Galileo Goes to Jail

Falsehood is not a matter of narration technique but something premeditated as a perversion of truth…. The shadow of a hair’s turning, premeditated for an untrue purpose, the slightest twisting or perversion of that which is principle—these constitute falseness. But the fetish of factualized truth, fossilized truth, the iron band of so-called unchanging truth, holds one blindly in a closed circle of cold fact. One can be technically right as to fact and everlastingly wrong in the truth. (Urantia Book 48:6.33)

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Among some astronomers and even more astrologers, Copernicus’ claim won converts. But in 1615, the Roman Catholic Church declared the idea a heresy and in 1632 condemned the scientist Galileo Galilei to life in prison for disseminating it.
— Ken Zimmerman, RWER : More on what’s missing, 9/1/2020

[T]he great Galileo, at the age of fourscore, groaned away his days in the dungeons of the Inquisition, because he had demonstrated by irrefragable proofs the motion of the earth.
— Voltaire, “Descartes and Newton” (1728)

[T]he celebrated Galileo … was put in the inquisition for six years, and put to the torture, for saying, that the earth moved.

— Giuseppe Baretti, The Italian Library (1757)

[T]o say that Galileo was tortured is not a reckless claim, but it is simply to repeat what the sentence says. To specify that he was tortured about his intention is not a risky deduction, but it is, again, to report what that text says. These are observation-reports, reports, not magical intuitions; proved facts, not cabalistic introspections.

— Italo Mereu, History of Intolerance in Europe (1979)

The trial ended on June 22, 1633, with a harsher sentence than Galileo had been led to expect. The verdict found him guilty of a category of heresy intermediate between the most and the least serious, called “vehement suspicion of heresy.” The objectionable beliefs were the astronomical thesis that the earth moves and the methodological principle that the Bible is not a scientific authority. He was forced to recite a humiliating “abjuration” retracting these beliefs. But the Dialogue was banned. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 757-760). Kindle Edition.)

The lengthy sentencing document also recounted the proceedings since 1613, summarized the 1633 charges, and noted Galileo’s defense and confession. In addition, it provided two other extremely important details. The first described an interrogation: “Because we did not think you had said the whole truth about your intention, we deemed it necessary to proceed against you by a rigorous examination. Here you answered in a Catholic manner, though without prejudice to the above-mentioned things confessed by you and deduced against you about your intention.” The second imposed an additional penalty: “We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure.” (Kindle Locations 760-764)

The lengthy sentencing document also recounted the proceedings since 1613, summarized the 1633 charges, and noted Galileo’s defense and confession. (….) The text of the Inquisition’s sentence and Galileo’s abjuration were the only trial documents publicized at the time. Indeed, the Inquisition sent copies to all provincial inquisitors and papal nuncios, requesting them to disseminate the information. Thus news of Galileo’s fate circulated widely in books, newspapers, and one-page flyers. This unprecedented publicity resulted from the express orders of Pope Urban, who wanted Galileo’s case to serve as a negative lesson to all Catholics and to strengthen his own image as an intransigent defender of the faith. (Kindle Locations 760-767)

(….) The impression that Galileo had been imprisoned and tortured remained plausible as long as the principal evidence available about Galileo’s trial came from these documents, the sentence and abjuration. The story remained unchanged until—after about 150 years for the prison thesis and about 250 years for the torture thesis—relevant documents came to light showing that Galileo had suffered neither. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 775-777). Kindle Edition.)

The new information about imprisonment comes from correspondence in 1633, primarily from the Tuscan ambassador to Rome (Francesco Niccolini) to the Tuscan secretary of state in Florence, and secondarily that to and from Galileo himself. The Tuscan officials were especially interested in Galileo because he was employed as the chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke of Tuscany, had dedicated the Dialogue to him, and had successfully sought his help in publishing the book in Florence. Thus the Tuscan government treated the trial like an affair of state, with Niccolini constantly discussing the situation directly with the pope at their regular meetings and sending reports to Florence. Moreover, Galileo was on very friendly terms with Niccolini and his wife. (Kindle Locations 777-781)

(….) With the possible exception of three days (June 21-24, 1633), Galileo was never held in prison, either during the trial (as was universal custom) or afterward (as the sentence decreed). Even for those three days he likely lodged in the prosecutor’s apartment, not in a cell. The explanation for such unprecedentedly benign treatment is not completely clear but includes the following factors: the protection of the Medici, Galileo’s celebrity status, and the love-hate attitude of Pope Urban, an erstwhile admirer. (Kindle Locations 792-795)

(….) In view of the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture or even territio realis. Although he remained under house arrest during the 1633 trial and for the subsequent nine years of his life, he never went to prison. We should keep in mind, however, that for 150 years after the trial the publicly available evidence indicated that Galileo had been imprisoned, and for 250 years the evidence indicated that he had been tortured. The myths of Galileo’s torture and imprisonment are thus genuine myths: ideas that are in fact false but once seemed true—and continue to be accepted as true by poorly educated persons and careless scholars. (Kindle Locations 839-843)

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Simple stories are poor vehicles for complex nuanced historical truth. The Catholic Church like all human institutions — is full of justifiable blame for the errors of evil and sin, even iniquity, but let the blame be laid on firm evidentiary foundations and not half-truths of simple stories careless with fact and truth, lest we be guilty of twisting hairs and casting shadows of half-truth for untrue purposes.

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