Gutenberg and Galileo

Friday, February 10, 2006
In 1455 Gutenberg created the first book in Europe to be published with moveable type. It was the Bible, and has come to be known as the Gutenberg Bible.

Books had been published by much the same means in both Arabic and Asian languages, but unlike the Gutenberg Bible they did not help create a revolution. Not long after this book was published Europe saw an end to the Middle Ages and the onset of the greatest leap in modern human history, the Renaissance.

Why Europe? Why did Europe move forward while much of the rest of the world stagnated or regressed? The Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason would make Europe the center of the world.

Two centuries later Galileo would face trial for heresy, forced to defend the idea that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still. He had also suffered much criticism for his refusal to accept every passage of the Scripture literally. This man, who has been called the father of the scientific method, would find himself sentenced to house arrest until his death because of his beliefs. Not even Galileo could stand against the Church. In fact it was not until 1992 that Pope John Paul II admitted the Church mishandled the case. But Galileo's ideas were not lost and his life's work survived.

Today we see Europe once again in a conflict between the right of freedom of expression and Religious intolerance. It seems to me there is a certain amount of cynical manipulation by those Muslim rioters. They know the West and they know our traditions. It also seems to me that many of us consider these rights to be something of a religion in and of themselves. This is a direct challenge, just one more in our history with Islam. Once again, they attack our religion.

I understand the arguments for not publishing the cartoons. I remember when the ACLU defended the right of the Nazis to march and I thought it was so reprehensible that these fascists should show their faces in public. But this is what we are all about. So I understand how something can seem obscene to one person and acceptable to another. I can even understand how it could be argued that publishing these cartoons creates more problems in the War on Terror and feeds the paranoia of the region. But then again, their paranoia is insatiable, it requires constant feeding and it seeks it out.

But Europe should not allow a new Inquisition to take hold, none of us should.

The West did not invent type, but they knew what to do with it. And the West did persecute a brilliant man for questioning the Religious authority of his time..but his accomplishments were not overlooked or forgotten.

So it seems to me that while the West often wallows in self loathing our culture.... the EuroAmerican culture... is still worth defending and we should not allow ourselves to be intmidated by the barbarians.

Question: If not for the West, what good would that oil be? Without us would the technology to get it out of the ground and do something with it even exist? And why is that? Why are we so curious when so many are not?


PDS said...

Another question: who will be Europe's Giordano Bruno, and will he too be burned at the stake?

terrye said...


Who will be its Joan of Arc?

PDS said...

Terrye: touche. I wish I knew.

truepeers said...

Terrye, the reality of Galileo's life - as i have heard it from historians - is somewhat different from the myth of Galileo. In reality, Galileo was a guy with a massive chip on his shoulder who sought out unnecessary conflict and rejected opportunities to make peace with the church on not unreasonable terms.

SO why is it that we need the myth of Galileo and not a story of human hubris and tragedy? On the myth of Galileo, Prospero writes:
"What is really key to the development of modernity, though, is the figure of the martyred scientist, like Galileo, regardless of the historical reality. Think of how this scene has played itself out over and over again as traumas founding progressivism and leftism, right up until McCarthyism and even the simulated hysteria over the Patriot Act (why the intense focus on the possibility of library checks, of all things?). By now it's an automatic reflex (talk to any academic about modifying tenure), but it has a real sacrality at the root."

Over the last five hundred years, heresy has clearly had some productive results in building up western science and modernity. But i think the question before us now is whether or not the cult of heresy practiced in academe and elsewhere is now totally devoid of productive consequences (given the institutionalization and stagnation of heresy in the form of the "progressive" leftism of our privileged, stagnant, reactionary, elites, and whether a return to orthodoxy in matters of Christian faith and Republican democracy will now prove the more creative, indeed radical, of our choices.

Rick Ballard said...

Oh, phswah, Truepeers, next you'll be telling us that the intellectual advances of the high middle ages as embodied in scholasticism dwarf the Renaissance. Who could believe that?

truepeers said...

Well Rick, Voegelin argued that our division of history into three periods, after Joachim of Flora's (twelfth century) ancient, medieval, and modern, was a kind of fantasy ideology designed to conceive a post-Christian world in which some new prophet will emerge to take us beyond the ages of Abraham and Christ and fulfill all those unfulfilled human desires. This is the basis for all the third-way (e.g. Marx's age of the worker-state, and the Third Reich) Gnostic ideologies.

SO, if you question the myth of the martyred scientist perhaps you also have to question the existence of a Middle Age.

Luther McLeod said...

"massive chip on his shoulder who sought out unnecessary conflict and rejected opportunities to make peace with the church on not unreasonable terms."

Good for him. Reminds me of grade school.

"return to orthodoxy in matters of Christian faith and Republican democracy"

Good luck on this, I just don't see how we can go backwards. There has to be an amalgam that will propel us forward.

"What is really key to the development of modernity, though, is the figure of the martyred scientist, like Galileo, regardless of the historical reality. Think of how this scene has played itself out over and over again as traumas founding progressivism and leftism, right up until McCarthyism"

Man, the above is really a stretch for me. What in the hell does that mean? Just what were the alternatives? Denial of one's belief's in fact versus obsequiousness to the greater God?

Also Truepeers, apologies. You responded to a comment of mine the other night, and, I was already asleep. Damn work. I'm doing it again tonight, will be back tomorrow.

