A Close Reading from Cosmographia

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“A long chain of fate and history stemmed from the first man, who was shown as distinguished by the elevation of his head. Now were shown the ways of fortune, the downtrodden simplicity of the masses, the venerable exaltation of kings. Now poverty begot misery, or overabundance led to dissipation. Most people preserved a median existence between the two extremes. Now a human life was ordained to the toils of war, the pursuit of wisdom, or some other kind of endeavor. The sequence of the ages, introduced by the pure primal state of the Golden Age, could be seen degenerating little by little, to end at last in an age of iron” (Silvestris 116).

This passage is taken from Bernardus Silverstris’ Cosmographia, an allegory that describes the creation of the universe and man. These lines appear directly after Noys has bestowed Nature with the Table of Destiny, something that is “incredibly vast, but finite” (Silvestris 115). This description of the fate of man, I believe, sums up many of the ideas Silvestris has been conveying throughout his work. It echoes the fall of Man as described in Christian theology and comments on the current human condition.

Silvestris notes the “long chain of fate and history” that began with the first man. The Bible names this first man Adam, who, along with his wife Eve, is responsible for the fall of Man and Original Sin. While the Bible describes Adam and Eve as disobedient sinners, Silvestris calls the first man “distinguished”. On one level, he might simply be stating how man is different from the rest of the beasts in the world, yet “distinguished” can also be used to mean someone is respectable. Man is distinguished because he looks skyward. The notion of looking to the heavens indicates a desire for wisdom, knowledge and connection to God.

However, always having one’s eyes turned upwards can lead to potential problems. Aesop’s fable of the Astronomer describes a man who was so preoccupied with watching the stars he fell into a pit and was trapped. A passerby remarked to him, “Hark ye, old fellow, why, in striving to pry into what is in heaven, do you not manage to see what is on earth?” (Kent 44). In that sense, the idea of looking up can be both positive and negative. It can lead to wisdom and connection with the divine, however not without its costs to one’s earthly existence.

Silvestris continues with a comment on the ways of fate; how a select few (“kings”) are chosen for “venerable exaltation”, while the rest (“the masses”) are destined for “downtrodden simplicity” (Silvestris 116). This echoes Boethius’ idea of Fortune as a wheel, which turns the lives of men, granting poverty or prosperity (Boethius 26). A more Christian look at it might simply say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). Silvestris describes both ends of the spectrum: “poverty begot misery, or overabundance led to dissipation” (Silvestris 116). Neither poverty nor overabundance seems to be a very good thing according to Silvestris, as the prospect of either seems equally bleak, a choice between “misery” and “dissipation”. The majority of people, it seems, have an “existence between the two extremes” (Silvestris 116). Silvestris does not comment one way or the other on the nature of this existence, but given his analysis of both poverty and overabundance, the middle ground is probably not very promising either.

Next, he describes Man’s endeavors after the Fall: “the toils of war, the pursuit of wisdom, or some other kind of endeavor” (Silvestris 116). This indicates that because Man has fallen, he no longer has access to the wisdom that was readily available when he was first created, so must spend his days pursuing it. This lack of wisdom is what plunges mankind into vice and violence, leading to the “toils of war” that Silvestris describes. This leaves the reader to draw the conclusion that if not for Original Sin, then Man could still exist in a state of wisdom, peace and connectivity to God.

Silvestris calls this state “the pure primal state of the Golden Age” (Silvestris 116). This is an interesting word choice on Silvertris’ part. Ordinarily something that is “primal” is associated with a bestial, savage nature; however, Silvestris asserts that to be primal is to be “pure”. It leads to the idea that being close to Nature can lead to being closer to the divine. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way: “Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment in man. By fault of our dullness and selfishness, we are looking up to nature” (Emerson). Man looks to Nature because, unlike himself, Nature remains unchanged, still in that “pure primal” state in which Man once existed. In Nature, Man can see the reflections of his lost Eden.

The work continues, describing how the “pure primal state” now “could be seen degenerating little by little, to end at last in an age of iron” (Silvestris 116). It is as if Silvestris is laying out all of history for the reader’s examination and showing that it can only have one possible end, “the age of iron”. This “long chain of fate and history” is the story of Man’s fall from grace and perpetual decline, which ultimately leads to the world falling into the rule of iron, that is, war, division, turmoil, and secular vice. The passage ends on this tragic note, leaving the reader to consider Man’s sinful fate.

Works Cited

Boethius. Consolation of Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001. 26.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts.” Emerson Central. 03/09/2009. Web. 1 Feb 2010. <http://www.emersoncentral.com/nature2.htm>.

Kent, Graeme. Aesop’s Fables. Newmarket, England: Brimax Books Ltd, 1991. 44.

Silvestris, Bernardus. The Cosmographia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. 116.

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