Mario Livio Ph.D.


Galileo’s Trial: Fear Has Many Eyes

On the dangers of intimidation.

Posted Jun 03, 2020

I have taken part of the title of this piece from Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote. The full quote reads: “Fear has many eyes and can see things which are underground.” A person who was exposed to fear at an old age was the famous Italian scientist Galileo Galilei.

On June 21, 1633, Galileo was summoned to the Roman Inquisition for an official interrogation about his “intentions,” to establish whether when he disobeyed an injunction not to hold, teach, or discuss the Copernican heliocentric model (in which the Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun), he had committed his “crimes” innocently or deliberately.  This was the last phase in a trial that started on April 12.

As part of the usual ritual, Galileo was asked specifically—in three different ways—whether he believed in the Copernican model. The broken and defeated old man answered that following a decree by the Church in 1616, which declared the Copernican system “foolish and absurd,” he concluded that the Ptolemaic geocentric scenario (in which the sun revolved around the Earth) was the correct one. We can only imagine how much it must have pained Galileo to utter these words, which were completely contrary to his views.

He further insisted that in his book, A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, his goal was only to demonstrate that on the basis of science alone, no conclusive opinion could be reached, and one therefore had to rely on the “determination of more subtle doctrines.” In other words, precisely the Catholic Church’s opinion at the time.

To anybody who had read the Dialogue, it was clear that Galileo was in fact lying here. Galileo’s reaction was a demonstration of what intimidation could cause even to the most independent of thinkers.

Unfortunately, horrifying acts of intimidation continue to this very day. Cases such as those of self-exiled dissident Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, both murdered by their native countries’ governments, immediately jump to mind.

Galileo’s trial continued on the following day. On his knees, in front of the inquisitors, he was informed that he had rendered himself “vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the Earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to the Holy Scripture.”

The cardinals of the Holy Office then added, as if mercifully:

“We are willing to absolve you from them [all the censures and penalties] provided that first, with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, in front of us you abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, in the manner and form we will prescribe to you.”

The verdict included “formal imprisonment” at the pleasure of the Holy Office; having to recite seven penitential Psalms once a week for three years; and the Dialogue being banned.

Again on his knees, Galileo read the text of the abjuration dictated to him:

“I, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei of Florence, seventy years of age, arraigned personally for judgment, kneeling before you Most Eminent and Most Reverend Cardinals Inquisitors — General against heretical depravity in all Christendom, having before my eyes and touching with my hands the Holy Gospels, swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will believe in the future all that the Holy and Apostolic Church holds, preaches, and teaches.“

Then, after committing “to abandon completely the false opinion” of Copernicanism, Galileo read the essence of the abjuration:

“Therefore, desiring to remove from the minds of Your Eminences and every faithful Christian this vehement suspicion, rightly conceived against me, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies, and in general each and every other error, heresy, and sect contrary to the Holy Church, and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, orally or in writing, anything which might cause a similar suspicion about me; on the contrary, if I should come to know any heretic or anyone suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor or Ordinary of the place where I happen to be.”

The humiliation associated with having to utter these words, which undermined much of his life’s work, must have been unimaginable. Those historians of science who attempt to argue that had Galileo been generally less combative, things would have ended better, simply ignore the fact that he was forced to recant and abjure his deep convictions under the threat of torture. As philosopher Albert Camus wrote: “ I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured … as soon as it endangered his life.”

 Gerald Delvaux
Galileo in Prison, by Romain Eugène Van Maldeghem. This painting is at Stedelijk Museum Sint-Niklaas in Belgium. Credit: Gerald
Source: Credit: Gerald Delvaux

Galileo’s judges could not have known that over the following four centuries, this denigrating event would be transformed into one of the most deplorable acts of the Inquisition.

Indeed in 1992, even Pope John Paul II admitted: “Paradoxically, Galileo, a sincere believer, proved himself more perspicacious on this issue than his theologian adversaries. The majority of theologians did not perceive the formal distinction that exists between the Holy Scripture in itself and its interpretation, and this led them unduly transferring to the field of religious doctrine an issue which actually belongs to scientific research.”

Legend has it that upon leaving the scene of the trial, Galileo mumbled, “E pur si muove”—“And yet it moves”—referring to the Earth. There is no doubt that Galileo could not have muttered these words in front of the inquisitors, this would have been insanely dangerous. This phrase was, however, surely on his mind, since Galileo’s bitterness about the trial and his contempt for the inquisitors continued to occupy his mind for the rest of his life. Extensive research I conducted in 2019 showed that the motto most probably first appeared more than a century after Galileo’s death.

Today the phrase “And yet it moves” has become a symbol of intellectual defiance, implying that in spite of what you may believe, these are the facts. Sadly, we live now in a world in which  “alternative facts” often appear to replace real facts. It seems, therefore, that there are more and more occasions where the use of this phrase is appropriate.

Mario Livio is an astrophysicist and author. His new book, published on May 5, 2020, is Galileo: And the Science Deniers.