Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation

Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century
Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries
Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms
Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art
Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation
Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation
Ignatius Loyola : Rise and Influence of the Jesuits
John Calvin : Protestant Theology
Lord Bacon : The New Philosophy
Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation
John Lord

Topics Covered
A brilliant portent
The greatness of the sixteenth century
Artists, scholars, reformers, religious defenders
Maritime discoveries
Literary, ecclesiastical, political achievements
Youth of Galileo
His early discoveries
Genius for mathematics
Professor at Pisa
Ridicules the old philosophers; invents the thermometer
Compared with Kepler
Galileo teaches the doctrines of Copernicus
Gives offence by his railleries and mockeries
Theology and science
Astronomical knowledge of the Ancients
Utilization of science
Construction of the first telescope
Galileo’s reward
His successive discoveries
His enemies
High scientific rank in Europe
Hostility of the Church
Galileo summoned before the Inquisition; his condemnation and admonition
His new offences
Summoned before a council of Cardinals
His humiliation
His recantations
Consideration of his position
Greatness of mind rather than character
His confinement at Arceti
Opposition to science
His melancholy old age and blindness
Visited by John Milton; comparison of the two, when blind
Consequence of Galileo’s discoveries
Later results
Vastness of the universe
Grandeur of astronomical science

Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

A.D. 1564-1642.

Among the wonders of the sixteenth century was the appearance of a new star in the northern horizon, which, shining at first with a feeble light, gradually surpassed the brightness of the planet Jupiter; and then changing its color from white to yellow and from yellow to red, after seventeen months, faded away from the sight, and has not since appeared. This celebrated star, first seen by Tycho Brahe in the constellation Cassiopeia, never changed its position, or presented the slightest perceptible parallax. It could not therefore have been a meteor, nor a planet regularly revolving round the sun, nor a comet blazing with fiery nebulous light, nor a satellite of one of the planets, but a fixed star, far beyond our solar system. Such a phenomenon created an immense sensation, and has never since been satisfactorily explained by philosophers. In the infancy of astronomical science it was regarded by astrologers as a sign to portend the birth of an extraordinary individual.

Though the birth of some great political character was supposed to be heralded by this mysterious star, its prophetic meaning might with more propriety apply to the extraordinary man who astonished his contemporaries by discoveries in the heavens, and who forms the subject of this lecture; or it poetically might apply to the brilliancy of the century itself in which it appeared. The sixteenth century cannot be compared with the nineteenth century in the variety and scope of scientific discoveries; but, compared with the ages which had preceded it, it was a memorable epoch, marked by the simultaneous breaking up of the darkness of mediaeval Europe, and the bursting forth of new energies in all departments of human thought and action. In that century arose great artists, poets, philosophers, theologians, reformers, navigators, jurists, statesmen, whose genius has scarcely since been surpassed. In Italy it was marked by the triumphs of scholars and artists; in Germany and France, by reformers and warriors; in England, by that splendid constellation that shed glory on the reign of Elizabeth. Close upon the artists who followed Da Vinci, to Salvator Rosa, were those scholars of whom Emanuel Chrysoloras, Erasmus, and Scaliger were the representatives,–going back to the classic fountains of Greece and Rome, reviving a study for antiquity, breathing a new spirit into universities, enriching vernacular tongues, collecting and collating manuscripts, translating the Scriptures, and stimulating the learned to emancipate themselves from the trammels of the scholastic philosophers.

Then rose up the reformers, headed by Luther, consigning to destruction the emblems and ceremonies of mediaeval superstition, defying popes, burning bulls, ridiculing monks, exposing frauds, unravelling sophistries, attacking vices and traditions with the new arms of reason, and asserting before councils and dignitaries the right of private judgment and the supreme authority of the Bible in all matters of religious faith.

And then appeared the defenders of their cause, by force of arms maintaining the great rights of religious liberty in France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and England, until Protestantism was established in half of the countries that had for more than a thousand years servilely bowed down to the authority of the popes. Genius stimulates and enterprise multiplies all the energies and aims of emancipated millions. Before the close of the sixteenth century new continents are colonized, new modes of warfare are introduced, manuscripts are changed into printed books, the comforts of life are increased, governments are more firmly established, and learned men are enriched and honored. Feudalism has succumbed to central power, and barons revolve around their sovereign at court rather than compose an independent authority. Before that century had been numbered with the ages past, the Portuguese had sailed to the East Indies, Sir Francis Drake had circumnavigated the globe, Pizarro had conquered Peru, Sir Walter Raleigh had colonized Virginia, Ricci had penetrated to China, Lescot had planned the palace of the Louvre, Raphael had painted the Transfiguration, Michael Angelo had raised the dome of St. Peter’s, Giacomo della Porta had ornamented the Vatican with mosaics, Copernicus had taught the true centre of planetary motion, Dumoulin had introduced into French jurisprudence the principles of the Justinian code, Ariosto had published the “Orlando Furioso,” Cervantes had written “Don Quixote,” Spenser had dedicated his “Fairy Queen,” Shakspeare had composed his immortal dramas, Hooker had devised his “Ecclesiastical Polity,” Cranmer had published his Forty-two Articles, John Calvin had dedicated to Francis I. his celebrated “Institutes,” Luther had translated the Bible, Bacon had begun the “Instauration of Philosophy,” Bellarmine had systematized the Roman Catholic theology, Henry IV. had signed the Edict of Nantes, Queen Elizabeth had defeated the Invincible Armada, and William the Silent had achieved the independence of Holland.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Suttermans

