Christian Mythstory: Galileo


Of all the extant Christian mythstories, none is perhaps so pernicious as that involving the famed Galileo Galilei. For the modern mythmaker, Galileo’s trial and condemnation is often seen as the sine qua non of the inherent and irreconcilable conflict between science and faith.

The mythstory makes for exciting drama: the brilliant and committed scientist unafraid to stare truth in the face and be guided by the light of reason squares off-against incredible odds- with the darkened machinery of religious dogma, crushing all who dissent in its mandibles of ignorance and error.

Other toned down versions exist, of course.

  1. Christianity was so opposed and frightened by science that it had to marshall its power to silence challengers to its waning influence.
  2. The age of faith which had eclipsed the age of reason was in its death throes, lashing out against the nascent lights of science and humanism to protect its outmoded beliefs.
  3. The notion that the earth was no longer the center of the universe meant that man was no longer special.

Ad infinitum.

Approaching the Myth

The way in which this particular mythstory is interpreted tends to fall into two categories.

For the proponent of the mythstory, whatever the actual events in question are, the analysis is that, on some level, the trial and condemnation of Galileo represents an underlying animosity between the claims of faith and the claims of science. Even if it is admitted to be a somewhat isolated incident, it frames the question as to whether the two areas of inquiry are able to co-exist, or if one must be held over the other. For the antagonist of faith, there is often seen to be a fundamental disjunction, and thus if one must be preferred over the other, then- especially for the modern- the claims of science clearly take precedence.

On the other hand, those opposed to the mythstory tend to take an opposite approach, often pointing out (generally correctly) that Galileo’s evidence for heliocentrism was lacking, and thus he cannot be held up as a paragon of science. Since he serves (in this opinion) as such a poor representative, the supposed conflict is immediately resolved (or at least diffused) since it is categorically wiped away. Another tactic is to (again rightly) point to Galileo’s peculiar penchant for riling his opponent’s, squandering the good will he once enjoyed with remarkable aplomb.

While I am certainly opposed to the popular conception of the mythstory, there is a rather unsettling resolution in the more common apologetic tactics. True, the ‘science’ that Galileo was familiar with is hardly equivalent to that of the present day, and while he certainly made some rather significant errors, it hardly follows that such considerations render him an unfit representative of the realm of scientific inquiry, broadly speaking. He was certainly considered a formidable mind by his contemporaries, and even modern scholars can appreciate the accomplishments for which he is rightly praised. He was by no means the greatest of his age (indeed, the trial which provoked his mythstory is probably partially responsible for his enduring greatness), but he was nevertheless a luminary.

Thus, while it does no good to inflate our conception of him without warrant, neither is it reasonable to needlessly degrade him in an ill-advised attempt to save face.

Similarly, to reduce the complexities of the events to his irascible temperament is likewise not compelling, for it has the tendency to whitewash the injustice he in fact suffered. The conflict between him and Pope Urban VIII has a very human dimension to it which, while it cannot be construed as being between the archetypes of two competing world views, nevertheless cannot be reduced to mere posturing.

Opening Lines

The essence of the mythstory (from either end) tends to come from viewing history as a grand narrative, placing certain characters into dramatic roles and having them play out some sort of morality play. While perhaps making for good theatre, it makes for bad history.

Events like the trial of Galileo simply cannot be reduced to a morality play. The complex of competing (and sometimes aligning) interests, characters, locations, time periods, political realities and a host of other considerations make any summaries necessarily over-simplified. Historical inquiry is exceptionally difficult since what seems obvious to us centuries removed was not only not obvious, but oftentimes scarcely inconceivable.

For the modern raised with the concept of the motion of the earth relative to another reference frame- accompanied by notions such as gravity that make it work- the medieval cosmological systems (emphasis on the plural) seem quaint at best and stupid at worst, as the taken-for-granted nature of reality that we bring to our understanding of the universe was not shared by the medieval mind. With the help of retrospect (and quite a bit of extrapolation) we can chart the course from geo-centrisms to heliocentrism, from Newtonian physics to relativity, etc., and recognize the arguments that work, the ones that did not not, and understand (to some extent) the difference.

But it simply will not do to proceed as if the things we take for granted should have been obvious- or even capable of being known– to the people in ages past, any more than historians in the far future would expect us to rise above the muddle-headed things we think are so certain which they will no doubt find to be quaint at best, stupid at worst.

Ad infinitum.

Does It Work?

Galileo famously relates that some of the leading philosophers at the universities were too lazy to bother with his telescope:

I think, my Kepler, we will laugh at the extraordinary stupidity of the multitude.  What do you say to the leading philosophers of the faculty here, to whom I have offered a thousand times of my own accord to show my studies, but who with the lazy obstinacy of a serpent who has eaten his fill have never consented to look at planets, nor moon, nor telescope?  Verily, just as serpents close their ears, so do these men close their eyes to the light of truth.  These are great matters; yet they do not occasion any surprise.  People of this sort think that philosophy is a kind of book like the Aeneid or the Odyssey, and that the truth is to be sought, not in the universe, not in nature, but (I use their own words) by comparing texts! [1. Galileo, Letter from Galileo to Kepler, found in Karl Von Gebler, Galileo Galilei, p. 26  (1879)]

The overwrought bombast of such collegial commiseration notwithstanding, the medieval world of Galileo’s time was hardly monolithically lazy or obstinate. The mythstory (with such pithy quotes alongside) often presents Galileo and others with Copernican leanings as brave pioneers venturing their eyes towards the heavens despite the hands of a stale and ignorant orthodoxy dragging them back to earth, but the science of his day (which fell under the term ‘natural philosophy’) was in actuality all a flutter with astronomical innovations.

(As an aside, Galileo actually overstates the case. The ‘philosophers’ in question were actually only one, Cesare Cremonini, who actually had managed to summon up the courage- the brave soul!- to look through a telescope. Given the rather primitive nature of the earliest telescopes, the optical nuances of the lens (such as extreme distortion, chromatic aberration, etc.) made seeing anything difficult, and- if your eyesight was not trained or naturally disposed to such a project- could easily lead to dizziness, somewhat like trying to look at a funhouse mirror for extended periods of time. Cremonini somehow preferred to not be dizzy, and it seems Galileo may have used this as a rhetorical bludgeon.)

Galileo GalileiMuch like the modern day where scientists have to compete for funding, strive to get their papers published and the like, so in Galileo’s time those in the field of natural philosophy faced the same predicament. Securing the patronage of a royal or wealthy house could be extremely lucrative, and even if avarice were not a concern the business of studying the stars was not an inexpensive enterprise. Only the independently wealthy could afford the time and equipment to undertake such a task, and thus having some measure of social grace was essential for courting favor, much as witty repartee was invaluable for the inevitable polemics of publishing.

The ancient world had always been fascinated with the heavens, and many societies had made an art form out of studying the heavens. The positions of the stars, the path of the planets, and the various other phenomena which presented themselves were all within what they would consider astronomy’s purview. For many ancient cultures there was an extremely close (if not nearly identical) relationship between astronomy and astrology, enough to render the more modern category anachronistic. The seeming solidity of the starry sphere and the regularity which existed lent itself quite easily to the notion that human fate was intrinsically tied up in the paths of the stars; thus, to understand, chart and predict those movements was seen in some respects as an insight into the future, almost the inverse of how moderns perceive the heavens as a window into the past.

