A.D. White’s War upon Galileo
The premise behind Andrew Dickson White’s argument is that the Church conducted a Holy War against the works of Galileo and against the man himself in order to keep secure its socio-political position in the hierarchy of seventeenth century Europe and to prevent the spread of anti-papal and Reformist sentiment. White believes that the Church stands for all that is superstitious and against logic and reason, while Galileo, and his contemporaries, represent the March of Science through the use of rational, philosophic thinking. White believes that the Church has intentionally attacked “almost every man who has ever done anything new for his fellow-men” through the use of weapons such as “infidel” and “atheist” (White 135). According to him, the betterment of man has been continually betrayed by the Catholic Church and that the story of Galileo’s silence is the pinnacle of this dark treachery (130).
Galileo was first attacked for his science with the revelation on his discovery of the Medicean Stars (the moon satellites of Jupiter) in 1610, that, according to White, was immediately put to siege by the “professors bred in the ‘safe science’” and with the masses seeking the aid of the Inquisition in order to deal with this heresy. Galileo’s attempts at proving their existence through demonstration of telescope was unsuccessful either because it was though a violation of God’s will for man or that the image was merely a creation of imperfections in the glass created by the devil himself (White 131-132).
The second attack came with the announcement that the shades of the moon were creations from the mountains and valleys contained upon it. Further, it was proclaimed that the sun held spots and their movement was evidence of the sun’s rotation; this, White says, is something that was vehemently protested against throughout all of academia in Europe. “Such are the consequences of placing the instruction of men’s minds in the hands of those mainly absorbed in saving men’s souls” (White 132-133). He further postulates that Galileo attempted to prove that his theories could be “reconciled with Scripture” in his letters to both Castelli and Christine and that these letters were greatly sought after by the Archbishop of Pisa for use by the Inquisition (136). What followed in 1616 was the attendance by Galileo to the Congregation of the Index, where it was proclaimed by the Church that the Copernican system is false and anyone proclaiming its truth be subjected to the wrath of the Inquisition. It is at this meeting, White says, that Galileo was forced, under the threat of imprisonment, to denounce his belief in Copernicanism and refrain from furthering its practice in academia (137). “Science had apparently lost the decisive battle” (138).
With the promotion of Barberini to pope Galileo “conceived new hopes, and allowed his continued allegiance to the Copernican system to be known,” with Urban apparently trying to keep him silent by showing him “his errors by argument.” What followed were people all throughout Europe showing the error of Galileo’s ways, since he had no way of fighting back (138-39). Later Galileo published his Dialogo, in 1632, which included a preface written in conjunction with Urban denouncing the Copernican theory as merely a fanciful idea and not science. According to White, the use of Urban as Simplicio in the Dialogo, who put forth the Copernican system, was Galileo’s greatest mistake: by putting the arguments that the Church was so vehemently against into the mouth of a character so clearly representing of the pope, Galileo signed his own death warrant (140-41). What followed was his banishment from society, the destruction of his works, and the tarring of his name, all the while the science he had worked so hard for was silenced from all academia throughout Europe.
White’s Errors in Evidence
When White has discussed Galileo’s use of the telescope for his observations and his later demonstrations to others, he has made it seem as though all the doubters took the stance of the greater morality in questioning what was seen, or what could be seen (132). However, what must be made clear is that the devices that Galileo used were far from the mechanisms available to an astronomy in White’s day; they were full of imperfections, were difficult to use, and most importantly were a new technology not yet entirely developed and understood. While surely there were those who thought it a violation of God’s law to pierce the heavens, most were likely just confused or ignorant about what they were seeing: The same idea can be seen, or at least understood, in the confusion and distrust of undeveloped peoples first encounters with mirrors or photographs.
White argues that there lay a great deficiency in the European universities by way of the clergymen holding the majority of professorships (133). While these men holding such positions is not in question, what must be made clear is that there is a great difference between being a man of the cloth in the seventeenth century versus White’s nineteenth century. In Galileo’s day, being a part of the Church hierarchy was much more than a religious or theological position: it was much more a political and social position for most. “The temporal power of the papacy also served to justify nepotism. To protect himself from political intrigue and plot, the pope needed trusted advisers.” Therefore, many of those appointed to positions of the Church were those who had been closest to pope himself (often family members) and not necessarily those most deserving of the position from a theological stance (Shank 70). From this it is not such a big leap to say that those who held the professorships got them through their affiliation with the papacy, much like Galileo achieved his through his connection to the Grand Duke.
