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Riley Wilk
Honors 220
An Inconvenient Truth: Heliocentrism and Its Champions
Copernicus is revered in today's society, and rightly so, for his publication of a heliocentric theory that
eventually became widely accepted in the scientific community and served as a vital basis for later
publications by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, among others. However, Copernicus was by no means the
first to propose a heliocentric theory; writings by Archimedes and Plutarch indicate that Aristarchus of
Samos had the idea of a heliocentric model nearly 1800 years earlier but that it never received much
support. A multitude of factors may well have had some impact in distinguishing Copernicus' theories
from previous theories with similar conceptual bases, but with the caveat that the specific details of
Aristarchus' theory are unknown, a few seem likely to have played major roles. This paper will argue
that Copernicus' heliocentric theory was significantly more successful in gaining acceptance than that
of Aristarchus due to a more favorable philosophical environment, increased support from
observational data, and the central role his theories played in later theories, including those of Kepler,
Galileo, and Newton.
It may sound peculiar to claim that Aristarchus faced an unfavorable philosophical environment,
living as he did at a time when Greek culture was flourishing, but the distinction between the Classical
period and the Hellenistic period is vital in this regard. With the ideas of Plato and his pupils having
just established their place in the philosophical foreground, it would be necessarily difficult for anyone
holding opposing views, as Aristarchus did, to have their ideas lent much credence. The traditional
dividing line between the two periods occurs at the death of Alexander, but it is significant to note that
the death of Aristotle occurs only a year later. Aristotle's death also meant, in some sense, his failure;
his claims that planetary motion could be described as a unified and coherent system had borne no fruit
despite his best attempts.1 With this failure of one of the most revered philosophers of the time central
1 Istvan M. Bodnar, “Aristotle's Unwinding Spheres: Three Options and Their Difficulties”, Apeiron: A Journal for
Ancient Philosophy and Science, Vol. 38, No. 4 (December 2005)

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in the philosophical environment, the focus shifted to a refinement of the geocentric model in order to
sufficiently explain the appearances with decreasing regard for philosophical economy or the
fundamental nature of reality, a movement that would eventually produce Ptolemy's Almagest. With
this in mind, Aristarchus' theory was simply out of place; its accuracy was almost irrelevant because it
served no immediate purpose. Aristarchus' theories lacked the practical precision that geocentric
theories had developed and, considering the necessary expansion of the cosmos for the theory to be
reasonable, required several unappealing assumptions for little, in the perception of the time, gain. The
subsequent phenomenological work, notably that of Hipparchus and Ptolemy, also assumed a
geocentric model and reached even greater levels of precision and predictive ability, dooming any
remaining chance the heliocentric theory had of succeeding in that era. Aristarchus' heliocentric theory
may have been intriguing in the Hellenistic environment, but it was not useful, and this alone seemed
liable to relegate it to nothing more than a passing curiosity.
Perhaps the greatest strike against Aristarchus' theory, though, was that it simply did not follow
the rules. It was an answer to Plato's question, but not an acceptable one, because it did not fit with the
ideological axioms of uniform circular geocentric motion. As the geocentric models grew more
complex, they were forced to add various caveats to these rules, but the fundamental assumptions
remained essentially the same. Even Ptolemy, who from a certain perspective disregarded the rules
entirely, based his predictions on geocentrism, ensuring that they would be conveniently accessible.
While Copernicus' theory obviously went against these same rules, it did so in a time when these rules
had been primarily recast as a theological matter as opposed to a philosophical one, with influence
from Aquinas. Thus, the main objections to heliocentrism were on religious grounds, and as the
Protestant Reformation had begun thirty years earlier, the established order was being disrupted, and
Copernicus' works seemed to fit with the spirit of the times. In addition, there was a renewed interest in
resolving the flaws that had persisted in the geocentric model; among other things, the Almagest had

