The Galileo / Church Conflict (1604-1642)
The great obstacle to learning in the late 16th
century was the dominance of Aristotle's writings, especially his account of the
universe, whose central feature, famously, was that the Sun revolved around the
Earth, which stood still. Aristotle's own contemporaries - Democritus among them
- took the opposite view, but Aristotle decisively won the battle of ideas when
he was adopted by the early Christian church: the fixity of his conceptions made
them eminently controllable; crucially, too, they chimed exactly with the
account found in the Bible.
-century endorsement of Aristotle's writings gave them the force of revealed
truth, which meant that scientists were up against two incontestable
authorities, classical and scriptural.
Galileo proceeded as if both were irrelevant, and though shrewd enough not to be
combative about the difference between what Aristotle and the Bible said and
what he himself observed, he discussed his ideas freely among his intellectual
equals in the wonderfully named Academy of Lynxes - the sharp-eyed ones -
writing his thoughts down in pamphlets and books in witty, accessible Italian
(rather than Latin, the official language of intellectual discourse).
He took it
as read that the Bible was not the literal truth and that Copernicus's theories
about the rotation of the Earth around the Sun were sound. For this he was
increasingly denounced, at first unofficially - "geometry is of the devil", a
rogue Dominican priest ringingly declared from his pulpit, "and mathematicians
should be banished as the authors of all heresies" - but then more widely.
Vexed, he decided to get papal approval for his writings.
The shrewd, reactionary Cardinal Bellarmine demanded of him that he undertake to
teach and discuss Copernicus's theory merely as a hypothesis; Galileo sensibly
accepted this limitation, went home and immediately started writing even more
provocatively. He simply couldn't believe that the authorities really meant what
they said: that if he spoke the truth honestly and decently he would be severely
His vivacious third book provoked a storm when the new pope became
convinced that he was the butt of its sparkling satire. As Urban VIII, the
formerly sympathetic Cardinal Barberini had taken to disinterring heretics to
display their rotting remains to the populace. These were dangerous times, and
intellectual dissent was a luxury which would no longer be indulged.
When it was discovered by the Holy Office that Galileo had, in an earlier work,
The Assayer, espoused the atomic theory of matter, he was held by implication to have criticised the Eucharist. To question the mystical doctrine of
transubstantiation was an even greater transgression than to assert the
universe's heliocentricity, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to answer the
charges against him.
In White's brilliant account of Galileo's
trial, recently discovered
documents that make clear the centrality of the issue of transubstantiation (of the Eucharist).
comparison with many other alleged heretics - Giordano Bruno, for example, who
was burned at the stake - Galileo, who was merely threatened with torture, had a
relatively kid-gloved experience. It nearly broke him, nonetheless. But not
quite. After returning home, despite being under house arrest, he was allowed to
receive visitors (among them Milton and Hobbes); he continued, blind though he was, to speculate, writing his final revolutionary work,
The Discourses, in his eighth decade, still able, in his son's words, to crack a
- from Simon Callow, The Guardian Aug. 4 2007