Saturday, 1 June 2019

The Greco-Roman Cosmos

Illustration from La Sphere du Monde by Oronce Fine (1549)
(the sublunary elements are fire, air, water and earth; above the moon is aether)
In most ancient Greek and Roman minds the distant stars were not thought to be suns capable of supporting a family of orbiting planets, and our own sun was not thought to be the central hearth-fire of our familial solar system. Their view of the cosmos was fundamentally different to our own.
“The Greeks, by about 500 BC, were trying to explain the movements of the planets by first assuming the earth to be the centre of the universe. ( … practically everyone before modern times assumed that it was.) A philosopher named Anaximenes about 550 BC suggested that the stars were fixed in a huge hollow sphere that enclosed the earth, the sun, the moon and the planets … This sphere might be motionless while the earth turned, or vice versa. Later Greeks argued both ways. 
The sun, moon and planets could not be fixed to this sphere of the stars, because they did not move along with the stars at the same speed. They must therefore exist in space between the sphere of the stars and the central earth … each must be fixed in a special sphere of its own [Asimov at 25-27].”
The predominant view amongst the Greeks (and then the Romans – who embraced much of ancient Greek philosophy and astronomy) was that the order of the celestial spheres was determined by the apparent speed of each of the planets, with the apparently faster planets being thought to be closer to the earth. Hence, the closest of these spheres was that belonging to the moon, then Mercury, then Venus, then the sun, then Mars, then Jupiter, then Saturn, and then finally there were the fixed stars (the planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were unknown in the ancient world, due to the absence of telescopes which could detect them). Keep in mind here that to most Greeks and Romans the sun was considered to be one of the seven planets (they had no idea of the immense size of the sun and imagined it to be considerably smaller than we do today), as was the moon. The original meaning of the word “planet” was “wanderer” because the first five of what we call planets today (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), the sun and the moon were the seven celestial bodies that noticeably moved across the sky, in contrast to the other stars which appeared to be fixed in place.*

Philosophical approaches to cosmology
Another thing to keep in mind is that although today Aristarchus of Samos (3rd century BCE) is well known and well regarded (as he proposed that the moon orbits the earth, while the earth and the other planets orbit the sun, and that the sun was greatly larger than the earth) his views were most definitely not widely accepted in the ancient world. The Stoic philosopher Cleanthes went so far as to accuse Aristarchus of impiety for proposing to move the “hearth of the universe” (Plutarch). 

Ovid explains the popular hearth-earth view of the cosmos in Augustan Rome, which was largely drawn from Stoicism:
“Vesta [Goddess of hearth-fire] equals earth. Sleepless fire underlies both; earth and hearth denote their own fixity. Earth, like a ball, resting on no prop, hangs with air beneath it, so heavy a weight. Its very rotation keeps the globe balanced; there are no corners to press any part. And since it’s located in the centre of everything, so that it touches no side more or less, if it weren’t convex, it would be nearer to one part, and the universe would lack earth’s central weight [Ovid, Fasti, 9 June].”
Thus the primordial mythos of Atlas was replaced by the philosophical and quasi-scientific notion of a central fire lying at the centre of earth and thus also of the universe. This is at least half right – for scientists estimate that the metallic centre of the earth continually burns at circa 4500-6000 degrees Celsius.

