“Generally speaking, truth has been suffered to exist in the world just to the extent that it profited the rulers of society.” [Barrows Dunham, Man Against Myth, 1947]
“And yet it moves,” mumbled Galileo as he walked out of the Inquisition Chamber having accepted the punishment imposed on him for upholding the truth.
The earth is not the centre of the universe. Galileo had argued. The sun was the centre of the solar system. The earth moved round the sun. The earth was just another planet like many others.
“Your teaching explicitly contradicts the Holy Scripture,” said Cardinal Bellarmine. “You run the risk of being branded a heretic and being burnt at the stake. “We exhort you to abandon the mathematical hypothesis completely and unconditionally. You will not hold the opinion that the sun stands still and the earth moves. You will not henceforth hold, teach, or defend it any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”
The Scripture! What do these people understand of the Scripture? Galileo had despaired of trying to make the religious leaders understand that the Scripture was poetry to be interpreted for the sake of bringing the truth to the people in a way they could understand. The sun rises and sets. That is poetry. But that does not mean the sun actually moves. Didn’t Copernicus say the same thing? Yet wasn’t Copernicus a doctor in canon law? Didn’t Augustine exhort the Church to avoid making decrees about the physical world lest they be overturned by new knowledge? And wasn’t Augustine a saint of the Church?
“The purpose of the Bible is to teach how to go to heaven, while science teaches how the heavens go,” Galileo had argued.
The scientist drew the attention of his religious leaders to Anaxagoras who died two millennia ago. In 467 BCE Anaxagoras pointed at the meteorite that had fallen and raised the question: “What do the authorities want me to say now? Will they permit me to say that the stars up there which are worshipped as gods are actually inert rocks like this?”
If the Scripture is the divinely revealed truth, why does it contain so many contradictions? Is truth the expediency of the authorities?
“You are inviting the wrath of God upon your head, Galileo,” said the Inquisitor Cardinal. “God finds you vehemently suspect of heresy. You are questioning the word of God. Unless you abjure, curse and detest your opinions, God won’t be able to save you from the stake.”
How helpless is God! Galileo suppressed the thought. If God is so helpless, what can one say about the mortal man?
The mortal man abjured, cursed and detested what he knew was the truth. He remembered Bruno, the man whose tongue was imprisoned by the same Cardinal Bellarmine before his body was burnt at the stake and works put on the Index of Prohibited Books. When Bruno was burning on the stake in Rome, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was wondering on a stage in London: “To be or not to be, that’s the question.”
To be, decided Galileo. To be. He abjured, cursed and detested the truth. To Be.
“Your recantation saves your life, Galileo,” said Cardinal Bellarmine solemnly. “But we cannot give you any more liberty. You will not teach anymore. You will not appear before the public. We place you under arrest.”
How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from your people? Galileo asked God like the Psalmist. Arouse Yourself, why do you sleep, O Lord?
The heavens were silent. But they moved, Galileo knew. The bodies up there, they moved. To Be.