The Sky at Night

The Today programme on Radio 4 yesterday morning reported that Galloway Forest Park in Scotland has become the first place, not only in UK, but outside the United States, to be awarded the status of a designated Dark Sky Park. Visiting the park, one would be able to observe, with the naked eye, more than seven thousand stars, the great river of the Milky Way, the moons of Jupiter and, perhaps, a glimpse of distant Andromeda.  In fact, one might have an experience much more like that of our ancestors than the one we are used to glancing up to see a few hundred of the brightest stars. How we imagine the universe is essential to our human consciousness.  The Mediaeval man, for example, looking at the sky from Galloway Forest Park, would have understood what he was seeing in a very particular way.  He would have seen the “heavens”: of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  And beyond these the stellatum, the domain of the “fixed stars”, above which was the primum mobile, the great mover of all the other spheres.  And outside what Dante describes in the Paradiso as “the largest corporeal thing” lies the caelum ipsum: “pure light, intellectual light, full of love”, and, it need perhaps not be added, full of God.  The (spherical!) Earth is at the “lowest point” (not the ‘centre’ as is so often lazily said nowadays meaning “most important”) and it is the spheres which transmit to the Earth movement (the heavens do not revolve around the Earth, as is so often lazily said nowadays).  The reason for this is Aristotelean: God moves the primum mobile as an object of desire moves those who desire it.  It is from God (the ‘unmoved mover’ of Aquinas) that all the motion of the heavens comes. Space has a very definite end and to him the experience would have been one of looking up to objects at an unimaginable height.  For us, the experience of looking at the night sky is that we are looking “out” from a central point (in this sense the Earth is imaginatively more ‘central’ to us than it ever was to our Fathers); to the Mediaeval it would have seemed he was looking ‘in’.  Lewis describes this experience thusly:

Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life… the revelry of insatiable love.  We are watching the activity of creatures whose experience we can only lamely compare to that of one in the act of drinking, his thirst delighted yet not quenched… without satiety, since they can never make His perfection their own, yet never frustrated, since at every moment they approximate to Him the fullest measure of which their nature is capable.

(The Discarded Image, p. 119).

I wonder if modern man could recapture something of this sense of wonder, rather more like the one we might feel looking up into the fan vaulting of a great church or along the line of a great basilica or cathedral, than that sense almost of terror which is evoked by, say, a storm at sea or indeed the vast emptiness of “outer space”, if he were able to look into a truly dark night sky full of stars and use his imagination to overcome his fears. For further and more detailed stuff about the Mediaeval view of the heavens, Lewis is really the place to go.  His The Discarded Image was recently available on Amazon.


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Filed under C.S. Lewis

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