Sublunary sphere

Last updated

In Aristotelian physics and Greek astronomy, the sublunary sphere is the region of the geocentric cosmos below the Moon, consisting of the four classical elements: earth, water, air, and fire. [1] [2]


The sublunary sphere was the realm of changing nature. Beginning with the Moon, up to the limits of the universe, everything (to classical astronomy) was permanent, regular and unchanging—the region of aether where the planets and stars are located. Only in the sublunary sphere did the powers of physics hold sway. [3]

Evolution of concept

Plato and Aristotle helped to formulate the original theory of a sublunary sphere in antiquity [4] - the idea usually going hand in hand with geocentrism and the concept of a spherical Earth.

Avicenna carried forward into the Middle Ages the Aristotelian idea of generation and corruption being limited to the sublunary sphere. [5] Medieval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas - who charted the division between celestial and sublunary spheres in his work Summa Theologica - also drew on Cicero and Lucan for an awareness of the great frontier between Nature and Sky, sublunary and aetheric spheres. [6] The result for medieval/Renaissance mentalities was a pervasive awareness of the existence, at the Moon, of what C.S. Lewis called 'this "great divide"...from aether to air, from 'heaven' to 'nature', from the realm of gods (or angels) to that of daemons, from the realm of necessity to that of contingence, from the incorruptible to the corruptible"

However, the theories of Copernicus began to challenge the sublunary/aether distinction. In their wake Tycho Brahe's observations of a new star (nova) and of comets in the supposedly unchanging heavens further undermined the Aristotelian view. [7] Thomas Kuhn saw scientists' new ability to see change in the 'incorruptible' heavens as a classic example of the new possibilities opened up by a paradigm shift. [8]

Literary offshoots

Dante envisaged Mt Purgatory as being so high that it reached above the sublunary sphere, so that “These slopes are free from every natural change”. [9]

Samuel Johnson praised Shakespeare's plays as “exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, intermingled”. [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Air is one of the four classical elements in ancient Greek philosophy and in Western alchemy.

Cosmos The universe as a complex and orderly system or entity

The cosmos is the Universe. Using the word cosmos rather than the word universe implies viewing the universe as a complex and orderly system or entity; the opposite of chaos. The cosmos, and our understanding of the reasons for its existence and significance, are studied in cosmology – a very broad discipline covering any scientific, religious, or philosophical contemplation of the cosmos and its nature, or reasons for existing. Religious and philosophical approaches may include in their concepts of the cosmos various spiritual entities or other matters deemed to exist outside our physical universe.

Geocentric model a superseded description of the Universe with Earth at the center

In astronomy, the geocentric model is a superseded description of the Universe with Earth at the center. Under the geocentric model, the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets all orbited Earth. The geocentric model was the predominant description of the cosmos in many ancient civilizations, such as those of Aristotle in Classical Greece and Ptolemy in Roman Egypt.

Aristotelian theology

Aristotelian theology and the scholastic view of God have been influential in Western intellectual history.

The cosmological model of concentricspheres, developed by Eudoxus, Callippus, and Aristotle, employed celestial spheres all centered on the Earth. In this respect, it differed from the epicyclic and eccentric models with multiple centers, which were used by Ptolemy and other mathematical astronomers until the time of Copernicus.

Celestial spheres Term in ancient times for the heavens

The celestial spheres, or celestial orbs, were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and others. In these celestial models, the apparent motions of the fixed stars and planets are accounted for by treating them as embedded in rotating spheres made of an aetherial, transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs. Since it was believed that the fixed stars did not change their positions relative to one another, it was argued that they must be on the surface of a single starry sphere.

Fixed stars Astronomical bodies that appear not to move relative to each other in the night sky

The fixed stars comprise the background of astronomical objects that appear to not move relative to each other in the night sky compared to the foreground of Solar System objects that do. Generally, the fixed stars are taken to include all stars other than the Sun. Nebulae and other deep-sky objects may also be counted among the fixed stars.

Astrology and astronomy

Astrology and astronomy were archaically treated together, and were only gradually separated in Western 17th century philosophy with the rejection of astrology. During the later part of the medieval period, astronomy was treated as the foundation upon which astrology could operate.

<i>On the Heavens</i> work by Aristotle

On the Heavens is Aristotle's chief cosmological treatise: written in 350 BC it contains his astronomical theory and his ideas on the concrete workings of the terrestrial world. It should not be confused with the spurious work On the Universe.

Copernican Revolution 16th to 17th century intellectual revolution

The Copernican Revolution was the paradigm shift from the Ptolemaic model of the heavens, which described the cosmos as having Earth stationary at the center of the universe, to the heliocentric model with the Sun at the center of the Solar System. This revolution consisted of two phases; the first being extremely mathematical in nature and the second phase starting in 1610 with the publication of a pamphlet by Galileo. Beginning with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, contributions to the “revolution” continued until finally ending with Isaac Newton’s work over a century later.

