You are here

Understanding the Galileo Affair: the Uses of History in the Subsequent Contexts

1998

 We have been suggesting that a richer understanding of the Galileo affair can be gained if we refrain from squeezing it into a preconceived mould. It is also instructive to see how the story has been used in subsequent historical contexts. As a deeply symbolic episode in the cultural history of Europe it has been endlessly reconstructed to satisfy new needs and to support new agendas. So many different images of Galileo have been constructed that one scholar has wryly referred to a ‘trial of Galileos’. [1]

An obvious place to start would be with the early histories written by Roman Catholic scholars in the defence and exoneration of their Church. Their writing was all the more urgent because there was undoubtedly a current of opinion within Catholic Europe that Galileo had been unjustly treated. [2] It could always be argued that through his disobedience he had been responsible for his own downfall. One could point to his impetuosity, to the scorn he arrogantly poured on others. It was not difficult to paint a picture in which he had tried to foist the Copernican system on his Church before he had decisive proof. Within what we might call a conservative Catholic historiography, it would be taken for granted that the Church has a moral right to discipline its members. The immorality could always be imputed to Galileo who, at his trial in 1633, had denied what was manifestly true — that he had championed, in print, the moving earth. [3]

There were many variations on these themes. In attacks on the cogency of Galileo’s science, it would sometimes be said that his proof from the tides was misconceived. With even more ingenuity, unfavourable contrasts would later be drawn between Galileo and Kepler. The trick here was to say that the Copernican theory, as defended by Galileo, was in fact false. Galileo had continued to regard a circular motion for the planets as natural, despite Kepler’s proof that they moved in ellipses. Taking the system as a whole, Galileo was wrong. Because of this, the Church might be excused for stamping on inferior science! The arguments were not always that devious, but there would usually be reference to the inconclusiveness of the scientific evidence at the time.

It is striking that when the Church's position eventually changed in the early 1820s, the history of science gained a peculiar significance. Giuseppe Settele, a professor of astronomy at the University of Rome, was given permission by the Commissary of the Holy Office to present the Copernican system as fact rather than hypothesis, but only on the condition that he showed his readers that the scientific difficulties with which the system had once been beset were no longer cogent. [4] This shift had at least two consequences. By 1835, Copernican books, including Galileo’s Dialogue, were removed from the Index. And henceforward Catholic scientists could cite the Galileo affair as a warning of what would happen again if a scientific doctrine that might ultimately prevail were outlawed. The Catholic evolutionist St George Mivart would present himself as a latter-day Galileo when his relations with Rome deteriorated in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

New histories often reflect new historical circumstances. We can perhaps best appreciate this from recent events. Why did Pope John Paul II choose to encourage new historical initiatives? One answer that he gave was to help avoid similar mistakes in the future. It was recognised that the Church had burdened itself with an image of repression that elicits scorn from those who value the autonomy of the sciences. As others have observed, it can hardly be coincidence that a Polish pope should take so distinctive an interest in the treatment accorded the theory of a Polish astronomer. But if there has been a re-writing of history and a frank admission of error, it is not the end of the story. One recent biographer of Galileo, James Reston, remains disillusioned. Having asked why the latest official statements contain no specific criticism of Pope Urban VIII, he was told that this was because the Commission’s study was about events not personalities. As the author of a lively study of the personalities involved, Reston found this reply lame. To be told that the errors had been made by Galileo’s judges, not by Urban VIII, was a hard pill to swallow if one believed that Urban had been involved in the orchestration of events. [5] In the eyes of a Catholic biographer of Galileo there is still unfinished business. [6]

