To know the mighty works of God; to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance can not be more grateful than knowledge.
When a prominent member of Congress, of slightly convivial turn, went to sleep on the floor of the House of Representatives and suddenly awakening, convulsed the assemblage by demanding in a loud voice, "Where am I at?" he propounded an inquiry that is indisputably a classic.
With the very first glimmering of intelligence, and as far back as history goes, man has always asked that question, also three others:
Where am I?
Who am I?
What am I here for?
Where am I going?
A question implies an answer and so, coeval with the questioner, we find a class of Volunteers springing into being, who have taken upon themselves the business of answering the interrogations.
And as partial payment for answering these questions, the man who answered has exacted a living from the man who asked, also titles, honors, gauds, jewels and obsequies.
Further than this, the Volunteer who answered has declared himself exempt from all useful labor. This Volunteer is our theologian.
Walt Whitman has said:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
But we should note this fact: Whitman merely wanted to live with animals--he did not desire to become one. He wasn't willing to forfeit knowledge; and a part of that knowledge was that man has some things yet to learn from the patient brute. Much of man's misery has come from his persistent questioning.
The book of Genesis is certainly right when it tells us that man's troubles came from a desire to know. The fruit of the tree of knowledge is bitter, and man's digestive apparatus is ill-conditioned to digest it. But still we are grateful, and good men never forget that it was woman who gave the fruit to man--men learn nothing alone. In the Garden of Eden, with everything supplied, man was an animal, but when he was turned out and had to work, strive, struggle and suffer, he began to grow.
The Volunteers of the Far East have told us that man's deliverance from the evils of life must come through killing desire; we will reach Nirvana--rest--through nothingness. But within a decade it has been borne in upon a vast number of the thinking men of the world that deliverance from sorrow and discontent was to be had not through ceasing to ask questions, but by asking one question more. The question is this, "What can I do?"
When man went to work, action removed the doubt that theory could not solve.
The rushing winds purify the air; only running water is pure; and the holy man, if there be such, is the one who loses himself in persistent, useful effort. By working for all, we secure the best results for self, and when we truly work for self, we work for all.
In that thoughtful essay by Brooks Adams, "The Law of Civilization and Decay," the author says, "Thought is one of the manifestations of human energy, and among the earlier and simpler phases of thought, two stand conspicuous--Fear and Greed: Fear, which, by stimulating the imagination, creates a belief in an invisible world, and ultimately develops a priesthood."
The priestly class evolves naturally into being everywhere as man awakens and asks questions. "Only the Unknown is terrible," says Victor Hugo. We can cope with the known, and at the worst we can overcome the unknown by accepting it. Verestchagin, the great painter who knew the psychology of war as few have known, and went down to his death gloriously, as he should, on a sinking battleship, once said, "In modern warfare, when man does not see his enemy, the poetry of the battle is gone, and man is rendered by the Unknown into a quaking coward."
But when enveloped in the fog of ignorance every phenomenon of Nature causes man to quake and tremble--he wants to know! Fear prompts him to ask, and Greed--greed for power, place and pelf--answers.
To succeed beyond the average is to realize a weakness in humanity and then bank on it. The priest who pacifies is as natural as the fear he seeks to assuage--as natural as man himself.
So first, man is in bondage to his fear, and this bondage he exchanges for bondage to a priest. First, he fears the unknown; second, he fears the priest who has power with the unknown.
Soon the priest becomes a slave to the answers he has conjured forth. He grows to believe what he at first pretended to know. The punishment of every liar is that he eventually believes his lies. The mind of man becomes tinted and subdued to what he works in, like the dyer's hand.
So we have the formula: Man in bondage to fear. Man in bondage to a priest. The priest in bondage to a creed.
Then the priest and his institution become an integral part and parcel of the State, mixed in all its affairs. The success of the State seems to lie in holding belief intact and stilling all further questions of the people, transferring all doubts to this Volunteer Class which answers for a consideration.
Naturally, the man who does not accept the answers is regarded as an enemy of the State--that is, the enemy of mankind.
To keep this questioner down has been the problem of every religion. And the great problem of progress has been to smuggle the newly-discovered truth past Cerberus, the priest, by preparing a sop that was to him palatable.
