Author: Carlos Fiolhais
Part of: Coimbra Between Science and Education (coord. by Mário Santiago de Carvalho
Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Published: November, 29th, 2021
DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.5737384.

The latest version of this entry may be cited as follows: Fiolhais, Carlos, “Science in the Work of António Vieria”, Encyclopedia, Mário Santiago de Carvalho, Simone Guidi (eds.), doi = “10.5281/zenodo.5737384”, URL = “”, latest revision: November, 29th, 2021.

Vieira and Science

Father António Vieira, S.J. (1608-1697) was certainly not a scientist. But he knew the science of his time well enough, during the brilliant time of the Scientific Revolution, when figures such as Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) were active, due to his education at the Jesuit college in Bahia as well as from the numerous readings he carried out throughout his long life. He mentioned, in his writings, names like Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and René Descartes, among others. Above all, he sought to extract scientific examples for his own catechetical and prophetic teachings, while also providing some original contributions to science by leaving records of observations of comets and other astronomical events.

In Father António Vieira’s writings we can find references both to ancient authors – Aristotle, whom he learned in Jesuit schools, as was the norm – and to modern authors. His presence in the history of science in Portugal started by being one of the first, if not the first, to mention some contents of the work Discours de la méthode (1637) by René Descartes (1596-1650). In the seventeenth century, the rainbow was considered “one of the main ornaments of the throne of God” and, as it is written in Genesis, the sign of the Old Covenant that God had celebrated with men after the Flood. But Descartes, although not the first to do so, presented, in an appendix on Les Météores, in the Discours de la méthode, a scientific description of the rainbow, as the refraction and reflection of sunlight in drops of water. Therefore, he demonstrated that the phenomenon was just an image of sunlight seen by human eyes. In a way, it was an illusion.

In one of the sermons of the Blessed Sacrament (delivered in Lisbon in 1645, just eight years after the publication of Descartes’ revolutionary book), Vieira says: “In the Iris, or Heavenly Arch, all our eyes will swear they are seeing varieties of colors; and yet true Philosophy teaches that in that Arch there are no colors, but light, and water” (Vieira 2013, II, VI, 84). Later, in the “Sermon on the second Sunday of Lent”, preached in the Royal Chapel of Lisbon in 1651, Vieira states: “This, which we call Sky, is a blue lie, and what we call Iris, or Heavenly Arch, is another lie of three colors” (Vieira 2013, II, III, 49). In the “Sermon on the fifth Wednesday of Lent”, also given at the Misericórdia of Lisbon in 1669, he considers the rainbow as a phenomenon originated by the refraction of light, as Descartes explained: “The peasant, because he is ignorant, sees a great variety of colors, in what he calls Rainbow [Old Covenant]; but the Philosopher, because he is wise, and knows that even the light deceives (when it bends), sees that there are no colors, but colored mistakes, and illusions of the sight” (Vieira 2013, II, IV, 215).

On the other hand, Father António Vieira, while knowing the heliocentric thesis of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), published in 1543, in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [The revolutions of the celestial orbs], and later defended by Galileo, did not agree with it, as it should be expected. About the Copernican system, Vieira wrote in the “Sermon of the first Sunday of Advent”, which he preached in the Royal Chapel in 1651: “Copernicus, a distinguished mathematician of the next century, invented a new world system, in which he demonstrated, or wanted to demonstrate (albeit wrongly) that it was not the Sun that moved, and followed the world, but that this very Earth, on which we live, without feeling it, is the one that moves, and always goes around. It is when the Earth turns around that it discovers the Sun, and we say it rises, and when it has just turned around another turn, then the Sun disappears, and we say that it sets. And the wonder of this new invention is that its assumption entails the entire functioning of the universe, and the proportions of the stars, and measurements of the times with the same punctuality, and certainty, with which until now they had been observed, and established in their opposite assumption” (Vieira 2013, II, I, 181-182). Despite the error he finds in Copernicus, he expresses admiration towards the Copernican concept in the following expression: “the wonder of this new invention”. In the “Sermon on the Sunday sixteenth post Pentecosten”, Vieira clarifies that Copernicus was wrong for contradicting the Sacred Scriptures: “There was an old opinion held by many Philosophers that it was not the Sun that moved and went around the world, and it remained always fixed, and immobile, and this earth that we are on is the one that moves, without us feeling it, taking us along with it […]. But this opinion, or mathematical imagination, as it has returned in our times, has also been condemned as erroneous, for going against the Sacred Scriptures” (Vieira 2013, II, V, 287).