What of the alternative historiographical traditions in which Galileo has been the hero, the scientific genius, the brilliant empiricist who unequivocally had the truth on his side? From his trial and tribulation messages of contemporary relevance have been repeatedly drawn. His first biographer, Vincenzio Viviani, launched the heroic Galileo. Although Galileo’s date of birth is usually given as 15 February 1564, Viviani wanted it to be 18 February because it would then be the same day on which Michelangelo had died. Florence could then boast its unbroken succession of genius. As Michelangelo had been made the patron-saint of the artists, so Galileo might become the same for the mathematical philosophers. [7] It had been the fashion in Renaissance biography to project an image of the artist as a child prodigy, gifted with an almost supernatural knowledge of nature. An artist’s date of birth would assume the highest significance, as if a god were being born. To conform to literary taste a little ‘image enhancement’ was the order of the day. [8] Viviani, writing in Italian for a cultured audience, duly obliged. Galileo was the child prodigy who had been self-taught, had read his first Latin authors at a tender age, had learned Greek, mastered the lute and shown exceptional promise as a painter. For an audience that would appreciate the force of visual demonstration more than mathematics, Viviani gave them Galileo the shrewd observer, the acute experimenter. He was only nineteen, according to Viviani, when he inferred the principle of the pendulum from a swinging lamp in Pisa cathedral. And he was still a young man when he spectacularly refuted Aristotle on falling bodies. Did the rate of fall depend on the weight of the object, as Aristotle had taught? Such a view could not withstand the simple test of experiment. Ostentatiously dropping different weights from the leaning tower of Pisa, Galileo showed they hit the ground simultaneously. Viviani even spoke of ‘repeated experiments in the presence of other lecturers and philosophers and all the student body. [9]

There is only one problem with these towering images. They are almost certainly untrue. The swinging lamp that so transfixed Galileo was not itself fixed in the cathedral until four years after the date assigned by Viviani. As for the constant frequency of the pendulum swing, this was not mentioned by Galileo himself until some fifteen years later. The story of the leaning tower became so embellished in later accounts that some wit once calculated that if Galileo had really dropped the massive weights ascribed to him, they would have sunk so far into the foundations that he and the tower would have crumbled to the ground. The evidence suggests that at the time he was allegedly conducting his experiment Galileo still believed that objects made from different materials would fall at different rates. And what he actually reported was an even more curious result — that when balls of lead and wood were released simultaneously, the wood got off to a flying start, only to be overtaken by the lead in due course. [10] One of the most heroic images of Galileo is at the very least distorted.

Viviani was associated with the Tuscan court throughout his life. In Galileo’s declining years, he had become his amanuensis. The brief life that he composed reflected the biographical style of his day and a desire to defend his master’s reputation. Not everyone of his generation would have accepted his portrayal of the discerning empiricist. There were practical men like the unfortunate gunner Giovanni Battista Renieri who aimed his artillery in accord with Galileo’s theory of projectiles, only to complain that he kept missing his target. He had to be reminded by Galileo’s pupil Torricelli that his master spoke the language of geometry and was not bound by any empirical result. [11] The methods of the real Galileo were certainly more subtle than Viviani implied. But his narrative provided the raw materials for many later accounts in which Galileo would be cast as the heroic founder of modem science. One could set the heroic interpreter of nature against the obscurantism of the Church and so create a parable for one’s own time. Wherever anti-Catholic and anticlerical feelings ran high, as they so often did in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Galileo would become an emblem for the causes of secularity and freedom of enquiry.

During the nineteenth century a hagiographic line became so entrenched, especially in Italy, that to question it was to suffer ignominy. A serious, six volume, reappraisal was made by Raffaello Caverni in the 1890s. One of his concerns was that Galileo had scooped the credit for many innovations that should be properly ascribed to his predecessors and contemporaries. But nobody wished to know. Since the unification of Italy, Galileo had been such a national hero that dissenting scholarship was marginalised. [12] In the English-speaking world, the 1870s saw John Draper returning to the Galileo affair when blasting new claims for papal infallibility. ‘What a spectacle!’, Draper exclaimed. ‘This venerable man, the most illustrious of his age, forced by the threat of death to deny facts which his judges as well as himself knew to be true! He was then committed to prison, treated with remorseless severity during the remaining ten years of his life.’ [13] Here is a classic statement of the mythology with which we began. Galileo’s judges condemned him knowing that he was right. [14]