The unmoved mover or prime mover is a concept advanced by Aristotle as a primary cause or "mover" of all the motion in the universe. As is implicit in the name, the unmoved mover moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. In Book 12 of his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the unmoved mover as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: self-contemplation. He equates this concept also with the active intellect. This Aristotelian concept had its roots in cosmological speculations of the earliest Greek pre-Socratic philosophers and became highly influential and widely drawn upon in medieval philosophy and theology. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, elaborated on the unmoved mover in the Quinque viae.

Ancient Greek astronomy Astronomy as practiced in the Hellenistic world of classical antiquity

Greek astronomy is astronomy written in the Greek language in classical antiquity. Greek astronomy is understood to include the ancient Greek, Hellenistic, Greco-Roman, and Late Antiquity eras. It is not limited geographically to Greece or to ethnic Greeks, as the Greek language had become the language of scholarship throughout the Hellenistic world following the conquests of Alexander. This phase of Greek astronomy is also known as Hellenistic astronomy, while the pre-Hellenistic phase is known as Classical Greek astronomy. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, much of the Greek and non-Greek astronomers working in the Greek tradition studied at the Musaeum and the Library of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt.

In classical, medieval, and Renaissance astronomy, the Primum Mobile was the outermost moving sphere in the geocentric model of the universe.

Islamic cosmology is the cosmology of Islamic societies. It is mainly derived from the Qur'an, Hadith, Sunnah, and current Islamic as well as other pre-Islamic sources. The Qur'an itself mentions seven heavens.

Copernican heliocentrism Concept that the Earth rotates around the Sun

Copernican heliocentrism is the name given to the astronomical model developed by Nicolaus Copernicus and published in 1543. This model positioned the Sun near the center of the Universe, motionless, with Earth and the other planets orbiting around it in circular paths, modified by epicycles, and at uniform speeds. The Copernican model displaced the geocentric model of Ptolemy that had prevailed for centuries, which had placed Earth at the center of the Universe. Copernican heliocentrism is often regarded as the launching point to modern astronomy and the Scientific Revolution.

Aristotelian physics is the form of natural science described in the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE). In his work Physics, Aristotle intended to establish general principles of change that govern all natural bodies, both living and inanimate, celestial and terrestrial – including all motion, quantitative change, qualitative change, and substantial change. To Aristotle, 'physics' was a broad field that included subjects that would now be called the philosophy of mind, sensory experience, memory, anatomy and biology. It constitutes the foundation of the thought underlying many of his works.

Dynamics of the celestial spheres

Ancient, medieval and Renaissance astronomers and philosophers developed many different theories about the dynamics of the celestial spheres. They explained the motions of the various nested spheres in terms of the materials of which they were made, external movers such as celestial intelligences, and internal movers such as motive souls or impressed forces. Most of these models were qualitative, although a few of them incorporated quantitative analyses that related speed, motive force and resistance.

History of the center of the Universe universe events since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago

The center of the Universe is a concept that lacks a coherent definition in modern astronomy; according to standard cosmological theories on the shape of the universe, it has no center.

Sphere of fire is the name given in Ptolemaic astronomy to the sphere intervening between, and separating, the Earth and the Moon.

Jacques du Chevreul (1595-1649). Jacques du Chevreul was born in Coutances, France and died in Paris, France. Du Chevreul grew up in an educated household and was the son of a magistrate. In 1616, he received a Master of Arts for studying humanities and philosophy at the University of Paris. Du Chevreul continued education at a higher level and received a Bachelor of Divinity for theology in 1619. He did not start teaching until 1620 where he remained associated with College Harcourt and University of Paris, up until two years before his death when he taught philosophy at the College Royal. Throughout his lifetime Jacques du Chevreul held various teaching and administrative positions including principal and rector. Little is known about his later life. Although he studied subjects such as philosophy, logic, ethics, metaphysics, and physics, he published his two popular books over mathematics. Arithmetica (1622) and Sphaera were both published in Paris, France. Sphaera, du Chevreul's most popular book was about his view of the world and the universe. He used references from the Bible, Aristotle, and Plato to reject the Copernican model and instead created his own eccentric-epicycle geocentric model of the universe. Du Chevreul believed that the earth was the center of the universe, but that the major planets Venus and Mercury orbited around the sun. He theorized that there were wandering and fixed stars in the heavens and there were a total of thirteen planets in his model. The heavens were in the order of the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter surrounded by four Medicean stars, Saturn with two satellites, and above all these levels resided God. Du Chevreul's cosmic scheme is a highly original attempt to resist Copernicanism and accommodate Galieleo's telescopic discoveries in an Aristotelian cosmos.


  1. Aristotle, Ethics (1974) p. 357-8
  2. Stephen Toulmin, Night Sky at Rhodes (1963) p. 38 and p. 78
  3. C. C. Gillespie, The Edge of Objectivity (1960) p. 14
  4. Gillespie, p. 13-5
  5. J. J. E. Garcia, Individuation in Scholasticism (1994) p. 41
  6. W. Hooper, C. S. Lewis (1996) p. 529-31
  7. R. Curley, Scientists and Inventors of the Renaissance (2012) p. 6-8
  8. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) p. 116-7
  9. Dante, Purgatory (1971) p. 235
  10. Samuel Johnson, Selected Writings (Penguin) p. 266

Further reading