* From Gestus: Journal of Brechtian Studies, III/3 *

by William Eamon (New Mexico State University)

The conflict between Galileo and the Church took place within a densely charged political atmosphere. The new science threatened both the Church's traditional role as aribter of doctrinal truth and its position as a great European power. What were the political issues at stake in the debate over Copernicanism? We can approach this question from two directions, asking (a) what political interests did the Church have vested in the traditional worldview; and (b) what interests did the Galileans stake in Copernican worldview. Given the profoundly human dimension of this conflict, we should also ask: what were Galileo's choices?

The first question, the Church's political investment in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology, is about Counter-Reformation politics. In the century-and-a-half prior to Galileo's trial, Italy and the Church suffered a succession of severe setbacks. The French invasion left Italy in a state of political wreckage and set the stage for a poisonous rivalry between the Holy Roman Emperor, the Papacy, and the King of France. At the same time, the Church faced dissension within its own ranks. When the sixteenth century opened, scarcely anyone in Europe doubted the need for reform of the Church. Most called for a reform from within, but Luther, that Papal Bull-burning German, crossed the Rubicon. Breaking completely with the church, he split Christendom into two belligerent blocs, and added a vicious ideological element to the Cold War of the sixteenth century.

The Council of Trent, called ostensibly to answer the Protestant challenge, created a new, toughened Church. To combat the Protestant Heresy, the Council redefined the Church's doctrine and established iron-fisted mechanisms to enforce the creed, including the Index of Printed Books and the Inquisition at Rome. One of the most important debates at the Council of Trent was over the Question of Scripture vs. Tradition. Does religious truth rest upon the word of God alone, or does it rest upon the dual foundations of scripture together with the apostolic and ecclesiastical traditions? Since the Church was the source and guardian of tradition, its religious and political authority weighed in the balance. Years of debate and thousands of scudi went into answering this question, but the conclusion was determined by political necessity: Scripture and Tradition together, not Scripture alone, were the win bulwarks of the faith.

Galileo's trial hinged upon the Church's rigid adherence to this doctrine. Galileo did not just defend a new astronomical system; he proclaimed science to be a new criterion of authority, and hence undermined the bedrock of Roman Catholic authority.

The philosophy of Aristotle was fundamental to the new scholasticism that emerged after Trent. Arguments based upon Aristotle's physics explained and justified some of the central dogmas that separated Roman Catholics from Protestants- the Church's interpretation of the Eucharist, for example. But the issue was not simply one of physics, theology, or astronomy. The issue, as Brecht rightly portrays it, was "pernicious doctrines", which was what the inquisition was formed in the first place to deal with, and was matter with which, by the time of the trial, the Holy Office had gained a great deal of practical experience.

The carnival scene in the Life of Galileo, where the people claim their right "to say and do just what one pleases," may seem slightly contrived from an historical point of view, but it captures the essential point that in the time of Galileo the Church was engaged in a two-front war: one against high culture, which resisted conforming to Counter-Reformation patterns, and another against the people, who often perverted doctrine in aggressively original ways.

There are many historical examples of the originality of popular culture. The best know (thanks to a recent book on the subject by Carlo Ginzberg) was miller called Menocchio, of the Friuli region in northern Italy, who was denounced to the Inquisition in 1583. Menocchio owned a few books. None of them were heretical, but his reading of them was shockingly so. He became convinced for example, that the sacraments were human inventions and just so much merchandise. He said you may as well confess to a tree as to a priest; and that all men are equal because the spirit of God is in everyone. He constructed a wholly materialistic cosmology that all but denied God the creator.

Whenever Menocchio got the chance, he insolently exercised his freedom of judgment. Menocchio was brought to trial in 1599, just as proceedings against Giordano Bruno were drawing to a close. In the same year Tommaso Campanella was thrown into prison for fomenting a rebellion in Calabria. Campanella languished in prison for more than twenty years. Bruno and Menocchio went to the stake for heresy. The trial and execution of these two mean, a philosopher and a miller, symbolizes the war the Church waged against high and low cultures in an effort to impose doctrines promulgated by the Council of Trent. And it is not insignificant that Bruno and Campanella both vigorously supported Copernicus and Galileo respectively.

