Recantation Of Galileo
Author: Lodge, Sir Oliver
Recantation Of Galileo
From Socrates to Galileo, as from the Church's early martyrs to its
latest victims, runs the same story of conflict between the free human spirit
and the repressive environment of custom acting through personal will or
through constituted power.
When in 1633 Galileo, standing before the Inquisition at Rome, denied his
own great work and swore that earth stood still, science staggered under the
heavy blow. Galileo was being punished, not directly for the great
astronomical discoveries he had made with his telescope, but for asserting
that they proved, or that he believed in, the Copernican system. This
declared that the earth moved, while the churchmen had interpreted the Bible
to mean that it did not.
Thus, science, threatened in the person of its greatest leader, terrified
by his sufferings, no longer dared proclaim the thing it saw. Descartes and
many another thinker, though throbbing with the eagerness of the new dawning
light, hushed their voices, hid their views. They were philosophers, not
martyrs. What this newly roused vigor of thought might have accomplished
except for the repressive hand of the Church we cannot tell. As it was, the
supremacy of intellect passed away from Catholic Italy, turned from the South
to the North, from Galileo to Newton and Leibnitz. The forced recantation of
the great astronomer thus stands out as one of the events which have changed
the course of destiny.
In 1615 Pope Paul V wrote requesting Galileo to come to Rome to explain
his views. He went, was well received, made a special friend to Cardinal
Barberino - an accomplished man in high position, who became, in fact, the
next Pope. Galileo showed cardinals and others his telescope, and to as many
as would look through it he showed Jupiter's satellites and his other
discoveries. He had a most successful visit. He talked, he harangued, he
held forth in the midst of fifteen or twenty disputants at once, confounding
his opponents and putting them to shame.
His method was to let the opposite arguments be stated as fully and
completely as possible, himself aiding, and often adducing, the most forcible
and plausible arguments against his own views; and then, all having been well
stated, he would proceed to utterly undermine and demolish the whole fabric,
and bring out the truth in such a way as to convince all honest minds. It was
this habit that made him such a formidable antagonist. He never shrank from
meeting an opposing argument, never sought to ignore it or cloak it in a cloud
of words. Every hostile argument he seemed to delight in, as a foe to be
crushed, and the better and stronger they sounded the more he liked them. He
knew many of them well, he invented a number more, and, had he chosen, could
have out-argued the stoutest. Aristotelian on his own grounds. Thus did he
lead his adversaries on, almost like Socrates, only to ultimately overwhelm
them in a more hopeless rout. All this in Rome, too, in the heart of the
Catholic world. Had he been worldly-wise, he would certainly have kept silent
and unobtrusive till he had leave to go away again. But he felt like an
apostle of the new doctrines, whose mission it was to proclaim them even in
this centre of the world and of the Church.
Well, he had an audience with the Pope - a chat an hour long - and the
two parted good friends, mutually pleased with each other.
He writes that he is all right now, and might return home when he liked.
But the question began to be agitated whether the whole system of Copernicus
ought not to be condemned as impious and heretical. This view was
persistently urged upon the Pope and college of cardinals, and it was soon to
be decided upon.
Had Galileo been unfaithful to the Church he could have left them to
stultify themselves in any way they thought proper, and himself had gone; but
he felt supremely interested in the result, and he stayed. He writes:
"So far as concerns the clearing of my own character, I might return home
immediately; but although this new question regards me no more than all those
who for the last eighty years have supported those opinions both in public and
private, yet, as perhaps I may be of some assistance in that part of the
discussion which depends on the knowledge of truths ascertained by means of
the sciences which I profess, I, as a zealous and Catholic Christian, neither
can nor ought to withhold that assistance which my knowledge affords, and this
business keeps me sufficiently employed."
It is possible that his stay was the worst thing for the cause he had at
heart. Anyhow, the result was that the system was condemned, and both the
book of Copernicus and the epitome of it by Kepler were placed on the
forbidden list, ^1 and Galileo himself was formally ordered never to teach or
to believe the motion of the earth.
[Footnote 1: They remained there till 1835, when they were dropped.]
He quitted Rome in disgust, which before long broke out in satire. The
only way in which he could safely speak of these views now was as if they were
hypothetical and uncertain, and so we find him writing to the Archduke
Leopold, with a presentation copy of his book on the tides, the following:
"This theory occurred to me when in Rome while the theologians were
debating on the prohibition of Copernicus' book, and of the opinion maintained
in it of the motion of the earth, which I at that time believed: until it
pleased those gentlemen to suspend the book, and declare the opinion false and
repugnant to the Holy Scriptures. Now, as I know how well it becomes me to
obey and believe the decisions of my superiors, which proceed out of more
knowledge than the weakness of my intellect can attain to, this theory which I
send you, which is founded on the motion of the earth, I now look upon as a
fiction and a dream, and beg your highness to receive it as such. But as
poets often learn to prize the creations of their fancy, so in like manner do
I set some value on this absurdity of mine. It is true that when I sketched
this little work I did hope that Copernicus would not, after eighty years, be
convicted of error; and I had intended to develop and amplify it further, but
a voice from heaven suddenly awakened me, and at once annihilated all my
confused and entangled fancies."