As Christianity worked into the worldview of the West, a new way of approaching the heavens opened up, in that the astrological significance gradually lost its influence. However, the scriptures themselves drew an inextricable link between the movements of the heavens and the events of salvation history. The heavenly bodies were not in control of the fates of men, but were as much a part of the created order as anything else. Given that they had their origin in the Logos, there was order in the fabric of the universe, an order which could be thus understood. In many ways, this fundamental appreciation of the universe as having an underlying reason led to the conditions whereby men like Galileo could even conceive of the cosmos as they did.

But the paths of the stars had another more practical significance: since Christian teaching asserted that God had actually acted in history, the tenets of faith were not abstractions apart from a concrete reality but had happened in some place and at some time. The feasts and sabbaths of the old covenant  were preparatory for their fulfillment in Christ, the events of whose life were the consummation of all that had come before. Yet for all this fulfillment they still occurred in history, and the robust Christology that developed (buttressed by the Jewish heritage) inevitably entailed that this Christology had a historical character. In other words, since events in Christ’s mission actually happened, they had a ‘when.’ Since this ‘when’ was just as real as the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of Jesus, the same logic which settled the iconoclastic controversy was intrinsically present in commemorating the sacred dates.

Easter prominently set the tone for the Christian calendar which would develop, commemorating the hope of the Christian faith and its justification. But Easter was an actual date just like any other date, and since the Gospels presented a chronology of the events, it was natural and fitting to celebrate the event on the day it occurred. This placed a high premium not only on getting the date right, but always getting it right.

One difficulty- as was common in the ancient world- was that calendars and dates were hard to pin down. Since Easter was calculated in relation to 14 Nisan- a movable feast based on a lunisolar calendar- getting it to line up with Roman calendars was tricky, yet not impossible.

The more pressing concern was calendar drift. It was widely known in the ancient world that a year was not equally divided in 365 days, and various calendars had different ways of keeping dates lined up. But even then it was no easy matter:

Since neither the lunar nor the solar year contains an even number of days, and, moreover, the year does not contain an even number of full moons, and, again, Sundays do not recur regularly on the same calendar dates, the computation of the Easter canon was neither easy nor accurate. Everything depended on exact values of the periods between successive vernal equinoxes and between successive full moons.The key parameter in the Easter calculation was the time of the return of the sun to the same equinox.[2. J. L. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church, p.4]

Thus, Christians began their astronomical endeavors wholly wrapped up in a liturgical project. For much of the 1st millennium AD the study of the heavens in Christian lands was of a more practical nature than in trying to construct the cosmologies that we associate with figures such as Copernicus and Galileo. Much of the Greek and Latin world had the inheritance of the Greeks as far as astronomy went, although in the West its influence was less marked. It was not until the twelfth century that an astronomical crisis gripped the western Church, for

they could see that the parameters of their predecessors no longer gave Easters in harmony with the heavens. In this emergency, popes encouraged the close study of the apparent motions of the sun and moon.[3. ibid., p. 4]

Easter was supposed to coincide with the spring equinox, but after centuries of missing time in the calendar it was becoming clear to anyone with eyes that Easter was being celebrated at a different time of year. It was within this time that the writings of the Greeks made greater inroads into the West, and writers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy rose again in influence. While Western writers had perhaps speculated as to the actual constitution of the cosmos, in Ptolemy they found something seemingly magisterial:

The most important of these texts was Ptolemy’s “Great Compilation,” which showed how to represent the stars, the luminaries (the sun and the moon), and the planets as seen from a stationary earth. Ptolemy’s mathematical hypothesis, that the earth stands at the center of the universe, seemed the most obvious and satisfactory basis for an exact astronomy. Not only did it conform to the evidence of the senses, it fit perfectly with the physical books of Aristotle, then, by 1200, also newly available.[4. ibid., p. 4]

It wasn’t just that Ptolemy’s system was something that seemed authoritative, but it actually seemed to coincide with observation. After all, the stars and the sun and the moon really did seem to move around the earth- anyone looking up at the sky could confirm that. But more to the point, Ptolemy offered a compendium of astronomical movements that was not only elegant, but actually worked. While Ptolemy’s system would undergo constant revision, it was markedly superior in its calculations than previous systems.

By the time of Galileo, observing the heavens was by no means taboo; it was a regular part of the Church and even funded by the Church. The original liturgical impetus came full circle as cathedrals were retrofitted to become solar observatories, since they had the height and stability to make measuring the sun’s rays possible; these meridiae were even aesthetically woven into the cathedral itself, reflecting the beauty of the both projects in one:

Shafts from the sun fall through the dome and windows of the cathedral to make puddles of light on the marble floor. Shadows cast by the obelisk in the square outside serve as a gigantic solar clock. At sunset, rays shining through the stained-glass window over the western altar dramatize the presence, and indicate the aptness, of the sun in the church.[5. ibid., p. 21]

From the beginning we find cracks in the mask of the mythstory, for why should an institution which took such pains to observe the heavens be suddenly so afraid to cast its eyes heavenward? In some ways the very existence of cathedrals dispels the mythstory whole cloth, for the natural and the supernatural here fit together hand in glove. Yet even if one would wish to construe this relationship as motivated primarily by administration[6. ibid., p. 3], one would also admit that

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably, all other, institutions.[7. ibid., pg. 3]

Other writers are more direct:

For, despite all our vague talk of ancient or medieval “science,” pagan, Muslim or Christian, what we mean today by science- its methods, its controls and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws, and son on- came into existence, for whatever reasons, and for better or worse, only within Christendom, and under the hands of believing Christians.[8. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 63]

It is against this backdrop that the mythstory of Galileo must be understood.

Saving the Appearances

While Ptolemy’s work was the classic and the standard for centuries, those who carefully studied it and compared it to their own observations of the heavens recognized that it was not without its flaws. Over time numerous modifications were made to the system, designed primarily to get the model to conform to observation. Ptolemy’s system was not without its difficulties, and many ingenious attempts were constructed to get the motions- especially of the planets- to work right. Part of the problem was bad data- copyist errors and such polluted the tables and caused unexpected incongruities. The dreaded ‘epicycles upon epicycles’ that supposedly characterize the Ptolemaic system were one solution advanced, which, when refined with better data, fared much better and could be simplified.

Copernicus_skyIt is vital to note that most quite readily accepted the geocentric model of Ptolemy, for many of the reasons already adduced. But the exact cosmological reality of the heavens was not necessarily the primary purpose of doing astronomy; rather, the models constructed went under the title of ‘saving the appearances.’ This did not have the connotation of ‘saving face,’ but rather spoke to refining models with the very practical result of getting a system that worked, resulting in accurate predictions of the movements of the heavens.

There is no evidence as to the ‘why’ of Copernicus’ decision to publish his De revolutionibus orbium celestium, but it is long and took him a long time to write- about 40 years or so.[9. J. L. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church, p.8] This massive undertaking was not without its admirers in both the university and within the church. Copernicus was evidently reluctant to initially publish the work, but a bishop and a cardinal convinced him to do so, and he dedicated the work to Pope Paul III. In the dedication he gives a bit of a glimpse (obligatory or not) into the impetus for his work- the movement of the heavenly bodies is still a confused subject, and thus calculating their motions is too arduous a task in the current state of things. With probably more social grace than Galileo was able to muster, Copernicus couches the force of his hypothesis:

Taking this as a starting point, I began to consider the mobility of the Earth; and although the idea seemed absurd, yet because I knew that the liberty had been granted to others before me to postulate all sorts of little circles for explaining the phenomena of the stars, I thought I also might easily be permitted to try whether by postulating some motion of the Earth, more reliable conclusions could be reached regarding the revolution of the heavenly bodies, than those of my predecessors.[10. Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium celestium, Dedication]

He also hedges his bets with a bit of flattery and deference:

In order, however, that both the learned and the unlearned equally may see that I do not avoid anyone’s judgment, I have preferred to dedicate these lucubrations of mine to Your Holiness rather than to any other, because, even in this remote corner of the world where I live, you are considered to be the most eminent man in dignity of rank and in love of all learning and even of mathematics, so that by your authority and judgment you can easily suppress the bites of slanderers, albeit the proverb hath it that there is no remedy for the bite of a sycophant.[11. ibid.]

