Interpres - The Moon and its Phases in Astronomy
THE INCONSTANT HEAVENS
by Livio C. Stecchini
“The modern system of astronomy is now so much received by all inquirers, and has become so essential a part even of our earliest education, that we are not commonly very scrupulous in examining the reasons upon which it is founded. It is now become a matter of mere curiosity to study the first writers on the subject.”
— David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) part II.
Plato states that there are two conceptions of science, one that one may call noumenic and the other that we may call phenomenic. According to the first, the physical order is the manifestation of an ordering mind, a nous , he sums it up in these words (X 903 C): “The ruler of the universe has ordered all things with a view to the excellence and preservation of the whole.”
The opposite view, which was represented by Democritus’ theory of atoms and celestial bodies in collision, is summed up by Plato in these terms (X 889 B):
They say that fire and water, and earth and air, all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies that come next in order — Earth, and Sun, and Moon, and stars—they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate entities . . . After this fashion and this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in heaven, as well as all animals and plants, and all the changes of seasons, having had their origin not by mind, not from any god or art, but, as I was saying, by nature and chance.
For upholding this second view of science, Giordano Bruno was imprisoned for seven years and, when it was seen that in spite of the repeated tortures he would not agree even to a partial recantation was finally put to death. It must be kept in mind that in the famous passage1 in which Bruno sums up his cosmology with the motto veritas temporis filia (a motto that was later adopted by Galileo), he oassage of Aristotle’s Meteorologica in which Aristotle tries to refute the contention that a planet may become a comet or a comet may become planet — and takes his stand with the opponents of Aristotle. In the work entitled Spaccio della bestia trionfante (which means “The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast,” that is, Aristotelian cosmology) Bruno propounds an interpretation of ancient astromythology that is similar to that followed by Velikovsky.2
Galileo expressed with superb lucidity of thought and expression the epistemological conflict between his spokesman and his Aristotelian opponent:
Salviatus: But to give Simplicius yet fuller satisfaction, and to reclaim him, if possible, from his errors, I affirm that we have in our new age new occurrences and observations and such that I doubt not in the least that, if Aristotle were here today, they would make him change his opinion. This may be easily gathered from the very way he argues, for when he writes that he esteems the heavens unalterable because no new thing was seen to be born there, or any old one to be dissolved, he seems to imply that, if he were to see any such accident, he would then hold the contrary and put observation before natural reason (as indeed is right); for, had he not made any reckoning of the senses, he would not then have argued immutability from not seeing any change. Simplicius: Aristotle deduced his pricipal argument a priori, showing the necessery of the unalterability of heaven by natural, manifest, and clear principles, and then established it a posteriori by sense and the traditions of the ancients.
The astronomical question, whether the solar system is unalterable, cannot be settled a priori, but must be settled a posteriori, by examining “the traditions of the ancients.” Galileo stated that astronomical ineories about the structure of the solar system must stand or fall on the historical record. Even Newton, although he did not liked what he found in the historical record, granted as much. One cannot defend Newton’s cosmology without detending also the conclusions of his historical studies, as seen here : https://www.pleine-lune.org.
Indeed, any phenomenic science, any science which is not based on noumenic premises dogmatically accepted, is bound to be to some extent tentative and even controversial. It cannot be the object of total and precise knowledge, but only of a partial and conjectural one. It is the recognition of this necessarily partial and relative character of our knowledge, of the impossibility of the building of a univocal and objective representation of the universe, that constitutes—in one of its aspects — the docta ignorantia, the learned ignorance advocated by Nicolas of Cusa as a means of transcending the limitations of our rational thought. If one reads the record of the trial of Galileo, one sees that this was the main argument against him. This appears to be the reason why he chose to sign a recantation; he granted that to those who were asking for absolute certainty his science was of no avail.
History is an empirical science and as such it cannot produce apodic-tic certainty. Yet, properly used, historical science achieves the same results as any other science. The only limit that is specific to this discipline is that it depends on the records of the past that happen to be preserved and it cannot manufacture them if by chance they have been destroyed. Hence, the problem is the factual one of assessing how many and which kind of documents are available. It can be shown on the basis of these documents that history can produce a body of information that is specific and positively significant, even in the area of celestial phenomena.
(De immenso, VI, 19; Op. lat. I, 2, 229)
Immanuel Velikovsky, World in Collision (New York, London, 1950).
Dialogue of the Great World Systems, ed. by Giorgio de Santillana (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 59.
Because of his psychoanalytic training and experience, Velikovsky was able to realize that men tend to shunt off as fables the accumulated memories and records of cosmic cataclysms. Aristotle struggled to refute the cosmology of Heraclitus; and Cicero, when other writers of his century, such as Heraclitus or Ovid, were describing in detail what nad happened, proclaimed ita stabilis mundus est atque ita cohaeret ad permanendum ut nihil ne excogitari quidem aptius possit—“the world is so stable and it holds together so well for the sake of permanence that it is impossible even to imagine anything more fitted for the purpose.”1 Planets are gods, and because of their divine nature they keep a perfect and immutable order. In another passage Cicero expounds the same view in terms that became a creed both for medieval scholastic natural philosophers and, as I shall indicate, for the followers of Newton:
In the firmament, therefore, there is no accident, no chance, no aimless wandering, nothing untrustworthy; on the contrary, all things display perfect order, reliability, purpose, constancy. . . . Wherefore, that man who holds that the astounding orderliness and the incredible precision of movement of these celestial bodies, upon which the support and safety of all things are wholly dependent, are not directed by reason must himself be considered to be utterly devoid of the rational faculty.2
But this was a reversal of the older beliefs in the Theomachy, or struggle among the planetary gods. Critias, the cousin of Plato’s mother, in his drama Sisyphus, stressed the opposite view, defended by Democritus and his followers, that the belief in the planetary gods was linked with the worst of all human terrors.
Modern writers have suspected as much. John Dewey opens The Quest for Certainty (1929) with a chapter titled “Escape from Peril.” He points out that fear is the spring of the search for immutable perfect entities, for the glorification of regularity and invariance at the expense of diversity and change. By rationalizing the beliefs in the heavenly bodies as gods and making them the expression of a higher realm (higher physically and morally) which is rational, regular and unalterable, Aristotle set up the foundations of classical science.
In a similar vein, Freud asks on what foundation does “man build the feeling of security with which he armors himself against the dangers both of the external world and of human environment.” In answering he declares: “Think of the famous dictum of Kant that mentions in one breath the starry heavens and the moral law in our heart. This combination sounds odd—for, what could the heavenly bodies have to do with the question whether a human being loves or murders another—but it touches a profound psychological truth.”3
The passage of Kant (1724-1804) to which Freud refers is the conclusion of the Critique of Practical Reason:
Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
But does the starry heaven inspire us rightfully with the feeling of stability, while it inspired the ancients with an all-pervading fear?
De natura deorum II, 45, 115. The source of tnis passage is rosi-donius. Whereas the cosmology of Cicero has received great attention and its sources have been traced, the cosmology of Ovid, which is an even richer source of information on ancient scientific theories, has been neglected; but the gap has now been partly filled by Walter Spoerri, Späthellenistische Berichte über die Welt (Basel, 1959)
Op. cit., II, 21, 56 (Transl. Hubert M. Poteat).
Freud’s essay has the untranslatable title “Über die Weltanschauung,” Gesammelte Werke (London, 1946), 176. It is Lecture XXXV in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), in his De docta ignorantia, denied the qualitative difference between heaven and earth. He also rejected the rest ot the related propositions of Aristotelian metaphysics, claiming that the earth is not perfectly spherical and that the orbits of the planets are not perfectly circular.1 He claimed that heavenly motions do not nave stability as an inherent quality, and formulated the hypothesis that some statements of ancient writers may be explained by their having seen a sky different from what was seen in his time. He defined science as “learned ignorance,” because it is impossible to formulate an exact, eternal, and absolute description of the physical universe.
The position of Copernicus (1475-1543) was relatively conservative in that he combined heliocentrism with the traditional conception of circular movements (around the sun) and of a limited universe bounded by the sphere of the fixed stars. The opposition to Copernicus was determined by the realization that by giving mathematical structure to the heliocentric theory he lent support to the subversion of metaphysics that had been associated with Nicolas of Cusa.
Questioning of the text of Genesis began as a result of the Copernican theory: if the Earth is nothing but a planet revolving around the sun, one may doubt that its creation was the result of a providential dispensation. A son-in-law of Osiander, the editor of Copernicus, uttered the first frank challenge to the divine authority of the biblical narrative: neque mibi quisquam Judaeorum fabulas objiciat—“let no one bring to me Jewish fables as arguments.”2 Scholars began to doubt the notion that the universe had been created once and forever. They started to investigate ancient chronology, and laid down the foundations of geology and paleontology.
In the age of the Reformation some religious apologists argued that a distinction must be made between the creation of the universe as a whole and the creation of the Earth: the biblical text referred to the latter creation.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), in his last and greatest work, De immenso et innumerabilibus, published just after his imprisonment, made clear the meaning of the assertion of the principle of indifferenza della natura. He denied the existence of a providential order in nature and hence of the stability of the solar system which is linked with the doctrine of circular movements; declared that only their imperfect astronomical observations permitted earlier scholars to believe that the heavenly bodies move in circles and in the long run return to their original position3 and pointed out that astronomical movements are bound to be infinitely complex.4 The belief in the simple and regular motion of the planets, he continued, is a delusory product of astrological thinking, laboring “under the faith or hope that nature conforms to the rules of geometry” (sub fide vel spe geometricantis naturae). It is necessary to free mathematical astronomy from Platonic and Pythagorean metaphysical accretions. From the relativity of motion follows the relativity of time; since no completely regular motion can be discovered, and since we possess no records which can prove that all the heavenly bodies have taken up exactly the same positions with regard to the Earth as those previously occupied by them and that their motions are rigidly regular, no absolute motion of time can be found.5
The new conception of nature is epitomized in John Donne’s poem, An Anatomy of the World (1611):
And new Philosophy call all in doubt...
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets, and the Firmament
They seek so many new; then see that this
Is crumbled out again to his Atomies.
’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone. . .
So, of the Stars, which boast that they do run
In Circle still, none ends where he begun.
All their proportions lame, it sinks, it swells.
Velikovsky has been scorned for blending the study of astronomy with that of geology, ancient traditions, ancient chronology, and ancient science. But in so doing he has followed the path of Renaissance scholars, since such a course is inevitable once the dogmatic belief in the incorruptibility of the solar system has been questioned. The new astronomy brought forth a series of studies of ancient traditions and chronology, and effected the birth of interest in Egyptian and Mesopotamian science. For instance. Father Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) founded the study of geology with his Mundus Subterraneus, while he initiated the study of Egyptian science with his Oedipus Aegyptiacus. In Vicissitudo Rerum (1600) John Norden refers to these speculations that have been revived by Velikovsky:
The antique Poets in their Poems telled
Under their fondest Fables, Mysteries:
By Phaethon, how heaven’s Powers rebelled
in Fire’s force, and by the histories
of Pyrrha and Deucalian there lies,
The like of water’s impetuity,
In part concurring with divinity—
The Priests of Egypt gazing at the stars,
Are said to see the World’s sad ruins past,
That had betide by Fire and Water’s jars:
And how the World inconstant and unchaste,
Assailed by these, cannot alike stand fast.
Earthquakes and Wars, Famine, Hate, and Pest,
Bring perils to the Earth, and Man’s Unrest.
Sir Walter Raleigh in his History of the World (1616) wondered how it could happen that the phases of Venus just discovered by Galileo seem to have been known to ancient authors. He listed the authorities who state that at the time of the flood of Ogyges “so great a miracle happened in the star of Venus, as never was seen before or after-times: for the colour, the size, the figure, and the course of it were changed.” The catastrophe associated with the name of Ogyges, a time mark for ancient Greeks, took place simultaneously with Venus’ complete metamorphosis. This statement made by Varro, “the most learned of all the Romans,” on the authority of earlier scientists should have provoked interest in the time of Newton, when the working of the solar system was elevated to the state of a most exact science. But, whereas the gleaning of information from ancient authors contributed to more than one discovery of the new age of astronomy (the very heliocentric theory had been advanced on the authority of Greek and Roman writers), Newton pulled down the curtain on the use of ancient sources as an inspiration for astronomical research. The notion that the solar system may have a history became (in the name of the new religion of science) as sacrilegious as it had been for the scholastics (Saint Augustine, 354-430 A.D., had taken a different position, on the authority of classical authors).
On the eve of the establishment of Newtonian cosmology, the speculation on cosmic cataclysms had become so commonplace that in 1672 Molière , in his satire on the ladies who, captured by the new passion for science, studied astronomy, could make a joke of it (Les femmes savantes. Act IV, Scene III):
Je viens vous annoncer une grande nouvelle:
Nous avons en dormant, madame, echappé belle,
Un monde près de nous a passe tout du long;
Est chu tout au travers de notre tourbillon,
Et s’il eut en chemin rencontré notre terre,
Elle eut été brisée en morceaux comme verre.
