The Complex World of Claudius Ptolemy


Dr. Coleson is Professor of Social Studies at Huntington College, Indiana.

If there is anything the "mod­ern" prides himself on, it is the complexity of the world of today. You hear it on every hand. Poli­ticians are sure that the states­men of bygone ages would have been completely baffled had they been confronted with the prob­lems of "our modern, complex age." Many educators seem even at a loss to know what to teach or emphasize in school in "our be­wildering age of rapid change, when books are obsolete even be­fore they get the covers on." The man in the street, the average citizen, if there is such a person, may yearn to return to a hypo­thetical Golden Age of Simplicity which is supposedly gone forever. But, more than likely, the ordi­nary American has never more than cast a disdainful glance back­ward to what he regards as our paleolithic past. He is busy trying to peer beyond the horizon into our "Fantastic Future." This earthly paradise, just down the road, will make our present com­plex world seem as simple by con­trast as the "horse and buggy days" appear to us now, at least so we are told.

Actually, we have nothing on the old-timers. They often got their world snarled and tangled enough to please the most fastid­ious devotee of the complexities of modern culture. For instance, there was old Claudius Ptolemy who flourished, as the poets say, during the first half of the second century A.D. He must have really flourished, too, as he is credited with having had more influence on geography than any other man who ever lived. Nor did his in­terests stop there. Certainly as­tronomy did not recover from the effects of his bright ideas for the next fifteen hundred years. When Galileo suffered for his Coperni­can heresy, it was Ptolemy, whose notions had become part of the sacred canon, who was breathing down his neck. Ideas die hard, es­pecially if they are wrong.

Ptolemy, His Life and Times

Now we don’t really know much about Ptolemy. He made astro­nomical observations dated as early as the eleventh year of the Emperor Hadrian and as late as the fourteenth year of Antoninus, who picked up the additional name of Pius because he was a pretty good sort of fellow. In fact, these two Caesars were third and fourth in a series called the "five good emperors"—the only time the Romans managed to have five good ones in a row, which would be quite an accomplishment for any people. At any rate, the early and late dates for Ptolemy translate into 127 A.D. and 151 A.D., respec­tively, so on the basis of this, plus a few scraps of tradition, he is considered to have appeared on the scene around 90 A.D. and to have passed on to his reward about 168 A.D. That was the best time in the history of the world to be alive, too, according to Edward Gibbon, the great historian of Rome‘s de­cline and fall:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world dur­ing which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian (A.D. 96) to the accession of Commodus (A.D. 180).

This rascal Commodus, who was worse than Nero by a considerable margin which is no mean accom­plishment, was the beginning of the end for Rome and the world. By contrast with the previous Golden Age, things got about as bad as it was possible for them to get without such modern con­veniences as communists and nu­clear weapons.

Historians seem to think that late in the Roman period scholars somehow tended instinctively to garner up the knowledge of the past and sort of stow it away, squirrel-like, to save it through the long Dark Ages that lay ahead. Certainly, writing "digests" sum­marizing the knowledge of the ancients became the fashion, what­ever the motivation. That is pretty much what Ptolemy did. Any tend­encies along the same line today we hope are purely coincidental.

Ptolemy’s Cosmic Problem

Now in trying to compile the astronomical knowledge of the classical period, Ptolemy needed a framework to organize his cos­mos around. There were obviously two possible centers for his systern, the earth and the sun; and he was well aware of the alterna­tives, as, indeed, Greeks had been long before his time. In fact, one of his predecessors at the Library of Alexandria, Eratosthenes by name, had even measured the cir­cumference of the earth some three centuries before and with surprisingly accurate results, too. Perhaps he got about 25,000 miles which is the approximation we use today, or maybe a couple or three thousand more, we aren’t sure, but even that would be an accom­plishment. You try it! Ptolemy, as part of his self-appointed task of reordering the world, trimmed Eratosthenes’ figure down to a mere 18,000 miles, which, some thirteen hundred years later, led a Genoese navigator named Columbus to get the absurd notion that the Eurasian land mass ex­tended pretty well around the globe so that he could easily reach the East by sailing west. But so much for that. This was only one of his minor errors.

When confronted with the prob­lem of choosing a center for his solar system, Ptolemy missed his way altogether. Now primitive peoples have always assumed that the earth was flat with a huge in­verted bowl turned over it, with the stars mounted like jewels in this vault of heaven. Now the fixed stars, as we call them, always stay in nice neat patterns—Orion, the Gemini, the Pleiades, and the rest—and go trooping along in perfect formation through the night toward the western horizon, ex­cept those around the Pole Star which seem slowly to circle that star. The sun, of course, was a special case: some giant in the east made a long pass during the day and another fellow in the west intercepted it and made an end run during the night all ready to start over the next morning, or at least that is the modern version of the story. But our friend Ptol­emy was not a superstitious, slant-browed cave man; he was the end-product of centuries of learning and culture, and had the vast Alexandrian Library at his disposal.

Still the problem was not a sim­ple one even for him. He realized, and correctly, that the near stars should appear to shift with respect to the far ones, parallax as it is called, if the earth went around the sun. But no parallax was evident with the naked eye. Nor could he get over another problem which was closer by. He knew that if he had his earth go around the sun to make his year, it would have to rotate on its axis every day to produce night and day. But if the earth went around in 24 hours, that meant a point on the equator would be moving at a velocity of over a thousand miles an hour (about 750 on his smaller globe) . If the earth were rotating at this furious speed, Ptolemy rea­soned, there should be a terrific gale, much as if you stuck your head out the window of a jet plane. No such wind was apparent, so the earth stood still and every­thing else went around it. Ptolemy sensed that there was something whacky about the whole arrange­ment, but it was the best he could do with the evidence at hand.