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Suttermans

Such were some of the lights and some of the enterprises of that great age, when the profoundest questions pertaining to philosophy, religion, law, and government were discussed with the enthusiasm and freshness of a revolutionary age; when men felt the inspiration of a new life, and looked back on the Middle Ages with disgust and hatred, as a period which enslaved the human soul. But what peculiarly marked that period was the commencement of those marvellous discoveries in science which have enriched our times and added to the material blessings of the new civilization. Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Bacon inaugurated the era which led to progressive improvements in the physical condition of society, and to those scientific marvels which have followed in such quick succession and produced such astonishing changes that we are fain to boast that we have entered upon the most fortunate and triumphant epoch in our world’s history.

Many men might be taken as the representatives of this new era of science and material inventions, but I select Galileo Galilei as one of the most interesting in his life, opinions, and conflicts.

Galileo was born at Pisa, in the year 1564, the year that Calvin and Michael Angelo died, four years after the birth of Bacon, in the sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth, and the fourth of Charles IX., about the time when the Huguenot persecution was at its height, and the Spanish monarchy was in its most prosperous state, under Philip II. His parents were of a noble but impoverished Florentine family; and his father, who was a man of some learning,–a writer on the science of music,–gave him the best education he could afford. Like so many of the most illustrious men, he early gave promise of rare abilities. It was while he was a student in the university of his native city that his attention was arrested by the vibrations of a lamp suspended from the ceiling of the cathedral; and before he had quitted the church, while the choir was chanting mediaeval anthems, he had compared those vibrations with his own pulse, which after repeated experiments, ended in the construction of the first pendulum,–applied not as it was by Huygens to the measurement of time, but to medical science, to enable physicians to ascertain the rate of the pulse. But the pendulum was soon brought into the service of the clockmakers, and ultimately to the determination of the form of the earth, by its minute irregularities in diverse latitudes, and finally to the measurement of differences of longitude by its connection with electricity and the recording of astronomical observations. Thus it was that the swinging of a cathedral lamp, before the eye of a man of genius, has done nearly as much as the telescope itself to advance science, to say nothing of its practical uses in common life.

Galileo had been destined by his father to the profession of medicine, and was ignorant of mathematics. He amused his leisure hours with painting and music, and in order to study the principles of drawing he found it necessary to acquire some knowledge of geometry, much to the annoyance of his father, who did not like to see his mind diverted from the prescriptions of Hippocrates and Galen. The certain truths of geometry burst upon him like a revelation, and after mastering Euclid he turned to Archimedes with equal enthusiasm. Mathematics now absorbed his mind, and the father was obliged to yield to the bent of his genius, which seemed to disdain the regular professions by which social position was most surely effected. He wrote about this time an essay on the Hydrostatic Balance, which introduced him to Guido Ubaldo, a famous mathematician, who induced him to investigate the subject of the centre of gravity in solid bodies. His treatise on this subject secured an introduction to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who perceived his merits, and by whom he was appointed a lecturer on mathematics at Pisa, but on the small salary of sixty crowns a year.

This was in 1589, when he was twenty-five, an enthusiastic young man, full of hope and animal spirits, the charm of every circle for his intelligence, vivacity, and wit; but bold and sarcastic, contemptuous of ancient dogmas, defiant of authority, and therefore no favorite with Jesuit priests and Dominican professors. It is said that he was a handsome man, with bright golden locks, such as painters in that age loved to perpetuate upon the canvas; hilarious and cheerful, fond of good cheer, yet a close student, obnoxious only to learned dunces and narrow pedants and treadmill professors and bigoted priests,–all of whom sought to molest him, yet to whom he was either indifferent or sarcastic, holding them and their formulas up to ridicule. He now directed his inquiries to the mechanical doctrines of Aristotle, to whose authority the schools had long bowed down, and whom he too regarded as one of the great intellectual giants of the world, yet not to be credited without sufficient reasons. Before the “Novum Organum” was written, he sought, as Bacon himself pointed out, the way to arrive at truth,–a foundation to stand upon, a principle tested by experience, which, when established by experiment, would serve for sure deductions.

Galileo Galilei Statue by A. Castoli Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Galileo Galilei Statue by A. Castoli Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Now one of the principles assumed by Aristotle, and which had never been disputed, was, that if different weights of the same material were let fall from the same height, the heavier would reach the ground sooner than the lighter, and in proportion to the difference of weight. This assumption Galileo denied, and asserted that, with the exception of a small different owing to the resistance of the air, both would fall to the ground in the same space of time. To prove his position by actual experiment, he repaired to the leaning tower of Pisa, and demonstrated that he was right and Aristotle was wrong. The Aristotelians would not believe the evidence of their own senses, and ascribed the effect to some unknown cause. To such a degree were men enslaved by authority. This provoked Galileo, and led him to attack authority with still greater vehemence, adding mockery to sarcasm; which again exasperated his opponents, and doubtless laid the foundation of that personal hostility which afterwards pursued him to the prison of the Inquisition. This blended arrogance and asperity in a young man was offensive to the whole university, yet natural to one who had overturned one of the favorite axioms of the greatest master of thought the world had seen for nearly two thousand years; and the scorn and opposition with which his discovery was received increased his rancor, so that he, in his turn, did not render justice to the learned men arrayed against him, who were not necessarily dull or obstinate because they would not at once give up the opinions in which they were educated, and which the learned world still accepted. Nor did they oppose and hate him for his new opinions, so much as from dislike of his personal arrogance and bitter sarcasms.

