Science and the Renaissance - Vol. 1

By W. P. D. Wightman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD

'PHYSICS investigates and reveals (as far as the mistiness of the human mind permits) the order, qualities and motions of all bodies and kinds of beings in nature, and the causes of the generation and decay and other motions in the elements and in other bodies which arise from the intermingling of the elements.' Thus Philip Melanchthon opens his Initia Doctrinae Physicae--the course of lectures dictated to the students at Wittenberg about the middle of the sixteenth century. The definition is of course based on the Physics of Aristotle. But because Melanchthon is anxious to impress upon the eager young minds committed to his care that the contemplation of nature is a necessary and delightful part of the worship of God (and partly, one suspects, because of his weakness for astrology) the first 'book' is taken up with a general survey of the heavens, without going into such geometrical detail as would be required in the astronomy course. The second 'book' deals with 'that part of physics customarily so called', that is, the part which is concerned with change. For Aristotle 'change' meant permanent change--whether change of form, of substance, or of position. Above the sphere of the moon all the evidence (or what was thought to be all the evidence) points to a state of changelessness--ultimately even of position, which is expressed in the (relatively highly successful) assumption of uniform circular motion. Physics sensu strictu is thus concerned only with the 'inferior bodies', those at the centre of the world indeed but lowest in the hierarchy of values.

It may be wondered why it should be necessary to refer to the course of study at what was at this time almost a Theological College and also to revert to the Aristotelian physics. It would indeed be idle to pretend that Melanchthon and his circle--which it should be recalled included Rheticus and Reinhold--made any significant contribution to the science of physics; but what a con-

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