From every branch of Science the priest has been routed, save in Sociology alone. Here he has stubbornly made his last stand, and is saving himself alive by slowly accepting the situation and transforming himself into the Promoter of a Social Club.
* * * * * * *
The attempt to ascertain the truths of physical science outside of theology was, in the early ages, very seldom ventured. When men wanted to know anything about anything, they asked the priest.
Questions that the priest could not answer he declared were forbidden of man to know; and when men attempted to find out for themselves they were looked upon as heretics.
The early church regarded the earth as a flat surface with four corners. And in proof of their position they quoted Saint Paul, who wanted the gospel carried to the ends of the earth.
In fact, the universe was a house. The upper story was Heaven, the lower story was the Earth, and the cellar was Hell. God, the angels and the "saved" lived in Heaven, man lived on Earth, and the devils and the damned had Hell to themselves.
"And there shall be no night there," and this was proven by the stars, which were regarded as peepholes through which mortals could catch glimpses of the wondrous light of Heaven beyond. Hell was below, as was clearly shown by volcanoes, when the fierce fires occasionally forced themselves up through. Darkness to children is always terrible, and the night is regarded by them as the time of evil.
Later, Churchmen came to believe that the stars were jewels hung in the sky every night by angels whose business it was to look after them.
The word "firmament" means a solid dome or roof. This firmament, the sky, was supposed to be the floor of Heaven. The firmament had four corners and rested on the mountains, as the eye could plainly see. When God's car was rolled across the floor we heard thunder, and his movements were always accompanied by lightnings, winds, black clouds and rain--all this so He could not be too plainly seen.
Heaven was only a little way off--a few miles at the most. So there were attempts made at times by bad men to reach it. The Greeks had a story about the Aloidĉ who piled mountain upon mountain; the Bible story of the Tower of Babel is the same, where the masons called, "More mort," and those below sent up bricks. There is also an ancient Mexican legend of giants who built the Pyramid of Cholula, and they would have been successful in their attempts if fire had not been thrown down upon them from Heaven. In all "Holy Writ" we find accounts of "ascensions," "translations," "annunciations," and mortals caught up into the clouds. Many people had actually seen angels ascending and descending.
"Messengers from on high" and God's secretaries were constantly coming down on delicate errands. Everything that man did was noted and written down. We were watched all the time by unseen beings. The Bible tells of how the Earth was eventually to be destroyed, and then there would be only Heaven and Hell. God, His Son and the angels were going to come down, and for ages men watched the heavens to see them appear.
All sensitive children, born of orthodox Christian parents, who heard the Bible read aloud, looked fearfully into the sky for "signs and wonders." The Bible tells in several places of devils breaking out of Hell and roaming over the earth. Dante fully believed in this three-story-house idea, and pictures with awful exactness the details, which he gained from the preaching of the priests. Dante was never honored by having his books placed on the "Index." On the contrary, he got his vogue largely through the recommendation of the priests. To them he was a true scientist, for he corroborated their statements.
The Christian Fathers ridiculed the idea of the earth being round, because, if this were so, how could the people on the other side see the Son of Man when He came in the sky? Besides that, if the earth were round and turned on its axis, we would all fall off into space.
The idea that there was an ocean above the earth, in the heavens, was brought forward to show the goodness and wisdom of God. Without this there would be no rain and hence no vegetation, and man would soon perish. In Genesis we read that God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters," And in Psalms, "Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens and ye waters that be above the heavens." Then we hear, "The windows of Heaven were opened." So this thought of the waters above the earth was fully proved, accepted and fixed, and to pray for rain was quite a natural thing.
The English Prayer-Book contained such prayers up to within a very few years ago, and in Eighteen Hundred Eighty-three the Governor of Kansas set apart a day upon which the people were to pray that God would open the windows of Heaven and send them rain. They also prayed to be delivered from grasshoppers, just as in Queen Elizabeth's time the Prayer-Book had this, "From the Turk and the Comet, good Lord deliver us."
In the Sixth Century, Cosmos, one of the Saints, wrote a complete explanation of the phenomena of the heavens. To account for the movement of the sun, he said God had His angels push it across the firmament and put it behind a mountain each night, and the next morning it was brought out on the other side. He met every objection by citations from Job, Genesis, Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes and the New Testament, and wound up with an anathema upon any or all who doubted or questioned in this matter of astronomy.