(“I have come to tell you a great piece of news.
We have. Madam, while sleeping, had a narrow escape.
A world has passed by us, has fallen across
our vortex, and if it had on its way met our Earth,
it would have broken it into pieces like glass.”)
Of Learned Ignorance, Transl. by Germain Heron (New Haven, 1954), Bk. II ch. XI-XII, 107-118
Johannes Funck, Chronologia cum commentariis chronologic is ab initio mundi (Nürenberg, 1545).
“De vanitate circulorum et anni illius mundani phantasia platonica et aliorum.” Opera latine conscripta, Ed. by F. Fiorentino (Napoli, 1879), 1,1,367.
“Differentias et singularum differentiarum irregularitatem.” Op. cit., 1.1,372.
Cf. A. Corsano, II pensiero di Giordano Bruno nel suo svolgimento storico (Firenze, 1940), 249-264.
The Renaissance view of life and of the world, which can be summed up bv the word mutability, was created by personalities of heroic stamina and required the leadership of such personalities for its preservation, for, indeed, it is not easy to live in a world where the only divinity is Fortuna and nothing is certain beyond measurement and probability. As Erich Fromm contends, neuroses originate from the failure, due to inferior biological endowment combined with stunted psychic growth, to face the burden of the human condition in a world that owes us nothing.
Some contemporary thinkers were frightened, for the relativism and decentralization of the Renaissance found expression not only in astronomy but also in political theory; furthermore, the impact of thinkers such as Machiavelli was compounded by the geographical discoveries that gave birth to the doctrine of ethical relativism. In England the herald of reaction against Renaissance thought was the theologian Richard Hooker who imagined that a new conservative position could be justified by appealing to nature’s laws linked with an absolute reason and an obedience of man to absolute ethics. In the Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy (1593-97), he examined the views current at his time:
Now if nature should intermit her course, and leave altogether, though it were but for a while, the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qualities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loosen and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves any way as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven, which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should as it were through a languishing faintness begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom these things now do all serve? See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature is the stay of the whole world?
He proposed the comforting solution that was accepted by Newton and the scientists who followed him:
But howsoever these swervings are now and then incident into the course of nature, nevertheless so constantly the laws of nature are by natural agents observed, that no man denieth but those things which nature worketh are wrought, either always or for the most part, after the same manner.
Helène Metzger has shown that Newton developed his theory under the influence of this spirit of reaction. She is certainly right when she judges the overall effect of Newton’s work which devait vite devenir une alliée de cette piété bienséante et pensente1; but she has not analyzed in detail what caused Newton to arrive at his conservative conclusions nor what is their technical significance for science.
Attraction universelle et religion naturelle chez quelques commentateurs anglais de Newton (Paris, 1938).
The Newton Affair
Today one excludes any discussion of possible changes in the motions of the planets and of possible catastrophes on Earth on the basis of the authority of Newton, who supposedly would have proved both occurrences to be impossible. But we are confronted here with a falsification of Newton’s thought.
For two hundred and fifty years the zealots of Newtonianism have resisted the repeated efforts to publish Newton’s manuscripts, even those of complete and practically finished works. In the case of figures considerably less significant than Newton, scholars and learned societies have taken care to cause to appear in print every piece of paper they ever put ink on, even when these are trivial and not related in anv way with the activity for which they are famous. In the case of Newton, still today about nine tenths of his manuscripts remain unpublished, and these are manuscripts to which he dedicated long years of research and thought and which are directly related to the development and formulation of his thought in matters of astronomy. To make the matter worse, even some of his published works are ignored: specialists of Newtonian studies barely mention them and dismiss them as insignificant. If they report their contents, they present them inaccurately.
In the course of the eighteenth century Newtonianism became a religion, and the tenets of this religion continue to be upheld dogmatically by scientists today. It is characteristic of religious sects to argue to the point of mutual slaughter which works are canonical and which are uncanonical. The activity of censorship extends to some passages of the Principia which are glossed over in the presentation of Newton’s thought, and which instead would become poignantly significant if related to the contents of the work classified as uncanonical. The few who have tried to throw light on Newton’s full scientific personality have been given by the upholders of Newtonianism the kind of welcome that is granted by orthodox Christians to non-sectarian historians of early Christianity. The massive censoring of Newton’s writings has been justified in terms of pious respect for a man who was not only a genius but also insane, or at least mentally deranged. Newton is quoted as an accepted example for his theory by Lombroso in his famous book Genius and Insanity. The theory of Newton’s insanity keeps turning up again and again as a bad coin in the studies on Newton. The only foundation for this theory is that about the age of fifty he suffered what may have been simply a case of extreme fatigue by a man who had been engaged in a herculean pursuit of several lines of monumental research at the same time, and whose productivity and range of interests were as extensive as those of Aristotle. Some recent biographers have adopted the psychoanalytic approach, ascribing major significance to an unhappy and unfortunate childhood: he lacked a father, and the mother was more interested in finding another man than in her son. If one were to take seriously what these dilettante psychoanalysts intimate and put it in plain words, one should say that Newton was a repressed homosexual with paranoidal tendencies. Indeed, there is no doubt that Newton’s personality reveals paranoiac traits, and he may have had other serious emotional difficulties; but the same can be said of many creative geniuses—and many human beings who are not geniuses. Nevertheless, following in the Freudian line of reasoning, one should say that he sublimated or encapsulated them most effectively. Actually, I cannot think of another innovating genius who was as successful in pursuing practical affairs and in achieving concrete results. He was able to triumph over all opposition, was rewarded with honor and money from the very beginning, and was able to keep an uninterrupted pace of intense productivity to a most mature age, except for the mentioned episode. To Freud this is the test of mental health, since disturbing drives are the common share of all human beings.
In dealing with the poem De Rerum flatura, the greatest work of Latin poetry according to many critics. Saint Jerome reported the story that its atheist composer, Lucretius, wrote it per intervalla insaniae, being insane in the other hours of the day in which he was concerned with the writing of other books. According to his self-styled admirers, Newton had two personalities: there was Newton “the scientist” and Newton “the madman.” Since this story is difficult to accept, there have been presented other versions of the history of Newton’s mental health. One, to which I have already referred, is that Newton became mentally deranged sometime after he published the first edition of the Principia. He would have turned prematurely senile, becoming concerned with topics such as theology, history, mythology, and so on. This theory of Newton’s mental state has the advantage of being more credible on the face of it. But it has the disadvantage of not squaring with the facts. If there are two Newtons, these are the Newton of the Newtonian religion of our contemporary scientists, and the true historical Newton.
In a brilliant and penetrating essay on “Newton the Man,” written for the Royal Society Newton Tercentary Celebrations (Cambridge, England, 1947), the economist Lord Keynes declared:
In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of modern-age scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untutored reason. I do not see him in this light.
The main contention of the essay is that Newton had “a foot in the Middle Ages and a foot treading a path for modern science.” This contention had been advanced earlier by other scholars, but this time it met with the approval of outstanding historians of science, because Keynes had gained access to the unpublished manuscripts of Newton.
There is nothing to justify the claim that the unpublished works reflect mental derangement: they are just as logically constructed, carefully documented, and well finished as the works that have been deemed fit for publication. Nor can they be dismissed as occasional efforts. To them Newton dedicated more time than to his scientific writings. But, most important of all, most of the unpublished works are directly related to the published works and reflect a single stream of thought. Newton’s scientific production was but one aspect of this unified stream.
If for two hundred and fifty years there has been a stubborn resistance to the efforts to let the body of Newton’s works appear in print, it is because, even though the unpublished manuscripts range from politics to alchemy to ancient history, the lion’s share belongs to works on theology. They make clear what Newton himself stated in his letters, namely, that natural science was not his major interest, and that he conceived of it as an auxiliary to theology, as ancilla theologiae. That he was unusually successful in his scientific endeavors does not disprove that his main aim was to reconcile astronomy with religion. Newton, as we shall argue, believed that the astronomical revolution linked with the names of Copernicus and Galileo had destroyed the foundations of religious belief, and that it was necessary to return to the medieval world view. He was a biblical fundamentalist who tried to prove, among other points, that the Bible contains prophecies of future history. His interest in science was a by-product of his effort to prove that even science does not conflict with biblical religion, conceived by him as the medieval synthesis of biblical religion with Platonic-Aristotelian cosmology.
In order to separate the Principia from its background and in order to interpret it as a product of mechanistic science, there has been advanced a new version of the story of Newton’s insanity. Instead of assuming that Newton became mentally deranged after writing the Principia, it is assumed that he was mentally deranged up to about that time. In other words, the Principia was the product of theological thought, but through it he became a scientific thinker in the modern sense of the word.
Lord Keynes, in the essay on “Newton the Man” quoted earlier, tried to explain away the unpublished manuscripts, of which a large portion passed through his hands. He granted that “All his unpublished works on esoteric and theological matters are marked by careful learning, accurate method, and extreme sobriety of statement. They are just as sane as the Principia....” He could have added that they were as carefully finished and as important to him. It can also be observed that the phrase “esoteric and theological” is a loaded one, since in the mind of Newton they were not esoteric and were not more relevant to theology than the Principia. But Lord Keynes continued with an outright falsehood that “They were nearly all composed during the same twenty years of his mathematical studies,” that is, before his much-touted nervous breakdown at the age of fifty. But it is added: “And when the turn of his life came and he put his books on magic into the box, it was easy for him to drop the seventeenth century behind him and to evolve into the eighteenth-century figure which is the traditional Newton.” I have mentioned the opposite theory of Biot that Newton became insane and ceased to be a true scientist after this crisis. According to Lord Keynes the development was the opposite, since Newton as a result of the crisis would have become sane and a true scientist. This is explained by the theory that the life of Trinity College was bad for Newton’s constitution, and that he became mentally healthy, developing a new concept of science, after moving to London. All this is f actually and logically such nonsense that one is tempted to make light of it and ask simply whether the writer of this essay, too, was under the influence of the miasmic atmosphere of Trinity College—were it not that distortions of this kind are current in the writings on Newton’s thought.
The only conclusion that can be reached is that the present task of science is to give full justice to Newtonian thought. It is necessary to pick up the investigation at the point where Newton and his contemporaries left it. One cannot accept the notion that Newton settled once and forever the problem of the history of the solar system and at the same time use his arguments only half way, committing him to an insane asylum and taking him out as it is convenient.
Newton’s World View
In order to maintain the theory of the crystalline spheres, Aristotle had argued that comets are an atmospheric phenomenon; but once the Aristotelian cosmology was discredited, there was revived the view of the ancient opponents of Aristotle that comets return periodically, moving like the planets, but in eccentric orbits. Since 1665, when it was definitely established that comets move in elliptical orbits around the sun, the study of comets has been based on historical records.
As soon as the Aristotelian view of the solar system collapsed, astronomers began to compile and organize bodies of quotations from ancient texts mentioning comets. No science of comets is possible without the use of these records. It must be observed that many of the critics of Velikovsky have claimed that historical data are irrelevant to astronomical science, but even today every study on comets is based on a collation of the available historical data. In fact, specialists of the theory of comets give particular importance to the Chinese historical records which began to be scrutinized for these very purposes in the age of Newton. Once one started to examine the ancient records one began to pay attention to the texts that mention that catastrophes on Earth were caused by the impact of a comet.
This possibility of a catastrophic impact by a comet on the Earth was a matter of general debate when Newton was a young man. Scholars were discussing whether the conflagration of Phaethon, the flood of Deucalion or Ogyges, or the plagues of Egypt had been caused by a comet. They ooserveci tnat: rne ancient texts mention the impact of the comet Typhon as having caused the flood of Ogyges and the contemporary fire of Phaethon. One began to discuss in relation to this problem the issue of biblical chronology, since the chronologists of Roman times had placed the plagues of Egypt at the time of the flood of Ogyges. It was discussed whether the flood of Noah, the flood of Ogyges and the flood of Deucalion were one and the same event. Astro- nomers became particularly concerned with studies of ancient chronology, since it was essential to determine what was the exact date of these events in order to link them with the periods of various comets. Ancient chronology was used to determine the periods of comets and conversely the cometary periods were used to decide chronological oroblems.
The famous Cometographia (1668) of Johannes Hevelius, a work with which Newton was well conversant, discusses in this context even the mentioned ancient accounts that at the time of the flood of Ogyges the planet Venus changed its course and appearance, and submits several tentative hypotheses that could explain this fact by the action of a comet. One of the hypotheses that is submitted is that a comet could have been mistaken for Venus.
