Technical problems with Google indexing have made it desirable to re-post all of our material. I hope you will find interest in reflecting with me, on the history of the Church over the centuries and during the life of the Blog which began on 14th December 2009. This post first appeared on 6th July 2010.

The Galileo Myth

GALILEO. Born at Pisa, 15 February 1564; died 8 January 1642.

The boy Galileo Galilei at an early age manifested his aptitude for mathematical and mechanical pursuits and his native genius speedily placed him in the very first rank of natural philosophers.

He became a fierce controversialist, who, not content with refuting adversaries, was bent upon confounding them. Moreover, he wielded an exceedingly able pen, and unsparingly ridiculed and exasperated his opponents. Undoubtedly he thus did much to bring upon himself the troubles for which he is now chiefly remembered. As Sir David Brewster (Martyrs of Science) says, “The boldness, may we not say the recklessness, with which Galileo insisted on making proselytes of his enemies, served but to alienate them from the truth.”

The Aristoteleans would not accept even facts in contradiction of their master’s dicta. They held that these were best learned by authority, especially by that of Aristotle, who was supposed to have spoken the last word upon all such matters, and upon whom many erroneous conclusions had been fathered in the course of time.

Though, as has been said, it is by his astronomical discoveries that he is most widely remembered, it is not these that constitute his most substantial title to fame. In this connection, his greatest achievement was undoubtedly his virtual invention of the telescope. He succeeded in constructing a telescope which magnified three times, its magnifying power being soon increased to thirty-two. 

This instrument being provided and turned towards the heavens, the discoveries, which have made Galileo famous, were bound at once to follow, though undoubtedly he was quick to grasp their full significance. The moon was shown not to be, as the old astronomy taught, a smooth and perfect sphere, of different nature to the earth, but to possess hills and valleys and other features resembling those of our own globe. The planet Jupiter was found to have satellites, thus displaying a solar system in miniature, and supporting the doctrine of Copernicus.

Father Nicolaus Copernicus
Galileo had already abandoned the old Ptolemaic astronomy for the Copernican. But, as he confessed in a letter to Kepler in 1597, he had refrained from making himself its advocate, lest like Copernicus himself he should be overwhelmed with ridicule. His telescopic discoveries, the significance of which he immediately perceived, induced him at once to lay aside all reserve and come forward as the avowed and strenuous champion of Copernicanism. They were also the cause of his lamentable controversy with ecclesiastical authority, which raises questions of graver import than any others connected with his name. It is necessary, therefore, to understand clearly his exact position in this regard.

It is undeniable that the proofs which Galileo adduced in support of the heliocentric system of Copernicus, as against the geocentric of Ptolemy and the ancients, were far from conclusive, and failed to convince such men as Tycho Brahé (who, however, did not live to see the telescope) and Lord Bacon, who to the end remained an unbeliever. The proof from the phenomenon of the tides, to which Galileo appealed to establish the rotation of the earth on its axis, is now universally recognized as a grave error, and he treated with scorn Kepler’s suggestion, foreshadowing Newton’s establishment of the true doctrine, that a certain occult influence of the moon was in some way responsible.

In spite of all deficiency in his arguments, Galileo, profoundly assured of the truth of his cause, set himself with his habitual vehemence to convince others, and so contributed in no small degree to create the troubles which greatly embittered the latter part of his life.

It is in the first place constantly assumed, especially at the present day, that the opposition which Copernicanism encountered at the hands of ecclesiastical authority was prompted by hatred of science and a desire to keep the minds of men in the darkness of ignorance. To suppose that any body of men could deliberately adopt such a course is ridiculous, especially a body which, with whatever defects of method, had for so long been the only one which concerned itself with science at all.

According to a popular notion, the point upon which beyond all others, churchmen were determined to insist, was the geocentric system of astronomy. Nevertheless, it was a churchman, Nicholas Copernicus, who first advanced the contrary doctrine that the sun and not the earth is the centre of our system, around which our planet revolves, rotating on its own axis. His great work, “De Revolutionibus orblure coelestium”, was published at the earnest solicitation of two distinguished churchmen, Cardinal Schömberg and Tiedemann Giese, Bishop of Culm. It was dedicated by permission to Pope Paul III in order, as Copernicus explained, that it might be thus protected from the attacks which it was sure to encounter on the part of the “mathematicians” (i.e. philosophers) for its apparent contradiction of the evidence of our senses, and even of common sense.

 He added that he made no account of objections which might be brought by ignorant wiseacres on Scriptural grounds. Indeed, for nearly three-quarters of a century, no such difficulties were raised on the Catholic side, although Luther and Melanchthon condemned the work of Copernicus in unmeasured terms. Neither Paul III, nor any of the nine popes who followed him, nor the Roman Congregations raised any alarm, and, as has been seen, Galileo himself in 1597, speaking of the risks he might run by an advocacy of Copernicanism, mentioned ridicule only and said nothing of persecution. Even when he had made his famous discoveries, no change occurred in this respect. On the contrary, coming to Rome in 1611, he was received in triumph; all the world, clerical and lay, flocked to see him, and, setting up his telescope in the Quirinal Garden belonging to Cardinal Bandim, he exhibited the sunspots and other objects to an admiring throng.


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