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Copernicus' Translation of Theo phylactus' Letters

Partly for the purpose of teaching himself Greek, Copernicus decided to translate into Latin the Letters of Theophylactus, one of the writers in the Aldine Epistolographers. This letter-writing Theophylactus was later surnamed Simocatta in order to distinguish him from several other Greek authors also called Theophylactus. To this day nobody has been able to pinpoint the exact meaning of "Simocatta."

Copernicus had no information about Theophylactus Simocatta apart from his Letters. He was not aware that this Theophylactus was one of several hundred authors whose works had been summarized by Photius (c. 820-c. 891). In his Bibliotheke (Library, Chapter 65) Photius began his report on Theophylactus as follows:

I have read the History in eight books by Theophylactus, an ex-prefect and referendary. This Theophylactus is an Egyptian by birth. While his style has a certain charm, his overabundant use of metaphorical expressions and allegorical ideas ends up with a certain frigidity and immature lack of taste. In addition, his poorly timed introduction of sententious utterances is a mark of his needless and excessive straining for renown. In other respects, however, there is no reason to reproach him.

Photius then added an extensive epitome of Theophylactus' History of Emperor Maurice's Reign (582-602) without saying a word about Theophylactus' Letters.

Like Photius, Copernicus had some reservations about Theophylactus' literary style. But he gave the epistolographer high marks for the contents of his Letters. As Copernicus wrote in dedicating his translation of them, Theophylactus has disposed so much of value in all of them that they seem to be not letters but rather laws and rules for the conduct of human life.

Copernicus' translation therefore served a dual purpose. Not only did it improve his knowledge of Greek, but it also disseminated a code of conduct in the best tradition of Greek ethics. The ancient proverb ''Nothing in excess" is interwoven, like an unseen thread, throughout the warp and woof of Theophylactus' eighty-five Letters.

They are arranged in triads. In each group of three, the first Letter is ethical in nature; the second is rustic; and the third is erotic. After the close of the twenty-eighth triad, the last Letter, No. 85, terminates the work with a grim visit to a cemetery, to ''behold man's greatest joys as in the end they take on the lightness of dust. "

The mood, however, is not somber throughout. As Copernicus noted in the Dedication, Theophylactus "interspersed the gay with the serious, and the playful with the austere". Life on the farm can be joyful and prosperous. More often it is harsh and unrewarding: barren soil, floods and foxes, nasty neighbors, thieving wayfarers. The ethical Letters advocate sweet reasonableness, self-control, family loyalty, sincerity, and an active pursuit of worldly goods in moderate amount. "Noble birth is of no use to people, for all of them value nothing more than wealth." By the same token, the ethical Letters denounce greed, gambling, arrogance, false modesty, garrulity, grudges, indolence, and the quest for hollow fame. True philosophers are revered, lawyers reviled, and painters praised.

For Copernicus the cathedral canon, who dedicated his translation to his uncle, the bishop of Varmia, the third class of Letters, the erotic, posed a problem. "The title of the love letters seems to portend licentiousness," Copernicus remarked in the Dedication. He looked to his medical training and practice, however, for a solution of this problem: how to retain the erotic Letters and yet avoid being charged with promoting pornography. "Just as physicians usually moderate the bitterness of drugs by sweetening them to make them more palatable to patients, so these love letters have in like manner been rectified, with the result that they ought to receive the label 'moral' no less" than the others.

Built into the structure of some Letters is a comparison of animal and human behavior, recalling the fables of Aesop. His habit of teaching the moral lesson explicitly and didactically, however, is avoided by Theophylactus, who prefers the more sophisticated device of letting the thoughtful reader draw his own conclusion. This is not always immediately obvious. For instance, a cricket breaks its silence by chirping loudly under the influence of the noonday sun. A man sunk in an evil life is similarly inspired to acclaim the philosopher whose counsel drew him back to the path of morality. -A rich uncle who ignores his poor nephew's poverty is unfavorably contrasted with the mare which nurses a motherless foal. The elephant lets itself be trained, whereas the son of an educated man refuses to follow in his father's footsteps. The peacock takes pride in displaying its beauty, unlike the antisocial writer who declines to publish his own works. The wolf, when sated, stops hunting, but the drunkard keeps right on drinking. Such are the Letters by which Copernicus hoped to draw his readers into the incipient humanist movement in Poland.

After Copernicus returned from Italy in 1503 to take up his duties as a canon, he managed to find the time to translate Theophylactus' Letters. This would become the first independent translation of a Greek author to be printed in Poland if Copernicus could put it in the hands of a publisher. But there was as yet no printing press in Frombork, the seat of the Cathedral Chapter to which Copernicus belonged as a canon. Nor was there a press in Lidzbark, the residence of the bishops of Varmia, where Copernicus assisted his uncle, Bishop Lucas. In fact, the relatively recent invention had not yet established itself anywhere in the entire diocese of Varmia. Even Gdańsk, the busy Baltic seaport profiting from its membership in the Hanseatic League, in 1503 lost its printer, who moved to Wrocław; his successor published only a few works in German. Toruń, Copernicus' birthplace, had no printer at all. But the municipal secretary was Lawrence Corvinus (c. 1465-1527), whom Copernicus had known when they were both in the University of Cracow.

Corvinus arranged the publication of Copernicus' translation of Theophylactus' Letters with Johann Haller from Cracow (c. 1467-1525), the most prolific publisher in Poland, and wrote an introduction in the form of a long poem.

Corvinus' introductory poem throws a welcome light on the obscure question of Copernicus' intellectual development. In lines 27-30 the poet says about Copernicus:

He discusses the swift course of the moon and the alternating movements of its brother as well as the stars together with the wandering planets - the Almighty's marvelous creation - and he knows how to seek out the hidden causes of phenomena by the aid of wonderful principles.

These wonderful principles (miris ... principiis) have often been identified with the main features of the Copernican astronomy. If this identification were correct, it would put the time when Copernicus discovered his new system not later than the first half of 1508. In the Copernican system, however, the sun is stationary and has no alternating movements (alternos ... meatus). These belonged to the pre-Copernican sun, which was therefore regarded as the moon's brother (fratris). For example, Ambrose's Hexameron (IV, 7) labels the sun the moon's brother (frater). When Corvinus wrote that Copernicus' wonderful principles treated the sun as the moon's brother, the poet echoed Ambrose and did not announce the new astronomy. Precisely when that epoch-making discovery was made by Copernicus is a question that still awaits an answer. What Corvinus implies is that the Copernican astronomy was born not before the latter half of 1508 at the earliest.

From Edward Rosen's Introduction published in
Nicholas Copernicus Minor Works (Warsaw-Cracow, 1985).
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Mikołaj Kopernik
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