At last his enemies made it too hot for him at Pisa. He resigned his chair (1591), but only to accept a higher position at Padua, on a salary of one hundred and eighty florins,–not, however, adequate to his support, so that he was obliged to take pupils in mathematics. To show the comparative estimate of that age of science, the fact may be mentioned that the professor of scholastic philosophy in the same university was paid fourteen hundred florins. This was in 1592; and the next year Galileo invented the thermometer, still an imperfect instrument, since air was not perfectly excluded. At this period his reputation seems to have been established as a brilliant lecturer rather than as a great discoverer, or even as a great mathematician; for he was immeasurably behind Kepler, his contemporary, in the power of making abstruse calculations and numerical combinations. In this respect Kepler was inferior only to Copernicus, Newton, and Laplace in our times, or Hipparchus and Ptolemy among the ancients; and it is to him that we owe the discovery of those great laws of planetary motion from which there is no appeal, and which have never been rivalled in importance except those made by Newton himself,–laws which connect the mean distance of the planets from the sun with the times of their revolutions; laws which show that the orbits of planets are elliptical, not circular; and that the areas described by lines drawn from the moving planet to the sun are proportionable to the times employed in the motion. What an infinity of calculation, in the infancy of science,–before the invention of logarithms,–was necessary to arrive at these truths! What fertility of invention was displayed in all his hypotheses; what patience in working them out; what magnanimity in discarding those which were not true! What power of guessing, even to hit upon theories which could be established by elaborate calculations,–all from the primary thought, the grand axiom, which Kepler was the first to propose, that there must be some numerical or geometrical relations among the times, distances, and velocities of the revolving bodies of the solar system! It would seem that although his science was deductive, he invoked the aid of induction also: a great original genius, yet modest like Newton; a man who avoided hostilities, yet given to the most boundless enthusiasm on the subjects to which he devoted his life. How intense his raptures! “Nothing holds me,” he writes, on discovering his great laws; “I will indulge in my sacred fury. I will boast of the golden vessels I have stolen from the Egyptians. If you forgive me, I rejoice. If you are angry, it is all the same to me. The die is cast; the book is written,–to be read either now, or by posterity, I care not which. It may well wait a century for a reader, as God has waited six thousand years for an observer.”

We do not see this sublime repose in the attitude of Galileo,–this falling back on his own conscious greatness, willing to let things take their natural course; but rather, on the other hand, an impatience under contradiction, a vehement scorn of adversaries, and an intellectual arrogance that gave offence, and impeded his career, and injured his fame. No matter how great a man may be, his intellectual pride is always offensive; and when united with sarcasm and mockery it will make bitter enemies, who will pull him down.

Galileo, on his transfer to Padua, began to teach the doctrines of Copernicus,–a much greater genius than he, and yet one who provoked no enmities, although he made the greatest revolution in astronomical knowledge that any man ever made, since he was in no haste to reveal his discoveries, and stated them in a calm and inoffensive way. I doubt if new discoverers in science meet with serious opposition when men themselves are not attacked, and they are made to appeal to calm intelligence, and war is not made on those Scripture texts which seem to controvert them. Even theologians receive science when science is not made to undermine theological declarations, and when the divorce of science from revelation, reason from faith, as two distinct realms, is vigorously insisted upon. Pascal incurred no hostilities for his scientific investigations, nor Newton, nor Laplace. It is only when scientific men sneer at the Bible because its declarations cannot always be harmonized with science, that the hostilities of theologians are provoked. And it is only when theologians deny scientific discoveries that seem to conflict with texts of Scripture, that opposition arises among scientific men. It would seem that the doctrines of Copernicus were offensive to churchmen on this narrow ground. It was hard to believe that the earth revolved around the sun, when the opinions of the learned for two thousand years were unanimous that the sun revolved around the earth. Had both theologian and scientist let the Bible alone, there would not have been a bitter war between them. But scientists were accused by theologians of undermining the Bible; and the theologians were accused of stupid obstinacy, and were mercilessly exposed to ridicule.

That was the great error of Galileo. He made fun and sport of the theologians, as Samson did of the Philistines; and the Philistines of Galileo’s day cut off his locks and put out his eyes when the Pope put him into their power,–those Dominican inquisitors who made a crusade against human thought. If Galileo had shown more tact and less arrogance, possibly those Dominican doctors might have joined the chorus of universal praise; for they were learned men, although devoted to a bad system, and incapable of seeing truth when their old authorities were ridiculed and set at nought. Galileo did not deny the Scriptures, but his spirit was mocking; and he seemed to prejudiced people to undermine the truths which were felt to be vital for the preservation of faith in the world. And as some scientific truths seemed to be adverse to Scripture declarations, the transition was easy to a denial of the inspiration which was claimed by nearly all Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant.