Sensing that they may be a scriptural objection, Copernicus deftly positions the pontiff:

If perchance there shall be idle talkers, who, though they are ignorant of all mathematical sciences, nevertheless assume the right to pass judgment on these things, and if they should dare to criticise and attack this theory of mine because of some passage of Scripture which they have falsely distorted for their own purpose, I care not at all; I will even despise their judgment as foolish. For it is not unknown that Lactantius, otherwise a famous writer but a poor mathematician, speaks most childishly of the shape of the Earth when he makes fun of those who said that the Earth has the form of a sphere. It should not seem strange then to zealous students, if some such people shall ridicule us also.[12. ibid.]

And with a final stroke of diplomacy, Copernicus folds his project into the greater work of the church and thus seeks to place himself squarely under the pope’s patronage:

Mathematics are written for mathematicians, to whom, if my opinion does not deceive me, our labors will seem to contribute something to the ecclesiastical state whose chief office Your Holiness now occupies; for when not so very long ago, under Leo X, in the Lateran Council the question of revising the ecclesiastical calendar was discussed, it then remained unsettled, simply because the length of the years and months, and the motions of the sun and moon were held to have been not yet sufficiently determined.[13. ibid.]

According to the mythstory, such a rejection of the scriptures and Aristotelian physics prompted religious leaders to start cracking down on astronomers, suppressing books, and probably even burning scientists while they were at it. One might wonder that, if such a reaction was even conceived of as possible by men like Copernicus, why they would bother to dedicate their works to the pope. If such an impasse between science and religion existed, why would rather prominent leaders in the church encourage such seditious acts?

Copernicus’ work hit the world with the impact of a feather on a pillow. Most of the world was quite uninterested in the nature of the cosmos, and those who had either the skill or knowledge to engage the work (who were few in number) could approach it in distinct ways.

Along the lines of astronomy being a matter of ‘saving the appearances,’ there was no necessary relation between a hypothetical model and the reality that the model was describing. The medieval astronomers were nothing if not practical, for if a model got results, there was no real reason to not use it. The religious objection that Copernicus anticipated did not develop to any significant extent; the most notable example is from a  papal advisor whose knowledge of astronomy was nearly equal to his skill in exegesis- practically non-existent. it would seem that this was recognized by his contemporaries since his work remained unpublished, whisked into the archives, perhaps glanced at by a polemicist who had it out for Galileo, but kept tucked out of sight for another five centuries- rightly ignored.

Another Contender

As such, Copernicus’ theories did not meet any significant religious objections for about sixty years. Initially some were excited at Copernicus’ hypothesis since it promised more accurate predictions of the movements of the heavens. This excitement began to wane, however, as the increase in accuracy was not as significant as hoped. Copernicus’ system was still based upon the faulty tables that had plagued previous models, and thus while there was some improvement, it did not furnish overwhelming evidence in its favor.

In fact, Copernicus’ system became old news once the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe came onto the scene. Richly endowed with his own island observatory and the best instruments and assistants that money could buy, Tycho’s observatory was able to significantly improve on the old outdated and faulty tables and construct new, more accurate observations. His work was considered so good that most started using his data in their calculations.

The Ptolemaic system was by this time in its death throes, and Tycho’s data provided the death knell. But rather than embracing the heliocentrism of Copernicus, Tycho’s data breathed new life into geocentrism, since the calculations made within the Tychonic model (a modified version of the Ptolemaic model) were proving to be as accurate- if not more- than Copernicus’. In many cases Tycho’s model was actually simpler and more elegant than Copernicus’ model, and as the geocentric model seemed to comport more readily with observation and the prevailing cosmological worldview that had operated within the medieval world for centuries, there were strong arguments in favor of something along the lines of Tycho’s geocentric model.

Moving Earth Violations

On the other hand, there were some serious objections to the motion of the earth that had yet to be satisfactorily resolved, two that were especially knotty:

1. Stellar parallax

Under the assumption that the earth was in motion, one would expect parallax to be observed in the position of the stars from the earth’s apogee to perigee. At this time there was a range of calculated distances for the stars from the earth, as well as for the various sizes of the stars relative to their brightness. The usual range led observers to think that some parallax would be evident if the earth was moving.

Of course, one arguing for the movement of the earth could argue that the stars were too far away for the parallax to be perceptible. The difficulty with this objection was that, given the arguments for the relation of brightness to size in the stars, such an argument would mean that the stars would have to be absurdly massive. One of Galileo’s correspondents argues as such:

Nor satisfies entirely the solution by which is said that the diameter of the circle of the deferent [orbit] of Earth in comparison to the large distance of the eighth orb [the stars] from us is so small [as to yield an effect too small to measure].  For as Tycho Brahe says in his book of Astronomical Letters, responding to Rothmann (page 188): for the Earth to be of insensible size in comparison to the starry orb, it is necessary that Earth be distant from the starry orb by fourteen thousand of its own semidiameters.  And so in the Copernican system, for the Earth’s orbit … to be of insensible size in comparison to the starry orb, it must be distant by 14,000 of its own semidiameters [in modern terms, 14,000 astronomical units or a.u.]. This great distance shows the universe to be asymmetrical.  But it also clearly proves … the fixed stars to be of such size, as they may surpass or equal the size of the deferent circle of the Earth itself….  This can be proven from the apparent size of the body of the Sun; for if the Sun is seen by us to have a diameter 32′ at a distance from the Earth of [1 a.u.], how great ought to be the size of the fixed stars, which are distant from Earth by [14,000 a.u.], as they may appear to us to be 3′, following the old opinion, or indeed 2′, if you prefer?  Indeed by reason of these I think, the arguments of Sacrobosco and Ptolemy to be able to be solved insufficiently through the assumption that the diameter of the deferent of the Earth is [miniscule] compared to the firmament of the sky.[14. Francesco Ignoli, Essay to Galileo, found in Christopher M. Graney, Franceso Ingoli’s Essay to Galileo:  Tycho Brahe and Science in the Inquisition’s Condemnation of the Copernican Theory, p. 17]

The upshot of this is that

The problem for Copernicans was that the further away an object of a given apparent size is, the larger it must be: the Sun and Moon have roughly the same apparent size, as can be seen on an evening when the Sun is setting while the Moon is rising; but the Sun, being much further away, is actually the much larger body. By the same geometry, the farther away the stars had to be to explain the lack of annual parallax in the Copernican system, the larger they had to be. According to Brahe’s measurements and calculations, an average star would be as large as the orbit of the Earth, utterly dwarfing everything in the solar system, even the Sun.[15. Christopher M. Graney, Franceso Ingoli’s Essay to Galileo:  Tycho Brahe and Science in the Inquisition’s Condemnation of the Copernican Theory, p. 18]

As such, someone advancing the Copernican hypothesis was compelled to demonstrate that hypothesis by means of another hypothesis. In this manner, one can appreciate why many were prepared to utilize Copernicus’ model for its calculations without accepting that it represented reality. A mathematical utility was one thing, but preaching it was quite another.

