Simplicius on astronomy and physics

The following extract is taken from Simplicius's Commentary on Aristotle's Physics. However, it consists almost entirely of writings of Geminus on the scope of astronomy contrasted with that of physics which Simplicius quotes at length:-

Alexander carefully quotes a certain explanation by Geminus taken from his summary of the Meteorologica of Posidonius. Geminus's comment, which is inspired by the views of Aristotle, is as follows:

It is the business of physical inquiry to consider the substance of the heaven and the stars, their force and quality, their coming into being and their destruction, nay, it is in a position even to prove the facts about their size, shape, and arrangement; astronomy, on the other hand, does not attempt to speak of anything of this kind, but proves the arrangement of the heavenly bodies by considerations based on the view that the heaven is a real cosmos, and further, it tells us of the shapes and sizes and distances of the earth, sun, and moon, and of eclipses and conjunctions of the stars, as well as of the quality and extent of their movements.

Accordingly, as it is connected with the investigation of quantity, size, and quality of form or shape, it naturally stood in need, in this way, of arithmetic and geometry. The things, then, of which alone astronomy claims to give an account it is able to establish by means of arithmetic and geometry. Now in many cases the astronomer and the physicist will propose to prove the same point, e.g., that the sun is of great size or that the earth is spherical, but they will not proceed by the same road. The physicist will prove each fact by considerations of essence or substance, of force, of its being better that things should be as they are, or of coming into being and change; the astronomer will prove them by the properties of figures or magnitudes, or by the amount of movement and the time that is appropriate to it.

Again, the physicist will in many cases reach the cause by looking to creative force; but the astronomer, when he proves facts from external conditions, is not qualified to judge of the cause, as when, for instance, he declares the earth or the stars to be spherical; sometimes he does not even desire to ascertain the cause, as when he discourses about an eclipse; at other times he invents by way of hypothesis, and states certain expedients by the assumption of which the phenomena will be saved. For example, why do the sun, the moon, and the planets appear to move irregularly? We may answer that, if we assume that their orbits are eccentric circles or that the stars describe an epicycle, their apparent irregularity will be saved; and it will be necessary to go further and examine in how many different ways it is possible for these phenomena to be brought about, so that we may bring our theory concerning the planets into agreement with that explanation of the causes which follows an admissible method. Hence we actually find a certain person, Heraclides of Pontus [the comment here indicates that Heraclides anticipated Copernicus], coming forward and saying that, even on the assumption that the earth moves in a certain way, while the sun is in a certain way at rest, the apparent irregularity with reference to the sun can be saved.

For it is no part of the business of an astronomer to know what is by nature suited to a position of rest, and what sort of bodies are apt to move, but he introduces hypotheses under which some bodies remain fixed, while others move, and then considers to which hypotheses the phenomena actually observed in the heaven will correspond. But he must go to the physicist for his first principles, namely, that the movements of the stars are simple, uniform, and ordered, and by means of these principles he will then prove that the rhythmic motion of all alike is in circles, some being turned in parallel circles, others in oblique circles.

Such is the account given by Geminus, or Posidonius in Geminus, of the distinction between physics and astronomy, wherein the commentator is inspired by the views of Aristotle.

JOC/EFR August 2006

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