Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Peter Milward’s May 29th letter “Popes approved Copernicus’ ideas” made me think once again about the precedent of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei and how his case is taught to us. Many of us remember receiving lessons about the Church’s prosecution/persecution of Galileo as a heretic in order to suppress his astronomical ideas in the early 17thcentury. Children still receive such lessons today in science or history class. Galileo’s treatment was certainly notorious and egregious, and by itself is almost enough to drive a person to atheism. It’s too bad, really, because to teach the incident as the single worst example of clerical abuse, backward thinking, abuse of power, denial of human rights, plus the clash of technology, ideas and power in Europe during its transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity through the Renaissance - each of which is partly correct - cuts farther from the truth than most people realize.
This aspect of Galileo’s story is decidedly ignored: his difficult personality made him an accomplice in his own predicament. We know that educated churchmen at the time knew full well that Galileo’s science was accurate and true. He was persecuted less for his espousal of the Copernican model of the solar system than for the fact that, although he was brilliant and right, he was a detestably pompous person intolerant of disagreement. By deliberately provoking people Galileo just invited animosity. If he were alive today he would be admired for his mind and probably still be a disliked and dislikeable person. In today’s world he wouldn’t be threatened with house arrest or auto de fé. He would be denied tenure, or even employment - which, as a method of muzzling people, might be called a comparable misfortune for a professional academic. Of course, there are many mechanisms today to promote detestable people to success, so I could be wrong.
Published Sunday, June 20, 2010 as “Galileo invited his persecution.”
I was generally happy with this letter, even though I was edited in a way that stressed how Galileo was disliked, rather than dislikeable. But from the first reading something felt awkward, and I had to re-read my original letter a couple of times to come to grips with it. The paper re-wrote my sentence “In today’s world he wouldn’t be threatened with house arrest or auto de fé. He would be denied tenure, or even employment - which, as a method of muzzling people, might be called a comparable misfortune for a professional academic” as “In today’s world he wouldn’t be threatened with house arrest, loss of tenure or even employment - which , as a method of muzzling people, might be called a comparable misfortune for a professional academic.” Perhaps the paper’s choice is shorter and better. But the problem is that the editing changes my point a little, not to mention puts words in my mouth. It changes a positive assertion - that in today’s world Galileo would indeed be denied tenure or even employment - into a negative one, that he would not be threatened such things. Why? Because to silence people it is no longer necessary to threaten their lives, liberty, tenure and employment? Or that in a world where detestable people can be promoted to success denying freedom, tenure and employment are moot because they just do not rank as real threats at all anymore? It’s a problem, because the way the paper printed it it sounds like I am saying something that in fact I am not.
I wanted to emphasize Galileo’s dislikeable nature more than the fact that he was not liked, because I want to reflect a portion of blame onto him for his predicament, and I feel that the way the letter was edited and printed diminishes my emphasis on his dislikeability. Still, there is an important proposition here that I have written about before but failed to get into print, that Galileo was less an admirable hero than a dislikeably grump and that this ought to reflect how his case is taught in science and history classes. I mean, the proposition casts the Church in a better light.