The attack on Galileo commenced in 1614, when the Dominican preacher Tommasco Caccini delivered a sermon denouncing mathematics as a diabolical art, mathematicians as enemies of the state and Galileo as the propagator of cosmological absurdities. Copernicus's book was placed on the index in 1616. Cardinal Bellarmino, stating the Church's position, declared that until the Copernican theory was demonstrated, a literal reading of scripture must be taken as a matter of faith. Construing the Trent decree in a narrow, bureaucratical way, Bellarmino declared that it would be extremely imprudent to rewrite Scripture in light of an unproven scientific theory – which was in fact the status of Coppernicanism in 1616. Despite Galileo's eloquent plea for separate standards of scientific authority, Bellarmino's position remained the Church's until the time of the trial.

Brecht makes Galileo's recantation the central problem of the play, rendering it as a capitulation to the authorities. Historical analysis probably cannot help us decide whether Galileo was a coward or a hero. But it may help us to decide whether Galileo was a coward or a hero. But it may help us to decide whether or not Galileo had a choice in the matter. Indeed, by changing the ending of his play, Brecht himself forces the question. Galileo I is about the necessity of fighting for the liberty to teach the truth. Galileo II, on the other hand, is about the social responsibility of the scientists. This can only mean that for Brecht the scientists must not just seek the truth; he must also see to it that the truth does not get into the wrong hands. Where does this leave Galileo? Did he have a choice?

One choice, a typically Renaissance option, can be illustrated by reference to one of Galileo's contemporaries – a scientist who might in fact have supplied Brecht with a more suitable model for the conception of science he advocates in Galileo II.

Giambattista Della Porta was twenty-nine years older when Galileo.  He was born in Naples in 1535, and died in 1615, when Galileo was at the peak of his career, eighteen years before the trial. The two scientists knew each other; both belonged to the Academia dei Lincei, the scientific academy that sponsored Galileo’s books, and they communicated with one another about Galileo's research with the telescope. There is another similarity between Galileo and Della Porta. In 1574, and again in 1590, Della Porta confronted the inquisition and was forced to recant his scientific views.

However, Galileo and Della Porta represented two very different scientific traditions. Whereas Galileo stood for the tradition of mathematical physics, Della Porta was Europe's most famous champion of natural magic. According to Della Porta, nature was a great repository of occult forces, which science can exploit for beneficial purposes. Natural magic was sixteenth-century Italy’s version of the utilitarian science advocated by Francis Bacon and later Brecht. It promulgated a utopian image of science as the foundation for reforming society and manners.

Della Porta's major scientific discovery was that all supposed "magical" phenomena are in reality the results of natural causes, and it was his radical stance not his science of occult qualities that got him into trouble with the Inquisition. For the Church, in order to work its magic, had to maintain a monopoly over access to the occult. Indeed, the church was a vast reservoir of magical power, which it was capable of deploying for a variety of secular purposes. Della Porta, who insisted that science can exploit occult powers, thus struck a blow at the Church's monopoly over the supernatural, just as Galileo challenged the Church's monopoly over interpreting the book of nature.

Della Porta, like Brecht, was tremendously impressed by the potential of science. He knew it could do good, but also great harm. Because of this he maintained that sometimes it is necessary to write obscurely, speaking in riddles and symbolic language, lest knowledge get into the wrong hands. Although he published a very popular work entitled Natural Magic, he withheld publication of his most precious secrets, the "quintessence of his science," on the grounds that they might be abused or corrupted by the people. He sent a manuscript of this work only to Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, imaging that Rudolph, whom he thought the most enlightened prince in Europe, would use it for the best ends.

The distance in attitudes toward the secrets of nature between Della Porta and Galileo is almost the same as the distance that separates us from the Renaissance. For Della Porta, only a magus could rightfully penetrate into the secrets of nature. Galileo, on the other hand, declared nature to be an open book that anyone can read, provided he knows the language in which it is written, mathematics. For Della Porta, the pearls of science were too precious to be fed to swine; for Galileo, public confirmation of his discoveries was an essential component of the scientific method.

I would suggest, therefore, that Galileo, given the style of science he practiced, took the only choice available to him. To have taken the route advocated by Della Porta, and presumably also Brecht, would have meant doing a completely different kind of science. Since the Copernican issue could not be settled in strictly scientific terms, and had necessarily to be debated on theological grounds, Galileo argued the debate in that treacherous territory. Perhaps, in light of these historical circumstances, the most appropriate dramatic form for the trial of Galileo is not epic, but tragedy.

back to Bert Brecht