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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. We shall consider astronomy at the time when
it began to stir, that is, when the sky was discovered
to be observable, when the personality of astronomers
and their relations to their cultural environment be-
came more accessible to investigation. And we shall
follow this intellectual adventure only until the first
third of the twentieth century when the Einsteinian
theory of relativity gradually brought to the uninitiated
an unimaginable world. Individual psychology will be
only a secondary consideration. (Kepler's psychology,
for example, has been admirably studied by Nicolson
and Koestler.) It is rather the turn of imagination
characterizing a whole era which will be discussed

We start with the Ptolemaic cosmos, an improve-
ment on Aristotle, whose reign, established in the
thirteenth century, was soon to crumble. Ptolemaic
astronomy provided a home for the Parmenidean imagi-
nation and satisfied both of its intellectual and aes-
thetic demands: a refuge secured by the closed-in
cavernous Cosmos in which the stars, solidly attached
to their spherical vaults of rigid ether, followed these
spheres in their eternal rounds. It provided, with a
sense of security, the intellectual satisfaction of simple
mathematical relations and the aesthetic delight of a
perfect harmony: circles and spheres, inserted within
a single finite Sphere outside of which nothing existed
except the world of pure minds.

It is true that this perfect image was merely a
simplification, for the uninitiated, of a more hetero-
geneous and complicated view. There was the duality,
unacceptable to a rigorous mind, of the incorruptible
superlunar spheres and of the impure sublunar sphere
of the Earth subject to change, this very Earth which
paradoxically formed the center of the whole system,
i.e., usurped what was, for the spontaneous imagina-
tion, the place of honor. Only astrological influences
wove a network from one world to the other without
succeeding in unifying them. There was also the in-
creasing complexity of celestial mechanics accom-
panying progress in the observation of celestial move-
ments, which required the refinement of Ptolemy's
system; efforts made to “save the appearances” and
to preserve the dogma of the Circle greatly compro-
mised the simple harmony of the Great Dance. The
aim of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (1543) was pre-
cisely to restore that simplicity, and to do it by return-
ing to the heliocentric view of Pythagoreans like
Heraclides of Pontus. Copernicus, as Koestler has


shown, was Parmenidean: to solve the mathematical
problem of the world, Copernicus sought a more ele-
gant solution than Ptolemy's and wished to repair the
old clock by changing the arrangement of its wheels.

However, around Copernicus an intellectual ferment
was taking place in which he did not seem to partici-
pate; and, as in times of crises, the two families of
minds became self-conscious and opposed each other.

The return to favor of Neo-Platonism at the end of
the fifteenth century contributed to the unification of
the world. Marsilio Ficino explained astrological influ-
ences by the Spirit of the World (Spiritus mundi), a
kind of vital fluid which came from the stars and
planets to impregnate our earthly abode (De vita libri
1489). Thinkers were thus prepared to accept the
unity of substance between our Earth and the other
heavenly bodies. Moreover, the Platonic cult of the
divine Light and of the Sun as the image of the Idea
of the Good, encouraged these thinkers to accept the
central place which Copernicus was to assign to this
orb, and he did so with visible satisfaction. In addition,
they were prepared to accept the role of the Sun as
the mover of the planets, a role which Kepler was later
to attribute to it (Astronomia nova, 1609).

Moreover, a new state of mind was created: man
took confidence in his powers to explore the world and
to make use of it, affirming an idea that the world was
put at his disposal by God. The outstanding work in
which this assurance was expressed is the Oration on
the Dignity of Man
(1436) by Pico della Mirandola.
For the first time Prometheus had a clear conscience.
A new boldness inspired him: he no longer needed the
safeguard of a protective shell; the rigid casement of
the celestial spheres seemed like a prison to him, as
did the infallible doctrine of Aristotle. A curiosity that
was both more exact and more extended encouraged
voyages of exploration, and in turn was developed by
them. This curiosity extended to the celestial domain,
where it was believed there was nothing more to dis-
cover. Finally, a fresh love of life led to the joyous
acceptance of everything life brought with it: genera-
tion and decay. Alchemy contributed to this appraisal
of the vital cycle that was thought to be realized in
the alchemist's oven (athanor); and the incorruptible
nature of the starry world lost its prestige. This cult
of life and this explorer's sort of boldness found perfect
expression in Galileo (Dialogue on the Two Main Sys-
tems of the World,
1632). In this work he proclaimed
the superiority of the living over the static:

As for me, I hold the Earth as noble and admirable because
of the numerous and varied alterations, mutations, and
generative changes that take place in it.