The obvious fact that the probability of a comet hitting the Earth is quite considerable resulted in a great fear of comets, which reached its peak on the occasion of the appearance of the comet of 1680 A.D. Newton was one of those aware of this fear and he followed the track of this comet with great attention. His calculations, together with those of Flamsteed and Halley, who further refined the figure obtained by Newton, permitted to establish that this comet had a period of 575˝ years. One concluded that this must have been the comet that appeared at the time of Caesar’s death, in 44 B.C. By retrojecting its path even further, William Whiston (1667-1752) concluded that it was this comet that had caused the Universal Flood. Whiston, then a fellow of Cambridge University, had become a devoted pupil of Newton in 1694, seven years after the first edition of the Principia, and two years later he submitted to his master the manuscript of a book entitled The New Theory of the Earth. The book was intended to replace the then popular Theory of the Earth (1681) by Thomas Burnet, and dealt with a theme with which Newton had been concerned for more than a score of years. This book contended that the cataclysm described in the Old Testament as the Universal Deluge was caused by the impact of a comet at the end of the third millennium B.C., and that up to the time of the Deluge the solar year had the duration of 360 days only; yet the new calendar of 365 days had to wait to be introduced by Nabonassar (in 747 B.C.). These contentions were based mainly on historical evidence, whereas astronomical considerations were the main ground for suggesting that comets may become planets:
Yet comets by passing through the planetary regions in all planes and directions... seem fit to cause vast mutations in the planets, particularly in bringing on them deluges and conflagrations, according as the planets pass through the atmosphere.... Tho’ indeed they do withal seem at present chaos or worlds in confusion, but capable to orbits nearer circular, and then settling into a state of order and of becoming fit for habitation like the planets; but these conjectures are left to further enquiry, when it pleases the divine providence to afford us more light about them.1
When Whiston submitted this hypothesis, his opinion was discussed as a serious possibility and did not cause any scandal or unusual sensation.
Newton was so impressed by Whiston’s work that from that moment he established a close scientific relation with him. The book was highly praised also by other contemporaries, John Locke among them. Two years later the Savillian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, John Keill (1671-1721), dedicated a book to the evaluation of Whiston’s hypotheses in comparison to those of Burnet, in which he expressed the following judgments:
Yet I cannot but acknowledge that Mr. Whiston, the ingenious author of the new Theory of the Earth, has made great discoveries and proceeded on more philosophical principles than all the theorists before him have done. In his theory there are some coincidences which make it indeed probable, that a comet at the time of the Deluge passed by the Earth.2
Keill approved also of the contention that before this upheaval the solar year consisted of 360 days, divided into 12 lunar months of 30 days.
In 1701 Whiston was appointed as a temporary substitute for Newton at Cambridge, and in 1703, when Newton resigned permanently from the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, he recommended Whiston as uniquely worthy to be his successor. By 1713, when the second edition of the Principia was published, Newton’s feelings toward Whiston had changed radically. When in 1720 the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742) and others proposed Whiston as a member of the Royal Society, Newton threatened that, should the members vote for Whiston’s admission, he would resign from the presidency of the Society. Whiston, who was deeply devoted to Newton, suggested that his candidacy not be pressed; he felt that the aging Newton was so violently disturbed by the issue that he might die.3 Halley, who one year and a half before the publication of Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth had read a paper before the Royal Society in which he had explained the Deluge by the impact of a comet, but had not printed it “lest by some unguarded expression he might incur the censure of the sacred order,” reacted to Newton’s gesture by publishing with thirty years of delay a memoir in the acts of the Society.4 Historians of science gloss over this incident, which is vital for the understanding of the evolution of Newton’s thought. After 1710, when Whiston was dismissed from his teaching position because of heresy and then formally brought to trial before the body of bishops of the Church of England, he assumed more radical positions and came to disagree with Newton who was becoming more and more conservative.
Whiston’s contention was that the creation story told in Genesis should not be interpreted literally, but as referring to a process of progressive creation through several cosmic stages. Newton, who was at first sympathetic to Whiston’s religious and scientific views, came to be shocked by his radicalism, and turned towards a fundamentalist position. The concluding words of Opticks indicate that Newton, like others of his contemporaries, felt that, if the traditional views of cosmic order were abandoned, the foundations of morality would be undermined. Furthermore, Newton felt that Whiston’s hypotheses would end by eliminating what he considered the chief argument for the existence of God, the argument from design, namely, the wise adaptation of the present frame of nature to the needs of living creatures, especially man. In Opticks he rebutted Whiston in these terms:
For it became who created them [the celestial bodies] to set them in order. And if he did so, it’s unphilosophical to seek for any other origin of the world, or to pretend that it might arise out of chaos by the mere laws of nature; though being once form’d, it may continue by those laws for many ages. For while comets move in very excentrick orbs in all manner of positions, blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable irregularities excepted, which may have arisen from the mutual actions of comets and planets upon one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this system wants a reformation. Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice.5
Whereas the first edition of the Principia (1687) is essentially rationalistic in spirit and follows a positivistic method, theological preoccupations dominate the second edition (1713). Newton is bent on proving that the machinery of the world is such a perfectly contrived system that it cannot be the result of “mechanical cause,” but must be the result of an intelligent and consistent plan. In order to support further the story of Genesis that the world was created by a single act, he argued also that the world is stable and has remained unchanged since creation. But he could not prove this point, since he admitted that, according to his own theory, the gravitational pull among the several members of the solar system would tend to modify their orbits; hence, he begged the question and claimed that God in his providence must intervene from time to time to reset the clockwork of the heavens to its original state. This point of Newton’s doctrine is well known, for it was the object of sarcastic comments by Newton’s great rival in the mathematical field, Leibnitz (1646-1716). As the latter observed, Newton cast God not only as a clockmaker, and a poor one at that, but also as a clock-repairman.6
Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), the chosen pupil of Laplace, agreed with his teacher in considering the second edition of the Principia as highly objectionable. He argued that Newton had ceased to be a creative thinker in 1695 and suggested that this was the result of his mental illness of eighteen months’ duration.7 But in truth Newton was hampered by religious preoccupations and not by mental deterioration. The only external evidence that Biot submits for a psychic collapse is Newton’s “infantile” antics in his dealings with Whiston in 1714. In my opinion, the proof that Newton had become fixated on the religious problem, but had not lost any of his intellectual flexibility, is that the few additions that appear in the third edition of the Principia (1726), disclose that he came to believe that God reveals himself not in the appearance of things but in the ways of mankind.8
Scholars have failed to notice that the refutation of Whiston’s doctrine was of major concern to Newton. In the Principia, he maintained that comets, far from being a disruptive element, contribute to the providential preservation of the original order: since a certain amount of the water of the Earth is steadily consumed by chemical combinations, the seas would not be preserved in their original state unless new water was provided by the exhalations of comets. The notion of the providential purpose of comets was further expanded in Newton’s time: the comets exist also for the purpose of supplying new fuel to the Sun which otherwise would gradually consume itself. One of the important popularizers of Newton’s ideas stresses that comets can perform these providential functions, but at the same time are providentially prevented from Striping the Earth:
In the next place, the reason why the planes of their [comets’] motions are not in the plane of the ecliptic, or any of the planetary orbits, is extremely evident; for had this been the case, it would have been impossible for the Earth to be out of the way of the comets’ tails. Nay, the possibility of an immediate encounter or shock of the body of a comet would have been too frequent; and, considering how great is the velocity of a comet at such a time, the collision of two such bodies must necessarily be destructive to each other; nor perhaps could the inhabitants of planets long survive frequent immersions in the tails of comets, as they would be liable to in such a situation. Not to mention anything of the irregularities and confusion that must happen in the motion of planets and comets, if their orbits were all disposed in the same plane.9
The writer follows here the reasoning of Newton, who argued that the providential order of the universe required that the comets have beneficial characteristics. In reality, the planes of the orbits of some comets are at a small angle with the plane of the ecliptic, and the chance of collision exists.
In the recent past some distinguished historians have pierced part of the veil of secrecy that surrounds Newton by investigating at least the background of the Principia. They have determined that his main interest in life was theology and that he intended to prove that the new science developed from Copernicus and Galileo did not contradict traditional religion. He wanted to return to a medieval conception of the universe. Newton in effect intended to undo the work of Galileo, who in his mecnanics nacl reduced the four Aristotelian causes to two, the material and the efficient. Newton wanted to return to the Aristotelian concept of form. which includes not only the efficient and material, but a-lso T:ne formal and ttie final cause. According to him the solar system is more than an organization of matter in motion: it has being, truth, goodness, and beauty which rest in God, not only virtually, as the source or creative power, but, as Saint Thomas would have said, formaliter eminenter. Newton was also concerned with the fact that the heliocentric theory had downgraded the Earth. Galileo had specifically raises, inc question whether one could say that Divine Providence was particulary concerned with the Earth, if this was nothing but a speck lost in infinity. Newton felt that the conclusion of this way of thinking was to cast doubt on the story of Original Sin, Incarnation and the Second Coming.. Therefore, he tried to prove that the solar system is especially organized in order to make the Earth a specially qualified abode for the creation of man, so that the Earth could be again conceived as the center of the universe, spiritually, if not materially. This is made clear in the Principia to those who read them carefully, but it is made even more clear for those who would not like to see, in the other works he wrote at the same time. Newton saw that the Renaissance stress on the contingency of the universe had undermined the argument from design for the existence of God. The method of Newton was to try to prove that modern empirical science does not contradict traditional religious views; it is in this spirit that he spent a great deal of time and energy in order to prove that historical science confirms that the Old Testament contains prophecies of future events.
Prof. I. Bernard Cohen, the foremost authority on Newton in the United States, sums up his interpretation of Newton by declaring: “Of course, Newton had a real secret, and concerning it he did his best to keep the world in ignorance.” The secret would be that he intended to uphold the theology and cosmology of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Cohen argues that this medieval synthesis of biblical religion with the philosophy of Aristotle constituted the ideal of Newton. He kept it a secret because he wanted to influence scientific thought without putting the admirers of the new scientific method on the alert. I am willing to agree with Cohen with one proviso, that the secret was not kept by Newton, who put down his thoughts in voluminous writings, but by those who have not published them.
The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) had tried to reconcile his religion, which commanded him to believe in Creation, with the Aristotelian basic assumption that the Earth with the surrounding seven heavens is uncreated and unchangeable. Maimonides expressly declares that in accepting the story of Creation he disagrees with Aristotle, but that he agrees with Aristotle that, once created, the cosmos is permanent and indestructible. Maimonides maintained that after Creation the world has remained fixed and unchanged. In other words, God created the world in six days and, having rested on the seventh day, has rested ever since. According to Maimonides the world after the seventh day rests in a. perpetual Sabbath. Velikovsky in a conversation, drawing on his knowledge of rabbinical lore, advanced the theory that the fundamental Jewish concern with Sabbath rest is to be explained as sympathetic magic: one does not: move on the Sabbath in order to make sure that God and the world keep the Sabbath, too, and do not change the present order with a new act of creation. For Newton, God and the world are in a perpetual Sabbath, except for God’s watchful eye against any changes caused by mechanical causes. Velikovsky, too, has recognized in Worlds in Collision that through Newton he is fighting Maimonides. In order to reconcile the cosmology of Aristotle with the text of the Old Testament, Maimonides asserted that all the passages that have been understood as referring to cosmic upheavals and to changes in planetary motions, must be understood as metaphors, not as actual accounts. As Velikovsky pointed out in Worlds in Collision, Maimonides re-examined a long series of biblical texts, establishing thereby a new trend in exegesis. Just before the time of Newton this type of exegesis had been made universaly known by Spinoza, who at times follows Maimonides to the letter. If Newton kept a secret, this is not his debt to Maimonides, but the fact that he approached him through the eyes of Spinoza (1632-1677)—for it is recognized that Newton knew well the writings of Spinoza, though he never quoted him. Newton followed the same path, but he had to dispose not only of the evidence for changes in the sky provided by the Old Testament, but also by the body of ancient mythologies—by a new exegesis of Greek and Latin texts and of what was then known of Oriental documents. In his scientific writings Newton tried to prove that natural science does not contradict this exegesis and the corresponding theology.
For Newton it had become essential to prove that there had not been a change in the heavenly motions since the Creation of the present order of the cosmos and the contemporary creation of mankind (or the present mankind). Since, acording to him, this had taken place rather recently, this could be proved by historical research.
Newton broke with Whiston after the publication of the second edition of The New Theory of the Earth in 1708.
In the Latin dedication to Newton of the second edition (1708) of The New Theory of the Earth, Whiston states that his ideas must be in large part credited to Newton:
Exiguum hocce tentaminis Philosophicis spicilegium, e messe NEWTONIANA primitus sublectum; subsidiis, consiliis, auspiciis potissimum NEWTONIANIS acceptum, utipar est, referendum ratus, totumhoc qualecumque sit, NEWTONI nomini.