The whole Christian idea of the Universe was simple, plain and plausible. The child-mind could easily accept it, and when backed up by the Holy Book, written at God's dictation, word for word, infallible and absolutely true in every part, one does not wonder that progress was practically blocked for fourteen hundred years, but the real miracle is that it was not blocked forever.
* * * * * * *
Thousands of years before Christ, the Chinese had mapped the heavens and knew the movements of the planets so well that they correctly prophesied the positions of the various constellations many years in advance. Twenty-five hundred years before our Christian era a Chinese Governor put to death the astronomers Hi and Ho because they had failed to foretell an eclipse, quite according to the excellent Celestial plan of killing the doctor when the patient dies.
Sir William Hamilton points out the fact that the Chinese, five thousand years ago, knew astronomy as well as we do, and that Christian astrology grew out of Chinese astronomy, in an effort to foretell the fortunes of men.
Fear wants to know the future, and astrology and priesthood are synonymous terms, since the business of the priest has always been to prophesy, a profession he has not yet discarded. Their prophecies are at present innocuous and lightly heeded. They preach that perfect faith will move a mountain, but energetic railroad-builders of today find it quicker and cheaper to tunnel.
* * * * * * *
A certain type of man accepts a certain theory.
The Christian view of creation was practically the conception of the Greeks before Thales. This wise man, in the Sixth Century before Christ, taught that the earth was round, and that certain stars were also worlds. He showed that the earth was round and proved it by the disappearance of the ship as it sailed away. He located the earth, moon and sun so perfectly that he prophesied an eclipse, and when it took place it so terrified the Medes and the Lydians, who were in battle with each other, that they threw down their arms and made peace. Thales had explained that Atlas carried the world on his shoulder, but he didn't explain what Atlas stood upon.
Pythagoras, one of the pupils of Thales, following the idea still further, showed that the moon derived its light from the sun; that the earth was a globe and turned daily on its axis.
He held that the sun was the center of the universe and that the planets revolved around it. Anaxagoras followed a few years later than Pythagoras, and became convinced that the sun was merely a ball of fire and therefore should not be worshiped; that it follows a natural law, that nothing ever happens by chance, and that to pray for rain is absurd.
For his honesty in expressing what he thought was truth, the priests of Athens had Anaxagoras and his family exiled to perpetual banishment from Athens and all of his books were burned.
Plato touched on Astronomy, for he touches on everything, and fully believed that the earth was round.
His pupil, Aristotle, taught all that Anaxagoras taught, and if he also had not been exiled, but had been free to study, investigate and express himself, he would have come very close to the truth.
Hipparchus, a hundred years after Aristotle, calculated the length of the year to within six minutes, discovered the precession of equinoxes and counted all the stars he could see, making a map of them.
Seventy years after Christ, Ptolemy, a Greco-Egyptian, but not of the royal line of Ptolemies, published his great book, "The Almagest." For over fourteen centuries it was the textbook for the best astronomers.
It taught that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun and the planets revolve around it. There were many absurdities, however, that had to be explained, and the priests practically rejected the whole book as "pagan" and taught an astronomy of their own, founded entirely upon the Bible. They wanted an explanation that would be accepted by the common people.
This astronomy was not designed to be very scientific, exact or truthful--all they asked was, "Is it plausible?" Expediency, to theology, has always been much more important than truth.
"Besides," said Saint Basil, "what boots it concerning all this conjecture about the stars, since the earth is soon to come to an end, as is shown by our Holy Scriptures, and man's business is to prepare his soul for eternity?"
This was the general attitude of the Church--exact truth was a matter of indifference. And if Science tended to unseat men's faith in the Bible, and in God's most holy religion, then so much the worse for Science.
It will thus plainly be seen why the Church felt compelled to fight Science--the very life of the Church was at stake.
The Church was the vital thing--not truth. If truth could be taught without unseating faith, why, all right, but anything that made men doubt must be rooted out at any cost. And that is why priests have opposed Science, not that they hate Science less, but that they love the Church more.
