© 2014 Valerie Dionne

Head on the Block by Lucy Devlin

On the snowy night of March 12th, Joseph D. Martin gave an intriguing lecture at Colby College on Galileo’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina and the ideas of science, religion, and censorship associated with it. Before discussing this letter however, Joseph D. Martin first addressed some common myths surrounding Galileo. Today we tend to hold Galileo up as someone who had been crusading against the church to spread the truth, punished solely for his revolutionary ideas. For example, as the lyrics of the Indigo Girls’ song go, “Galileo’s head was on the block; his crime was looking up the truth.” This however is quite different from the reality of what the situation actually was. Ideas of the heliocentricity first developed far before Galileo’s time by a man named Copernicus, who published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestiumin in 1543. Despite presenting the same basic idea however, Copernicus never ended up in the same trouble that Galileo did-why?Duchess1

The main reason for this, as Joseph Martin stressed throughout the lecture, is that censorship is not always ideological but rather can be personal. Copernicus was quite clever and far better at matters of diplomacy then Galileo. He had a clergyman, named Osiander, write the introduction to his book, explaining how the book was just proposing a model, and dedicated it to the pope to show his devotion to the church. The book itself fully presented his ideas; however, by flattering the church at every turn and ensuring that that his ideas only came across as a hypothetical theory he protected himself from becoming an enemy of the church and subsequently avoided punishment. He was just as at risk of being arrested as Galileo, still dealing with concerns of censorship; however, he knew how to play the system which was a skill Galileo lacked.

Galileo did try initially to avoid angering the church and to approach the whole situation as diplomatically as Copernicus did. The letter he wrote to the Grand Duchess, Joseph Martin explained clearly and concisely, was an attempt to gain her as an ally, something Galileo realized he would need due the potential unpopularity of his ideas. This letter ended up going into circulation meaning it was read by a much wider audience; being addressed to the Grand Duchess gave it greater credibility (a common practice). Galileo clearly articulated in this letter that he was not against the church and that he recognized the intelligence of the priests (especially the Jesuits). Furthermore, he stressed the fact his ideas were not new, but rather had been proposed by Copernicus and in discussion ever since. It was interesting to see him here giving such credit to Copernicus as today it is Galileo who most people immediately associate with the heliocentric theory.

As additional support for his case, Galileo went on to broadly discuss the ideas of science and religion, the book of nature and the book of scripture respectively. He claimed that although in general both were important, in some cases one may be a better choice to turn to than the other. The case of astronomy was one of those times that experience and demonstration (book of nature) were better options of study than studying scriptures. No response by the Grand Duchess to this letter has been found so sadly it is impossible for us to know her response, or if she even made one, to these and the other ideas he put forth.

Unfortunately for Galileo, this letter written in 1615 and was the height of his diplomatic skill. In his later publication Dialogue, in which he was presenting his theory, he slandered the pope via the character Simplico, a simple-minded man who stubbornly refused to facts and was clearly based on the pope. This choice certainly won him no friends in the church and lost the few remaining ones he had. Although technically it was his ideas that he was arrested for in 1633, the reason why he was arrested more had to do with the fact he made enemies in the wrong places.

This is not to say the ideas he was talking were not somewhat under attack. The heliocentric theory was never popular in the eyes of the church and legally Galileo was arrested for violating a law that stated no one could teach Copernican (heliocentric) ideas. But as Joseph Martin pointed out Galileo was not the only one talking about these ideas and as already discussed they were not new ideas. He was not a man ahead of his times in any way.

By angering the right people though, Galileo was the one singled out for punishment. Although never at risk of beheading as the Indigo Girls implied, he was forced to renounce his theory and placed under house arrest until his death in 1642. He was only pardoned by the Catholic Church in 1992, 359 years after his arrest. In this way, Galileo was an excellent choice as a lecture topic for a year devoted to censorship; some of our ideas about him may be slightly misinformed but that doesn’t diminish the impact he has had or that he suffered for presenting his ideas.

Linder, Douglas. “The Trial of Galileo: An Account.” Famous Trials. N.p., 2002. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/galileo/galileoaccount.html>.

“Vatican Science Panel Told By Pope: Galileo Was Right.” New York Times. N.p., 1 Nov. 1992. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/01/world/vatican-science-panel-told-by-pope-galileo-was-right.html>.

Maclean, Robert. “Nicolaus Copernicus.” Special Collections. University of Glasgow, Apr. 2008. Web. 13 Mar. 2014. <http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/apr2008.html>.