This sarcasm, if it had been in print, would probably have been
dangerous. It was safe in a private letter, but it shows us his real
feelings. However, he was left comparatively quiet for a time. He was
getting an old man now, and passed the time studiously enough, partly at his
house in Florence, partly at his villa in Arcetri, a mile or so out of the
Here was a convent, and in it his two daughters were nuns. One of them,
who passed under the name of Sister Maria Celeste, seems to have been a woman
of considerable capacity - certainly she was of a most affectionate
disposition - and loved and honored her father in the most dutiful way.
This was a quiet period of his life, spoiled only by occasional fits of
illness and severe rheumatic pains, to which the old man was always liable.
Many little circumstances are known of this peaceful time. For instance, the
convent clock won't go, and Galileo mends it for them. He is always doing
little things for them, and sending presents to the lady superior and his two
He was occupied now with problems in hydrostatics and on other matters
unconnected with astronomy: a large piece of work which I must pass over. Most
interesting and acute it is, however.
In 1623, when the old Pope died, there was elected to the papal throne,
as Urban VIII, Cardinal Barberino, a man of very considerable enlightenment,
and a personal friend of Galileo's, so that both he and his daughters rejoice
greatly, and hope that things will come all right, and the forbidding edict be
The year after this election he manages to make another journey to Rome
to compliment his friend on his elevation to the pontifical chair. He had
many talks with Urban, and made himself very agreeable.
Encouraged, doubtless, by marks of approbation, and reposing too much
confidence in the individual good-will of the Pope, without heeding the crowd
of half-declared enemies who were seeking to undermine his reputation, he set
about, after his return to Florence, his greatest literary and most popular
work, Dialogues on the Ptolemaic and Copernican Systems. This purports to be
a series of four conversations between three characters. Salviati, a
Copernican philosopher; Sagredo, a wit and scholar, not specially learned, but
keen and critical, and who lightens the talk with chaff; Simplicio, an
Aristotelian philosopher, who propounds the stock absurdities which served
instead of arguments to the majority of men.
The Aristotelians were furious, and represented to the Pope that he
himself was the character intended by Simplicio, the philosopher whose
opinions get alternately refuted and ridiculed by the other two, till he is
reduced to an abject state of impotence.
The infirm old man was instantly summoned to Rome. His friends pleaded
his age - he was now seventy - his ill-health, the time of year, the state of
the roads, the quarantine existing on account of the plague. It was all of no
avail; to Rome he must go, and on February 14th he arrived.
His daughter at Arcetri was in despair; and anxiety and fastings and
penances self-inflicted on his account dangerously reduced her health.
At Rome he was not imprisoned, but he was told to keep indoors and show
himself as little as possible. He was allowed, however, to stay at the house
of the Tuscan ambassador instead of in jail.
By April he was removed to the chambers of the Inquisition and examined
several times. Here, however, the anxiety was too much, and his health began
to give way seriously; so, before long, he was allowed to return to the
ambassador's house; and, after application had been made, was allowed to drive
in the public garden in a half-closed carriage. Thus in every way the
Inquisition dealt with him as leniently as they could. He was now their
prisoner, and they might have cast him into their dungeons, as many another
had been cast. By whatever they were influenced - perhaps the Pope's old
friendship, perhaps his advanced age and infirmities - he was not so cruelly
Still, they had their rules; he must be made to recant and abjure his
heresy; and, if necessary, torture must be applied. This he knew well enough,
and his daughter knew it, and her distress may be imagined. Moreover, it is
not as if they had really been heretics, as if they hated or despised the
Church of Rome. On the contrary, they loved and honored the Church. They
were sincere and devout worshippers, and only on a few scientific matters did
Galileo presume to differ from his ecclesiastical superiors: his disagreement
with them occasioned him real sorrow; and his dearest hope was that they could
be brought to his way of thinking and embrace the truth.
