10a: The Musical Cosmos

Please write up a few comments and post them by Sunday night.  Here are a few suggestions.  Draw up the descriptions of Harmony and/or Astronomy from the Martianus Capella reading.  What sort of physical situation is Sacrobosco describing in his astronomy?  How does it compare to our modern conception?  Think about how Aristotelian matter theory and a NeoPlatonic cosmological architecture might lead to astrology.  Macrobius’ “Commentary on the Dream of Scipio” describes a harmonic cosmos.  What sort of physical situation is Macrobius describing in his astronomy?  Is there some form of physics?  Kinematic?  Dynamic?  Can you imagine any relationships between his harmonic ideas and modern concepts of forces and fields and actions at a distance like gravity and magnitism?  Do the epistemological concepts of Ptolemy still make sense in the modern world?

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17 thoughts on “10a: The Musical Cosmos

  1. The most striking part of reading Sacrobosco’s “Sphere” is the seeming accuracy of it. One of the most common stories told to young Americans in Social Studies class is that Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries thought the world was flat (in 1492, famously). After googling Sacrobosco I learned that he lived a few hundred years before this famous mission. Yet, he makes the case for a spherical earth, and argues it well. The footnotes also state that he is getting his ideas about the shape of the earth from Ptolemy, who came about a thousand years even earlier. Was the belief that the world was flat as widespread as my teachers informed me it was? If Ptolemy’s writings were read widely, what was the argument for the side who thought the world was flat?
    Many of Sacrobosco’s ideas about the world and heavenly bodies (via sources Ptolemy and Aristotle, apparently) are incorrect, but he still argues his points from a scientific perspective, using what he thinks is evidence. It is even more interesting then, when he ends the chapter discussing the miraculous eclipse that took place during the Passion. The overlap between scientific and religious life for so many years presents such a contrast to modern science, and the necessity of facts and experiments. Sacrobosco’s science certainly leaves room for miracles.

    • Indeed, the whole flat-earth myth is pretty odd. People who gave it any thought, knew the earth was a globe. I don’t doubt that there were some flat earthers out there in the Middle Ages, but none of the educated people that I tend to read. [I grant that this is an inherently biased crowd.] Of course, I think that there are still some flat earthers today.
      Your observation that Sacrobosco is explaining astronomy and arguing for some of the finer points in a scientific way is well noted. He explains himself quite well.. perhaps why his book, Sphere, was so popular for several hundred years. In fact, all of you would have read it if you had lived 600 years ago, …and you were rich enough to go to school, and you were all male, and you lived in Europe… alright… most of you would not have read it… but now you have.

  2. I was also intrigued by Sacrobosco’s spherical description of the world. The description why the earth and accompanying sea is round through the use of primitive time zones, the example of a ship sailing off to the horizon, etc.. are all accurate in their simplicity. Furthermore, the calculation of position relative to the stars that Sacrobosco describes by using a sort of early protractor (I imagine the system he is describing to be very similar to our latitude calculations) suggests that Sacrobosco and his peers were adept at measuring the angles and position of celestial objects. With his ability to judge relative positions of celestial objects, it is surprising to me that Sacrobosco never hypothesized that the planets revolved around the sun, not the earth. Given Sacrobosco’s tendency to assume the most simple explanation is the correct one, it seems it would be easier to suggest that the planets revolved around the sun in a near spherical shape than to have to explain the complicated orbits in the geocentric model he describes.

    • Like Sacrobosco, you too made some good celestial observations and his tools. Your instinct on simplicity describes Copernicus. He did what you wanted Sacrobosco to do… he made a heliocentric system based on circles.

  3. I was charmed and impressed by Macrobius. Per Amy’s comment, he seemed stubborn to separate the “how” (science/math) from the “why” (religion, meaning of life). I appreciate this dedication, as ultimate truth necessarily weaves the two together. The same can be said for astrologists, per the Newsome excerpt. I liked the claim that to study the heavens is to study the earth.

    Numerical skill is not innate in me, but Macrobius created a clear image of my head of how solid bodies exist, the concept of the monad, lines, the 6 numerical combinations, etc. The worship of music was interesting to me as well–the assertion that pleasant sounds come from the heavens because everything pleasant comes from the heavens. Again, the numeric nature of music and harmony (the “how”) was argued beside the the “power” of music in human life and harmony (the “why”) which, again, I was charmed by.

    • Numerical skill may not be innate in you, but Macrobius (and Boethius) might argue that you are informed by numbers all the same and that this connects you to the heavens on an extremely basic level. Clearly Plotinus [or similar] is alive and well in Macrobius.

  4. Pythagoras is just The Man when it comes to ratios.

    Macrobius says, charmingly, that the number seven is the key to the universe, and then shortly after elucidates the six ratios that Pythagoras found to be the ratios that gave rise to harmony or pleasing sounds. What he left out was the seventh ratio (or the zeroth ratio, if you will) – 1:1. It may seem obvious, but I think it’s one of if not the most important ratio given everything we’ve been reading about Oneness and Unity.

    The relation of a thing to itself, “identity”, is necessarily harmonious, and I wished Macrobius had explored this. Speaking of harmony as identity, and identity as harmony, this is a beautiful example: the Mandlebrot fractal. A fractal is an object or quantity or pattern that displays self-similarity, in a somewhat technical sense, on all levels. Something about this fractal is just … overwhelmingly complex and simple at the same time.


  5. The descriptions of Harmony and Astronomy made them seem to me like sort of proto-Disney princesses. Maybe this is what little girls used to read and want to grow up to be like, and perhaps it’s a little better than wanting to marry a Prince and live happily ever after? Perhaps not, I don’t know they are mainly described in terms of their outward appearance after all.