And with regard to Aristotle's authority:

Only the blind need a guide, but anyone with two eyes
in his head and with a mind should use them to guide

However, this turn of mind had asserted itself much
earlier. Thanks to it certain events in the sky—the
outburst of new stars (the Novae of 1572 and 1604)
and the passing of comets, introducing change in the
immutable superlunar heaven—created a sensation and
excited discussions. Concerning the Copernican clock-
work, the followers of Heraclitus would maintain above
all that the “Sphere of the Fixed Stars” had become
useless because it no longer moved; it could dissolve
and open out on the Infinite. It was thus that, before
the crucial astronomical discoveries were made, G.
Bruno (in his Dialogues, 1584) was able to put forth
through the power of his imagination a typical
Heraclitean cosmos: an infinite space, infinitely full,
an inexhaustible, creative gushing of energy, an un-
limited number of suns as centers of as many infinitely
varied planetary systems, endless degrees of Perfection,
an equilibrium in motion, a network of transformations
and of perpetually new forms—all of it alive and giving
birth to life. No hesitancy in Bruno; he trampled with
the rapturous fury of an iconoclast over the ruins of
the old cosmos, and the impulse of liberation and
departure on his part was unattended by any appre-
hensiveness or by any looking back. From Bruno came
the avid concern for the infinite which we find in
British thought of the seventeenth century; following
Bruno also, intoxication with life and variety was
henceforth linked to the theme of the “Plurality of
Worlds,” a theme which would still be alive in the
work of Camille Flammarion and in novels of the
twentieth century.

2. Bruno will be remembered for a long time as a
bold and audacious soul, gifted with an unusually fiery
temperament. It was, however, by following the path
of observation that astronomy leaped forward with
Kepler and Galileo; the spirit of the times was all for
observation. It was a novel thing to devote so much
time and effort to determining the orbit of Mars, and
especially to do what Kepler did, not without anguish,
namely, to sacrifice doctrine for facts and the dogma
of the perfect circle for the evidence of the ellipse.
It would have been unthinkable, a half century earlier,
to perfect, as Galileo did, a magnifying lens as a tele-
scope directed towards unknowable celestial bodies,
and to accept the facts of a moon with mountains, a
sun soiled with spots, and celestial bodies woven out
of the same elements as the earth.

However, the victory of the sons of Heraclitus was
hotly disputed. What resisted change and the infinite
was not primarily, as is commonly believed, the con-


servatism of the Church and the Aristotelian School-
men, but rather a bundle of prejudices which occupied
the framework of their inner lives. It is hard to under-
stand today the moral collapse which the crumbling
of the immutable Firmament signified for the sons of
Parmenides. After losing the physical shelter and moral
asylum of that deathless sphere towards which he could
look for a refuge, man felt as exposed as a mollusk
whose shell is broken. In the Dialogues of Bruno and
of Galileo, the Parmenidean role is played by car-
icatured persons: “Where then is that beautiful order
and that elegant hierarchy of Nature?” moans Bruno's
critical interlocutor. Still the bewilderment and confu-
sion of Simplicius and his like are natural and worthy
of compassion. John Donne spoke the same language:
“... all coherence gone.” Even in the soul of the
innovators opposing reactions conflict with one another
and block progress.

