Sure, the term meme — coined by Richard Dawkins — is overused, but that’s because it is genuinely useful. I have a particular interest in memes about our ancestors, which are usually employed in order to idealize or mock the past. As an example of the latter, take the still-quite-common belief that people in the Middle Ages, guided by Biblical literalism, believed that the world is flat — Doesn’t the Bible say something about the four corners of the earth? — and had to be corrected by Christopher Columbus and other great navigators of the Renaissance. My friend and colleague Tim Larsen was even at a church once which featured a series of apologies for bad things Christians have done in the past, and one of them was for teaching that the earth was flat.
However, this is nonsense. You can go all the way back to the seventh century and scholars like the Venerable Bede knew perfectly well that the world is spherical. The meme that medieval Christians taught the flatness of the earth was generated by a couple of anti-Christian polemicists in the latter part of the nineteenth century. And by the way, the scholar who made this scam generally known was no devout Christian: it was Stephen Jay Gould.
Here’s another example of Memes Gone Wild: in a recent review in the New Yorker of a biography of the Renaissance Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, the wonderful Joan Acocella writes of Bruno’s acceptance of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory of the solar system, and comments on the Catholic Church’s resistance to it: “the Church needed the Earth, the arena of salvation, to be the center of the universe.” It’s true of course that the Church resisted heliocentrism — and did so for an embarrassingly long time — but Acocella, like many, many other people, is wrong about the reasons.
Of course it’s reasonable to assume that the medieval cosmology placed Earth at the center of the cosmos because of its importance, but the assumption is wrong. The old Ptolemaic system is built around the idea of the “music of the spheres,” the great celestial harmony created when the planets move in their great dance — and the Earth is the only place not dancing. As C. S. Lewis put it in a long-ago attempt to correct the error that Acocella and countless others are still making, the Earth is “the point at which all the light, heat and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity.”
The center of the medieval cosmos is not the most important place, but the stillest and deadest place, the place farthest from the full presence of God in the Empyrean. And if you doubt this, just read Dante’s Inferno: there the Earth is at the center of the cosmos, and what’s at the center of the Earth? Satan — who has fled there to escape as best he can from the Divine Presence that he loathes.
We moderns like the idea that medieval Christians believed that they were the most important beings in the whole cosmos, because we like thinking that our ancestors were more arrogant than we are. But come on: has anyone ever been more arrogant than we are?