In Portugal, although the heliocentric ideas were already known to Pedro Nunes in the sixteenth century, they took a long time to find general acceptance. Even during the late eighteenth century they were seen with reservation in Lusitanian lands.

However, Vieira was modern in many ways. Having crossed the ocean several times and being an excellent observer of the reality of the tropics, he realized the extraordinary added value that the Portuguese observations on new lands, new species, new people, and new cultures, had for the expansion of human knowledge. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, empirical knowledge started to oppose the knowledge of the old authorities. In the “Sermon on the third Sunday of Advent,” Vieira says: “There was nothing more settled in antiquity than the fact that the torrid Zone was uninhabitable: and the reasons used by the Philosophers were apparently so evident, that nobody denied it. Then the Pilots and Portuguese sailors discovered the coast of Africa, and of America, and gathered more new knowledge and a new philosophy in a single day of observation than all the Wise Men and Philosophers of the world in five thousand years of speculation. The ones who have not seen these places merely have words: those who have spoken prophecy” (Vieira 2013, II, I, 262).

A good example of the contrast between ancient and modern knowledge is the case of the existence of human beings in the antipodes. In “Memorial”, also known as “Defense of the book entitled Fifth Empire”, it is stated that the Portuguese knew more about the subject than the ancients: “About the Torrid Zone and the Antipodes, I said that the Portuguese pilots, without knowing how to read or write, taught the world things that Aristotle or Saint Augustine did not know, due to the difference of times. And time, being the best interpreter of prophecies, as the same Fathers profess; it may well happen without wonder or presumption, that a much less wise man can understand, after years of experience and successes, some of the prophecies that the ancient wise and holy men did not know because they lacked this experience” (Vieira 2013, III, IV, 439).

In his work História do Futuro, Vieira reiterated the same idea, glorifying the achievements of the Portuguese: “Is Antiquity the sole owner of knowledge? […] Are the Ancients like the pitchers of <sareptana> (comparison used by Ruperto), which, after they were full, the miraculous source ran out of oil? Was there in this great ocean of sciences any Vitória ship that traveled the whole sea? Or some Gama who, after passing the Cape of Good Hope, would stop others from having further discoveries? And if after this famous circle of the universe there were still unknown seas and lands left that promise new labors to new Argonauts, possible only in the sphere of wisdom and truth, whose immense and infinite circumference can only embrace it […] why would not the believers and worshipers of Antiquity believe that, after so much has been told, there are still much more to be said, and after so much has been written, so much more is there to be written, and after so much has been studied and known, there is still much more to be studied and learned?” (Vieira 2013, III, I, 163-164)


References & Bibliography:

Primary Sources

  • Descartes (1637), René, Discours de la Méthode [1637 edition], in (accessed in 25-3-19).
  • Vieira (2013), António, Padre António Vieira. Obra Completa, direção de José Eduardo Franco and Pedro Calafate, 4 tom. & 30 vols., Lisbon: Circulo de Leitores, 2013ff.

Secondary Sources

  • Carvalho (1985), Rómulo de. Astronomia em Portugal no século xviii, Lisbon: Instituto de História e Cultura Portuguesa, 1985.
  • Lins (1956), Ivan, “O Padre Antônio Vieira e a ‘História das Idéias no Brasil’ do Professor Cruz Costa”, in Revista de História, USP, v. 13, n. 27 (1956), pp. 149-175 [online text accessed in 25-3-19].
  • Menez (2012), Sezinando Luiz, and COSTA, Célio Juvenal. “Sobre cometas e arco-íris: Antônio Vieira, os jesuítas, o conhecimento revelado e a ciência moderna”, in História Unisinos, 16, 3 (2012), pp. 369-378 [online text accessed in 25-3-19].

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