The Earth Moves

by Dan Hofstadter

We all know the basic story of the trial of Galileo: how the Roman Inquisition went after him for his heretical beliefs in the Copernican model of the solar system; how Galileo bravely stood firm in the defense of scientific truth in the face of brute superstition; how he was forced to recant or die; and how, exiting the proceedings, he muttered sotto voce “Yet the earth does move!”

It’s a great tale — but it’s not true. The true story of Galileo’s trial is much more complicated. I suppose that, if you had to condense the complexity down to 25 words or less, then you could reduce it to something like this:

Galileo was tried because he publicly advocated the Copernican model and was forced to recant, yet remained defiant in his heart. 

But, like all condensations of the truth, it misleads. In the first place, Galileo was not tried for heresy; he was tried for disobeying a direct order from Cardinal Bellarmine. The trial was NOT about the Copernican model, and that model was never discussed in the trial. And Galileo was treated with kid gloves throughout the entire affair.

The real story begins in 1616. Galileo had published a number of books implicitly supporting the Copernican model, and in fact his observations of the moons of Jupiter and the cratered surface of the moon had pretty well shattered the old ideas about the solar system.

The Church was in the throes of paranoia over the Protestant Reformation, which had begun a century earlier and had already cost the Church most of Northern Europe. A new priestly order, the Jesuits, was instituted as the leading force behind the Counter-Reformation, the Church’s offensive defense against the Reformation. The Jesuits were the intellectual marines of the Church: recruits were selected for high intelligence, thoroughly educated, and devoted to education. The Church felt that its best defense against the Reformation was a well-educated laity. 

Of course, paranoia tends to induce conservatism in small-minded people, and the Church had its share of traditionalists who ferociously defended the old ways. The Jesuits were the progressive element that took a more liberal approach to the problems posed by the Reformation. But the conflict between the conservatives and the progressives has continued to this day.

Most of the progressives in the Church had no objection to the Copernican model; they felt that scientific truth glorified God (this notion was first propounded by St. Thomas Aquinas 400 years earlier). However, there were some complex subtleties in Catholic theology that constituted threads of connection between theological truth and the old geocentric model of the solar system. 

The central problem lay in the relationship between theological truth and scientific truth. Throughout the Middle Ages, theology had been the queen of knowledge, the fundamental basis of all knowledge. Other forms of knowledge, such as artistic knowledge, medical knowledge, legal knowledge, and scientific knowledge, were secondary to theological knowledge and must conform to the dictates of Christian theology. 

This wasn’t a problem in the early Middle Ages, because none of these forms of knowledge — including theology — was developed thoroughly enough for any conflicts to arise. However, intellectual progress was starting to raise some tricky conflicts with theology. At first they could just finesse their way past these problems, but the Reformation forced the Church to start nailing down many of tenets of its theology. Vague, tacit understandings were replaced by strict written formulations. 

It was in the model of the solar system that theology and science finally collided. The central notion at stake was that the earth was the center of the universe and everything else revolved around the earth; this hypothesis was consistent with the few statements in the Bible that spoke of the sun moving in space, such as the time that Joshua asked God to stop the sun’s motion so that Joshua could have more time to slaughter his enemy. 

Of course, the progressive elements in the Church, such as the Jesuits, regarded such material as metaphorical in nature, but centuries of intense debate had finally yielded a solid theological position that in fact the earth was stationary and the sun moved. 

When Copernicus published his work in 1543, he presented it as merely a speculative work, not a statement of fact. And in fact his book was not banned outright; it was categorized as off limits until such time as it could be properly emended. The Church instead developed a diplomatic solution to the problem: it was fine to talk about the Copernican model if you treated it as speculative and not formally correct. A clever author could get along just fine with appropriate phrasing. For example, you could start off a discussion of the Copernican model by saying “Suppose that God, in His infinite power, decided to set up the universe in a different manner. Suppose that He put the sun at the center of the universe and set the earth revolving around the sun instead of the other way around. Then we might observe such and such, and the planets would do this and that…” You could proceed to present the entire Copernican model, along with all the supporting evidence, the calculations, the diagrams — everything demonstrating that the Copernican model was in fact the best explanation of the observations. You could write it so that any rational person would draw the obvious conclusion that the old geocentric model was wrong and the Copernican model was right. You just couldn’t actually state that conclusion explicitly. You had to treat it all as a kind of clever intellectual exercise, an academic thought experiment. And it would be wise to publish it in Latin rather than any of the vernacular languages, so as to make it clear that your thoughts were aimed at other academics, not the general public. 

In other words, the Church’s position was a kind of wink-wink, nod-nod approach. So long as you didn’t come out and explicitly contradict Catholic theology, the Church had no objection. You could imply almost anything so long as you were subtle enough about it. 

And in fact Galileo had observed these protocols in his books describing the astounding discoveries he had made with this telescope. These made him the toast of Europe and the jewel of the court of Florence. Everyone, including the Church, treated him as one of the greatest minds of his time — which he was.

However, some of his writings had strayed a little too close to the line, so in 1516 Cardinal Bellarmine invite him to Rome for some heart-to-heart talks. He listened with genuine interest as Galileo explained his discoveries and he took genuine intellectual pleasure in their discussions. However, he advised Galileo to tread carefully on the question of theology. Galileo had no theological training and so should keep his nose out of that particular wasp’s nest. He encouraged Galileo to continue his scientific investigations but ordered him not to rile the conservative theologians. Just use appropriate Cover-Your-Ass phrasing and everybody will be happy. Galileo understand the Cardinal’s points and promised to obey them. The Cardinal followed up with a written statement of the restrictions that Galileo had agreed to. This was to serve as protection in case the conservatives went after Galileo; with written orders — or dispensation — from a cardinal, Galileo could beat off any attacks from the conservatives.

