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Science, Institutions and Culture, A study based on Bertolt

Brechts play Galileo


Pulkit Tiwari (49)
1. 12. 2014

"Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than
he who believes what is wrong - Thomas Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782)
As we have learned looking back on the history of mankind, science, technology, and society has
a special association. I strongly feel that societies create science and technology and science and
technology are meant to make societies better. Science and technology, as well as the society
with its entire religious blanket underneath its core, are a part of the same special bond.
The play looks back into the crucial moment of human history, when man realizes about how
much his knowledge about the truths of the universe we exists in has been wrong throughout . In
Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht talks about the famous scientists journey in the era where
Catholic Church, refuses to accept the rationale that he puts across to prove the theories of
Copernicus and how he is influenced by a cumulative power of authority to give up on the results
he finds. The play is an entertaining literary piece put across to the reader in beautiful language
and with immense thought-provoking themes pressed on the minds of the readers at the same
time. Several meanings can be drawn out of the play and there is no singular central theme but a
cluster of important issues dealt all in a sharp narrative; as Michael Billington in his review of the
play published in The Guardian rhetorically puts it as the need to doubt, the fight for reason,
defying authorities, and science's moral obligation, where parallels can be easily drawn to today's
world. Even though Galileo might have won in the history, but similar debates take place on
different subjects even today and the struggle between reason and rigidity is still on. If I would
have to still talk over one central main idea of the play, as clearly has been spoken aloud in the
first three acts of it and one which continues to unfold right till the end of narrative is Galileo's
recantation and how it allowed science to deviate from its ideal path and lose connection with
what's supposed to be its main aim, namely to lighten the burden of human existence. His
recantation has been portrayed as the first stepping stone which eventually led to the fall of
science and the course of this great subject of human value into the hands of the rulers of the
land from there on. There are some brilliant conversations exchanged between Galileo and the
officials of the church as he presents his findings, in the fourth act of play and they compel us to
think on grounds of who holds ownership of truth. What are the legitimate ways in which we

Introduction to Science, Technology & Society Mid-Term Assignment

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are allowed to imagine? And do all our findings and challenges need to confine within the
freedom given to us by the almighty up above and those who tend to be a representative of the
same? Social aspect of this line of questioning is in coherence with Brecht's political ideology
about the position of the elites and the commoners in the social hierarchy.
Charles Spencer when writing for Telegraph feels that play does not present to readers, a central

character that is full of unreal heroism. It accused him of losing an opportunity to bring science
to common people after he led science into social battle and abandoned it, by recanting and
failing his believers. According to the editorial section of the same too, this play is the most
worked-over of all Brecht's plays. Its first version was written in German before the Second
World War and then it was re-written for the American stage emphasizing the message about the
moral responsibility of science especially after the appalling results of the war. As has been
noted down time and again in historical biographical accounts of the author we can clearly see
that Brecht was a Marxist intellectual and his plays not only reflect that but also impersonate his
Marxist leanings. This play draw inspirations from both: historical timeline of the era in Italy
which it portrays, as well as the times of the world war, and the quest of atomic energy
innovations that were created to disrupt and destroy human race in enormous ways, as it speaks a
bigger theme than just the punishment given to Galileo by the religious heads. Charles Spencer
while speaking on a social commentary over this piece said that it talks about powers, class
struggles, the role of science in society and much more. It is a book about revolutions-not just in
science but in society. F Murray Abraham also aptly puts it for the New York Times in a
published review of the masterpiece that Scientific research, in Brecht's time as in ours, tended
to be conducted for the sake of knowledge rather than for any use of meaningful contribution to
society. Worse still, in Brecht's view, scientific research is funded by State institutions and
subordinated to the ruling class in both the economy and military.
Quinton Skinners analysis of the play Minneapolis city pages artwork talks about an important
element of this play, which is the way viewer and reader understand the characters. The reader of
the text is not supposed to connect with any character, and Brecht is careful to alienate his
characters from his readers. Rather, he wants the reader to be pulled 'out of a passive and
unconscious state of mind and into a heightened condition of awareness that leads to an
alternative way of thinking.' In short, Brecht does not allow his characters to be endeared to a
reader because he wants a reader to think critically and at a distance from the world Galileo and
his companions inhabit. The characters are all reprehensible in their own way, Galileo especially.
When a reader sees Galileo saying that he 'abjure[s] what I have taught...I foreswear, detest and
curse, with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, all these errors and heresies,' they are filled with
disgust and moral outrage. This human element is important for Brecht's depiction of Galileo. He
does not want a reader to mislead by the ideal notion of the scientist. Galileo is not a soul
functioning solely on reason, driven by the ideal of Truth and willing to give anything and
everything for it. Despite his claims that he believes 'in Human Reason' wholeheartedly, Galileo
is presented as a servant to his stomach and to his body. Brecht manages this depiction with

Introduction to Science, Technology & Society Mid-Term Assignment

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excellent subtlety, a particularly malicious depiction coming in when Galileo lies about his
researches into the telescope - he found out that morning it was mass produced in a foreign land to fool his benefactors into giving him a pay rise. The moral imperative that Brecht desires to
drive home forms a central allure of this play, as does the depiction of scientists as humans with
material wants and needs.
Brecht shows the darker side of human pursuit when he shows greed and lies by those that fall
prey to human weaknesses in the eye of truthful struggles and reiterate the might of hunger.
However, Brecht the larger message still spoken time and again is that scientists need to take
accountability for their creations. I would use the words of Richard Edmonds who writes for
Birmingham post and beautifully puts the views which that my heart too resonates after reading
this play. Life of Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht, is a lively and fascinating work about science and
moral responsibility. Written less like a play and more in the vein of Socratic dialogue, It is
indeed a marvelous portrait of intellectual betrayal; The angry impotence of a man who realizes
that he is ethically unequipped to deal with the consequences of his own genius.

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