Dr. Narendra Dabholkar


Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

The Inquisition of Galileo

Four hundred years in the history of mankind is too small a period to make any progress, but the last 400 years have seen more progress than could have happened in four thousand years.  For nearly 1500 years the world, even the world of science, lived with the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun revolved around the earth.  After all it was the God-ordained geocentric world.  The planet moved around the earth in circles.  The Aris to Teliam world was in circles. The circle was a perfect manner in which things moved.  Everything to be perfect must be in circles.  The egg was not perfect because it was not circular.  But things otherwise were perfect.  The sun moved around the earth as circles.  “Genesis” tells us that God created the universe and God could not have created anything less than perfect.  What is more perfect than a circle?  This was the basis of Aristotelian logic.

The planets, which were the creation of a perfect God, moved in circles around the earth.  Man was after all the creature of God who wanted him to be in the centre of the world.  Man was an inhabitant of the earth and, therefore, the earth had to be in the centre of the universe and around it moved the planets.  That is how the geocentric world was visualized.  Circle, round, was the basis of everything that was perfect.  That was Aristotle’s logic which was perfect deduction of the time.  Evidence was not collected; it was assumed.  Given this major premise, minor premise was provided and the conclusion was inevitable.  Aristotelian logic ruled science as it was then understood.  It suited the Church which was happy with that sort of logic because the earth was presumed to be round and at the centre of the universe.  No one dared to challenge this view.

It was even Ptolemy, the Egyptian who was one of the earliest sky watchers, who insisted that the earth was round and the centre of universe, consistent with the Aristotelian view.  This despite that the planets moved in a peculiar manner and could not render to a reasonable calculation.  It was still the insistence on the deductive methods.  Search for knowledge outside one’s mind was not even thought of.  All knowledge, according to this method, was confined to one’s mind and the logical method dictated by the religious scriptures.  For nearly four hundred years, this method dominated the world of knowledge as a result of which practically no progress was made in knowledge.  May be the conclusions drawn were logically correct.  Knowledge was the result of internal cogitation.  It gave rise to mysticism or metaphysics but not the substance of knowledge.  Thinkers rejoiced in their ability at hair-splitting.  Did it add to the stock of human knowledge?

For the first time, it was Roger Bacon (1213-1292 A.D.), an English Franciscan, who canvassed the view that experimentation – not just revelation or the classical wisdom of Thomas Aquinas – is a path to truth.  It is not known whether he possessed the gadgets ascribed to him.  For his heretical views he was put in prison for fourteen years.  The clock was put back.

It was another Bacon who gave a thrust to the progress of knowledge.  Frances Bacon, who had been earlier impeached for corruption, devoted the latter period of life for explaining the steps necessary for the advancement of learning.  Will Durant has put it, “Science now began to liberate itself from the placenta of its mother philosophy.  It shrugged Aristotle from its back, turned its face from metaphysics to Nature, developed its own distinctive methods and looked to improve the life of man on the earth.”

Francis Bacon’s major contribution of inductive logic – the process from the specific to the general – be used for academic and scientific discovery, an approach embraced by modern science.  Once this approach was accepted, there were inquiries, there were investigations, observations were resorted to, experiments were conducted – what one can call positivism was adopted – these are the things which made science possible and progress after nearly 1400 years the world had followed the deductive method of deduction.

In astronomy, data never changes.  Stars and planets have been in the same position since at least known history of mankind.  Even from the time of Ptolemy of Egypt, earth had a stationary place.  The sun went round the earth.  For a true astronomer with an active mind this gave several difficulties.

A Polish bishop, though believed in God, through observation and calculations, came to the conclusion that the sun was stationary and the earth and other planets moved round the sun which was not a planet but a star.  He was Nicolas Copernicus.

It was thought otherwise in those days.  One Mr. Jean Bodin, a sixteenth century religious priest, said:

“No one in his senses will ever think that the earth, heavy and unwieldy from its own weight and mass, staggers up and down around its own centre and that of the sun.”