The intolerance of the Church in every age has driven many scientists into infidelity; for it cannot be doubted that the tendency of scientific investigation has been to make scientific men incredulous of divine inspiration, and hence to undermine their faith in dogmas which good men have ever received, and which are supported by evidence that is not merely probable but almost certain. And all now that seems wanting to harmonize science with revelation is, on the one hand, the re-examination of the Scripture texts on which are based the principia from which deductions are made, and which we call theology; and, on the other hand, the rejection of indefensible statements which are at war with both science and consciousness, except in those matters which claim special supernatural agency, which we can neither prove nor disprove by reason; for supernaturalism claims to transcend the realm of reason altogether in what relates to the government of God,–ways that no searching will ever enable us to find out with our limited faculties and obscured understanding. When the two realms of reason and faith are kept distinct, and neither encroaches on the other, then the discoveries and claims of science will meet with but little opposition from theologians, and they will be left to be sifted by men who alone are capable of the task.

Thus far science, outside of pure mathematics, is made up of theories which are greatly modified by advancing knowledge, so that they cannot claim in all respects to be eternally established, like the laws of Kepler and the discoveries of Copernicus,–the latter of which were only true in the main fact that the earth revolves around the sun. But even he retained epicycles and excentrics, and could not explain the unequal orbits of planetary motion. In fact he retained many of the errors of Hipparchus and Ptolemy. Much, too, as we are inclined to ridicule the astronomy of the ancients because they made the earth the centre, we should remember that they also resolved the orbits of the heavenly bodies into circular motions, discovered the precession of the equinoxes, and knew also the apparent motions of the planets and their periods. They could predict eclipses of the sun and moon, and knew that the orbit of the sun and planets was through a belt in the heavens, of a few degrees in width, which they called the Zodiac. They did not know, indeed, the difference between real and apparent motion, nor the distance of the sun and stars, nor their relative size and weight, nor the laws of motion, nor the principles of gravitation, nor the nature of the Milky Way, nor the existence of nebulae, nor any of the wonders which the telescope reveals; but in the severity of their mathematical calculations they were quite equal to modern astronomers.

If Copernicus revolutionized astronomy by proving the sun to be the centre of motion to our planetary system, Galileo gave it an immense impulse by his discoveries with the telescope. These did not require such marvellous mathematical powers as made Kepler and Newton immortal,–the equals of Ptolemy and Hipparchus in mathematical demonstration,–but only accuracy and perseverance in observations. Doubtless he was a great mathematician, but his fame rests on his observations and the deductions he made from them. These were more easily comprehended, and had an objective value which made him popular: and for these discoveries he was indebted in a great measure to the labors of others,–it was mechanical invention applied to the advancement of science. The utilization of science was reserved to our times; and it is this utilization which makes science such a handmaid to the enrichment of its votaries, and holds it up to worship in our laboratories and schools of technology and mines,–not merely for itself, but also for the substantial fruit it yields.

It was when Galileo was writing treatises on the Structure of the Universe, on Local Motion, on Sound, on Continuous Quantity, on Light, on Colors, on the Tides, on Dialing,–subjects that also interested Lord Bacon at the same period,–and when he was giving lectures on these subjects with immense éclat, frequently to one thousand persons (scarcely less than what Abélard enjoyed when he made fun of the more conservative schoolmen with whom he was brought in contact), that he heard, while on a visit to Venice, that a Dutch spectacle-maker had invented an instrument which was said to represent distant objects nearer than they usually appeared. This was in 1609, when he, at the age of fifty-five, was the idol of scientific men, and was in the enjoyment of an ample revenue, giving only sixty half-hours in the year to lectures, and allowed time to prosecute his studies in that “sweet solitariness” which all true scholars prize, and without which few great attainments are made. The rumor of the invention excited in his mind the intensest interest. He sought for the explanation of the fact in the doctrine of refraction. He meditated day and night. At last he himself constructed an instrument,–a leaden organ pipe with two spectacle glasses, both plain on one side, while one of them had its opposite side convex, and the other its second side concave.

This crude little instrument, which magnified but three times, he carries in triumph back to Venice. It is regarded as a scientific toy, yet everybody wishes to see an instrument by which the human eye indefinitely multiplies its power. The Doge is delighted, and the Senate is anxious to secure so great a curiosity. He makes a present of it to the Senate, after he has spent a month in showing it round to the principal people of that wealthy city; and he is rewarded for his ingenuity with an increase of his salary, at Padua, to one thousand florins, and is made professor for life.

He now only thinks of making discoveries in the heavens; but his instrument is too small. He makes another and larger telescope, which magnifies eight times, and then another which magnifies thirty times; and points it to the moon. And how indescribable his satisfaction, for he sees what no mortal had ever before seen,–ranges of mountains, deep hollows, and various inequalities! These discoveries, it would seem, are not favorably received by the Aristotelians; however, he continues his labors, and points his telescope to the planets and fixed stars,–but the magnitude of the latter remain the same, while the planets appear with disks like the moon. Then he directs his observations to the Pleiades, and counts forty stars in the cluster, when only six were visible to the naked eye; in the Milky Way he descries crowds of minute stars.