2. Keeping things on the ground

Given the distance of the earth to the sun that had been calculated and accepted in medieval astronomy, any theory which had earth revolving around the sun entailed that the earth was hurtling through the cosmos at incredible speeds. The simple question posed by such a hypothesis was this: why didn’t everything on the world go flying off of it? Although they did not have physics as we have them, they realized the concept of headwinds; if the earth were revolving at breakneck speeds, why did it not break necks like headwinds do for flimsy objects at much lower speeds?

The physics we take for granted in the modern era that make the medievals’ puzzlement at such puzzles so puzzling to us simply did not exist in the medieval period. While the seeds of such physics were planted by Copernicus and Galileo, an adequate system to explain- let alone demonstrate- them was simply not accessible. Much like postulating great distances for stars turned out to be right, so Copernicus’ protective bubble or Galileo’s pokings at force pointed towards the eventual solutions (if we may even call them that). At the time, however, they could be considered little better than undemonstrated- and, more importantly, un-demonstratable– hypotheses.

Of course, for the mythstory to have its teeth, there is the elephantine objection: the Bible says the earth doesn’t move, so there!

More on that in a bit.

The Big Dog Has His Bite

All the of the preceding is necessary (and woefully incomplete) back-story for the man himself. A biographical segment is of little interest to me, as is an evaluation of Galileo’s influence on science. Some argue he is the father of the scientific method, the mathematizer of nature, and other similarly silly appellations. As mentioned in the opening section, it is far too easy to commence with a character assassination in order to score rhetorical points. Suffice it to say that Galileo made many blunders- both scientific and diplomatic- but also was somewhat brilliant and quite good at what he did.

Less of a legend, and more of a human.

Galileo rubbed elbows with luminaries of all sorts- scientists, politicians, princes and popes. Getting funding is a reality for the modern scientist, and was no less so for the medieval. Galileo schmoozed his way (no excessively pejorative connotation implied) into various positions as the court mathematician and/or natural philosopher, getting patronage with big players like the Medici family and the Grand Duke of Tuscany; eventually even courting the pope.

Within the courtly life of the medieval world, patronage imposed certain duties upon members of the court, often taking on chivalric overtones:

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.[16. John H. Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, Understanding the Galileo Affair: the uses of history in the subsequent contexts. A reading from Reconstructing Nature (1998)]

The world of scientific repartee was thus as much the back-and-forth of philosophic (quasi-scientific) inquiry as it was of a battle of wits and wills between competing courts. As such, while Galileo may have had a lack of decorum and social grace, some of the irascibility attributed to him may simply be him playing by the rules of the game. But what happens when one steps over the line?

More on that later.

The Bible Bunch

Within the course of Galileo’s work (possibly arising out of his correspondence with Kepler, who succeeded Tycho Brahe at his observatory) he began to advocate the heliocentricity of Copernicus. Earlier, Kepler’s heliocentric leanings led to a falling out with the Lutheran clergy over his cosmology, and while it would be too easy and simplistic to characterize nascent Protestantism’s insistence on sola scriptura as responsible for this particular controversy, the scriptural argument nevertheless was somewhat central within the initial Lutheran rejection of Kepler’s theories. (Ironically, Protestant clergy would be rather quick to get on board with heliocentrism once the tide of scientific opinion flowed more heavily in that direction.)

Within many Catholic universities (and thus for many within the Roman curia), Aristotelian physics were considered part and parcel with Aristotelian metaphysics. What we would consider to be peculiar notions about the immutability of the heavens, the necessity of perfect orbits, etc., were more or less taken for granted by not only the religious authorities but also by the brightest intellectual authorities. Since the efforts to reconcile Aristotle and the Gospel had proceeded satisfactorily (for the most part) for centuries, many understood an assault on the former to be an assault on the latter.

Galileo had already seen the cracks in the Aristotelian physics’ facade, for the telescopic evidence of geography on the moon and the phases of Venus was strong evidence against the progressive perfection of the heavens as one moved away from earth. Somewhat contrary to popular opinion, the medieval world did not consider the earth to be in the center of the universe because of some over-inflated opinion of man, but was rather more inclined (due to the peculiarities of Aristotelian physics, no less!) to consider the center of the universe the receptacle for its dregs, a cosmological trash heap. (After all, hell was often conceived to be in the center of the earth.) But the starry sphere and planets were generally thought to be perfect spheres with perfect orbits, and thus such new contrary evidence was hurtful to the more dogmatic Aristotelian physicists. Importantly, it was the motion of the earth over against the immutability of the heavens that was understood as more integral to the theological argument, since many of the pre-scholastic theologians (who were more inclined to Platonism anyway) would have contradicted the immutability of the heavens.

Thus, Galileo’s observations made him somewhat of a celebrity, and while he had his detractors (especially among the Dominicans), he also had many supporters. For example, when a couple of Dominican preachers (one who had to write a letter of apology and another who had been slapped on the wrist for being overly antagonistic) started bothering Galileo with undue vehemence, the Dominican Preacher General Father Luigi Maraffi felt compelled to apologize:

unfortunately I have to answer for all the idiocies that thirty or forty thousand brothers may or actually do commit.[17. Jules Speller, Galileo’s Inquisition Trial Revisited, p. 58]

Some lesser lights- driven perhaps by jealously over Galileo’s prestige- tried to actively embroil him in conflicts with the hierarchy, painting the Copernican model (and thus Galileo) as in open conflict with the Scriptures. Tommaso Caccini, one of the hot-headed Dominicans, preached for the ousting of all mathematicians from Christian lands. His own brother had a palm-to-forehead moment, and proceeded to give him a verbal dressing-down:

It was a silly thing [for Tommaso] to get himself embroiled in this business by these pigeons [colombil … What idiocy is this of being set abellowing at the prompting of those nasty pigeons . . . This performance of yours makes no sense in heaven and earth . . . I who am no theologian can tell you what I am telling you, that you have behaved like a dreadful fool.[18. Donald DeMarco, The Dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church,]


Galileo eventually began indirectly exchanging letters with Cardinal Bellarmine, in which the intersection of heliocentrism and the interpretation of Scripture would eventually collide. The first salvo may have been unintentional, as Prince Cesi, one of Galileo’s protectors, wrote him that Cardinal Bellarmine had begun looking into the Copernican question. The cardinal had evidently told Cesi that “he regard[ed] the Copernican opinion as heretical, and that the earth’s motion is without any doubt contrary to the Scripture.”[19. ibid., p. 58]

However, Cesi may not have accurately recounted Bellarmine’s thoughts on the matter, for in a letter to Galileo, Cardinal Dini relates how Bellarmine seemed more concerned about the motion of the sun viz-a-viz the scriptures than the motion of the earth:

It does not seem for now that they [the Copernicans] have any greater enemy in the Scripture than the verse ‘hath rejoiced as a giant to run the way’ and the following one, which all interpreters so far have understood as attributing motion to the sun.[20. ibid., p. 58]

Bellarmine also answers the anticipated objection that the scriptural words were using ordinary conventions of language:

And although I replied that this also could be explained as a concession or our ordinary forms of expression, I was told in answer that this was not a thing to be done in haste, just as the condemnation of any of these opinions was not to be passionately hurried.[21. Piero Dini to Galileo, found in Arthur Koestler, Sleepwalkers]

In the same letter Dini assures Galileo that Bellarmine saw no serious cause for concern about Copernicus’ book being prohibited or, by extension, Copernicanism outright rejected, especially as it pertained to Galileo’s use of Copernicus’ system:

And he said that as to Copernicus, there is no question of his book being prohibited; the worst that might happen, according to him, would be the addition of some material in the margins of that book to the effect that Copernicus had introduced his theory in order to save the appearances, or some such thing-just as others had introduced epicycles without thereafter believing in their existence.  And with a similar precaution you may at any time deal with these matters.[22. ibid.]

