Thanks to the work of ‘heretics’ the 24-hour day and 365-day year are the accepted clockwork mechanics of our existence. These truisms are now well understood, yet that was not always the case. And for most they have never been the focus of specific thought or have ever been reasoned with. But they — time, days, and dates — have a fascinating tale to tell of and within themselves. In some respect they (not only tell a tale, but) are the tale. By the word tale is not meant a fabrication that has been ‘spun’ to deceive or trick. On the contrary; these tales are the very narrative of life. These at first rather abstract relationships tell the story of who we are, who God is, and who we are in God’s eyes.
Does everything revolve around us – around humans and the earth? Well, yes and no.
Yes — we are the centrepiece of God’s creation.
No – though conceived in classical Greece and most notably by Aristarchus of Samos it was not until the publication by Prussian Nicolaus Copernicus (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) just before his death in 1543 that the notion of the sun rather than the earth at the centre of the universe was given due consideration. Prior to that the intellectual climate of the time remained dominated by Aristotelian philosophy and the corresponding Ptolemaic astronomy. Beyond Copernicus came the likes of Digges, Harriot (England); Bruno and Galileo (Italy); Zuniga (Spain); Stevin (Belgium); and in Germany – Rheticus, Maestlin, Rothmann, and of course Johannes Kepler.
Just 50 years after Copernicus, with their very own advent of more powerful telescopes, Kepler and Galileo offered significant evidence to defend this heliocentric universe model. When Sir Isaac Newton formulated the universal law of gravitation, essentially unifying terrestrial and celestial mechanics, the case was closed.
Between the December’s of 1545 and 1563, under the successive pontificates of Paul III, Pope Julius III, and Pope Pius IV, the Catholic Church’s ecumenical Council of Trent was actively defending itself against the Reformation. It is in this context then that saw chief church censor, Dominican Bartolomeo Spina, dismiss outright the Copernican doctrine. And Spina was duly followed after his death by fellow Dominican, friend and well-known theologian-astronomer, Giovanni Maria Tolosani (Convent of St. Mark, Florence) who declared to be writing against Copernicus “to preserve the truth in defense of the Holy Church”. And inadvertently serving as the prelude to these ‘doctrinal’ events, pre-Copernican Reformist patriarch John Calvin (Commentary on Genesis) had referred to the Biblical Old Testament books of Job (26:7) and Psalms (93:1) to assert that earth was the centre of the universe.
Martin Luther’s collaborator, Philipp Melanchthon — teacher of Ptolemaic astronomy who recommended that his friend, Rheticus, be appointed to the Deanship of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Wittenberg once Rheticus had returned from studying with Copernicus — writing in 1541, had also declared the heliocentric theory as crazy and tantamount to a heresy that should not be tolerated.
Protestants and Catholics alike and of the highest order were lining up to denounce, indeed vilify, Copernicus; chief of whom was Catholic priest Francesco Ingoli, who’s anti-Copernican vitriol won him appointment as consultant to the Congregation of the Index’s decree against Copernicanism in 1616. As with the early church (even that of today’s) during the Renaissance also: why let facts get in the way of a good story; by which to say that two of Ingoli’s issues with Copernicus’ theory were common Catholic beliefs not directly traceable to Scripture – the doctrines that hell is at the center of Earth (and most distant from heaven) and that the earth is motionless.
Most theologian discourse on this matter rested upon the story of the Battle of Gibeon spoken of in the Book of Joshua of the Old Testament (Joshua 10:1-15). At a battle against the army of five Canaanite kings at Gibeon, Joshua asked the sun (and moon) to stand still. And they did. In any event and despite a reluctance to publish on the part of Copernicus, his treatise became well known amongst the educated and indeed was quick to be accepted amongst astrologers of the time. The growing interest in the Copernican theory naturally piqued the interest of Pope Clement VII and his cardinals, resulting in a formal and rather endearing request for “more information” by the Cardinal Nikolaus von Schonberg (Archbishop of Capua). Ultimately, and literally on his death bed, Copernicus dedicates On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres to Pope Paul III and it is put into print. Copernicus was eventually not only embraced, but revered by the Catholic faithful – a black granite tombstone [what the Catholics do best, it seems, is celebrate the dead!] at Frombork Cathedral now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also, as a church canon. Copernicus (together with Johannes Kepler) is honored in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church with a Feast Day on 23 May. If you can’t beat them, join them.