In the twentieth century the fate of Galileo was to have a profound contemporary relevance for Bertolt Brecht struggling against the oppression of Hitler and the Nazis in the late 1930s. In his play, The Life of Galileo, a drama unfolds in which the characters are all too human: we recognise vanity, passion, cunning, loyalty, betrayal and humiliation. For this reason, the play has a certain timeless quality: it has been described as a human tragedy of universal significance. [15] But it is also a play deeply rooted in its time. The pressing moral issue was how the responsible intellectual should behave in the face of an oppressive and terrifying regime. Through the life of Galileo, Brecht could explore the issue of intellectual liberty in the face of an absolute power. The issue was not now science versus religion. Brecht was using the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day as an example, a symbol of autocratic power. We should not forget that there were frightening parallels in Nazi Germany. A Nobel Prize winner, the physicist Philipp Lenard had sought to banish Einstein from the community of scientists and was now busy on a substantial work of ‘German Physics’ designed to show that physics was an Aryan subject to which Jews had made no contribution. [16] It would be difficult to find a more telling example of the ideological uses of history. In his play Brecht tackled the question of how truth could be spread in the face of oppression. The answer had to be illegally, as Galileo had done when smuggling his last great work out of the house where it had been completed.

In writing his play Brecht was forced to think about the moral responsibility of scientists themselves. He disliked the view that they should accumulate knowledge in ivory towers, with never a thought for the welfare of humanity. Once again there were events in the late 1930s that gave this question a new urgency. Scientists themselves were speaking of a new age in which undreamed-of energy could be unleashed from the atom. But with war looming, Brecht immediately saw that the scientists’ dreams could turn into nightmares. He would write the prophetic line that ‘practically every new invention is greeted with a shout of triumph, which immediately turns into a cry of horror’. [17] On 6 August 1945 the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

We have been referring to the contemporary relevance of the Galileo affair in the sense that each generation has found its own meanings in those events of long ago. New perspectives can come into force with explosive suddenness. Brecht was working on an English version of his play when the bomb fell. ‘Overnight’, he wrote, ‘the biography of the founder of modern physics had to be read differently. The infernal effect of the huge bomb projected the conflict between Galileo with the authorities of his day into a new, sharper light.’ [18]

Philosophers as well as playwrights have seen contemporary relevance in Galileo’s life. In 1975 Paul Feyerabend published a book with the provocative title Against Method. His opposition was directed against attempts to construct formal accounts of scientific methodology which had the effect of imposing a spurious uniformity on disparate scientific practices. Feyerabend’s aim was to show that ‘science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise’. [19] History was the perfect accomplice. With acknowledgement to Lenin, he set out his stall: history generally, and the history of revolutions in particular, is always richer in content, more varied, more many-sided, more lively and subtle than even the best historian and the best methodologist can imagine. [20] Streamlined histories of science that purported to show the success of a unique and privileged methodology were a form of ‘brainwashing’ that had to be resisted. [21] What the history of science really showed was that progress had been made by breaking every rule in the book. [22] The proliferation of theories was to be encouraged. In fact the only principle that does not inhibit progress is that anything goes. [23]

Galileo’s attempt to prove that the earth goes was now enlisted in support of this more chaotic image of science. On Feyerabend’s reading we must emphatically not begin from the premise that Galileo had the truth on his side. There is a sense in which the Copernican system could be said to have been refuted. Only with ad hoc assumptions, such as the expansion of the universe, could it be saved. Nor was it obvious that the images Galileo had seen through his telescope were to be trusted. In fact his own report of the lunar surface showed a crater so large that it ought to be visible to the naked eye. Since the circle did not square with what could be seen, Feyerabend spoke of another ‘refuted view’ — that is the view that telescopic phenomena are faithful images of the sky. [24] Speaking now as a historian, Feyerabend pressed his interpretation: ‘while the pre-Copernican astronomy was in trouble... the Copernican theory was in even greater trouble; but... being in harmony with still further inadequate theories it gained strength, and was retained, the refutations being made ineffective by ad hoc hypotheses and clever techniques of persuasion’. [25] A long way indeed from the triumphalist rhetoric of scientific rationalism.