San_Roberto_BellarminoFar from presenting the ignorant rube cast as the foil for the more astoundingly brilliant Galileo in the mythstory, Bellarmine seems far more reserved, cautious, graceful and even reasonable in his opinions. It is evident that he was not disposed towards the Copernican model, but his reasons- while having a religious component- were not therefore exhaustively religious in nature. Instead, given that the Copernican model was attempting to reexamine established natural philosophy, men like Bellarmine naturally wanted a demonstration of why this should occur.

It is easy to try and either simplistically cast Bellarmine as a bible-thumping fundamentalist or as an open-minded and tolerant free-thinker, much in the same way as Galileo is made to fit a pre-conceived role. Both men, however, were as complex as any other human being, each having his own beliefs, motivations, interests, biases, etc. For Bellarmine’s part, he seems to have held a rather reserved attitude towards the Copernican system. As far as saving the appearances, advancing the Copernican model is fine:

First, I say it seems to me that your Reverence and Signor Galileo act prudently when you content yourselves with speaking hypothetically and no absolutely, as I have always understood that Copernicus spoke.  For to say that the assumptions that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still saves all the celestial appearances better than do eccentrics and epicycles is to speak with excellent good sense and to run the risk whatever.  Such a manner of speaking suffices for a mathematician.[23. ibid.]

As astronomy was a subset of mathematics, it seems quite reasonable for a mathematician to stick with what he does best. Bellarmine’s suggestion to not advance a hypothesis from natural philosophy as absolute also appears eminently reasonable. At the same time, Bellarmine is not convinced that the Copernican model has much relation- if any– to reality, and if taught without sufficient demonstration and tact could be ruinous in many ways:

But to want to affirm that the Sun, in very truth, is at the centre of the universe and only rotates on its axis without traveling from east to west, and that the Earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves very swiftly around the Sun, is a very dangerous attitude and one calculated not only to arouse all Scholastic philosophers and theologians but also to injure our hold faith by contradicting the Scriptures….[24. ibid.]

Here Bellarmine is almost prophetic, for Galileo’s conflicts with the Jesuits (here the ‘Scholastic philosophers’) would probably be most responsible for his downfall. Fr. Greinberger summarizes:

Galileo should have known how to keep the affections of the fathers of the Roman College. If he had, he would still be living gloriously in the world, he would not have fallen into trouble, he would be able to write on any subject he wished, even the rotation of the earth.

Bellarmine, fully convinced of the truths of faith as contained in the scriptures and the tradition of the church, also held (with the Council of Trent) that it is not right to interpret the Scriptures contrary to the common agreement of the Fathers. Rather than advocating rigid dogmatism, Bellarmine is pointing out that one has to take great care in going against accepted opinion, especially as it exists in the deposit of faith but also, by extension, in natural philosophy. The neat distinction moderns draw between the two was, while perhaps not non-existent, far less clearly defined. And since natural philosophy, experience and the common interpretation of Scripture- both ancient and contemporary- were in agreement, it was hardly granted that mathematical hypotheses should be assumed to be absolute. In fact, one might be inclined to see Bellarmine’s approach as quite prudent.

Even with this insistence on respect for the common interpretation, Bellarmine leaves open the door for a reevaluation of the Scripture’s meaning:

Third, I say that, if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.  But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me.  To demonstrate that the appearances are saved by assuming the sun at the centre and the earth in the heavens is not the same thing as to demonstrate that in fact the sun is in the centre and the earth is in the heavens.  I believe that the first demonstration may exist, but I have very grave doubts about the second; and in case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the hold Fathers…[25. ibid.]

His point here is threefold:

  • Firstly, Scripture does not necessarily have to have a literal meaning, but if it is to be interpreted in another way there needs to be a serious reason- real proof– to do so.
  • Secondly, having a hypothesis that explains observed data (saving the appearances) does not necessarily correspond to that the hypothesis is an actuality. To imagine so would be a logical error.  Thus, a workable hypothesis that saves the appearances- even if it works better than the established theory- is not the same as real proof.
  • Thirdly, if demonstration is lacking but there is evidence from another source (in this case, the scriptures), then the prudent course is to go with what one can know and thus demonstrate.

While the battle between Galileo and the Thomists is an interesting side note, Bellarmine is actually operating within the Thomistic tradition, himself being one of the foremost authorities on Aquinas of his day. His approach seems to follow that of his master, who held a rather tentative attitude towards cosmological models. For example:

Secondly, we must keep in mind that certain “anomalies,” i.e., irregularities, appear with respect to the motions of the planets. For the planets seem to be now swifter, now slower, now stationary, now retrogressing. Now this does not seem to be appropriate to heavenly motions, as is evident from what has been said above. Therefore, Plato first proposed this problem to an astronomer of his time, named Eudoxus, who tried to reduce these irregularities to a right order by assigning diverse motions to the planets; a project also undertaken by later astronomers in various ways. Yet it is not necessary that the various suppositions which they hit upon be true – for although these suppositions save the appearances, we are nevertheless not obliged to say that these suppositions are true, because perhaps theme is some other way men have not yet grasped by which the things which appear as to the stars are saved. Aristotle nevertheless uses suppositions of this kind, in what regards the quality of the motions, as true.[26. Aquinas, De Caelo, Book II, Lecture 17, 451]

Galileo and the Bible

It should also be noted that Galileo was not a malcontent with a bone to pick with the Church; rather, he was quite committed to his faith and honestly believed that his understanding of the Scriptures allowed him to approach the Copernican system as showing forth reality. In contrast to some of his Dominican opponents (who seemed to have left off their studies of Aquinas prematurely…), Galileo offers a rather reasonable exegetical approach that, in many respects, has a lot in common with Bellarmine. Concerning the priority of scripture Galileo asserts that

even in those [physical] propositions which are not matters of faith, this authority [i.e., that of Scripture] ought to be preferred over that of all human writings that are supported only by bare assertions or probable arguments, and not set forth in a demonstrative way. This I hold to be necessary and proper to the same extent that divine wisdom surpasses all human judgment and conjecture.[27. Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess]

In other words, if one has a hypothesis that cannot be demonstrated by the ‘real proof’ that Bellarmine insists upon, then the plainer meaning of the Scriptures should be taken on their literal level. Galileo fleshes this principle out a bit more later on, proposing a hierarchy of propositions:

[A]mong physical propositions there are some with regard to which all human science and reason cannot supply more than a plausible opinion and a probable conjecture in place of a sure and demonstrated knowledge – for example, whether the stars are ensouled. Then there are other propositions of which we have (or may confidently expect) positive assurances through experiments, long observation, and rigorous demonstration – for example, whether or not the earth and the heavens move, and whether or not the heavens are spherical.[28. ibid.]

Bringing his principle to bear, the first sorts of propositions need to stay in the realm of hypothesis, deferring to the scriptures or philosophy; here Bellarmine would no doubt agree. Regarding the second:

But as to the other kind, I should think, as said before, that first we are to make certain of the fact,which will reveal to us the true senses of the Bible, and these will most certainly be found to agree with the proved fact (even though at first the words sounded otherwise), for two truths can never contradict each other. I take this to be an orthodox and indisputable doctrine, and I find it specifically in St. Augustine… [I]f what they [i.e., astronomers] say is proved by unquestionable arguments,this holy Father does not say that the astronomers are to be ordered to dissolve their proofs and declare their own conclusions to be false. Rather, he says it must be demonstrated that what is meant in the Bible … is not contrary to their proofs.[29. ibid.]

