Rivka Fendlay, Galileo and the Church

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Book Review

Rivka Fendlay, Galileo and the Church

Doug McCune


History 213

Prof. Paula Findlen

The popularized historical tale of the battle of the modern, revolutionary Galileo Galilei against the conservative, out-dated Catholic Church has dominated the discussion of the history of Galileo and is often seen as such a polarized struggle of right versus wrong and good versus evil that a complete and unbiased history of the events leading up to Galileo’s trial is often sacrificed to accommodate this romanticized myth, according to Rivka Fendlay, author of Galileo and the Church. It is this myth that has completely dominated the historiography to such an extent that it seems nearly impossible for historiographers to break out the li mitations that this incomplete interpretation firmly places on an effective analysis of the historical evidence. In her book, Fendlay attempts to confront this myth head on and tear it apart, exposing the reader to a fresh analysis of the pertinent documents and historical facts of the situation. Galileo and the Church begins with an explanation of the modern fantasy that so many analyses of Galileo’s trial have supported. The author then goes on the propose a unique approach to the study of Galileo that intends to delve deeper into the history of the time period and exposes a more complicated scenario that involves debate and conflict between two sides of the Catholic Church, the Dominicans and the Jesuits, and Galileo. In so doing, the author delves into the approach to knowledge, education, and scientific understanding held by the factions of the Church. It is through this approach that a more complete understanding of the position and actions of the Church, as well as the actions of Galileo, are illuminated.

To begin the reevaluation, Fendlay explains the myth of good versus evil that plagues the interpretations of the trial. The trial is described as a “clash,” “warfare,” “conflict,” and “binary opposition”1 throughout much of the modern literature. As Fendlay explains, “the ‘clash’ is an organizing concept, the basis for a narrative structure that has become a much too forceful explanatory model in the hands of traditional historiography”.2 This book is an attempt to overcome this powerful model in “an attempt to free the historical narration of the Galilean affair from the myth”.3 To do so, the author restructures the conflict between Galileo and the Church as a debate not between one man and a powerful institution, but instead between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, with Galileo as a third party engaged in this debate.

Instead of espousing the view that the Catholic Church was irrational in its decisions, Fendlay argues that there were many conflicts within the Church that caused internal debate and opposition. As the author points out, “there was no agreed position of the church on the Copernican question: rather, there was a variety of voices speaking from different positions on behalf of different people, groups, and institutions”.4 This approach forces a closer reading of the documents relating to the history of the debate as well as a closer look at the individuals involved and their positions within the Church and the growing debate over astronomy, and all forms of science, as a means of knowing.

The only way to effectively discuss the Dominican and Jesuit approaches to knowledge that influence the debate over Galileo’s work is to examine the history of the educational approaches both sides took to learning leading up to the trial. Fendlay’s approach to this topic goes into such detail that by the time Galileo is brought into the picture it is clear that he is not entering into a binary conflict, but is instead entering into a deeply complicated debate that has been posing a great threat to the Catholic Church for some time.

To begin this analysis, Fendlay examines the Dominican approach to education during the period. Through a close examination of Dominican writings it is made clear that the educational system was based on a strict reading of Thomas Aquinas, leaving little to no leeway for alternate opinions.5 During the late sixteenth century the Dominicans saw education as a necessity to ensure the health of the Church. Heresy was sought out with a vengeance in a process of “cleansing the ranks”6. The educational system in general relied on the theological teachings of Thomism and made little room for any additions or innovation.7

This strict view of education is contrasted with the Jesuit approach during the same time, which was also based on the natural philosophy of Thomism8 but also addressed the issue of mathematics as it related to more conventional aspects of education. While there were clearly those in the Society of Jesus who did not believe in the teaching of mathematics in any form, since mathematics was considered the study of abstract entities and therefore was not considered a valid science9, there were also members such as Josephus Blancanus who attempted to bridge the gap between mathematics and natural philosophy by asserting that mathematics could in fact lead to a true understanding of worldly objects.10 By exposing these varying opinions within the Jesuit order, Fendlay paints a more complicated picture of the Jesuits that cannot simply be thrown into the category of old fashioned religious irrationality concerning mathematics.

After the detailed examination of the Dominican and Jesuit approaches to education and knowledge, which made little room for mathematical knowledge (as we have seen this position was not universally accepted, at least in the Jesuit educational system), Fendlay introduces Galileo into the scenario and explains the reasons for tension between the three parties. The author makes it clear, however, that Galileo was not a lone soldier fighting against the overbearing institution of the Catholic Church. “It was not the tale of a hero who grew out of a tradition, rebelled against it, and was then silenced by authority.”11 It was instead the story of Galileo debating with members of the Church about the validity of his “new science”12 and attempting to restructure the way science and knowledge were viewed and accepted as truths.

To illustrate this debate more clearly, Fendlay relies on the story of Galileo’s observations and explanations of sunspots, which are contrasted with a Jesuit philosopher’s own observations and approach to the phenomenon. Christopher Scheiner also observed the sunspots and made many of the same observations as Galileo, but did so within the acceptable limits of Jesuit thinking.13 Galileo went further however, when he asserted that the science of mathematics, with which he made conclusions about the sunspots, was a legitimate form of philosophical enquiry that could lead to concrete understanding of the physical world, holding mathematics up to, and often above, the same level as natural philosophy. Galileo did not treat mathematics as a lower form of science than philosophy, but instead elevated it as the highest form. It was this act that crossed the boundaries of accepted scientific thought.14 Galileo erased the distinction between mathematicians and natural philosophers and in doing so attacked the traditions that the Catholic Church held so dear. He attacked Scheiner and all mathematicians by saying that he did not know of any mathematicians who “have ever discussed the hardness and immutability of the sun, or even that mathematical science is adequate for proving such properties.”15 This was the revolutionary move that alienated Galileo from Scheiner and the rest of the traditional philosophers. Fendlay shows an arrogant Galileo alienating himself from all other philosophers and holding his ideas of the validity of mathematics above all others’. This attitude and belief system, coupled with the internal conflict about mathematics within the Church, led to the eventual fall of Galileo.

This approach to the study of Galileo, as opposed to the traditional “binary opposition” approach, more clearly explains the debate in terms of the historical situation and interested parties. Fendlay accomplishes the goals clearly set in the beginning of the work by thoroughly examining the history of the trial of Galileo through a fresh reading of the pertinent historical documents. In so doing, the story becomes a more complicated and interwoven system of conflicting interests and competing views of the structure of knowledge. The background information about the Jesuit and Dominican educational systems is essential for a complete understanding of the entire history, and Fendlay brings out the important yet often overlooked pieces of historical evidence that lead to this new approach.

1 R. Fendlay, Galileo and the Church, (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995), pp. 4-5.

2 Fendlay, p. 5.

3 Fendlay, p. 13.

4 Fendlay, p. 38.

5 Fendlay, p. 93.

6 Fendlay, p. 103.

7 Fendlay, p. 105.

8 Fendlay, p. 163.

9 Fendlay, p. 164.

10 Fendlay, p. 166.

11 Fendlay p. 248.

12 Fendlay, p. 249.

13 Fendlay, pp. 257-259.

14 Fendlay, p. 276.

15 Fendlay, p. 276.

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