Spots Upon the Sun

26 December 2010


One of Galileo's drawings of sunspots.

Galileo not only pointed his telescope at the moon, seeing mountains and their shadows, and at Jupiter, seeing its moons and thus demonstrating that other bodies can be at the center of orbiting satellites, but he also pointed his telescope directly at the sun, and he saw that the sun was not perfectly pure and smooth — achrantos, as it were — but was, in the contrary, blemished by spots on its surface. Like the surface of the moon, that was revealed as something other than a perfect sphere, the surface of the sun, too, was was not a perfect sphere. And even more scandalously, the spots on the sun changed, meaning that the sun was not eternal, permanent, and changeless.

The modern tradition of scientific observation begins with Galileo, who aimed a telescope into the heavens and saw things that had never before been see. Often he saw flaws and imperfections, which at the time were thought to be impossible in celestial bodies.

Why, before Galileo, did people expect heavenly bodies to be perfectly pure and smooth? The answer to this question is complex, and deeply embedded in the whole history of human thought up to the time of Galileo. It is common to cite Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology, which was taken over as the cosmology of the medieval world. But the medieval world did not passively take over the cosmology of classical antiquity; it added elements of its own. By the time of Galileo, medieval Europe had been adding to, rounding out, and extrapolating Aristotelianism in its own peculiar way.

Galileo Galilei, like Socrates, was punished by the powers that be for making men see things they did not want to see.

The medieval cosmology that Galileo inherited was through-and-through both moralized and theological. Heavenly bodies were presumed to have heavenly properties because they were in the heavens. Being high above us and out of reach, the sun, moon, and stars were thought to be not only physically distant but also morally distant from our fallen world. Perhaps if you have read some poetry you have come across terms like “sublunary” and “superlunary.” Behind these now poetic terms is an entire cosmology. Things “below the sphere of the moon” (and therefore sublunary) were believed to be temporal and imperfect, both physically and ontologically, while things “above the sphere of the moon” (and therefore superlunary) were believed to be eternal and perfect, both physically and ontologically. The “sphere of the moon” in Ptolemaic-Aristotelian cosmology was that first and lowest layer of the heavens of a cosmos centered on the earth. Everything beyond this lowest level was elevated and edifying; everything below was tainted by association with a fallen world.

These abstract and schematic conceptions of heavenly bodies could not survive the detail that was rapidly added to our picture of the cosmos once scientific instruments began to be systematically employed to increase our knowledge. Things once believed to be perfectly simple (for was not all perfection also simple?) turned out to be complex; they admitted of detail and nuance. And they changed over time, demonstrating that they are not eternal, but that they are temporal like the things that are found on the earth. The ancient Hermetic formula — as above, so below — that represented everything silly in pre-scientific magical thinking had to be inverted so that we eventually arrived at as below, so above.

That there were spots upon the sun is particularly telling, since the sun was thought to be immaculate, pure, unblemished, without spot — theological language also used to describe the Holy Virgin, Achrantos in the Greek rite, which literally translates as pure or spotless. The sun was essentially understood to be a chaste virgin of the cosmos. Galileo made this conception of the sun untenable, and if it could be shown to be untenable in the case of the sun, it might be shown to be untenable in other cases. Theologians have always been acute logicians, and they immediately saw the implications of Galileo’s position. Galileo, like Einstein and Darwin after him, presented a radical theory in a modest formulation. The institutional church was not fooled, and Galileo was placed under house arrest.

The Sun observed through a telescope with an H-alpha filter.

We now know that the sun is a very complex and changing entity. It has solar storms and sunspots and spicules. The sun has an overall life cycle that can be placed within the overall natural history of the cosmos, and it has stages and cycles within this overall life cycle. The sun is not simple, but has an internal structure that only becomes more complex the more we study it. The sun has churning concentric layers that are always in motion. Though we feel the sun on our faces every day, and therefore have a direct and personal experience of it, the sun is for us no longer a moral being. It is one object among others in the world, like ourselves in this respect.

The sun was not only a moral being for medieval theologians, but also played a moral role in ancient philosophy. In the famous allegory of the cave in the seventh book of Plato’s Republic, Plato uses the sun as a metaphor for The Good. When the philosopher emerges from the cave of shadows, once wrongly taken to be the whole of reality, he is blinded by the brilliance of this world, and most of all he is blinded by the sun. It is the last thing that he can look at after his eyes have adjusted from his long captivity in the cave of shadows. Here is how Plato relates his allegory:

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he said.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he ‘s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Not all in a moment, he said.

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?


Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

For Plato, The Good is the light that illuminates the true world, the world of eternal forms, and while we see (understand) other forms before we can see (understand) The Good, in our maturity of wisdom we come to see that it is the blinding light of The Good that has, all along, illuminated our moral cosmos. Plato was the Ptolemy of moralized cosmology.

In Ptolemaic cosmology human beings on the surface of the earth are privileged observers because they occupy the center of the universe.

We have passed beyond Ptolemaic physical cosmology, but I think that a great many people continue to hang on to the Ptolemaic equivalent of moral cosmology, and in order to see the world right, we need to see the complexity of The Good. That does not mean that we must deny the good, but we must see The Good for what it is — spots, blemishes, and all. And this process is well on its way. Most contemporary literature and film presents us with complex heroes, if not anti-heroes, and we find it more and more difficult to take any black-and-white contrast and good and evil seriously. Literary critics fault Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park because the heroine is always good and always right — a role that Austin does not assign to her other heroines. The Spaghetti Westerns that I recently discussed are well known for presenting morally ambiguous main characters. The “Man with No Name” is a bounty hunter, and therefore serving the law, but he serves the law in a way that is often beyond the bounds of the law. In fact, it was re-watching these Spaghetti Westerns that gave me the idea for this present post.

The anti-heroes of spaghetti westerns give us believable characters with moral complexity.

Both the scientific process of coming to understand the complexity of the sun and the heavens and the moral process of coming to understand human beings as they are and not as we wish them to be are instances of the Hegelian observation that our thought begins in abstraction, and it is only when we begin to fill in out abstract and schematic conceptions that we are able to think about things in concrete detail. It takes time and effort to transcend our initially simple conceptions and to come to grasp the detail and complexity of the world. It takes as much time and effort, if not more, as that attributed by Plato in the allegory of the cave to the philosopher who ascends into the light of The Good, to think concretely, in terms of definite detail and not vague generalization, and to see the world for what it is. As difficult as science is (or can be), coming to a grasp of human nature and the human condition in terms of definite detail is proving to be even more difficult. Ultimately, however, it will be worth the effort.

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2 Responses to “Spots Upon the Sun”

  1. Carey said

    You can definitely see your skills in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

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