The case of Kepler is typical. This great mind
brought together within himself in tense opposition
Heraclitus and Parmenides. He started from a dream
of classical harmony, from a Pythagorean worship of
numbers and shapes. He shied away from the Infinite,
because nobody could locate any determinate place
in it (De stella nova, 1606). He needed a hierarchy,
a special nobility for the Sun and the Earth. His uni-
verse has a center, it remains spherical, and his pro-
portions are based on the regular solids, perfect poly-
gons, and musical harmonies (Harmonice mundi, 1619).
Kepler made sure to integrate into this equilibrium the
discoveries of his own calculations: the elliptical orbits
of the planets and the inequalities of their motion.

But Kepler's geometric God is also an energetic God;
the fusion of these two natures was achieved at the
summit of Kepler's genius. The sun, image of the Fa-
ther, is the source of life and motion; from the central
astral body, there emanates a “moving force,” an “im-
material substance” which draws the planets, an idea
which came close to Newton's universal force of at-
traction. In Kepler's Pythagorean cosmos, we have the
first model of a dynamic universe, the first hint of

3. A few years after Kepler's discoveries, mechanism
triumphed over vitalistic dynamism in science and in
the formulation of celestial motions.

Descartes was not an astronomer, but his cosmology
wielded a powerful influence on thinkers in many
countries as well as in France (Principles of Philosophy,
Latin ed., 1644; French, 1647; Treatise on the World,
posthumous, 1664). With respect to imagination Des-
cartes's case is unique. He is undoubtedly classical
in his preference for the simplicity of basic premisses
and for the inflexible Rigor of fixed Laws. Space was
not absolute and the Void did not exist; Descartes
started with an infinitely divisible and inert matter.
Perfect motion, for Descartes, would be the kind that
is determined by the principle of inertia, not in a circle
but in a straight line. However, this motion is impossi-
ble in a Plenum in which no particle could be moved
without displacing another—whence the Vortex, and
whence by friction the formation of three kinds of
particles. The most tenuous or subtle matter immedi-
ately fills all empty spaces; this dust forms the suns
and their planets. In all this there is no scale of values
or importance. So Descartes constructed, starting from
an initial simplicity, a complicated, unstable system
which was as stifling for an imagination in love with
life and freedom as it was repugnant for the soul in
love with harmony.

This system seemed, nonetheless, to satisfy both the
rigorousness and the imagination of Descartes. The
numerous images that he employed (eels twisted on
the floor of a boat, straws in the eddies of a river) bear
witness to his bias for minute displacements which
reduce the universe to terrestrial models.

And yet Descartes did serve the cosmic imagination:
he contributed greatly to the vogue of astronomy at
the end of the seventeenth century. Since his was an
unlimited universe, he satisfied those sensibilities that
hungered for the infinite. As he brought in a great
variety of vortices in perpetual combination and sepa-
ration, he drew in his wake the lovers of change and
diversity. He revived the great dream of the plurality
of inhabited worlds. He created an impression of
intimacy among these systems which come in contact
with each other and modify one another. Finally, by
introducing a cooling off of the sun or the impact of
a comet, Descartes provided, in his lifeless cosmos, for
death as a stage of the life-process. The end of the
world, formerly considered a supernatural event, had
now become Nature's threat; and it had to do with
a theme of fascinating astronomical dreaming, as we
shall see.

4. However, Newton's system of mathematical
physics (Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica,
1687) was going to offer a fuller and more lasting
satisfaction to both the types of minds defined above.
Newton as a scientist—prudent and modest—seems to
have been at first a mathematician preoccupied with
giving not an exhaustive explanation of the universe
but a simple and elegant equation. He was also a
religious man and wished to show the necessity of a
permanent divine activity in the construction and
working of the world-machine. He did not seem to
have foreseen the many consequences of his theory that
were often in conflict with one another.

