The Sleepwalkers – Arthur Koestler

The Sleepwalkers

Text transcript (literal) for the book The Sleepwalkers:

Hello and welcome to this new video from the “Books for a Change of Life” blog.

So, I will continue with my list with another book that is outside of the realm of business books, to talk to you about a book on history that fascinated me. And that book is Arthur Koestler’s “The Sleepwalkers”. It’s a pretty long book, it must be said. It’s more for the history buffs out there, I think. But even if it’s not your thing, listen on, because I will offer you some insights, some key ingredients that this book gives you.

Arthur Koestler is a very thorough historical writer, who puts in a lot of comprehensive research, writes very detailed accounts of his characters, which all come together to help bring historical characters to life. You feel that you get to know their daily routines, that you almost feel that they are next to you, in conversation with you, so much so that he seems to be able to create something, a personality, almost brings them to life, so that you feel that you actually know them.

He portrays his characters in a very different way from what you would expect to see in a typical history book. So you really feel like you’re part of the story.

However, there are those who criticize this approach, they argue that he takes too much latitude with history as he leaves many gaps, especially when it comes to the biographies of the most famous people, with the result that he portrays them as more theatrical characters and you don’t know whether they are real or make believe. But does it really matter?

In any case, the facts themselves are extremely well researched. Maybe he is a bit laissez-faire in the way he defines his characters, but I found it to be incredibly enjoyable.

So, what is “The Sleepwalkers” about?

Well, “The Sleepwalkers” is about highly gifted people who have completely changed the way we see the universe. Basically, before the 15th century, it was the views of Ptolemy that shaped the way life was lived throughout the world. That is to say, it was believed that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. Everything else revolved around it, which included the sun, and people believed a lot of things that were completely wrong, but they actually thought that they were true.


And there have been many people who have challenged this view of the universe. First there was Copernicus, then Kepler, followed by Galileo, Newton, and others after that. That’s about it. The book focuses primarily on Copernicus, on Kepler, a bit on Galileo and briefly on Newton. And it’s of great interest to find why these misconceptions came to be in the first place. Why these misconceptions became the truths and principles on which life and rules were built, to the point where the church proclaimed them to be religious doctrines and you couldn’t deviate from them, you couldn’t even dispute them. Most notably, there were huge problems with Copernicus’ theory, which had been put on the blacklist of prohibited books. So, Koestler gives us all of these details with explanations that both intrigued and interested me.

Why did all these misconceptions come to pass to begin with? Well, there was this idea that the circle was a perfect figure, it was Plato who had created it, we don’t know why. The circle was a perfect figure and we couldn’t deviate from it. That is to say that all the planets were supposed to rotate in accordance with a perfectly circular orbit.

Well, these days we know that the planets do not revolve around the sun in a perfectly circular orbit, but in the form of an ellipse, essentially an oval.

So, at the time, not only did they think that it revolved around the Earth, but also in a perfect circular motion. The problem is that, clearly, it didn’t match the observations that existed. So the problem was that rather than to call this very basic concept into question, which would have simply been to make a more accurate observation, such as, Oh no, it’s not circles, it’s ellipses. It’s not circles, it’s ovals, you would have thought it was something that could have been easily addressed on an intellectual level, definitely not something that couldn’t be resolved. But for them, it was so deep rooted… In the opinion of the author, circles were a form of god. It provided divinity. It was impossible to deviate from it, it was the truth and that was it, no arguments.

This resulted in scientists and mathematicians of the time to dream up various different theories so that the mathematical laws that arose as a result of their calculations could fit in with these observations without the need to question the fact that it was a perfect circle, the orbit of the planets, even though it was an ellipse. If you manage to follow me. So that means that they had actually added circles within circles. So, rather than consider an oval orbit with formulas that might relate to what they could see in the sky, they concocted a theory that the orbits were perfect circles, that there were more small circles within those, so that, in their view, the planets also rotated in a circle within the orbit. Maybe even with yet more circles and so on. In the end, it became incredibly complex.

To the best of my recollection, I believe that in Ptolemy’s system there were forty spheres embedded in each other.

Truthfully, it was a ridiculous theory at best. But it enabled us to make fairly accurate predictions. That is to say that mathematicians from the second century A.D. onwards, based on Ptolemy’s system, were able to predict the movement of the planets, to know approximately where they would be at a given date, within a reasonable level of accuracy.

But there you have it, it’s pretty interesting stuff. This brings up some points of great value for each of us on a personal level, to realize that sometimes we have this intellectual block, a psychological block, down to the fact that we have certain things ingrained in us that we can’t go against. From this process, you create all kinds of variations on a theme to try to adjust a theory in relation to what you can see, when in fact, all you need to do is to take these concepts and turn them on their head in order to grasp the actual truth as best you can.

Another point of interest that you can pick up from The Sleepwalkers is that when Ptolemy created his system, which was widely accepted at that time, someone else had already put forward the idea of a heliocentric system, that is, a system that claimed that the sun was at the centre and everything else revolved around it.

Another Greek scientist or mathematician had already come up with the idea, what was his name?

I can’t remember. If my memory serves me well, in about the third or fourth century B.C.; the Greeks had already put forward the correct concept. But unfortunately for the guy who came up with it, his idea was not generally accepted; not shared widely enough, and the incorrect theory was the one that was adopted. It stayed this way until the appearance of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, then Newton; etc. who began to emerge and offer their ideas.

The one who played the most important and crucial role in all of this was Kepler, as he was the first one who said: “No, the orbits of the planets are not perfect circles, they are ellipses.” For us, that observation seems quite obvious, but for them, it was a huge revelation, which consequently helped Newton to discover the law of gravity, which is still used today.

This really is a book full of fascination and revelation for the reader.

It takes you into the intellectual history of something that is so basic to our vision of the universe; our vision of reality, along with many of the scientific and intellectual mistakes that have been part of our evolution; the insights that have been gained, etc. It also includes all those who have been able to contradict and disprove established misconceptions or falsehoods; in order to get closer to the truth, but we learn to appreciate that these people are also human. Copernicus, for example, did not dare to publish his theory in his lifetime. He published it posthumously. His system was far from perfect, it also contained a number of flaws; but it was much closer to reality than those previously put forward.

It is believed, for example; that Copernicus was the first to say that the planets did not revolve around the Earth; but that the Earth revolved around the sun with the other planets. But there had already been somebody who had proposed this theory before him. In fact, Copernicus didn’t claim, in his theory, that the sun was at the centre of the solar system. He put forward the idea that there was a point in space that was at the centre of the solar system; that the sun revolved around that point, along with the planets.

So it was already a step up from Ptolemy’s system, but it wasn’t the full correct set of facts, yet.

And so we are introduced to all these incredibly intellectual people but they all grasp at; fumble and juggle with ideas, as well as make a lot of misjudgements and mistakes. It becomes apparent that some of Kepler’s discoveries almost went unnoticed, and that; in addition to these discoveries, he also made a great many mistakes.

So this is a book that I would highly recommend to you, it really was incredibly informative. If it’s a subject that you are passionate about; it will grow your intellectual knowledge of the world and offer you a different perspective on humanity; as well as your own values, your own morals, your own issues within society; which may change dramatically at some point in the future.

Thanks to those of you who have watched this video and see you soon for more adventures.

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