Intolerance and prejudice is, moreover, not confined to religious organizations. The same spirit that burned Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno for the heresies of science, led the atheist “liberal” mob of Paris to send to the scaffold the great chemist Lavoisier, with the sneer that “the republic has no need of savants.” The same spirit that leads the orthodox Gladstone to reject natural selection because it “relieves God of the labor of creation,” causes the heterodox Haeckel to condemn Weismann’s theories of heredity, not because they are at variance with facts, but because such questions are settled once for all by the great philosophic dictum (his own) “of monism.”

This very natural ultra-conservative mood of scientists is well illustrated by a passage from Galileo’s life, in which he himself describes in a letter to Kepler, the great mathematician and astronomer of his time, the reception that his new invention, the telescope, met with from distinguished men of science, their colleagues of the moment. The Italian astronomer encountered the well-known tendency of men to reason from what they already know, that certain advances in knowledge are impossible or absurd. The favorite expression is that the thoughts suggested by some new discovery are illogical. Men have always reasoned thus, and apparently they always will. Knowledge that they learn before they are forty constitutes, consciously or unconsciously, for them the possible sum of human knowledge, and they can only think that apparent progress that contradicts their previous convictions must be founded on false premises or faulty observation. We cannot help sympathizing with Galileo, though it must be a consolation for others who are struggling to have ideas of theirs adopted, to read the words addressed to his great contemporary and sympathetic fellow worker by the Italian astronomer.

“What wilt thou say,” he writes, “of the first teachers at the University at Padua, who when I offered to them the opportunity, would look neither at the planets nor the moon through the telescope? This sort of men look on philosophy as a book like the AEneid or Odyssey, and believe the truth is to be sought not in the world of nature, but only in comparison of texts. How wouldst thou have laughed, when at Pisa the leading Professor of the University there endeavored, in the presence of the Grand Duke, to tear away the new planets from Heaven with logical arguments, like magical exorcisms!”

This gives the key to the real explanation of the Galileo incident better than would a whole volume of explanation of it. It is now realized that very few of those who have been most ready to quote the example of Galileo’s condemnation as an argument for Church intolerance in the matter of science, know anything at all about the details of his case. The bitter intolerance of many men of science of his time, including even that supposed apostle of the experimental method–Bacon–to the Copernican system, is an important but ignored phase of the case of Galileo, as it came before the Roman inquisition. The peculiar position occupied by Galileo caused Prof. Huxley, writing to Prof. St. George Mivart, November 12th, 1885, to say that, after looking into the case of Galileo when he was in Italy, he had arrived at the conclusion “that the Pope and the College of Cardinals had rather the best of it.” In our own time, M. Bertrand, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, declared that “the great lesson for those who would wish to oppose reason with violence was clearly to be read in Galileo’s story, and the scandal of his condemnation was learned without any profound sorrow to Galileo himself; and his long life, considered as a whole, must be looked upon as the most serene and enviable in the history of science.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)


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