Galileo has a rather insightful argument here. Many commentators are inclined to focus on the notion that ‘two truths can never contradict each other,’ but the far more fascinating principle is how- in the process of studying the fact revealed in natural philosophy (i.e., science)- the true sense of the Bible is not only reconciled, but revealed. Galileo’s treatment of St. Augustine is fundamentally correct as far as the impossibility of two truths contradicting each other, and St. Aquinas holds a similar line:

As Augustine teaches, in questions of this sort two things must be observed: First, that the truth of Scripture be held firmly, and second, that because Divine Scripture can be expounded in many ways, no one may adhere so precisely to any exposition that, if this be established with certain reason to be false, he presume to assert it to be the sense of Scripture. Otherwise Scripture may be derided by the unfaithful due to this, and the path of belief might thereby be withheld from them.[30. ibid.]

Rather than being a malcontent whose brash ideas are so exotic as to challenge orthodoxy, Galileo’s approach to the interpretation of Scripture and the purview of natural philosophy actually stands squarely within the Christian tradition as expounded by two of its most prominent theologians. In many respects Bellarmine and Galileo are on the same page, approaching the question in a broadly similar manner. Both agree that real proof is needed to bring about a reexamination of such seemingly straightforward scriptures that lined up with the consensus of contemporary natural philosophy.

Bellarmine thought such proof was lacking.

Galileo didn’t.

Time to Rumble

While many have attributed Galileo’s downfall to the vexations of the protestant reformations, such a socio-political explanation removes the personal side of the events which were indeed occupied by strong personalities. Nevertheless, the then nearly century old furor that had gripped much of the Western Church made things more difficult for men like Galileo and Bellarmine. The protestant insistence on sola scriptura was less a question about the Bible and more a question about authority; namely, who has the authority to interpret the scriptures- the Church instituted by Christ or the individual reading the scriptures for himself? Even such an evaluation of the problem is ultimately too simplistic, for men like Galileo often found even less favor in protestant lands, as Kepler’s excommunication of sorts demonstrates.

Tensions were certainly high, but as Bellarmine’s writings indicate, he saw no reason to suspect that Galileo would have much difficulty in utilizing the Copernican model or that Copernicus’ writings would necessarily be prohibited. Both still seemed to hold to the principle that real proof was necessary to teach something in natural philosophy as a fact. Galileo admits a high standard to which he must rise in a draft response to Bellarmine:

Not to believe that a proof of the Earth’s motion exists until one has been shown it is very prudent, nor do we demand that anyone believe such a thing without proof. Indeed, we seek, for the good of the holy Church, that everything the followers of this doctrine can set forth be examined with the greatest rigor, and that nothing be admitted unless it far outweighs the rival arguments. If these men [i.e., the defenders of heliocentrism] are only ninety percent right, then they are defeated…[31. Chris Decaen, Galileo and the Church,]

In 1615 Galileo made his way to Rome, intent on providing the ‘real proof’ that would validate the Copernican model not only mathematically, but actually. As has already been seen, there were already two rather substantial proofs against the Copernican model that had yet to be overcome.

In regards to stellar parallax, Galileo felt that his observations of the stars through the telescope confirmed they were much farther away than normally considered. Given the linear relationship between apparent magnitude and size which he (and most other astronomers) assumed, the sheer size required for them was not overcome by the distances he calculated. Compounding this, the diffraction of the lens actually meant Galileo was seeing what is known as the ‘Airy disk,’ leading him to assume that smaller stars (he believed, like most others, that they were the same size) were simply further away.[32. Katharine Sanderson, Galileo Duped By Diffraction,]

He was right about the stars being farther away than previously calculated, but the diffraction kept him from calculating their distance as greater. Notwithstanding such issues, his methodology was actually fairly accurate given the limitations of the technology, and he was an excellent observer in this regard. However, since the objections based on the size of stars could not be overcome by demonstration, even though Galileo was on the right track his observation of the stars and proposal for their great distances was correct.

As for the motion of the earth being disproved by the principle of headwinds, even though he had a notion of the solution, the physics (as we understand them) to sufficiently demonstrate the solution would not forthcoming for quite some time.

Although Galileo could have probably dealt more sufficiently with these objections, he chose a rather odd angle of attack which was sort of a silver bullet for heliocentirsm: the argument from the tides.

In and Out

The oddest part of his argument from the tides is that is was misguided from the start. Close friends who supported him and were sympathetic to his arguments found it rather unconvincing, for not only did it not have any support from the physics of the day, but even a modicum of first hand observation should have made it clear that it was a non-starter.

The gist of the argument is this:

Galileo had observed that, when barges carrying fresh water from the mainland to Venice sped up, the water in the hold piled up at the stern (that’s the back for you landlubbers), but when the barge slowed down, the water rose toward the bow (the front). He took this to mean that as a body containing water accelerates, this motion isn’t immediately communicated to the water, so the water bunches up where it’s forced to accumulate (because it is not moving fast enough), and the opposite happens when it decelerates.[33. ibid.]

Thus, when the tide comes in and goes out we see this acceleration and deceleration. Concomitant with this argument, if the earth did not move (as geocentrists argued) then the tides would not flow as they do.

Galileo felt this argument was solid, and perhaps it was a gamble of sorts. He may have thought that his observations of the stars (and other phenomena) were sufficient to convince himself of what he was saying, but realized that he could not offer the demonstration that others required; at least not yet. However, if he could offer another argument that was more easily demonstrable, then eventually the other proofs would eventually follow. Such is only speculation, but given the flimsy nature of the argument from the tides, one is led to suspect he had more than one card to play.

Galileo presented his proof, and no one bought it. Decades later he was still trying to defend it, indicating that perhaps he found it convincing in his own mind. But in 1616 no one thought the argument of tides held any water, probably because it didn’t.

It had long been known that the tides had a close relationship with the moon. While the concept of gravitation was not in place, the medieval world had some sense in which the tides corresponded to the positions of the moon. While today it is known that the rotation of the earth contributes to the movement of tides, in the 17th century it was hardly obvious, and Galileo’s specific proof is certainly not correct.

Thus, while he may have fuzzily guessed towards the reality, his proof was not only fuzzy, but actually completely wrong. His conception of the rotational effects upon the tides naturally predicted a one-tide cycle every day. The greatest obstacle to such a prediction was that even uneducated mariners could tell you that there were in fact two tide cycles per day.

Galileo was undeterred, proposing that the peculiar characteristics of the Mediterranean led to such an occurrence, “insisting that this must be due to the shape and depth of the Mediterranean sea floor, and added that in other parts of the world, under less complex circumstances, we will find only one tide cycle per day.”[34. ibid.]

Unfortunately, he was wrong about this as well. Years later he consulted the Tuscan ambassador to Spain, inquiring about the tide cycles of the Atlantic. “The ambassador, having consulted extensively with mariners in Spain, assured Galileo that everywhere the tides followed a 12-hour cycle, two a day. Galileo’s confidence in his argument was apparently unshaken, however, and he again convinced himself that the second tide cycle each day must also be due to the peculiarities of the ocean floor in the Atlantic and Pacific.”[35. ibid.]