After this date Newton seems to have reached a new solution for the theological and scientific problem that had been faced by Maimonides. Newton seems to have concluded that by Creation we must understand the creation or ine human race and of a cosmos fit to be its abode. God has shown His providential hand by preventing any shift in the movement of the heavenly bodies. Since Newton had originally accepted the possibility that a comet may hit the Earth, he now used the very fact that a comet had not hit the Earth after the Creation of mankind as evidence for providential order. This explains why he turned so bitterly against Whiston. Those who like to psychoanalyse Newton would say that such a violent hatred is typical of one who turns against the image of a former self.
The turning point of Newton’s thinking seems to have been when he decided that the very fact that a comet had not struck the Earth within the memory of man proved the existence of a providential God watching over the human race. His main intention was to prove the validity of traditional religion in terms of the new astronomical science.
Newton believed that his cosmology, which he had summed up in his famous General Scholium of the second edition of the Principia, could not be accepted unless Whiston was refuted. For this reason, about three months after the appearance of the second edition, he wrote an essay (that lies unpublished in the British Museum) in which he answered the criticism advanced by William Lloyd (1627-1717), an intimate friend ot Whiston, on the ground that the oldest calendars of the ancients are based on a solar year of 360 days. Newton gave a lame answer.10 He argued that if a calendar of 360 days had been in use without a system of intercalation for the five extra days, the official beginning of the seasons would have moved around the full year in a period of 70 years; since there is no trace of this 70-year cycle, this calendar can never nave existed. But inc argument of Whiston and Lloyd was exactly that the solar year was about 360 days long and that therefore no intercalation was needed. Newton was begging the question by assuming that the solar year must have always consisted of 365 days.
Because most of Newton’s writings remain unpublished, we remain in the dark on the question of when and how he reached the conviction that religion can be preserved only if it is assumed that the system of heavenly motions is absolutely unchangeable. The relation between his scientific ideas and his religious ideas remains an unexplored area.
In order to understand the thought of Newton, we have to turn to the treatise An Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries published by his pupil and collaborator Colin Maclaunin. The last chapter of this thesis is entitled “Of the supreme author and creator of the Universe, the True and Living God”; this chapter forms one line of argument with the preceding chapter which is dedicated to the topic of comets. The line of argument of these two chapters begins by presenting data about comets from which it is argued that they prove that the universe has not existed for eternity. The Sun is kept at a constant level of energy by the supply provided by comets; since the comets are bound to exhaust themselves in a relatively short period of time, the world cannot have existed in the present state for eternity. Next, it is argued that comets “would produce the greatest disorders” except for the providential “precaution” that the comets move in orbits that are “in very different plane” and when not near the Sun they are made to move as much as possible at a great distance from each other. About comets one must conclude: “Thus we always find that what has, at first sight, the appearance of irregularity and confusion in nature is discovered, on further inquiry, to be the best contrivance and the most wise conduct.” Hence, the fact that comets do not cause “the greatest disorders” is the proof or ttie existence of One Almighty and All-Wise Being.
In the conclusion Colin Maclaunin, always speaking in the name of Newton, deals with those who have auoted geological evidence for the linpacT: or comets. He does not question it directly, but to imply that, if there were catastrophes, they took place at very ancient times, before the Creation of Man. In the very last statements he disposes of the possibility that the human race could be destroyed by a comet. He quotes as evidence against it “the desires and passions of men, which appear greatly superior to their present objects.” Man has been made to develop views much higher than the present ones, which will take a very long time. Hence, human nature would be frustrated “if we should suppose man to perish, without ever arriving at a more complete knowledge of nature.”
John Conduit, Newton’s nephew, reports that two years before his death his uncle expressed similar thoughts to him. Conduit’s report of the conversation, the last known general statement by Newton about his cosmology, indicates that Newton did not deny Whiston’s hypothesis that the Flood had been caused by a comet. However, he believed that this encounter was the last and would not be repeated for a very long time because of Providence. Newton was caught between the physical fact that the impact of a comet was possible and his belief that God in His Providence would not allow such an event to happen. Newton continued the conversation by indicating that comets, far from disrupting the cosmic order, were performing a stabilizing function “because the Sun was replenished and recruited by comets dropping into it.” He did not put this opinion into print, but he had put into print the opinion that the level of the seas on Earth was kept at a constant level by the exhalations of comets, as I have mentioned earlier.
The main concern of Newton seems to have been that of proving that mankind had become numerous and had developed a civilization quite recently, after the last catastrophe. The reported conversation with Conduit indicates that he did not contradict Whiston’s theory that the Deluge was caused by the comet of 1680 A.D. However, he tried to reconcile science with theology by assuming that the Earth had been thinly populated at the time of the Flood and that civilization had developed well after that date. Hence if God did not allow a destruction of civilization by a comet in the past (a destruction that Laplace later considered most likely to have occurred) it is credible that He would prevent the repetition of a similar event “for many ages,” as it is said in the quoted passage of Opticks. In a letter to Bentley, Newton assumed that the Earth had been spared the impact of the comet of 1680 because of Divine Providence. In conclusion, what Newton seems to have assumed is that God would keep away comets from the Earth long enough to let the human drama of Original Sin, Redemption, and Final Judgment have its course; this was St Augustine’s concept of history, to which Newton remained faithful. If one were to believe with Laplace that most of the human race and an advanced civilization had once been destroyed by a comet, how could one have confidence in a Providence looking over the destiny of mankind? Newton did not argue that mechanically the comets could not have catastrophic effects, but believed that the Earth would be protected from them long enough to allow the Christian drama of mankind to have its full development, from Creation to Final Judgment.
Newton was concerned with reconciling the danger of a comet’s impact with Providence. He tried to solve it by an historical argument which I shall discuss in more detail below. The peculiar genius of Newton was such that again and again he formulated hypotheses for theological reasons and these hypotheses proved to be a valid basis for the construction ot valuable scientific theories.
It must never be forgotten that in the last words of the General Scholium of the Principia (in the very section that his admirers quote as evidence that he is the founder of modern scientific positivism), Mewton claims ttit ttie theory of gravitation may give support to an anim-istic conception of the universe:
And now we might add something concerning a certain most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross bodies; by the force and action of which spirit the particles of bodies attract one another at near distances, and cohere, if contiguous; and electric bodies operate to greater distances, as well repelling as attracting the neighboring corpuscles; and light is emitted, reflected, refracted, inflected, and heats bodies; and all sensation is excited, and all members of animal bodies move at the command of the will, namely, by the vibrations of this spirit, mutually propagated along the solid filaments of the nerves, from the outward organs of sense to the brain, and from the brain into the muscles. But these are things that cannot be explained in few words, nor are we furnished with that sufficiency of experiments which is required to an accurate determination and demonstration of the laws by which this electric and elastic spirit operates.
There is much that we can learn from intellectual giants like Plato Aristotle, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, and Newton, as it was stated by Galileo, but those who profess to uphold the scientific method established by Galileo must be most discriminating in accepting their conclusons.
Now we can understand why scholars have been determined to conceal the true thought of Newton and to call him, at least partially, insane. It must be concealed that without Providence, under our present conceptions, we are in perpetual danger of annihilation by a visitor from outer space. All the furor against Velikovsky springs from the same source that has compelled scientists to claim that the Newtonian system is predicated on the existence of a benevolent heavenly Father. It is significant that the leadership in the fight against Velikovsky’s ideas was taken by Harlow Shapley who has put into print his belief that this is a benevolent universe in which catastrophes will not happen to the Earth. Newton has been called insane when he dealt with the non-scientific reasons for clinging to such a belief, whereas our contemporary scientists consider themselves sane when they cling to such a belief without advancing any reason, scientific or not. Newton, having reached a conclusion tor theological reasons, tried to make it acceptable scientifically by reducing it to a question of empirical evidence. It is the method that he used in order to prove that prophecy can be accepted scientifically. He reduced the entire problem to a question of chronology. It is most significant that Whiston reports that he and Newton came to a conflict not on questions of astronomy, but on questions of chronology. This explains why the last twenty years of Newton’s life, the period that followed his break with Whiston, were taken mostly with historical and chronological research. It appears that the thought of Newton was that if one were to accept that a great part of the human race and an advanced civilization had been destroyed by the effect of a comet, with the concommitant conclusion that this even could repeat itself in the future, man would lose confidence in the existence of Divine Providence.
Quoted from William Whiston, Astronomical Principles of Religion Natural and Reveal’ d (London, 1717), 23. John C. Greene, when he was writing The Death of Adam (Ames, 1959) and was my colleague at the University of Chicago, called to my attention the crucial significance of Whiston’s writings in the development of scientific thought.
An Examination of Dr. Burnet’s Theory of the Earth with Remarks on Mr. Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth (Oxford, 1698), 177-224.
William Whiston, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. William Whiston (London, 1760), 1, 293.
Philosophical Transactions XXXIII (1724-25), 118-125.
Op. cit., 4th ed. (London, 1730), 378.
Letter to the Princess of Wales, Nov. 1715, in Correspondence Leibnitz-Clerke presentée d’après les manuscrits originaux, Ed. by André Robinet (Paris, 1957), 22.
“Newton, Isaac,” Biographie universelle, ancienne et moderne. Published by L. G. Michaud (Paris, 1821), 127-194; cf. Journal des savants, April 1836, 216.
Cf. “An Historical and Explanatory Appendix” by Cajori to his edition of the Principia.
Bernard Le Boyer Fontenelle, Conversation on the Plurality of the Worlds, Transi. from French, 2nd ed. (London, 1767), 466.
Quoted in Gentleman’s Magazine, XXX (17551. January, p. 3.
Newton and Historical Science
Newton maintained that by Divine Providence comets are prevented from disrupting the beautiful order of planetary motions which cause the Earth to be a particularly fit abode for man; thus he made the Earth central to the solar system, in spite of the Copernican revolution in astronomy. The fact that comets are orevented from interfering with the system proves that the earth is central spiritually, if not materially. He did not assume that the protection of guardian angels against the action of comets was eternal. It had been at work since the Creation of Man, for which he accepted Bishop Ussher’s date of 4004 B.C., and it would last as long as it took for man to complete his historical cycle.
Having reached his conclusions for theological reasons, Newton tried to make them acceptable scientifically by reducing them to a question of empirical evidence. It is for this reason that he compiled lengthy studies, some of which were published, in which he tried to demonstrate that the Old Testament contains predictions of future historical events. By means of these elaborate investigations he endeavored to prove the existence of a Providence that goes beyond mechanical causes. To prove that prophecy can be accepted scientifically he reduced the entire problem to a question of chronology.
If it can be documented empirically that the prophecies of the Scriptures can be trusted, one would have reasons to accept the promise of an unhindered development of the history of mankind to its final fulfillment in the Kingdom of Christ on Earth. Newton’s studies of prophecy are an essential element in his astronomical thought, and it is a crime against sound scholarship to ignore them, as it has been done unanimously by all historians of science.
Since Newton intended to reconcile Christian theology with empirical evidence, it was even more important to him to prove that it was not a fact that comets had brought about catastrophes on Earth within the memory of man. It is obvious that one cannot assume that they will not have disruptive effects in the future if they had in fact worked to this effect in the past. It was, as we have seen, an accepted opinion among the astronomers of Newton’s time that the historical records of the ancients preserved memories of worldwide cataclysms, and that their cause could be traced to the actions of comets.
It is in the light of Newton’s preoccupation with the role of comets that one must understand his concern with historical studies; these incluaea a complete tHeory ot the origin of civilization, a theory about how mythology should be interpreted, and a radical revision of accepted ancient chronology. On these topics he became engaged in an intense polemic with certain French scholars, and in the last year of his life was polemicizing not only with Whiston, but also with Nicolas Fréret (1688-1749), the first permanent secretary of the Academic des Inscriptions, who is properly described as l’un des savants les plus illustres que la France ait jamais produit.1 In a series of monumental studies published in the acts of this academy, Fréret foresaw the immense advances that could be made in the study of ancient history by combining linguistics, mythology, chronology, geography, astronomy, and history of science in general, taking into account the information that was beginning to be available concerning the civilization of Mesopotamia, Persia, India and China. He realized that with this material there could be obtained conclusions that not only are revolutionary, but also particularly reliable. This point is summed up in his essay: Reflexions sur I’étude des anciennes histoires et sur le degré de certitude de leurs preuves. The conclusions of Fréret implied what was said openly by other French scholars, that scientific thought had developed quite early and hence that the history of mankind must be much longer than that calculated by Bishop Usher, whose date of 4004 B.C. for Creation was adopted by Newton. Fréret was also assuming that the accounts provided by ancient authors and by ancient mythologies about astronomical events must have had a basis in actual observations. For instance, he argued that the reports that Venus changed its appearance and course in the time of the flood of Ogyges could be explained by assuming that a comet was mistaken for Venus. Fréret saw that the data of ancient history were in conflict with the theory of Newton. He challenged Newton’s views about mythology and ancient science by which the latter tried to dismiss ttie evidence for changes in the solar system before the era of Nabonas-sar. A number of scholars of the time wrote heatedly for and against his Defense de la chronologie fondée sur les monuments, centre de système chronologique de Newton (Paris, 1758). The strongest argument, however, against Newton’s contention that the ancient evidence on astronomical events is unreliable, is contained in Fréret’s essay on ancient geodesy, in which he maintained not only that the length of circumference of the earth was well known in ancient times but also that the Egyptians knew the length of their country almost to the cubit.2 In 1816, Jean-Antoine Letronne (1787-1848), after reviewing the entire documentation on the subject in a work crowned by the Academic des Inscriptions, concluded that, given the precision of the Egyptian methods of geodetic surveying, the declaration of Freret “is verified or at least ceases to be too exaggerated.”3
When he died Newton, who in general did not like to publish any of his manuscripts and published them only if put under pressure by his friends, was spontaneously preparing for publication The Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms Amended. It was put out shortly after his death by his nephew John Conduit; no lesser figure than Alexander Pope took care of formally editing the text.
