Astronomy: The Cinderella of the Liberal Arts

Ravi Jain reminds us not to forget the Trivium's "humble stepsister."

If the three subjects of the Trivium are the presentable sisters of the liberal arts, astronomy is the humble stepsister (of the Quadrivial clan) who doesn’t get out much. Yet hidden under that maidservant’s garb is the smash of the ball. Astronomy is the oldest of the arts, and one even mentioned by the Hebrew Scriptures. Over the past three hundred years, its method has become the paradigm for nearly all of modern academia. Understanding the spectacular influence of astronomy requires piecing together disparate parts of the puzzle. But after viewing the subject holistically, the conclusion is nearly unavoidable: for better or for worse, astronomy has shaped our contemporary society more than nearly any other liberal art. For, the core of astronomy transmuted to become the heart of modernity. From ancient origins to its present dominance, the liberal art of astronomy holds great favors for those who recognize her.

The Egyptians kept astronomical charts since as early as the 3rd millennium B.C. They observed the stars, planets, and heavenly objects travelling throughout the night sky and kept meticulous records. For thousands of years, a body of knowledge about the regularity of heavenly motion grew, although the charts were chiefly used for astrological purposes. The constancy of the stars and planets fascinated the ancients, and they recognized the extraordinary character and significance of this phenomenon. Most ancient cultures, probably for these reasons, associated the stars and planets with divinity and mythology. The Hebrew Scripture walks an interesting tightrope between these two dynamics. It highlights the regularity of this motion and, in fact, mentions it as a source of knowledge. But it refrains from ascribing the stars and planets divinity. Instead, it suggests that these wonders point to a God even greater than the heavenly bodies which are His creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God; The skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; Night after night they display knowledge.

Psalm 19

Listening through the ages, one might overhear a dazzled Israelite mumble the million- shekel question, “But if the skies are talking, then what are they saying?” Of course they are declaring the glory of God. Yet even today the depth of that glory grows and continues to overwhelm the largest of telescopes. Not only do the heavens declare God’s immensity, but they also declare the genius of His creation. And this Psalm suggests one key to that genius. It lays down a core foundation for both science and astronomy in particular: observing the regular patterns of the created world will lead
to knowledge. It validates the empirical method. Moreover, the knowledge gained will declare God’s glory, as Newton reiterated 2,500 years later.

Let us also consider the more formal beginning of astronomy. The arts of the Quadrivium came to Athens through the Pythagoreans who called them mathemata, or lessons. Plato and Aristotle champion all of what will be known as the Quadrivial arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The Greeks made the most decisive moves to search for that deeper coherence that was displayed in these arts. For the Pythagoreans, Plato’s Academy, and Aristotle’s Lyceum, astronomy looked for mathematical symmetries in the data. They were not content to simply observe the position of the stars and planets as the ancient Egyptians did; they were looking for mathematical implications that those observations necessitated. From the 3rd century B.C., Aristarchus, Hipparchus, and Eratosthenes, among others, made stunning conclusions. Firstly, they all recognized that the earth was spherical and not at as often caricatured, though they proceeded far beyond that. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth to within a very small margin of error using data obtained during the summer solstice and triangulation. Aristarchus also used an early form of trigonometry coupled with measurements during eclipses to ascertain the relative sizes and distances of the earth, moon, and sun. Although his error was greater than Eratosthenes, his method was perfect, and only the inaccuracy of his tools hampered him. Hipparchus developed the trigonometrical methods used in these measurements. Even looking at these three early astronomers, the pattern of the liberal art emerges. Astronomy is concerned with taking observations of the stars and planets and using mathematical reasoning to find the necessary relationships between these observations. The scholarly tradition sometimes refers to this process as “saving the appearances”. It is mathematical empiricism.

Ptolemy, the astronomer from the 2nd century A.D., is the chief exemplar of this process. He wrote the definitive work of astronomy for the ensuing 1400 years. Though popularly known through its Arabacized name, the Almagest, its original name, the Mathematical Collection, emphasizes the intertwining of observation and mathematics in his work. Aristotle is often associated with empirical thinking, but his approach to science and observation wasn’t dominantly quantitative like modern science is. Although not a hindrance in biology, it severely limited his physics as a ustered Galileo points out. Aristotle appealed to experiments to justify his physics, but they were either never done or completed with so little quantitative measurement as to be abjectly wrong. Thus, for the ancients, astronomy was the chief locus of the mixture of mathematical and empirical thinking. Although Archimedes did some applied mathematics, as in engineering, he did not found a liberal art upon his work. But as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo continually point out, when it came to the liberal art of astronomy, Aristotle valued the method of the ancient astronomers and encouraged the pursuit of the mathematical conclusions born out from the observations. These scientists contend that Aristotle would have agreed with them because he upheld their method of mathematical empiricism for astronomy.

If the liberal art of astronomy was, therefore, an empirical mathematical approach to the motions of the heavenly bodies, it was exactly this that birthed the Scientific Revolution and with it an empowered modernity. Newton, standing on the shoulders of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo (the giants), called his groundbreaking work the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In this he unified the principles of celestial motion and terrestrial motion under his three laws by employing his four rules of empirical reasoning and his newly developed calculus.

This work culminates in a paean of praise in the General Scholium, where he lauds God as Lord Omnipotent who alone could so wisely create such a grand universe. Still, with reverent awe, Newton unveils an incredible mathematical structure that God has given to the universe as he explores it through a long tradition of empirical observation. From here, it is a settled matter that modern science for the next couple hundred years is nearly synonymous with Newtonian science. Even the social sciences adopted the model of the hard sciences as their paradigm. Economics, sociology, and political science all rely on observation and mathematics (often statistics) as their fundamental methodology. For these reasons, I contend that the dominant model of the contemporary university, mathematical empiricism, for better or for worse comes from the liberal art of astronomy.

Of course, an inherent critique exists in this story. What about the trajectories of the other liberal arts? As in the tale, when Cinderella was all dressed up she was the hit of the ball. As long as she did not overstay her appointed hour, everybody loved her. The paradigm of astronomy has also occupied center stage for the past three hundred years. But alas, this sister didn’t know how to get o the dance floor in time. It seems that the postmodern reaction to an overly empirical and mathematical approach to all knowledge has turned the coach of Scientism into a pumpkin. Though a war between the humanities and the sciences rages on, even within the hard and so sciences, there is a breakdown. An appropriate understanding and restoration of the other liberal arts will help as the empirical mathematical paradigm of astronomy buckles under the weight of a load it cannot carry. But in order to restore the paradigm properly we must know what it is. Thus, teaching not only the content of astronomy but also its method and its story are critical for understanding the chief headwaters of our contemporary culture. And though she flees the party, looking like a wind-swept village girl, she still has her glass slipper. So if our little star- crossed Cinderella can get home and regain her wits, she may yet marry the prince and live happily ever after. And if so, it will probably be in a castle built by Christian Classicists.

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