Feyerabend was speaking to a generation that, in his view, had come to revere too much the scientific experts with their stylised images of scientific rationality. Images of uniformity, whether of theory or practice, conveyed by the scientific community positively endangered ‘the free development of the individual’. [26] Nor did he pull any punches. As the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual, it followed that ‘the separation of state and church must be supplemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution’. [27] Tendentiously he wrote of science as a kind of superstition. And, horror of horrors to those on the inside, he even envisaged circumstances in which the State, political party or the Church might have to interfere in order to re-direct research priorities. [28] We seem to have come full circle. But times have changed again. In the 1990s we are more conscious of the need to restore public confidence in scientific expertise and to reverse that broader cultural trend towards the devaluation of scientific authority which has taken turns that even Feyerabend may not have envisaged in the 1970s.

Do we have a Galileo for today? Because fashions change within the practice of history, new images keep appearing. Galileo the courtier appeared in 1993. His advocate Mario Biagioli showed how at critical junctures in Galileo’s career his fortunes were tied to his quest for patronage. [29] Thus his dedication of the moons of Jupiter to the Medici family was a calculated gift, part of the etiquette that he hoped would win him the patronage of the new Grand Duke Cosimo II whom he had earlier taught. It worked wonderfully well and in 1610 he was able to leave Padua for Florence. Here he enjoyed not merely more leisure for his work, but enhanced social status as court philosopher. Biagioli notes the earnest diplomacy through which he secured for himself that title: not merely mathematician but philosopher to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The distinction was emblematic of the status Galileo wished to confer on the Copernican system: no mere mathematical device but a physical system worthy the attention and defence of the philosopher. [30] Later in his career Galileo courted his friend Barberini when he became Urban VIII. This time the dedication of his book The Assayer to the new Pope was the self-commending gift. Papal patronage, after all, would be the most glittering prize. From this courtly perspective many features of Galileo’s behaviour can be seen in a new light.

For example, it was part of one’s duty as a court philosopher to respond to the provocation of others because the honour of one’s patron was at stake. One had no choice but to retaliate and the dispute had the character of a duel. This helps us to understand the vituperative, insulting style that Galileo would adopt in such disputes. It was all part of what was expected in a good duel. [31] Galileo’s aggressive style has often been seen as a character trait that helps to explain his downfall. As Arthur Koestler once put it, with every argument that he won he was apt to make a new enemy. [32] But, as Biagioli observes, ‘once it is contextualised within these patronage dynamics Galileo’s well known aggressive and sarcastic style ceases to be just a character trait’. [33] Biagioli’s line, that science was an admirable subject for a duel, makes it appropriate to talk about the patron’s aesthetics of good sport. [34] This may seem a long way from heavy issues concerning scientific truth; but, on Biagioli’s reading, it is not because one of the rules of the game was that one should not bring the debate to a definitive conclusion. The sport lay in the sparring, the rhetorical display, not in what the sociologists of science call closure. This may be the reason, Biagioli suggests, why Galileo was so insistently told that he should present the Copernican system only as a hypothesis. When it suited his purpose, he would play by the rules, as in his controversy with Grassi. On the nature of comets he did not commit himself to any one theory. [35] But, as Biagioli points out, he did not play by the rules in his Dialogue. There he thwarted the ‘refined eclecticism’ that conventionally protected the patron from having to take a stand. [36]

What light does this shed on the trial itself? Biagioli suggests that the rise and fall of Galileo conforms to a well documented pattern in the courtly life of the period: the rise and fall of a favourite, whose fall, once triggered, becomes absolute, swift and inexorable. [37] A characteristic of many such falls was the pretext spelled out by the patron: he had been betrayed. [38] And because he had been betrayed by a close friend there was no alternative but to take decisive action. The way Urban VIII spoke of Galileo was in precisely these terms. As we have already seen, it was not difficult for him to do so. His own wishes concerning the Dialogue had certainly not been respected.

