Friday, June 19, 2015

John Gray Quoting Benjamin Woolley Describing John Dee

"And as the cosmos had spread into infinity, so he had seen his, everyone's position in it correspondingly reduced. For the first time in more than a thousand years, anyone with the learning to see (and there were still very few) beheld a universe that no longer revolved around the world, and a world that no longer revolved around humans." -- Benjamin Woolley, quoted in John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette, p. 99

What are we to make of this passage? First of all, why is Gray quoting a pop history writer describing Dee's situation, rather than quoting Dee? Perhaps because there simply is no quote in Dee that actually supports the above narrative?

Secondly, what is this about the cosmos "spreading into infinity"? Heliocentrism does not equal an infinite universe, and the current cosmological consensus is that the universe is not infinite.

Thirdly, what is this, "For the first time in a thousand years" business? As far as I know, there were a mere handful of Greek heliocentrists in the ancient world, and the overwhelming consensus of natural philosophers was that a geocentric model was correct. And medieval scholars such as Oresme and Nicholas of Cusa knew about and contemplated heliocentrism, and even "non-centrism."

As I have mentioned before, John Milton, my history of science lecturer at King's College in London, said that he had searched the original sources from the 1500s and 1600s for anyone whose main worry about Copernican theory was that it displaced the earth from the center of things, and could not find any example. The idea that this aspect of heliocentrism disturbed people at that time seems to be a later invention. (What did disturb them, of course, was that heliocentrism seemed to conflict with Scripture.)


  1. What really upset people about heliocentrism was its effect on par.



"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb