Skip to content

Response to Review no. 1070

Matteo Valleriani’s review is a puzzle; it is also an insult. Every other reviewer has understood Galileo: Watcher of the Skies to be a book written by someone who has no religious belief, someone who admires Galileo for not being a good Catholic, someone who applauds him for resisting the Catholic authorities; Valleriani, by contrast, seems to think that I believe the fires of hell are an objective reality and that the condemnation of Galileo was justified. It is difficult to understand how he can have failed to pick up all the clues scattered through the text which make clear on which side my sympathies lie – my praise of Brecht, to take just one example, should have puzzled him. My argument, of course, is not that the condemnation of Galileo was justified, but that it is explicable. The historian’s job is to understand events in the past by looking at them from several points of view, including, in this case, the viewpoints of the pope and the inquisitors. If we do this we can explain Galileo’s condemnation, which remains, of course (the point is so obvious that I am astonished I have to spell it out), unjustifiable. Let me clear a couple of technical issues out of the way, and then we can return to these fundamental issues of explanation and justification.

First, Valleriani has difficulty understanding the prominent place I give in my book to his co-authored article ‘Galileo and the Challenge of the Arsenal’. Let me make myself plain. I discuss it because I think its argument is based (like his review) on a serious misunderstanding of the sources, and demands a rebuttal (see pp. 51, 70–5). Naturally, since we disagree radically on the nature of Galileo’s study of mechanics and engineering, Valleriani thinks my book misses out much that is important – but strangely he does not, in his quite lengthy review, respond to a single one of the arguments I levy against his approach (which I presume is also developed in his book, Galileo Engineer, which appeared after mine went to press). The suggestion that I felt the need (because I was in some mysterious way under the influence of an article whose arguments I reject) to justify (even ‘implicitly’) an extended discussion of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries is more than just puzzling – to make such a suggestion while reviewing a book entitled Galileo: Watcher of the Skies is, to be frank, simply bizarre. Does Valleriani really imagine, even for a moment, that I would have preferred to write a book in which there was no mention of Galileo’s telescope?

As for the vexed question of the injunction of 1616, it is simply not true that I mention only one single paper dealing with the question of the authenticity of the document. In the relevant note (p. 152 [not 162] and note 80 on p. 290) I cite an overlooked primary source; the works of Camerota and Beretta, both of whom believe in the possibility of a forgery in 1633; and Mayer’s recent and authoritative article, which provides an extensive, even exhaustive, survey of the literature. In the next two notes I cite two further relevant authorities (Fantoli and Pagano). And, since the book went to press, I have been able to read Vittorio Frajese’s new book, which also, quite rightly, dismisses the possibility of a forgery in 1633 (though arguing for the possibility of a forgery in 1616 – Valleriani doesn’t seem to be familiar with this new solution to the problem, which I find ultimately unconvincing but which certainly deserves careful consideration).

Now let’s get back to fundamentals. Valleriani seems to have difficulty understanding the enterprise of writing a biography, which necessarily involves considering questions of character and motivation. He describes my view as follows: ‘Galileo remained an indomitable Copernican, not because he was convinced about issues and aspects related to his scientific research or to its results. He did so because of his mother and father …’. But of course this isn’t my view – that would be foolish in the extreme. The choice between science and psychology is a false choice, since Galileo was both a scientist and a human being, with the normal range of human emotions and passions. As I explain ‘by means of a very detailed analysis’ (as he puts it), Galileo became a Copernican because he had achieved a wonderful result in his scientific research (the parabolic path of projectiles). He remained a Copernican partly because of his (mistaken) theory of the tides. Psychology must also come into it, of course, if we are to understand Galileo’s boldness, his ambition, and his preference for maths over medicine.