Now a stationary earth works as well as any other kind—almost. Of course, there were some engi­neering problems involved, such as how the host of heaven got around the earth every day which would involve speeds infinitely greater than the mere 750 that had bothered him. But at least they were remote, and he had taken care of the problems at hand which is what all good politicians have learned to do since. There was only one really serious diffi­culty: the problem of the planets.

The Maladjusted Planets

Since men began to observe the stars in the remote past, it was noticed that the host of heaven marched past in the night in per­fect order, each star maintaining its place within its pattern (con­stellation) faithfully from year to year (although the heavens aren’t changeless over the ages). How‑

ever, there were a few bright and conspicuous stars that were a law unto themselves; they appeared to wander among their fellows. You would find one as an intruder in a given constellation now, and a few months later it would have moved on into another. Hence, their name planeta, which means wanderer.

Now fitting these maladjusted members of the celestial family into his cosmic scheme was no easy assignment, since they not only slowly strayed where they would, but even executed weird loops in their paths among the stars on occasion. But Ptolemy was equal to the task. The Greeks had decreed that all orbits should be circles, since a circle was the symbol of perfection, so Ptolemy was stuck with that figure.

However, there was no limit to the number of circles he could use; they weren’t rationed. He, therefore, put his planet—Mars, for example—on the periphery of a second circle whose center, an imaginary point in space, followed a circular path about the earth as in Figure 2. The scheme, although a little complicated, worked quite well as should be evident from Figure 1. The apparent path of a planet as the consequence of this double motion was looped at in­tervals which is exactly what hap­pens—or at least appears to hap­pen—periodically in the heavens. So far so good.

Complexity Ad Absurdum

However, there was still one little catch to the whole arrange­ment. If an astronomer tried to project the system into the future and predict the position of a planet for some night years ahead, he was always in error. But that could be remedied. Why not a double epicycle as in Figure 3? The planet in question was now mounted on the circumference of an imaginary second orbit, whose center followed a circular path whose center in turn went about the earth. Now that ought to do it. It should have, but the more involved system didn’t quite work either. But still astronomers didn’t give up hope, perhaps other epi­cycles revolving on the previous ones would secure a better fit.

In the ensuing centuries that elapsed before Copernicus and Kepler straightened out the celes­tial tangle in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, indus­trious scholars complicated the theoretical structure beyond be­lief. Still, the computed paths, the theory, did not fit the facts of observation for very long into the future. The planets soon got out of order no matter how involved the system became. Arabian as­tronomers carried on while the Western World was sunk in the night of the Dark Ages. Finally, each planet was fitted out with 40 to 60 epicycles, each turning on the other, a literal nightmare of celestial clockwork. Still the sys­tem did not work very well for very long. An old story has it that King Alphonso X of Castile, after listening to a long-winded ex­planation of the Ptolemaic theory, remarked that he believed he could have given excellent advice had he been present at the creation, as a sort of consulting engineer, no doubt.

Strangely enough, the revolu­tion of Copernicus consisted sim­ply of choosing a new center, the sun instead of the earth. The re­sulting system as worked out more fully by Kepler was childlike in its simplicity. Put the sun in the center and let the planets just go around it, that’s all. The loops are an optical illusion noted when the earth passes the outer planets on the way around, just as a moving train appears to stop and back up when you pass it. The Ptolemaic theory had fallen under the pon­derous load of its own complexity. The incredible thing is that men who were intellectually capable of devising such a fabulously in­volved theoretical structure were not wise enough to see that it was unnecessary.

The Moral of the Story

It is regrettable that astronomy is practically the forgotten science. If only our contemporaries were acquainted with Claudius Ptolemy, then when one of our complicated schemes failed to work—another farm program, some monetary hocus – pocus, or other economic witchcraft whereby we may all live like kings without doing much of anything—one might suggest: "What we need is another epi­cycle. That would straighten out everything." For somehow one cannot view our "complex, modern world" without being over­whelmed as King Alphonso X was with the feeling that the world just isn’t naturally like that nor does it need to be.

Let those who believe that the present chaos is the inevitable fruitage of the Industrial Revolu­tion examine the record. Back in the days of the Founding Fathers of this Republic when craftsmen still plied their trades, Europeans did quite well complicating what we have regarded as their simple world and exported more of the same to their colonies, as should be evident from the following:

In every quarter, and at every moment, the hand of government was felt. Duties on importation, and duties on exportation; bounties to raise up a losing trade, and taxes to pull down a remunerative one ; this branch of industry forbidden, and that branch of industry encouraged; one article of commerce must not be grown, be­cause it was grown in the colonies, another article might be grown and bought, but not sold again, while a third article might be bought and sold, but not leave the country. Then, too, we find laws to regulate wages; laws to regulate prices; laws to regu­late profits ; laws to regulate the in­terest of money; custom-house ar­rangements of the most vexatious kind…. and the inconvenience suf­fered. . . . in order that industry might thrive. . . .

The first inevitable consequence was that, in every part of Europe, there arose numerous and powerful gangs of armed smugglers, who lived by disobeying the laws which their ignorant rulers had imposed.

-Henry Thomas Buckle

The Obvious and Simple System

Remember Ptolemy’s scheme was incredibly complicated, learned—and wrong. Copernicus found a new center, and order just naturally grew out of chaos. One is reminded of the words of Adam Smith: "All systems either of preference or of restraint, there­fore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple sys­tem of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord…." The obvious and simple system of natural liberty . .. liberty estab­lishes itself … yes, liberty!


April 1959

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required


December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
Download Free PDF




Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)


The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)