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Was Copernicus A Neoplatonist?

Author(s): Edward Rosen

Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1983), pp. 667-669
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709222 .
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Christian thought was profoundly influenced by the ancient pagan Greek
philosopher Plato. His followers, those whom we call the Neoplatonists, developed a distinctive metaphysical and spiritual doctrine: all reality has its source
in the transcendent One, which produces a series of less unified levels of being,
down to the last and lowest, the physical universe, a living creature endowed
with a divine soul; at our highest, we humans can join the One in a mystical
A thinker's advocacy of such beliefs places him in the Neoplatonists' long
and diverse procession. On the other hand, the complete absence of these teachings, whether explicit or implicit, from the works of an author disqualifies him
for assignment to the Neoplatonists. A case in point is the founder of modem
astronomy, Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), in whose voluminous writings no
trace of Neoplatonic doctrine has ever been identified. Was his thinking affected
by contact with a Neoplatonist?
Copernicus enrolled as a student at the University of Bologna, where his
"friend and teacher at Bologna, Domenico Maria de [sic] Novara," we are told,1
"was a close associate of the Florentine Neoplatonists." This coterie of intellectuals constituted the Platonic Academy of Florence, a name adopted in
imitation of Plato's Academy outside Athens. Much looser in its structure2than
the later Accademia dei Lincei, Academie des Sciences or Royal Society, the
Florentine Academy had no charter, minutes of meetings, or roster. The founder
of the Platonic Academy of Florence, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), was asked by
a German kindred spirit for a "catalog of his friends," as his associates in the
Academy were regarded by Ficino. His reply mentions eighty names.3 These
did not include Copernicus' "friend and teacher at Bologna," Domenico Maria
Novara, who was not "a close associate of the Florentine Neoplatonists."
When Ficino's "catalog of his friends" was republishedby a learned archivist,
he added seven names culled from Ficino's correspondence.4Heading the list
of these additions was Francesco Marescalchi. As the recipient of a letter in
Latin from Ficino in September 1474, he was addressed as "Franciscus Marescalchus of Ferrara, distinguished fellow philosopher." In a second communication he was called "beloved fellow philosopher." On 28 June 1477 Ficino
reverted to "Franciscus Marescalchus of Ferrara ... my excellent fellow phi'Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1957;
frequently reissued), 128.
2 Paul Oskar Kristeller, "The Platonic Academy of Florence," Renaissance News, 14
(1961), 150; rpt., Renaissance Thought, II (New York, 1965), 93.
3 M.
Ficino, Opera omnia (Basel, 1576; rpt., Turin, 1962), 936-37.
Angelo Maria Bandini (1726-1803), Specimen literaturaeflorentinae(Florence, 174751), II, 75.


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losopher."5 Ficino's repeated expressions of esteem for Marescalchi as a philosopher holding opinions akin to his own show this thinker to have been "a
close associate of the Florentine Neoplatonists." But Francesco Marescalchi was
not Copernicus' "friend and teacher at Bologna," Domenico Maria Novara.
Why was Marescalchi misidentified with Novara? Marescalchi, as we have
learned from Ficino's letters to him, lived in Ferrara. Copernicus' teacher was
descended from a family residing in Novara, whence one of his ancestors had
moved to Ferrara. In that city Copernicus' teacher was born in 1454. In his
numerous publications he usually styled himself "Domenico Maria da Novara
of Ferrara."6He began to teach astronomy at the University of Bologna in 1483,
a year after the Ferrarese Neoplatonist Marescalchi died on 15 September 1482.7
Fourteen years later Copernicus entered the University of Bologna. He never
had any contact with the Neoplatonist philosopher Marescalchi. On the other
hand, "at Bologna ... he was not so much the pupil as the assistant and witness
of observations of the learned Domenico Maria"8 Novara, professor of astronomy.
Novara, we are told, was "among the first to criticize the Ptolemaic planetary
theory ... believing that no system so complex and cumbersome could represent
the true mathematical order of nature";9he "held that no system so cumbersome
and inaccurate as the Ptolemaic had become could possibly be true of nature."1
Novara's alleged condemnation of Ptolemy's planetary theory is not, however,
supported by any reference to the Bolognese astronomer's writings. On the
contrary, a student who visited the University of Bologna reported that Novara
was "lecturing on Ptolemy's Almagest,"" as his Syntaxis was then miscalled. A
university professor who lectured on the Syntaxis in Novara's time accepted the
Ptolemaic system and planetary theory as true to nature. Novara's tombstone,
erected by an heir, lauded his familiarity with the "travels of the sun."'2 In the
Ptolemaic system the sun traveled, like the other planets with which it was then
grouped. After Novara's death his former pupil, Copernicus, developed his own
cosmology, deplanetizing the sun and making it stationary. Copernicus did not

