Scientist Versus Simpleton
The remains of Galileo Galilei — physicist, astronomer, philosopher, and tactical self-censor — lie entombed in marble at the Church of Santa Croce, in Florence. Or, rather, most of Galileo lies there. In 1737, as his body was being transferred from the place where it had been secretly kept (ecclesiastical authorities for years would not permit its interment in a consecrated church) to the monument in Santa Croce, a group of admirers removed one of Galileo’s vertebrae, one of his teeth, and three of his fingers. The vertebra — specifically, the fifth lumbar vertebra — is today preserved at a medical school in Padua. One of the fingers has long been on display in a glass orb at a science museum in Florence that was renovated and in 2010 rechristened the Museo Galileo. The remaining body parts — a thumb, the index finger of the right hand, and an upper left premolar — were missing for more than a hundred years. To general astonishment, they turned up not long ago at auction, and have now joined the finger on display in Florence.
Some visitors to the Museo have professed consternation that the body parts of a man of science should be exhibited as if they were the relics of a saint. Perhaps the response should be that other men of science have at least now been able to have a go at him. An analysis of Galileo’s upper left premolar by the surgical dentist Cesare Paoleschi suggests that Galileo suffered from gastric reflux and also that he ground his teeth.
He had plenty of reason to worry, caught up as he was in protracted negotiations with the Inquisition over what he could or could
not say on the matter of heliocentrism — the contention, first advanced by Copernicus, and at odds with scripture, that the Sun was
stationary and the planet Earth in orbit around it. A vast amount of scholarship has been devoted to the Galileo case, scrutinizing every moment, every fact, every motivation and interpretation. As with the Kennedy assassination or the Alger Hiss prosecution, the documentation and theorizing can seem impenetrable, though the essence of the story is simple: Galileo’s views posed a challenge, and the Church set out to contain it. The Vatican would eventually admit, in 1992, that it had erred in the matter; the pope called the episode a “sad misunderstanding that now belongs to the past.” Over the centuries, the Galileo affair has been mined by historians and polemicists for its lessons. One lesson has to do with the way dishonesty becomes routine: how a regime of orthodoxy and censorship forces all parties into a game of winks and nods.
Galileo’s ordeal must be seen against the backdrop of what had happened to Giordano Bruno. Bruno was born in 1548, not far from
Naples, and entered the Dominican Order at the age of seventeen. An iconoclast by nature, he never wore the Dominican habit easily, and eventually shed it altogether. He was renowned at an early age for his capacious recall, which had been trained in a system known as artificial memory; at the age of twenty-one he demonstrated his skills to Pope Pius V, reciting Psalm 86 forward and backward, in Hebrew. But his tastes ran to forbidden literature (he was once disciplined for keeping a book by Erasmus hidden in a privy), and his intellectual interests came to encompass mathematics, cosmology, magic, and the various illicit speculations that the Reformation had unleashed. Bruno embraced the ideas of Copernicus but went further, broaching the concept of a universe without end, with an infinity of stars and planets, and continuously unfolding acts of Creation. Why should there have been only one Adam and Eve — and if there were many, why should they all make the same mistake? Ideas like that make for good science fiction but bad Catholic theology.
Bruno spent most of his life moving from place to place throughout Europe, his peremptory personality and sharp tongue exhausting
the patience of one protector after another. Oxford took him in; he repaid the favor by describing the university as a “constellation of the ignorant, pedantic, and obstinate, and a mass of donkey and swine.” The Inquisition had its eye on him very early, and at last took him into custody when he returned to Italy, in 1592. The original interrogation and trial transcripts have been lost, but summaries survive, and it is clear that Bruno was willing to recant on some matters. On others he proved adamant. The issues were mainly theological rather than scientific. His interactions with the formidable Robert Bellarmine, one of the judges, proved particularly intense. The two men were intellectual equals and implacable antagonists, each believing that he carried a torch for truth. Positions hardened on both sides. In the end, Bruno was sentenced to death. Bellarmine concurred in the judgment, but was haunted ever afterward by the outcome. How could he have failed to persuade the man?
The Bruno case may have influenced the way he dealt with Galileo sixteen years later. Bellarmine, a Jesuit, was the most brilliant theologian of his age — five feet, three inches tall, but a towering figure. His remains, in a cardinal’s red robes, lie in state behind glass under a side altar at Rome’s Church of Sant’Ignazio. Bellarmine was intimately familiar with the advanced scientific thinking of his time. He had even viewed celestial objects through that new device, the telescope. Bellarmine was a cardinal-inquisitor, but he had waged his own battles with the Index, which he had the misfortune to head. Its methods taxed his patience, and could be acidic in his reactions. He certainly understood the challenge to scripture if Copernicus was right, but he also understood that there were two ways out of the box: heliocentrism could be condemned, or scripture could be reinterpreted (“with great caution”). Bellarmine and Galileo agreed on one thing: the Copernican theory had not yet been irrefutably proved. Given that fact, Bellarmine would continue to rely primarily on scripture. Galileo, for his part, knew where the evidence pointed. But he was no Bruno. He was a meticulous scientist, not an irascible dreamer. He enjoyed the support of loyal friends and powerful patrons. He was on good terms with popes.
Both men labored within a system whose redlines were clear but also subject to change; indeed, many in the Church wanted the lines drawn tighter. It is possible to see Bellarmine and Galileo as complicit in temporizing — pushing freedom to the nearest boundary and no further. In the famous settlement of 1616, Bellarmine denounced the Copernican system as false but allowed it to be discussed as a hypothesis; Galileo conceded for the record that this was all he had ever meant to do. It was a pragmatic accommodation, the kind made throughout history: minds seek room to maneuver in a dangerous environment. Robust and outspoken opinion is replaced by oblique suggestion or calculated silence, by trimming and feinting. It was the strategy of writers in the Soviet Union. It was the path Thomas More sought to take in his contest with his king. Galileo thought the accommodation
It would fall apart in 1632, when Galileo published his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” By then, Bellarmine was
dead, and Galileo crossed a line in his book, perhaps without intending to. The two world systems were the Ptolemaic (the Sun revolves around Earth) and the Copernican (the other way around), and although the dialogue was set up as a discussion of hypotheses, the character arguing the geocentric case was given the name Simplicio, which can be interpreted as “Simpleton.” The pope, Urban VIII, took this hard. He had in fact encouraged Galileo to write the book, and to include his own papal views on the matter; now he saw them advanced none too adroitly, in the mouth of a figure who seemed never to get the best of the argument. The Dialogue had been provisionally approved by censors in Florence, but the action moved quickly to Rome, where Galileo was made to stand trial. This time there would be no accommodation. As one historian has noted, the trial was not about science but about obedience: “Concern for truth had evolved into concern for authority and power.” Old and sick, Galileo abjured any belief in the Copernican system, and lived out the rest of his days under house arrest. The story is told that after submitting to the judgment that Earth is stationary, Galileo muttered under his breath, “And yet it moves!” There is no evidence that he did so. However, the
item under glass in the Museo Galileo is without question a middle finger.
Excerpted from GOD’S JURY: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy. Copyright (c) 2012 by Cullen Murphy. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.