Copernicus was in his senses.  His studies of the sky and ancient texts forced him to finally reject the then existing theory.  His theory overthrew the fifteen hundred old theory of Ptolomic system and opened the crater of true astronomy.  Arthur Koestler who has made a deep study of astronomy and has written a book on the subject has called Copernicus “a conservative cleric who started the revolution against his will.”  This is the Copernicus revolution which changed the movement of sun, earth and other planets.

Before I comment on Galileo’s contribution, I must mention some of the contributions Galileo made to other branches of knowledge.  Galileo, no doubt, upheld Copernicus’ theory.  He spread it, in one sense popularized it.  The Church was not amused.  Apart from the Inquisition to which Galileo was subjected, the book in which Copernicus has propounded his theory was put in the Index.  “Index” is a list of books which the Catholics were forbidden to read.  “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” had been put in the Index.

Librorum Prohibitorum was the name when it was enacted by the Church.  It was drawn up in 1557 and from time to time revised.  Now the list is abolished.

Galileo was actually a physicist.  He was born on 18th February, 1564 in which year Shakespeare was also born.  Clear signs of science could be seen in his knowledge and behaviour.  His ambition was originally to become an artist.  Michelangelo died when Galileo was born.  However, his father in Florence who was reasonably a rich man, sent him to University to study medicine.  But physics attracted him like a magnet.  He made his scientific discovery – that the swings of pendulum, regardless of width, take equal times.  He also found that lengthening or shortening the arm of a pendulum he could retard or quicken his pulse.  By adjustment of the length of the arm of pendulum it could make the movement of the pendulum to synchronize with his pulse. This ‘pulsigola’ he could measure even the heart beats.  A pupil of Galileo, Torricello, constructed the first barometer in 1643.

In the period in which Galileo lived, his name was great.  Governments valued his knowledge.  In military matter he was regularly consulted.  He could give the distance of a ship in the sea.  His famous experiment in the tower of Pisa is doubted, but much talked about.  He threw two spears of unequal weight from the top of the tower of Pisa and demonstrated that when two objects of unequal weight are dropped from a height, they reach the ground at the same time.  This was contrary to the prevalent belief; it was also contrary to imagination.

Galileo was not the one who invented telescope, but the principle and use of a telescope were his.  Lenses were invented in Holland.  Astronomers used lenses to magnify.  Galileo found that when a concave lens is used with a convex on top, magnification is multiplied.  With the help of such a telescope he would study the movements and confirm the findings of Copernicus.  Copernicus revolution was, according to Galileo, confirmed.  He also spotted four moons of Jupiter.  They are called Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.  In astronomy they are called Galilean Satellites.

The discovery of four moons of Jupiter was a great blow to religion.  God had created the universe.  Neither in the Bible nor in any scripture a mention had been made of these planets.  According to the people, all heavenly bodies must go round the earth.  For the first time stellar objects were seen to go around another planet.  This was another blow to Ptolomic theory.

Nebula then was nebulous.  Consisting of stars, though, the stars did not show any features.  Galileo showed that Nebula was a group when viewed through a telescope.  It was because of the immense distance that the stars were nebulous to the naked eye.

In 1609, Galileo confirmed Copernicus revolution with the help of a telescope, thus attracting the wrath of the Catholics.  However, as long as the Copernican proposition was viewed as a hypothesis, the Church did not deem it necessary to persecute Galileo.  Galileo, however, could not be silenced.  He wrote a slender book giving a story of three persons.  Of them, one was a simpleton who acted as were asked by the then Pope.  Galileo invited inquisition, but did not abandon the earth’s revolution.  He proclaimed that he was obliged to believe the same God who has endowed with sense, reason and intellect; has intended us to forgo their use.  He said that philosophy (then natural philosophy):

“is written in this grand book of universe, which stands continually open to our gaze cannot be understood unless we first tried to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.  It is written in the language of mathematics.”

