Attempts were now made to compromise. It was declared that, while some comets were doubtless supralunar, some must be sublunar. But this admission was no less fatal on another account. During many centuries the theory favoured by the Church had been, as we have seen, that the earth was surrounded by hollow spheres, concentric and transparent, forming a number of glassy strata incasing one another "like the different coatings of an onion," and that each of these in its movement about the earth carries one or more of the heavenly bodies. Some maintained that these spheres were crystal; but Lactantius, and with him various fathers of the Church, spoke of the heavenly vault as made of ice. Now, the admission that comets could move beyond the moon was fatal to this theory, for it sent them crashing through these spheres of ice or crystal, and therefore through the whole sacred fabric of the Ptolemaic theory.[202]

Here we may pause for a moment to note one of the chief differences between scientific and theological reasoning considered in themselves. Kepler's main reasoning as to the existence of a law for cometary movement was right; but his secondary reasoning, that comets move nearly in straight lines, was wrong. His right reasoning was developed by Gassendi in France, by Borelli in Italy, by Hevel and Doerfel in Germany, by Eysat and Bernouilli in Switzerland, by Percy and--most important of all, as regards mathematical demonstration--by Newton in England. The general theory, which was true, they accepted and developed; the secondary theory, which was found untrue, they rejected; and, as a result, both of what they thus accepted and of what they rejected, was evolved the basis of the whole modern cometary theory.

Very different was this from the theological method. As a rule, when there arises a thinker as great in theology as Kepler in science, the whole mass of his conclusions ripens into a dogma. His disciples labour not to test it, but to establish it; and while, in the Catholic Church, it becomes a dogma to be believed or disbelieved under the penalty of damnation, it becomes in the Protestant Church the basis for one more sect.

Various astronomers laboured to develop the truth discovered by Tycho and strengthened by Kepler. Cassini seemed likely to win for Italy the glory of completing the great structure; but he was sadly fettered by Church influences, and was obliged to leave most of the work to others. Early among these was Hevel. He gave reasons for believing that comets move in parabolic curves toward the sun. Then came a man who developed this truth further--Samuel Doerfel; and it is a pleasure to note that he was a clergyman. The comet of 1680, which set Erni in Switzerland, Mather in New England, and so many others in all parts of the world at declaiming, set Doerfel at thinking. Undismayed by the authority of Origen and St. John Chrysostom, the arguments of Luther, Melanchthon, and Zwingli, the outcries of Celich, Heerbrand, and Dieterich, he pondered over the problem in his little Saxon parsonage, until in 1681 he set forth his proofs that comets are heavenly bodies moving in parabolas of which the sun is the focus. Bernouilli arrived at the same conclusion; and, finally, this great series of men and works was closed by the greatest of all, when Newton, in 1686, having taken the data furnished by the comet of 1680, demonstrated that comets are guided in their movements by the same principle that controls the planets in their orbits. Thus was completed the evolution of this new truth in science.

Yet we are not to suppose that these two great series of philosophical and scientific victories cleared the field of all opponents. Declamation and pretended demonstration of the old theologic view were still heard; but the day of complete victory dawned when Halley, after most thorough observation and calculation, recognised the comet of 1682 as one which had already appeared at stated periods, and foretold its return in about seventy-five years; and the battle was fully won when Clairaut, seconded by Lalande and Mme. Lepaute, predicted distinctly the time when the comet would arrive at its perihelion, and this prediction was verified.[204] Then it was that a Roman heathen philosopher was proved more infallible and more directly under Divine inspiration than a Roman Christian pontiff; for the very comet which the traveller finds to-day depicted on the Bay eux tapestry as portending destruction to Harold and the Saxons at the Norman invasion of England, and which was regarded by Pope Calixtus as portending evil to Christendom, was found six centuries later to be, as Seneca had prophesied, a heavenly body obeying the great laws of the universe, and coming at regular periods. Thenceforth the whole ponderous enginery of this superstition, with its proof-texts regarding "signs in the heavens," its theological reasoning to show the moral necessity of cometary warnings, and its ecclesiastical fulminations against the "atheism, godlessness, and infidelity" of scientific investigation, was seen by all thinking men to be as weak against the scientific method as Indian arrows against needle guns. Copernicus, Galileo, Cassini, Doerfel, Newton, Halley, and Clairaut had gained the victory.[204b]

It is instructive to note, even after the main battle was lost, a renewal of the attempt, always seen under like circumstances, to effect a compromise, to establish a "safe science" on grounds pseudo-scientific and pseudo-theologic. Luther, with his strong common sense, had foreshadowed this; Kepler had expressed a willingness to accept it. It was insisted that comets might be heavenly bodies moving in regular orbits, and even obedient to law, and yet be sent as "signs in the heavens." Many good men clung longingly to this phase of the old belief, and in 1770 Semler, professor at Halle, tried to satisfy both sides. He insisted that, while from a scientific point of view comets could not exercise any physical influence upon the world, yet from a religious point of view they could exercise a moral influence as reminders of the Just Judge of the Universe.