To the classical type of imagination Newton offered
certainty and balance; real space and real motion in


relation to really immutable points; independent sys-
tems, each being supported by a practically fixed lumi-
nous body (a sun), around which dark bodies revolve
at wisely measured distances, all arranged by an infal-
lible Governor who is ready to repair any alteration.
Thus, he offered harmony in motion, not so different
from the Great Platonic Dance. But above all, his
system is charming for the wonderful simplicity of its
resources: once the Universe is set in motion by the
initial push which inertia perpetuates, a single force
suffices thereafter, namely, “universal attraction.”
From the Atomists and from Descartes, Newton in-
herited a unified idea of matter to which a universal
law could be applied; now the latter did not end up
with complications and disorder, as Cartesian me-
chanics did, but resulted in a more satisfying harmony.
The limitless character of this universe no longer con-
tradicts classical taste, henceforth adapted to the Infi-
nite for various reasons. Philosophical reflection from
Bruno to Henry More made acceptable, especially to
the British, the idea that an infinite God could find
his perfect image in an infinite creation. On their side
the Cartesians believed that the simplicity and rigor
of laws could suffice to assure the unity of a boundless
universe. The natural bent of their minds was to em-
phasize among Newton's classical disciples the reassur-
ing stability of this system as well as its unifying char-
acter. In the eighteenth century theories abounded in
attempts to reduce the two laws of motion to a single
one, and Louis de Tressan (1783) already utilized for
this purpose an electric fluid as a universal agent.

Now the romantic mind found in the Newtonian
world a still more complete satisfaction. The imagina-
tion in search of liberty and free flight found in
Newton's space a propitious and exalting medium.
Among the independent systems, all related to ours and
yet different from ours, in which we can imagine an
infinite variety of living forms, suited to delight the
human visitor, large spaces open up which evoke not
a dark and dry abyss, but a peaceful ocean welcoming
the navigator. The Void assured the elasticity of a very
tenuous ether and the smoothness of celestial motion;
it is bathed by an omnipresent Light, and especially
by the “very subtle Spirit” which Newton inherited
from Henry More and which, from the depth of
Newton's thought, assured the transmission of this
unexplained force of Attraction. The contemporaries
and successors of Newton went much farther and
imagined worlds related to one another by mysterious
life-messengers: imperishable seeds. The idea came
from a fanciful cosmologist who had been speaking for
Descartes, namely, B. de Maillet (Telliamed, 1748); but
Newton's system contributed to the success of this
fascinating dream, which was to be revived in the
twentieth century by the Swedish astronomer Svante
Arrhenius (The Evolution of Worlds, 1907). Thus
Newton's system stirred the bold imagination of those
who had inherited that proud confidence in the worth
of man which inspired the Renaissance and burst out
afresh in the eighteenth century. Newton is responsible
for the cosmic voyages of the mind which have multi-
plied in poetry and fiction.

Furthermore, Newton brought about the triumph of
a new pathos of dynamism. Universal gravitation for
the first time gave a universal value to the idea of mass:
the ancient and medieval celestial bodies were weight-
less. Now, the Creator became the athlete who shapes
and hurls these cannonballs. His poetic emblem is no
longer Milton's compass but Edward Young's scale-
balance (Night Thoughts, 1742-44). If the classical
mind tends to reduce to unity the agent of universal
motion, the romantic mind tends to polarize the world
and insists on seeing a conflict between the two forces,
repulsion and attraction. In contrast to Newton, the
romantic mind tends to make of both repulsion and
attraction forces which, though working in exactly
opposite directions, have the same nature; just as inex-
plicable on the physical plane as they appear similar
to psychical forces—Love and Hate—a view which
Empedocles had already declared.

According to H. Metzger, whom we follow here,
the paradoxical force of attraction, which mysteriously
acts at a distance, owed its career precisely to this
unconscious or conscious assimilation by the imagina-
tion. The idea that a thing is attracted by what it
resembles is also part of the primitive mentality; the
“active power of desire” experienced within us directly
is easily transferred to the external world. By reversing
this transfer the romantic imagination went on to see
in human love a particular case of the universal law
of Attraction. This confusion already inspired the sys-
tem of R. G. Boscovich (Theoria philosophia naturalis,
1758) and prevailed as late as the works of the astrono-
mer Camille Flammarion.

