For those who haven’t been paying attention

Galileo Galilei was found guilty and sentenced by the Inquisition on 22 June 1633; as usual this anniversary has produced a flurry of activity on the Internet much of it unfortunately ill informed. This is just a very brief note for all those who haven’t being paying attention.

The crime of which Galileo was found guilty was “vehement suspicion of heresy” and not heresy. This might appear to some to be splitting hairs but within the theological jurisdiction of the Catholic Church the difference is a highly significant one. Had the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy then a death sentence would have followed almost automatically. As they only found him guilty of the lesser charge “vehement suspicion of heresy” it was possible for him to be sentenced to life in prison commuted the next day to house arrest.

And please Richard Coles, and anybody else stupid enough to quote it, the claim that he said Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) upon being sentenced is almost certainty a myth.



Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

14 responses to “For those who haven’t been paying attention

  1. The distinction is worth drawing attention to, but at the same time it is surely wrong to defer to the Church on the definition of heresy.

    Thought experiment: suppose the Church named the crime of which he was convicted “Offending God’s Holy Name”, or for that matter, “Whistling on a Tuesday”.

    Whatever they might call it, it would still remain the fact that the activity for which he was convicted and punished was publicly saying things the Church doesn’t like, or, as it is commonly known, “heresy”.

  2. theofloinn

    Alas, the Church took considerable pains to define such things, and it is left to the Late Modern to fuzzy things up with vague generalities. Just because we don’t grasp the distinction does not mean the distinction wasn’t made, or that it wasn’t recognized at the time. When some contemporaries did chortle that the old meanie had been found guilty of heresy, the response was “which heresy was that?”

    Since it was a Church court (and not actually a court in the legal sense) we might suppose that the Church’s definitions would be dispositive. “Offending God’s Holy Name,” for example, would fall under blasphemy, not heresy.

    or, as it is commonly known

    You’d be amazed at what is “commonly known” about relativity, evolution, and similar technical terms outside their specialties.

    “[P]ublicly saying things the Church doesn’t like” doesn’t hack it. Lots of people have done so and some of them are now recognized as saints. But it matters whether we recognize just what it was he said. Certainly, Galileo did not by the myth, as he wrote in his Letter to Peiresc, 22 Feb 1635

  3. My point is to distinguish between the crime of “Heresy” (capital H), the precise definition of which I will happily leave to historians and Church officials to argue over – and of which Galileo was not convicted – and on the other hand “heresy” (small h) as the general phenomenon of making claims the local religious authorities take exception to, which seems a pretty good fit for what happened in this case.

    It’s a bit like people who insist a strawberry isn’t a berry (but a banana is one). Yes, on a technical botanical definition, this is true. But outside biology labs, these word have meanings, and that of berry is roughly “small edible fruit”. My point is that the common-language interpretation of these words is perfectly valid and meaningful. Technical definitions may – in the appropriate context – refine or tweak them, but they don’t supersede them altogether.

    • I’m afraid, Richard, that there never has been such a thing as ‘heresy’, using your distinction. That’s exactly the point that historians of science and religion have been trying to make for decades now. We grew up with a set of post-Enlightenment myths that tend to oversimplify history and use modern categories like heresy to redefine concepts, concepts that upon closer inspection turn out not to be as simple as we thought they were. That’s what Thony’s post (and for that matter, his entire blog) tries to convey: that we can only understand the past using the categories of the past, which we then need to translate, with all possible care, to a vocabulary that is understood today whilst at the same time not oversimplifying matters and staying true to the original meaning. A lot of knowledge has gone missing (like the distinction between the two verdicts described above) but these were real and meaningful concepts in those days, and so should be today.

  4. >” that there never has been such a thing as ‘heresy’”

    Likewise, as Stephen Jay Gould concluded, there is no such thing as a fish. Yet, in both cases, the English language carries on, oblivious:

  5. I think you mistake my point. What I mean is that heresy is a term that only exists in the context of a certain time and place. What you call heresy is not what I call heresy, and someone else has yet different ideas about what the term entails. 17th century notions of heresy where radically different from mine and yours today (and 17th century notion of “fish” were also different…) You can’t use today’s categories to label the past, that’s the main message that I try to convey.

    And Stephen Jay Gould, whose work I’ve immensely enjoyed, would agree. I am very familiar with the fish-quote by the way, which comes from the context of science vs. creationism and has absolutely nothing to do with historical understanding of particular concepts.

  6. OK, I can’t resist putting in my 3 cents.

    1) Are we making a value judgement on the Church’s actions, using modern-day values? Historians tend to disparage this, at least if enough time has passed. Plenty of historians of the American Civil War seem to have no problem condemning slavery, nor should they.

    I’ve never seen what’s intrinsically so terrible about such value judgements. Hey, Pope Urban VIII is dead, what does he care.

    2) Are we trying to understand the incident in its historical context? Of course, this is primary job description of historians.
    Historians who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time therefore feel they have to refrain from (1).

    3) When it comes to the Galileo affair and myth vs. history, all the historical nuance mitigates the Chuch’s blame quotient (again, compared with the myth). GG wasn’t tortured, the contemporary scientific evidence was more equivocal than is usually presented, etc. etc. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t blame the Church if we feel like it, but only for what they actually did.

    And now a question: Thony, you wrote:

    Had the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy then a death sentence would have followed almost automatically.

    Even if he recanted? All the martyrs I can think of persisted in their “errors”.

    • His open and full admission of guilt before the formal trial almost certainly played a role in his being found guilty of the lesser charge.

    • The Canons of the Church (Canon 751, I looked) defined heresy as the obstinate denial or doubt of a truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith. Over the years, a great many philosophers relied on the “obstinate” bit to get out of trouble—some Renaissance Averroists made a career out of back pedaling. Didn’t always work. There was a huge amount of discussion among canon lawyers about what did and did not count as recantation; but in practice, as it is with our legal system, politics often counted more than conceptual distinctions. Pissing off a Pope may not have been a mortal sin, but it was definitely bad karma.

      • “some Renaissance Averroists” — the Conversos, or is this a different group? (I know that “Conversos” usually refers to converted Jews, but Wikipedia says it also included former Muslims.)

      • Michael Weiss–The Renaissance Averroists were philosophers who followed the Aristotelian commentator Ibn Sina, who was known in the Latin West as Averroes. There were several issues raised by Averroes interpretation of Aristotle that tended to upset the Church: the individual immortality of the soul, the eternity of the world, and whether God could know particulars. The Averroists are sometimes characterized as supporters of the two truths theory, the notion that there were things that were true in philosophy but not true in theology. That formula over simplifies things —these philosophers always insisted that theological truth was trumps—but maybe it’s close enough for government work.

  7. “Pissing off a Pope may not have been a mortal sin, but it was definitely bad karma.” –> my quote of the day 🙂

  8. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #52 | Whewell's Ghost

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