Shortly afterwards, a new pope came: Maffeo Barbarini, Urban VIII. He represented a resounding victory for the progressives in the Church: he was a humanist, well educated, and a strong patron of scientific investigation. He had befriended Galileo before he was elevated to the papacy and he held Galileo in great esteem. He too had admonished Galileo on how to avoid provoking the ire of the conservatives. But he was unquestionably on Galileo’s side.

Galileo rigorously observed the protocols that Bellarmine and the Pope had urged upon him; he was a fervent Catholic and truly wanted to remain so. However, as he aged, a change came over Galileo. He grew crustier, less willing to suffer fools gladly. He had been subjected to a great deal of verbal abuse from competitors and skeptics. At the same time, the honors that continued to descend upon him went to his head, and he began to think himself too important to be brought low by a bunch of ignorant conservative clerics. 

In 1532, Galileo published a sensational book: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This book tackled head-on the conflict between the old geocentric system and the new Copernican system. The very notion of the book was intrinsically risky: the established protocol was to treat the entire question with great circumspection, talking all around the issue but never actually stating any firm conclusions. Worse, he didn’t write it in Latin as he had done with earlier works; this was in Italian. After decades of everybody delicately beating around the bush, Galileo publicly and loudly declared the truth that could not be spoken.

He made a half-hearted effort to cover his ass by casting it in a dialogue format, in which two people argue two sides of an issue, presenting their cases as best they can, letting the reader draw his own conclusions. But this was mere window-dressing. He named the advocate of the geocentric system “Simplicio”, which might be translated as “simpleton”. Throughout the book, Simplicio is little more than a straight man for Salviati, who presents what are obviously Galileo’s own opinions. Simplicio mindlessly parrots the age-old arguements so that Salviati can demolish them.

Worse, Galileo put into Simplicio’s mouth some statements coming straight from the mouth of Urban VIII. Galileo held up the Pope as the object of derision. This is not how to make friends and influence people.

One wonders what was going on in Galileo’s mind. In his book, he directly challenged the entire Catholic Church. Had he reached the point where he simply didn’t care what anybody thought? Did he think himself invulnerable? Was he sick and tired of the farce? Or was he just stupid? What little evidence we have suggests that he grossly misunderstood his situation. It appears that Galileo made a huge miscalculation.

In any event, the entire Church was duly outraged by the effrontery of Galileo’s book. Pope Urban VIII, his old friend, felt personally betrayed and was furious. The conservatives saw their chance and howled for Galileo’s head. Galileo was commanded to come to Rome to face the Roman Inquisition.

Unlike any other accused, Galileo was not placed in prison; he instead resided in luxury at the Florentine embassy. He was treated with all the courtesy his station in society demanded. 

This was an inquisitorial process, not an adversarial one as we Americans are used to. At no point was there ever a confrontation between Galileo and his accusers. Instead, the court gathered evidence, some of which included testimony from Galileo. That testimony was itself quite dull: a matter of verifying already-known facts about what he wrote, when he wrote it, and so forth. At no point in the trial was the Copernican system discussed.

The accusation can be simplified as being that Galileo had been insubordinate to Holy Mother Church. He had been given a written order from Cardinal Bellarmine, and he had violated that order. He had presumed to make statements about theology, which was strictly forbidden to those not properly educated in the subject.

Yes, there were underlying motivations that didn’t surface in the trial per se. For the conservatives, the real issue was Galileo’s challenge to the geocentric system, which undermined a tiny corner of Catholic theology, thereby calling into question the entire edifice that had been so artfully hammered together over the course of centuries. Perhaps an analogy to modern American politics might illuminate the issue. Consider the uproar that arose when President Bush responded to a law duly passed by Congress by declaring that he would not enforce certain portions of the bill that he disagreed with. The law itself was not of great significance, but the President’s refusal to faithfully execute the law constituted, in the eyes of many, a direct assault on the Constitution. This catapulted the issue to something vastly more important: the preservation of the Constitutional system of checks and balances. In the same fashion, Galileo’s denial of the geocentric system was itself of minor import, but it undermined the entire system of Catholic theology.

Galileo, too, thought that the trial was actually about the truth of the Copernican system; only at the very end did he realize that it was really about the underlying ‘constitution’ of the Church and its requirement that all Catholics abide by the theological conclusions that had been worked out after centuries of dispute.

In the end, Galileo was found guilty of refusing to abide by explicit instructions from the Church. That was a foregone conclusion. An interesting aside: Galileo was not tortured, even though torture was a common practice in such trials. The regulations of the Church regarding the use of torture were quite strict and Galileo could never have been tortured — although the conservatives on the court were not above insinuating that any prevarication on his part would result in their resorting to torture. Also, the methods used by the American government in Guantanamo were far harsher than those permitted by the Roman Inquisition. The prisoners at Guantanamo would have been much better off being tortured by the Roman Inquisition. 

Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. This was a notably gentle sentence, reflecting the high regard in which he was held and the degree of protection provided by the progressives in the Church. Even Urban VIII, an excitable fellow, would not hear of any death sentence for Galileo. Galileo was forbidden to write anything about the Copernican system — but in fact he had no problem getting works smuggled out his home for publication in Northern Europe.