From the time of Ptolemy to that of Copernicus--fourteen hundred years--theology practically dictated the learning of the world. And to Copernicus must be given the credit of having really awakened the science of astronomy from her long and peaceful sleep.
* * * * * * *
The little land that we know as Poland has produced some of the finest and most acute intellects the world has ever known.
Tragic and blood-stained is her history, and this tragedy, perhaps, has been a prime factor in the evolution of her men of worth. Poland has been stamped upon and pushed apart; and a persecuted people produce a pride of race that has its outcrop in occasional genius.
Recently we heard of the great Paderewski playing before the Czar, and His Majesty, in a speech meant to be very complimentary, congratulated the company that so great a genius as he was a citizen of Russia.
"Your Majesty, I am not a Russian--I am a Pole!" was the proud reply.
The Czar replied, smiling, "There is no such country as Poland--now there is only Russia!"
And Paderewski replied, "Pardon my hasty remark--you speak but truth." And then he played Chopin's "Funeral March," a dirge not only to the great men of Poland gone, but to Poland herself.
Nicholas Copernicus was born at the quaint old town of Thorn, in Poland, February Nineteen, Fourteen Hundred Seventy-three. The family name was Koppernigk, but Nicholas latinized it when he became of age, and seemingly separated from his immediate kinsmen forever.
His father was a merchant, fairly prosperous, and only in the line of money-making was he ambitious. In the Koppernigks ran a goodly strain of Jewish blood, but a generation before, pressure and expediency seemed to combine, so that the family, as we first see them, were Christians. No soil can grow genius, no seed can produce it--it springs into being in spite of all laws and rules and regulations. "No hovel is safe from it," says Whistler.
The portraits of Copernicus reveal a man of most marked personality: proud, handsome, self-contained, intellectual. The head is massive, eyes full, luminous, wide apart, his nose large and bold, chin strong, the mouth alone revealing a trace of the feminine, as though the man were the child of his mother. This mother had a brother who was a bishop, and the mother's ambition for her boy was that he should eventually follow in the footsteps of this illustrious brother who was known for a hundred miles as a preacher of marked ability.
So we hear of the young man being sent to the University of Cracow, as the preliminary to a great career.
The father bitterly opposed the idea of taking his son out of the practical world of business, and this evidently led to the breach that caused young Nicholas to discard the family name.
That Nicholas did not fully enter into his mother's plans is shown that while at Cracow he devoted himself mostly to medicine. He was so proficient in this that he secured a physician's degree; and having been given leave to practise he revealed his humanity by declining to do so, turning to mathematics with a fine frenzy.
This disposition to drop on a thing, turn loose on it, concentrate, and reduce it to a chaos, is the true distinguishing mark of genius. The difference in men does not lie in the size of their heads, nor in the perfection of their bodies, but in this one sublime ability of concentration--to throw the weight with the blow, live an eternity in an hour--"This one thing I do!"
Copernicus at twenty-one was teaching mathematics at Cracow, and by his extraordinary ability in this one direction had attracted the attention of various learned men. In fact the authorities of the college had grown a bit boastful of their star student, and when visiting dignitaries arrived, young Copernicus was given chalk and blackboard and put through his paces. Problems involving a dozen figures and many fractions were worked out by him with a directness and precision that made him the wonder of that particular part of the world.
The science of trigonometry was invented by Copernicus, and we see that early in his twenties he was well on the heels of it, for he had then arranged a quadrant to measure the height of standing trees, steeples, buildings or mountains. For rest and recreation he painted pictures.
A college professor from Bologna traveling through Cracow met Copernicus, and greatly impressed with his powers, invited him to return with him to Bologna and there give a course of lectures on mathematics.
Copernicus accepted, and at Bologna met the astronomer, Novarra. This meeting was the turning-point of his life. Copernicus was then twenty-three years of age, but in intellect he was a man. He had vowed a year before that he would indulge in no trivial conversation about persons or things--only the great and noble themes should interest him and occupy his attention.
With commonplace or ignorant people he held no converse. He had remarkable beauty of person and great dignity, and his presence at Bologna won immediate respect for him.
Men accept other men at the estimate they place upon themselves.
In listening to lectures by Novarra, he perceived at once how mathematics could be made valuable in calculating the movement of stars.