Of course, the difficulty of Galileo’s argument here is that if one can make exceptions for every objection presented, there is no theoretical limit to the exceptions that could be made. Yet Galileo was so insistent upon this demonstration that he dismissed out hand Kepler’s theory which was, in most respects, essentially correct:

But among the great men who have philosophized about this remarkable effect [i.e., the tides], I am more astonished at Kepler than at any other. Despite his open and acute mind, and though he has at his fingertips the motions attributed to the earth, he has nevertheless lent his ear and his assent to the moon’s dominion over the waters, to occult properties, and to such puerilities.[36. ibid.]

It would be easy to pile on Galileo here, for his single-mindedness in this regard might seem stunning, but when placed within the context of his commitment to heliocentrism it is not necessarily surprising, nor even necessarily damning. Every thinker has his blind spots, and in some respects Galileo was correct, for the rotation of the earth does contribute to the motion of the tides. But most of his contemporaries- especially within the intellectual fields- realized that his argument from the tides simply did not provide the real proof needed.

Bans and Hammers

After some time presenting his arguments, Galileo later was summoned and was informed that Copernicus’ works were now on the Index (not necessarily banned, but in need of emendations). More to the point, Galileo was not allowed to propagate heliocentrism.

Galileo didn’t help things out in this case. While presenting his case he made his objections to prevailing opinions known, offending even some of his greatest supporters if they disagreed with him. His friend the Tuscan ambassador noted that he was “passionately involved in this quarrel so that he will be ensnarled in it and get himself into danger … For he is vehement and all impassioned in his affair.”[37. Donald DeMarco, The Dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church,]

Yet even after Copernicus’ works were referred to the Index, Galileo’s were not. Realizing that many of Galileo’s enemies had it out for him, Pope Paul V assured him that their calumnies would be ignored by the curia.[38. ibid.] Bellarmine sent an affidavit assuring Galileo that it was recognized that he was under no canonical penalty:

We, Roberto Cardinal Bellarmine, having heard that it is calumniously reported that Signor Gallileo Galilei has in our hand abjured and has also been punished with salutary penance, and being requested to state the truth as to this, declare that the said Galileo has not abjured, either in our hand, or the hand of any other person here in Rome, or anywhere else, so far as we know any opinion or doctrine held by him; neither has any statuary penance been imposed on him; but that only the declaration made by the Holy Father and published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index has been notified to him, wherein it is set forth that the doctrine attributed to Copernicus, that the Earth moves around the Sun, and that the Sun is stationary in the centre of the world and does not move from east to west, is contrary to the Holy Scriptures and therefore cannot be defended or held.  In witness whereof we have written and subscribed these presents with our hand this twenty-sixth day of May, 1616.[39. Statement (Affidavit) of Cardinal Bellarmine to Galileo, found in Arthur Koestler, Sleepwalkers]

Still, there was that infamous assessment by the Holy Office which is a fixture not only in the mythstory, but even within Christian presentations of the Galileo Affair, proving that the Church was obviously opposed to science:

Proposition to be assessed:
(1) The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.
Assessement: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.
(2) The earth is not the center of the world, nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal motion.
Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgement in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least errouneous in faith.[40. Consultant’s Report on Copernicanism]


Many have noted the various nuances not immediately evident to the modern, and rehashing them would add far more tedium to an already tedious project. It bears noting, however, that the first assessment of the consultants (who themselves, as theologians, would have had training in astronomy) is in regards to its merits regarding natural philosophy (science), rather than theology. That is, these theologians are first of all concerned with the evidential basis of the Copernican hypotheses, which they (and most other contemporary natural philosophers) found wanting. Given the approach of Galileo and Bellarmine towards these sorts of questions, the theological opinion which follows is thus the logical outgrowth of the principles all involved were employing.

Consider, for example, that Galileo argued the plain interpretation of the Scriptures as found within the common understanding of the fathers should not be contravened unless it could be demonstrated that such a reexamination was needed due to a contradictory (and demonstrated) evidence from natural philosophy. Bellarmine, although more cautious than Galileo, had a similar approach.

In the opinion the the consultants, the evidence from natural philosophy for Copernicanism was lacking. As Galileo argued, a 90% demonstration simply would not do in situations like these. His evidence from the tides did not come anywhere near 90%, let alone enough to be demonstrative. Given this scenario, since an undemonstrable hypothesis contradicted the common interpretation of the fathers- not to mention the prevailing and as yet unassailable natural philosophy of the day- to hold such an opinion in spite of the facts from both natural philosophy and theology could lead to no other conclusion.

Going even further, given Galileo’s insight that knowledge from natural philosophy can give us clues as to the meaning of the scriptures, the prevailing consensus of natural philosophy of the time could be used, within such an argument, to actually buttress the traditional understanding and interpretation of these Scriptural texts.

Thus, far from being antithetical to science, if anything in this situation the church should be faulted for being too closely linked with and reliant upon science. It is a supreme irony that the very logic which Galileo brought to bear upon the very questions he pursued contained within itself the foundation of the rejection of his teaching.

Brass Tacks

Given that the decisions arrived at occurred within a rather similar methodological approach to these questions, the real issue that precipitated the conflict was not religion and science, but the question of authority.

After all, if Galileo and men like Bellarmine insisted both upon the truth of scripture and the truth of nature coinciding, while likewise broadly in agreement about the way in which to approach problematic texts and the necessity for real proof, for each to take a different approach to the same evidence meant that a conflict was inevitable, especially if Galileo pressed his case.

For if Galileo’s evidence was wanting yet he still insisted on propounding Copernican theories, then his previous commitment to the common methodology would have to be revised; rather than deferring to the common interpretative consensus of the fathers, to hold Copernican views in spite of sufficient evidence meant that the sphere of authority had been transferred, effectively giving the individual- rather than the Church- the competency to adjudicate the meaning of the scriptures.

Within the context of the counter-reformation and the various problems due to the surge of protestantism, such a transfer of authority was not likely to be ignored. Yet Galileo got off fairly easily; while he was not allowed to teach Copernicanism as a fact, there was wiggle room still to save the appearances. His books had escaped the Index as well, and Bellarmine’s affidavit gave the already plucky Galileo confidence to continue his work.

That is not to say that Galileo was inherently dishonest or inebriated with his own ego. To be sure, he was rather brash and perhaps at times over-confident in his abilities, but he was still brilliant and widely respected. Over the next 20 years he would work to refine his theories and search to find the much sought evidence for Copernicanism, even clinging to his darling theory of tides.

And things went pretty much as they had gone before.

UrbanVIIIHis polemics tended to make enemies- sometimes needlessly- but he also made powerful friends. Maffeo Baberini had been a great supporter of Galileo, something of a rabid fan in modern parlance, going so far as to write odes to him. When he became Pope Urban VIII, Galileo perhaps sensed his chance to finally get Copernicanism into the mainstream.

To be sure, by then it needed life-support. Tycho Brahe’s modified geocentrism was one of the most accurate systems for saving the appearances, and Kepler’s theories about ellipses were as novel as they were elegant. Galileo, while rejecting much of Aristotelian physics, nevertheless held onto the perfectly circular orbits, unwilling to grapple with Kepler’s elliptical orbits.

While Urban VIII probably had Copernican leanings (since he was an admirer of Galileo), as pope he could not very well suddenly give Copernicanism his imprimatur. While it is easy to reduce everything to social and political factors- and to be sure these sorts of things did have bearing- nevertheless one should not oversimplify events, especially those dominated by such strong personalities as Galileo and Urban VIII. Urban VIII may have had Copernican leanings, but that does not mean he was necessarily wholly on board it. He may have been indifferent, perhaps more intrigued by Galileo’s brilliance, polemics, or anything in between.

