Thursday, November 2, 2023

Brecht on Galileo on science

Bertolt Brecht composed his play Life of Galileo (1939) (link) while on the run in Denmark from Nazi Germany in 1938. Brecht was a determined anti-Nazi, and he was an advocate of revolutionary Marxism. It is fascinating to read one of the longest speeches he composed for Galileo at the end of the play, in which Galileo reflects on his recantation of the heliocentric theory of planetary motion. Rather than celebrating "pure science" over the oppression of the Church, Brecht has Galileo reflect bitterly on the corruption of science and its subservience to the powerful. This speech occurs in scene 14, near the end of the play. Galileo's disciple Andrea Sarti is interested in showing that Galileo's recantation was a wily move, allowing him to pursue the higher truths of science. And he is delighted to learn that Galileo has been secretly writing his Discorsi (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences), which demonstrates to him that Galileo continues to pursue the highest values of science. Galileo disagrees, and offers a harsh criticism of the role of science in society altogether. The whole scene is worth reading carefully, but here is an important excerpt.

A large room with table, leather chair and globe. Galileo, old now and half blind, is carefully experimenting with a bent wooden rail and a small ball of wood. In the antechamber sits a monk on guard. There is a knock on the door. The monk opens it and a peasant comes in carrying two plucked geese. Virginia emerges from the kitchen. She is now about forty years old.


Andrea: You gained the leisure to write a scientific work which could be written by nobody else. If you had ended up at the stake in a halo of flames the other side would have won.

Galileo: They did win. And there is no scientific work that can only be written by one particular man.

Andrea: Why did you recant, then?

Galileo: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.

Andrea: No!

Galileo: They showed me the instruments.

Andrea: So it wasn't planned?

Galileo: It was not.


Andrea loudly: Science makes only one demand: contribution to science.

Galileo: And I met it. Welcome to the gutter, brother in science and cousin in betrayal! Do you eat fish? I have fish. [a] What stinks is not my fish but me. I sell out, you are a buyer. O irresistible glimpse of the book, the sacred commodity! The mouth waters and the curses drown. The great whore of Bablylon, the murderous beast, the scarlet woman, opens her thighs and everything is altered. Blessed be our horse-trading, whitewashing, death-fearing community!

Andrea: Fearing death is human. Human weaknesses don't matter to science.

Galileo: Don't they? -- My dear Sarti, even as I now am I think I can still give you a tip or two as to what matters to that science you have dedicated yourself to.

A short pause

Galileo professorially, folding his hands over his stomach:

In my spare time, of which I have plenty, I have gone over my case and considered how it is going to be judged by that world of science of which I no longer count myself a member. Even a wool merchant has not only to buy cheap and sell dear but also to ensure that the wool trade continues unimpeded. The pursuit of science seems to me to demand particular courage in this respect. It deals in knowledge procured through doubt. Creating knowledge for all about all, it aims to turn all of us into doubters. [b] Now the bulk of the population is kept by its princes, landlords, and priests in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws which cloak what these people are up to. The poverty of the many is as old as the hills, and from pulpit and lecture platform we hear that it is as hard as the hills to get rid of. Our new art of doubting delighted the mass audience. They tore the telescope out of our hands and trained it on their tormentors, the princes, landlords and priests. [c] These selfish and domineering men, having greedily exploited the fruits of science, found that the cold eye of science had been turned on a primaeval but contrived poverty that could clearly be swept away if they were swept away themselves. They showered us with threats and bribes, irresistible to feeble souls. But can we deny ourselves to the crowd and still remain scientists? [d] The movements of the heavenly bodies have become more comprehensible, but the peoples are as far as ever from calculating the moves of their rulers. The battle for a measurable heaven has been won thanks to doubt; but thanks to credulity the Rome housewife's battle for milk will be lost time and time again. Science, Sarti, is involved in both these battles. [e] A human race which shambles around in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws, too ignorant to develop its own powers, will never be able to develop those powers of nature which you people are revealing to it. To what end are you working? Presumably for the principle that science's sole aim must be to lighten the burden of human existence. [f] If the scientists, brought to heel by self-interested rulers, limit themselves to piling up knowledge for knowledge's sake, then science can be crippled and your new machines will lead to nothing but new impositions. You may in due course discover all that there is to discover, and your progress will nonetheless be nothing but a progress away from mankind. The gap between you and it may one day become so wide that your cry of triumph at some new achievement will be echoed by a universal cry of horror. -- As a scientist I had a unique opportunity. [g] In my day astronomy emerged into the market place. Given this unique situation, if one man had put up a fight it might have had tremendous repercussions. Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctor's Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind's benefit. [h] As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose. What's more, Sarti, I have come to the conclusion that I was never in any real danger. For a few years I was as strong as the authorities. And I handed my knowledge to those in power for them to use, fail to use, misuse -- whatever best suited their objectives.

