Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Great Scientists by Charles R. Gibson
Stories of the Great Scientists by  Charles R. Gibson

Galileo before the Dreaded Inquisition

In the preceding chapter we have seen how Galileo came to invent the telescope, and now we wish to see how it was that his telescope set him on the road which led ultimately to the Holy Inquisition.

The greatest of Galileo's telescopic discoveries was his detection of four small planets circling around that gigantic planet which we call Jupiter. Imagine the feelings of Galileo! No man had ever beheld such a scene before; he was "infinitely amazed thereat." But Galileo was humbled; he gave thanks to God, who had been pleased to make him the first observer of marvellous things, unrevealed to bygone ages.

The Grand Duke of Tuscany became so interested in the discovery of Jupiter's satellites that Galileo determined to call them by the Grand Duke's family name—Medici—and so these planets were christened the Medicean Stars. Not long after this Galileo was invited to become Mathematician and Philosopher to the Court of Tuscany at Florence. This was a post that he had desired, because it would give him time to make further investigations.

The interest in Galileo's new stars was not merely local. The Court of France was quite excited about the matter. The French Queen was one of the Medici family; she had married King Henry IV of France. We are told that when a telescope from Galileo arrived at the Palace, the Queen was so eager to see the moon's appearance through the telescope that she did not wait for the instrument to be placed in position, "but went down upon her knees before the window, thereby greatly astonishing the Italian gentlemen who had brought the telescope into the Royal presence."

We learn from a letter of Galileo's to the private secretary of the Duke of Tuscany, that the French Court had been very anxious that Galileo should name some heavenly body after their King. Galileo did not make this fact known until after the assassination of Henry IV, and his reason for quoting from the letter was to show what an honour was supposed to be connected with his discovery.

The part of the letter from the French Court which refers to this royal request reads thus: "The second request, and the most pressing I can make you is, that when you discover some other beautiful star, you would call it by the name of the great Star of France, by far the brightest in all the earth; and rather by the name of Henry than by the appellation of Bourbon, if it so please you. By so doing, you will do a very just, right, and proper thing; you will gain renown, and likewise lasting riches for yourself and your family. Of this I can assure you on my honour. Therefore, pray discover as soon as possible some heavenly body to which his Majesty's name may be fitly attached."

But what had the professors and students of the old Aristotelian school to say to this new discovery of their despised philosopher? They tried to prove in their own fashion that the new planets did not exist. Here is one of their arguments, set forth by a great astronomer of Florence. There were only seven apertures in the head—two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth; and again, there were only seven metals, and only seven days in the week, therefore there could be only seven planets. Another argument was that as the supposed planets were invisible to the naked eye, they could exercise no influence on the earth; and being useless, they therefore did not exist.

Others argued that the new planets could not exist because Aristotle had made no mention of them. One great mathematician declared that before the new planets could be seen they must first be put inside the telescope. Professors refused to be convinced, declining to look through a telescope. When Galileo was told of the death of one of these obstinate professors, he said, "He did not choose to see my celestial trifles while he was on earth; perhaps he will now he has gone to heaven." One should admire Galileo for granting such a violent opponent so good a resting-place.

Galileo was very sarcastic in his reply to the many arguments offered against the existence of the new planets. He said the arguments were so weighty, that had he heard of them earlier he would have been bound to acknowledge that only seven planets could exist, but now that he had actually seen the four new planets he did not consider the arguments sufficiently strong to destroy the heavenly bodies. Even some of those Aristotelians who did look through the telescope at Jupiter's satellites declared that the whole affair was a huge deception; while the telescope was good enough for examining terrestrial objects, it was altogether false and deceptive when applied to the heavens. Galileo made several important astronomical discoveries, and these were spoken of as Galileo's "celestial novelties." Other astronomers who had obtained telescopes laid claim to having discovered some of these things before Galileo, but there is no doubt that Galileo was first in each case.

