Monday, September 17, 2012

Kepler and Sir Thomas Browne

There are a surprising number of hitherto undetected connections between the German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to the English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682).

Kepler’s life, like Browne’s, spanned a watershed in scientific thought. Kepler not only advocated  rational inductive science and the astronomical discoveries of Galileo but also augmented his scientific enquiries with Neoplatonic and Pythagorean ideas. Kepler’s astronomical discoveries were as much structured upon precise mathematical calculation as deeply held theological beliefs and God-given revelation; his scientific perspective, not unlike Browne’s own scientific perspective a full half century later, were an admixture of Christian awe of the Creation, precise mathematical analysis and Platonic and Pythagorean concepts of the ancient Greek world.

Listed as once in Sir Thomas Browne’s library is an edition of Kepler’s first published book, Mysterium Cosmographicum (Prague 1596) [1]. Kepler's ‘Mysteries of the Cosmos’ is the direct result of a vision the young mathematician experienced in which he believed God’s geometrical plan of the universe had been revealed to him. In his mystical revelation Kepler discovered the geometric solids as first described by Plato, the tetrahedron (4 sided) cube (6 sided) octahedron (8 sided) dodecahedron (12 sided) and icosahedron (20 sided) could each be uniquely represented by spherical orbs; each solid nesting within and encased in a sphere, would in total produce six layers, corresponding to the six known planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. By ordering the Platonic solids in their correct numerical sequence Kepler also discovered  that the spheres could be placed at intervals which corresponded to his own calculations of the relative size of each planet’s path, as each planet circled the Sun.


Kepler’s great patron was the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552 -1612). During his long reign Rudolph II gathered at his relocated court at Prague, some of the most remarkable figures in the world of art and science. He was a generous patron to artists of the Mannerist school such as Archimboldo, Bartholomeus Spranger and Adrian de Vries, and to the astronomers Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Indeed, Rudolph II's pairing of the observational genius of the Dane Tycho Brahe to the mathematical gifts of Kepler has been considered his major contribution towards the advancement of astronomy.

Kepler’s residence at the court of the Holy Roman emperor from 1600 to 1612 resulted in his naming and dedicating his major work of scientific notation of planetary motion, the Rudulphine Tables, to Emperor Rudolph. Other visitors to the court of the melancholic, alchemy-loving Emperor and connoisseur of the arts include the Elizabethan mathematician and major figure of esotericism, John Dee (1527 -1608)  and the poet Elizabeth Jane Weston.  

The division between astrology and astronomy in Kepler’s day was quite blurred and not as sharply delineated as nowadays. Throughout his life Kepler supplemented his income by regularly publishing calendars which predicted future events from astrology. For the year 1595 he prophesied a particularly cold winter, an attack by the Turks from the south and a peasant uprising: all of which occurred.

Sir Thomas Browne also owned a copy of Kepler’s De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (Prague 1606) [2].

The appearance of a new star in the constellation of the Serpent in 1604 challenged the belief in the fixed immutability of the universe. Kepler in his De stella nova stated in accordance with modern-day astronomical thinking, that the appearance of the new star in the skies proved the universe was variable and changeable and not fixed as previously thought. 

In Kepler's Ad Vitellionem Paraipolomena (Frankfurt 1606) also owned by Browne [3] Kepler discusses optics and introduces the term camera obscura from his reading of the Italian polymath Della Porta, The subject of optics, both in its scientific form and in its metaphysical, allegorical form, was pivotal to much of Browne’s scientific enquiry and literary imagery. Indeed, Kepler’s Ad Vitellionem  along with bearly every major writing on optics, including the 10th century Arabian Muslim scientist and polymath Alhazen's, Opticae Thesaurus (Basle 1572) [4] is listed as once in Browne’s library. 

Significantly, Johannes Kepler is credited with introducing to astrology and astronomy the minor technical aspect known as Quincunx to denote planets which are 150 degrees or 5 zodiac signs apart from each other. In all probability Kepler revived the quincunx from his study and appreciation of Pythagoras. In the ancient Greek world the devotees of Pythagoras swore upon the Tetractys, the sacred number ten, represented by a pyramid of dots. The sum  of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 =10  in Pythagorean numerology symbolized to Pythagoreans, Totality or or completion. The quincunx pattern can be seen at the very heart of the Tetractys  pyramid of dots.
                               .     .
                            .     .    .
                          .    .     .    .

