The “Great Man” theory of historical progress, which was developed in the nineteenth century, argues that history is shaped not by the cumulative lives of everyday people, but by a handful of individuals (who, despite the name, need not be men). According to this theory, such people are possessed of greater thoughts and are capable of greater deeds than their peers, and they move humanity forward in a way of which they alone are capable. Brecht certainly considers Galileo to be one of these great men, and the play grapples with the nuance of the “Great Man” theory. While Life of Galileo suggests that geniuses are essential to human progress, the conflict between Galileo and the ideas of Aristotle (who lived centuries prior to Galileo) shows that the hero worship of important historical figures can also obstruct progress, as the ideas of “Great Men” can be difficult to contradict even when they are clearly wrong.
Brecht explicitly establishes that Galileo is one of the greats (though he allows Galileo to maintain humility by never saying so himself). Galileo’s own boss, the Procurator, says as much to his face: “Mr Galilei, we realise that you are a great man. A great but dissatisfied man, if I may say so.” The Inquisitor says so, too: “It's easy to get lost in the world of the stars, with its immense distances, if one is a great man.” Galileo’s superior at the university in Florence adds: “I always feel that every moment stolen from that great man is a moment stolen from Italy.” This establishes that Brecht considers Galileo’s ideas to be uniquely important in their potential to redirect the course of humanity and further scientific progress.
Yet, a primary obstacle to Galileo’s important ideas being accepted is the prestige of another great man from centuries earlier, Aristotle. Aristotle’s ideas about the cosmos shaped centuries of religious and scientific thought, and Galileo’s attempt to contradict aspects of Aristotelian thought is met with resistance from all kinds of people, institutions, and disciplines, including the Church, which holds Aristotle in high esteem. One philosopher who clashes with Galileo refers to “Aristotelis divini universum,” Latin for “the universe of the divine Aristotle.” This implies that Aristotle is more than a great man: he’s divine. As Federzoni points out, Aristotle’s doctrine is so believed that no one even bothers to confirm it. Conversely, Galileo’s theories are subjected to criticism from all angles, including philosophy and theology as well as math and hard science.
Thus, for Galileo’s greatness to truly be realized, he has to overcome the sway that Aristotle’s theories hold on astronomy. Galileo believes that this can be done simply by showing men the world through the telescope. However, overcoming the greatness of Aristotle isn’t that easy, since the men can’t even be bothered to look. As Galileo says: “I offer my telescope so they can see for themselves, and everyone quotes Aristotle.” The remainder of Galileo’s life is spent building insurmountable proof of a truth that is right before mankind’s eyes. Therefore, while Brecht clearly believes aspects of the “Great Man” theory of history, he also presents the drawbacks of attributing so much significance to the ideas of one person from long ago.
Brecht also uses Galileo’s conflict with Aristotle to reflect his own life. Since Brecht’s Galileo is a stand-in for Brecht himself, it’s unsurprising that, just as Aristotle was responsible for the cosmological system that Galileo refuted, Aristotle was also the progenitor of the naturalist theatrical style (in which the theater imitated real life) that Brecht sought to overthrow in the twentieth century. Thus, Galileo’s conflict with Aristotle is a subtle polemic against prevailing theatrical traditions, as well as a suggestion that Brecht’s ideas should be taken more seriously, since he (like Galileo) is a misunderstood “Great Man” of his time. Aristotle’s constant presence in Life of Galileo shows that Brecht not only firmly believed in the great man theory, but that he also saw it as the responsibility of great men to use their greatness to challenge and even overthrow the ideas of their predecessors.
Greatness Quotes in The Life of Galileo
God help us, I'm not half as sharp as those gentlemen in the philosophy department. I'm stupid. I understand absolutely nothing. So I'm compelled to fill the gaps in my knowledge. And when am I supposed to do that? When am I to get on with my research?
Today a world-famous scholar is offering you, and you alone, a highly marketable tube, for you to manufacture and sell as and how you wish.
What you're seeing is the fact that there is no difference between heaven and earth. Today is 10 January 1610. Today mankind can write in its diary: Got rid of Heaven.
[T]he horny-handed old woman who gives her mule an extra bundle of hay on the eve of a journey, the sea captain who allows for storms and doldrums when laying in stores, the child who puts on his cap once they have convinced
him that it may rain: these are the people I pin my hopes to, because they all accept proof. Yes, I believe in reason's gentle tyranny over people. Sooner or later they have to give in to it.
I am told that this Mr. Galilei moves mankind away from the centre of the universe and dumps it somewhere on the edge. Clearly this makes him an enemy of the human race. We must treat him as such. Mankind is the crown of creation…God’s highest and dearest creature. How could He take something so miraculous…and lodge it on a remote, constantly elusive star?...How can there be people so perverse as to pin their faith to these slaves of the multiplication table?
Mr. Galilei, before he left Father Clavius said: Now it's up to the theologians to see how they can straighten out the movements of the heavens
once more. You've won.
He's a terrible man. He cheerfully sets out to convict God of the most elementary errors in astronomy. I suppose God hadn't got far enough in his studies before he wrote the bible; is that it?
You were hiding the truth. From the enemy. Even in matters of ethics you were centuries ahead of us.
The poverty of the many is as old as the hills, and from pulpit and lecture platform we hear that it is as hard as the hills to get rid of. Our new art of doubting delighted the mass audience. They tore the telescope out of our hands and trained it on their tormentors, the princes, landlords and priests. These selfish and domineering men, having greedily exploited the fruits of science, found that the cold eye of science had been turned on a primaeval but contrived poverty that could clearly be swept away if they were swept away themselves.