But why – this seems to me a crucial question – did Galileo reject opportunities to compromise and collaborate after 1616? Why did he not step back from Copernicanism after it had been condemned, and turn to other, less dangerous, subjects, such as the vacuum? These are questions, at least in part, about the way Galileo responded to power and authority. (Compare Galileo’s response to that of Descartes, who, even though he was in the safety of a Protestant country, resolved, on learning of the condemnation of Galileo’s Dialogue, never to publish his own arguments in support of Copernicanism, saying ‘I desire to live in peace and to continue the life I have begun under the motto ”to live well you must live unseen”’.) Psychoanalysts think one way of answering such questions is to look back to see if childhood conflicts are being re-enacted. In Galileo’s case this approach works remarkably well. But even if one thinks this approach is misconceived, the questions of character and motivation won’t disappear to be replaced entirely by questions of scientific knowledge or (as in the work of the science studies school) of social history. Valleriani says ‘David Wootton worriedly interrogates himself about the reasons for Galileo’s behaviour’. Isn’t that the very essence of the task I set myself when I set out to write a biography? Take away the ‘worriedly’ – and then what is there that one can possibly object to in this enterprise? – Ah yes, it still won’t do. ‘David Wootton interrogates himself’. No I don’t; if I did I would become ‘worried’ indeed. But the fact is I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I interrogate the documents. Let’s try again: ‘David Wootton interrogates the documents about the reasons for Galileo’s behaviour’. What is there that one can possibly object to in this enterprise?

It is also, I think, part of the biographer’s job to point out the choices people make, and the consequences that follow from those choices. Galileo chose to leave Padua for Florence, and thus to put himself within the jurisdiction of the Roman Inquisition. His friends told him at the time he was making a terrible mistake. Towards the end of his life he seems to have recognized that they had been right all along. He chose to publish on Copernicanism, even though it had been condemned. Was he right to do so? Of course. Did he understand the risks he was running? Apparently not. Was his behaviour reasonable? The pope thought not, and I tend to agree, although our reasons would differ. Again, I find myself having to explain the obvious: there is more to life than rationality alone. We can’t all be Descartes. Let me take a familiar example: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Reasonable? Surely not: Wilfred Owen calls it ‘The old Lie’. Admirable? Sometimes. Heroism – even Galileo’s heroism – is rarely reasonable, often admirable. Only a naïve reader – a reader like Valleriani – would think that if I say that the pope’s view was reasonable it means that I and the pope think alike.

It so happens that I use the word ‘reasonable’ only three times in the entire book. Once (p. 178) to express Urban’s view (‘The pope must have thought that he was making an entirely reasonable request’); once (again, p. 178) to point out that Galileo himself had insisted in The Assayer that there could be no certain knowledge in questions of science – precisely the concession he resisted making in the Dialogue – which made it seem perfectly reasonable to ask him to repeat what he had said in the past; and once (p. 260) to explain that Duhem and his followers think that Galileo was being unreasonable in insisting that he had adequate proof of Copernicanism. None of these usages support the implication that I conclude that Galileo was mistaken or in the wrong in his decision to defend Copernicanism (and I don’t use an alternative word, the word ‘rational’, in this context at all). Valleriani’s claim is that my approach is entirely ‘novel’ in that I question Galileo’s ability ‘to behave reasonably’ because I represent him as suffering from a set of psychological defects. It may be news to him, but many people think that we are all shaped in our behaviour by unconscious impulses, and that our ‘reasons’ (even if we are Descartes) are nearly always rationalisations. I don’t think Galileo was any less (or any more) rational than everyone else; and I think his defects – above all, his lack of insight into his own behaviour – are part and parcel of the human condition. (Valleriani thinks I present Galileo as ‘the victim of a conflictual childhood’, but if there is a victim in my account of Galileo’s family drama it is not Galileo, but his brother; for the record, I never use the word ‘victim’ about Galileo, except when describing how he has been portrayed by others.)

