Thursday, February 17, 2011

Galileo as Orlando the Mad?

Orlando Furioso
Ludovico Ariosto
Guido Waldman, translator
(Image from Amazon)

I'm still reading John Heilbron's Galileo, which I think he wrote to offer a moral lesson, a point that I might have more to say about after I've finished the book, but I believe that we can begin to intuit Heilbron's intention through what follows. Heilbron implies that Galileo wrote his famous Assayer to defend his honor and impugn that of his opponents, who were -- or so Galileo feared -- trying to steal his discoveries, much as he had once defended himself against an earlier, actual plagiarist, who had offended against his "honor, fame, and merited glory," as Heilbron quotes from Galileo's Difesa of 1607 (Heilbron, Galileo, page 246)

One surprising problem with Galileo as a person was, ironically, his limited horizon, for as Heilbron remarks in a chapter titled "Miscalculated Risks":
We are reminded again [by Galileo's social connections] how provincial or peninsular Galileo's purview was: his subject may have been the universe, but his audience was a few dozen highy-placed literate Italians whose good opinion he prized. (Heilbron, Galileo, page 245)
Regardless what others might think, these "literate Italians" would appreciate him as a literate man, even as a literary figure, who knows how to turn a phrase -- or better, a quote from his favorite poem -- against a 'dishonorable' challenger like Lotario Sarsi Sigenzano, the pen name of Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit astronomer and mathematician who (legitimately, in fact) disputed some of Galileo's views, e.g., on the nature of comets, Galileo not being the sort of man to share celestial glory with others who dared to explore his heavens:
Quoting a line from Ariosto, Galileo intimated that he was condescending to argue over truths he already possessed. Noblesse oblige. The line referred to a fight between Orlando and Mandricardo over Orlando's sword. "Mine it is by right, let us stage a chivalrous duel for it." (Heilbron, Galileo, page 245)
The version of Orlando Furioso that I've looked into has "Mine though it is by right, let us stage a chivalrous duel for it" (Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, translator Waldman, Canto 23.81, page 276, italics mine), but that's a minor point. What is significant is Galileo's manner of casting himself as a medieval knight in a romance, specifically Charlemagne's knight Orlando (also known as Roland), for at issue are not so much points of truth as points of honor. Intellectual opponents are not merely incorrect, they are unworthy!

In a further joust with Sarsi (Grassi), therefore, Galileo constructs a literary scene in which he overwhelms this 'unworthy' opponent and scornfully advises him, "Therefore yield, and be silent," concerning which Heilbron dryly observes, "That is the way a knight does science." The real life Grassi does not fall silent, but publishes a rejoinder, a challenge to which Galileo replies . . . not at all. Why not? Because Galileo's friends, some of those "literate Italians" who mattered, "judged that he had saved their honor and his" own (Heilbron, Galileo, page 252).

The chapter that follows this one in Heilbron's biography of Galileo is titled "Vainglory." Galileo, as the proud knight Orlando, sensitive to slights, loses all perspective, falls victim to his overweening pride, and meets with a tragic conclusion in a mad, furious fight with the Church that he cannot win and could have avoided (or so I infer, based on the chapter title and my background in history of science).

The moral of this story? Put it into a conditional: If you want to be a good scientist, then control your pride. In short, as I've noted before with respect to Heilbron's measured dose of what Galileo most needed: "humility, humility, humility."

And not coincidentally, Heilbron casts the historian in the role of one who can draw moral lessons from history, thereby also intimating that history is worthy of serious study.

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At 4:34 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

"Humility, humility, humility"?

Not at all. If you let people walk on your back, they will simply do it more often, and gladlier. Without thanking.

Galileo's problem was that he was a cardsharper, not that he was proud. Nietzsche was not humble at all, but HIS hammer was very well forged.

At 4:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Humility, Dario, but not humiliation.

One should be intellectually humble, e.g., not engage in boasting or duels of personal honor, but subject one's views to critical reason and empirical fact -- if we're talking about science.

As for pride, that depends on what one means. If one means taking pride in doing a good job, fine, but if one means prideful arrogance . . . well, not so fine.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:24 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, I hadn't thought about "Orlando" in a very long time, Jeff; I read this (or tried to as I dimly recall) way back in the day when I was in major thrall of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and all those guys. Somebody in something I was reading back then made some offhand comment about "Orlando", and so I had to read it...I think that guy had much influence on Italo Calvino too, right?

At 3:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pete, I'll have to let Dario answer that one.

Did you read Orlando in high school? If I'd come across a reference to Orlando back then, I'd probably have gotten out a map of Florida . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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