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Beached Whales and Priests of God:

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Kepler and the Cometary Spirit of 1607

image of Early Science and Medicine

This essay examines the cometary theory of Johannes Kepler and his claim that an “ethereal spirit” could lead a comet to appear at a providential place and time. In his account of the comet of 1607, Kepler suggested that a spirit served as a navigational principle that steered the comet on a particular course. I argue that this principle was an extension of Kepler’s celestial physics and part of his larger conception of causes at work in the heavens. I also explore the critical response Kepler received from the theological faculty at the University of Leipzig, where he planned to publish his account. I explain why Kepler turned to natural philosophy to resolve the opposition of his religious authorities and how this was received as a foreign incursion on Sacred Scripture. In my final analysis, I discuss whether Kepler ultimately abandoned spiritual principles in his cometary theory and arrived at a system of celestial physics that was fully free of animistic ideas.

Affiliations: 1: Johns Hopkins University


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