But really, if not for our "heretics" where would we be? Straighten me out here.

And, by the way, perhaps that is my answer to terrye's question. Who has gained us more?

truepeers said...

Luther, i didn't deny that heretics didn't serve a purpose at a certain time in history in getting us beyond the old world of monarchical rule, with limits on scientific freedom, unfree forms of trade, and landed aristocracy. But i see many romantics and would-be heretics nowadays who achieve nothing new, but only conform to the mainstream popular culture that makes an endless ritual of their "heresy".

The reason I think orthodoxy can be productive again, is not because i think we can go back to some golden age or that we need to follow some essential religious ritual to find the truth. I spoke specifically, and for good reason, of only Christian and Republican orthodoxy. Now I think orthodox Christianity and Republican self-rule happen to be inherently radical forces. Give them a space and they will change that space. Christianity, for example, makes god into a man and tells us all to emulate him by maximizing human freedom and reciprocity. I think that's radical and i think so much of the world that we consider secular and irreligious is actually in good part Christian without knowing it because they are so drunk on their mythic heresy.

Buddy Larsen said...

I think that's true, 'Peers--where is the indifference among the proclaimed atheists? The word speaks for itself--it should be 'untheist' or 'nontheist'. "Atheist" implies ahistoricism wrt the meaning of the word 'god'.

Luther McLeod said...


My apologies for the uncivil tone of my original post. Local events carried through to my post.

I of course agree with you that "heresy" as practiced in the world today is far from what it used to be. It no longer takes any particular courage to be such. It is among many human attributes that have been cheapened and made coarse over time. Similar to the current concept of what constitutes a "hero".

But does that mean you throw out the baby with the dishwater? I expect there will always be a need for heresy, it just may take more effort to filter out the mundane from the useful.

As to your larger point re orthodoxy. I can't really disagree with you here either. I suppose I am somewhat an "in betweener". Caught in the middle of being a "non-believer" (how's that BL :-\) and yet fully appreciative of the fact that I am who I am due to the influence and tradition of religious culture over the past few thousand years.

Not sure what point I am trying to make. I suppose I need to rethink my understandings of the common vocabulary we all use to communicate, i.e. "radical". A person can see many different meanings while circling around that word. Its just hard to not get "stuck" sometimes in how one views the world. At least for me. I think "misunderstanding" to be a source of many problems in the world.

terrye said...


My point was that the Church was involved at all in scientific enquiry. The Church was the prevailing authority and whether or not Galileo was an arrogant man or a nice man he made contributions to science that have survived his time.

If he had been a Muslim and pissed off the clerics would he have been allowed to live or would his ideas have survived in any meaningful way? That is the question.

truepeers said...

Luther, i didn't take your original post to be uncivil. You are right about misunderstanding; only if we have the good faith to keep on talking do we get a true sense of what people mean when they throw out words like orthodox and radical. So, onwards...


What i think happened was that the church essentially reserved judgment on Galileo, and wanted him to go along with that, deferring the need to change doctine in favour of taking a longer view. Perhaps the problem with Islam is that it doesn't have the means to defer to some longer historical vantage point. Everything is atomized into questions of how what we say and do in the here and now conforms to the true original model of the Koran.

Luther McLeod said...

As well, apologies for dragging things down. Can't write, much better around the table.

loner said...

I can't allow this to end here, the apologists be damned...

The verdict was reached at a meeting of the Congregation of the Holy Office over which the Pope presided, which laid down absolutely what was to be done. The dissident scientist was to be humiliated; authority was to be shown large not only in action but in intention. Galileo was to retract; and he was to be shown the instruments of torture as if they were meant to be used....

Galileo was not tortured. He was only threatened with torture, twice. His imagination could do the rest. That was the object of the trial, to show men of imagination that they were not immune from the process of primitive, animal fear that was irreversible. But he had already agreed to recant.

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, arraigned personally before this tribunal, and kneeling before you, most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors general against heretical depravity throughout the whole Christian Republic, having before my eyes and touching with my hands, the holy Gospels--swear that I have always believed, do now believe, and by God's help will for the future believe, all that is held, preached, and taught by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church....

Galileo was confined for the rest of his life in his villa in Arcetri at some distance from Florence, under strict house arrest. The Pope was implacable. Nothing was to be published. The forbidden doctrine was not to be discussed. Galileo was not even to talk to Protestants. The result was silence among Catholic scientists everywhere from then on. Galileo's greatest contemporary, Rene Descartes, stopped publishing in France and finally went to Sweden....

Among those who came to see Galileo at Arcetri was the young poet John Milton...

Milton at the end of his life identified himself with Samson Agonistes, Samson among the Philistines,

Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves,

who destroyed the Philistine empire at the moment of his death. And that is what Galileo did, against his own will. The effect of the trial and of the imprisonment was to put a total stop to the scientific tradition in the Mediterranean. From now on the Scientific Revolution moved to Northern Europe. Galileo died, still a prisoner in his house, in 1642. On Christmas day of the same year, in England, Isaac Newton was born.

--J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

Buddy Larsen said...

Reading Bronowski is one of the very few things I remember from college. Reading him opened my mind to the actuality of 'history' and how it forms. The TV special he hosted--sometime in the 70s--is the single best study of humanity and the 'vision thing' I've ever seen on the tv tube.

Buddy Larsen said...

Luther, dammit, quit hiding your light under a bushel basket!