Introduction to Copernicus's Revolutions II

The year 1973 marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus and to celebrate this event the Polish Academy of Sciences published a 3-volume work of the Complete Works of Nicholas Copernicus. It was published by the Macmillan Press, London, and the Polish Scientific Publishers, Warsaw, and the first volume appeared in 1972. We present the Introduction to Volume II of this publication, an English translation of the Revolutions appearing in 1978, below:


The entire civilized world in a most impressive outburst of gratitude recalled its immense debt to Nicholas Copernicus on the occasion of his five-hundredth birthday in 1973. As its contribution to this global commemoration of the founder of modern astronomy, the Polish Academy of Sciences undertook to publish his Complete Works for the first time. This project is planned as a set of three volumes, each set being presented in one of the six following languages: Latin, Polish, Russian, English, French, German (in cooperation with the appropriate national authorities in the last two cases). Volume I, in its half-dozen versions, has already made available the facsimile of the manuscript of the Revolutions, as that epoch-making masterpiece was written by the hand of Copernicus himself. Volume II, in Latin, has presented a critical edition of the text of the Revolutions, together with an extensive commentary, also in Latin. The five other versions of Volume II translate the Revolutions into modern languages. Of these translations, the Polish has already appeared, and is followed by the present English rendering, with the others expected in due course. Finally, Volume III will contain Copernicus's shorter astronomical treatises as well as his writings on other subjects.

In keeping with the almost universal practice of his age, Copernicus penned his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in Latin. Half a millennium later, the majestic language of ancient Rome is no longer as familiar to the educated public as it was when Columbus crossed the Atlantic and Luther defied the pope. Hence today a faithful translation of Copernicus's treatise into English may be welcomed even by those who have read Cicero and Horace in the original.

Faithfulness need not be absolute down to the last syllable, if such rigidity impedes the modern reader's easy access to Copernicus's meaning. Thus, the sign for equality (=), as is well known, was not invented until after Copernicus's death. Hence, the presence of (=) in a translation of Copernicus is admittedly anachronistic, but it is a useful rather than harmful anachronism. The same may be said for the colon (:) as the symbol for a mathematical ratio. Indeed, the whole array of post-Copernican mathematical notation, wherever applicable, has been unhesitatingly introduced in this new translation of Copernicus's De revolutionibus or, as it may be conveniently called in English, with a view to brevity, the Revolutions.

This new English translation of Copernicus's Revolutions has not followed the earlier rendering by the late Charles Glenn Wallis (Great Books of the Western World, volume 16, Chicago, 1952) in so drastically modernizing the text of Copernicus as to make its resemblance to the original difficult to discern. The painstaking German version by Carl Ludolf Menzzer has been utilized throughout, with full awareness of its shortcomings, beginning with the title itself. For, orbium, the third word in the Latin title of the Revolutions, does not there denote the Weltkörper or cosmic bodies, as Menzzer mistakenly thought, but rather the (imaginary) invisible spheres which moved the visible heavenly bodies, according to the cosmological ideas propounded in Greek antiquity and still accepted by Copernicus and his contemporaries.

These supposititious spheres have of course been banished from the post-Copernican cosmos, as have also many other traditional concepts which Copernicus still regarded as indispensable elements of his world view. The centuries intervening between him and us have so thoroughly obliterated the memory of these obsolete constructs that their very names may be unfamiliar to the modern reader. For this reason, among others, he may welcome an explanatory commentary. This has been compiled from the writings of those scholars who have acquainted themselves most intimately with Copernicus's Revolutions and his minor works.

The long list of these specialists begins with George Joachim Rheticus, whom Copernicus had the good fortune to attract as his only disciple during his lifetime. Later valuable contributors included that great Copernican, Johannes Kepler, and his gifted teacher, Michael Maestlin, who introduced Kepler to Copernicanism. The earliest partial paraphrase of the Revolutions in any modern language came from the pen of Thomas Digges in England, where that tragic knight errant of the new cosmology, Giordano Bruno, also raised his eloquent voice. Another mighty Italian source was the slightly less unfortunate Galileo Galilei. From Holland came Nicholas Muller, the devoted editor of the third edition of the Revolutions (Amsterdam, 1617). Poland's Jan Baranowski lavished loving care on the fourth edition of the Revolutions (Warsaw, 1854). The same may be said for Germany's Maximilian Curtze and the fifth edition (Thorn, 1873), as well as for Menzzer, whose translation was mentioned above; more recently, Ernst Zinner, Fritz Kubach, the brothers Franz Zeller and Karl Zeller, Fritz Rossmann, Hans Schmauch, and Willy Hartner laboured valiantly in the Copernican vineyard. So did Alexandre Koyré in France. In Poland, the team of father and son, Ludwik Antoni Birkenmajer and Aleksander Birkenmajer, published priceless discussions, which have been continued in our own time by Marian Biskup, Jerzy Dobrzycki, Karol Górski, and Jerzy Zathey.

From the labours of these notable predecessors and contemporaries, in particular Aleksander Birkenmajer and Jerzy Dobrzycki in the parallel Latin edition, the present translator and commentator has drawn whatever seemed to be of the greatest possible benefit to the modern reader. Indispensable to this effort has been the photofacsimile of Copernicus's autograph of the Revolutions, as presented in Volume I of this edition of the Complete Works of Nicholas Copernicus. By scrutinizing the changes made by Copernicus in his autograph, the additions and subtractions, the corrections and modifications, the computations and their alterations, it is possible to penetrate, as it were, into the very workings of his mind.

An incontrovertible result of this scrutiny is the abandonment of a conclusion that was long held with regard to the composition of the Revolutions. In his Preface Copernicus said that the Revolutions "apud me pressus non in nonum annum solum, sed iam in quartum novennium latitasset." This expression was often interpreted to mean that Copernicus finished writing the Revolutions thirty-six years before it was printed in 1543, and that he kept the completed manuscript hidden from 1507 on. Nothing could be farther from the truth, since the autograph plainly shows signs of hasty composition toward the end, utilizes a term first available to Copernicus in 1539, and was still being revised (or expanded) in the summer of 1541. This less than perfect condition of the autograph will not surprise those who are familiar with the biography of Copernicus. He was no pampered, leisurely occupant of the penthouse in a comfortable ivory tower. On the contrary, his mature life was spent mostly in the hustle and bustle of an active administrative career, punctuated by the devastation caused by an invading army of fierce warriors. The Revolutions was composed, not in the uninterrupted peace and calm cherished by the contemplative philosopher, but in the driblets of leisure available to a member and occasional official of a harassed Cathedral Chapter concerned with preserving the sources of its income.

In closing this Introduction, I wish to express my boundless gratitude to my collaborator, Erna Hilfstein, without whose unflagging enthusiasm and infinite assiduity this project could never have been carried to completion.

Edward Rosen

Last Updated January 2019