He determined to go to Rome and show his new discoveries. He was received as a great man. A commission of four scientific members of the Roman College reported that they were convinced of the truth of Galileo's discoveries. The Pope, Paul V, assured Galileo of his good-will, and before Galileo left for home he had a large number of admirers in Rome. However, when he published a book on Floating Bodies  he had all the Aristotelians up in arms against him. But how did Galileo get into serious trouble with the Church of Rome?

Galileo's old pupil Castelli was now Professor of Mathematics in the University of Pisa, Galileo's first post. Castelli was forbidden to teach that the Earth went round the Sun. Nevertheless, he was a faithful disciple of Galileo; indeed, it was his very faithfulness that brought trouble upon his master. Castelli was at a dinner-party at the table of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and among the guests was a brother professor who was an out-and-out Aristotelian. This man tried to poison the mind of the Dowager Duchess. He said that although Galileo's discoveries about the heavenly bodies were true, yet he was wrong entirely in supposing that these proved that the Earth went round the Sun. He declared that to say so was in direct opposition to the Holy Scriptures, and that therefore the Church was in danger. The Dowager Duchess asked Castelli what he had to say in the matter. This faithful follower of Galileo did his best to keep the Bible out of the discussion, but this was impossible, as the question to be answered was whether or no the new doctrine about the Earth's motion was compatible with the Holy Scriptures. Castelli succeeded so well in defending Galileo's doctrine that all the guests agreed with him, only the Dowager Duchess opposed him, while the Aristotelian professor who had raised the question took no part in the argument.

Castelli wrote a long letter to his master Galileo, telling him what had occurred at the dinner-party. A complete copy of this letter is given in an Appendix at page 333. It was in answer to this letter that Galileo penned the letter which ultimately got him entangled with the Holy Office. As this letter is of special interest also, a copy of it is given in the Appendix, immediately following Castelli's letter. The idea of the letter is fairly well summed up in a sentence which Galileo used on another occasion: that the Bible was intended to teach us not how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven.

There is no doubt that Galileo intended his letter for his friends' private satisfaction only. But it seems doubtful if Castelli recognised it as such; indeed, some historians say that he had many copies made so that they might be circulated widely, his object being to convince others of the great truths. On the other hand, Galileo seems to have believed that a copy of the letter was obtained by treachery and handed to certain monks.

A Jesuit, preaching at one of the cathedrals in Florence, attracted the attention of the people by taking as his text what was intended as a pun on the name of Galileo Galilei, the astronomer, and a thrust at his followers and their telescopes: "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" The first head of his sermon was that mathematics was a diabolical art, and the second was that as mathematicians were the authors of every heresy, they ought to be exiled from all Christian States. Galileo wrote about this to one of the high dignitaries of the Church, with whom he was very friendly, and this holy father replied that he was greatly mortified that a Dominican should have committed such a piece of foolery, and that he would endeavour to get the preacher to retract what he had said from the pulpit.

The matter did not end in so simple a manner. For this preacher, Father Caccini, was called to Rome to be questioned by the Holy Office. Needless to say, this enemy of Galileo did all in his power to blacken our hero's character. The Holy Office listened to what was in reality mere hearsay among the monks. So-and-so had once told him that another person had said this and that. This so-called evidence, along with a copy of the ill-fated private letter from Galileo to Castelli, were the beginning of Galileo's trouble with the Holy Office.

Galileo went to Rome thinking he could set matters right. The authorities appeared to be quite friendly to him, but Galileo could see that all was not right. However, he was not prepared for what was to come. The official experts of the Inquisition were asked to report upon Galileo's doctrines. They declared that his statement that the Earth moved round the Sun was "false and absurd philosophically, and formally heretical, inasmuch as it expressly contradicted the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures."

The Inquisition instructed Cardinal Bellarmine "to summon before him the said Galileo and admonish him to abandon the said opinion"—that the Earth moved round the Sun. Galileo promised to obey. There the matter seemed to end, and soon afterwards Galileo returned to Florence.

