I have finished reading a book called The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard. It sets out clearly the cosmology of the Elizabethans - their understanding of the structure of the cosmos we inhabit - and argues that this was a continuation of the same understanding held in the Middle Ages and, in parts anyway, going right back to the Ancient Greeks.
This longstanding cosmology was already being challenged in Elizabethan times by developments in science and as the modern period developed it became untenable. I think it's important to consider how the loss of this older understanding affected the development of Western thought.
So what was this cosmology? First, the "vertical structure" was immensely emphasised. All created things existed in a rank from the most base to the most noble: there was an order to existence from lowest to highest, with an intricate order of "degrees" of existence. This was the "great chain of being" with every aspect of creation being linked to one above it and one below it, with no gaps in the chain. For the whole to function, the links could not be broken, therefore there was an abundance of life in which nothing was superfluous.
The vertical structure was reflected in the architecture of the universe. The sublunary sphere (i.e. below the moon) was the lowest sphere, in which things were mutable and subject to decay. Above the moon were the celestial spheres, a realm made up of pure aether, with a planet embedded in each revolving sphere. Beyond this was the firmament, the sphere of fixed stars, and then beyond this the primum mobile, the outermost moving sphere. Outside all this was the Empyrean, the dwelling place of God.
There was an ascending hierarchy of angels, each associated with one of the spheres. As for man, he had the dignity of bridging the chasm between spirit and matter - a key position in creation and one that gave man a mixed constitution. Man was separated from the beasts by the gift of reason, which was made up of understanding and will. These were corrupted by the Fall, but man nonetheless had the freedom to act according to his higher or lower qualities, i.e. nobly or basely.
When you read about the cosmology you have a sense that it must have been enchanting to have beheld the world this way. At the same time, its loss was necessarily disenchanting. The poet John Donne wrote in 1611 of the impact of the new sciences:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
There is a direct link made here between changes in the cosmology, and a loss not only of coherence but of "relation", including that between people (prince & subject, father & son).
I do not wish to blame the loss of the older cosmology for all that has gone wrong. As it happens, some aspects of the cosmology remained embedded in Western culture for generations afterwards. And there were aspects of the cosmology itself which arguably had the potential to have negative effects. Even so, I think Western culture has struggled to recover from the shock of its loss.
I have quoted these lines from Shelley often, but will do so again as they would not have been possible in the older cosmology:
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains/ Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man/ Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,/ Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king/ Over himself
This was Shelley's ideal of the "New Man" in 1820. It is interesting that Shelley should describe the new man as being "exempt from degree" - directly opposing the vertical structure of the old cosmology. In line with Donne's observations, Shelley's new man is also to be "unclassed" - to not belong to any "kind" of thing which might give form or relation to it. Shelley, it should be remembered, fiercely rejected what he called "detestable distinctions" such as those between men and women.
We now have something remarkably different from the older understanding. Instead of a vertically oriented chain of being we now have a horizontally ordered floating particle society. Instead of an orientation to the noble over the base, we do not distinguish between Thomas Tallis and Cardi B.
And reason has lost its moorings. I am not sure that the Elizabethan understanding of reason was without its flaws, but at least there were limits placed upon the idea of individual reason as an ordering principle of society. Not only were human will and understanding thought to be corrupted, man had a given form and place within the cosmos.
The loss of the older cosmology might have shaken Western culture, but it does not need to be fatal. There is still an argument for an "order of existence". It just needs to be made outside the conceptual framework of the older cosmology.