In this series we’ve been tracing the historical flow of Galileo’s run in with the church. We’re up to the point where Galileo decides he’s tired of being disrespected by the academic establishment, and makes a move to do something about it. We continue with Kirsten Birkett’s article:
As we have seen, Galileo’s battle was with Aristotelian philosophers who were highly offended that a mathematician would challenge them at all. Normally, this kind of academic battle would be dealt with internally, in the academic environment, through debate, publication, and so on. Galileo, however, refused to play on their terms. He was not going to let a stagnant academic network stifle him. He moved out of the university system altogether and discovered another setting in which he could be a philosopher.
It was a brilliant career move. In 1608 Galileo discovered, with the use of the telescope for which was to become famous, the moons of Jupiter. Though this is held up mostly as the empirical vindication of Copernican theory (and certainly helped Galileo’s arguments for Copernicanism), at the time the main use Galileo made of his discovery was political. He dedicated the moons of Jupiter to Cosimo II, the Medici Grand-Duke of Florence. In beautiful prose he compared the moons to the four virtues, inescapably attached to Jupiter, who was symbolic of Cosimo I, founder of the hereditary Medici dynasty. Galileo’s flattery paid off. In 1610 he was granted a position at the Medici court, with no teaching duties, at the staggering salary of 1000 scudi per year and with the coveted title of “philosopher.”
Birkett goes on to explain that, as a court philosopher, Galileo was required to engage in intellectual debates for the entertainment of his patron. He was “on-call” to debate scholars with opposing positions, and, “the court audience applauded satirical, biting wit—which Galileo was only too happy to provide.” Man, this sounds like the blogosphere and Barnes & Noble book shelves of our day (think, Richard Dawkins). The issue, though, was this—“Galileo was in a position to be highly offensive to university philosophers.”
After he began to publish his ideas in written form, especially when he was championing heliocentrism, Galileo called out more focused opposition against his views, and more importantly, against himself.
It was a debate about physics, but there was much more at stake—Galileo was arguing for his own theories against those of Aristotle, against to the academics who relied on Aristotle for their position, prestige and world view. Galileo’s biting sarcasm thoroughly ridiculed his opponents. He made bitter personal enemies from what should have been a professional dispute.
Galileo was by this time 48 years old, a highly paid and important court personage, and a world-famous astronomer whose telescopes were in demand from nobles all over Europe. He had made bitter enemies in the academic world by treading on disciplinary toes and treating established academics with scorn and personal ridicule—but won the debates, and won respect as a philosopher amongst the court literati. He had taken on the academic establishment and won. Not many Aristotelians had been convinced by his arguments, but they had been unable to silence him. At this stage, he had had no trouble with church authorities; if anything, they respected him as a talented astronomer. This raises an important question. If the battle was not really ‘religion versus science’ but ‘old science versus new science’, why did the church get involved at all?
It is probably fair to say that Galileo’s enemies, unable to defeat him in logical argument or by social pressure, took the battleground to the church. Galileo had not allowed his opponents to silence him in the normal ways, so they looked to silence him through creating theological trouble. There is evidence of a deliberate strategy used against Galileo…
In the next post we’ll see how this mix of academic dispute, personal grievances, and church power played out.
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