"Darke Starre": Thomas Digges's Perfit Description of The Celestiall Orbes

In The Copernican Revolution, Thomas S. Kuhn, noting that there had been no fundamentally new discoveries or observations in the field of astronomy that led to the development of a radically different theory by Copernicus, wrote that, "[a]ny possible understanding of the Revolution's timing" -- and, hence, of its degree of success prior to empirical evidence -- "must be sought ... within the larger intellectual milieu inhabited by astronomers" (132). As there was no available proof of Copernicus' heliocentric theory until the discovery of stellar parallax, "Copernicus' mathematical system was intrinsically no more accurate than Ptolemy's" (CR 188), and what position one took on the debate necessarily involved more than purely logical evaluation of data. The battle then was partly rhetorical, drawing on other discourses for evaluation: what did heliocentrism mean? What pre-conditions must be in place and what consequences must necessarily follow? The best known debate is that between Galileo and the Church, where it can be said that theology was the nominal basis of rejection.

An excellent example of the effects and interaction of extra-scientific discourse upon and with scientific thought in the period is the case of Elizabethan astronomer and mathematician Thomas Digges and his A Perfit Description of the Caelestiall Orbes. Thomas Digges, though not particularly well known, is recognized as the first person to claim -- at least in print -- that the universe was infinite. But A Perfit Description is not merely an interesting footnote in the history of science. In promoting the Copernican theory and advancing his own particular "Modill of the world," Digges's rhetoric expresses not only the predispositions one would expect from his neoplatonist education, but also his own religious, political and ideological position. In Asronomical Thought in Renaissance England Francis R. Johnson argued that, "The influence of Digges's treatise on contemporary scientific thought can hardly be overestimated" (167). I would agree, but also argue that his decision to publish his treatise in English instead of the typical Latin, (In this he followed the example of Robert Recorde's Castle of Knowledge) and in his own father's popular almanac, gave it influence well beyond the bounds of the scientific community. Further, due to the nature of Digges's argument, A Perfit Description can be read as an epistemological signpost in the evolution of the Elizabethan subject and the early modern self.

Thomas, born circa 1546 -- three years after the publication of De Revolutionibus -- was the son of the scientist Leonard Digges, and after his father's death in 1559 he studied under the eminent mathematician and scientist John Dee. By 1573, at age twenty seven, his own reputation was firmly established with the publication of Alae seu Scalae Mathematicae, which contained his observations of a supernova that had appeared the previous year. In 1576 he took it upon himself to edit the new edition of his deceased father's almanac, A Prognostication everlasting. Digges added A Perfit Description to this edition, which was reprinted at least six times, the last in 1605, rewarding the evangelical fervor of Digges, which is evident in his text.

Copernicus' own text, was not only published in Latin, which would restrict its readership for the most part to those schooled at a university, but it also bore the Platonic caveat "Let no one untrained in geometry enter here" on the title page (XV), and was in fact, "unreadable to all but the most erudite astronomers of his day" (CR 185). Digges was much more accommodating, writing for the "gentle Reader." He still wishes to plead his case before the "Mathematicall barre," and leave final judgement to "the graue Senate of indifferent discreete Mathematicall Readers," but he also offers evidence by way of "familiar and naturall reasons" for "such as are not able with Geometricall eyes to beholde the secrete perfection of Copernicus Theoricke." Much of the focus here will be on what Digges finds familiar and natural.

A brief description of the text is necessary before examining it. While its influence may have been large, the text itself is not. A Perfit Description totals twenty five pages, and the last six of these deal with the compass and cartography. Further, the modern sense of the word "author" does not apply to Digges here. It would be better to say, As Digges does of his Pantometria, that it was "compiled and invented by Thomas Digges, Gentleman." A Perfit Description is in part nothing more than a translation of selected portions of De Revolutionibus. And yet, while Digges credits Copernicus as the author of the new theory, he interweaves his own speculations -- and the speculative poetry of Marcus Palingenius, whom I will discuss in a moment -- into a cosmographical model which would appear to the reader as -- to quote Johnson -- "an integral part of the heliocentric hypothesis." Since the synthesis is Digges's own, I will not take the time here (and it would take a lot) to distinguish between Copernicus' words and Digges's own; Copernicus' description borrows from Hermes Trismegestus, and Digges's borrows from them both, as does Kepler's later on, but phrases -- such as "Ruler of the universe" -- hold different meaning for each man.