However, the Stoics did not regard the sun as unimportant:
“Cleanthes would have the sun to be the ruling power of the world, because it is the greatest of the heavenly bodies, and contributes most to the administration of the whole by making the day and the year and the other seasons [Eusebius of Caesarea].”
In the 1st century BCE Cicero explored the position of Stoic thought on cosmology, and its relation to the divine:
“… there are … reasons why conceptions of the Gods are imprinted on human minds … The fourth reason advanced, and the greatest, is the uniform movement and undeviating rotation of the heavens, the individuality, usefulness, beauty and order of the sun and moon and stars, the very sight of which is sufficient proof that they are not the outcome of chance … can we not grasp that things which are higher are better, and that the earth is the lowest level of all, shrouded in an impenetrable band of air? … All parts of the universe … are supported and sustained by heat … since all motion has its origin in the heat within the universe, and such heat is achieved spontaneously and not by an external thrust, that fiery heat must be a living soul. In other words, the universe is alive …  
Once we have recognised that the universe possesses this divinity, we must assign that same divinity to the stars, for they are sprung from the most fluid and pure sector which is the aether, with no admixture of any other element [in Greco-Roman thought the four sublunary elements were hot-dry fire, hot-wet air, cold-wet water and cold-dry earth, the aether belonged to those places above the level of the moon]. They are entirely translucent heat … they too are living beings with sensation and understanding … ‘Therefore’, says Cleanthes, ‘since the sun is made of fire and nurtured by moisture from the ocean (for no fire could continue to burn without some form of nourishment), it must be like the fire which we exploit for our own use and sustenance, or like that that which is contained in the bodies of living creatures. But whereas the fire which we need for daily living destroys and consumes everything, and causes chaos … the heat in our bodies is life-enhancing and health-giving; it preserves, nurtures, increases and sustains all things, and endows them with feeling’. He therefore concludes that there is no doubt which of these fires the sun resembles, since it too ensures that all things blossom and ripen, each according to its kind. So since the sun’s fire is similar to the fires which inhere in the bodies of living creatures, the sun too must be alive, and likewise the other celestial bodies, for they are sprung from that heat of the heavens which we call the aether or the sky.  
… Now the region of the aether is occupied by the stars … So since the stars have their origin in the aether, the logical inference is that they possess feeling and understanding, which is why the stars must be numbered among the Gods … What especially denotes that the stars are conscious and intelligent is their consistent regularity and the absence of random or fortuitous variation, for no such rational, ordered movement can be conducted without planning …  
The person who observes these facts would display not merely ignorance but also impiety if he said that the Gods do not exist; and there is very little difference between denying that they exist and depriving them of any stewardship or activity … [Cicero at 52-62]”
This last paragraph is a hostile reference to Epicurean philosophy, which was one of the greatest rivals to Stoic thought at the time. According to the Epicurean school the universe is not fundamentally ordered, as the Stoics would have us believe, but rather born from chaos and without reason. 
“… space lies in all directions infinite and seeds [ie, atoms] in number numberless forever fly around in countless different ways though an unfathomable universe perpetually driven by everlasting motion … nature made this world. The seed of things in random and spontaneous collision in countless ways clashed, heedless, purposeless, in vain until at last such particles combined as suddenly united could become the origin of things … nature by herself all things performs by her own will without the aid of Gods … [Lucretius at 65-67]”
This sounds curiously modern until we realise that according to Epicurean philosophy:
“… earth rests in the centre …The sun’s heat and size can hardly be much greater or less than is perceived by our senses … The moon too, whether it shines with borrowed light illumining the world, or whether it sends its own light from its own body, whichever it is, its size, as it moves through the heavens, is no larger than it appears to our eyes as we see it … [Lucretius at 152-153]” 
Celestial spheres with perfect motion 
By the 3rd to 6th centuries CE Neoplatonist philosophy prevailed in the polytheistic Greco-Roman world** – it rejected the Epicurean approach to understanding the cosmos while absorbing some Stoic principles (such as the view that the universe is alive and divine), as well as the philosophy of Pythagoras (though seemingly not the views of one Pythagorean, Philolaus, who proposed that the earth and the seven planets alike circle around an unseen central fire), and of course Plato. However, Neoplatonism was a highly spiritual and mystical philosophy which gave little attention to practical approaches to the material cosmos, and perhaps it didn’t need to, for by this point the Ptolemaic system predominated in Greek and Roman minds, which returns us to the subject of the celestial spheres:
“Naturally, these spheres of the planets had to be perfectly transparent because the stars could be seen through all of them. They had to move with perfect regularity and with perfect lack of friction … If the planets were fixed in spheres that turned about the earth, the planets would have to move in perfect circles … Plato, about 300 BC, strongly argued that heavenly bodies simply had to move in circles because the circle was the most symmetrical curve and therefore the perfect curve. If the planets moved in circles, that was just an additional proof that all things in heaven were perfect … There was only one trouble with this beautiful logic. If the actual motions of the planets were studied, it would be found that the planets simply did not move in circles [Asimov at 29-31].”
Thus for centuries leading Greco-Roman philosophers and mathematicians engaged in tortuous calculations that became ever more complicated to justify the prevailing view that the earth was at the centre of the cosmos and that perfectly circular spheres surrounded her. For some this involved adding new spheres, for example, Aristotle (4th century BCE) proposed that there were 54 spheres in all. Apollonius of Perga (3rd century BCE) argued for a return to the view of a single main sphere for each planet and suggested instead that the centre of the revolving sphere was eccentrically placed (ie, not at the centre of the earth) and that there were smaller spheres, set within the main spheres, moving in epicycles. By the Roman age this, more or less, was the dominant view, with finishing touches added by Claudius Ptolemaeus (2nd century CE, also known as Ptolemy), who made the mathematics behind the theory so complicated that no-one dared seriously question it until the late renaissance, thus, the geocentric theory of the universe which dominated European thought until that time is also known as the Ptolemaic system. 

