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Aristotle vs. Copernicus

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist, who shared with Plato the distinction of being the most famous of ancient philosophers. Aristotle was born at Stagira, in Macedonia, the son of a physician to the royal court. At the age of 17, he went to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy. He remained there for about 20 years, as a student and then as a teacher. When Plato died in 347 bc , Aristotle moved to Assos, a city in Asia Minor, where a friend of his, Hermias (d. 345 bc ), was ruler. There he counseled Hermias and married his niece and adopted daughter, Pythias. After Hermias was captured and executed by the Persians, Aristotle went to Pella, the Macedonian capital, where he became the tutor of the king’s young son Alexander, later known as Alexander the Great. In 335, when Alexander became king, Aristotle returned to Athens and established his own school, the Lyceum. Because much of the discussion in his school took place while teachers and students were walking about the Lyceum grounds, Aristotle’s school came to be known as the Peripatetic (”walking” or “strolling”) school. Upon the death of Alexander in 323 bc , strong anti-Macedonian feeling developed in Athens, and Aristotle retired to a family estate in Euboea. He died there the following year.

His works on natural science include Physics, which gives a vast amount of information on astronomy, meteorology, plants, and animals. His writings on the nature, scope, and properties of being, which Aristotle called First Philosophy ( Prote philosophia ), were given the title Metaphysics in the first published edition of his works (c. 60 bc ), because in that edition they followed Physics. His treatment of the Prime Mover, or first cause, as pure intellect, perfect in unity, immutable, and, as he said, “the thought of thought,” is given in the Metaphysics. To his son Nicomachus he dedicated his work on ethics, called the Nicomachean Ethics. Other essential works include his Rhetoric, his Poetics (which survives in incomplete form), and his Politics (also incomplete). Some of the principal aspects of Aristotle’s thought can be seen in the following summary of his doctrines, or theories. Physics, or natural philosophy.

In astronomy, Aristotle proposed a finite, spherical universe, with the earth at its center. The central region is made up of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. In Aristotle’s physics, each of these four elements has a proper place, determined by its relative heaviness, its “specific gravity.” Each moves naturally in a straight line-earth down, fire up-toward its proper place, where it will be at rest. Thus, terrestrial motion is always linear and always comes to a halt. The heavens, however, move naturally and endlessly in a complex circular motion. The heavens, therefore, must be made of a fifth, and different element, which he called aither. A superior element, aither is incapable of any change other than change of place in a circular movement. Aristotle’s theory that linear motion always takes place through a resisting medium is in fact valid for all observable terrestrial motions. Aristotle also held that heavier bodies of a given material fall faster than lighter ones when their shapes are the same; this mistaken view was accepted as fact until Galileo proved otherwise.

In his metaphysics, Aristotle argued for the existence of a divine being, described as the Prime Mover, who is responsible for the unity and purposefulness of nature. God is perfect and therefore the aspiration of all things in the world, because all things desire to share perfection. Other movers exist as well-the intelligent movers of the planets and stars (Aristotle suggested that the number of these is “either 55 or 47″). The Prime Mover, or God, described by Aristotle is not very suitable for religious purposes, as many later philosophers and theologians have observed. Aristotle limited his “theology,” however, to what he believed science requires and can establish.

Many, many years after Aristotle died, a Polish astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus, formulated his own theories about best known for his astronomical theory that the sun is at rest near the center of the universe, and that the earth, spinning on its axis once daily, revolves annually around the sun. This is called the heliocentric, or sun-centered, system. In 1500 Copernicus lectured on astronomy in Rome. The following year he gained permission to study medicine at Padua, the university where Galileo taught nearly a century later. It was not unusual at the time to study a subject at one university and then to receive a degree from another-often less expensive-institution. And so Copernicus, without completing his medical studies, received a doctorate in canon law from Ferrara in 1503 and then returned to Poland to take up his administrative duties. After moving to Frauenburg in 1512, Copernicus took part in the Fifth Lateran Council’s commission on calendar reform (1515); wrote a treatise on money (1517); and began his major work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which was finished by 1530 but first published by a Lutheran printer in Nuremberg, Germany, just before Copernicus’s death on May 24, 1543. The cosmology that was eventually replaced by Copernican theory postulated a geocentric universe in which the earth was stationary and motionless at the center of several concentric, rotating spheres. These spheres bore (in order from the earth outward) the following celestial bodies: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and, finally, the finite outermost sphere bearing the so-called fixed stars. (This last sphere was said to wobble slowly, thereby producing the precession of the equinoxes.)One phenomenon had posed a particular problem for cosmologists and natural philosophers since ancient times: the apparent retrograde, or backward, motion of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. From time to time the daily motion of these planets through the sky appears to halt and then to proceed in the opposite direction. In an attempt to account for this retrograde motion, medieval cosmology stated that each planet revolved on the edge of a circle called the epicycle, and the center of each epicycle revolved around the earth on a path called the deferent. The major premises of Copernicus’s theory are that the earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the sun. He argued, furthermore, that the planets also circle the sun, and that the earth precesses on its axis (wobbles like a top) as it rotates. The Copernican theory retained many features of the cosmology it replaced, including the solid, planet-bearing spheres, and the finite outermost sphere bearing the fixed stars. On the other hand, Copernicus’s heliocentric theories of planetary motion had the advantage of accounting for the apparent daily and yearly motion of the sun and stars, and it neatly explained the apparent retrograde motion of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and why Mercury and Venus never move more than a certain distance from the sun. Copernicus’s theory also stated that the sphere of the fixed stars was stationary.

Another important feature of Copernican theory is that it allowed a new ordering of the planets according to their periods of revolution. In Copernicus’s universe, unlike Ptolemy’s, the greater the radius of a planet’s orbit, the greater the time the planet takes to make one circuit around the sun. But the price of accepting the concept of a moving earth was too high for most 16th-century readers who understood Copernicus’s claims. Instead, parts of his theory were adopted, while the radical core was ignored or rejected. There were but ten Copernicans between 1543 and 1600. Most worked outside the universities in princely, royal, or imperial courts; the most famous were Galileo and the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. These men often differed in their reasons for supporting the Copernican system. In 1588 an important middle position was developed by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in which the earth remained at rest and all the planets revolved around the sun as it revolved around the earth.

After the suppression of Copernican theory occasioned by the ecclesiastical trial of Galileo in 1633, some Jesuit philosophers remained secret followers of Copernicus. Many others adopted the geocentric-heliocentric system of Brahe. By the late 17th century and the rise of the system of celestial mechanics propounded by the English natural philosopher Sir Isaac Newton, most major thinkers in England, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark were Copernicans. Natural philosophers in the other European countries, however, held strong anti-Copernican views for at least another century. R.S.W.

Aristotle and Copernicus held differing views on how the planets moved but that was because they lived in vastly different times. Without Aristotle, Copernicus may never had something to disprove. Copernicus’ fight for what he believed in, truly helped mankind realize certain truths. It is these people who really make the world go around and will carry us through to the next millenium.

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