Wednesday, February 23, 2011

John Milton and Galileo Galilei: Curious Musings

Galileo's Telescope
(Image from Norton)

The Norton Anthology site that I've linked to above claims the image to be Galileo's telescope, but the link also says 18th century, and Galileo died on January 8, 1642, so this might be the image of a copy.

Whatever the fact of that matter, we find reference to one of Galileo's telescopes in Paradise Lost 1.283-291, which describes Satan in Hell shortly after he has awakened from the concussion sustained in his long fall from Heaven. He has just spoken to his partner in crime, Beelzebub, and is moving toward the shore of Hell's fiery lake:
He scarce had ceas't when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shoar; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe. (PL 1.283-291)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, February 2011]
This is a curious place for a telescope, even if only as the vehicle for a figure of speech, but it does resonate with the theme of Milton's epic poem, the demonically all-too-human attempt to scale the heights of heaven and achieve divinity . . . prematurely.

As is well known, in the year 1638, Milton met the old, blind Galileo, similarly fallen from great heights and likewise somewhat confounded by the events. John Heilbron thought the meeting worth noting in his biography of Galileo:
To lighten his [Galileo's] darkening days there remained of his nuclear family his son Vincenzo and Vincenzo's wife and children, and his estranged daughter, Suor Angelica. Vincenzo shared his father's interests in mechanical devices and poetry. We already know one consequence of this alliance, the first semi-practical pendulum clock. Another was a meeting between Galileo and Milton. The English poet had attended a literary society in Florence to which Vincenzo belonged. With Vincenzo as intermediary, Milton satisfied his wish to see the famous man who could not see, "the starry Galileo with his woes," "the famous Galileo, grown old a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Domenican licensers thought." (Heilbron, Galileo, page 353)
Heilbron is quoting from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (4.54) and Milton's Areopagitica, a very literate thing to do in a history of science text (cf. Heilbron, Galileo, page 448, note 128). I wasn't actually surprised by this, for Heilbron had a literate hand in an article that I've written on the seasons in Paradise Lost. To understand the puzzling seasons of Edenic Paradise, I had to deal with the starry heavens, the solar position, and the lunar sphere in a cosmos of unerring planets and therefore needed assistance with some of the technical details. I didn't realize at the time that Heilbron was also dealing with Milton's epic poem, but around that same time, he was citing a passage from Milton relevant the status of curiosity in the Christian tradition. Heilbron did so with respect to the issue of divine "voluntarism (so called for stressing God's will, voluntas) as a sort of legal restraint on [the] philosophizing" engaged in by Galileo around 1616 in elaborating his (erroneous) theory that the tides were a consequence of the earth's motion:
The doctrine [of voluntarism] was not fresh, as it goes back to the time of Adam, who had it from the Angel Raphael. Shut up the book of nature, Raphael had advised Adam, after you have reckoned the months and years and seasons, for God will not reward further researches.
From man or angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scanned by them who ought
Rather admire; or if they list to try
Conjecture, he his fabric of the heav'ns
Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions wide. (Heilbron, Galileo, page 222)
Heilbron is quoting Paradise Lost 7.72-78 as a residue of the warning against excessive curiosity in the Christian tradition. I say 'residue', for as Heilbron points out, "Conjectures that provoke divine chortles do not make heresies" (Heilbron, Galileo, page 222). But if not, what's that telescope doing in Hell?

Anyway, I now understand why Heilbron went to the excessive trouble of helping me on technical aspects concerning the seasons of Paradise -- the issue was close to his own scholarly heart. But I'm curious about his citation of Milton here with respect to the Catholic Church's position on divine voluntarism and curiosity. There is a formal equivalence between Adam's desire in Paradise Lost for astronomical knowledge in his prelapsarian state and Galileo's desire for astronomical knowledge prior to his 'lapse' as a good Catholic, for both are curious about the true physical structure of the cosmos, and both are cautioned against delving into divine matters in which they might err since God is arbitrarily free -- that divine voluntas! -- to have constituted the cosmos in any way that He may have seen fit, even in ways such that cosmic appearances hide the physical reality and mislead human observers. But the Catholic Church didn't laugh at Galileo's 'errant' philosophy, unlike Raphael's more readily amused deity.

Which raises another question: Is God generally thought to have a sense of humor in the Christian tradition?

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At 6:31 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Galileo's telescope, but the link also says 18th century

By looking toward Earth from a point 100 light years from Earth, that very telescope could glimpse Galileo.

Is God generally thought to have a sense of humor in the Christian tradition?

"Generally"? NO.

He does, in the Rabbinic tradition. That's why I write theological posts only in a Jewish website, besides this Gypsy's.

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Galileo lived until 1911?" quipped God.

"No, Your Divinity, Dario meant that a telescope 100 light years away could have been used in the 18th century to view Galileo in the 17th," the courtier corrected.

"Where were you," retorted God, "when I laid the earth's foundation?"

"Are you joking?" the courtier replied.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"This is a curious place for a telescope, even if only as the vehicle for a figure of speech, but it does resonate with the theme of Milton's epic poem, the demonically all-too-human attempt to scale the heights of heaven and achieve divinity . . . prematurely."

hmm. This may be true if you are reading the poem as a religious epic. But what if the poem is a modern epic--something else entirely, but no less pious?

Also, what did Milton know specifically of Galileo's case? Rather than his scientific claims or his challenge to church teaching, could it be Galileo's mistake was political rather than a matter of doctrine? That is, he was an ornery fellow, and, being ornery and possessing bad manners, he gave the Pope little choice?

After all, isn't the triumph of the Son the realization of Satan's ambition for glory? The difference, of course, is not in the final aim itself (expressed by the former, but achieved by the latter) but rather a difference in political acumen, and method. The devil was a bore and a lout, whilst the Son--a most reliable, thoughtful, deferential, well-meaning and charming fellow--simply did it with good manners?

Another way to look at it: We were born to die--it's a scientific fact. But then the Son came along and turned the tables on that little snag, didn't he? Why, it goes against nature itself.


At 2:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Heilbron's biography of Galileo supports the view that Galileo played the wrong politics, alienated potential supporters, and embarrassed friends (e.g., the Pope himself!).

Still there were some genuine theological issues to be worked out.

On Milton's view of Galileo . . . I think that Milton sided with Galileo, but he also holds to a variant on the Christian tradition's suspicion of curiositos, hence Raphael's cautious admonition.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:17 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Galileo played the wrong politics, alienated potential supporters

O nostalgia! it was the subject of one of my first online essays in English. It can be read at:

At 3:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Linking works better: "Galileo and his Dada Defender."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:55 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...


Whee can I read about Milton and "curiositos"?


At 9:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I misspelled it. Try "curiositas" and "Paradise Lost" at Google Books.

Regina Schwartz noted something about it in Remembering and Repeating.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:12 AM, Blogger Pilot Guy said...

"Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe."

You're kind missing the point of the Simile
Where is the Artist observing all of this - on a hill? or in a valley? Can't be both!
Spotty globe characterizes the uncertainty of what is being seen and
Are they rivers or are they mountains?
The observation occurs late - when everything is hazy and indistinct - this is the time of day that Milton uses to introduce confusion.
All of Milton's similes with Galileo are defined by uncertainty of what can be seen
and what can be understood with this new science.

Further - he is rejecting the Copernican universe of Galileo and embracing the Lucretian universe of Democritus and the Epicureans.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, PG. You might find this article of mine interesting: "Milton's Astronomy and the Seasons of Paradise: Queries Motivated by Alastair Fowler's Views."

Jeffery Hodges

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