We may also ask what bearing this may have on traditional accounts of the ‘conflict between religion and science’. Biagioli is perfectly explicit on this point. The conflict between a Christianised Aristotelian and a Copernican cosmology was certainly a trigger that precipitated this most famous of trials. But his thesis is that ‘the events of 1633 were as much the result of a clash between the dynamics and tensions of baroque court society and culture as they were caused by a clash between Thomistic theology and modem cosmology’. [39]


[1] N. Jardine, ‘A trial of Galileos’, Isis, 85 (1994), 279-83.

[2] The warmth of hospitality shown to Galileo by Ascanio Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena, following the sentence of house-arrest, has been taken to epitomise the unease of the more open-minded. Reston, Galileo: A Life, New York, 1994, 268; Fantoli, Galileo: For Copernicanism and For the Church, Vatican, 1994, 510.

[3] Fantoli attaches particular weight to the perceived mendacity of Galileo in turning the more unyielding of his judges against him. Ibid., 425 and 477.

[4] Ibid., 475.

[5] Reston, Galileo: A Life, New York 1994, 285. It would be extremely difficult to delete Urban’s involvement. See, for example, M.A. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, Berkeley, 1989, 38.

[6] M. Sharratt, Galileo: Decisive Innovator, Oxford, 1994, 215-16.

[7] M. Segre, In the Wake of Galileo, New Brunswick, 1991, 116-22; M. Biagioli, Galileo Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism, Chicago, 1993, 87-8.

[8] Segre, ibid., 123.

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] Sharratt, op. cit., 50.

[11] Segre, op. cit., 43-4.

[12] Ibid., 44-5.

[13] J.W. Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875), 18th ed., London, 1883, 171-2.

[14] A few pages later, Draper included a passage which, had he thought through its implications, might have checked his allegation. He noted that there had been arguments against the Copernican system, particularly that of Tycho Brahe concerning the absence of stellar parallax. In reply to Tycho it had been said that the stars must be so far from the earth that the predicted effect is imperceptible. Draper knew that ‘this answer proved to be correct’. Ibid., 176. It proved to be; but when? In 1633 this expansion of the universe could still look like an ad hoc hypothesis designed to save the Copernican theory. On Draper’s own account, two hundred years were to elapse before the parallax of Alpha Centauri was observed. Ibid., 176. But his sights had been set elsewhere.

[15] Finocchiaro, op. cit., 4.

[16] F. Ewen, Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art and His Times, London, 1970, 333.

[17] Ibid., 339.

[18] Ibid., 342.

[19] P. Feyerabend, Against Method, London, 1975, 17.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 19.

[22] One such rule, called by Feyerabend the consistency condition, dictated that new hypotheses must be in accord with accepted theories. This he considered an unreasonable prescription because it preserves the older, not necessarily the better, theory. Ibid., 11. There was, he believed, a kind of chauvinism within scientific communities that militated against what was really beneficial: the proliferation of theories.

[23] Ibid., 10.

[24] Ibid., 130-5.

[25] Ibid., 143.

[26] Ibid., 11.

[27] Ibid., 15.

[28] Ibid., 52.

[29] Biagioli, op. cit.

[30] Ibid., 89, 106-10, 128-9.

[31] Ibid., 61.

[32] A. Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, Harmondsworth, 1964, 458-9.

[33] Biagioli, op. cit., 66, 71, 277; Jardine, op., cit., 281. This need not lead to a whitewash of Galileo. There was a determination in his manner that attracted adverse comment. At the moment of crisis in 1616 one observer noted the ‘violence’ with which he forced his views on others. Reston, op. cit., 166.

[34] Biagioli, op. cit., 75.

[35] Ibid., 303-5.

[36] Ibid., 301-3, 310.

[37] Ibid., 333-52.

[38] Ibid., 333.

[39] Ibid., 10.

J. Brooke, G. Cantor, Reconstructing Nature. The Engagement of Religion and Science (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), pp. 122-130.