We should begin an examination of the text with the illustration that accompanied "The Addition" because even the casual English eye, thumbing through the new edition of Leonard Digges's almanac would have been arrested by it. The legend outside Saturn's orbit reads:


The Calvinist influence is immediately apparent in those last few words. The inscription is a point of intersection between astronomical and theological discourses. Later, Digges argues for infinity in more specifically scientific terms to reply to those who would dismiss the heliocentric system because it puts an end to the apparent motion of the celestial sphere -- beyond which there was supposed to be nothing. He finds it "very strange, that nothing should have such efficient power to restraine some thing, the same having very essence and being," and reminds the reader that "all Philosophers consent that the limited bodyes may have motion, and infinite cannot have any." But in Digges's universe physical infinity is also bound to, perhaps dependent upon, the "endlesse ioye" that exists there. For Digges, the area outside the solar system seems to verify the reality of the scriptural "everlasting heavenly home not made by human hands, in the heavens" found in Corinthians (II Cor 5:1). Everlasting, in this case would signify both a temporal and a spatial infinity.

The four page opening in which Digges gives a preliminary description of this new universe also contains twenty one lines from Zodiacus Vitae, an epic philosophical and visionary poem by Marcellus Palingenius Stellatus which was quite popular in England at the time Digges wrote A Perfit Description. A section of Zodiacus Digges does not quote may have inspired his own notion of the stars as "habitacle for the elect. (Digges quoted him in Latin, but I'll give the English translation for convenience and fun.)

For creatures doth the Skies containe, and euery Starre beside

Be heauenly townes & seates of saincts, where Kings & Commons bide,

But perfect Kings and people eke, all things are perfect there: (218)

Palingenius was an Italian poet (Pier Angelo Manzolli?) who managed to die quietly before his book (probably published in the early 1530's) inspired the Catholic Church to burn his heretical bones in 1558. This may have enhanced his popularity in Protestant England. Digges never names him, referring only to "the Christian Poet" and the "Stellified Poet." The poem itself is divided into twelve books, each named after a sign of the zodiac, and Digges is said to have learned "bie hart" the eleventh book, "Aquarius," which deals with astronomical matters more than any other. In England the book was published in Latin and in an English translation by Barnabe Googe (ten editions in all). Though Zodiacus Vitae predates De Revolutionibus there is no uncritical acceptance of the Ptolemaic or Aristotelian view, and at various points Palingenius expresses views -- on predestination for example, or his admiration of mathematical simplicity and harmony -- with which Digges was clearly in sympathy. Palingenius also suggested that the stars were not all of equal size and that there might be stars not visible to the eye due to their distance. Digges develops this idea in his own text, speaking of

... that fixed Orbe garnished with lights innumerable, and reaching up in Spherical Altitude, without ende. Of which lights Celestiall it is to be thought, that we onely beholde such as are in the inferiour parts of the same Orbe: and as they are higher, so seeme they of lesse and lesser quantitie, even till our sight, being not able farther to reach or conceyue the greatest part of the rest, by reason of their wonderful distance inuisible to us. And this may well be thought of us to bee the glorious Court of the great God, whose unsearchable workes inuisible we may partly by these his visible, coniecture: to whose infinite power and Maiestie, such an infinite place surmounting all other both in quantity and quality onely is conuenient.

The stars in heaven then, like the works of God on earth, are only partially revealed. The gift of reason is what allows an inductive faith in each. Elsewhere Digges opposes the "sences" "which many wayes may bee abused," to the "Rule of Reason, which the great God hath given us as a lamp to lighten the darknes of our understanding and the perfect guide to lead us to the golden braunch of Veritie amidde the Forrest of errours." This belief in the power of reason is not only a motive for questioning not only the unconditional authority of received opinion on the motion of the planets, it bears a relationship to the contemporary questioning of the authority of clergy in interpreting the Bible.

But there is a contradiction in Digges's concept of the universe, which as a mathematician he is curiously blind to. Kuhn writes that Digges, "achieved infinity only by the unconscious introduction of a paradox which, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, had provided a principal reason for rejecting infinite space. Digges's unique "central sun" is . . . no more at the center than each one of the stars and planets." Simply put, infinity can have no "center." That Digges has preserved such a center and provided an infinite universe with a finite concavity is significant. For Digges, the sun stands at the center and, "like a king in the middest of all raygneth and giueth lawes of motion to the rest." It is the "visible" power, a power that without a Newtonian physics, seems derived purely from its spectacular nature. Digges reiterates this political analogy elsewhere: "Thus doth the Sun like a King sitting in his throne, gouerne his Courtes of inferior powers." To the Tudor subject, this would certainly seem "familliar and natural." The source of Elizabethan power has generally been recognized as residing primarily in its visibility, its brilliant shows of state, in the "sun-like majesty" of Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth. As Elizabeth said, "We princes are set on stages in the sight and view of the world." There is also an element of reciprocity, a mutual gazing in this, whereby the sun is the source of the ability to gaze, placed where it can see all as well as where all can see it. The sun sits in the middle of the planets because there is no "better or more conuenient place then this, from whence vniformely it might distribute light to all, for not vnfitly it is of some called the lampe or light of the world."