Having now reached the limit of discovery with his present instrument, he makes another of still greater power, and points it to the planet Jupiter. On the 7th of January, 1610, he observes three little stars near the body of the planet, all in a straight line and parallel to the ecliptic, two on the east and one on the west of Jupiter. On the next observation he finds that they have changed places, and are all on the west of Jupiter; and the next time he observes them they have changed again. He also discovers that there are four of these little stars revolving round the planet. What is the explanation of this singular phenomenon? They cannot be fixed stars, or planets; they must then be moons. Jupiter is attended with satellites like the earth, but has four instead of one! The importance of this last discovery was of supreme value, for it confirmed the heliocentric theory. Old Kepler is filled with agitations of joy; all the friends of Galileo extol his genius; his fame spreads far and near; he is regarded as the ablest scientific man in Europe.

His enemies are now dismayed and perplexed. The principal professor of philosophy at Padua would not even look through the wonderful instrument. Sissi of Florence ridicules the discovery. “As,” said he, “there are only seven apertures of the head,–two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth,–and as there are only seven days in the week and seven metals, how can there be seven planets?”

But science, discarded by the schools, fortunately finds a refuge among princes. Cosimo de’ Medici prefers the testimony of his senses to the voice of authority. He observes the new satellites with Galileo at Pisa, makes him a present of one thousand florins, and gives him a mere nominal office,–that of lecturing occasionally to princes, on a salary of one thousand florins for life. He is now the chosen companion of the great, and the admiration of Italy. He has rendered an immense service to astronomy. “His discovery of the satellites of Jupiter,” says Herschel, “gave the holding turn to the opinion of mankind respecting the Copernican system, and pointed out a connection between speculative astronomy and practical utility.”

But this did not complete the catalogue of his discoveries. In 1610 he perceived that Saturn appeared to be triple, and excited the curiosity of astronomers by the publication of his first “Enigma,”–Altissimam planetam tergeminam observavi. He could not then perceive the rings; the planet seemed through his telescope to have the form of three concentric O’s. Soon after, in examining Venus, he saw her in the form of a crescent: Cynthioe figuras oemulatur mater amorum,–“Venus rivals the phases of the moon.”

At last he discovers the spots upon the sun’s disk, and that they all revolve with the sun, and therefore that the sun has a revolution in about twenty-eight days, and may be moving on in a larger circle, with all its attendant planets, around some distant centre.

Galileo has now attained the highest object of his ambition. He is at the head, confessedly, of all the scientific men of Europe. He has an ample revenue; he is independent, and has perfect leisure. Even the Pope is gracious to him when he makes a visit to Rome; while cardinals, princes, and ambassadors rival one another in bestowing upon him attention and honors.

But there is no’ height of fortune from which a man may not fall; and it is usually the proud, the ostentatious, and the contemptuous who do fall, since they create envy, and are apt to make social mistakes. Galileo continued to exasperate his enemies by his arrogance and sarcasms. “They refused to be dragged at his chariot-wheels.” “The Aristotelian professors,” says Brewster, “the temporizing Jesuits, the political churchmen, and that timid but respectable body who at all times dread innovation, whether it be in legislation or science, entered into an alliance against the philosophical tyrant who threatened them with the penalties of knowledge.” The church dignitaries were especially hostile, since they thought the tendency of Galileo’s investigations was to undermine the Bible. Flanked by the logic of the schools and the popular interpretation of Scripture, and backed by the civil power, they were eager for war. Galileo wrote a letter to his friend the Abbé Castelli, the object of which was “to prove that the Scriptures were not intended to teach science and philosophy,” but to point out the way of salvation. He was indiscreet enough to write a longer letter of seventy pages, quoting the Fathers in support of his views, and attempting to show that Nature and Scripture could not speak a different language. It was this reasoning which irritated the dignitaries of the Church more than his discoveries, since it is plain that the literal language of Scripture upholds the doctrine that the sun revolves around the earth. He was wrong or foolish in trying to harmonize revelation and science. He should have advanced his truths of science and left them to take care of themselves. He should not have meddled with the dogmas of his enemies: not that he was wrong in doing so, but it was not politic or wise; and he was not called upon to harmonize Scripture with science.

So his enemies busily employed themselves in collecting evidence against him. They laid their complaints before the Inquisition of Rome, and on the occasion of paying a visit to that city, he was summoned before that tribunal which has been the shame and the reproach of the Catholic Church. It was a tribunal utterly incompetent to sit upon his case, since it was ignorant of science. In 1615 it was decreed that Galileo should renounce his obnoxious doctrines, and pledge himself neither to defend nor publish them in future. And Galileo accordingly, in dread of prison, appeared before Cardinal Bellarmine and declared that he would renounce the doctrines he had defended. This cardinal was not an ignorant man. He was the greatest theologian of the Catholic Church; but his bitterness and rancor in reference to the new doctrines were as marked as his scholastic learning. The Pope, supposing that Galileo would adhere to his promise, was gracious and kind.