Novarra taught the Ptolemaic theory of astronomy for the esoteric few. The Church is made up of men, and while priests for the most part are quite content to believe what the Church teaches, yet it has ever been recognized that there was one doctrine for the Few, and another for the Many--the esoteric and the exoteric. The esoteric is an edged tool, and only a very few are fit to handle it. The charge of heresy is only for those who are so foolish as to give out these edged tools to the people. You may talk about anything you want, provided you do not do it; and you may do anything you want, provided you do not talk about it.
The proposition that the earth was flat, had four corners, and the stars were jewels hung in the sky as "signs," and were moved about by angels, was all right for the many, but now and then there were priests who were not content with these child-stories--they wanted truth--and these usually accepted the theories of Ptolemy.
Novarra believed that the earth was a globe; that this globe was the center of the universe, and that around the earth the sun, moon and certain stars revolved. The fixed stars he still regarded as being hung against the firmament, and that this firmament was turned in some mysterious way, en masse.
Copernicus listened silently, but his heart beat fast. He had found something upon which he could exercise his mathematics. He and Novarra sat up all night in the belfry of the cathedral and watched the stars.
They saw that they moved steadily, surely and without caprice. It was all natural, and could be reduced, Copernicus thought, to a mathematical system.
Astrology and astronomy were not then divorced. It was astrology that gave us astronomy. The angel that watched over a star looked after all persons who were born under that star's influence, or else appointed some other angel for the purpose. Every person had a guardian angel to protect him from the evil spirits that occasionally broke out of Hell and came up to earth to tempt men.
Mathematics knows nothing of angels--it only knows what it can prove. Copernicus believed that, if certain stars did move, they moved by some unalterable law of their own. In riding on a boat he observed that the shores seemed to be moving past, and he concluded that a part, at least, of the seeming movements of planets might possibly be caused by the moving of the earth.
In talking with astrologers he perceived that very seldom did they know anything of mathematics. And this ignorance on their part caused him to doubt them entirely.
His faith was in mathematics--the thing that could be proved--and he came to the conclusion that astronomy and mathematics were one thing, and astrology and child-stories another.
He remained at Bologna just long enough to turn the astrologers out of the society of astronomers.
Novarra's lectures on astronomy were given in Latin, and in truth all learning was locked up in this tongue. But astrology and the theological fairy-tales of the people floated free. They were a part of the vagrant hagiology of the roadside preachers, who with lurid imaginations said the things they thought would help carry conviction home and make "believers."
From Bologna Copernicus then moved on to Padua, where he remained two years, teaching and giving lectures. Here he devoted considerable time to chemistry, and on leaving he was honored by being given a degree by the University. Next we find him at Rome, a professor in mathematics and also giving lectures on chemistry. His lectures were not for the populace--they were for the learned few. But they attracted the attention of the best, and were commented upon and quoted by the various other teachers, preachers and lecturers. A daring thinker who expresses himself without reservation states the things that various others know and would like to state if they dared. It is often very convenient when you want a thing said to enclose the matter in quotation-marks. It relieves one from the responsibility of standing sponsor for it, if the hypothesis does not prove popular.
Copernicus was only nineteen years old when Columbus discovered America, but it seems he did not hear of Columbus until he reached Bologna in Fourteen Hundred Ninety-five. At Rome he made various references to Columbus in his lectures; dwelt upon the truth that the earth was a globe; mentioned the obvious fact that in sailing westward Columbus did not sail his ship over the edge of the earth into Hell, as had been prophesied he would.
He also explained that the red sky at sunset was not caused by the reflections from Hell, nor was the sun moved behind a mountain by giant angels at night. Copernicus was a Catholic, as all teachers were, but he had been deceived by the esoteric and the exoteric, and had really thought that the priests and so-called educated men actually desired, for themselves, to know the truth.
At Padua he had learned to read Greek, and had become more or less familiar with Pythagoras, Hipparchus, Aristotle and Plato. He quoted these authors and showed how in some ways they were beyond the present. This was all done in the exuberance of youth, with never a doubt as to the value and the beauty of the Church. But he was thinking more of truth than of the Church, and when a cardinal from the Vatican came to him, and in all kindness cautioned him, and in love explained it was all right for a man to believe what he wished, but to teach others things that were not authorized was a mistake.