I make no apology for discussing at some length the question of whether Galileo was or was not a believing Catholic. The question was important at the time. Edward Muir’s recent book has brought out its wider significance for an understanding of late Renaissance Italy. And the question of the relationship between religion and science has been central to the history of science for an awfully long time. The puzzle is not why I discuss the question, but why others have avoided it. Discussing the question does not, of course, turn me or my reader into an inquisitor. We have no cells, no racks and thumbscrews, no power of life and death. We cannot even ask questions of the protagonists, let alone torture them until they answer. When we interrogate the documents no one gets hurt. But Valleriani isn’t satisfied with the suggestion that I invite my reader to join me in an inquisitorial enterprise. Apparently, by some perverse trick, by the establishment of a ‘conspiratorial relationship with the reader’, I turn my poor reader (‘whether she/he likes it or not’) into the inquisitor, in his high-backed chair, with all the guilt that that implies. Who then am I, the author? I am the sort of person, it seems, who would denounce Galileo to the Inquisition, another Mario Sozzi. The suggestion is both grotesque and – no other word is appropriate – offensive. (A detail: I answer the question of why Galileo was hostile to Christianity two years after ‘his supposed conversion’ on p. 248 – Castelli had, in all probability, been taken in by a ruse. A fuller account of my views on Galileo’s relationship to Christianity is in my LSE lecture, which can be downloaded here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2010/20101111t1830vHKT.aspx.) Let me repeat myself, in case the reader has been momentarily distracted by this scholarly detail: the suggestion is offensive (and, there can be no doubt, deliberately so).

I also make no apology for the fact that ‘The author seems willing to show that he has almost spoken to the historical protagonists’. Quite so. Indeed I quote Stephen Greenblatt’s well-known line: ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’. I could equally have quoted Machiavelli’s letter to Vettori: ‘io non mi vergogno parlare con loro e domandarli della ragione delle loro azioni; e quelli per loro humanità mi rispondono’. But we all know that no one speaks with the dead. We read them instead. Even so, let’s be frank: the historian’s task is to bring the dead to life. What else could it be? If we are going to think seriously about the writing of history, we need to start by acknowledging the fundamental impossibility of the enterprise. We begin with the desire to speak with the dead.

I also make no apology for writing a book that has some of the features of ‘a modern crime novel’, even one that suggests ‘the feeling of a conspiracy’. First, it is a book about someone who was repeatedly investigated by the authorities, and was eventually condemned, but who went on flouting the law. It is, inevitably, a book about what Santillana called ‘the crime of Galileo’. Second, it is a book about an authoritarian society where people were tortured and persecuted for their beliefs. What I like best about Redondi’s Galileo Heretic is the atmosphere it captures, the atmosphere of fear and secrecy, an atmosphere that I am delighted to think might be in my book as well – ‘the feeling of a conspiracy’ (which often exists even where there is no conspiracy). Third, there is a sophisticated intellectual tradition which argues that the modern crime novel provides a crucial paradigm for thinking about historical understanding – Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: clues and scientific method’, and Edward Muir’s ‘Observing trifles’. So, however it was intended, I take this as a compliment.

Finally, Valleriani says I try ‘to re-enter, re-open or even unhinge the structures of all arguments about the so-called Galileo affair that have been written until now’. Not quite. My debts to a number of my predecessors – Redondi’s Galileo Heretic; Renn, Damerow, and Rieger’s ‘Hunting the white elephant’; Feingold’s ‘The grounds for conflict’; Garcia’s Élie Diodati et Galilée – ought to be apparent to any reader. But yes, my book does offer a fundamentally new account of the Galileo affair. Like Galileo, I think intellectual progress often involves ‘unhinging’ arguments that are accepted as perfectly sound by the most reputable authorities. How else are we to make progress? Indeed, I think that unhinging other people’s arguments is what I do when I do my job best. Of course, I have no choice but to recognize that there will always be people who can’t follow a good argument, no matter how carefully it is formulated. Galileo had Lodovico delle Colombe. I have Matteo Valleriani. Galileo also had to face the Inquisition; I count myself lucky that I only have to deal with my fellow academics.

A central premise of my book is that history has vindicated Galileo so comprehensively that we can now, at long last, acknowledge his imperfections (his psychosomatic illnesses, his self-destructive behaviour, his scientific errors) as well as his extraordinary and wonderful achievements. Will history vindicate my interpretation of Galileo? It is, as Zhou Enlai said when asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, too soon to say. Redondi’s interpretation, which was roundly anathematized when it was first published in 1983, looks a great deal stronger since the discovery, as a result of the opening of the archives in 1998, of the document known as EE291. It is nearly always too soon to decide what history will say. In the meantime readers will have to make up their own minds – but prospective readers certainly should not rely on Valleriani if they want to get a reliable account of my argument. They will find a range of alternative accounts at www.watcheroftheskies.org, on the page dedicated to reviews.