Both Brecht and Galileo lived in societies that were characterized by the desire to do things differently than they’d been done in the past. In Galileo’s time, science introduced knowledge and ideas that were at odds with centuries of religious teachings about the nature of the world. In Brecht’s day, this desire for change was political. People were tired of wars and the political systems that caused them: they wanted change and some believed that communism could provide it. By staging a play about Galileo’s life in the era of communism’s ascendance, Brecht suggests that history will view the struggle for communism in the same favorable light that contemporary people see Galileo’s struggle for scientific knowledge against a repressive religious hierarchy.
Brecht suggests that people tend to view favorably what aligns with reason. Therefore, he believes that even ideas that are at odds with centuries of tradition and “common sense” will ultimately be accepted if those ideas are more rational than the ones they strive to replace. For Galileo, whom Brecht endows with the same belief, proof of this inclination toward rationality can be seen in the ability of simple demonstrations, made with apples and wooden models, to teach complex ideas. Andrea, who initially lacked the education necessary to understand the mathematics behind Galileo’s ideas, was easily convinced by Galileo’s models that the Aristotelean concept of the universe made less sense than Copernicus’ system. That basic inclination toward reason, Galileo says, is found everywhere from “the horny-handed old woman who gives her mule an extra bundle of hay on the eve of a journey” to “the sea captain who allows for storms and doldrums when laying in stores,” and it is an irresistible power that will eventually persuade even the most stubborn people of the truth.
Building on this, Life of Galileo suggests that technological advancement and an increasing trust in empiricism means that human reason can be more easily directed. When Copernicus confronted the ideas of Aristotle, he did so on purely mathematical grounds. If one couldn’t understand the mathematics behind his proofs, then one simply had to take his arguments on faith—precisely what had been done for centuries with Aristotle. Without observable proof, Copernicus’ arguments remained just a theory. Thanks to the telescope, however, Galileo could provide visible proof of phenomena that could otherwise only be described mathematically. While his demonstrations and models were convincing to some, the incontrovertible evidence of the eyes, in the end, was sufficient to persuade all. For Brecht, who sought to prove Marx’s theories to his audience, observable proof of communism’s viability was found not in a technological advancement, but rather through experiment. The Soviet Union had recently turned the theories of Karl Marx into proof of the viability of communism, and countries throughout the world sought to replicate their findings.
Brecht makes this parallel concrete when he has Galileo equate politics and science in an odd speech to a former student. In it, he says that “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.” But the “new art of doubting” that reason has created has caused people to train their telescopes not just on the stars, but also on “their tormentors, the princes, landlords and priests.” And just as ordinary people had used their reason to see the flaws of Aristotle’s time-honored models, so too would they use reason to see the flaws in the systems of power which had long oppressed them. Those systems, Brecht believed, would in turn be replaced by ones that made more sense for everyone, just as Galileo’s system replaced Aristotle’s.
For Galileo, then, knowledge really was a power that anyone could wield in the pursuit of a better world. In this way, Brecht uses Galileo as a stand-in for himself: both men present themselves as iconoclasts, standing against centuries of inherited wisdom. Both men make that stand in the name of the common man, whom they understand would benefit the most from this emancipation of ideas. And, perhaps most importantly, both men speak directly towards that audience of ordinary people. Brecht’s fictional Galileo writes all of his scientific tracts in Italian, rather than in Latin, so that people from a variety of backgrounds can read them (the real Galileo did this as well). Similarly, Brecht himself wrote in an easy-to-understand German and made sure that English translations of his work were equally accessible. Even his theoretical works on the theater, which tackle very complex topics, are easy to read.
Progress vs. Tradition ThemeTracker
Progress vs. Tradition 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.
I'm telling you astronomy has stagnated for the last thousand years because they had no telescope.
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.
Copernicus, don't forget, wanted them to believe his figures; but I only want them to believe their eyes.
You're an idiot, and to hell with manners, just give it over or you'll start something.
Right, then let's have new textbooks.
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.
Our poverty has no meaning: hunger is no trial of strength, it’s merely not having eaten: effort is no virtue, it's just bending and carrying. Can you see now why I read into the Holy Congregations decree a noble motherly compassion; a vast goodness of soul?
For three months I'll have to be careful, because the sun will be in Aries, but then I shall get a particularly favourable ascendant and the clouds will part. So long as I keep my eye on Jupiter I can travel as much as I like, because I'm an Aries.
No! No! No! I am not going to have the multiplication table broken. No!
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.