The equilibrium of the two forces, an equilibrium
so dear to classical minds, was capable of being shaken
by the baroque imagination in love with conflict and
in a close conspiracy with cataclysmic catastrophes.
Attraction and repulsion could take turns in triumph-
ing, the first reducing the world to a fabulously dense
molecule, the second expanding it and scattering it
anew, all this in accordance with a rhythm of alternat-
ing expansion and contraction: a dynamic and spatial
variant of the ancient “Eternal Return,” an idea which
has had an influential career since the middle of the
eighteenth century, enjoying favor that has lasted down
to our own times, thanks to the theory of the expanding


5. With Newton's system assuring the classical unity
of explanation, there were also minds for whom the
spatial unity of the architecture of the universe re-
mained such a desideratum that they went ahead and
worked at reconstructing the centralized universe of
the ancients.

The desire among these minds for a regular arrange-
ment of the stars on the celestial vault was at the base
of their reconstruction. If from the earth the skies
appear so irregular (a fact which Descartes found
shocking), it was because our vortex could not be the
center of the world; but there should exist a center
from which the celestial vault would appear in a per-
fect harmony. The first astronomical observations on
the displacement of the fixed stars (by E. Halley in
1718) favored the idea of the rotation of the whole
of our galaxy (perhaps around Sirius, which would be
its great sun) and of the entire universe around a central
star. Thus appeared the system of Thomas Wright (An
Original Theory of the Universe,
1750), which despite
its mediocre mathematical value impressed important
thinkers like Kant. In Wright's system there reappeared
the old cult of the Circle and Sphere and the vast
rotation of the whole starry vault, which had been at
a standstill since Copernicus. But the original creation
of this visionary cosmology was the fabulous “central
body,” the only stationary body, balancing by itself the
Universe; the “central body” was not a sun of fire, but
a habitable globe around which the stars appeared
juxtaposed, forming a continuous vault of fire. It was
the “First Mover,” seat of the forces which move the
universe, God's throne, and the “Abode of Recom-

The central body and the great vortex appeared
again among serious astronomers at the end of the
eighteenth century; and among imaginative cosmolo-
gists like J. A. Lambert (Kosmologische Briefe, 1761)
and J. E. Bode (Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten
1768), whose influence on the Sturm und
dreamers was great.

Nevertheless these minds shared the then dominant
yearning for infinite diversity. Wright established it in
both space and time: he envisaged an unlimited plenum
of creations, each with its central body, and conceived
the blessedness of the elect to consist in the contem-
plation of the wonderful variety of the world. Bode
insisted not only on the multiplicity of forms but also
on their perpetually changing variety in which an
inexhaustible creative power was displayed.

6. Henceforth, the cosmos definitively entered the
historical scene. Newton's system was the last to have
placed the “Harmony of the World” outside of time,
installed and maintained by God, and transfigured by
him on the “Last Day.” Now, among Newton's disci
ples there was a slipping away; for the majority of
minds curious about astronomy the fate of the universe
was being progressively consummated in time.

As we have already indicated, starting from the
middle of the eighteenth century there occurred a
return of the imagination in favor of a cyclical concep-
tion of that destiny (such as Vico had just installed in
human history). The “Eternal Return” may be a way
of saving Parmenidean changelessness, but such was
not the case with the men of that century, for it was
the life cycle that mattered to them; we shall come
back to this matter. Euler's calculations (Mémoire,
1746) on the progressive recession of the orbits of the
planets provided an astronomical excuse for reviving
an obscure desire. The idea spread that the planets of
each system would return to the sun, and the latter
to the “Sun of Suns,” which periodically would absorb
them, and then would disperse new worlds into space.
Thus Unity alternated with Diversity. This obsession
was exceptionally strong in the troubled time of the
turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, and
inspired such visionaries as Delisle de Sales, Restif de
la Bretonne, and Fabre d'Olivet; it was also to give
birth to its masterpiece, the Eureka (1848) of Edgar
Allan Poe. In this work, the cyclical idea retained only
a minimal relation to obscure pulsations, and assumed
a maximum of aesthetic satisfaction. Poe's idea of the
cosmos as a poem inspired him with a pure intellectual
joy resembling Kant's. What constituted Poe's delight
was the law of Reciprocal Adaptation in virtue of
which cause and effect flow into each other and be-
come indiscernible. The Circle of Perfection was re-
established on an intellectual plane. “Beauty is truth,
truth beauty,” and that is all there is to know. Diversity
was integrated with Unity in the form of the greatest
possible totality of relationships in continuous growth
until they are resolved. Matter was integrated with
energy and the latter with pure Spirit. Finally the
yearning to return to the Source was sublimated here
into a mystical unity.