However, as men in Urban’s position know that men are their friends for a very specific reason, Urban VIII was inclined to help Galileo out as much as he could. Given the mix of tensions, intrigues, conflicting motivations and such, Urban VIII proposed that Galileo present his Copernicanism in an upcoming book in a less bombastic manner:

Urban had suggested to Galileo a line of reasoning which would allow him to speak favorably of the Copernican system without at the same time claiming it to be true. The reasoning is logically impeccable and asserts, in effect, that if a given theory is consistent with certain facts, it is possible that a totally different theory, perhaps known only to God, could be consistent with the same facts.[41. Donald DeMarco, The Dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church,]

While many modern writers are inclined to view this as half-bit philosophizing, it is actually more of a logical argument which also was able to fit completely within the decade old conclusion of the consultants on Copernicanism:

In other words, one cannot affirm the antecedent of a hypothetical proposition by affirming the consequent. The fact that the ground is wet can be accounted for by rain or by someone watering the lawn. The same logic applies to contemporary physics for, on a macroscopic level, both Newtonian Physics and Einsteinian Relativity explain physical motion equally well. The Pope’s position was eminently orthodox.[42. ibid.]

While Urban’s method is bit beyond that proposed by a younger Galileo, it still fits within the overall approach to the questions under consideration. One might have expected Galileo to readily proceed under a similar methodology as he had expounded years ago.

Unfortunately, he didn’t.

In modern parlance- Galileo jumped the shark.

How To Piss Off a Prince

Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems is in many respects a brilliant display of biting invective and obliviousness. For whatever reason, Galileo decided to put Urban VIII’s suggestion in the mouth of the Dialogue’s foil, the fool Simplicio. Going back to the point of view in which Galileo has the courtly duty of defending the honor of his patron, in this case he not only didn’t play by the rules, but made up his own.

Needless to say, Urban was none too happy to be cast as the fool by the friend he had helped and funded. Numerous other natural philosophers (the Scholastic fathers of Bellarmine’s prophecy) were all too happy to make sure Urban VIII knew that Simplicio was about him and that Galileo was directing his venom towards his most august person.

The polemical nature of Galileo’s work is also evident in that he considers the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems as the two ‘great’ world systems. However, by this time the Ptolemaic system was, if not dead, in critical condition, as Tycho’s model was, if not the chief system, at least one of the chief systems. Kepler’s model was also quickly gaining in acceptance, surpassing Copernicanism in many respects. Tycho’s model, in many respects, was a achieving greater accuracy than the Copernican models, and all Copernican models were dependent on Tycho’s earlier data anyway.

Thus, for Galileo to pose such a battle between two near non-contenders must have seemed- to the pope at least- as a showdown of personalities, a battle of wills. Galileo’s work may have cast the gauntlet, challenging Urban’s authority while simultaneously belittling him. It is still a mystery why Galileo squandered the good will of such a powerful friend in this manner, but it is entirely possible he did not see his work in the manner it was perceived and received.

Not renowned for being a nice guy or disdained for too much humility, Urban VIII was incensed, his pride poked at by this annoying star-gazer. As some have noted, Urban VIII knew he was something special and had little difficulty letting others know it, as well as making it clear he was not one to be trifled with:

Once in power, his latent pride and vanity were to break forth without restraint, and with them his natural temper, quick to anger and suspicions.[43. ibid.]

Once the trial began, the Pope’s anger at Galileo was evident. And in the best tradition of medieval political intrigue, a hitherto unknown document suddenly popped up in the archives, indicating that Galileo had been forbidden from even teaching Copernicanism as part of saving the appearances. To this day scholars debate whether the document is legitimate, or if one of Galileo’s many enemies placed it in there for extra ammunition. At the trial Galileo attempted to defend his actions by means of Bellarmine’s earlier affidavit. which alleviated some of the tension, for it lent plausibility to his assertion that he believed he had the freedom to teach Copernicanism as a hypothesis. (His earlier support from Urban would seem to indicate that even if this wasn’t the case legally, it was practically and everyone knew it.)

While Galileo feigned a defense that his Dialogue was meant as a refutation of Copernicanism[44. ibid.], everyone at the trial probably knew there could only be one outcome, and that Galileo had made an enemy who could finally overpower him. Galileo eventually ‘recanted’, although it was most likely understood by all present to be a formality. Urban VIII had to have his justice, and Galileo was probably inclined to give it to him. And thus comes the most infamous proclamation that obviously makes science and religion mortal enemies:

We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo, by reason of the matters adduced in trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine—which is false and contrary to the sacred and divine Scriptures—that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that an opinion may be held and defended as probably after it has been declared and defined to be contrary to the Holy Scripture; and that consequently you have incurred all the censures and penalties imposed and promulgated in the sacred canons and other constitutions, general and particular, against such delinquents.  From which we are content that you be absolved, provided that, first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, you abjure, curse, and detest before use the aforesaid errors and heresies and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church in the form to be prescribed by us for you.[45. Papal Condemnation of Galileo]

While the sentence condemned Galileo to the formal prison of the Holy Office, it also had the obligatory provision that sentence could be committed or modified, which is what happened. In contradiction to the more extreme versions of the mythstory, Galileo was never tortured or threatened with torture, nor did he even spend a day in prison. Rather, he spent his final years engaged in the same work he had pursued his entire life, the restrictions of his sentence probably affording him the most peaceful decade of his life in which he composed his best work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Sciences, which ironically held the seeds for the proofs of the earth’s rotation.


Galileo’s offending work was consigned to the Index, which really meant very little. Forbidden fruit is hard to resist, and thus being Indexed often tended to make offending works more popular than they would have been otherwise. A prohibited work did not mean all copies were rounded up and burned; nor could they have been anyway. Rather, such a ban usually meant that public sale was not allowed. Individuals and universities could still apply to purchase the work, and many often did. The conditions for possession ranged greatly, often only that certain lines be amended with marginal notes. Many times this never happened.

The ban on Galileo’s work had little to no impact on Copernican theories or the work done towards refining and demonstrating them. More socially graceful natural philosophers were able to navigate the waters of scientific inquiry, and the sheer amount of work which appeared demonstrates that most- if not all- had little to no worry about sharing Galileo’s fate. Far from demonstrating an inherent antipathy between religion and science, the Galileo affair, as seen from the actions of his contemporaries, demonstrates that they realized what had happened:

In the end, he pissed off the wrong guy.

The End

At the end of the story, the Galileo affair is such an eclectic mix of theology, philosophy, science, politics, bravado, emotion, arrogance, over-reaching and a host of other qualities as to be rather quite simple:

It is a very human story.

Reducing such a fascinating man and his contemporaries to the caricatures created by modern polemics is to miss out on the stuff of life that makes history not simply cardboard cutouts but alive and exciting.

Mythstories of all kinds ultimately fail because they subsume the unimaginable intricacies of existence and history to ready-made categories that have little to no meaning beyond themselves. It is actually a slap in the face to men like Galileo and Bellarmine and even Urban to try and cram them into modern day flame wars, pawns useful for scoring polemical points, when in many ways each shared a broad commonality expressed in the delightful exceptionality of their individual lives.

This near infinite complexity in all its passion and fury and grandeur and loss cannot be stuffed into a mythstory, as Galileo himself has the final word:

Alas, your friend and servant Galileo has been for the last month hopelessly blind; so that this heaven, this earth, this universe, which I, by marvelous discoveries and clear demonstrations, have enlarged a hundred thousand times beyond the belief of the wise men of bygone ages, henceforward for me is shrunk into such small space as is filled by my own bodily sensations …[46. Donald DeMarco, The Dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church,]

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