The medieval cosmos

The medieval cosmos

We have taken a look at the origins of the universe, and of life on earth, according to contemporary science, elsewhere on the site. The medievals had their own take on things.  While not always accurate by scientific standards, their speculations were always interesting, sometimes enlightening, and while providing few definitive answers they raised questions whose contemplation bestows value, even today.

Medieval cosmology actually often bore a striking resemblance to our own. Robert Grosseteste, writing in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, wrote in his voluminous treatises that God created the universe initially from a dimensionless “form” of matter and light, called the First Form. This First Form instantaneously diffused into a great sphere, drawing out matter with it to form the universe. This early vision of the big bang was a response to the Christian notion of God as the creator, and to the universe having a beginning in time.

Stars and planets

For the medievals, the earth was positioned at the centre of the cosmos, half way between heaven and the underworld. The underworld itself lay at the centre of the earth. The earth existed at a slightly higher level, further from the underworld and slightly closer to heaven. By the earth is meant the surface of the earth. Contrary to popular belief the earth was not thought to be flat in either medieval or ancient times by the vast majority of scientific, philosophical, or clerical figures. The earth was believed to be round, with the world of humans on the surface, and the underworld in the centre.

The earth was orbited by the seven “planets,” in the following order: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The sun and moon were classed as planets and no further planets had yet been discovered. The planets were believed to form perfect circles as they orbited the earth. The planets were conscious. They were permeated by intellect, and contemplated God. The planets, like all things, moved as a result of their desire to draw closer to God.

Not only were the planets conscious beings, they were realms of existence. Entities existed within the planetary planes of consciousness. The early renaissance author Dante depicts the planets as part of the array of heavenly mansions. They were literal dwelling places for the dead, who had lived virtuously, but had still been deficient in some virtue which prevented their ascent to the higher planes of heaven.

God was believed to be the only thing that was perfectly motionless. Hence, being motionless, God was also timeless, as time depends on movement for its existence. All things aspired to be like God. The planets, which were compelled to move as their existence was temporal, moved in perfect circles. Perfectly circular motion was held to be the closest that a moving thing could come to being motionless. And hence the planets moved in order to move towards God. They moved to be more like God. The entire cosmos was animated by the love of God – either in an attempt to draw closer to it, or to move away from it in rejection of it.

Above: Planets were conscious and were moved, literally, by an intellectual love of God. Planets had their own plane of consciousness: they were heavenly abodes, the resting place of those who had lived virtuous lives, but were still lacking in some virtue that prevented ascent to the higher heavenly realms.

The planets not only moved around the earth, but also moved in a circular manner around a fulcrum. This meant that the occasional retrograde movement of planets (their appearance of moving backwards when viewed from the earth), their varying speeds, and their varying brightness, which are caused by elliptical rather than circular orbits, could be explained by medieval astronomers.

Beyond the planets was the “stellatum,” the realm of the “fixed stars.” These stars were fixed because although they were believed to rotate around the earth, they did not also move in smaller circles around a fulcrum, in the manner of the planets. The stars were the beginning of the true celestial realm.

Above: The concentric rings of the medieval cosmos, moving outwards from the earth, through the seven planets, to the stellatum, and beyond into the purely spiritual realms of the angels, and the empyrean of light.

Beyond the stellatum lay the realm of the “first mover,” a kind of lesser god, which orbited the edge of the stars, and beyond that the “unmoved mover,” God himself. The unmoved mover was the uncaused cause of all things. The first mover was the first emanation of the unmoved mover. The planets, stars, and the first mover all moved in order to be more like God, the unmoved mover. They were all, we might say, moved by their love for God. The first mover was more perfect than the planets and stars, and so it moved in a perfect circle more rapidly than the stars did. It moved, in fact, in a perfectly circular motion as rapidly as can be conceived, as this kind of movement was the closest imitation of immovability that the medievals believed possible by a moving thing. Hence the first mover imitated the unmoved mover more perfectly than any other created thing.

The motion of the first mover was so rapid that it was the cause of all other motion in the universe – as if the stars and planets moved in its wake. The movements that the stars and planets made, though reactions to the momentum of the first mover, were still imitations of God, reflecting God in the perfection of their circular orbits. Thus all the bodies in the universe were moved by God, and moved in order to draw closer to God. The unmoved mover “transcended” the created universe, which it is to say it was entirely beyond it, and yet was present throughout and sustained every part of it. The unmoved mover was perfectly still, yet all “moved movers”—all created things that are both moved by and move other things—moved in order to draw closer to it.

