De revolutionibus orbium coelestium - Nicolaus Kopernikus


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

"Astronom Kopernik, czyli rozmowa z Bogiem" (Astronomer Copernicus, conversation with God)
by the Polish history painter Jan Matejko, 1872)



19 February 1473: Today, 540 years ago, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in the Polish city of Toruń. A true Renaissance man, Copernicus made his mark not only as a scholar and scientist, but as well as a cleric, governor and diplomat as well. But his true claim to fame is, of course, his comprehensive heliocentric model formulated in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published a few days before his death in 1543.

Within a hair's breadth, it might have been a posthumous publication of his work, but while Galilei almost got burned for following up with Copernicus' theory 75 years later, the Catholic as well as the Protestant churches did obviously treat De revolutionibus as some kind of minor oddity. It was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1616 and remained there until 1835, more or less for form's sake.

Nonetheless, Copernicus' work is a milestone in the development of how we perceive the world today, groundbreaking to the point that Freud, along the lines of what Goethe had written, postulated De revolutionibus as being the first of the three wounding blows Western civilisation had to suffer (the next being Darwin's theory) in regards to its own significance.


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