." Johann Goethe (1749-1832)

Mikolaj Kopernik was born in 1473, however he is generally better known by the Latin version of his name, Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1514, having lived a sheltered life of a religious scholar, Copernicus distributed a hand written book to a few friends called the 'Little Commentary' in which he outlines what is to become one of the most important events of the Renaissance. Later, this outline was developed into his major work called 'De Revolutionibus', in which he essentially re-invents the heliocentric model of the solar system. However, this work was not to be published until the year of his death in 1543. The key points of this model being:

  • There is no one centre in the universe.
  • The Earth is not the centre of the universe.
  • The centre of the universe is near the sun.
  • The distance from the Earth to the Sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars.
  • The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars.
  • The Earth revolving round the Sun causes the apparent annual cycle of the Sun's movement.
  • The motion of the Earth, from which observations are made, causes the apparent retrograde motion of the planets.

At the time of Copernicus, Aristotle's cosmology was still considered to address all philosophical and theological questions, while Ptolemy's astronomy addressed the mathematical issues associated with calendar and positional predictions. In this context, Copernicus's work is not only to put the Sun at the centre of the known universe, but also changes the traditional boundary between cosmology and astronomy.


However, when Copernicus died in 1543, he was essentially unaware of the effect his work would have on philosophical and religious beliefs of the Renaissance. In the 16th century, it was generally believed, and still believed by some, that God made man in `His image` and that man held a special place in creation by being given a soul that existed outside the material world. Indirectly, by reviving the heliocentric theory, Copernicus' was also removing man from the centre of the universe, which ran counter to the doctrine of the church. At this time, the power of the church was pervasive throughout Europe; even so it would not ultimately be able to suppress the new ideas that were beginning to emerge, although it would try. So while there is no denying the impact that Copernicus' work would eventually have, it is probably fair to say that Copernicus was a religious scholar of the `old school`. Like Aquinas, Copernicus's life was defined by a society dominated by the power of the Roman Catholic Church. These men, while embracing the rationality of scientific thought, were still fully immersed in a world defined by Christian theology and philosophy.