In the modern universe, moved movers would include all known molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles, as well as everything that is made from them. All of these things are finite, and rely on other finite things for their existence. Following the Big Bang (or Grosseteste’s First Form) life complexified as matter “evolved” upwards. That is, matter reached towards God, by becoming more like God. A slug might not be much like God, but in comparison to a grain of dust it is considerably more conscious of itself, and therefore made more fully in the image of its creator and sustainer. So matter evolved towards God. At the same time God “involved” or moves “down” into matter: intellect gradually dripped down into matter so that matter became more aware as the universe unfolded. There was no true concept of Darwinian evolution in medieval times, but the hierarchy of beings lined up in order, and in this sense an evolution or upwards orientation was discernible.

Above. Evolutionary and involutionary dynamics in the universe. An evolutionary movement of matter is partnered by an involutionary movement of consciousness.

Space and time meant something very different in medieval times. Space and time were essentially a form of thought. To say that the universe ended at the edge of the stellatum and the spiritual realm began there was just to say that “beyond” the stars there existed a spiritual realm that could not be crossed by any journey through space and time. This was because in the spiritual world space and time broke down, and the reason for this was that space and time were related to a form of thought that exists only on the surface of the mind.

Hence the journey to the spiritual realm was not a journey through the physical universe, but a journey through the mind, as thought evolved from the consciousness that perceived space and time to the consciousness that perceived the infinite and eternal. This journey could be begun in this life and progress made that would make it easier, but could only be completed through death, as its conclusion was ultimately spiritual rather than physical.

Above: Beyond the stars there existed a purely spiritual realm that could not be crossed to by any journey in space and time, only by journeying through the mind. It could be started in this life, but only completed through death.

In this respect, the medieval cosmos is supported by the findings of today’s science in two important ways. The first is that there is a physical edge to the universe, as most physicists now believe, following Einstein, and so the universe is of finite extent. The second is that the world we perceive is actually constructed, and as such the appearance of the world changes as a function of the evolution of thought, as most psychologists, following Piaget, now believe. Where the medieval cosmos went further than mainstream modern understandings of the world was in the acknowledgement that no finite thing, including the universe, could be complete in itself. From this was derived the need for the unmoved mover, on which all created things relied to be complete, and hence relied in order to exist at all.

The inaccuracies of the medievals were perhaps only errors in precision. There is indeed an edge to the universe though it is further than the medievals imagined. They believed the stars to exist 118 million miles from the earth. Though they were right that the distance is vast, this distance is actually far less than has now been shown to be the case. They also believed that the earth existed at the centre of the universe, with the sun, moon, planets and stars orbiting it. Again, this has been shown to be wrong, but the error was an easy one to make, for their view of the universe fitted with all astronomical data available at the time, and their aim in any case was never primarily physical accuracy, but to establish a basis for spiritual orientation, and this they achieved in a way that mainstream modern Western academia has singularly failed.

Animals, humans and angels

The medieval cosmos was above all else a place of joy. The modern word “ecstasy,” implying a joy in movement, is fitting for it captures the nature of joy that beings in the cosmos knew. The joy of movement lay in the fact that movement drew beings closer to God. Indeed, this movement towards God was inevitable. All things moved only to move towards God. Unmoved himself, God already was what all apart from he aspired to. Being unmoving, he achieved eternity, to which all  things in the world of time aspired.

Humans, like all other things, moved towards God as they moved through time. Marriage was a sacrament. A sacred relationship. A unification of souls. A partnership through which each would discover more deeply their own divine nature. The stages of life represented a journey towards the other world, which could be fully made only through death, when the strings that tied the mind to the physical world were cut completely. We recall that the heavens existed not in ordinary space and time, but in a spiritual dimension that could not be reached by any length of journey through conventional space and time.

The cosmic dream of the Hindus was mirrored in the West by the imagery of the universe as a festival or pageant. It was a place of enjoyment, of music, and of self-discovery. Situated within the mystery of being, the human mind was both open to the divine and aware of its active participation in divinity.

Above: Like all things, human beings moved towards God. Marriage was sacred, and as such a vehicle of such movement, as were other rites of passage and life stages.

This was a world of chivalry, service, and adventure. Through each action the individual drew closer to God or closer to the devil. The daily choices of the individual were represented in the mystery plays, in which an angel and a demon followed the protagonist around the stage, the one bidding him towards good, the other towards evil. The world was a battle between light and dark. The demons existed along with the angels, only fractionally beyond the ordinary surface of the mind and therefore only fractionally beyond the world, and from there exerted all manner of influences. The demons were fallen angels, fallen through their choice to pull against the momentum of the universe, to attempt to move contrary to its orientation towards God. Demons were therefore associated with the unnatural and with disorder.