As the orb of stars is the convenient home of God, so is the center of the universe the convenient home of the sun / king. The sun is a sensibly visible lamp, but, it must be remembered that the heavens are filled with "pertuall shininge glorius lights innumerable far excellinge our sonne both in quantity and quality," though this can only be known by virtue of the God-given lamp of reason.

There is then, a sun as a central, immotile, finite symbol of temporal power, and there is the orb of the stars, the home of divine power, all-encompassing, "containing it selfe and all the rest," an "infinite Orbe immoueable." Poised between these two sources of light, between these symbolic secular and ecclesiastical courts, constrained by the finite centrality of the one which dispenses "the laws of motion" and embraced by the encompassing, mysterious, infinite vastness of the other which provides the "Rule of Reason," spins the "sydus opacum," the "darke starre." It is the site of all suffering to be found in the universe. Digges calls all that lies within the orbit of the moon the "Globe of Mortalitie" and the "peculiar Empire of death." The earth itself, borrowing from Palingenius, is Digges's dark star. He quotes Palingenius on conditions of human existence and the corruptible nature of all things beneath the moon:

Beneath the Moone: as darksome Night, & Stormes, & Tempest mayne,

With Colde, and Heate, And Testy age, Dame need of Beggars hall,

And Labour, Griefe, And Wretchedness, and Death that endeth all. (138)

Above the moon,there is "No time, nor error, Death nor Age nor anything is vaine." The apparent contradiction here would lie in the fact that in spite of the sun's light, the earth remains for Digges a dark star, lit perhaps only by the lamp of reason. Unlike the eternal symbolic monarch and the eternally signified God, the dark star deals with daily trials and ultimate extinction. It is (now one among the many subject planets) representative of the subjected self.

Digges, as a geometer and surveyor, puts this symbolic self in perspective when he writes of the necessarily vast distance between the earth and stars of the universe: "This huge distance and immeasurable altitude, in respect whereof this great Orbe, wherein the Earth is caried, is but a poynt, and utterly without sensible proportion, being compared to that Heaven . . . this distance . . . is so exceeding great, that the whole Orbis magnus vanisheth away, if it be conferred to that Heaven." For Digges, his proclamation of an immeasurable universe is simultaneously a gesture of prostration before his God.

Digges was himself a loyal and selfless subject who served his country by overseeing the fortification of Dover harbor and serving as muster-master general in the Netherlands. He writing makes it evident he was not an Anglican. He also experienced personal misfortune at the hands of Queen Mary, and later neglect of his grievances under Elizabeth.

Thomas Digges's "modill of the world" signifies the relationship of the subject to the two principal influences on Tudor life. The contradictions within his schematic of a center to infinity and the finite concavity of the infinite heavens, and a world of darkness in the light of the sun, grow out of the increasing tensions between the political and divine spheres of influence. Just as the Copernican revolution would undermine anthropocentric world views, the Reformation had ruptured the already fragile medieval alliance of church and state, and in places such as England, the state had proved the most powerful in the ensuing struggle, winning the central place in public affairs. But the fiction of the king as God's regent -- like the fiction of Elizabeth's virginity -- was becoming more and more difficult to sustain. With the dissemination of vulgate versions of the bible one's relationship to God was becoming an increasingly private affair. The fixed inner boundary of the celestial sphere which Digges maintains seems an attempt to keep one's allegiance to one's God and one's allegiance to one's king from conflict -- a boundary between planetary and sidereal subjects of the two courts; one of which Digges served, the other which he aspired to. But it is like a skin drawn tight between the increasingly divided and divisive realms of the public and private self, and the conflict Digges would suppress eventually erupted in the English civil war. A Perfit Description is a predecessor to work like Edward Foster's 1606 Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique, which, as Christopher Pye points out in The Regal Phantasm, was a predecessor to Hobbes Leviathan.

In Paradiso, in the Divine Comedy, Dante, having travelled far into the heavens, looks back at the now tiny earth and wonders that he ever found events there so important. This is of course Digges's own view of the matter, not only of the world, but of the self in the world -- each "utterly without sensible proportion" in comparison to the universe or to God. When Dante, having travelled to the very limits of his universe, sees God, the entire universe is turned inside out, and he sees that the outermost place is a point of light in the midst of the celestial rose. I'd like to suggest that if you take the universe of Thomas Digges and do the same, you will have created the modern self. Take that skin that Digges left and turn it inside out, and you will not only have placed God and conscience within the self, but you will have created limitless regions of interiority, which can be only partially glimpsed, which can only be known through rationalization. Digges's universe easily gives way to Hamlet's claim to "have that within which passeth show," where the designation "private" starts to become not simply what one hides from the public, but what the public could never see, until it evolves into a new "darke starre," the modern psyche, the self that is hidden even from oneself.