But it was not for some 50 years later, until the time of Galileo Galilei, that the ecumenical battle really got going. Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, Galileo’s achievements include evolutionary improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations that supported Copernicanism. Albeit a genuinely pious Roman Catholic, Galileo defended his views following the Roman Inquisition of 1615 with his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII, alienating the Pope and the Jesuits who hitherto had both been supporters of his. Trial by the Holy Office found him to be extremely “suspect of heresy” and forced to recant while spending the rest of his life under house arrest.
Using Copernican heliocentrism and to the Inquisition’s chagrin, Galileo developed a theory to explain tidal movements; although this theory proved incorrect. Here Kepler correctly incorporated the role of the moon to predict tides and also correctly identified the elliptical (rather than circular) shape of planetary orbits.
As noted, this all came to a head in 1616 and Galileo went to Rome in an attempt to persuade the Catholic hierarchy not to ban Copernicanism. And we know how that played out with the issue of the decree of the Congregation of the Index. In 1623, the Galileo admirer Cardinal Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII and initially permitted the previously banned publication (see above) so long as it did not argue in favour of heliocentrism and that his own views would be put into the publication, albeit under a pseudonym. The pseudonym’s amateur arguments were received with public ridicule and only served to portray the publication as advocating Copernicanism. Pope Urban VIII was irate, calling Galileo to stand before the Roman Inquisition, and on 22 June, 1633 was sentenced to imprisonment; which was then commuted to house arrest with orders to read the seven Penitential Psalms once a week for three years. He was later relieved of this penance by his daughter (after she had obtained church permission to do so).
In time even the likes of the pompous regaled fogeys of the Roman Catholic Church came around. Thanks to Copernicus et al, the source of 24 hours in one day and 365 days in a year are now patently clear, even to papal authority. And man is a working part of this system – not so much connected to it as actually part of it. So the rhythm of man follows the rhythm of nature – a biological rhythm (see Chronobiology).
But the week – unlike the year (one complete revolution of the Earth around the Sun), or the day (one complete rotation of the Earth about its own axis) – has no scientific basis. There is no apparent astronomical event pertaining to a week, much less a week of seven days. Indeed, the number of days in the week has not always been seven in all societies. The early Egyptians had a 10-day week, as did briefly the French Revolutionary Government two hundred years ago. An ancient calendar once used in Lithuania employed a nine-day week, whilst the Mayans of Central America used a complicated system including ‘weeks’ of 13 numbered days and ‘weeks’ of 20 named days. As recently as 1930, the Soviet Union toyed with the idea of a five-day week.
Lo and behold the emerging science of chronobiology discovers the circaseptan (“about weekly”) rhythms. They are it appears very ancient in origin: present in primitive one-celled organisms and even thought to be present in bacteria, the simplest form of life extant. And this inherent rhythm has to do with the internal logic of the body rather than with the external logic of the world.
Liberty is taken here to quote Jeremy Campbell through Kenneth Westby’s The Amazing 7-Day Cycle:
If the seven-day week is an invention of culture and religion, as most historians would have us believe, how do we explain innate circaseptan rhythms in “primitive” algae, rats, plants and face flies? These forms of life have no calendar, can’t read the Torah and don’t know Saturn from Santa Claus.
The Seven-Day Circle, Eviatar Zerubavel plainly states the “continuous seven-day cycle that runs throughout history paying no attention whatsoever to the moon and its phases is a distinctively Jewish invention.
Westby again quotes Campbell:
Inner time structure, in certain of its manifestations, seems to determine outer time structure, rather than the other way round. Rhythms of about seven days arose in living creatures millions of years before the calendar week was invented, and may conceivably be the reason why it was invented. That schedule is a compromise between too much time and too little. A day and a night, which is the dominant frequency in the spectrum of many routine body chores, would not be long enough to complete the complicated array of chemical and other activities that compose the immune defense reaction, and a month would be too long.
♦ ♦ ♦
Books by Jeremy Campbell:
- The Improbable Machine: What the Upheavals in Artificial Intelligence Research Reveal About How the Mind Really Works
- The Liar’s Tale
- The Many Faces of God: Science’s 400-Year Quest for Images of the Divine
- Winston Churchill’s Afternoon Nap
- The Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life
Campbell has also written “The Importance of Time” chapter in The Secrets Our Body Clock Reveal by Susan Perry and Jim Dawson. He is the Washington correspondent for the Evening Standard and lives in Washington, DC.