7. However, the cosmogony of Eureka was late and
isolated—intellectually Poe was an offspring of the
eighteenth century—at a time (1848) when the trium-
phant world view was not only Heraclitean but ro-
mantic, in the strict sense of the word, rather than
baroque. The Great Vortex, without being abandoned
(pure astronomers are still inclined to accept it, at least
in the form of a complete rotation of our whole galaxy)
enjoys less favor than the flight to infinity. The circle,
and even the ellipse, yielded to the straight line or
to curves (parabola, hyperbola) which are fascinating
because they are open-ended. Scientific excuses were
offered by Herschel and then by Laplace (Exposition
du système du monde,
1796). “Several observations,”


Laplace says, “are represented well enough by suppos-
ing the solar system being carried towards the constel-
lation of Hercules.” It was only a mere hypothesis but
the romantic imagination took hold of it. And for the
intellectual delight of completely embracing the whole
cosmos, the romantic substituted the joy of feeling
himself projected outward, beyond all anticipation, the
joy of resigning and losing one's self, relishing the
mysterious and a certain intellectual vertigo with the
savor of the “maybe.” Carried away towards what?
Towards regions of light, dense with stars, or towards
some frightful collision? The romantic mind succumbed
to the pathos of the “Voyage Out With No Return.”
This propensity for the “voyage out,” associated with
the desire for freedom, had created the prestige of
comets. (We refer to the comet of the astronomical
era, when the comet was recognized as a heavenly
body and not as a supernatural apparition.) The comets'
vast orbits, their unpredicted appearance, and the
belief, due to Descartes, that they can escape from
their own vortex and pass from one system to another—
all that had made comets the model vagabonds; but
now the whole solar system was in flight. Works, solidly
documented for their time in astronomical matters,
yielded to this intoxication and maintained it. For
example, Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos (1845)
offered the reader an impressive speeded-up film of
a universe in flight: “Countless stars are carried away,
like whirlwinds of dust, in opposite directions.” Jean
Reynaud's Earth and Sky (Terre et ciel, 1854) also
insisted on the exalted idea that navigation by the stars
never followed the same route twice.

However, among the romantics (with a few excep-
tions like Byron and Leopardi) optimism carried the
day; fear itself can be, after all, no more than a
pleasurable intoxication. Faith in a Supreme Being was
not given up. Only the “harmony of the world” was
not divorced from time; it was in the process of be-
coming. Minds, preoccupied with socialism, like the
Saint-Simonian socialism of J. Reynaud, or with an
esoteric idea, like that of Flammarion (to name only
truly informed astronomical writers), conceived the
universe as “a great fraternal society” (Reynaud) or
as a place reserved for souls allowed to rise from one
world to a higher world in an indefinite progress.

Quite different was the reaction to the universe in
flight by the pessimistic type of minds that formed the
majority of sky-watchers at the end of the nineteenth
century. What occurred now was a very intense nega-
tion of the “harmony of the world.” The source of this
current was not astronomical; the slow and steady
progress of science did not justify it, but on the con-
trary, it offered grounds for creating enthusiasm. The
discovery of Neptune in 1877, the study of Mars'
“canals” revived speculation on the plurality of in-
habited worlds, and the flood of Martian fiction began
to mount.

The influence of Schopenhauer and Hindu philoso-
phy, accompanying perhaps an era of social stagnation
and boredom, and perhaps also, the mysterious play
of the psychological pendulum, imposed on cosmolo-
gists and poets the vision of an empty, dark, and icy
space in which the imaginary voyage can only be a
nauseating dizzy fall into the infinite. The hospitable
space of Newton gave way to an uninhabitable space.
And in this sea of Darkness all that the earthly ship
could expect thereafter without a pilot was shipwreck.