Biographies of Newton usually dismiss in a few lines this last book or nis; they consider it the product of an irrelevant side of his activity.
Frank E. Manual in Isaac Newton, Historian (Cambridge, Mass., 1963) has tried to explain the meaning of this work by examining it in the lignr or unpublished manuscripts on similar topics. Manuel’s book has somewhat lifted the veil from Newton’s historical manuscripts, and goes a lone way toward helping us to better understand the significance and purpose of this book of Newton. By providing us with descriptive summaries and by calling out quotations, Manuel has greatly contributed to our understanding of Newton’s thought. He has produced a work of diligent scnoiarsnip full of precious information, but he completely distorted the meaning of the data by staling general premises contrary to the truth. For instance, he does not feel any compunction in repeating the canard that the book was published at the insistence of Whiston with the aim of discrediting Newton, as an act of revenge against his former patron. It is left unexplained how suddenly Whiston had acquired such power among his former enemies, and why he should be so concerned with having it made clear that his former mentor was specifically interested in refuting him — that the book was actually directed against Whiston. In any case, Whiston reports in his memoirs that he gave Newton’s executor the warning that this work was totally worthless, historical research being a field in which Newton’s genius had utterly failed him. He wrote in his memoirs: “I expected very little from his own Chronology, when it should be publish’d. Which Expectation I used to suggest to my friends before such Publication, yet would none of them believe me at the Time, though they did afterwards.” He published a refutation of Newton’s book a few years later. But after this first breach of the historian’s obligation to the records, Manuel advances an even more irresponsible concoction: it is, actually, but a new variation on the theory of Newton’s insanity. In substance he suggests that Newton pursued historical research for cathartic purposes, in order to get rid of unwholesome thoughts. The purpose of Newton’s long patience in research and writing in the matter of history and chronology would have been “a denial, a censorship, a repression.” This kind of double talk is justified by the f actually incorrect claim that Newton, though “psychically committed” to his historical books, “belittled” and “on occasion even mocked them.” In other words, following a usual theme of Newton’s biographers, it could be said that Newton “the scientist” mocked Newton “the madman.” Manuel claims that Newton “did what other men do” when they have sick ideas. This seems to me to be a unique psychiatric theory, but I grant that it may be true in the area of Newtonian studies. Since the issue has been framed in psychoanalytic terms, it may be legitimate tor me to ask whether it is not a case of projection in which the denial, the censorship, and the repression function in the mind of Manuel and his colleagues.
Manuel would like to have us believe that Newton’s interest in chronology and related subjects was an expression of what is usually called the insane part of his personality. But Manuel well knows that most of the prominent astronomers of the age of Newton and of somewhat older times were interested in or wrote on the question of chronology; that at the time Newton’s historical manuscripts were written they dealt with topics that were intensely debated among scholars. This concern with historical data was, as we have seen, a necessary consequence of the Copernican revolution and of the subsequent finding of the periodicity ot comets. But Manuel has not grasped that the purpose of Newton’s historical reasearches was to refute the historical researches of the Renaissance, and those of Whiston in particular. Their main object was to discredit all the historical evidence presented for changes in the solar system. For instance, he tried to prove that in Mesopotamia astronomical science did not begin before the era of Nabonassar (747 B.C.).
In order to prove his point Newton based himself on a scheme for the revision or accepted ancient chronology which, according to Whiston, he had formulated between the age of forty and fifty on the basis of the Canon Chronicus Aegyptiacus, Ebraicus, Graecus published by John Marsham in 1672. Newton used this chronological scheme in order to dismiss the evidence for the occurrence of past cometary impacts. He apparently built his chronology when he was still in agreement with Whiston and used it later for a different purpose.
The new scheme of chronology is used by Newton in order to justify more far-fetched historical theories. The lowering of the dates of ancient chronology is used to claim that civilization began quite late. The knowledge of writing would have begun to spread only after the eleventh century B.C. This contention is followed by the further radical contention that all accounts of events that were not put down in writing at the time of their occurrence are absolutely untrustworthy.
Newton carried this contention to an extreme point, arguing, for instance, that it is unscholarly to try to reconstruct Chinese history for the period before 230 B.C. On the subject of early Roman history he took an equally uncompromising attitude: “But the Romans, having no historian during the first 400 years of their city, I forbear to meddle further with their original antiquity.” He dismissed the reliability of all accounts of Greek history before the age of Herodotus. Newton thought that he had found a oerenrotory argument against those who quoted accounts or cosmic catastrophes: if such catastrophes had taken place, all records would have been destroyed, so that it is contradictory to assume that reliable memories of them have been oreserved.
Newton’s purpose in taking these extremely critical attitudes towards historical records is further elucidated by the circumstance that in the same context he develops the euhemeristic theory of mythology that I have mentioned earlier. He argues, for instance, that Jupiter was a man who lived at a specific point of history and Venus was his daughter. Newton’s purpose was to discredit the texts of mythology that refer to astronomical events.
In the works of Newton the doctrine of the eternal stability of the solar system is clearly presented as an assumption based not on scientific data but on faith in a providential order. But the flood of popularizations that made Newtonianism the basic doctrine of the eighteenth century claimed that Newton had provided scientific mathematical proof of the marvellous order that he accepted on faith. Carl C. Becker, who has examined this development in The Heavenly City of Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), concludes that the thinkers of the Enlightenment, while they believed themselves to be anti-Christian or even irreligious, were, in the name of Newton’s mechanics (though not his religion), returning to the tenets of medieval theology along with Newton. Not since the thirteenth century had there been such an alliance between faith and reason. It was again possible to lift up one’s eyes to the changeless movements of the sky—signs of divine perfection and eternal laws. As Becker remarks, Newtonianism was an immediate success with the educated public, because “the desire to correspond with the general harmony springs perennial in the human breast.”4
Every good textbook of history points out that Newton’s astronomy precipitated a religious revolution. Newton was perfectly aware that he had expounded the religious view that was called “natural religion agreeing with revealed.” The new religion was called theism and its Nicene Creed was the General Scholium of the Principia.
The six primary planets are revolved about the Sun in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. Ten moons are revolved about the Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of orbits of those planets; but it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions, since the comets range over all parts of the heavens in very eccentric orbits; for by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, they are detained the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and hence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful system of the Sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.
In the popularizations of Newton theism became deism, and the latter evolved into the mechanistic atheism of La Mettrie (1709-1751) and D’Holbach (1723-1789). All these views of religion had in common the belief that the perfect regularity of the universe, expressed by the analogy of the mechanical clock. “The ideal of a clockwork universe was the great contribution of the seventeenth century to the eighteenth-century age of reason.”5
Grand Dictionnaire Universel, ed. by Pierre Larousse (Paris 1866-90), VIII. 818, s.v. ‘Nicolas Fréret.’
Memoires, Academie des Inscriptions, XXIV (1756), 507-522.
Recherches critiques, historiques et geographiques sur les fragments d’Heron d’Alexandrie (Paris, 1851), 133.
(New Haven, 1932), 63.
Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (New York, 1960) 118.
The Age of Reason
Renaissance approaches had proved unable to cope with the problems of the seventeenth century: the irresponsible scramble for power among rulers, the increasing religious divisions, and the tension among the social classes caused by incipient capitalism. The last victories of the Renaissance view can be considered the Edict of Nantes in France (1698) and the religious and political equilibrium achieved in England by Elizabeth I (d. 1603). Shakespeare (d. 1616) is one of the last representatives of a view of life that was humane, tolerant, and skeptic. Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive in 1600, is the last of the great representatives of Renaissance science and philosophy; he was suspected both by the Protestants and by the Catholics of the Counterreformation for holding a vitalistic and pantheistic philosophy in the frame of which he preached the infinity of the universe and the possibility of the existence of numerous inhabited worlds.
The political chaos increased in the first two thirds of the seventeenth century. Europe saw the endless destruction of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), apparently fought for religious reasons among Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, but fanned by the rivalries among princes and by economic and social conflicts. England was rent by the Civil War (1640-1660) which was both a conflict of religious groups and of social classes.
A new principle of order was found in giving supreme authority to mathematics and geometry which were identified with “reason.” The first representative ot this new trend was Decartes (1596-1650). This resulted in a conception of the physical world that was essentially that of Democritus and in a conception of man and of the world that was essentially Stoic.
In politics the new trend found its expression in the idea of an absolute monarchy based on the power of a professional standing army. This ideal was realized in France by the rule of the Sun King. But the absolute monarchy was unable to cope with the increasing economic problems, and Louis XIV died in 1715 a hated king. In Great Britain the power of the absolute monarchy was moderated by appealing to another aspect or ine ideal ot reason, that of natural laws to which even rulers are subjected. A first expression of this conception had been the treatise of the Dutchman Hugo Grotius On the Law of War and Peace which had tried to moderate the horrors of the continuous wars by establishing international law. The idea of an international law and of a ruler subjected to reason triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which made Great Britain a limited monarchy, limited by the power of the Parliament which later grew to an oppressive power by the time of the American Revolution.
The physics of Newton’s Principia (first edition 1685) were understood as giving a mathematical demonstration to the conception of the universe as a fixed rational order established by a benevolent providence. Newton was a theist in that he believed that there was a God that kept this world running smoothly as a clockwork; but most of the thinkers of the eighteenth century were deists who believed that once God had created his mechanical order, he was subjected to its laws himself; more radical thinkers were atheists, since they believed that the beautiful and perfect order had come into existence by itself because of natural laws.
Descartes had proclaimed that philosophy should be based on the sweeping rejections of all traditional concepts and beliefs, appealing only to reason as exemplified by the exact sciences. This gave origin to a movement which aimed at the replacement of all existing social institutions, customs and practices by a new system based purely on scientific reason. This movement was called the Enlightenment because it believed that man should find his way merely by relying on the inner light of reason. In France the representatives of the new thought called themselves philosophes, but in reality they created what we call social science. They believed that as nature was regulated by fixed laws, similar laws applied to society, and could be objectively determined by following a scientific approach. Hence, it believed that society could be changed if only men could be educated to take a responsible attitude, free from superstitions, traditions and passions. By following reason they could reach a universal agreement. The Encyclopedia was written as the summa of new ideas. It was believed that progress would inevitably bring about the triumph of the new views. Social distinctions and inequalities would be spontaneously abolished once all social groups were sufficiently enlightened. A great effort at propaganda conquered most of the bourgeoisie and a part of the nobility, but there was a great confidence that the monarchs too could be persuaded to use their absolute power in order to enact the reauired social reforms.
The Enlightenment had an ethical system which it considered valid for all men, in all ages, among all nations; it was summed up by the word humanité, “a sentiment of benevolence towards all men,” which would achieve the end of all sufferings due to social causes. It was a secular version of the Christian ethics.
The plans for social reforms were only sketchily applied in the eighteenth century, but they were more positively realized by the American and the French Revolutions and influenced the social policy of the nineteenth and even of the twentieth century.
The eighteenth century was characterized by a substantial agreement among those who were considered the significant thinkers. This contributed to confirming their conviction that they had found the final answers to the problems of science and society and gave to the writers of this age a prestige and a power unusual in history. The prophets agreed with each other so much that the public that read their books was inclined to accept them as as revelation. However, there were a few discordant voices. In England the philosopher Hume advanced a skeptic philosophy, arguing that the concept an orderly universe regulated by cause and effect was a construction of the human mind. In France, Rousseau upheld the value of human instincts against reason and considered the heart, not the brain, the infallible source of wisdom. At the end this appeal to emotions contributed more to actual revolution against existing social institutions and traditional concepts than the appeal to reason. The great figures of the French Revolution, from Robespierre to Napoleon, were rationalists in their words, but followers of Rousseau in their deeds.