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always failed to properly quantitatively account for differences in planetary brightness, but this had not
been seen as a significant issue until the spirit of the Renaissance demanded that people not simply
accept the flawed world they had been given. As Aristotle's ideas were revived, so was his conviction
that planetary motion followed a unified coherent system. Though the general opinion was still that
geocentricity was not even a question, this worked in some ways to Copernicus' advantage. With
Osiander's unusual sort of help, De Revolutionibus was saddled with the implication, central to its
initial reception, that Copernicus' work was meant merely as a more convenient predictive model and
not as a true theory. Though Copernicus by no means endorsed Osiander's preface, its effects are not
entirely disparate to the sentiment Copernicus expresses through his inclusion of the Letter of Lysis;
part of the reason Copernicus hesitated in publishing his work was that he was wary of disrupting the
Hermetic provision of secrecy and revealing the truth to those who would not understand it. Through
the conceit that Osiander provided, Copernicus ensured that the truth he believed to have been hidden
since Pythagoras would only be revealed to those deserving of it and avoided serious religious
persecution toward either his person or his works. Significantly, even Aristarchus was accused of
heresy by his contemporaries,2 while De Revolutionibus provoked only scattered accusations for the
first six decades after its publication. In this manner, Copernicus had succeeded in one of the most
fundamental ways Aristarchus had failed; to those focused on predictions and accurate modeling as
opposed to the fundamental nature of reality, Aristarchus' model was next to nothing, while Copernicus'
model was extremely useful. Some of the earliest supporters of Copernicus disagreed completely with
his heliocentric hypothesis but studied his model extensively for its practical applications.3 For those
who were interested in the fundamental nature of reality, Copernicus had another unusual ally in the
form of the Hermetic tradition. With renewed interest in the works of the ancients and several
2 William Harris Stahl, “The Greek Heliocentric Theory and its Abandonment”, Transactions and Proceedings of the
American Philological Association, Vol. 76 (1945)
3 J. R. Christianson, “Copernicus and the Lutherans”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 1973)

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noteworthy references to the primacy of the sun in Hermetic writings, the conclusion that
heliocentricity was the ultimate hidden truth of antiquity was an appealing and seemingly logical one.
While Aristarchus faced the unenviable task of claiming to have solved a problem that Plato's views
and Aristotle's own failure had left apparently unsolvable, the philosophical environment was
somewhat more hospitable to Copernicus due to a rekindled confidence in the human imagination and
the ability to know everything.
A second advantage held by Copernicus was that observational data was no longer wholly in
support of geocentrism; some phenomena could more readily be explained as results of heliocentric
motion. Once again, Copernicus was able to draw support for his works from an unusual ally: Ptolemy.
Despite the reverence still given the Almagest, it was becoming increasingly clear that Ptolemy's
masterwork left some things unexplained and others completely unaccounted for. Copernicus was
quick to point out that the cycles of planetary motion Ptolemy used didn't match properly with
observed differences in planetary brightness. In addition, Ptolemy's work contained several notable
coincidences that Copernicus was able to employ in the support of heliocentrism. Perhaps most notably,
Copernicus was able to use the relative sizes of the epicycles of the planets and the fact that each
epicycle had a period of one year to posit that each epicycle could be explained by the motion of Earth
if the other planets were certain distances away. These revised planetary distances also served to
partially mitigate the issue posed by stellar parallax; as the distances so implied were significantly
further than previously predicted, other stars being far enough away so as not to cause observable
stellar parallax seemed much more reasonable. While Aristarchus used the same explanation for the
lack of stellar parallax,4 he didn't have the numbers necessary for the motion of the outer planets to fit
conveniently into such an explanation. While Aristarchus could in theory have drawn on the
Babylonian records that served as the basis of Hipparchus' works, and thus indirectly Ptolemy's,
4 O. Neugebauer, “Archimedes and Aristarchus”, Isis, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Summer 1942)

