Copernicus: scientist or magician?

Atheists and scientists love to cite Copernicus as a hero of science, who used logic and math to triumph over religious superstition. But it’s also possible he was just a sun-worshiping mystic.

Now, let me be absolutely clear: the calculations of Copernicus were meticulous. His hypothesis that the planets moved around a stationary sun, rather than the sun moving around a stationary earth, was an heroic achievement of pure mathematics. It truly did mark the beginning of a great new epoch in human scientific thinking.

Copernicus diagramBut his writing is also very mystical in nature. His actual book, De revolutionibus orbium caelestium, published in 1543, talks about his mathematical discovery as  a revelation of God brought about by contemplation of the world. This isn’t necessarily unusual, since at the time it was common for all scientific thinking to be discussed in somewhat religious tones.

But there is one passage in particular that jumps out as unusual. Just after he introduces the crucial diagram in his book, showing the sun at the center of the orbiting planets, he has this passage describing the idea of the sun being at the center of the system:

In medio vero omnium residet sol. Quis enim in hoc pulcherrimo templo lampadem hanc in alio vel meliori loco poneret, quam unde totum simul possit illuminare? Siquidem non inepte quidam lucernam mundi, alii mentem, alii rectorem vocant. Trimegistus visibilem deum.


In the middle of all, however, resides the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in any other or better place than this, from where it can illuminate the whole universe all at once? Not unjustly, then, some call the sun the lamp of the cosmos, others its mind and others still its governor. Trismegistus calls it a visible god.

Talking about the sun as the “mind” or the “governor” of the cosmos is a little strange, if you are thinking from a purely Christian perspective. That kind of view is more in line with Neoplatonism: a decidedly mystical (and heretical) world-view which really does put the sun center-stage in both a spiritual and even a magical sense. What is more, Trismegistus is a figure in medieval magic and mysticism, often cited as an ancient Egyptian priest and inspiration for many writings on astrology, incantation, spell-casting, and other magical (and heretical) things.

Why is Copernicus talking about Trismegistus?  Is he deliberately thumbing his nose at Christian orthodoxy? Is he simply trying to make his mathematical discovery that the sun is at the center of our planetary system more acceptable to the contemporary “pop culture” of the time by presenting it within this more-or-less well-known cosmological framework?

Or… is the whole reason Copernicus was so emotionally driven to look for proof that the sun was at the center of the system driven by his own emotional belief in the sun’s mysterious and magical powers?

To put it another way:

Did the mathematical proof come first, with the references to the mystical power of the sun and Trismegistus added as explanatory after-thoughts?

Or was Copernicus a sun-worshiper, driven by that mystical passion to explore the mathematical relationships that govern the movements of the heavens?



Like most big historical questions, we will probably never know. Scholars who study this stuff are actually deeply divided on this question.

But I find it most interesting because it tears down one of the popular fantasies that we hear today. The contemporary story on the street about Copernicus is that he was driven by pure facts, pure mathematics, and represented some kind of paragon of a pure scientific soul: willing to stand behind his calculations and data despite the pressures from the church!

Wouldn’t it be ironic, then, if his real motivation was a belief in the magical powers of the sun?


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  1. Helen Pluckrose says:

    Very interesting! Now inspired to read Copernicus! I’ve argued before that the 1540s was the most beautifully confused and eclectic decade! In so many texts of the decade, you could be excused for wondering whether you were reading a Christian or a pagan, let alone where anyone stood on the Reformation or Renaissance humanism. I have a gap where Copernicus should be, I must admit, but looking at that passage alone, I don’t think it necessarily indicates any attempt to antagonise the Church. There was an explosion of publications of Augustine at this time with people using him in the services of Catholicism, Protestantism and Renaissance humanism and this led to an upsurge in & sanctioning of Neoplatonist ideas.

    As you say, reconstructions of Copernicus as a purely scientific, mathematical thinker will be anachronistic. Such divisions between reason and mysticism have been added later. Separating ‘science’ from ‘magic’ would also have been impossible. We see with the benefit of hindsight which is which but this could not be known until it had been tested in any scientific way. People who see Newton, for example, as half rational and half superstitious get it all wrong. He was consistently testing things some of which had worth and some didn’t before this was known and going a long way to make this known! We impose categories that did not exist on this period.

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