A few years later Cardinal Barberini, a personal friend of Galileo, was elected to the papal throne. He took the title of Pope Urban VIII. An influential friend urged Galileo to travel to Rome in order to congratulate the Pope in person. Although Galileo was not at all strong he made this journey, and was amply repaid by the very cordial reception he got. When Galileo left Rome, the Pope wrote a most generously worded letter regarding him to his patron the Grand Duke of Tuscany. With reference to the Copernican theory that the Earth moves round the Sun, the Pope said "the Church had not condemned this system; and that it should not be condemned as heretical, but only as rash."

About a dozen years later (1630) Galileo completed his great work, which is known as the Dialogue on the Two Principal Systems of the World. The two systems were the Ptolemaic System, at the centre of which was the Earth, and the Copernican System, at the centre of which was the Sun. Galileo once more journeyed to Rome in order to get permission to publish this book. The manuscript was carefully read by the officers of the Church, and their permission was given to print the book, provided a suitable preface and conclusion were inserted. The purpose of these seems to have been that it should be made clear to the reader that the idea of the Earth going round the Sun was purely hypothetical.

Galileo left Rome, promising to make these stipulated additions.

A serious outbreak of plague prevented Galileo sending back the amended manuscript to the printers at Rome. He asked permission to have it printed in Florence, and this was granted provided that Galileo sent the preface and conclusion to Rome to pass the Censor. This high official seems to have detained the manuscript of these beyond all reasonable time. But at last the great book was published (1632) and Galileo sent copies of it to his followers throughout Italy. Those for Rome were delayed on account of the plague. But not long after the arrival of the book in Rome a communication was sent to the Inquisition by a Jesuit. The result of this was that Galileo's publisher was ordered to suspend the publication and to send to Rome all copies which he had in his possession. But by that time there was not a single copy left.

Poor Galileo! He had obtained full permission of the Church to publish his great work, and now these same authorities withdraw the book. But why should Galileo's personal friend Pope Urban VIII turn against him? Some of the earlier historians have blamed Galileo for wantonly defying and insulting the Church in his dialogues, but not only did he refrain from any such imprudence, he inserted many reservations simply to please the Censor.

The idea of writing in dialogues was very old and not uncommon.

Galileo had three speakers in his book. One of these he called Salviati, after an old personal friend long deceased. This speaker advocated the Copernican theory, while another of the speakers, who was a half-convert, and who had many objections to raise, was named Sagredo, after another personal friend who had died some time previously. The third spokesman was named Simplicio, after one of Aristotle's contemporaries and supporters. He raises all the Aristotelian difficulties in accepting the Copernican System. This man shows up very poorly as compared with the two others, and, indeed, he appears a simpleton.

Galileo's enemies, the Aristotelians, led the Pope to believe that Galileo had willfully put this Simplicio into the dialogues to represent the Pope. These enemies were able to point to some arguments used by Simplicio which were those suggested by Pope Urban himself. Galileo brought up every argument he could think of against the Copernican theory, but needless to say, he was not so ungrateful as to willfully insult the Pope. But the Pope believed the evil suggestion, and he was furious. He was easily persuaded to take action against the book.

The Duke of Tuscany thought there must be some misunderstanding, as Galileo had obtained full permission to publish the book. The Duke ordered his Ambassador at Rome to call upon the Pope and explain matters, but he had a bad reception, and at this interview the Pope spoke of Galileo as "he who did not fear to make game of me." Some writers have not been willing to accept this version of what took place, saying that all along the Pope had the best of feelings towards Galileo; that it was merely the doctrine, and not the man, that concerned him. However, it is difficult to accept this suggested interpretation.

Galileo was then accused of deliberately transgressing the command laid upon him sixteen years previously: to abandon the idea that the Earth goes round the Sun, We must remember, however, that in the interim the Holy Office had given Galileo permission to publish the very book over which all this trouble was now being made. The Pope himself was aware of the command to abandon the theory; indeed, he was one of the Cardinals who had had to investigate the matter, and, moreover, he was an unwilling party to the command.