This popular ancient notion that perfection exists and that it wraps itself around our earth in a way that is quite visible to the naked eye – merely by looking to the orderliness of the planets and the stars – is not especially concordant with contemporary attitudes to the universe. I do not look at the night sky and feel reassured by a divinely perfect cosmos. I see instead much cold and lifeless space, punctuated by deadly hot suns of unimaginable hugeness which parent inaccessible solar systems. I also see alien planets in our own solar system on which no human could likely ever survive – it’s not especially comforting ... and there is no doubt that this perspective contaminates my attitude to the divine. The heavens of the 21st century CE give me no reason to believe in perfection, only in the laws of cause and effect. I feel this is a good thing for it means I do not measure myself as imperfect by comparison to the aethereal heavens (which the ancient adherents of certain philosophical schools, such as Pythagoreanism, Stoicism and Neoplatonism, were wont to do), and I see that this gives rise to that, which gives rise to another, and so we have a fragile measure of causation and predictability – this is not perfect order but it is a kind of order nonetheless, which is manifestly devoid of inherent perfection or imperfection, or right or wrong, it just is. It may be that the closest thing to the perfect heavens of the pre-renaissance is not up there, somewhere else, but down here, within our grasp on earth. Our existence is a kind of miracle, when compared with what else we now think we know of the universe, and so it is worthy of treasuring. Where are Gods? Where do the spirits of the dead go? I don't know for sure, but if science has taught me anything it has taught that we humans don't know a great many things and the greatest folly of all is to assume we've arrived at a place of complete understanding. 

* Thus the number seven came to be imbued with a special significance, and so gave birth to the seven days of the week (Sunday = sun, Monday = moon, Tuesday = Mars, Wednesday = Mercury, Thursday = Jupiter, Friday = Venus, Saturday = Saturn), the seven heavens, the seven musical notes, the seven colours of the rainbow, and so on. 

** It is customary to place 529 CE as the end of the era of Greco-Roman Pagan philosophy, as this is the date Emperor Justinian ordered the school of Plato (the Academy) closed: The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers at 220.


Asimov, The Kingdom of the Sun, Collier Books (1962)
Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Oxford (2008) 
Encyclopedia Britannica
Eusebius of Caesarea, Preparation for the Gospel (3rd/4th century CE),
Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Oxford (2008)
Meijer, Stoic Theology: Proofs for the Existence of the Cosmic God and the Traditional Gods, Eburon (2007)
Ovid, Fasti, Oxford (2011)
Ovid, Fasti, Penguin (2004)
Plutarch, On the Face in the Moon,
Remes, Neoplatonism, University of California Press (2008)
Urmson and Ree, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, Routledge (1991)

Written by M' Sentia Figula (aka Freki), find me at neo polytheist and


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