Voltaire (1694-1778) would have been most surprised if he had known that Candide was to turn out to be the most popular of his works. His greatest ettort was dedicated to making known to the French the scientific theories of Newton and to drawing philosophical and social consequences from them. He wrote Candide (1759) more or less as an occasional joke, but the brief span of time that he dedicated to it was the most inspired of his life. It is the most profound work written in the eighteenth century, an age not characterized by profundity of thought. Its form and contents are deceptively simple, as is the case with another similar and equally penetrating work of the same period. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
It starts as a criticism of the doctrine of Leibnitz (1646-1716) that there is no evil in this world, since it is ruled by a benevolent providence: if something appears evil it is only because we take a short-range view. The doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds was a product of scientific rationalism carried to its extreme consequences and was already implied in the writings of Spinoza (1632-1677).
But in the process of satirizing the rationalism of Leibnitz, Voltaire criticizes most of the main ideologies of the Enlightenment including his own. The student must find out how many specific ideas ot the period are mentioned with sarcasm. Like many other writers of the eighteenth century, Voltaire criticizes existing institutions and prejudices. The background is provided by the evils of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), but the criticism is directed not only against war, militarism, religious intolerance, dogmatism, but further against all political institutions (France, England, Turkish Empire) and even international law (according to which the actions of the Bulgarians are perfectly regular). Even the Jesuits of Paraguay, who had tried to protect the Indians from Spanish colonial exploitation by organizing them in communistic communities, are thoroughly condemned.
The great belief of the Enlightenment, that a good or perfect society should be organized by reforming existing institutions, is made to appear ridiculous, although perhaps all that Voltaire wanted to do was to present the history of his century as the theater of the worst abominations. The student must ask what can be done to improve society and the numan condition it men are liars, swindlers, traitors, ingrates, robbers, cowards, envious, greedy, ambitious, bloodthirsty, lecherous, fanatical, hypocritical, and stupid. Is this the product of human institutions as Rousseau would have said? Could one accept the belief in progress if the world and man are as described in Candide?
The conclusion of Voltaire is that one must reject both optimism (represtned by Panglos) and pessimism (represented by Martin): man cannot erase cruelty from the universe, but he can protect some corners by prudence. The conclusion that we must cultivate our garden is inspired by Epicurus, but this philosopher believed that the world is made at random, whereas the main belief of the eighteenth century was that this was an orderly universe; this view was shared even by those who called themselves atheists (in other works Voltaire defended the belief in a Supreme Being against them). Voltaire here seems to subscribe to the skepticism of Hume (1711-1776), a dissonant voice in the age of the Enlightenment. Voltaire certainly subscribes to radical Empiricism, because the main point is that the simple observation of facts proves the contrary of most theories accepted at the time.
Candide, in spite of its artistry, reveals a characteristic of eighteenth-century writings, the total lack of psychological insight: the inner feelings of the main characters remain totally opaque to us. The simple, direct style without any rhetorical ornaments is typical of the prose of the time.
Among those few who had more keenly critical minds than Voltaire and the other so-called philosophes, the metaphysics of Newton created an opposite reaction. By questioning it, his contemporaries, Berkeley (1685-1753) and Hume, established scientific empiricism and laid the foundations for our contemporary scientific method. Just as the leading philosophers ot England (soon followed by Hegel, 1770-1831) pierced Newton’s metaphysical fog, so the leading scientists of France refused to climb the bandwagon of secular Newtonianism and kept in mind the distinction between what Newton had proved and what he had not proved. Historians usually ascribe the reserve of the Academic des Sciences towards Newton to an obscurantist clinging to Cartesian tradition; but these strictures of the French scientists gave the impetus to the studies of Laplace, the greatest genius in mathematical astronomy since Newton. With the emergence of Laplace, gravitational celestial mechanics was more firmly established and the role of providence in sustaining the immutable order was abrogated.
Laplace (1749-1827) was cited throughout the nineteenth century and also has been quotedby opponents of Velikovsky as having provided the mathematical proof that the solar system, and hence nature, is built like a mechanical clock. But this is only one side of his total view. In his Exposition du système du monde he uses two pages to argue that mankind should learn to accept without obsessive fear the likelihood that a comet may strike the Earth.1 In his other major work, Theorie analytique des probabilités, he insists that the motions of the Earth are not unalterable, being subject to several unpredictable forces, among which is the impact of meteorites.2 He realized that the resistance to accepting the alterability of the sky springs also from the fear that thereby moral law may be destroyed. For this reason he continues the discussion of this topic by delving into psychology and arguing along lines similar to that of Hume’s ethics, that a feeling of sympathy among men can exist without traditional metaphysics.3 It is worth noting that his treatment of psychology touches upon the importance of childhood memories and upon the role of unconscious thinking.4
Laplace observed that from his mathematical formulas it was possible to draw the conclusion that “nature has arranged everything in the sky to insure the permanence of the planetary system, with the same purpose that it seems to have adopted on Earth for the preservation of individuals and the perpetuation of species,”5 but he added that such a conclusion was wrong, even though “we are naturally inclined to believe that the order by which things seem to renew themselves on Earth has existed at all times and will exist forever.”6 In reality, the stability of the present order “is disturbed by various causes that can be ascertained by careful analysis but which are impossible to frame within a calculation.”7 He summed up his views in the words: Le ciel même, malgré l’ordre de ses mouvements n’est pas inalterable.8 He warned specifically that in his mathematical formulas about the solar system he had not taken comets into account, staling, just as specifically, that the motion of the Earth might be affected by meteorites, and one should therefore study the historical evidence, even though this evidence covers only a few millennia.
Laplace stressed that the human race is beset by a great fear that a comet may upset the Earth, a fear that manifested itself dramatically after Lexell’s comet in 1770 had passed at only 2,400,000 km from the Earth. Shorly thereafter Lalande published a list of the comets that had passed closest to the Earth.9 Men should be free from this fear, Laplace argued, for the probability of one striking the Earth within the span of a human lifetime is slim, even though the probability of such an impact occurring in the course of centuries is very great (très grande).10 He proceeded to describe the possible effects of a collision with a comet, painting a picture that is in close agreement with that outlined by Velikovsky. Much in the geology of the Earth and in human history could be explained by assuming that such an impact had taken place. However, if it is true. it must also ha assumed that the colliding cornei: naa a mass similar to that of the Earth.11 Velikovsky conjectures that this comet was Venus, which has the required mass.
Laplace summed up his hypothesis in these words:
The axis and the movement of rotation would be changed. The seas would abandon their ancient positions, in order to precipitate themselves toward the new equator; a great portion of the human race and the animals would be drowned in the universal deluge, or destroyed by the violent shock imparted to the terrestrial globe; entire species would be annihilated; all monuments of human industry overthrown; such are the disasters which the shock of a comet would produce, if its mass were comparable to that of the earth.
We see then, in effect, why the ocean has receded from the high mountains, upon which it has left incontestable marks of its sojourn. We see how the animals and plants of the south have been able to exist in the climate of the north, where their remains and imprints have been discovered; finally, it explains the newness of the human civilization, certain monuments of which do not go further back than five thousand years. The human race, reduced to a small number of individuals, and to the most deplorable state, solely occupied for a length of time with the care of its own preservation, must have lost entirely the remembrance of the sciences and the arts; and when progress of civilization made these wants felt anew, it was necesary to begin again, as if man had been newly placed upon the earth.
Scientific literature never mentions the Laplace statements listed above. He won immediate fame for having provided the mathematical proof of the stability of the solar system that was missing in Newton, despite the fact that he had emphatically warned against such an interpretation of his conclusions.
The interpretation of Laplace’s theories was influenced by a minor point he made. He felt the need to refute Newton’s argument that the fact that all the planets and their satellites rotate counterclockwise is proof of divine providence.12 After calculating the statistical near-impossibility that such rotation may be a chance arrangement, he concluded that it must be the result of a common mechanical phenomenon.13 Hence, he proposed the nebular hypothesis which had already occurred independently to the theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1722), to the philosopher Kant and to the astronomer Heinrich Lambert (1728-77). But Laplace did not yet know of the satellites that revolve clockwise, or of Venus’ clockwise rotation. The uniform direction of the rotation and revolution of the planets and their satellites, far from being a key point of his view, was considered by him to be a stumbling block to his probabilistic view of the universe.
The following quotation indicates to what distortions Laplace’s theories were subjected by the interpreters:
We are naturally led to ponder on the great truth of the stability and permanence of the solar system as demonstrated by the discoveries of Lagrange and Laplace... The arrangements, therefore, upon which the stability of the solar system depends, must have been the result of design, the contrivance of that omniscience which foresaw all that was future, and of that infinite skill which knew how to provide for the permanence of His work. How the comets, whose motions are not regulated by such laws, and which move in so many different directions, may in the future interfere with the order of the system, can only be conjectured. They have not interfered with it in the past, owing no doubt to the smallness of their density; and we cannot doubt that the same wisdom which has established so great a harmony in the movement of the planetary system, that the inequalities which necessarily arise from their mutual action arrive at a maximum, and then disappear, will also have made provision for future stability of the system.14
Since Laplace was concerned with eliminating providential order, he proved (within the limits of the formal rigour that was considered sufficient by mathematicians of his age) that the mutual gravitational influence of the planets cannot disrupt the system.15 But this is an empirical, not a metaphysical, conclusion which is valid only if other factors are excluded, that is, if it is assumed that the solar system is isolated in the universe, that the Sun does not suffer alteration, and that no other matter and no other forces beside gravitation and inertia are present in the space where the Sun and the planets move.
Interpreting Laplace as supporting the theological assumptions of Newton has destroyed the scientific achievements of the Renaissance. We are back at scholasticism, and Aristotle is again il maestro di color che sanno on an issue that Galileo considered central to the new thought. In the First Day in the Dialogue on the Great World Systems, wtlich is concerned with the refutation of the concept of the immutability of the heavens, the great astronomer formulated his creed in these uneauivocal terms:
I cannot without great wonder, nay more, disbelief, hear it being attributed to natural bodies as a great honour and perfection that they are impassible, immutable, inalterable, etc.: as, conversely, I hear it esteemed a great imperfection to be alterable, generable, mutable, etc. It is my opinion that the Earth is very noble and admirable by reason of the many and different alterations, mutations, generations, etc., which incessantly occur in it... I say the same concerning the Moon, Jupiter, and all the other globes of the Universe... These men who so extol incorruptibility, inalterability, etc., speak thus, I believe, out of the great desire they have to live long and for fear of death.16
Galileo is in precise agreement with Dewey’s argument and with Velikovsky’s psychological assumption.
Laplace was interpreted to meet the psychological need to believe in the eternal stability of the solar system. The following quotation from An Analytical View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia by H. P. Brougham and E. J. Routh are a good example of a general tendency:
The other changes which take place in the orbits and motions of the heavenly bodies, were found by these great geometricians [Laplace and Legendre] to follow a law of periodicity which assures the eternal stability of the system.
These changes in the heavenly paths and motions oscillate, as it were, round a middle point, from which they never depart on either hand, beyond a certain distance; so that at the end of thousands of years the whole system in each separate case (each body having its own secular period) returns to the exact position in which it was when these vast successions of ages began to roll.17
The religious tone of the presentation is obvious. Laplace is construed to be saying that heavenly bodies can have only two types of movements: cyclical movements and uniform rectilinear movements; that is, movements that are equivalent with a state of rest. It is a full return, with some added sophistication, to the Aristotelian doctrine that the heavenly bodies can have only circular motions, motions reconcilable with immobility.
Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1884), VI, 234.
VII, p. cxx.
VII, p. cxxiv.
VII, p. cxxx.
VI, p. 478.
VII, p. cxx.
VII, p. 121.
Ibid. (The following translation is by Kenneth Heuer, The End of the World (New York, 1953).
A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, transl. by F. W. Truscott and F. L. Emory (New York, 1951), Part II, Ch. IX, 97.
David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (Edinburgh, 1855), Vol. 1, 359-60.
Several reviewers stated or intimated that the Newtonian theory is absolutely confirmed by the ephemerides. But, as every student of astronomy is taught, the Newtonian theory, in spite of the contributions of Laplace, is only nearly confirmed. The discrepancy between the predictions and the events may be explained by the inadequacy of our mathematical equipment in matters of three-body or n-body problems, or by the inadequcy of the theory, or by the possibility (which is extremely rarely mentioned in the texts of celestial mechanics) that a third factor may be at work besides gravitation and inertia.
Dialogue on the Great World Systems, Ed. by Giorgio de Santillana (Chicago, 1953), 68-69.
(London, 1885), 122, 124.