    In reading Newsome’s (your) ‘Quadrivium’ paper, I was interested in the discussion of why astronomy and astrology had become popular subjects, and the various reasons for this, such as creating accurate calendars and maps. I didn’t know that astrology was such a highly regarded skill at that time, even in the medical field. I wonder at what point this focus on astrology started to fade out. I know some people today take note of their horoscopes, but in general I feel that astrology has become much less prevalent in society. Is it because we have learned so much more about astronomical phenomena with the development of better technology, and to a certain extent the mystery has been extinguished?

    • I love how Astronomy rides in a spinning sphere… it’s so UFO-like. And Harmony with her Shield of concordant sounds. I find the imagery very powerful.
      Indeed, the connection between astrology and medicine is very strong and fascinating. Why is has largely faded away is a good topic of research. I wonder how statistical analysis might have helped it lose some adherents. Your questions are good ones. Make sure we get them into today’s conversation.

  6. In our readings, I always find it fascinating when they make a false assumption about why x is so, by saying because y is so. It’s cool to see that thought process because those observations usually make sense. For example, when Sacrabosco was explaining that the sun sometimes appear smaller due to vapors creating an illusion like water can do. I was really impressed by their ability to measure the size of the earth by measuring the angles of the stars in relation to a position on earth. Like you said, understanding earth comes largely from understanding what’s going on above and around. I would also imagine it gets more complicated to measure the size of the earth when it would take a while to travel a significant enough distance to see a change. In that time, the yearly placement of the stars would skew the angles… i think?

    These readings made me wonder about a few thing if earlier astronomers could notice paralax at all. How would that change or conform to their conceptions of the design of the universe? Also, when thinking about the ratios of the planets, did they consider that the ratios would always be changing slightly if they believe in epicycles?

    • The size of the earth thing is one of the best bits of science ever. Remind me to wave my hands at it in class.
      I believe that paralax was largely unobserved, except for observations involving the moon. The lack of observable paralax usually was used for arguments of how huge the cosmos is. Galileo uses paralax for some interesting observations on a nova from 1604. He concluded that it was beyond the moon… and this was contrary to Aristotelian theory.
      The epicyclic affects on harmonic ratios were included in Ptolemy’s theory and later in Kepler’s theory. Many of the theoriest inbetween don’t get into enough detail to get that far and seem to base their ratios either on time periods or on the radii of the deferrents carrying the epicycles. Bring this up in class please. All interesting stuff.

  7. I also was interested in the concept of harmony that Macrobius discusses in his commentary – that there is a harmony that comes from music. This ‘music’ that is created from different intervals and proportions that brings a connection between macrocosm and microcosm. Or from the ‘soul’ to the body. I was thinking about the hierarchy of the universe and was trying to figure out where this music would fit in. Since ‘ every soul in this world is allured by musical sounds’ the music is of course greater than the soul then this music comes from cosmic alignments, proportions etc which is what has an influence or force from macrocosm to microcosm and then music is made from numbers? So God>numbers>music>soul>body?
    On another note when thinking about physics (which I do not know too much about) i would say that this ‘music’ can be considered to be a force itself. When thinking about gravity I think that gravity could be explained through ‘music’ that it is a force created from this greater force. I’m not entirely sure how to go forward with this thought but in my mind i’m seeing the motion that comes from the harmonic cosmos leads to other forces.

    • Nice hierarchical system of God to body.
      Music as force. Interesting idea. Gravity, as 1/(r^2) force is mathematically described. The musical concepts of the cosmos also strive for mathematical precision and base their formulae on observed motions… like gravity. Like you, I feel that there is a similarity between the musical cosmos and the more modern gravitationally driven cosmos… something more akin to the methodology or the impetus rather than any one to one correspondence. People were thinking about the cosmos in different languages. The musical language was not so good at getting at the motions perfectly, whereas the later algebraic language was much more accurate.

  8. Sacrobosco’s mediaeval understanding of the universe: it is divided into the elementary region and the etherial region. The elementary region, being that in which we exist, starts with the earth. Then, water, air, and fire arrange in outer shells surrounding the earth. It seems that the etherial space in the universe is finite, comprised of the nine spheres: a combination of the moon, planets, the stars, and the “heavens.” The two movements of the universe are dictated by the poles of the earth, so it seems, and the movements of things on earth.
    I enjoy the reasoning that Sacrobosco makes for the heavens being “round. ” Although referring to a religious description (in which man is created in God’s image), I find it to be a sensible solution for the limited knowledge of the time, especially based on what can be observed: the heavens are round because they bare a likeness to earth, which has no distinguishable beginning or end (in this way, he has indirectly established an “infinite” universe). He goes on to explain that everything is round (the sea, “bulging”) which, in my modern brain, refers somehow to molecular properties that the author has yet to understand.

    I enjoyed the personification of Astronomy and Harmony. I find it interesting that these two have been displayed as beautiful goddesses, women: mysterious and lovely and awe-inspiring. Both have set rules or laws that dictate their existence. For example, Harmony is described as taking perfectly measured steps. I found the description of her sound-producing shield to be the most exciting, imaginative element to her description; an instrument so perfect that it makes everything else sounds dissonant. I suppose this is an even further metaphor for the universe. I know there have been a few philosophers that we’ve read that refer to music matching the rhythm of the universe and how it functions.

    • I like your thoughts on roundness. I used to be bothered with the obsession with circles, but the more I read about them, the more accustomed to circles I become. Perhaps this is how weird ideas become uncritically accepted and can last for millennia.

      Yeah, Harmony’s musical shield is really cool!

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