Yet, as the same time as producing his three scientific laws which contributed to Newton’s own scientific discoveries, Kepler also adhered to the Pythagorean concept of ‘the music of the spheres’ in which the orbits of the planets were believed to sound audible musical tones in harmony with each other. A critical belief in the music of the spheres can be found in Browne’s spiritual testament Religio Medici (1643) –

For there is a musicke where-ever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus farre we may maintain the musick of the spheares; for those well ordered motions, and regular paces, though they give no sound unto the eare, yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony. Whatsoever is harmonically composed, delights in harmony; 

But above all else it is in his phantasmagorical discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) that Browne’s close affinity to Keplerian thought can be seen. The subject-matter of each of the three aforementioned books by Kepler and once owned by Browne, namely, astronomy and optics, in conjunction with imparting a mystical insight into the cosmos, epitomize the thematic concerns of The Garden of Cyrus.

In 1611 Kepler published a book on the six-Cornered Snowflake which discusses the reason for the six-angled shape of snow crystals and the forms and symmetries of nature. Browne in The Garden of Cyrus selected the Quincunx pattern from his study of Pythagoras and Kepler to illustrate the ubiquity of the quinary in number, shape,  pattern and form in art and nature. The 'Garden delights' discourse alludes to several other geometric forms, notably the quaternity, but also the hexagon. Crucially, just as in Kepler’s scientific commentaries, The Garden of Cyrus contains many precise and painstakingly detailed observations of nature which are interlaced within a Platonic and Neo-pythagorean vision of the inter-connectedness of the universe. 

But in fact the Quincunx  (pronounced kwin-kungz) is only one of a number of inter-related symbols  Browne utilizes to prove the inter-connection of art, nature and the Universe. Other symbols include the Chi figure of X, the diamond rhombus and the lattice or network pattern. Like Kepler’s astro-Pythagorean and Platonic revelations, Browne’s own revelation of the inter-connectiveness of the Universe in The Garden of Cyrus is structured upon Pythagorean numerology and Neoplatonic  concepts.

It's also in The Garden of Cyrus, that Browne voices once more, as in Religio Medici, a belief shared with Kepler, of the harmony of the spheres, asserting -

Could we satisfy ourselves in the position of the lights above, or discover the wisdom of that order so invariably maintained in the fixed Stars of heaven; Could we have any light, why the stellary part of the first masse, separated into this order, that the Girdle of Orion should ever maintain its line, and the two Starres in Charles’s Wain never leave pointing at the Pole-Star, we might abate the Pythagoricall Musick of the spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan; and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starry Book of Heaven.

In his excellent and highly-recommended book examining the influence of hermetic thought upon the arts and sciences in Rudolph's Court, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II : Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague Peter Marshall summarizes the scientific perspective and achievements of Kepler thus-

"As Einstein made clear, Kepler solved two fundamental problems in astronomy: the true movements of the planets as they would look to an observer on the nearest fixed star and the mathematical laws governing those movements. He also argued that Kepler’s remarks on astrology show that ‘ the inner enemy, conquered and rendered innocuous was not yet completely dead’. Yet, like Einstein, Kepler hated the idea of an accidentally arranged universe. For all his concern for observation and experience and his careful mathematical theorizing, Kepler was never able to free himself entirely from the way of thinking that he had inherited from his ‘masters’ Pythagoras and Plato. His ecstatic discovery of the elliptical orbits of the planets was seen as confirmation of the Music of the Spheres….Kepler could not have developed his cosmology without his Neoplatonic and Pythagorean philosophy. Both Brahe’s and Kepler’s acceptance of the Hermetic philosophy on which their astrology was based was not the ‘inner enemy’ to conquer, as Einstein argued, but the creative and imaginative fountain of their astronomical innovations".

In modern times Kepler has been the subject of an opera by Philp Glass (2009) a novel by John Banville (1981)  and a study by Arthur Koestler (1959/60). 

[1]  1711 Sales Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne's Library edited and with an introduction by J.S.Finch Brill pub. 1986 page  no. 28 Quarto no. 2
[2] Sales Catalogue  page 29 no. 18
[3] S.C.  page 29 no.34
[4] S.C. page 28. no. 13

Recommended reading

The Magic Circle of Rudolf II : Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague – Peter Marshal pub. Walker and Company New York 2006

Wiki-Links -   Kepler - Tetractys

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