? the summer of 1611, the Grand

? THE HERESY OF GALILEOGalileo was condemned by the Inquisition, not for his own brilliant theories, but becausehe stood up for his belief in Copernicus’s theory that the earth was not, as the Church insisted, thecenter of the universe, but that rather, the universe is heliocentric.

Galileo was a man oftremendous intellect and imagination living in a era dominated by the Catholic Church, whichattempted to control the people by dictating their own version of reality. Any person whopublicly questioned Church doctrine ran the chance of condemnation and punishment. If mancould think, man could question, and the Church could lose its authority over the masses. Thiscould not be tolerated in the 17th century, when the Church had the power to dictate reality. Copernicus probably avoided a similar fate by confining his opinions to his students and theuniversity milieu, and in fact his theories were not published until the time of his death.To be tried by the Inquisition was something that nobody could take lightly. Although inGalileo’s time the Inquisition was becoming more and more lenient, it was known to have usedtorture in the past and to have sent many heretics to burn at the stake. As late as 1600, this fatehad befallen the Italian thinker Giordano Bruno, a one-time Dominican friar who had adopted apantheistic philosophy of nature.

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From the summer of 1605, Galileo was private tutor of mathematics to young PrinceCosimo de’ Medici, son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Teacher and pupil became sincerelyattached to each other by mutual affection and deference, and this bond lasted to the end ofGalileo’s life. Galileo remained a good friend of the Grand Duke as well. In the summer of 1611,the Grand Duke invited Galileo to a dinner party at his court. The Duke liked to gather greatscholars around him, especially when he had illustrious guests, to hear them talk about issues ofinterest to the learned world. At this dinner the discussion centered on floating bodies. Galileomaintained that bodies can float only if their specific gravity is less than that of water.

Among thedinner guests there were, however, some followers of Aristotle’s philosophies, and they arguedthat bodies float if their shape is wide and smooth so they cannot cut through the resistance of thewater. Floating bodies were a topic on which Galileo was especially knowledgeable, as he hadbeen interested in the subject since, when as a student, he had read Archimedes. He was able tosupport his point so brilliantly that one of the guests of honor, Maffeo Cardinal Barberini, sidedwith him. Years later, Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VIII and turned against Galileo,becoming one of his bitter enemies, but at that moment he was as congenial as one could be,sincerely admiring Galileo’s dialectical skill. Perhaps to please the Cardinal, the Grand Dukeasked Galileo to put his argument into writing, which he did. The result was The Discourse onFloating Bodies.Galileo’s sharp, almost sarcastic wit made him especially suited to arguments and debates,of which he was to have many in the following years. Some of these resulted in famous writingsthat added to his lasting glory; many antagonized people of his time and turned many of them intoenemies.

The Peripatetics at the Grand Duke’s table were not very dangerous as potential enemies,but his next adversary was. Even before the Discourse on Floating Bodies was published in1612, Galileo was engaged in a conflict with an astronomer whose name he did not know and wasnot to find out for over a year — the Jesuit father Christopher Scheiner (1575-1650). In 1610,Galileo had claimed to be the first discoverer of sunspots; so had Father Scheiner, and the twohad entered into a bitter dispute.

Father Scheiner had communicated his opinions on hisobservations of sunspots in several letters to Mark Welser, a German patron of science. Perhapsto avoid direct criticism, Scheiner wrote under a pen name. Mark Welser published Scheiner’sletters and sent them to Galileo for comment without revealing the name of the author.Galileo replied in three Letters on Sunspots addressed to Welser (in Italian, whichScheiner could not read and had to have translated, while Scheiner had not written in his nativeGerman, but in Latin). In his letters, Galileo severely criticized Scheiner’s views.The greatest significance of these Letters on Sunspots, as far as the Church wasconcerned, was that for the first time in print Galileo had openly endorsed Copernicus’s theory asa reality and not as a mere hypothesis, and that he had used his own discoveries as proofs in favorof Copernicanism. Just as important, he had unwittingly antagonized a Jesuit, the first of many. The Jesuits were powerful in the Church, and in particular they were advisers on educationalmatters.

It was unfortunate indeed that so many of them sooner or later should withdraw theirprevious friendship, respect, or even indifference toward Galileo to pass into the enemy camp.The trouble, however, initially came from other quarters. In 1613, Galileo learned fromFather Benedetto Castelli, one of his most beloved pupils, that in the course of a discussion at thecourt of Tuscany, the dowager Grand Duchess, Christina de Lorena, had taken the stand that theearth could not move because its motion would contradict the Holy Scriptures.Galileo decided that the time had come to explain his views on the relations betweenscience and faith. He did this in his Letter to Castelli, which he sent, in manuscript copies, notonly to his pupil Castelli, but also to several friends. Soon afterward, in his Letter to the GrandDuchess Cristina, he elaborated what he had written to Castelli. It was lofty and solemn andshowed that Galileo’s faith in nature and its laws went side by side with his faith in God.

Itcontains passages which are among Galileo’s most beautifulToday, these views are widely shared and officially recognized by the Church. In fact, in1893, Pope Leo XIII wrote a paper which presented the church’s official point of view concerningthe relationships between science and scripture; this statement cannot be distinguished fromGalileo’s. Even in Galileo’s time, the highest authorities of the Church did not call his letters toCastelli and Cristina into question; but some in the Church did criticize them. To these few whohad little understanding of new developments in science, Galileo’s writings seemed an outsider’sinterference in religious matters. A Dominican friar denounced the Letter to Castelli to theInquisition.

Another Dominican, Father Tomaso Caccini, who had once been disciplined for beinga scandal-maker, preached a sermon against Galileo in the popular church of Santa MariaNovella in Florence. He concluded by saying that mathematics was an art of the devil, thatmathematicians were the source of all heresies and should be ousted from all countries. Shortlyafterward, he too testified against Galileo before the Inquisition.Although there was secrecy surrounding the Inquisition, Galileo became aware of whatwas going on in Rome and decided his presence was needed there. He was warmly welcomedand stayed at the Villa Medici, the Tuscan embassy, on the Grand Duke’s order. Although hisfriends strongly advised against it, Galileo immediately resumed his campaign in favor ofCopernicus through intense talks and discussions with almost everyone of importance in Romeand through several new writings.

In fact, several cardinals did their best to persuade him to keepquiet in public about Copernicus, regardless of his private belief, but Galileo could not bedeterred.Ultimately, the Inquisition never really questioned the theological views that Galileo hadexpressed in his letters; and he was able to clear himself of charges of heresy and blasphemyconcerning the nature of God. The Inquisition, however, did denounce Galileo for his defense ofCopernicus’s theories, and on order of the Pope, admonished Galileo that he was not to hold,teach, or defend the condemned opinion of Copernicus. A few days later, Copernicus’s book, DeRevolutionibus, which had been dedicated to a Pope, and which the Pope had accepted, and withwhich the Church had found no fault until Galileo had started to present it as reality, wascondemned and prohibited until it should be corrected. Yet, the Roman Catholic Church hadtaken no action against Copernicus’s books or his ideas until Galileo undertook his campaign toconvert the theologians. At the hands of Galileo, the heliocentric system threatened thegeocentric and, much more serious, God’s creation was becoming an object of direct humanobservation which could be interpreted without the help of the Scriptures or of religion.

In short,Galileo was condemned because he could not keep his opinions to himself and could not resist thetemptation to expose the ignorance, deceit, and manipulation of the powerful religious leaders ofthe time.History Essays


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