“A true son of the Enlightenment,” the great naturalist Buff on (1707-88). in 1749 ooened his monumental Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, the most comprehensive effort since Aristotle to gather in one body all scientific knowledge, with a condemnation of Whiston.1 This ferocious onslaught put the tombstone on Whiston’s repulation, whereas up to inat point it had been Newton’s view of the history of the solar system that had been on the defensive among scholars.2
Since he believed that the mechanism of olanetarv motions is so well contrived that its origin could not be ascribed to a series of accidental events, Buffon suggested that it came into existence as the result of the impact of a comet on the Sun; for this reason he could not object to Whiston on mechanical grounds, but resorted to theological arguments. After having presented a mocking summary of his hypotheses, Buffon declared:
I shall make only one remark upon this system, of which I have given a faithful abridgement. Whenever men are so presumptuous as to attempt a physical explanation of theological truths, whenever they allow themselves to interpret the sacred text by views that are purely human; ...they must necessarily involve themselves in obscurity, and tumble into a chaos of confusion like the author of this whimsical system, which notwithstanding all its absurdities has been received with great applause.3
Whiston was ridiculed for quoting the Old Testament in matters of astronomy and at the same time, condemned for not having taken literally the story of creation in Genesis: “He says that the common notion of the work of six days is absolutely false, and that Moses’ description is not an exact and philosophical account of the origin of the universe.” On the first point Buffon declared that the true naturalist must leave the interpretation of the Scriptures to the theologians, and on the second point he agreed with Newton that the Solar System is is so exquisitely designed to operate “in the most perfect manner” that it cannot have changed since creation. Modern interpreters of the thought of Buffon are perplexed because he appeared to be a rank mechanical materialist, whereas he put at the at the head of the fourth volume a letter to the Faculty of Theology of Paris that begins with this profession: “I declare that I do not have any intention of contradicting the text of the Scriptures, that I firmly belive all that they report about creation, both in relation to time sequence and to factual circumstances.”4 In his writings he delved at great length into problems of scientific method in order to maintain that hypotheses must be built solely on the aainstaking gathering of facts, monuments and experiences: but apparently, the narratives of mankind’s history do not fit into any of these categories, whereas Newton’s adaptation of the creation story of Genesis does.
Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1858), 1, 96-100.
The last time that Whiston’s view was given serious consideration was in 1754 when the Berlin Academy of Science offered a prize for an essay on the question: “Whether the Earth since its Origin has undergone a change in its period of rotation and whence this fact could be established.” Kant submitted an essay for this competition (Werke, Ed. by Ernst Cassirer, Berlin, 1912, 1, 189-96); but, since he was an ardent Newtonian, he refused to answer the question as it was stated: “One could investigate the question historically by considering the documents of the most ancient period of the ancient world that concern the length of the year and the intercalations... but in my proposal I shall not try to gain light with the help of history. I find these documents so obscure and so little trustworthy in the information that they could provide on the question before us that the theory that would have to be built on them in order to make them agree with the foundations of nature, would sound too much like an artificial construction.” He then proceeded to outline the nebular hypothesis which implies the stability of the solar system.
Transl. by William Smellie (London, 1791), 1, 108.
Oeuvres philosophiques de Buffon, Ed. by Jean Piveteau (Paris, 1954), p. XVI.
THE COSMOLOGY OF TAWANTINSUYU
The traditional view of Inca religion has been built chiefly on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Pedro Cieza de Leon. In the Commentarios Reales of the hispanicized Inca nobleman Garcilaso de la Vega, the cult of the Sun is portrayed as supreme. The chief temple in Cuzco, the Coricancha, is said to have been dedicated to the Sun (II.9) with similar Sun-temples scattered throughout the provinces; the Inca rulers allegedly prided themselves on being descended from the Sun. The sacrifices to the Sun are described at length (II.8). While Garcilaso makes mention of a god named Pachacamac, and includes a passing reference to Viracocha, we learn almost nothing of the real nature of these divinities. Bartolome de las Casas, the great defender of the Indians, comes closer to the truth when he portrays the solar cult as an outgrowth of the cult of Viracocha, the Sun being worshipped as the most glorious of the manifestations of Viracocha’s creation, and a constant reminder of his supreme power. The establishment of the solar cult is ascribed to the Inca Pachacuti, its principal seat being “aquel grandisimo y riquisimo templo de la ciudad de Cuzco,” the Coricancha. The testimony of Cieza de Leon is substantially the same. The Coricancha is, according to him, “as old as the city of Cuzco,” and is dedicated to the worship of the Sun.
Cristobal de Molina, a Spanish friar, wrote his Chronicle about the year 1573. He traces the cult of the Sun back to the reign of the first Inca, Manco Capac, and relates the first appearance of the Sun, together with that of the Moon, to the time immediately following the Deluge, these luminaries having been placed in the sky by the Creator. Manco Capac, who lived in the first post-diluvian era, made a covenant with the Sun that he and his descendants would adopt this luminary as their divine parent. Whether the Sun was the chief object of worship at this time is, however, open to question, since one of Manco Capac’s descendants, Inca Yupanqui, is said to have built up the temple of Viracocha in Cuzco, which before him had been small and poor, having been inspired to this task by a vision. He is also credited with introducing the cult of the Sun alongside that of the Creator; later a third cult, that of the Thunderbolt, was said to have been added by him.
The account of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (fl. 1532-1572) adds several significant details: “The natives of this country say that in the beginning, before the world was created, there was one whom they called Viracocha. And he created the world dark and without the Sun, nor Moon, nor stars.” The Sun, according to Sarmiento’s narrative, emerged only after the Deluge. Sarmiento has much to say about Viracocha and his deeds, and also tells of the Sun’s worship in Cuzco and other places. But while Sarmiento conveys invalubale information about the early ages as remembered among the Quechuas of the Altiplano, his account of the cult of the empire is scanty and of little value, being colored by his arrogant and hostile attitude towards a culture that, only a few years earlier had been trampled underfoot by his compatriots. He relates some of the traditions collected by him under the heading: “The Fable of the Origin of these Barbaric Indians according to their Blind Opinions.”
With this information in hand, there was little reason to doubt the reality of an all-important solar cult in Tawantinsuyu.1 But a little over a century ago a series of momentous literary discoveries changed this situation very materially. In 1873 Clemens R. Markham, in the course of a survey of some of the collections of Madrid’s Biblioteca Nacional, lighted upon a previously unknown sixteenth- century manuscript entitled Relacion de antiguedades deste reyno de Piru.. Its author, an Aymara Indian named Pachacuti Sallkamaywa, was from a noble family, newly converted to Catholicism. The same library yielded also the Fabulos y ritos de los Incas by Cristobal Molina, that had been consigned to obscurity since its composition three centuries earlier (Markham published a translation of both in the same year 1873) and soon thereafter an anonymous seventeenth-century treatise De las costumbres antiguas de los naturales del Piru,. came to light, appearing in print in 1879. The publication of these manuscripts with their precious new information on Inca religion and culture should have engendered a wholesale reassessment of the traditional views on these questions. While a reassessment of sorts did take place, it did not result in any significant changes in the accepted views on the political and religious life of Tawantinsuyu. A thorough re-evaluation is overdue. In particular, the notion that a solar cult was supreme in Tawantinsuyu is no longer tenable.
Until the publication of Juan Pachacuti’s manuscript a century ago we lacked the evidence that could decisively counter the unanimous opinion of the various chroniclers that the Temple of Viracocha was dedicated to the Sun. However, Pachacuti included in his manuscript a rough drawing of the altar of that temple. The altar itself had destroyed soon after the conquest. This representation is crucial for an understanding of the cult of the Coricancha and, thus in Tawantinsuyu as a whole.
We may observe that the dominant deity depicted on the altar is not the Sun, but a large oblong disk, which, the author tells us, was made of gold. This disk, by far the largest object on the altar, is flanked on either side by the Sun and Moon and by Venus, depicted in its two aspects as the Morning and Evening Star. Had the Sun been the chief object of worship in Tawantinsuyu, as the chroniclers have been assuring us thus far, we would expect its image to have the predominant place in the kingdom’s chief temple, ostensibly dedicated to its worship. Instead, we find it relegated to a definitely subordinate position. As to the disk itself, Pachacuti describes it thus: “Dicen que fue imagen del Hacedor del verdadero sol, del sol llamado Viracochan pachayachachiy”—“They say that it was the image of the Creator of the true sun, of the sun called Viracochan pachayachachiy.” Viracochan pachayachachiy is usually translated as “Viracocha, Ruler of the Entire Earth.” This statement betrays some confusion: Viracocha is called the “true sun” obviously to distinguish him from our familiar luminary. The latter is also depicted, and labeled Inti, i.e., Sun. According to the quoted sentence, not Viracocha but his nameless Creator was depicted on the altar. But, as we have seen, Sarmiento was told that Viracocha himself was the Creator, and this appears to be the common Inca view. The golden image in the center of the altar should be identified as Viracocha. It was, after all, the most holy object in Viracocha’s Temple. Pachacuti tells of the origin of the image: It was first fashioned by Manco Capac of pure gold and was meant to signify the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Manco Capac placed it in a large house called Corichancha, which means “the golden enclosure.” For some unexplained reason, in the time of the Inca Mayta Capac, the golden plate needed to be restored; at the same time, new ceremonies and festivals were established for the worship of Viracocha. All other objects of worship were downgraded: “menospreciando a todas las cosas, elementos y creaturas, como a los hombres y sol y luna.” Pachacuti does not tell us explicitely what was the “Sun called Viracochan pachayachachi” only that it was not our Sun, which he designates as Inti. The solution to this puzzle will obviously provide us with a most important clue to the real cult of Tawantinsuyu.
A positive answer to this question would have been impossible if not for the discovery of a work by an anonymous Jesuit of the early seventeenth century, entitled De las costumbres antiguas de los naturales del Piru. This still largely neglected text, which saw publication in 1879 soon after its discovery in the Bibliotheca Nacional in Madrid, is by far the best informed of the post-conquest accounts as far as the nature of the Inca cult is concerned. Alone among the chroniclers our author quotes extensively from the quipus consulted by himQthat is, Indians charged with keeping the quipu records, in whose minds these knotted ropes still brought forth recollections of past events. This is something that most other contemporary writers failed to do. His sources are manifold. Besides the quipus, he refers also to Spanish authors, among them to several whose writings are now lost. On the basis of his sources he feels confident in refuting many of the assertions that writers such as Polo de Ondegardo had made about Inca religion and customs. Brief as the Jesuit’s chronicle is, it overturns the standard notions of an Inca solar cult. Since to my knowledge it has not been reissued since it first appeared in print over a hundred years ago, and has never been translated into English, I shall quote from it at some length (my translation):
They believed and said that the world, heaven and earth, sun and moon, had been created by one greater than they: they called him Illa Tecce, which means “Eternal Light.” The moderns added another name, that is, Viracocha, which means “Great God of Pirua,” meaning whom Pirua, the first settler of these lands, worshipped, and from whom the entire country and empire took the name Pirua, which the Spaniards$have corrupted to Peru or Piru.
The Devil deceived them to the effect that this great and true God had passed on his divinity and power to various creatures, in order that each should operate according to the task and virtue assigned to it; and that these gods accompanied and advised the great God, and chiefly were in the heavens, as are the Sun, Moon, stars and planets.
For this reason the inhabitants of Peru were for a long period of years without idols, without statues, without images, for they worshiped solely the heavenly luminaries and the stars.
Of the Sun they said that it was the son of the great Illa Tecce and that the physical light which it gave off was part of the divine nature which Illa Tecce had imparted to it, that it might direct and govern the days, the times, the years and the seasons, and also kings and kingdoms and lords and other things. Of the Moon they said that she was a sister and wife of the Sun, and that Illa Tecce had given to her a portion of his divinity, and made her mistress of the sea and of winds, of queens and princesses, of women’s labor, and queen of heaven.
The Moon they called Coya, which means “queen.”
Of Dawn [i.e., the Morning Star] they said that she was a goddess of young maidens and princesses, and originator of the flowers of the fields, and mistress of the dawn and twilight; and that it was she who threw dew onto the earth when she shook her hair, and they thus called her Chasca [i.e., hairy].
Jupiter they called Pirua, saying, first of all, that it was this planet that the great Illa Tecce had commanded should be the guardian and lord of the empire and provinces of Piru, and of its government and of its lands; and for this they sacrificed to this planet all the firstfruits of their harvests and all that which seemed most noteworthy and finest by its nature, such as an ear or grain of maize, or other harvests and fruits and trees. To this god they dedicated their granaries, their treasures, their storehouses, or the best ears of maize, or those first harvested, and they called the stores which they had in their houses, in which they kept their wealth and clothes, their tableware and arms, “Pirua.” Secondly, they said that this great Pirua Pacaric Manco Inca, the first settler of these lands, when he died, was raised up to heaven to the house and station of this god called Pirua, and that there he was lodged and entertained by this god.
Mars-Aucayoc-they said they had charged with matters relating to wars and soldiers; Mercury-Catu Illa-with those having to do with merchants and travellers and messengers. Saturn-Haucha-they charged with pestilence and slaughter and famine, and lightning and thunder; and they said that he held a club and bows and arrows to hurt and punish men for their evils.