Copernicus was abashed and depressed.
He saw then that his lectures had really been for himself--he was endeavoring to make things plain to Copernicus, and the welfare of the Church had been forgotten.
He ceased lecturing for a time, but private pupils came to him, and among them astrologers in disguise, and these went away and told broadcast that Copernicus was teaching that the movements of the stars were not caused by angels, and that "God was being dethroned by a tape-measure and a yardstick." Alchemy had a strong hold upon the popular mind, and these alchemists and astrologers were fortune-tellers and derived a goodly income from the people.
They had their stands in front of all churches and turned in a goodly tithe "for the benefit of the poor."
When the astrologers attacked Copernicus he tried to explain that the heavens were under the reign of natural law, and that so far as he knew there was no direct relationship between the stars and the men upon earth. The answer was, "You yourself foretell the eclipse, and assume to know when a star will be in a certain place a hundred years in advance; now, if you can prophesy about stars, why can't we foretell a man's future?"
Copernicus proudly declined to answer such ignorance, but went on to say that alchemy was a violence to chemistry as much as astrology was to astronomy. In chemistry there were exact results that could be computed by mathematics and foretold; it was likewise so in astronomy.
Copernicus was philosopher enough to know that astrology led to astronomy, and alchemy led to chemistry, but he said all he wished to do was to eliminate error and find the truth, and when we have ascertained the laws of God in reference to these things, we should discard the use of black cats, goggles, peaked hats, red fire and incantations--these things were sacrilege. And the enemy declared that Copernicus was guilty of heresy in saying they were guilty of sacrilege. Moreover, black cats were not as bad as blackboards.
The Pope certainly had no idea of treating Copernicus harshly; in fact, he greatly admired him--but peace was the thing desired. Copernicus was creating a schism, and there was danger that the revenues would be affected. The Pope sent for Copernicus, received him with great honor, blessed him, and suggested that he return at once to his native town of Thorn and there await good news that would come to him soon.
Copernicus was overwhelmed with gratitude--he was in difficulties.
Certain priests had publicly denounced him; others had urged him on to unseemliness in debate; he had stated things he could not prove, even though he knew they were true--but the Pope was his friend! He loved the Church; he felt how necessary it was to the people, and at the last, the desire of his heart was to bless and benefit the world.
He fell on his knees and attempted to kiss the Pope's foot, but the Holy Father offered him his hand instead, smiled on him, stroked his head, and an attendant was ordered to place about his neck a chain of gold with a crucifix that would protect him from all harm. A purse was placed in his hand, and he was sent upon his way relieved, happy--wondering, wondering!
* * * * * * *
When Copernicus reached his native town of Thorn, the local clergy turned out in a procession to greet him, and a solemn service of thanksgiving was held for his safe return home.
Copernicus was only twenty-seven years of age, and what he had done was not quite clear to his uncle, the bishop, and the other dignitaries, but word had come from the secretary of the Pope that he should be honored, and it was all so done, in faith, love and enthusiasm.
Very shortly after this Copernicus was made Canon of the Cathedral at Frauenburg. The town of Frauenburg has now only about twenty-five hundred people, and it certainly was no larger then. The place is slow, sleepy, and quite off the beaten track of travel.
When Canon Copernicus preached now, it was to a dear, stupid lot of old marketwomen and overworked men and mischievous children. Oratory is a collaboration--let him wax eloquent about the precession of the equinoxes, and prate of Plato and Pythagoras if he wished--no one could understand him! Rome is wise--the crystallized experience of centuries is hers. Responsibility tames a man--marriage, political office, churchly preferment--read history and note how these things have dulled the bright blade of revolution and turned the radical into a Presbyterian professor at Princeton, a staunch upholder of the Established Order!
Plato said that Solar Energy found one of its forms of expression in man. Some men are much more highly charged with it than others; your genius is a man who does things. Do not think to dam up the red current of his life--he may die.
Copernicus set to work practising medicine, and gave his services gratis to the poor, who came for many miles to consult him.