But the philosopher could not resist the temptation of ridiculing the advocates of the old system. He called them “paper philosophers.” In private he made a mockery of his persecutors. One Saisi undertook to prove from Suidas that the Babylonians used to cook eggs by whirling them swiftly on a sling; to which he replied: “If Saisi insists on the authority of Suidas, that the Babylonians cooked eggs by whirling them on a sling, I will believe it. But I must add that we have eggs and slings, and strong men to whirl them, yet they will not become cooked; nay, if they were hot at first, they more quickly became cool; and as there is nothing wanting to us but to be Babylonians, it follows that being Babylonians is the true cause why the eggs became hard.” Such was his prevailing mockery and ridicule. “Your Eminence,” writes one of his friends to the Cardinal D’Este, “would be delighted if you could hear him hold forth in the midst of fifteen or twenty, all violently attacking him, sometimes in one house, and sometimes in another; but he is armed after such a fashion that he laughs them all to scorn.”

Galileo, after his admonition from the Inquisition, and his promise to hold his tongue, did keep comparatively quiet for a while, amusing himself with mechanics, and striving to find out a new way of discovering longitude at sea. But the want of better telescopes baffled his efforts; and even to-day it is said “that no telescope has yet been made which is capable of observing at sea the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites, by which on shore this method of finding longitude has many advantages.”

On the accession of a new Pope (1623), Urban VIII., who had been his friend as Cardinal Barberini, Galileo, after eight years of silence, thought that he might now venture to publish his great work on the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, especially as the papal censor also had been his friend. But the publication of the book was delayed nearly two years, so great were the obstacles to be surmounted, and so prejudiced and hostile was the Church to the new views. At last it appeared in Florence in 1632, with a dedication to the Grand Duke,–not the Cosimo who had rewarded him, but his son Ferdinand, who was a mere youth. It was an unfortunate thing for Galileo to do. He had pledged his word not to advocate the Copernican theory, which was already sufficiently established in the opinions of philosophers. The form of the book was even offensive, in the shape of dialogues, where some of the chief speakers were his enemies. One of them he ridiculed under the name of Simplicio. This was supposed to mean the Pope himself,–so they made the Pope believe, and he was furious. Old Cardinal Bellarmine roared like a lion. The whole Church, as represented by its dignitaries, seemed to be against him. The Pope seized the old weapons of the Clements and the Gregories to hurl upon the daring innovator; but delayed to hurl them, since he dealt with a giant, covered not only by the shield of the Medici, but that of Minerva. So he convened a congregation of cardinals, and submitted to them the examination of the detested book. The author was summoned to Rome to appear before the Inquisition, and answer at its judgment-seat the charges against him as a heretic. The Tuscan ambassador expostulated with his Holiness against such a cruel thing, considering Galileo’s age, infirmities, and fame,–all to no avail. He was obliged to obey the summons. At the age of seventy this venerated philosopher, infirm, in precarious health, appeared before the Inquisition of cardinals, not one of whom had any familiarity with abstruse speculations, or even with mathematics.

Whether out of regard to his age and infirmities, or to his great fame and illustrious position as the greatest philosopher of his day, the cardinals treat Galileo with unusual indulgence. Though a prisoner of the Inquisition, and completely in its hands, with power of life and death, it would seem that he is allowed every personal comfort. His table is provided by the Tuscan ambassador; a servant obeys his slightest nod; he sleeps in the luxurious apartment of the fiscal of that dreaded body; he is even liberated on the responsibility of a cardinal; he is permitted to lodge in the palace of the ambassador; he is allowed time to make his defence: those holy Inquisitors would not unnecessarily harm a hair of his head. Nor was it probably their object to inflict bodily torments: these would call out sympathy and degrade the tribunal. It was enough to threaten these torments, to which they did not wish to resort except in case of necessity. There is no evidence that Galileo was personally tortured. He was indeed a martyr, but not a sufferer except in humiliated pride. Probably the object of his enemies was to silence him, to degrade him, to expose his name to infamy, to arrest the spread of his doctrines, to bow his old head in shame, to murder his soul, to make him stab himself, and be his own executioner, by an act which all posterity should regard as unworthy of his name and cause.

After a fitting time has elapsed,–four months of dignified session,–the mind of the Holy Tribunal is made up. Its judgment is ready. On the 22d of June, 1633, the prisoner appears in penitential dress at the convent of Minerva, and the presiding cardinal, in his scarlet robes, delivers the sentence of the Court,–that Galileo, as a warning to others, and by way of salutary penance, be condemned to the formal prison of the Holy Office, and be ordered to recite once a week the seven Penitential Psalms for the benefit of his soul,–apparently a light sentence, only to be nominally imprisoned a few days, and to repeat those Psalms which were the life of blessed saints in mediaeval times. But this was nothing. He was required to recant, to abjure the doctrines he had taught; not in private, but publicly before the world. Will he recant? Will he subscribe himself an imposter? Will he abjure the doctrines on which his fame rests? Oh, tell it not in Gath! The timid, infirm, life-loving old patriarch of science falls. He is not great enough for martyrdom. He chooses shame. In an evil hour this venerable sage falls down upon his knees before the assembled cardinals, and reads aloud this recantation: “I, Galileo Galilei, aged seventy, on my knees before you most reverend lords, and having my eye on the Holy Gospel, which I do touch with my lips, thus publish and declare, that I believe, and always have believed, and always will believe every article which the Holy Catholic Roman Church holds and teaches. And as I have written a book in which I have maintained that the sun is the centre, which doctrine is repugnant to the Holy Scriptures, I, with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, do abjure and detest, and curse the said error and heresy, and all other errors contrary to said Holy Church, whose penance I solemnly swear to observe faithfully, and all other penances which have been or shall be laid upon me.”