Galileo's case was handed over to the Inquisition, and he was ordered to appear at Rome within the next month. But our hero was in very indifferent health, and now well advanced in years. Besides these disadvantages, there was a great risk of plague, which had broken out again, so that travelling was dangerous. We can sympathise with the old man trying to put off the evil day. He offered to submit himself to the Archbishop, who was the Inquisitor in Florence. But the Pope insisted on Galileo going to Rome to appear in person before the Inquisition there. There was further delay on account of illness, but ultimately Galileo set out in a litter, or bed-chair, provided by the Grand Duke.

Three weeks later Galileo arrived in Rome, not to be cast into prison, but to remain in comfort at the Embassy, the only condition laid upon him being that he stayed indoors. There was a long delay of about two months before the old man was brought before the dreaded Inquisition. It is to the Pope's credit that even during the trial he did not allow Galileo to be treated as an ordinary prisoner; he was never placed in a prison cell, much less a dungeon. And we should remember that it was the custom to put princes, prelates, and noblemen in the dungeons while the trial lasted. While Galileo could not be allowed to return to the Embassy each evening, he was housed comfortably in the building of the Holy Office; his doors were not even required to be locked.

Galileo's friend the Ambassador urged him not to attempt to defend himself, and so our hero recognised that discretion was the better part of valour. Some writers have deplored Galileo's lack of courage. They have drawn comparisons between him and the Christian martyrs. But surely the cases are in no way similar; there was no question of conscience. Had Galileo elected to be burned at the stake, his cause would not have been helped forward one bit. His cause was not one that called for any such sacrifice. Whether a man believes that the Earth goes round the Sun, or the Sun round the Earth, will not affect his spiritual welfare.

At Galileo's first appearance before the Inquisition he defended himself in so far that he declared he did not consider that he was disobeying his previous admonition by writing the book which had brought him there. The Inquisition insisted that the admonition said "not to teach in any way whatever, verbally or in writing." Galileo was surprised at this reading of the admonition of sixteen years ago, but anxious to end matters as soon as possible, he replied, "It may be so, but I do not remember it." But unfortunately the poor old man did not content himself with that. He proceeded to try and convince his judges that his book argued as much in favour of one system as the other; indeed, that its arguments favoured the old idea. Of course, we know that the intention of the book was to defend the Copernican theory, and that fact must have been quite apparent to the Inquisition. This put Galileo in a bad position; it made the duties of the Inquisition more difficult. There is not the least doubt that the Inquisition desired to make the trial as easy as possible for the aged philosopher.

The Commissary-General, who was one of the judges, proposed privately to the others that he should be allowed to point out to Galileo that he was hurting his own case in denying the real purpose of the book. This was agreed to, and after some kindly argument the good-hearted judge persuaded Galileo to confess his error. Hence at the next trial we find Galileo making a humiliating confession.

At a further trial Galileo was commanded to deny the doctrine that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, and that it moves. His reply was: "I do not hold, and have not held, this opinion of Copernicus since the command was given that I must abandon it. For the rest I am here in your hands; do with me as you please." No doubt we have a feeling of disappointment, but we must remember that this abjuration was arrived at by fear of actual torture being resorted to should he refuse to recant. The popular story that as Galileo rose from his knees he muttered, "But nevertheless it moves," is acknowledged now to be quite absurd. No doubt many of us thought it quite ridiculous even in our schooldays.

The Inquisition felt that it was necessary to pronounce sentence of perpetual imprisonment. Galileo had gone contrary to the teachings of Holy Scripture, at least so they thought or pretended to think. However, his imprisonment was of a very lenient order. He was allowed to reside in that villa in the garden of which he had years before shown his "celestial novelties" the Cardinals and others. Of course, the whole affair must have been a very great punishment to the aged philosopher, but we have a very different picture from that of actual torture and imprisonment in secret dungeons.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Galileo Galilei  |  Next: A Glimpse of Galileo's Private Life
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.