History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom

Author: Andrew Dickson White

V. Results of the Victory Over Galileo.

We return now to the sequel of the Galileo case.

Having gained their victory over Galileo, living and dead, having used it to scare into submission the professors of astronomy throughout Europe, conscientious churchmen exulted. Loud was their rejoicing that the "heresy," the "infidelity" the "atheism" involved in believing that the earth revolves about its axis and moves around the sun had been crushed by the great tribunal of the Church, acting in strict obedience to the expressed will of one Pope and the written order of another. As we have seen, all books teaching this hated belief were put upon the Index of books forbidden to Christians, and that Index was prefaced by a bull enforcing this condemnation upon the consciences of the faithful throughout the world, and signed by the reigning Pope.

The losses to the world during this complete triumph of theology were even more serious than at first appears: one must especially be mentioned. There was then in Europe one of the greatest thinkers ever given to mankind—Rene Descartes. Mistaken though many of his reasonings were, they bore a rich fruitage of truth. He had already done a vast work. His theory of vortices—assuming a uniform material regulated by physical laws—as the beginning of the visible universe, though it was but a provisional hypothesis, had ended the whole old theory of the heavens with the vaulted firmament and the direction of the planetary movements by angels, which even Kepler had allowed. The scientific warriors had stirred new life in him, and he was working over and summing up in his mighty mind all the researches of his time. The result would have made an epoch in history. His aim was to combine all knowledge and thought into a Treatise on the World, and in view of this he gave eleven years to the study of anatomy alone. But the fate of Galileo robbed him of all hope, of all courage; the battle seemed lost; he gave up his great plan forever.[72]

[72] For Descartes’s discouragement, see Humboldt, Cosmos, London, 1851, vol iii, p. 21; also Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, English translation, vol. i, pp. 248, 249, where the letters of Descartes are given, showing his despair, and the relinquishment of his best thoughts and works in order to preserve peace with the Church; also Saisset, Descartes et ses Precurseurs, pp. 100 et seq.; also Jolly, Histoire du Mouvement intellectuel au XVI Siecle, vol. i, p. 390.

But ere long it was seen that this triumph of the Church was in reality a prodigious defeat. From all sides came proofs that Copernicus and Galileo were right; and although Pope Urban and the inquisition held Galileo in strict seclusion, forbidding him even to SPEAK regarding the double motion of the earth; and although this condemnation of "all books which affirm the motion of the earth" was kept on the Index; and although the papal bull still bound the Index and the condemnations in it on the consciences of the faithful; and although colleges and universities under Church control were compelled to teach the old doctrine—it was seen by clear-sighted men everywhere that this victory of the Church was a disaster to the victors.

New champions pressed on. Campanella, full of vagaries as he was, wrote his Apology for Galileo, though for that and other heresies, religious, and political, he seven times underwent torture.

And Kepler comes: he leads science on to greater victories. Copernicus, great as he was, could not disentangle scientific reasoning entirely from the theological bias: the doctrines of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as to the necessary superiority of the circle had vitiated the minor features of his system, and left breaches in it through which the enemy was not slow to enter; but Kepler sees these errors, and by wonderful genius and vigour he gives to the world the three laws which bear his name, and this fortress of science is complete. He thinks and speaks as one inspired. His battle is severe. He is solemnly warned by the Protestant Consistory of Stuttgart "not to throw Christ’s kingdom into confusion with his silly fancies," and as solemnly ordered to "bring his theory of the world into harmony with Scripture": he is sometimes abused, sometimes ridiculed, sometimes imprisoned. Protestants in Styria and Wurtemberg, Catholics in Austria and Bohemia, press upon him but Newton, Halley, Bradley, and other great astronomers follow, and to science remains the victory.[73]

[73] For Campanella, see Amabile, Fra Tommaso Campanella, Naples, 1882, especially vol. iii; also Libri, vol. iv, pp. 149 et seq. Fromundus, speaking of Kepler’s explanation, says, "Vix teneo ebullientem risum." This is almost equal to the New York Church Journal, speaking of John Stuart Mill as "that small sciolist," and of the preface to Dr. Draper’s great work as "chippering." How a journal, generally so fair in its treatment of such subjects, can condescend to such weapons is one of the wonders of modern journalism. For the persecution of Kepler, see Heller, Geschichte der Physik, vol. i, pp. 281 et seq; also Reuschle, Kepler und die Astronomie, Frankfurt a. M., 1871, pp. 87 et seq. There is a poetic justice in the fact that these two last-named books come from Wurtemberg professors. See also The New-Englander for March, 1884, p. 178.