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Hipparchus had an additional century of Alexandrian observation and decades of personal observation
to draw upon,5 enabling him to describe the motions of the planets with a precision that was likely
impossible for Aristarchus. Therefore, Copernicus was able to use the data provided by Ptolemy's
Almagest in a way that Aristarchus could not, lending further numerical support to his theory.
It is important to note, though, that despite the advantages previously stated, the actual
heliocentric aspect of Copernicus' work was met largely with a wave of indifference upon its
publication.6 This was the downside to Osiander's meddling; while Copernicus' work was highly
influential within certain groups, it was influential only within the mathematical framework that
Osiander had limited it to, and the truth that Copernicus had been so worried about setting free received
little serious attention. While the handful of followers Copernicus initially gathered certainly
outnumber the one known supporter of Aristarchus,5 it seems reasonable to suggest that Copernicus
would likely be little more remembered than Aristarchus if not for those who followed him. This is the
realm in which Copernicus had the greatest advantage; where he had Kepler to provide numerical
support, Galileo to deal several key blows to geocentricism, and Newton to deliver the coup de grâce,
Aristarchus had Hipparchus and Ptolemy to completely dismiss his ideas, with next to no one
questioning Ptolemy's treatment of the subject for the next millennium. It is undoubtedly true that the
works of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton played significant roles in providing support to Copernicus'
theories and leading to the general acceptance of heliocentrism, but it is impossible to know what they
would have been without Copernicus or what he would have been without them. Had Copernicus gone
to his deathbed with his secret sealed, would a passing Archimedean reference be enough for later
thinkers to set the proper gears turning? Perhaps the closest thing to an answer may come from
Copernicus himself; while he clearly knows of Aristarchus and his heliocentric views, as he makes a
5 W. H. Stahl, “The Ancient Greek Astronomers: A Record of Remarkable Ingenuity”, The Classical Journal, Vol. 47, No.
1 (October 1951)
6 James Haden, “Copernicus: And the History of Science”, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (September 1959)

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reference to a portion of The Sand Reckoner only a few pages away from where Aristarchus' views are
noted and mentions Aristarchus three times in other contexts, he intentionally avoids making any
explicit reference to the publishing over a millennium prior of a theory that contains the same essential
basis as his own. While an initial draft of De Revolutionibus contained a sentence referencing the
theories of both Philolaus and Aristarchus, this sentence was struck from the final version.7 The
apparent indication of this is that Copernicus, despite his personal Hermetic leanings, feared being seen
merely as a messenger from antiquity, wanting perhaps deservedly for the developments and
justifications he had included regarding the heliocentric theory to be taken collectively as something
wholly original. The unfortunate consequence of this is that it becomes inevitable that Copernicus owes
some portion of his fame to this suppression, and it is impossible to know how much. The question
remains, then: did Kepler, Galileo, and Newton need Copernican heliocentrism as a basis for their
theories, or did they simply need the kernel of heliocentrism that Aristarchus provided? For this
question is inextricably linked with that of whether Copernicus' eventual success was a result of a wellformulated, extensive, and convincing theory or merely a matter of convenience.
Aristarchus and Copernicus both published heliocentric theories at times when such was nigh
unthinkable. The former gained one known supporter and was for the most part dismissed while the
latter eventually won over the world. While Copernicus had advantages both in philosophical
environment and in the amount of observational data available to him, it wasn't until his theories were
incorporated into those by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton that they began to gain any sort of significant
acceptance. The significance of these later theories clouds the question of whether the heliocentric
theory would have withered into obscurity once again without them or if they were merely the clearest
indications of an inevitable tide of support that would have eventually resulted regardless due to the
particular placement of Copernicus' theories within the wider scope of history. Regardless, though, of
7 Thomas W. Africa, “Copernicus' Relation to Aristarchus and Pythagoras”, Isis, Vol. 52, No. 3 (September 1961)

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whether Copernicus was, so to speak, lucky or good, and regardless of whether Aristarchus was
unlucky or merely unconvincing, both deserve to be lauded for their audacity in championing a theory
that was heretical, went directly counter to the opinions of highly regarded minds such as Aristotle and
Ptolemy, defied all common sense, and just happened to be right.