The Trial of Galileo: Problems of Justice in One of History’s Most Famous Trials Essay
The Trial of Galileo:
Problems of Justice in One of History’s Most Famous Trials
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The Trial of Galileo Galilei is remembered and counts among the famous trials in history, along that of the trial of Socrates and Jesus Christ - The Trial of Galileo: Problems of Justice in One of History’s Most Famous Trials Essay introduction. Galileo’s confirmation and publication of studies supporting Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory– that the Sun was the center of the universe and around which the Earth revolved– ignited a collision between science and faith that tragically resulted in the demise of his own freedom and the decline of the Italian Renaissance.
Today, many judicial scholars and philosophical experts argue that Galileo had been a victim of bureaucracy intent on preserving its own power. This argument is consistent with the concept of justice that Plato refutes in his Republic. In this treatise, Plato writes that justice is defined by others as “nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger” (Morgan 82). Galileo was punished for violating laws made by the government for its own interest, which translates to the violation of justice itself. Justice in this scenario is achieved by the Catholic Church—the “established rule”—who enjoyed the advantages of creating laws and rules that only furthered their benefit.
Galileo, in his 1613 Letter to Castelli, argued that “Scripture, despite being truth itself, must be understood sometimes in a figurative sense.” Unfortunately for Galileo, the law of that time (and at times, until today) held no room for intellectual creativity and alternative interpretation. It did not help his case that his supposed “advocate”, Cardinal Bellarmine, was a 74-year-old conservative who saw the Copernican idea of the universe as a threat to social order. The Papacy (which served as both government and priesthood) was preoccupied with the notion of administration and the preservation of its power to care about reviewing both Copernicus’ and Galileo’s observations and arguments. By announcing that Galileo’s findings had not enough scientific basis and were meant “to injure faith by contradicting the Scriptures”, the Papacy asserted their role as the supreme authority of what is true and just. It became an issue of politics, rather than one concerning religion. This is an example of what happens when the judging party prioritizes its preconceptions and biases above proper (impartial) examination. Justice then becomes not blind, but fully aware of how it wants things to be.
Galileo’s story is not an uncommon one in the judicial system of 17th century Renaissance Italy. Once in a while the Prince would be required to demonstrate his absolute authority and maintain his moral claim to power. The Prince, to his loyal supporters, exercises authority that he believes is fair and just, only to suffer the supreme sacrifice of losing a dear friend. He therefore earns a great reputation for justice, while his “friend” suffers the utmost injustice (Morgan 95). This argument on justice is presented in Aristotle’s works, particularly in the narration of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, and also in Machiavelli’s teachings. Machiavelli asserted the idea that sometimes it is necessary to administer harsh decrees to ensure greater good in the future—a perfect example of this is the method by which the Prince and the Church dealt Galileo’s trial and verdict.
Galileo’s “fall from grace” came at the hands of those he considered friends and allies. This is a fact that solidifies Aristotle’s argument against the idea of “justice [also] naturally increases with friendship” (Morgan 334). This certainly did not happen in the case of Galileo. Instead, justice for Galileo was not achieved due to the differences between him and his society. As soon as the society sensed that Galileo posed a threat to its tradition and stability, it became quick to cast Galileo away. Justice was not achieved because Galileo belonged to a tyrannical society where there is little or no room for friendship (Morgan 335). Had the government been a democratic one, Galileo might have had the proper resources to defend his views and assert his right to a proper trial. His status as a commoner, albeit a scholarly one, did not help further his cause. Had Galileo belonged to the same social stratus as his peers, he might have had a better fate (Morgan 336).
The trial of Galileo has been a topic of study throughout history for its prime exemplification of problematic issues surrounding the concept of justice, hugely evidenced by its faulty process. The absence of confrontation and use of secret evidence gave Galileo the disadvantage of having only vague and generic information about the charges against him, resulting in his lack of suitable and credible defense and refutations to be dismissed as merely false statements. There was no proof that Galileo was subject to torture, however the “threat of torture” as evidenced in his trial documentation hugely swayed Galileo’s responses and actions towards what his questioners wanted. The lack of independence in his tribunal, as well as the supposed pre-ordained verdict was a reflection of the Pope’s judgment and influence. The trial was obviously rigged to result in an event that would cement the supremacy and influence of the Papacy—a reflection of the concepts that both Plato and Aristotle outline in their works.
Galileo’s ordeal came at the hands of people in authority whose “love of doctrine supplanted the doctrine of love”. These questions, inventions, innovations and modern thoughts posed a threat towards the division of a body that enjoyed both judicial and religious authority, who the people viewed as all-knowing and all-powerful. A new “right” and “just” are created by those who seek to greatly benefit from it. Justice becomes something that is only applicable to those who implement it, or those who can afford it, both in which Galileo did not belong. The circumstances surrounding Galileo’s trial strengthens Aristotle’s ideas about justice—that economic, political, social, spiritual and other such factors influence the attainment of justice (or injustice). Also, in Augustine’s City of God, justice is considered a virtue that rewards every one his due, with the preconceived idea that things are fashioned in a hierarchy in which the lower serve the higher (Morgan 442). Galileo may have been at a disadvantage given this idea, for at that time he was among the court’s most favored sons. He had been given the privileges deserving of a nobleman and enjoyed the company of the most powerful figures in 17th century Italy. And yet, to them he was merely a servant, an underling that provided entertaining (if absurdly lofty) ideas too wild to see fruition.
The trial of Galileo can be considered in other views not merely a conflict between physics and religion, but a battle between a tyrannical government and an independent individual. Galileo’s studies came at a time when the divide between science and religion was not a welcome topic. This divide, in fact, was a major contributor to the injustice that Galileo experienced. Epicurus strengthens this thought by arguing that justice is the same for everyone and is beneficial only if they are engaged in mutual associations (Morgan 424). Justice applies to parties in agreement “neither to harm nor be harmed”, and the first sign of separation or divide would be just cause for bodies to break away from this covenant (Morgan 424).
The deciding court of Galileo’s trial viewed the accusations against him in two perspectives—the part where they considered the scientific merits of his findings, and one where they examined the social and ethical implications that could emerge if his studies were to be made public. Their findings resulted in something very expected—that Galileo’s findings lacked enough merit to be considered scientifically beneficial, and that his adherence to Copernican values and beliefs were enough to consider his study “formally heretical”. This blatant show of bias and partiality from the Catholic Church became substantial proof that the idea of law and justice as two objective and immutable concepts was weak and refutable.
An examination of the philosophical methodical issues surrounding the circumstances of Galileo’s trial gives us a perspective of the many problems of justice that characterized the justice system the inquisitors of the Catholic Church promoted in history, and of this negative legacy that we now associate with many of our modern governments and judicial bodies.
One such problem is that Galileo’s “jury” based their examination and ultimately their conclusion on the assumption that “Scripture is an important boundary condition of human existence and, therefore, of research”. This posed a dilemma especially since they drew their conclusions about science on the basis of Scripture and what is traditionally accepted, when Scripture and tradition both have not enough points of reference to be proven understood and interpreted.
History describes the Church during that time to claim ownership of the exclusive rights of exploring, interpreting and applying Holy Scripture—lay people had neither the knowledge nor the ability to tamper with Scripture and they were forbidden to do so. This has become a familiar habit of powerful institutions—both religious and secular—to secure for themselves exclusive rights in their respective special domains. This is an example of justice at its very unjust state—wealth and power buys out the poor’s share of human and civil right, while the latter is left in to flounder with injustice and poverty.
Today, people’s idea of justice seems to never have learned lessons from a 400-year-old mistake. Justice in the dark days of Galileo, Socrates, Joan of Arc and their kind have tarnished the judiciary systems of many governments throughout history and persist to this modern day and age.
Morgan, Michael L., ed. Classics of Moral and Political Theory. 4th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005.