He went from house to house and ordered his people to clean up their back yards, to ventilate their houses, to bathe and be decent and orderly. He devised a system of sewerage, and utilized the belfry of his church as a water-tower so as to get a water pressure from the little stream that ran near the town. The remains of this invention are to be seen there in the church-steeple even unto this day.
King Sigismund of Poland had heard of the attacks made by Copernicus upon the alchemists, and sent for him that he might profit by his advice, for it seems that the King, too, had been having experience with alchemists. In their seeking after a way to make gold out of the baser metals they had actually succeeded. At least they said so, and had made the King believe it.
They had shown the King how he could cheapen his coinage one-half, and "it was just as good!" The King could not tell the difference when the coins were new, but alas! when they went beyond the borders of Poland they could only be passed at one-half their face-value; travelers refused to accept them; and even the merchants at home were getting afraid.
Copernicus analyzed some of this money made for the King by his alchemist friends and found a large alloy of tin, copper and zinc. He explained to the King that by mixing the metals they did not change their nature nor value. Gold was gold, and copper was copper--God had made these things and hid them in the earth and men might deceive some men--a part of the time--but there was always a retribution. Debase your currency, and soon it will cease to pass current. No law can long uphold a fictitious value.
The King urged Copernicus to write a book on the subject of coinage.
The permission of the Pope was secured, and the book written. The work is valuable yet, and reveals a deep insight into the heart of things. The man knew political economy, and foretold that a people who debased their currency debased themselves.
"Money is character," he said, "and if you pretend it is one thing, and it turns out to be another, you lose your reputation and your own self-respect. No government can afford to deceive the governed. If the people lose confidence in their rulers, a new government will spring into being, built upon the ruins of the old. Government and commerce are built on confidence."
Then he went on to show that German gold was valuable everywhere, because it was pure; but Polish gold and Russian gold were below par, because the money had been tampered with, and as no secrets could be kept long, the result was the matter exactly equalized itself, save that Russians and Polanders had in a large degree lost their characters through belief in miracles. Copernicus advocated a universal coinage, to be adopted by all civilized nations, and the amount of alloy should be known and plainly stated, and this alloy should simply be the seigniorage, or what was taken out to cover the cost of mintage.
King Sigismund circulated this valuable book by Copernicus among all the courts of Europe, and it need not be stated that the suggestions made by Copernicus have been adopted by civilized nations everywhere.
* * * * * * *
The humdrum duties of a country clergyman did not still the intense longing of Copernicus to know and understand the truth. He visited the sick, closed the eyes of the dying, kept his parish register, but his heart was in mathematics, and so there is shown at Thorn an old church register kept by Copernicus, where, in the back, are great rows of figures put down by the Master as he worked at some astronomical problem. In the upper floor of the barn, back of the old dilapidated farmhouse where he lived for forty years, he cut holes in the roof, and also apertures in the sides of the building, through which he watched the movements of the stars. He lived in practical isolation and exile, for the Church had forbidden him to speak in public except upon themes that the Holy Fathers in their wisdom had authorized. None was to invite him to speak, read his writings or hold converse with him, except on strictly church matters.
Copernicus knew the situation--he was a watched man. For him there was no preferment: he knew too much! As long as he kept near home and did his priestly work, all was well; but a trace of ambition or heresy, and he would be dealt with. The Universities and all prominent Churchmen were secretly ordered to leave Copernicus and his vagaries severely alone. But the stars were his companions--they came out for him nightly and moved in majesty across the sky. "They do me great honor," he said; "I am forbidden to converse with great men, but God has ordered for me a procession." When the whole town slept, Copernicus watched the heavens, and made minute records of his observations. He had brought with him from Rome copies made by himself from the works of the prominent Greek astronomers, and the "Almagest" of Ptolemy he knew by heart.
He digested all that had been written on the subject of astronomy; slowly and patiently he tested every hypothesis with his rude and improvised instruments. "Surely God will not damn me for wanting to know the truth about His glorious works," he used to say.
Emerson once wrote this: "If the stars came out but once in a thousand years, how men would adore!" But before he had written this, Copernicus had said: "To look up at the sky, and behold the wondrous works of God, must make a man bow his head and heart in silence. I have thought and studied, and worked for years, and I know so little--all I can do is to adore when I behold this unfailing regularity, this miraculous balance and perfect adaptation. The majesty of it all humbles me to the dust."