So hard was it for good men to give up the doctrine of "signs in the heavens," seemingly based upon Scripture and exercising such a healthful moral tendency! As is always the case after such a defeat, these votaries of "sacred science" exerted the greatest ingenuity in devising statements and arguments to avert the new doctrine. Within our own century the great Catholic champion, Joseph de Maistre, echoed these in declaring his belief that comets are special warnings of evil. So, too, in Protestant England, in 1818, the _Gentleman's Magazine_ stated that under the malign influence of a recent comet "flies became blind and died early in the season," and "the wife of a London shoemaker had four children at a birth." And even as late as 1829 Mr. Forster, an English physician, published a work to prove that comets produce hot summers, cold winters, epidemics, earthquakes, clouds of midges and locusts, and nearly every calamity conceivable. He bore especially upon the fact that the comet of 1665 was coincident with the plague in London, apparently forgetting that the other great cities of England and the Continent were not thus visited; and, in a climax, announces the fact that the comet of 1663 "made all the cats in Westphalia sick."

There still lingered one little cloud-patch of superstition, arising mainly from the supposed fact that comets had really been followed by a marked rise in temperature. Even this poor basis for the belief that they might, after all, affect earthly affairs was swept away, and science won here another victory; for Arago, by thermometric records carefully kept at Paris from 1735 to 1781, proved that comets had produced no effect upon temperature. Among multitudes of similar examples he showed that, in some years when several comets appeared, the temperature was lower than in other years when few or none appeared. In 1737 there were two comets, and the weather was cool; in 1785 there was no comet, and the weather was hot; through the whole fifty years it was shown that comets were sometimes followed by hot weather, sometimes by cool, and that no rule was deducible. The victory of science was complete at every point.[206]

But in this history there was one little exhibition so curious as to be worthy of notice, though its permanent effect upon thought was small. Whiston and Burnet, so devoted to what they considered sacred science, had determined that in some way comets must be instruments of Divine wrath. One of them maintained that the deluge was caused by the tail of a comet striking the earth; the other put forth the theory that comets are places of punishment for the damned--in fact, "flying hells." The theories of Whiston and Burnet found wide acceptance also in Germany, mainly through the all-powerful mediation of Gottsched, so long, from his professor's chair at Leipsic, the dictator of orthodox thought, who not only wrote a brief tractate of his own upon the subject, but furnished a voluminous historical introduction to the more elaborate treatise of Heyn. In this book, which appeared at Leipsic in 1742, the agency of comets in the creation, the flood, and the final destruction of the world is fully proved. Both these theories were, however, soon discredited.

Perhaps the more interesting of them can best be met by another, which, if not fully established, appears much better based--namely, that in 1868 the earth passed directly through the tail of a comet, with no deluge, no sound of any wailings of the damned, with but slight appearances here and there, only to be detected by the keen sight of the meteorological or astronomical observer.

In our own country superstitious ideas regarding comets continued to have some little currency; but their life was short. The tendency shown by Cotton Mather, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, toward acknowledging the victory of science, was completed by the utterances of Winthrop, professor at Harvard, who in 1759 published two lectures on comets, in which he simply and clearly revealed the truth, never scoffing, but reasoning quietly and reverently. In one passage he says: "To be thrown into a panic whenever a comet appears, on account of the ill effects which some few of them might possibly produce, if they were not under proper direction, betrays a weakness unbecoming a reasonable being."

A happy influence in this respect was exercised on both continents by John Wesley. Tenaciously as he had held to the supposed scriptural view in so many other matters of science, in this he allowed his reason to prevail, accepted the demonstrations of Halley, and gloried in them.[207]

The victory was indeed complete. Happily, none of the fears expressed by Conrad Dieterich and Increase Mather were realized. No catastrophe has ensued either to religion or to morals. In the realm of religion the Psalms of David remain no less beautiful, the great utterances of the Hebrew prophets no less powerful; the Sermon on the Mount, "the first commandment, and the second, which is like unto it," the definition of "pure religion and undefiled" by St. James, appeal no less to the deepest things in the human heart. In the realm of morals, too, serviceable as the idea of firebrands thrown by the right hand of an avenging God to scare a naughty world might seem, any competent historian must find that the destruction of the old theological cometary theory was followed by moral improvement rather than by deterioration. We have but to compare the general moral tone of society to-day, wretchedly imperfect as it is, with that existing in the time when this superstition had its strongest hold. We have only to compare the court of Henry VIII with the court of Victoria, the reign of the later Valois and earlier Bourbon princes with the present French Republic, the period of the Medici and Sforzas and Borgias with the period of Leo XIII and Humbert, the monstrous wickedness of the Thirty Years' War with the ennobling patriotism of the Franco-Prussian struggle, and the despotism of the miserable German princelings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the reign of the Emperor William.

The gain is not simply that mankind has arrived at a clearer conception of law in the universe; not merely that thinking men see more clearly that we are part of a system not requiring constant patching and arbitrary interference; but perhaps best of all is the fact that science has cleared away one more series of those dogmas which tend to debase rather than to develop man's whole moral and religious nature. In this emancipation from terror and fanaticism, as in so many other results of scientific thinking, we have a proof of the inspiration of those great words, "THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE."


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The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.