«Comme la chair rôtie à la broche…» : heurs et malheurs d’un célèbre argument de convenance en faveur du mouvement de rotation de la Terre et posant la question de la finalité du monde (XIVe-XIXe siècles)

Revue des Questions Scientifiques 189 (1-2):103-208 (2018)
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First recorded in the 14th century, the analogy of spit-roast meat argues that expecting the Sun to rotate around a strictly immobile Earth would be just as ludicrous as trying to move the fire around the roasting meat. On the contrary, it should be the Earth that spins upon itself in order to glean, from all possible angles, all the benefits of the Sun, just as it is the meat’s responsibility to turn on the spit before the motionless fire for it to be perfectly cooked on all sides. Aimed at demonstrating, in geocentricism, the plausibility of the rotation of the Earth and, in heliocentrism, at supporting the physical reality of this terrestrial rotation, nowadays this analogy barely elicits more than an amused, or even condescending, smile. However, its continued long-term existence and its frequency of use — from the 14th to the 19th century, we found it mentioned by no less than 45 different authors — incited us to finally pay attention to it. We then noticed that beyond its explicitly cosmological scope, it raises, in its own way, the question of the purpose of the natural world: had the latter been conceived based upon humankind, then it is normal, despite what this analogy advocates, that the Sun is at the service of something more important than itself by rotating, to the profit of humankind, around the Earth; conversely, since such an infringement of the rule of common sense, as illustrated by this analogy, can neither be justified nor tolerated, it is up to the Earth to move around the Sun. Tracing the vicissitudes of this analogy, over 6 centuries, is thus not only about reconstructing the largely forgotten history of a presently obsolete analogy, but also about discovering the deeper meaning, henceforth incomprehensible, behind it. In describing how this meaning became progressively lost, one can finally pro­vide an understanding of why, in the present day, we are no longer capable of more than an amused smile when happening upon it!
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