A Cosmology of Light: The Vision of Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253), Bishop of Lincoln

A 14th-century portrait of Robert Grossteste, British Library [Public Domain]
One of the most prominent thinkers of medieval England, I believe, was Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253) – a statesman, philosopher, theologian, scientist and bishop (of Lincoln), who lived during a period of institutional, intellectual and religious consolidation in Europe. The details about his education are not very clear but is it certain that he lectured at Oxford before moving to a more ecclesiastical role.

It is possible for one to encounter Grosseteste’s name in serious works of scholarship on the history of aesthetics and the history of science. Umberto Eco (1932–2016) – the great Italian philosopher, novelist, semiotician and literary critic – makes references to Grosseteste in many of his books, including Travels in Hyperreality (1986):

Robert Grosseteste developed a metaphysics of luminous energy that suggests partly Bergson and partly Einstein: The study of optics was born. In short, the problem of the perception of physical objects was broached, a line was drawn between hallucination and sight. This is no small matter.

The pioneering Australian historian of science Alistair Cameron Crombie (1915–1996) mentions Grosseteste in his Science, Art and Nature in Medieval and Modern Thought (1996), explaining the fundamentals of his thought in fairly simple language:

Although in content a somewhat eclectic blend of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ideas, Grossesteste’s philosophical thinking shows a strong intellect curious about natural things and searching for a consistently rational scheme of things both natural and divine. His search for rational explanations was conducted within the framework of the Aristotelian distinction between ‘the fact’ (quia) and ‘the reason for the fact’ (propter quid). Essential for the latter in natural philosophy was mathematics, to which Grosseteste gave a role based specifically on his theory, expounded in De luce seu de inchoatione formarum and De motu corporali et luce, that the fundamental corporeal substance was light (lux). He held that light was the first form to be created in prime matter, propagating itself from an original point into a sphere and thus giving rise to spatial dimensions and all else according to immanent laws.

 

“He held that light was the first form to be created in prime matter, propagating itself from an original point into a sphere…” (Photo: Pexels)

 

Hence his conception of optics as the basis for natural science. Lux was an instrument by which God produced the macrocosm of the universe and also the instrument mediating the interaction between soul and body and the bodily senses in the microcosm of man. Grosseteste’s rational scheme included revelation as well as reason, and he was one of the first medieval thinkers to attempt to deal with the conflict between the Scriptures and the new Aristotle. Especially interesting are his discussions of the problems of the eternity or creation of the world [It’s worth noting that he was thinking this up back then – for right up till the 20th century, the scientific establishment subscribed to the idea of the eternal universe (of Aristotelian thought). The revolutionary Big Bang theory that proposed a beginning to space-time goes against Aristotelian thought in this regard and actually comes close to validating the Scriptural view of Creation], of the relation of will to intellect, of angelology, of divine knowledge of particulars, and of the use of allegorial interpretations of Scripture.

What interests me most about Grosseteste’s thinking is his light-filled vision of the universe. It is as if he saw one supernatural/spiritual Light (a property of God) as the animator of several natural/physical lights (the items of the natural world). I’ve been trying to find more literature dedicated specifically to Grosseteste’s cosmology. A good book is Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral: Tracing Relationships between Medieval Concepts of Order and Built Form (2014) edited by Nicholas Temple, John Shannon Hendrix and Christian Frost.

Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral: Tracing Relationships between Medieval Concepts of Order and Built Form edited by Nicholas Temple, John Shannon Hendrix and Christian Frost (2014, Routledge)

This volume contains an informative essay titled “Robert Grosseteste’s Cosmology of Light and Light-Metaphors: A Symbolic Model of Sacred Space?” by a Professor Cecilia Panti. Here is a deeper explanation of Grosseteste’s views on light from that study broken into four major points – (1) light is auto-multiplicative, (2) light is both a substance and a quality (light-quality becomes a feature of those things that have been penetrated by light-substance), (3) light generates colour and lastly, (4) light is intrinsically beautiful. The author summarises:

First, Grosseteste remarks that the nature of light is its being essentially auto-multiplicative and self-generational of its own substance. This clarification immediately points to the fact that such a nature is the clearest “demonstration through example” (per exemplum demonstratio) of the divine Trinity to the human mind…

 

Second, Grosseteste enumerates the functions of light, whose first task is to be the instrument of the soul when it acts upon bodies. This remark, grounded upon quotations from Augustine, justifies the idea that light is both a substance and a quality, and that both definitions are true and compatible…

 

Third, Grosseteste enlists another important function of light, that is its ability to generate colour, and puts a special emphasis on this by recalling the idea that colour is light incorporated within a diaphonous body and that an external light is needed for its manifestation…the connection of light and colour is a leitmotiv of the majority of Grosseteste’s light-metaphors, since it expresses God’s providential action on human beings. The example of light passing through a coloured window stands out for its capacity to symbolise the human need of divine illumination in cognition and affection, since the action of God is like the uniform spreading of light, while different colours are the individual qualities and capacities of the human soul.

 

“The example of light passing through a coloured window stands out for its capacity to symbolise the human need of divine illumination in cognition and affection, since the action of God is like the uniform spreading of light, while different colours are the individual qualities and capacities of the human soul.” (Photo: Pexels)

 

Finally, the chapter on the properties of light ends with a significant passage on its intrinsic beauty. Light is beautiful in itself because of its simple and homogeneous nature and because it is united to itself in the most perfect harmony; that is, by its equality. Beauty is a harmony of proportions, whose highest ratio is unity to unity–oneness-to-oneness. Since light is generated by light, the relation one to one is respected by the self-multiplication of light even in the absence of any corporeal figure or form. This is why light is beautiful in itself, so that all shining substances, like gold or the stars, are beautiful in themselves because of their sparkling shine, even though they do not show a suitable disposition of parts or proportion of their shape. Light is beautiful by its very nature and it is the source of beauty in all material things that it illuminates.

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Image Credit:

Featured: Bishop Robert Grosseteste, window on the South transept Westernmost. St Paul’s Parish Church, Morton, Near Gainsborough by User “William Morris”, Wikipedia [Public Domain]


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