It would appear from this confession that he did not declare his doctrines false, only that they were in opposition to the Scriptures; and it is also said that as he arose from his knees he whispered to a friend, “It does move, nevertheless.” As some excuse for him, he acted with the certainty that he would be tortured if he did not recant; and at the worst he had only affirmed that his scientific theory was in opposition to the Scriptures. He had not denied his master, like Peter; he had not recanted the faith like Cranmer; he had simply yielded for fear of bodily torments, and therefore was not sincere in the abjuration which he made to save his life. Nevertheless, his recantation was a fall, and in the eyes of the scientific world perhaps greater than that of Bacon. Galileo was false to philosophy and himself. Why did he suffer himself to be conquered by priests he despised? Why did so bold and witty and proud a man betray his cause? Why did he not accept the penalty of intellectual freedom, and die, if die he must? What was life to him, diseased, infirm, and old? What had he more to gain? Was it not a good time to die and consummate his protests? Only one hundred and fifty years before, one of his countrymen had accepted torture and death rather than recant his religious opinions. Why could not Galileo have been as great in martyrdom as Savonarola? He was a renowned philosopher and brilliant as a man of genius,–but he was a man of the world; he loved ease and length of days. He could ridicule and deride opponents,–he could not suffer pain. He had a great intellect, but not a great soul. There were flaws in his morality; he was anything but a saint or hero. He was great in mind, and yet he was far from being great in character. We pity him, while we exalt him. Nor is the world harsh to him; it forgives him for his services. The worst that can be said, is that he was not willing to suffer and die for his opinions: and how many philosophers are there who are willing to be martyrs?

Nevertheless, in the eyes of philosophers he has disgraced himself. Let him then return to Florence, to his own Arceti. He is a silenced man. But he is silenced, not because he believed with Copernicus, but because he ridiculed his enemies and confronted the Church, and in the eyes of blinded partisans had attacked divine authority. Why did Copernicus escape persecution? The Church must have known that there was something in his discoveries, and in those of Galileo, worthy of attention. About this time Pascal wrote: “It is vain that you have procured the condemnation of Galileo. That will never prove the earth to be at rest. If unerring observation proves that it turns round, not all mankind together can keep it from turning, or themselves from turning with it.”

But let that persecution pass. It is no worse than other persecutions, either in Catholic or Protestant ranks. It was no worse than burning witches. Not only is intolerance in human nature, but there is a repugnance among the learned to receive new opinions when these interfere with their ascendency. The opposition to Galileo’s discoveries was no greater than that of the Protestant Church, half a century ago, to some of the inductions of geology. How bitter the hatred, even in our times, to such men as Huxley and Darwin! True, they have not proved their theories as Galileo did; but they gave as great a shock as he to the minds of theologians. All science is progressive, yet there are thousands who oppose its progress. And if learning and science should establish a different meaning to certain texts from which theological deductions are drawn, and these premises be undermined, there would be the same bitterness among the defenders of the present system of dogmatic theology. Yet theology will live, and never lose its dignity and importance; only, some of its present assumptions may be discarded. God will never be dethroned from the world he governs; but some of his ways may appear to be different from what was once supposed. And all science is not only progressive, but it appears to be bold and scornful and proud,–at least, its advocates are and ever have been contemptuous of all other departments of knowledge but its own. So narrow and limited is the human mind in the midst of its triumphs. So full of prejudices are even the learned and the great.

Let us turn then to give another glance at the fallen philosopher in his final retreat at Arceti. He lives under restrictions. But they allow him leisure and choice wines, of which he is fond, and gardens and friends; and many come to do him reverence. He amuses his old age with the studies of his youth and manhood, and writes dialogues on Motion, and even discovers the phenomena of the moon’s libration; and by means of the pendulum he gives additional importance to astronomical science. But he is not allowed to leave his retirement, not even to visit his friends in Florence. The wrath of the Inquisition still pursues him, even in his villa at Arceti in the suburbs of Florence. Then renewed afflictions come. He loses his daughter, who was devoted to him; and her death nearly plunges him into despair. The bulwarks of his heart break down; a flood of grief overwhelms his stricken soul. His appetite leaves him; his health forsakes him; his infirmities increase upon him. His right eye loses its power,–that eye that had seen more of the heavens than the eyes of all who had gone before him. He becomes blind and deaf, and cannot sleep, afflicted with rheumatic pains and maladies forlorn. No more for him is rest, or peace, or bliss; still less the glories of his brighter days,–the sight of glittering fields, the gems of heaven, without which

“Neither breath of Morn, when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flower
Glistering with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild,… is sweet.”

No more shall he gaze on features that he loves, or stars, or trees, or hills. No more to him

Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But clouds, instead, and ever-during dark
Surround” [him].

It was in those dreary desolate days at Arceti,

In manly beauty Milton stood before him,
Gazing in reverent awe,–Milton, his guest,
Just then come forth, all life and enterprise;
While he in his old age,…
… exploring with his staff,
His eyes upturned as to the golden sun,
His eyeballs idly rolling.”