Virginia has entered with a dish and come to a standstill.

Galileo: I betrayed my profession. A man who does what I did cannot be tolerated in the ranks of science.


What are the messages here about the relationship between science and society, between science and class? The view is unequivocal: science has been corrupted. Against the idealism offered by Sardi, Galileo asserts that science has come to serve the interests of the powerful, and it might have been different. Galileo's long speech here (plainly expressing Brecht's own social criticisms) offers a harsh and negative assessment of the role of science in society. And much of this speech derives, not from an unexpectedly radical sixteenth-century mathematician, but from the Marxist theories that Brecht had studied in the early 1930s.

[a] Galileo begins this diatribe with self-contempt. He looks at his work as a scientist as "selling out" -- offering the products of his intelligence and creativity for sale to the highest bidder. Science has been commodified, like the woolen-good trade. Galileo stinks like a rotten fish.

[b] Society is divided into rich and poor, powerful and powerless; and the rich and powerful dominate and exploit the poor and powerless. This fundamental reality is obscured by the "fog" of myth and misconception, or what Marx refers to as ideology. "Good" science can tear through the mystifications of popular beliefs and myths; but all too often the scientists refrain from providing the tools needed (the microscopes and telescopes) to penetrate the mists of common misconception about the social world.

[c] Science could have been a revolutionary force; it could have helped to "sweep away" the mystifications of the rich and powerful. Instead, the rich and powerful have bought and intimidated the scientists. The poor Roman housewife's quest for milk will be permanently difficult because the Roman proletariat has failed to see the necessity of sweeping away the class oppression of patrician and plebian social life.

[d] The point here is that Galileo has allowed human beings to see the real motions of the planets, but they still have not discovered the "laws of motion" of the social world. They continue to live in a world of illusions about how the social world works (like the Aristotelian or Ptolemaic conceptions of the planetary system). From Marx's Capital, Preface to the German Edition: "Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future."

[e] When ideology and mystification are allowed to persist, exploitation, domination, and poverty will persist as well.

[f] Science is distorted when it is put to service in the interests of the powerful. It no longer serves to benefit humanity, but rather only the landlords and the priests. And without science, ideology and mystification will continue to mislead the poor.

[g] Galileo seems to believe that the struggles with the Church over the Copernican Revolution during the Inquisition represented turning points for human emancipation, and there was a choice. Science could have become a permanent force for progress, or it could become a tool of enrichment for the powerful. Because scientists (including Galileo) lacked the courage to stand up, science became a tool of exploitation. The chance to orient science towards its own "Hippocratic oath" of allegiance to progress to humanity was lost.

[h] Here Galileo (Brecht) is contemptuous of scientists and inventors who do their work for commercial and monetary gain -- the smart people who put their imagination and intelligence to work for the highest bidder. And almost always the highest bidder is the exploiter -- the capitalist and the landlord who uses the products of science to enhance his wealth.

In this section of the play, then, Brecht breaks with a common narrative about the Galileo story: the pure and rational scientist who is forced to change his beliefs by an unthinking and authoritarian Church. In that story the scientist is the isolated individual courageously pursuing the truth for its own sake, and the Church is an authoritarian structure which is the antithesis of intellectual freedom. Instead, Brecht tells a more complicated story. It is not just the question of recanting "unacceptable" beliefs; it is the question of devoting one's scientific talents in service to the rich and powerful. Galileo's [Brecht's] fundamental critique is that "science" is allied with "the ruling class".