What is really astounding about this passage is the close similarity of the characteristics ascribed in it to the major planets to those common among the Greeks and the Romans. Among the Incas, just as among the Greeks and the Romans, Zeus, or Jupiter, was known as supreme among the gods. Ares, or Mars, was the god of war, Hermes, or Mercury, of travellers and merchants. The word “merchant” in fact comes from the Latin mercari= “to trade” (Webster’s, 2nd ed.), which is one of the functions of the Roman Mercurius. Saturn’s malevolent nature was also recognized among the Greeks and Romans. How can these similarities be explained? At least three possibilities suggest themselves:
The anonymous author was influenced by his knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology with which, as an educated Jesuit, he would be well acquainted. He projected this knowledge onto the Inca beliefs he claimed to be reporting. But this would mean that the Jesuit deliberately falsified his method of collecting information. But, as noted above, he is exceptionally meticulous in citing his informants by name and location.
The author’s Inca informants had been influenced by Greek and Roman mythology, which they received from Europeans in the early years following the conquest of Peru. They assimilated this information into their own mythology, and later transmitted it as their own. This assumes that the Spaniards would have informed the natives of Peru about some of the finer points of Greek and Roman mythology, rather about the Trinity and Christianity in general, which seems to have left no mark on the tales of the quipus.
The Incas had been influenced by pre-Conquest contacts with Phoenicians, or other peoples from the Mediterranean region. The ancients had the technical means to cross them Atlantic Ocean, and there are some indications that they did actually cross it. Charles Hapgood has presented evidence that contacts among the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Americas, and the Far East, were once commonplace.
Whatever the explanation for the similarities with the mythology of the Old World, the anonymous Jesuit provides important information about the nature of the Inca cult. Besides the Coricancha he mentions a Temple of Viracocha, a Temple of the Planet Jupiter, and one which we may call a “Dragon Temple.” “The Temple of the Sun,” the writer tells us, was later converted into the Church of Santo Domingo--but according to Martin de Morua and other writers, the Church of Santo Domingo is the former Coricancha. Thus the “Temple of the Sun” and the Coricancha are one and the same temple. But we have already examined the altar of the Coricancha and found no evidence that the Sun’s cult was pre-eminent there. Its chief object of worship is identified as Viracochan Pachayachachi. The cult of the Coricancha was, it seems, some heavenly body which was called “sun” before the Inti, the sun of our days was created. Was it Jupiter who, according to the chronicler, was given sovereignty over the whole land? But Jupiter had a temple separate from the Coricancha. Was it Saturn? Saturn, or Haucha, is not otherwise depicted on the altar and no separate temple to this planet is known to exist. Saturn seems a more likely choice than Jupiter; however, the sources on Tawantinsuyu presently at our disposal give no direct indication of the true nature of the chief cult of the empire with its sanctuary, the Coricancha; the surmise that it was Saturn must be based on extraneous sources, mainly from Babylonia and China. We have gone as far as we could on the basis of the native evidence; now we need to see if the cosmologies of other ancient peoples may shed any light on the question.
That a celestial body should be called “the sun” and yet be something other than the sun may at first appear strange. But a close parallel is available in Babylonia. In Babylonian astronomy Alap-Shamash, “the star of the sun” was Saturn. Ninib, another Babylonian designation for Saturn, “is said to shine like the sun.” In India the appelative of the sun, arki, was also applied to Saturn.
In Sanscrit arka means “belonging or relating to the sun.” But Arki is a name for Saturn, the most distant of the planets visible with the naked eye. Arc means “to shine, be brilliant,” Arkin means “radiant with light.” Arkaja, the name often applied to Saturn, designates it as an offspring of the Sun (Markandeya Purana). Diodorus of Sicily (II. 30. 3-4) reported that the Chaldeans called Kronos (Saturn) by the name Helios, or the Sun. Hyginus also wrote that Saturn was called “sun.” (De Astronomia II. 42. 8-10.) These examples demonstrate that there is no incongruity in interpreting the reports of the Inca devotion for the sun and of the cult of the sun in the Coricancha as referring actually to Saturn.
The evidence from China throws even more light on the cosmology of Tawantinsuyu; but in order to be able to use this evidence properly, we must first say something about the political organization of the Inca kingdom.
Tawantinsuyu means “the four quarters” of which the Inca empire consisted-Chinchasuyu to the North, Qollasuyu to the South, Antisuyu to the East and Kuntisuyu to the West. At the center of Tawantinsuyu was Cuzco, the capital, with the Inca ruler and the Coricancha. From Cuzco four roads led toward each of the suyus or quarters. These roads, described in detail by Polo de Ondegardo, had a significance that went far beyond their value as means of communication. Here is Polo’s description: “From the temple of the Sun went, as from the center, certain lines, which the Indians called ceques; and they were divided into four parts according to the four royal roads that went out of Cuzco. . .” And Polo goes on to describe in great detail the shrines that were situated along the ceques and the roads. The organization of the Inca kingdom resembles closely the political organization of the Chinese Empire. According to the Han historian Ssuma Ts'ien, the planet Saturn “corresponds to the center.” The four other planets represented the four cardinal points; Saturn was placed at the pole, and the entire stellar sphere was said to revolve around it. The earthly kindom was set up to reflect the heavenly sphere. Just as Saturn occupied the central position in the sky, so the imperial palace and the emperor occupied the central location in the Chinese empire. At the center of the Inca empire stood the Coricancha, the shrine of Viracocha. If we may on this basis draw the surmise that the center of Tawantinsuyu, too, was dedicated to Saturn, it would then follow that the Coricancha was a temple of Saturn, and Viracocha, the chief object of worship in that shrine, was none other than Saturn.
An Ancient Latin Name for Venus
Venus, in its aspect as the Morning Star, was known to the early Romans as iubar; not until much later did Lucifer, “the bringer of light,” replace iubar as the designation of the planet Venus in its morning aspect.1 Latin writers derived iubar from the word iuba, meaning “hair.” Varro wrote: eadem Stella vocatur iubar quod iubata “this star is called iubar bacause it is hairy.”2 Varro and Festus compared the Morning Star’s hair to a lion’s mane.3 The image would appear to be that of light scattered in all directions: only some poetic hyperbole could see in today’s bright morning star a hairy apparition resembling a lion’s mane.4
Seneca and Pliny used the word iubar to describe a comet in the sense of a star with hair.5 Modern scholars, however, unable to see how the word “hairy” could possibly be applied to Venus, have sought for different etymologies of iubar, for “the morning star does not appear as a luminous trail, but as a point lightly twinkling.”6 True, it does not now so appear; but that hardly gives us license to reject the ancients’ description of Venus as having been hairy (iubata) in an earlier age.
Iubar dicitur Stella Lucifer—Varro, De lingua latina VI.6.
Ibid., loc. cit.
Varro: Quod habet luminem diffusum ut leo in capite iubam - De lingua latina VII. 76; Festus: Quod splendor eius diffunditur in modum iubae leonis (On the Meaning of Words 92.13).
For the association of the lion with the Morning Star. see F.-X. Kugler’s Sibyllinischer Sternkampf und Phaëthon in naturgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung (1927). Beginning with a passage in the Sibylline Oracles (V. 51 6), Kugler traces the association through the literary and artistic traditions of the ancient Near East.
Seneca, Octavia 231: vidimus caelo iubar ardens cometem pandere infestam facem—apparently in reterence to the comet of A.D. 60. Cf. Pliny,. Natural History II.xxiii. 91.
André le Boeuffle, Les noms latins d’astres et de constellations (Paris, 1977), pp. 238-239, ii. 6. The word iubar was also used in Latin to designate the light of the Sun, Moon, and other celestial bodies.
Venus and Sirius
The Greek version of the Canopus Decree speaks of the rising of the star of lsis (to astron to tés Isios) as marking the beginning of the new year; the hieratic and hieroglyphic versions, however, assign the same role to Sothis, or Sirius.1 Velikovsky, on the authority of Pliny,2 identifies the star of Isis as the planet Venus3 and explains that both Venus and Sirius had a role in the Egyptian calendar, the real purpose of the Decree being to make the calendar independent of Venus. Egyptologists generally consider both “star of Isis” and “Sothis” to refer to Sirius. Of the arguments put forward by Velikovsky against this interpretation, I consider the strongest to be the fact that a calendar based on a fixed star would not result in festivals moving through the seasons—only if tied to the observations of a planet, in this case Venus, would festivals originally celebrated in the summer fall in midwinter.
That the star of Isis and Sirius are not one and the same is clearly indicated in one of the Isis-Aretalogies from Memphis where Isis is made to say: “I am she who goes out to the Dog-Star.”4 Dieter Müller, trying to find the meaning of this text, expresses his puzzlement: “But what can the foregoing sentence signify? That Isis goes out to the constellation of the Dog-Star certainly cannot be meant, for they are one and the same. Also that Isis is conceived of as dwelling in Sirius appears not very enlightening; besides, one could think of the depictions of Isis as riding on a dog...”5 Miiller, puzzled, resorts to an emendation, a favorite device of many scholars faced with discordant data. Not finding enlightenment in his own field of Egyptology, Müller does not even think to look for a solution in a wholly different time or place. Yet, if the phenomena that so fascinated the ancients were real events—if, in this case, the fact of Venus going out to Sirius is based on actual observation—it is legitimate to investigate the records of other civilizations to find what light they may shed on the Egyptian text.
In the Soochow Astronomical Chart, an eight-centuries-old inscription in stone, in a section that deals with past irregularities in the heavens, there is the following statement: “Once T’ai-P’ai (Venus) suddenly ran into Lang Hsing (Wolf Star, Sirius), though it is more than 40 degrees south of the Yellow Road.”6 The Yellow Road is the ecliptic.7 The same ancient tradition was referred to by the early eighth-century A.D. Chinese astronomer Y-hang. As told by Gaubil,8 Y-hang wrote that “in the time of Tsin one saw the star Sirius eclipsed by the planet Venus. Y-hang, after having reported this alleged observation, assures that Sirius has 40 degrees south latitude, and that therefore Heaven changed the course of this planet in the time of Tsin.”
As the Chinese astronomer correctly observed, the ancient records of Venus’ movements cited by him would require the planet to travel outside of the ecliptic, on an orbit quite different from its present course. Whereas the Soochow Astronomical Chart might leave the impression of a one-time event, the more detailed records cited by Y-hang tell of a regular phenomenon. The brightest of the planets approaching the brightest of the fixed stars and merging its light with it — if that is the correct interpretation of the texts—must have been an impressive sight. It may have given rise to the Egyptian expression Isisothis—Venus and Sirius shining as one.
Among the Babylonian astronomical texts the so-called Dilbat tablet links the planet Venus with various fixed stars; it says that “the Bow Star [Sirius] is Dilbat [Venus] in the month ofAbu.”9 Dilbat, or Venus, is linked with other fixed stars in other months of the year. If we may interpret this text in the sense that Venus approached Sirius in Abu and other fixed stars in other months of the year, the tablet may help trace the planet’s ancient path.
Assurbanipal, in the seventh pre-Christian century, celebrated a festival for Venus when Sirius was rising heliacally: “In the month of Abu, the month of the heliacal rising of the Bow Star, the festival of the honored queen, the daughter [Ishtar] of Enlil, while, to render homage to her great godhead, I sojourned in Arbela, her beloved city. . .”10 This statement of Assurbanipal is interpreted as meaning that the king “considered Ištar of Arbela the divine impersonator of Sirius.”11 Ištar of Elam and Ištar of Babylon are also defined as the Bow Star, or Sirius. This link of the Venus festival with Sirius persisted until the Middle Ages among the Harranians.12 The celebration of the Assyrian and Harranian festivals to Venus when Sirius was rising heliacally should not be neglected by students of the Canopus Decree, and of Sothic chronology.
- Spiegelberg, Der demotische Text der Priesterdekrete von Kanopus und Memphis (Rosettana) (Heidelberg, 1922), p. 70.
“Astronomy and Chronology”, Supplement to Peoples of the Sea (New York, 1977), pp. 205-244.
- Müller, “Aegypten und die griechischen Isis-Aretalogien” in Abhandlungen der sachsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, phil.-hist. Klasse, 53.1 (Berlin, 1961), pp. 33ff.
- Carl Rufus and Hsing-Chih Tien, The Soochow Astronomical Chart (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1945), p. 5.
- Gaubil, Histoire de l’Astronomie Chinoise in P. E. Souciet ed., Observations mathematiques, astronomiques, geographiques, chronologiques et physiques tirées des anciens livres chinois (Paris, 1732), p. 86.
- Lewy, “Ištar-sad and the Bow Star”, Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger on his Seventy-fifth Birthday, April 21, 1965; Assyriological Studies 16, University of Chicago Press, pp. 275ff.
Ibid., p. 277.
Ibid., p. 276. In Persia, Sirius and Venus also appear to be linked in some way. There, the star Tistrya, many times mentioned in the Zend-Avesta, is usually identified as Sirius. Velikovsky, on the other hand, brings evidence to show that it is Venus (see Worlds in Collision, p. 201, n. 10).