This may have been the punishment of his recantation,–not Inquisitorial torture, but the consciousness that he had lost his honor. Poor Galileo! thine illustrious visitor, when his affliction came, could cast his sightless eyeballs inward, and see and tell “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,”–not

“Rocks, caves, lakes, bogs, fens, and shades of death,
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds
Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimeras dire,”

but of “eternal Providence,” and “Eden with surpassing glory crowned,” and “our first parents,” and of “salvation,” “goodness infinite,” of “wisdom,” which when known we need no higher though all the stars we know by name,–

“All secrets of the deep, all Nature’s works,
Or works of God in heaven, or air, or sea.”

And yet, thou stricken observer of the heavenly bodies! hadst thou but known what marvels would be revealed by the power of thy wondrous instrument after thou should’st be laid lifeless and cold beneath the marble floor of Sante Croce, at the age of seventy-eight, without a monument, without even the right of burial in consecrated ground, having died a prisoner of the Inquisition, yet not without having rendered to astronomical science services of utmost value,–even thou might have died rejoicing, as one of the great benefactors of the world. And thy discoveries shall be forever held in gratitude; they shall herald others of even greater importance. Newton shall prove that the different planets are attracted to the sun in the inverse ratio of the squares of their distances; that the earth has a force on the moon identical with the force of gravity, and that all celestial bodies, to the utmost boundaries of space, mutually attract each other; that all particles of matter are governed by the same law,–the great law of gravitation, by which “astronomy,” in the language of Whewell, “passed from boyhood to manhood, and by which law the great discoverer added more to the realm of science than any man before or since his day.” And after Newton shall pass away, honored and lamented, and be buried with almost royal pomp in the vaults of Westminster, Halley and other mathematicians shall construct lunar tables, by which longitude shall be accurately measured on the pathless ocean. Lagrange and Laplace shall apply the Newtonian theory to determine the secular inequalities of celestial motion; they shall weigh absolutely the amount of matter in the planets; they shall show how far their orbits deviate from circles; and they shall enumerate the cycles of changes detected in the circuit of the moon. Clairaut shall remove the perplexity occasioned by the seeming discrepancy between the observed and computed motions of the moon’s perigee. Halley shall demonstrate the importance of observations of the transit of Venus as the only certain way of obtaining the sun’s parallax, and hence the distance of the sun from the earth; he shall predict the return of that mysterious body which we call a comet. Herschel shall construct a telescope which magnifies two thousand times, and add another planet to our system beyond the mighty orb of Saturn. Römer shall estimate the velocity of light from the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites. Bessell shall pass the impassable gulf of space and measure the distance of some of the fixed stars, although such is the immeasurable space between the earth and those distant suns that the parallax of only about thirty has yet been discovered with our finest instruments,–so boundless is the material universe, so vast are the distances, that light, travelling one hundred and sixty thousand miles with every pulsation of the blood, will not reach us from some of those remote worlds in one hundred thousand years. So marvellous shall be the victories of science, that the perturbations of the planets in their courses shall reveal the existence of a new one more distant than Uranus, and Leverrier shall tell at what part of the heavens that star shall first be seen.

So far as we have discovered, the universe which we have observed with telescopic instruments has no limits that mortals can define, and in comparison with its magnitude our earth is less than a grain of sand, and is so old that no genius can calculate and no imagination can conceive when it had a beginning. All that we know is, that suns exist at distances we cannot define. But around what centre do they revolve? Of what are they composed? Are they inhabited by intelligent and immortal beings? Do we know that they are not eternal, except from the divine declaration that there was a time when the Almighty fiat went forth for this grand creation? Creation involves a creator; and can the order and harmony seen in Nature’s laws exist without Supreme intelligence and power? Who, then, and what, is God? “Canst thou by searching find out Him? Knowest thou the ordinances of Heaven? Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?” What an atom is this world in the light of science! Yet what dignity has man by the light of revelation! What majesty and power and glory has God! What goodness, benevolence, and love, that even a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,–that we are the special objects of His providence and care! Is there an imagination so lofty that will not be oppressed with the discoveries that even the telescope has made?

Ah, to what exalted heights reason may soar when allied with faith! How truly it should elevate us above the evils of this brief and busy existence to the conditions of that other life,–

“When the soul,
Advancing ever to the Source of light
And all perfection, lives, adores, and reigns
In cloudless knowledge, purity, and bliss!”


Delambre, Histoire de l’Astronomie; Arago, Histoire de l’Astronomie; Life of Galileo, in Cabinet Library; Life of Galileo, by Brewster; Lives of Galileo, by Italian and Spanish Literary Men; Whewell’s History of Inductive Sciences; Plurality of Worlds; Humboldt’s Cosmos; Nichols’ Architecture of the Heavens; Chalmers’ Astronomical Discourses; Life of Kepler, Library of Useful Knowledge; Brewster’s Life of Tycho Brahe, of Kepler, and of Sir Isaac Newton; Mitchell’s Stellar and Planetary Worlds; Bradley’s Correspondence; Airy’s Reports; Voiron’s History of Astronomy; Philosophical Transactions; Everett’s Oration on Galileo; Life of Copernicus; Bayly’s Astronomy; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Art. Astronomy; Proctor’s Lectures.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation