Why do we do Science? Galileo’s answer, according to Brecht

Why do we do Science? The following is an extract from Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo), roughly from the 1940s. Galileo Galilei, after having discovered the Satellites of Jupiter, was forced to silence by an Inquisition decree, since his findings were against the official position of the Church. Here Galileo speaks with a young pupil, both a monk and a scientist, who believes that the decree is false but nevertheless has to be followed, since it aims at preserving the equilibrium in the life of the common people. Galileo’s answer is a condemnation of the raison d’État and a passionate apology of science, as both an instrument to improve people’s life conditions, and a compelling temptation to human curiosity. Apart from that, the whole extract is an excellent piece of play.

Young Monk: Mr. Galilei, I couldn’t sleep for three nights. I did not know how to reconcile the decree, that I read, with the satellites of Jupiter, that I saw. Hence, today I decided to come to you after saying Mass.

Galileo: What for? To tell me that Jupiter has no satellites?

Young Monk: No. That I succeeded in understanding the wiseness of the decree. It showed me the reason why research without boundaries is dangerous for humanity, thus I decided to quit astronomy. But I thought it was appropriate to explain you some reasons why even an astronomer could prevent himself from working on that theory. […]

Let me tell you about myself. I grew up in the countryside, son of peasants. They are simple people. They know everything about olive trees, but little about everything else. When I look at the phases of Venus, I see my parents in front of me, sitting with my sister next to the fireplace, eating their humble dinner. I can see the beam above their heads, that the smoke has turned black, and I can see their old workers hands, and their small spoons. They’re not happy, but even in their unhappiness there is a secret order, marked by cyclic events: the cleaning of the floor in the house, the seasons in the fields,  the tax collection. Adversities come upon them with regularity. The back of my father did not become crooked at once, but year after year by working in the fields, and the birth labours that turned my mother into an asexual being also came at regular intervals. They take the strength to climb a stony path despite being soaked with sweat, to give birth to children, and even to eat, from the feeling of Continuity and Necessity that is given to them by the land that each year becomes green again, by their small church and the readings of the Bible, which they listen to each Sunday. It is reassuring to them that the eye of God lies upon them, inquiring and almost anxious. That the theater of the world is built around them, so that each actor can properly play his role, whether big or small. What would they say, if I told them they just lie on a heap of rocks, that continuously rotates into the empty space like any other planet, just one among many, and not even so important! Then what would all their patience, their misery be for? And the Holy Scriptures – that declare as necessary all their sweat, their patience, their hunger, their submission, what are they good for, if they are discovered to be full of errors? I can see their gaze becoming gloomy, their spoon falling on the fireplace, I can see how they would feel betrayed and cheated. They would say: “So, there is no eye lying upon us, we alone have to take care of ourselves, ignorant, old and worn as we are? No one gave as a role to play, but the one to be miserable in this tiny planet, that is not even autonomous? There is no meaning for our misery, hunger is just not eating, and not a test of strength. Fatigue is just bending your back and carrying weights, not a credit.” Do you now understand why I see in the decree of the Holy Congregation an act of motherly charity, of  great goodness?

Galileo:  Goodness! Maybe you mean that, since there ‘s nothing left, the wine has been drunk and their lips are dry, all they are left with is kissing the soutane? But why is there nothing left? Why is the order of this nation just the order of an empty chest, and the only thing that is necessary is to work oneself to death? Between hills flourishing with grapes and luxuriant cornfields! Your peasants are paying for the wars that are conducted by the representatives of the mild Jesus in Spain and Germany. Do you know why is the Earth in the center of the Universe? So that the Chair of Peter could be! That’s what all is about! You are right, this has nothing to do with planets, it has to do with peasants. And please don’t come and tell me about the beauty of natural phenomena like oldness! Do you know how does the oyster produce the pearl?  Wounded by the presence of an external body which puts in danger its life, for instance a grain of sand, the oyster covers it with mother-of-pearl.  It almost dies during the process. The pearl can go the hell, I care more about the health of the oyster. Virtues do not only arise in misery, my dear. If your people were healthy and prosperous, they could develop the virtues of health and prosperity. But now the exhausting work in the fields just generates the virtues of exhaustingness, and I refuse it. My dear friend, my new water pumps can do more wonders than their absurd, superhuman work.  […]

But we cannot develop machines for pumping the water from rivers, if we cannot study the biggest machine that lies in front of us: the celestial bodies. The sum of the angles of a triangle cannot change according to the wishes of the Papal Court. And I cannot compute the trajectories of the flying bodies, so that also the flight of witches on broomsticks are explained.

Young Monk: And don’t you believe that the truth, if it is actually truth, will impose itself, even without us?

Galileo: No, no, no. The truth will impose itself, only if we will. The victory of the reason can only be the victory of those who reason. It sounds like if to you, the peasants are just like the musk on their huts! How can someone think that the sum of the angles of a triangle could be in conflict with their interests? But if they do not move up and learn to think, even the best irrigation system cannot help them. For God’s sake, I can see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine fury?

Young Monk: They are tired.

Galileo (passing a manuscript to him): Son, aren’t you a physicist? Here are written the reason why the oceans have high and low tides. But you are not allowed to read it, do you understand me? Ah, you are already reading it? So, are you also a physicist? (The Young Monk is absorbed in the manuscript) An apple from the tree of  knowledge! He immediately bites it. He will be condemned forever, but he couldn’t help but bite it. Sometimes I think that I would be happy to be buried in a prison 20 meters under, where I could see no light, if I could know what light really is. And the worst is that what I know, I have to tell the others. Like a lover, or a drunkard, like a betrayer. It is a real vice, and it will ruin me. How much time will I resist speaking to walls, that’s the real question.

Young Monk (pointing at a line in the manuscript): There is a sentence I cannot understand.

Galileo: I will explain it to you, I will explain it to you.

On April, 25th, La7 is broadcasting the monologue ITIS Galileo by Marco Paolini in prime time. If you understand Italian, don’t miss it.