The ground is laid for Inquisition.  After Martin Luther, the Church was uneasy with heresies which might weaken the Church.  It was very important that heresies should be suppressed.  The Bible was important and was regarded as the repository of all knowledge.  How can a man upset divine knowledge, especially knowledge guarded by an Institution like Roman Catholic Church?  To say anything contrary to what is said in the Bible is heresy and heresy must be suppressed.         A belief or practice contrary to the orthodox doctrine of the Church is/ was heresy.  An opinion contrary to what is accepted is heresy.  How can there be two opinions on what the Church regards as its doctrine?  It is clear from the Bible and from what has been officially followed that earth is the centre of the universe, that it was inhabited by man who was created in God’s own image, that the sun and other planets orbit the earth.  Everything that followed from Copernicus was heresy which was held and supported by Galileo was heresy.

Originally, Inquisition started a procedure for inquiry.  The attempt was to know the truth and possibility.  Later it was realized that it was necessary to put down heresy.  Inquisition became an institution.  Holy office was established.  It conducted Inquisition.  Whether right or wrong, “heresy” had to be crushed.  A heretic was made to confess to the contrary to what view he held.  Sometimes, like Bruno, heretics were adamant, obstinate and strong.  Weapons were added to Inquisition.  Third degree methods made the heretics confess to their errors.  Some refused to admit that they were wrong and were burnt at the stake.

Because of his pre-eminence in the society and also because of his knowledge, Galileo was never tortured; though the instruments of torture were shown to intimidate him.  Galileo met many ecclesial persons who could influence.  He moved to and fro from Florence to Rome.  Once he had a long conversation with the Pope, but failed to convince the latter.  The Pope, though refusing to lift the Inquisition which had been started in 1616, was sufficiently impressed by Galileo’s learning to say “For a long time we have extended our fatherly love to this great man, whose fame shines in heaven and marches on earth”.

A news Pope who was formerly a pupil of Galileo was appointed.  The latter’s hope soared but hopes were soon belied.  The Inquisition continued.

It was the practice of the Inquisition to question the Accused intensely to bring upon him the pressure of the Church.  Torture was not applied immediately.  The Accused was allowed to think, to mediate for years.  That is how the Inquisition in the case of Galileo, started in 1616, ended in 1622, with his retraction.

Actually the Inquisition started in 1632.  One may recall the Inquisition as an institution was created by Pope Paul III in 1542 to stem the spread of Reformation doctrines.  It was even given the power to Judge competing doctrines.  So it could hold Copernicus wrong.

On 16th April, 1616 Galileo was brought into the room which is now the Post Office of Rome.  Rules of procedure were simple, through they were not the rules of a Court.  The questioning, in the case of Galileo, was soft and not threatening.  The Court did not meet again; the trial ended there.  On 22nd June, 1616, the Inquisition pronounced him guilty.  But it offered him absolution on the condition of full abjuration; it sentenced him to the prison of the Holy Office for a period which the Holy Office was to decide.  He was made to renounce the Copernicus Theory.  A penance was also imposed upon him.  That was that he would recite penitential Psalms to 3 years.  On 22nd June, 1633, Galileo, then 70 years old, retracted and gave a long confession, part of which is as follows:-

“ With a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse, and detest the errors and heresies and generally every other error and heresy contrary to … … Holy Church and I swear that I will never more in future say or assert anything which may give rise to similar suspicion of me and that if I know any heretic or anyone suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office.”

When he came out of the hall, he is reported to have said “Yet he does move”.  This is doubtful as there is no reference to it in his biography.

He spent three years in the prison of the Inquisition.  Later he was moved to a couple of private houses.  At last was allowed to stay in his own.  He was alone and almost blind.  He had an illegitimate daughter who was a nun and she took care of him.  Technically he was still a prisoner.  He was forbidden to travel outside the grounds of his own house.  In 1638, John Milton, the famous English poet, came to see him.

On January 8, 1642, aged 78, he died.  It was in 1835 the Church realized that he was right and withdrew his works from the Index.  Will Durant says: “The broken and defeated man had triumphed over the most powerful institution in history.”

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