Ficino, Opera, 644, 738, 776; English translations in The Letters of Marsilio Ficino
(London, 1975-81), I, 125-27; II, 50; III, 63-64.
6 Edward Rosen,
"Copernicus and his Relation to Italian Science," Accademia nazionale dei Lincei (Problemi Attuali di Scienza e di Cultura), Convegno Internazionale
sul Tema: Copernicoe la cosmologia moderna (Rome, 1975), 29.
Phyllis W. G. Gordan, Two Renaissance Book Hunters (New York and London,
1974), 217. Marescalchi's death in 1482, coupled with the dates of Ficino's letters to
him, distinguishes him from Francisc(h)us de Ferraria, author of an unpublished manuscript dated 10 December 1352; Lynn Thorndike and Pearl Kibre, A Catalogue of
Incipits of Mediaeval Scientific Writings in Latin, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1963),
1284; Marshall Clagett, Archimedes in the Middle Ages, I (Madison, 1964), 445, n. 20.
8 Edward Rosen, Three Copernican Treatises, 3rd ed. (New York, 1971), 111.
9 Kuhn, CopernicanRevolution (op. cit., n. 1 above), 128.
'0 T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1970), 69.
" Der Briefwechseldes Konrad Celtis, ed. Hans Rupprich, 438/51-53 (Munich, 1934;
Veroffentlichungen der Kommission zur Erforschung der Reformation und Gegenreformation, Humanistenbriefe, III).
12 Carlo Malagola, Monografie storiche sullo Studio Bolognese (Bologna, 1888), 417:
phoebi... meatus.

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continue his teacher's adherence to the Ptolemaic theory. Had Novara been a
Neoplatonist, would Copernicus have followed meekly in his footsteps?
Neither Novara nor Copernicus was a Neoplatonist. Yet we are told that
When Novara's pupil Copernicus complained that the Ptolemaic astronomers "seem to violate the first principle of uniformity in motion" and
that they have been unable to "deduce the principal thing-namely
parts," he
was participating in the same Neoplatonic tradition.13
But we are not told whether Novara or Copernicus was familiar with any
Neoplatonic anti-Ptolemaist.
In his Revolutions Copernicus eulogized the sun.'4 "His authorities are immediately Neoplatonic," we are told."5The authorities named are two in number.
One of them, Sophocles, wrote all his plays before Plato composed his earliest
dialog, so that this dramatist was pre-Platonic rather than "immediately Neoplatonic." The other authority is a collection of non-scientific and anti-rationalist
writings attributed to a divinity whose name Copernicus did not get quite right,
and to whom he ascribed a saying not to be found in that strange jumble.16
Copernicus' astronomy teacher at the University of Bologna was not a
Neoplatonist. The sources of Copernicus' eulogy of the sun were not "immediately Neoplatonic." Since his own philosophical outlook was not Neoplatonist,
what was it?'7 Demonstrably familiar with some of Plato's dialogs, he was still
not a confirmed Platonist. Better acquainted with Aristotle's writings,18 he
dreaded the unswerving Aristotelians of his own time as potential adversaries,
because he converted Aristotle's motionless earth into a solar planet, revolving
in the heavens. The resulting abolition of the traditional distinction between
heaven and earth made him fear the hostility of the theologians. Neither a
Platonist nor a Neoplatonist nor an Aristotelian, he was a Copernican.
To his only disciple "lofty metaphysical dithyrambs, resonating with their
deeply rooted Neoplatonic assumptions" have been ascribed,'9without any supporting evidence. Like master, like pupil: if Copernicus was a Neoplatonist
because his teacher Novara was, by simian logic why should not Copernicus'
disciple Rheticus be a Neoplatonist too? Like master, like pupil: neither Novara
nor Copernicus nor Rheticus was a Neoplatonist.
City University of New York, Graduate Center.

Kuhn, CopernicanRevolution, op. cit., 128.

Nicholas CopernicusComplete Works,II (Baltimore, 1978), 22:3-10; translation and
commentary by Edward Rosen.
15 Kuhn,
CopernicanRevolution, op. cit., 130.
16 CopernicusComplete Works,II, 359 on 22/7; Edward Rosen, "Was Copernicus a
Hermetist?," Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 5 (1970), 164-69.
17 Copernicus' philosophical outlook has been studied in his Revolutions (Complete
Works,II). His other writings (Complete Works,III), scheduled to be published in Poland,
have been waiting for years to be released by the editor to the printing shop.
18 Aleksander
Birkenmajer, "Copernic philosophe," Studia Copernicana, IV (Wroclaw, 1972), 614-24, 644.
'9 Robert S. Westman, The CopernicanAchievement (Berkeley, 1975), 301; reviewed
in Polish Review, 21 (1976), 225-35.

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