This condition of things could not go on. From February to June the
suspense lasted. On June 20th he was summoned again, and told he would be
wanted all next day for a rigorous examination. Early in the morning of the
21st he repaired thither, and the doors were shut. Out of those chambers of
horror he did not reappear till the 24th. What went on all those three days
no one knows. He himself was bound to secrecy. No outsider was present. The
records of the Inquisition are jealously guarded. That he was technically
tortured is certain; that he actually underwent the torment of the rack is
doubtful. Much learning has been expended upon the question, especially in
Germany. Several eminent scholars have held the fact of actual torture to be
indisputable - geometrically certain, one says - and they confirm it by the
hernia from which he afterward suffered, this being a well-known and frequent
Other equally learned commentators, however, deny that the last stage was
reached. For there are five stages all laid down in the rules of the
Inquisition, and steadily adhered to in a rigorous examination, at each stage
an opportunity being given for recantation, every utterance, groan, or sigh
being strictly recorded. The recantation so given has to be confirmed a day
or two later, under pain of a precisely similar ordeal.
The five stages are: (1) The official threat in the court; (2) the taking
to the door of the torture-chamber and renewing the official threat; (3) the
taking inside and showing the instruments; (4) undressing and binding upon the
rack; (5) territio realis. Through how many of these ghastly acts Galileo
passed I do not know. I hope and believe not the last.
There are those who lament that he did not hold out, and accept the crown
of martyrdom thus offered to him. Had he done so we know his fate - a few
years' languishing in the dungeons, and then the flames. Whatever he ought to
have done, he did not hold out - he gave way. At one stage or another of the
dread ordeal he said: "I am in your hands. I will say whatever you wish."
Then was he removed to a cell while his special form of perjury was drawn up.
The next day, clothed as a penitent, the venerable old man was taken to
the convent of Minerva, where the cardinals and prelates were assembled for
the purpose of passing judgment upon him.
The judgment sentences him: (1) To the abjuration, (2) to formal
imprisonment for life, (3) to recite the seven penitential psalms every week.
Ten cardinals were present; but, to their honor, be it said, three
refused to sign; and this blasphemous record of intolerance and bigoted folly
goes down the ages with the names of seven cardinals immortalized upon it.
This having been read, he next had to read word for word the abjuration which
had been drawn up for him, and then sign it.
The Abjuration Of Galileo
"I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei, of Florence, aged
seventy years, being brought personally to judgment, and kneeling before your
Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lords Cardinals, General Inquisitors of the
universal Christian republic against heretical depravity, having before my
eyes the Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands, swear that I have
always believed, and now believe, and with the help of God will in future
believe, every article which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome
holds, teaches, and preaches. But because I have been enjoined by this Holy
Office altogether to abandon the false opinion which maintains that the sun is
the centre and immovable, and forbidden to hold, defend, or teach the said
false doctrine in any manner, and after it hath been signified to me that the
said doctrine is repugnant with the Holy Scripture, I have written and printed
a book, in which I treat of the same doctrine now condemned, and adduce
reasons with great force in support of the same, without giving any solution,
and therefore have been judged grievously suspected of heresy; that is to say,
that I held and believed that the sun is the centre of the universe and is
immovable, and that the earth is not the centre and is movable; willing,
therefore, to remove from the minds of your Eminences, and of every Catholic
Christian, this vehement suspicion rightfully entertained toward me, with a
sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse, and detest the said errors
and heresies, and generally every other error and sect contrary to Holy
Church; and I swear that I will never more in future say or assert anything
verbally, or in writing, which may give rise to a similar suspicion of me; but
if I shall know any heretic, or anyone suspected of heresy, that I will
denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor or Ordinary of the
place where I may be; I swear, moreover, and promise, that I will fulfil and
observe fully, all the penances which have been or shall be laid on me by this
Holy Office. But if it shall happen that I violate any of my said promises,
oaths, and protestations (which God avert!), I subject myself to all the pains
and punishments which have been decreed and promulgated by the sacred canons,
and other general and particular constitutions, against delinquents of this
description. So may God help me, and his Holy Gospels which I touch with my
own hands. I, the above-named Galileo Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised,
and bound myself as above, and in witness thereof with my own hand have
subscribed this present writing of my abjuration, which I have recited word
for word. At Rome, in the Convent of Minerva, June 22, 1633. I, Galileo
Galilei, have abjured as above with my own hand."
Those who believe the story about his muttering to a friend, as he rose
from his knees, "E pur si muove" ("And yet it does move"), do not realize the
There was no friend in the place. It would have been fatally dangerous
to mutter anything before such an assemblage. He was by this time an utterly
broken and disgraced old man; wishful, of all things, to get away and hide
himself and his miseries from the public gaze; probably with his senses
deadened and stupefied by the mental sufferings he had undergone, and no
longer able to think or care about anything - except perhaps his daughter -
certainly not about any motion of this wretched earth.
Far and wide the news of the recantation spread. Copies of the
abjuration were immediately sent to all universities, with instructions to the
professors to read it publicly. At Florence, his home, it was read out in the
cathedral church, all his friends and adherents being specially summoned to
For a short time more he was imprisoned in Rome, but at length was
permitted to depart, nevermore of his own will to return.
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