Modern readers are accustomed to the rigors of free scientific debate, which allows for a variety of viewpoints, so long as data exist to reinforce one’s positions. Even in more esoteric worlds like philosophy and politics, few arguments are taboo as long as they are presented both with good intent and reason. Such freedoms, though, are a modern victory—sometimes a very modern one. In Brecht’s day, citizens of the United States faced severe repercussions, including charges of treason, if they espoused socialist or communist views. In Galileo’s time, questioning the Church’s position on any topic could lead to a charge of heresy, a crime that carried with it a wide array of harsh punishments. Of these, the worst was burning at the stake, and indeed imagery of flames and burning can be found throughout Life of Galileo, invoking this very threat. Yet, Brecht argues that, regardless of the time one lives in, true believers in their cause will always to continue to challenge authority, no matter the consequences.
Galileo’s challenge to astrology (upon which the authority of the Church was partially based) was significant, since his ideas undermined centuries-old understandings of the universe and even suggested that fundamental aspects of Christian doctrine were entirely untrue. The Church had taught for centuries that the Earth was the center of the universe, with all other elements (like the Sun, Moon, and planets) captured in successive crystalline spheres. Galileo’s research contradicted the Church’s model of the cosmos, and placed the Earth at the center of just one solar system among countless others. In effect, Galileo’s ideas “got rid of Heaven.” The dissemination of such iconoclastic beliefs was so great a threat to the power of the Church that Galileo was tried before the Inquisition and threatened with torture if he didn’t renounce his views—which he did. The Church’s brutal imprisonment of Galileo appeared to have broken him. He lost the respect and friendship of his pupils, and, seemingly, he lost his enthusiasm for his work. The Church wanted Galileo’s harsh life to be an example to others who might challenge its authority.
However, the Church’s desire to make an example of Galileo clearly failed, as Brecht is using Galileo’s life to illustrate the importance of challenging repressive institutions (the opposite of the lesson that the Church hoped people would derive from Galileo’s story). Though Galileo appeared to have caved to the Church’s demands, he was actually trying to avoid attracting attention so that he could work on a secret manuscript that he disseminates by having a student sneak it out of the country. This is a complicated moral position, since Galileo’s life appears, outwardly, to validate the Church’s authority. However, Galileo is only using the appearance of compliance to give himself the freedom to continue his work. By holding Galileo up as a model of iconoclasm, Brecht seems to endorse a utilitarian attitude. Instead of judging Galileo for not publicly maintaining his stance against the Church, he celebrates Galileo for creating, by any means necessary, the conditions under which he could continue his important work. In other words, Brecht seems to believe that Galileo’s integrity is defined less by his public position than by his commitment to continuing to develop and disseminate subversive ideas.
Brecht also acknowledges the tremendous cost of living in defiance of authority. Galileo’s time in prison and his life after prison take a physical toll on him. For example, writing his final manuscript destroys his eyesight, because he must conduct his work at night, in secret. This was also emotionally difficult for Galileo, as he was continuing his work under threat of execution. Even more significant, his criticism of the Church was morally painful for him because it did not spring from hatred of religion; though Galileo disagreed with the Church’s teachings on astronomy and astrology, he was a devout Catholic, and being at odds with the Church was not a natural or easy position for him. Despite being “a faithful son of the church,” Galileo was willing to question his own deeply-held faith and he continued with his work because he saw himself as helping the church in the process. Men, after all, could be wrong in their interpretation of God’s universe. If he could set them right, it was his duty to do so.
Not coincidentally, these were all values that Brecht and Galileo shared, and it’s noteworthy that, after writing Life of Galileo, Brecht faced similar persecution. Brecht emigrated to America in 1941, after nearly a decade of self-imposed exile from his home country of Germany (since, as a socialist, he feared persecution by the Nazis). Yet, it was in America that his political beliefs would cause the greatest scandal. Brecht was called before Congress to testify about his political beliefs in 1947, during a period known as the “Red Scare” in which communists and socialists were persecuted as a danger to society. Though he’d written Life of Galileo almost a decade before that interview, the incident only serves to underscore Brecht’s belief that those who go against the grain (as both he and Galileo did) will always suffer for it. Yet enduring that suffering, and continuing one’s work despite it, stands for Brecht as one of the greatest services someone can offer mankind.
Persecution Quotes in The Life of Galileo
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.
Just like them. It's their whole system of government. Chopping us off like the diseased branch of some barren figtree.
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.
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?