Yet this did not end the war. During the seventeenth century, in France, after all the splendid proofs added by Kepler, no one dared openly teach the Copernican theory, and Cassini, the great astronomer, never declared for it. In 1672 the Jesuit Father Riccioli declared that there were precisely forty-nine arguments for the Copernican theory and seventy-seven against it. Even after the beginning of the eighteenth century—long after the demonstrations of Sir Isaac Newton—Bossuet, the great Bishop of Meaux, the foremost theologian that France has ever produced, declared it contrary to Scripture.

Nor did matters seem to improve rapidly during that century. In England, John Hutchinson, as we have seen, published in 1724 his Moses’ Principia maintaining that the Hebrew Scriptures are a perfect system of natural philosophy, and are opposed to the Newtonian system of gravitation; and, as we have also seen, he was followed by a long list of noted men in the Church. In France, two eminent mathematicians published in 1748 an edition of Newton’s Principia; but, in order to avert ecclesiastical censure, they felt obliged to prefix to it a statement absolutely false. Three years later, Boscovich, the great mathematician of the Jesuits, used these words: "As for me, full of respect for the Holy Scriptures and the decree of the Holy Inquisition, I regard the earth as immovable; nevertheless, for simplicity in explanation I will argue as if the earth moves; for it is proved that of the two hypotheses the appearances favour this idea."

In Germany, especially in the Protestant part of it, the war was even more bitter, and it lasted through the first half of the eighteenth century. Eminent Lutheran doctors of divinity flooded the country with treatises to prove that the Copernican theory could not be reconciled with Scripture. In the theological seminaries and in many of the universities where clerical influence was strong they seemed to sweep all before them; and yet at the middle of the century we find some of the clearest-headed of them aware of the fact that their cause was lost.[74]

[74] For Cassini’s position, see Henri Martin, Histoire de France, vol. xiii, p. 175. For Riccioli, see Daunou, Etudes Historiques, vol. ii, p. 439. For Boussuet, see Bertrand, p. 41. For Hutchinson, see Lyell, Principles of Geology, p. 48. For Wesley, see his work, already cited. As to Boscovich, his declaration, mentioned in the text, was in 1746, but in 1785 he seemed to feel his position in view of history, and apologized abjectly; Bertrand, pp. 60, 61. See also Whewell’s notice of Le Sueur and Jacquier’s introduction to their edition of Newton’s Principia. For the struggle in Germany, see Zoeckler, Geschichte der Beziehungenzwischen Theologie und Naturwissenschaft, vol. ii, pp. 45 et seq.

In 1757 the most enlightened perhaps in the whole line of the popes, Benedict XIV, took up the matter, and the Congregation of the Index secretly allowed the ideas of Copernicus to be tolerated. Yet in 1765 Lalande, the great French astronomer, tried in vain at Rome to induce the authorities to remove Galileo’s works from the Index. Even at a date far within our own nineteenth century the authorities of many universities in Catholic Europe, and especially those in Spain, excluded the Newtonian system. In 1771 the greatest of them all, the University of Salamanca, being urged to teach physical science, refused, making answer as follows: "Newton teaches nothing that would make a good logician or metaphysician; and Gassendi and Descartes do not agree so well with revealed truth as Aristotle does."

Vengeance upon the dead also has continued far into our own century. On the 5th of May, 1829, a great multitude assembled at Warsaw to honour the memory of Copernicus and to unveil Thorwaldsen’s statue of him.