In the realm of plants and animals, the more noble animals, such as mammals, which naturally associated with humans, held their heads higher as they reached for God more convincingly, while reptiles, who disassociated from humans, were prone to crawl and slither with their head lying low. Even stationary objects, such as trees and flowers, it was noted, grew naturally upwards towards the heavens, when they were healthy.

The Western medieval world accepted sophisticated Pagan views of God such as Aristotle’s, but with an essential refinement. For Aristotle, God was capable of only mental activity. Aristotle’s God existed as pure thought. For Aristotle, God thought on the idea of himself, for such a lofty idea was the only befitting idea for God to have. God, in effect, spent his time in self-contemplation. He spent his time perceiving himself. God was the unity of pure being and pure consciousness. The Eastern sages refined this definition a little by adding the concept of ananda, meaning bliss. Thus in the East, the concept of God was “sat-chit-ananda” meaning “existence-consciousness-bliss.”

But in the West, by medieval times, a far greater religious revolution had occurred: Christianity brought with it the personal God. The God who not only incarnated as a person, but who was intimately involved with each individual person as well. Aristotle’s God could not know its creation, it could only sustain it, for the only thing it could know was itself. But Christianity brought forth the revolution of the personal God: as humans were made in the image of God, they were, in effect, versions of God. The personal quality of the individual was included in God, though God was not limited to merely individuality but encompassed totality as well. Hence, God the “father” could know his “children.”

Above: The Christian cosmos was differentiated from Aristotle’s cosmos as God had a personal aspect, and as such we could know God personally. In fact, God incarnated in human consciousness as an act of love to aid the world. And who in their right mind would believe that? Probably no one, if not for the overwhelming historical evidence for the resurrection, which gave unique authority to Christian teaching.

The highest beings were purely minds, as an inversion of the solely physical nature of the lowest entities. A great array of beings existed between the entirely physical and the entirely mental. Plants were closer to God than rocks. Animals closer than plants. Humans closer than animals. Humans were composed rather equally of the mental and of the physical. The more refined humans, who lived more fully in the mental and less in the physical, were closer to God than other humans.

Above them dwelt the angels and other heavenly beings which were also arranged in order. The lowest of them, ordinary angels, were somewhat physical, but their physicality was not the ordinary material of the earth, it was a more refined physical substance not found on earth. Next came archangels, more refined still than ordinary angels. Then cherubim: extremely refined beings, which were often depicted with childlike features due to their distance from the concerns of the world. Then came seraphim, the highest of the angels: in renaissance art the seraphim were depicted as looking totally away from the earth and only towards God. All of these beings, and finally the first mover itself, were involved in sustaining cosmic processes which ran up and down the “chain of being” that stretched the length of created things from the earth to the heavens. God alone, the unmoved mover, was beyond any finite part of causation: totally transcendent yet completely immanent, the unmoved mover was the infinite and eternal substance on which all causes relied — beyond the casual chain, every part of the chain at once, yet itself uncaused.

The heavenly host was not situated “up in the air.” In fact, space and time faded out where the heavenly host began. Space and time being a product of thought, they were only fully present where thought was fully present, and angels did not think in the same way as humans. Angels thoughts were perfect ideas. They were fully intuitive beings: ideas occurred to them fully formed in a single and complete crystallization, in the same way that flashes of spiritual illumination often filter into the human mind during contemplative prayer or meditation.

The medieval cosmos became synthesised with the Pagan cosmos. The Christian revelation fitted into it. The two complimented one another. But the Christian cosmos differed from the cosmos of Aristotle in one important respect. Aristotle held that the universe had always existed. This is in direct contrast to the Christian account, in which the universe is created, and lead to theories such as Grosseteste’s with which we began. The Christian view is the one currently born out through science. The Pagan gods were still given some jurisdiction. The medieval cosmos of Christianity blended with the planetary beings which were held to influence human psychology through their proximity to the earth. The Pagan gods were acknowledged as existing, but as finite and created beings, relying on the unmoved mover for their existence.

The medieval cosmos both explained and predicted nearly all of the observable features of the universe. The complex spinning path that the planets were believed to hold as they orbited meant that retrograde motion and varying speeds could be accounted for. The medieval cosmos was a scientific theory based on the evidence available at the time, capable of both explaining and predicting the motion of heavenly bodies. It was also a theory that was philosophically complete. In implicating the unmoved mover as the logically deduced necessary entity on which all other entities and objects depended, the medieval cosmos was complete in a way that modern atheistic cosmologies stand no chance at all of being.