On the topic of the centrality of the Earth, White makes it quite clear that it was seen as the greatest threat to Christianity and that “dreadful consequences” would result should such an idea be proven true (134). As McMullin has stated, “The sun’s motion and the earth’s rest had, of themselves, no major theological significance. Had they not, as it happened, been mentioned in a handful of passages in the Old Testament, the issue would scarcely have arisen in the first place” (172).
On numerous occasions White makes mention of the fact that Galileo made attempts to prove his theories using the word of God as basis and that this rationale was met with illogical anger and vile repute. In the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina he writes, “After becoming certain of some physical conclusions, we should use [passages of Holy Scripture] as appropriate aids to the correct interpretation of such Scriptures and to the investigation of the truths they must contain, for they are most true and agree with demonstrated truths” (Finnocchiaro 117). However, since the Council of Trent, in the mid-sixteenth century, it had been held that only those persons approved by the Church were permitted to make public claims as to the interpretation of the Bible. Any attempt by Galileo to undermine this ruling, which he did numerous times, would be seen as practicing Reformist sentiment (McMullin 167).
After the publication of the Dialogo, White states that, “In vain did the good Benedictine Castelli urge that Galileo was entirely respectful to the Church” (White 141). Two points are to be made here: firstly that any attempt made by Castelli to the Inquisition on behalf of Galileo would have been useless considering his part in the debacle on the interpretation of the Scripture by those outside of the cloth through the Letter to Castelli, which was well known among them, and secondly that Galileo, especially in his opus ultimo, made his disdain for the Church well known. “While complying with [the] Roman instructions, however, the book’s typography seemed to wink at the reader” (Shank 78). Galileo had been anything but compliant in the simplest of orders from Rome on the publication of his Dialogo, through his use of roman font denoting the imprimaturs of the pope and italics for the main writing.
Finally to the topic of Urban XIII: White paints a strangely barren picture of him, while all at the same time making the reader feel the entirety of the war lay at his feet. “By far the most terrible champion who now appeared was Cardinal Bellarmin, one of the greatest theologians the world has known. He was earnest, sincere, and learned, but insisted on making science conform to Scripture” (134). White seems to plant in the mind the idea that Bellarmin is the bane to Galileo, while his actions, on more than one occasion, make him his savior, at least before he is so violently attacked through Simplicio. On the eve of the Index’s Copernican ruling Bellarmin warns Galileo that their continued outcries of Copernican righteousness were “likely to irritate all scholastic philosophers” (McMullin 155). After all, Bellarmin is the one who allowed for the dialogue to be published at all. Had he been the devil White has made him out to be, the entire book would likely have been squashed well in advance.
White’s greatest folly is in his portrayal of Galileo as an innocent martyr in the entire fiasco with the Church. There are many things Galileo could have done differently prevent his life and work from ending up so destroyed. Though “as he was the leading protagonist of the Copernican cause, the responsibility was his” (McMullin 169). After the Index’s ruling, his continued attacks on the Church and obvious outbursts were really something quite unnecessary and achieved him nothing outside of adoration in the republican Veneto.
On the surface, White’s arguments are basically accurate, it is in his portrayal of events that he missteps: he underestimates the importance that the politico-religious situation plays in the entirety of the Galileo story, while at the same time overestimating the quality of the science. “The trouble in which Galileo eventually found himself, and which led ultimately to his condemnation, then, resulted not from clear scientific evidence running afoul of biblical claims to the contrary (as White tells the story), but from ambiguous scientific evidence provoking an intramural dispute within Catholicism over the proper principles of scriptural interpretations dispute won by the conservatives at Galileo’s expense” (Lindberg & Numbers).
What is truly at issue is not the battle of the Church against the new science (Galileo), but the members of the Church, whom were majority Aristotelians, using all of the powers at their disposal in order to suppress what was seen as a threat to their beliefs, laughable to them as it may have been, which had been ingrained within the Church itself for over three hundred years. Lorini, who was likely the greatest antagonist of all, summed it up best: “[The Galileists] trampled underfoot all of Aristotle’s philosophy, which is so useful to scholastic theology” (McMullin 155). Galileo violated the sanctity of biblical interpretation in the Counter-Reformation, therefore showing himself, and his views, as liberal in an authoritarian, conservative time. The battle was not waged between science and the Church, but between two rival beliefs with Catholicism itself.
Finnocchiaro, Maurice A. The Essential Galileo. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008.
Lindberg, David C. and Numbers, Ronald L. ”Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. 39.3 (1987): 140-149.
McMullin, Ernan. The Church and Galileo: The Church’s Ban on Copernicanism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Shank, Michael H. The Church and Galileo: Setting the Stage. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
White, Andrew D. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. London: Macmillan and Co., 1896.
This article originally written for OU HSCI 3833 - The Scientific Revolution.
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