Monday, November 7, 2011

Mephistopheles, Cosmology, and Doctor Faustus

New post about Marlowe's
"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" each Monday

Last week, I left Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" at a point where John Faustus seemed to be having second thoughts about the deal he made with Mephistopheles. Or, possibly, first thoughts: I get the impression that Faustus hadn't quite realized who and what he was dealing with.

Marlowe had GOOD ANGEL and EVIL ANGEL say a few lines, Faustus waver on the edge of changing his mind: and then start discussing what we'd call cosmology and astrophysics with Mephistopheles:
"...Tell me, are there many heavens above the moon
Are all celestial bodies but one globe,
As is the substance of this centric earth?...
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")

Marlowe, Mephistopheles and a Cozy Little Universe

The discussion that follows isn't factually accurate, if what we've learned in the last four centuries is anywhere close to being right. Even when the play came out, around 1604, the cozy little universe that Faustus and Mephistopheles describe wasn't universally accepted:
"...The first is finish'd in a natural day; The second thus; as Saturn in thirty years; Jupiter in twelve; Mars in four; the Sun, Venus, and Mercury in a year; the Moon in twenty-eight days. Tush, these are freshmen's102 suppositions. But, tell me, hath every sphere a dominion or intelligentia?


"FAUSTUS. How many heavens or spheres are there?

"MEPHIST. Nine; the seven planets, the firmament, and the empyreal heaven...."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Christopher Marlowe might have heard about Nicolaus Copernicus and the idea that Earth went around the Sun. "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" was first printed in 1543: in what is now Germany.

Copernicus said that observed phenomena made more sense if we assume that Earth travels around the Sun, rather than the other way around. It was a very controversial idea. I think we hear more about Galileo, and that's not quite another topic.1

I think it's interesting that Mephistopheles affirms a rather old-school model of the world. Maybe Marlowe hadn't kept up with academic discussions - or didn't think his audience was quite ready for a heliocentric model of the universe:
"...Tell me, are there many heavens above the moon
Are all celestial bodies but one globe,
As is the substance of this centric earth?...
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")

'Bible Astronomy' and Getting a Grip

When I was growing up, about a half-century ago, a remarkable number of folks still seemed convinced that the Sun went around the Earth, not the other way around. "It says so in the Bible."

That's true enough, sort of. 1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalms 93:1, 96:10, and 104:5; and Ecclesiastes 1:5 seem to "prove" that the Earth stands still and stuff turns around it. Casual observation seems to confirm that the Sun, Moon, and stars move: and what we stand on doesn't. Apart from the odd earthquake, of course.

I could, in principle, believe:
  • Bishop Ussher was right
    • The entire universe is just a few thousand years old
  • Earth is the fixed, unmoving center of all creation
    • Optionally, a floating island under a bowl
      • That leaks occasionally
  • Just about all astronomy is a lie
    • Stuff we can't see with just our eyes doesn't exist, like
      • The asteroids
      • Pluto
      • The far side of the Moon
  • NASA is a conspiracy
    • The Apollo program was faked
    • Space probes never reached other planets
I could decide to believe all that, but I'd have to make quite a few assumptions. I've discussed Occam's razor before. It's a whole lot simpler to assume that there isn't some vast, centuries-old, global conspiracy.

Besides, trans-Pacific air service and communications satellites are easier to explain if Keplerian orbital mechanics are basically accurate.

Science, Religion, and All That

Besides, I'm a practicing Catholic. We know what the Bible is; and isn't. We should, anyway:
  1. "Know what the Bible is - and what it isn't. The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation."
(USCCB, "Understanding the Bible")
I've been over this sort of thing before:Despite what you may have read in the papers, or heard elsewhere, religion and science, faith and reason, aren't like cobra and mongoose:
"...'methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.'...." (Gaudium et spes, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

Who Made the World?

The discussion of how the universe is organized was, as Faustus put it, about "trifles." It's the sort of thing we can work out on our own, given time and effort. Besides, the big question isn't how the universe is shaped; it's who and/or what did the shaping:2
"...FAUSTUS. Well, I am answered. Tell me who made the world?

"MEPHIST. I will not.

"FAUSTUS. Sweet Mephistophilis, tell me.

"MEPHIST. Move me not, for I will not tell thee.

"FAUSTUS. Villain, have I not bound thee to tell me any thing?

"MEPHIST. Ay, that is not against our kingdom; but this is. Think
thou on hell, Faustus, for thou art damned.

"FAUSTUS. Think, Faustus, upon God that made the world.

"MEPHIST. Remember this.[Exit.]..."
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Faustus is - finally - thinking. Small wonder that Mephistopheles won't answer that simple question. Faustus is dangerously close, from Mephistopheles' point of view, to realizing that he's made a deal with a fellow-creature: and rejected God, who created them both.3

John Faustus could repent at this point. Which GOOD ANGEL points out - and EVIL ANGEL denies. Then we see new faces onstage: LUCIFER, BELZEBUB, and the SEVEN DEADLY SINS. Not in this post, though. I'm saving that for next time.

God Creates

I suppose God could have decided to create a relatively small universe, put us on a floating island in the middle of it, and arrange for the whole thing to be around 6,000 years old at this point. But everything we've learned over the last several centuries suggests - strongly - that God works on a much, much larger scale.

That's okay with me. God's God, I'm not: and I'm certainly not going to tell the Almighty 'you can't do that.' I've said this before, and probably will again:
  • God is all-powerful
    • But his power is not arbitrary
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 271)
  • Creation is being completed
    • It is "in a state of journeying" toward perfection
      • But isn't there yet
    (Catechism, 302)
"...The sacred books powerfully affirm God's absolute sovereignty over the course of events: 'Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.'..."
(Catechism, 303")
Other posts in this series:
Related posts:
  • Reason
    • " is not opposed to reason."
      (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35)
  • Repentence
    • "Jesus calls to conversion..."
      (Catechism, 1427
    • Two conversion:
      • Water of Baptism
      • Tears of repentance
      (Catechism, 1429)
    • Interior repentance
      (Catechism, 1431-1433 and following)
    • Repentance is possible before death, not after
      (Catechism, 393)
      • Also see Catechism, 2283
  • Science
  • Sin
    • An offense against
      • Reason
      • Truth
      • Right conscience
        (Catechism, 1849)
      • God 1850
    • May
      • Concern mostly
        • God
        • Neighbor
        • Oneself
      • Be
        • Spiritual
        • Carnal
      • Be committed by
        • Thought
        • Word
        • Deed
        • Omission
        (Catechism, 1853)
    • Some sins are more serious than others
      (Catechism, 1854)
    (Not an exhaustive index)
"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:

1 At the time Marlowe's "...Faustus" came out, Galileo Galilei was about 40, teaching at the University of Padua, and had begun research into how the observable universe worked: but wouldn't publish his attack on the notion that the Moon causes tide for several more years.

There are pretty good biographies of Copernicus and Galileo Galilei on the Wikipedia site:2 There's an interesting discussion of secondary causes and getting a grip in the Catechism, starting with:
"And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a 'primitive mode of speech,' but a profound way of recalling God's primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world,165 and so of educating his people to trust in him. The prayer of the Psalms is the great school of this trust.166"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 304)
  • Providence and secondary causes
    (Catechism, 306-308)
    • God and God's creatures
      (Catechism, 306)
    • Free will
      (Catechism, 307)
    • Dependence on God
      (Catechism, 308)
3 I think it's a huge mistake to either pretend Satan doesn't exist: or assume that Satan and Hell are more powerful then they really are:
"The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries—of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature—to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but 'we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.'275"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 395)

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.