The Trial of Galileo, Essential Documents, translated and edited by Maurice A. Finocchiaro – Book Review

Lincoln Green

Image © Steve Jurveston

It was Raymond Williams who wrote that “only the line of a life, hardly anything of its area, can be articulated and reduced to grammar”.  Finocchiaro’s book offers the reader the opportunity to move away from a simple linear view of the historical events of Galileo’s trial, a view frequently misinformed by myth and prejudice, to one which is informed by an awareness of the multidimensional interplay of early 17th century personalities, politics and perspectives.

Finocchiaro, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, is the author of a substantial number of books, chapters, journal articles and conference papers on the “Galileo Affair”.  This short book is an excellent introduction for the general reader to the complex issues which surround Galileo’s work and subsequent trial.

A popular view of Galileo is that he was accused of heresy by the Inquisition for contradicting Scripture by writing that the earth moved around the sun.  He was subsequently imprisoned, threatened with torture and forced to declare that these views were wrong.  The rift between science and religion was thus exacerbated.  Finocchiaro’s book includes translations of key documents, primary source material from that time, and allows the reader to appreciate the intricacies of the affair and to reach a more enlightened judgement about what actually happened.

Finocchiaro’s short book includes key texts which are elaborated in his more extensive studies such as Retrying Galileo: 1633 – 1992 (2005) and The Galileo Affair:  A Documentary History (1989).  An excellent and substantial introduction to the book outlines relevant historical events and supports the reader who wishes to make sense of the texts and their significance.  He also includes a glossary which describes technical terms and key personalities of the day.  Personal names often varied as individuals gained religious ranks, titles or indeed nicknames, so the glossary proves essential.

The introduction is also useful as a guide to the implications of the documents.  Here Finocchiaro is a much less intrusive authorial voice than Koestler for example, whose The Sleepwalkers (1959) provides a more opinionated commentary on the source material.   Finocchiaro guides the reader through the primary sources from which the reader is then able to formulate their own opinions.  The book gives the reader a real sense of engagement with minds formed in the 17th century and their accommodation of, or inability to make a paradigm shift.

Mezirow has described personal paradigms as those theories, beliefs, orientations and schemata which form the criteria against which one judges what is right or wrong, true or false, and appropriate or inappropriate.  The difficulties of first recognising the existence of a paradigmatic assumption (as explained by Brookfield for example) and then rejecting or reconstructing one’s framework of perceptual references is consequently not to be underestimated.

Galileo sought nothing less than to create such a shift in his society’s world view.  The evidence of his practical investigations such as the observations of the phases of Venus and the orbiting of four of Jupiter’s moons along with his brilliantly argued writing attempted to show that, against common sense experience  and scriptural interpretation, the Copernican view of astronomy, that the earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun, was correct.

Finocchiaro analyses the difficulties which Galileo’s contemporaries had in accepting such evidence.  The multi-dimensional perspective of his introduction removes what may be the reader’s own presumptions about the affair by discussing what science and religion and their relationship actually meant in the 17th century.  He also explains how the notion of law at the time was rather different from its current conception, and how it varied between the Italian regions and city states of the time.  What was lawful in Venice may have been illegal in Florence, in Rome or in Tuscany.

The author also considers the scientific issues involved, explaining that these were rather more complex than the simple issue of the motion of the earth.  In a society where observational instruments were a novelty and lacked present day precision, the direct unaided evidence of one’s own senses was popularly assumed be the only indicator of true knowledge.  The principle of “correctness” is analysed further.  Something may be correct as a hypothesis which offers predictive value despite being factually incorrect.  Equally a principle may be correct but the arguments which support that principle may be flawed.  Truths correct in various forms were apparent in the writings and discussions of the time.

Turning from such epistemological issues, Finocchiaro then discusses theological considerations of the time.  A most lucidly written private letter from Galileo outlines his views against the literal interpretation of Scripture: “I do not think one has to believe that the same God who has given us senses, language and intellect would want us to set aside the use of these.”   The Vatican Observatory, which originated in a 1582 committee assembled by Pope Gregory XIII to study the scientific data and implications behind reform of the calendar, notes how Galileo anticipated what the Catholic Church currently teaches about biblical interpretation.

Aspects of Galileo’s personality are also strongly apparent in the documents and Finocchiaro discusses these.  Galileo’s eloquence, linked perhaps with his lack of tact and diplomacy developed animosity and enemies.  He needed to earn a living as “philosopher and mathematician” and was particularly disputatious in matters connected with plagiarism, with priority of discovery and with accurate interpretation of natural phenomena.

Allied with such personal considerations the political climate produced a volatile situation for Galileo.  The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) had responded to the Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation of 1517 and the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) was in progress.  Issues of authority were pertinent, hence Pope Urban VIII’s potential insecurity and Galileo’s loss of his support in a display of papal sovereignty.  Dissent between Dominicans and Jesuits, two religious orders with overtly intellectual and scientific leanings, also drew Galileo into its orbit.

Finocchiaro’s short summary of Galileo’s trial and the surrounding circumstances gives the reader a brilliant perspective on the many dimensions of the affair.  It is also a reminder to explore our own paradigmatic assumptions, to avoid oversimplification and to accept the complexity of circumstances.  The tendency of much present day politics is perhaps to articulate a linear narrative of supposed “truths” which encourage and pander to popular bias.  The book is an exemplar of how to analyse and regard events with an “innocent” mind, free from preconceptions and capable of the creative thinking which is required to improve social well-being and development.  Galileo died on 8th January 1642 and his anniversary should perhaps remind us of this.

Finocchiaro, M. A., The Trial of Galileo, Essential Documents, (2014), ISBN 978-1-62466-132-7, pp.160, £10.00.  Available from all good booksellers or direct from Gazelle on 01524 68765, email


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