Galileo in a Different Light

Galileo, as portrayed in Bertolt Brecht’s famous play Life of Galileo, is not the admirable, self-sacrificing hero many learned about in high school and grew up to respect. Brecht delves into his obsessive and impulsive tendencies, outlining the potential and plausible effects that the scientist’s actions could have had on individuals, his community, and even the future. Brecht created the character of Galileo to reflect on the actual scientist’s impact in the past and the world as we know it today, exemplifying how a great discovery does not always mean change for the better.

The character of the little monk in the play, a boy less interested in science than the well-being of his family, provides a distinct contrast and diverging viewpoint from Brecht’s character of Galileo. Scene eight in Brecht’s play solely features a conversation between the little monk and Galileo, which outlines the little monk’s concerns for the implications of Galileo’s now well-known discovery of a heliocentric solar system.

The little monk talks of the poverty-stricken population, focusing on his family, who hardly is scraping by with year-long labour that lasted far into his parents’ elder years. He observes that “[his family was] badly off, but even their misfortunes appl[ied] a certain order” (65). The toil they suffer everyday is organized, each task befalling an exact time and place between other tasks that never change come the revolution of a new day. The only reason they keep trudging through days, months and years – while their bodies decay from manual labour and the stress they regularly suffer through, knowing others live in luxury and excess while their own necessities come few and far between – is their higher purpose gifted to them from the heavens.

The monk’s family’s suffering and regularities are part of God’s plan, in his family’s eyes:

“[My family] draw[s] the strength they need to carry their baskets sweating up the stony tracks, to bear children and even to eat, from the feeling of stability and necessity that comes of looking at the soil, at the annual greening of the trees and at the little church, and of listening to the bible passages read there every Sunday. They have been assured that God’s eye is always on them… so that they, the performers, may prove themselves in their greater and lesser roles.” (65)

The little monk tries to reflect on society’s general belief with these words. He knows people look towards God for encouragement, that everything they encounter and the pain they experience is given meaning once they recognize that God has forged their path for them, and that if they endure, only salvation awaits on the other side.

They hold their purpose as human beings in the hands of the Bible and the ‘scientific certainty’ that their existence is of the utmost importance, since the whole universe revolves around them. Even those trapped in the inescapable loop of poverty receive the power and strength needed for their lifestyle because they believe they have some influence by being in the centre of God’s attention. The soil’s fertility and the trees’ plentiful harvest is God’s way of looking out for them. It is their reward and encouragement to continue their mundane roles, which they think ultimately plays a bigger role than they could ever imagine in God’s carefully crafted world.

What happens, then, when that mindset crumbles, once Galileo’s discovery reveals that the Earth is in fact just “a small knob of stone twisting endlessly through the void round a second-rate star, just one among myriads” (65)? Human existence loses its specialty, its novelty, its meaning, especially for the people whose suffering becomes worthless, and their existence meaningless, once Galileo’s discovery is realized and poverty sheds its higher purpose. The people feel abandoned and utterly hopeless after God’s eye is ripped from them by this discovery, as they realize that they were not the centre of His attention and might not even have had a speck of consideration in God’s heart.

The Bible turns from a hopeful prospect of the people’s future salvation, guaranteed through their hard work, into another book full of empty words that manages to betray and deceive the entire population. There is no explanation for anything, no meaning in anything, now that trees don’t turn green specifically for human comfort, the soil is not fertile specifically for human prosperity, “hunger [is] no trial of strength, it [is] merely not having eaten: effort [is] no virtue, it [is] just bending and carrying” (66). Many scream, yell, and call out “God! Where is God?” (28)  and Galileo merely indifferently answers “[n]ot there anyway” (28). For Galileo, the well-being of the general population comes secondary to the revelation of truth.

Brecht further weaves Galileo’s character with traits humans often fall victim to, mixing arrogance and rash decisions into his undeniably courageous nature. Galileo immediately wants to throw the truth into the world, enthusiastically disregarding the potential effects on the people, as explained above. He is unhealthily obsessed with tearing lies from the roots of society, sacrificing his physical and financial health to bury himself in research, disturbing his family in the play as well. He believes, unrealistically, that human reason will protect him from any backlash, and underestimates the importance of the lies people relied on in society to get them through the day.

Brecht also views Galileo’s recantation as a cowardly and eventually fatal mistake that would affect all of mankind. The most striking of the human flaws Galileo suffers is revealed through the blunt manner in which he unveils the real reason for his recantation: “[he] [is] afraid of physical pain” (107). Galileo’s recantation holds more power than just demonstrating his human qualities, ones that have been lost over centuries of holding the man up on a pedestal, though. Brecht makes the following wonderous statement, that, until examined, seems implausible: “[t]he atom bomb is, both as a technical and as a social phenomenon, the classical end-product of [Galileo’s] contribution to science and his failure to contribute to society” (126).

This claim is shocking, but disturbingly plausible. Brecht explains that Galileo’s recantation later allows the bourgeoisie to take advantage of technical advancements and scientific discoveries under the oblivious eye of the public, who became too afraid to continue any scientific research after the treatment Galileo received for his discovery. Secrets had now become the norm; nobody knew what the church or the wealthy were doing inside their walls, and nobody dared to ask. Manipulation of science to oppress the general public had become acceptable, since all of science’s power was now held in the hands of the minority. Galileo took the truth away from people when he recanted, and the only thing people understood after Galileo’s loss of influence was that it was okay to live a lie, that it was acceptable to turn away from science and live solely under God’s doctrine, since that was the safest course of action.

With science now in the hands of the influential, its use to intimidate and destroy those who try to challenge the position of the church and bourgeoise became inevitable. Galileo, through recanting, did a disservice to society, giving the power of science, technology and truth to those who would abuse this power for personal gain. Brecht, therefore, rationally conjectures that, after Galileo’s decisive recantation, the new secrets that the powerful held regarding science, ones that led to stronger oppression of the public and easier self-gain, molded into the development and execution of the atomic bomb centuries later.

Brecht’s character of Galileo is an important representation of somebody we regard as untouchable and honourable, a saviour throughout the ages, when, in reality, he was just another person who had a passion, made mistakes and suffered flaws, but had a clear vision of what he believed in. The play, although fictional, opened my eyes to the idealization figures of the past suffer today, as if their accomplishments are unreachable in the 21st century. That mindset is harmful and discouraging to people who have an idea that might change the world, but feel like they’re not good enough, when merely having an idea proves that you are. Like Galileo, though, knowing your limits, society’s limits, and considering every possible implication of your actions is crucial, especially when you’re trying to shatter societal norms, as adverse effects linger around every corner. In the end, we’re all human, and remembering that is what pushes us forward.

Keeley Seale is a first-year Arts student hoping to major in Creative Writing and minor in English Literature. When she’s not cramming to make a dent in her excessive Arts One reading list, she is either writing essays, short stories, or watching horror movies on her laptop with a cup of white hot chocolate. She also lives for bubble tea but cries every time at their prices.

Works Cited

Brecht, Bertolt. Life of Galileo. Trans. John Willett, Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. India: Bloomsbury, 1980. Print.



Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius via Wikimedia. Attribution: PD-Art.

Image by Keeley Aliya.

Photo by Eidy Bambang-Sunaryo on Unsplash.

Image by Keeley Aliya.

Telescope by Ryan Wick via Flickr. License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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