The Copernicus Paradox: A “Common Sense” Approach to Early Modern Nations

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:50 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Michael Thomas Tworek, Harvard University
Few historical figures have prompted so much heated debate over national belonging as Nicolaus Copernicus. Though popularly known today as a “Pole,” Copernicus has been alternatively dubbed as German, Polish, or Prussian for nationalist purposes since the nineteenth century. More recently, scholars have attempted to situate Copernicus and his achievements within bi-national or transnational frameworks. Influenced by recent scholarship on borderlands and national indifference, others have shifted towards emphasizing the indifference of Copernicus towards anything related to nation. Regardless of their differences, both of these approaches have drawn upon modernist analytical frameworks to locate Copernicus’ national or ethnic belonging. This paper will suggest a different approach to understanding what senses of belonging existed for Copernicus by weaving together two of the most important aspects of his life: humanism and local contexts of Poland-Lithuania. Renaissance humanism provided Copernicus and his humanist peers with a common framework that marked the boundaries of belonging in various contexts at home and abroad. Moreover, the political, social, and cultural contexts of Poland-Lithuania, and Royal Prussia especially, offered specific and strong senses of nation that scholars of Copernicus have often ignored. Though Copernicus left little regarding his thoughts on this matter, other humanist contemporaries of his from Poland-Lithuania such as Johannes Dantiscus, Stanislaus Hosius, and Martin Cromer reflect the possibilities and limits that Copernicus would have faced on questions of belonging. My paper will examine what was “common sense” (sensus communis), a rhetorical category contemporary to Copernicus and indispensable to humanists when thinking about nation and belonging in this given place and time. By using Copernicus as a springboard, my paper will suggest potential paths that can help us to rethink and improve our understanding early modern nations.