The deadly bubonic plague ripped through Italy during Galileo’s life, and in Brecht’s time, hundreds of years later, an influenza outbreak gripped the entire world. Both Galileo and Brecht’s societies went to great (and sometimes inhumane) lengths to stop disease from spreading, often by segregating the sick from the healthy, a method that had limited success. Not surprisingly, then, the idea of plague looms large in Life of Galileo, and it becomes a metaphor for the way in which powerful institutions try to stem the flow of ideas that challenge their authority. Thus, Life of Galileo positions ideas as a kind of contagion, and shows that attempts to keep people from coming into contact with knowledge are repressive and ultimately ineffective. Just like viruses, ideas tend to spread quickly and uncontrollably to others.
Because of the Church’s authority, Catholics in Life of Galileo tend to recoil from Galileo’s ideas just as they would from the plague. For example, when Galileo’s housekeeper (Mrs. Sarti) is discovered to have contracted the plague, the townsfolk run past Galileo’s home, whispering in fear and refusing to answer him when he speaks to them because they are afraid of catching the disease. Similarly, when they pass by him in the hall of the Inquisition, they refuse to greet him lest they be seen as supporting his ideas. Brecht strengthens this parallel through minstrel performances. The plague inspired travelling minstrel performers to depict those suffering from the disease, and the minstrels in Life of Galileo also sing songs about how horrible Galileo is.
Yet, once someone begins to understand Galileo’s new knowledge, they start instantly to spread it—as the housekeeper’s son, Andrea, does. The second that Andrea begins to learn that the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth, he starts to teach it to his mother. Later, he does the same for Cosimo, the Grand Duke of Florence. Galileo’s lens grinder, Federzoni, is no different. Though he has been only recently exposed to Galileo’s new ideas, he quickly presents them to a group of government astronomers and physicists who are amazed at his impertinence. Even those who should be strongly immune to his message, such as the Little Monk, fall under the sway of the “disease.” The Little Monk is classically educated in philosophy and religion and he has Church-approved knowledge in mathematics. These should work as “antibodies” to Galileo’s “virus.” Indeed, it seems that the Little Monk hopes to cure Galileo of his infection by using these resources. Nevertheless, being in Galileo’s presence for only a short time is enough to infect the Little Monk.
At the heart of Galileo’s ideas is the premise that one must question everything. This, even more than his specific questioning of Aristotle, is the core of Galileo’s infection. As the Inquisitor points out to Barberini, Galileo has caused a veritable plague of doubting within Italy and elsewhere. The idea that the Church was wrong about one of its most central tenants has caused many to doubt its other doctrines, and perhaps even faith itself. Since Galileo, for instance, sea captains have begun to place their belief in star charts and compasses rather than God. The minstrel singers of the plague suggest that such questioning has extended even further into the realm of social life. After becoming infected with Galileo’s questioning manner, for instance, tenants now berate their landlords, wives question whether they might achieve sexual satisfaction with men besides their husbands, and apprentices lie in bed rather than working. “Independent spirit,” he warns, “spreads like foul diseases.”
Like Galileo, Brecht had firm and iconoclastic ideas that he hoped would spread like a contagion. His ideas centered on the theater, an arena that (like Galileo’s astronomy) had also been dominated for centuries by the theories of Aristotle (in this context, the idea that the theater should imitate reality as closely as possible). Brecht thought that the theater could be an amazing tool for encouraging intellectual debate and politicizing the masses, but that the naturalistic style prescribed by Aristotle had limited the theater’s political efficacy. Brecht didn’t want people getting wrapped up emotionally in his works; instead, he wanted them to think about the plays—to remember that they were a work of artistic artifice and not real life. Like Galileo’s infectious ideas, Brecht’s ideas on the theater angered some critics and probably scared them. And they spread. Most serious theater directors to this day work in the shadow of Brecht—whether in sympathy, in opposition, or in some combination of the two—which shows the continuing ability of Brecht’s thought to “infect” others.
Ideas as Infection ThemeTracker
Ideas as Infection Quotes in The Life of Galileo
On our old continent a rumor sprang up: there might be new ones. And since our ships began sailing to them the laughing continents have got the message: the great ocean they feared, is a little puddle. And a vast desire has sprung up to know the reasons for everything: why a stone falls when you let it go and why it rises when you toss it up.
[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.
You're an idiot, and to hell with manners, just give it over or you'll start something.
Just like them. It's their whole system of government. Chopping us off like the diseased branch of some barren figtree.
Welcome to Rome, Galileo my friend. You know its origins? Two little boys, so runs the legend, were given milk and shelter by a she-wolf. Since that time all her children have had to pay for their milk.
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.