The Life of Galileo | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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The Life of Galileo | Themes

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Freedom of Thought and Speech

The matter of freedom lies at the heart of the Life of Galileo. From nearly the first moment that Galileo first explains his discoveries, he is cautioned that he risks retribution from the Catholic church. Galileo's telescopic observations strengthened the Copernican theory that the sun lay at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies orbit around it. Refuting the millenia-old Aristotelian concept of Earth being encircled by orbs that propped up the stars, these theories also contradicted church teachings on key biblical passages about the location of the Christian heaven and the movement of the sun and Earth.

In Brecht's telling, Galileo is a scientist who pursues the truth regardless of the effects it may have on the people, religion, and society within which he lives. The vast institution of the church, on the other hand, is portrayed as a regime that forces people not to see the truth, even when they are offered a telescope. Galileo's lack of concern with the consequences of his work has him confronting papal decrees, an inquisitor armed with machines of torture, and his own desire for comfort in his life.

Brecht first wrote the Life of Galileo in Denmark in the late 1930s while in exile from his native Germany, where the Nazi regime had revoked his citizenship and burned his books. Galileo is threatened with death by burning at the stake if his books are deemed heretical by the church; the reader's knowledge that further astronomical research has proved Galileo correct casts this threat as a misguided persecution. An individual's right to think and write free from censure and persecution were central to Brecht's life experience as well as to this text.

Knowledge and Society

The question of what knowledge individuals should possess is a recurrent issue throughout the Life of Galileo. For example, in Scene 5, when Galileo is in Rome and the church is evaluating the accuracy of his telescopic observations, the astronomer argues with various clergymen who quote scripture that counters his research. The Infuriated Monk says that " can't be expected to understand everything!" Later, in Scene 7, the Little Monk argues that peasants should not know that Galileo's research is refuting the words of the Bible, since they would lose all faith and have no purpose in life. The nobleman Ludovico is likewise concerned with the structure of society when, in Scene 8, he cautions Galileo not to continue his research. In Ludovico's opinion, the farmers cannot understand the finer points of astronomy, but having a little knowledge would disrupt them and destabilize the entire productive economy.

Galileo lands squarely on the opposite side of the subject from all three of these characters. He believes that man can learn and know everything through careful observations; it is the principle of the scientific approach. Moreover, he believes that this knowledge should be available to all, so much so that he insists that the Florentine court philosopher refrain from speaking in Latin so that all present (in particular Galileo's assistant, the lens grinder Federzoni) can understand the discussion. He even begins to write his books in the common language instead of the traditional scholarly Latin in order to make them accessible to all. The Ballad Singer and his Wife in Scene 9 sell Galileo's pamphlets for two centesimi (2 cents) each in the marketplace.

However, it is worth considering that Galileo is unable to mount a strong defense to any of the arguments put forth by the Infuriated Monk, the Little Monk, or Ludovico. Brecht's Galileo believes knowledge should be the possession of all in society, but he is unable to effectively argue why possessing that knowledge will not have negative effects on society, or even why the possession of that knowledge would be more important than its potentially negative effects.

The Moral Responsibility of the Scientist

In Brecht's Life of Galileo, the famous astronomer and title character Galileo frequently demonstrates a lack of concern for the impact of his discoveries on other people. In Scene 4, when Galileo is presenting his telescope and its discoveries to the Florentine court, the philosopher asks Galileo to consider where his research is leading. Galileo poses a question in return, "Are we, as scholars, concerned with where the truth might lead us?" Aghast, the philosopher responds, "Mr. Galilei, the truth might lead us anywhere!"

Throughout the play, Brecht's Galileo prioritizes the pursuit of scientific truth above everything except his own survival. While other characters express concern for the impact of his research, calling him "the Bible-killer" or pondering the breakdown of the socio-political structure, Galileo pushes his research onward. He does not even concern himself with the impact of his work on his own daughter, whose happiness and married life he casually sacrifices by refusing Ludovico's request that he stop his research.

Brecht's play asks the reader to consider whether the scientist has a responsibility to consider the consequences of his research, to think about the moral responsibility of the scientist. Although first composed in 1938 in Denmark, the version of the play most commonly read in English is the second, 1947 edition; this play contains small revisions made in the wake of the end of World War II (1939–45). As Brecht puts it, "Galileo's crime can be regarded as the original sin of modern physical science. ... The atomic bomb, both as a technical and social phenomenon, is the classical end product of his contribution to science and his failure to society." The Life of Galileo challenges the reader to consider whether the scientist is responsible for the consequences of his discoveries, even the unintended ones.

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