Copernicus had lived a pious, Christian life; he had been beloved for unostentatious Christian charity; with his religious belief no fault had ever been found; he was a canon of the Church at Frauenberg, and over his grave had been written the most touching of Christian epitaphs. Naturally, then, the people expected a religious service; all was understood to be arranged for it; the procession marched to the church and waited. The hour passed, and no priest appeared; none could be induced to appear. Copernicus, gentle, charitable, pious, one of the noblest gifts of God to religion as well as to science, was evidently still under the ban. Five years after that, his book was still standing on the Index of books prohibited to Christians.

The edition of the Index published in 1819 was as inexorable toward the works of Copernicus and Galileo as its predecessors had been; but in the year 182O came a crisis. Canon Settele, Professor of Astronomy at Rome, had written an elementary book in which the Copernican system was taken for granted. The Master of the Sacred Palace, Anfossi, as censor of the press, refused to allow the book to be printed unless Settele revised his work and treated the Copernican theory as merely a hypothesis. On this Settele appealed to Pope Pius VII, and the Pope referred the matter to the Congregation of the Holy Office. At last, on the 16th of August, 182O, it was decided that Settele might teach the Copernican system as established, and this decision was approved by the Pope. This aroused considerable discussion, but finally, on the 11th of September, 1822, the cardinals of the Holy Inquisition graciously agreed that "the printing and publication of works treating of the motion of the earth and the stability of the sun, in accordance with the general opinion of modern astronomers, is permitted at Rome." This decree was ratified by Pius VII, but it was not until thirteen years later, in 1835, that there was issued an edition of the Index from which the condemnation of works defending the double motion of the earth was left out.

This was not a moment too soon, for, as if the previous proofs had not been sufficient, each of the motions of the earth was now absolutely demonstrated anew, so as to be recognised by the ordinary observer. The parallax of fixed stars, shown by Bessel as well as other noted astronomers in 1838, clinched forever the doctrine of the revolution of the earth around the sun, and in 1851 the great experiment of Foucault with the pendulum showed to the human eye the earth in motion around its own axis. To make the matter complete, this experiment was publicly made in one of the churches at Rome by the eminent astronomer, Father Secchi, of the Jesuits, in 1852—just two hundred and twenty years after the Jesuits had done so much to secure Galileo’s condemnation.[75]

[75] For good statements of the final action of the Church in the matter, see Gebler; also Zoeckler, ii, 352. See also Bertrand, Fondateurs de l’Astronomie moderne, p. 61; Flammarion, Vie de Copernic, chap. ix. As to the time when the decree of condemnation was repealed, there have been various pious attempts to make it earlier than the reality. Artaud, p. 307, cited in an apologetic article in the Dublin Review, September, 1865, says that Galileo’s famous dialogue was published in 1714, at Padua, entire, and with the usual approbations. The same article also declares that in 1818, the ecclesiastical decrees were repealed by Pius VII in full Consistory. Whewell accepts this; but Cantu, an authority favourable to the Church, acknowledges that Copernicus’s work remained on the Index as late as 1835 (Cantu, Histoire universelle, vol. xv, p. 483); and with this Th. Martin, not less favourable to the Church, but exceedingly careful as to the facts, agrees; and the most eminent authority of all, Prof. Reusch, of Bonn, in his Der Index der vorbotenen Bucher, Bonn, 1885, vol. ii, p. 396, confirms the above statement in the text. For a clear statement of Bradley’s exquisite demonstration of the Copernican theory by reasonings upon the rapidity of light, etc., and Foucault’s exhibition of the rotation of the earth by the pendulum experiment, see Hoefer, Histoire de l’Astronomie, pp. 492 et seq. For more recent proofs of the Copernican theory, by the discoveries of Bunsen, Bischoff, Benzenberg, and others, see Jevons, Principles of Science.


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Chicago: Andrew Dickson White, "V. Results of the Victory Over Galileo.," History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, trans. Benson, Vincent in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K7DXEKYVDQX18CL.

MLA: White, Andrew Dickson. "V. Results of the Victory Over Galileo." History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, translted by Benson, Vincent, in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K7DXEKYVDQX18CL.

Harvard: White, AD, 'V. Results of the Victory Over Galileo.' in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, trans. . cited in , History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K7DXEKYVDQX18CL.