It was ostracism and exile that gave Copernicus the leisure to pursue his studies in quiet, undiverted, undisturbed. He was relieved from financial pinch, having all he needed for his simple, homely wants. The mental distance that separated him from his parishioners made him free, and the order that he should not travel and that none should visit him made him master of his time. There were no interruptions--"God has set me apart," he wrote, "that I may study and make plain His works." But still, that he could not make his discoveries known was a constant, bitter disappointment to him.
In astronomy he found a means of using his mighty mathematical genius for his own pleasure and amusement. The Pope had, in seeking to subdue him, merely supplied the exact conditions he required to do his work--yet neither knew it. So mighty is Destiny: we work for one thing and fail to get it, but in our efforts we find something better.
The simple, hard-working gardeners with whom Copernicus lived, had a reverent awe for the great man; they guessed his worth, but still had suspicions of his sanity. His nightly vigils they took for a sort of religious ecstasy, and a wholesome fear made them quite willing not to do anything that might disturb him.
So passed the days away, and from a light-hearted, ambitious man, Copernicus had grown old and bowed, and nearly blind from constant watching of the stars and writing at night.
But his book, "The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies," was at last complete. For forty years he had worked at it, and for twenty-seven years, he himself says, not a day or a night had passed without his having added something to it.
He felt that he had in this book told the truth. If men wanted to know the facts about the heavens they would find them here. He had approached the subject with no preconceived ideas; he had ever been willing to renounce a theory when he found it wrong. He knew what all other great astronomers had taught, and out of them all he had built a Science of Astronomy that he knew would stand secure.
But what should he do with all this mass of truth he had discovered? It was in his own brain, and it was in the three thousand pages of this book, which had been rewritten five times. In a few years at most, his brain would be stilled in death; and in five minutes, ignorance and malice might reduce the book to ashes, and the forty years' labor of Copernicus--working, dreaming, calculating, weeping, praying--would all go for naught and be but a tale that is told. Others might have lived such lives and known as much as he, and all was lost!
To send the book frankly to Rome and ask the Censor for the privilege to publish it, was out of the question entirely--the request would be refused, the manuscript destroyed, and his own life might be in danger.
To publish it at home without the consent of his Bishop would be equally dangerous. There would be a bonfire of every copy in the public square; for in this volume, all that the priests taught of astronomy had been contradicted and refuted.
And then it occurred to him to send the manuscript to the free city of Nuremberg, the home of science, art and free speech, where men could print what they thought was truth--Nuremberg, the home of Albrecht Durer. With the book he sent a bag of gold, his savings of a lifetime, to pay the expense of printing the volume and putting it before the world.
To better protect himself, Copernicus wrote a preface, dedicating the book to the Pope Paul, thus throwing himself upon the mercy of His Holiness. He would not put the work out anonymously, as his friends in Nuremberg, for his own safety, had advised. And neither would he flee to Nuremberg for protection; he would stay at home--he was too old to travel now--besides, he had forgotten how to talk and act with men of talent.
How would Rome receive the book? He could only guess--he could only guess.
The months went by, and fear, anxiety and suspense had their sway. He was stricken with fever. In his delirium he called aloud, "The book--tell me--they surely have not burned it--you know I wrote no word but truth--oh, how could they burn my book!"
But on May Twenty-third, Fifteen Hundred Forty-three, a messenger came from Nuremberg.
He carried a copy of the printed book--he was admitted to the sick-room, and placed in the hands of the stricken man the volume. A gleam of sanity came to Copernicus. He smiled, and taking the book gazed upon it, stroked its cover as though caressing it, opened it and turned the leaves. Then closing the book and holding it to his heart, he closed his eyes, and sank to sleep, to awake no more.
His body was buried with simple village honors, and laid to rest beneath the floor of the Cathedral where he had so long ministered, side by side with a long line of priests. On the little slab that marked his resting-place no mention was made of the mighty work he had done for truth. There were fears that when the character of his book was known, the grave of Copernicus would not remain undisturbed, and so the inscription on the headstone was simply this: "I ask not the grace accorded to Paul; not that given to Peter; give me only the favor which Thou didst show to the thief on the cross."