Saturday, April 13, 2019

How can you confuse their miserable cunning with reason?

Galileo has discovered Jupiter's four moons, an observation that constitutes a death-blow to the Ptolemaic system.  Galileo thinks that, now he has proof, his theories will be accepted and he'll be safe from persecution. His friend Sagredo is astonished by this naivety.

[SAGREDO]... You thought [the Ptolemaic system] untrue, like Copernicus; but you taught it.
GALILEO Because I could prove nothing.
SAGREDO incredulously: And you believe that makes a difference?
GALILEO: All the difference in the world! Look here, Sagredo. I believe in mankind, and that means I believe in its commonsense. Without that belief I should not have the strength to get up from my bed in the morning.
SAGREDO: Then I will tell you something. I do not believe in it. Forty years among men has consistently taught me that they are not amenable to commonsense. Show them the red tail of a comet, fill them with black terror, and they will all come running out of their houses and break their legs. But tell them one sensible proposition, and support it with seven reasons, and they will simply laugh in your face.
GALILEO: That is untrue -- and a slander. I cannot understand how you, believing such a thing, can yet love science. Only the dead are no longer moved by reason.
SAGREDO: How can you confuse their miserable cunning with reason?
GALILEO: I am not speaking of their cunning. I know they call a donkey a horse when they want to sell, and a horse a donkey when they want to buy. That is their cunning. The old woman who, on the eve of a journey, gives her mule an extra bundle of hay with her horny hand; the mariner who, when laying in stores, thinks of storms and calms ahead; the child who pulls on his cap when it is proved to him that it may rain -- they are my hope -- they all listen to reason. Yes, I believe in the gentle power of reason, of commonsense, over men. They cannot resist it in the long run. No man can watch for long and see how I -- he lets fall a stone from his hand to the floor -- drop a stone, and then say: 'It does not fall'. No man is capable of that. The temptation offered by such a proof is too great. Most succumb to it, and in the long run -- all. Thinking is one of the greatest pleasures of the human race.


[A minute later, after the entry of his housekeeper, Signora Sarti...]

GALILEO: Signora Sarti, perhaps you can help me then. -- Look, a question has arisen about which we cannot agree, probably because we have read too many books. It is a question about the Heavens, a question concerning the stars. It is: would you say the larger revolves round the smaller, or the smaller round the larger?
SIGNORA SARTI suspiciously: One never knows where one is with you, Signor Galilei. Is that a serious question, or are you trying to make fun of me again?
GALILEO: A serious question.
SIGNORA SARTI: Then you can have a quick answer. Do I set the dinner before you or do you set it before me?
GALILEO: You set it before me. Yesterday it was burnt.
SIGNORA SARTI: And why was it burnt? Because I had to bring you your shoes in the middle of cooking. Didn't I bring you your shoes?
GALILEO: I expect so.
SIGNORA SARTI: You see, you are the one who has studied and can pay.
GALILEO: I see. I see. That's simple. -- Thank you, Signora Sarti.

Exit Signora Sarti, amused.

GALILEO: And such people cannot understand the truth? They hunger for it!


[A few minutes later]

SAGREDO: Don't go to Florence, Galileo.
GALILEO: Why not?
SAGREDO: Because the monks are in control there.
GALILEO: At the Florentine court there are scholars of repute.
SAGREDO: Lackeys.
GALILEO: I will seize them by their necks and drag them in front of the telescope. Even monks are human, Sagredo. They succumb to the temptation of proof. Copernicus, don't forget, demanded that they believe his figures; but I only demand that they believe their eyes ...

(from The Life of Galileo, Scene Three)

The ensuing Scene Four appears to confirm Sagredo's views; the Florentine "lackeys" (a philosopher and mathematician) find all sorts of ingenious ways to avoid looking through the telescope and to discredit what it purports to show.

But there's much more to the debate than that.

Concerning mankind, Galileo's three examples of precautionary planning (the old woman, the mariner, the child) demonstrate that ordinary people are perfectly capable of reasoning, and that within the round of their own daily lives they employ reason unhesitatingly.

Signora Sarti's reasoning powers, likewise, are not in doubt; in fact she can surprise the astronomer by a peculiar penetration that, within her own sphere, sees clearer than he does.

But is Galileo right to make the sweeping assertion that mankind hungers for truth? He means beneath the current of daily life, so it's an unfalsifiable claim. Nevertheless, it seems pertinent to ask, the truth about what? Signora Sarti is evidently very interested in the truth about people's behaviour: monks, students, Victoria's suitors. She is evidently not interested in astronomical researches, and can't see the point of rousing her sleeping son Andrea to peer through a telescope. Astronomy is relevant for those who have studied, and are pursuing a different way of getting by; not for those who serve. (Horoscopes are a different matter.) Galileo is well aware of her views. He's almost apologetic, in his playful way, in putting to her a question about the heavens. And we see elsewhere that he's positively unwilling to spend time sharing his researches with rich students who don't really care about science. We also see him crushing his own daughter's vague stirrings of interest in the telescope: he has already pre-judged Victoria as "not intelligent", as someone who cares only for courts, balls and marriage.

So people have reasoning in their toolkit, but are selective about its use. Like looking. Each of us would very gladly see certain sights, and each of us would like to learn the truth about certain topics. We dread losing our sight, and we dread losing our ability to think. Nevertheless, most of the time we don't take pleasure in the act of looking per se; and it could only be an academic who opines: "Thinking is one of the greatest pleasures of the human race".

This selective aspect has many implications. It means that choosing how to apply your reason becomes subject to your own needs: it is not so often a free choice as a choice dictated by circumstance. Most people are trying to scrape a bare living: but both rich and poor, all-powerful and almost powerless, have motives for the tactical deployment of reason. Reason becomes a tool in the struggle to better oneself. Reason is for use, and that may include trying to manipulate other people's reasoning powers: not necessarily to stop them reasoning, but to allow their reasoning to arrive at the wrong conclusion, as the cunning donkey-sellers and horse-buyers do. Most people will not waste reason where there's no benefit to them. On the contrary, there may be benefits in doggedly asserting that two and two makes five (as Galileo puts it). And when we account for our actions, we can use reason for that too, to supply rationalizations that may convince others and may convince ourselves, though they are not necessarily the real reasons why we so acted.

Galileo speaks of the "temptation of proof", and the phrase is arresting; precisely because it is not one of our most obvious temptations, the ones that affect us every day. These other temptations are the more decisive, but it may be that this one at last gets a hearing, and that could justify Galileo's faith that truths become established "in the long run".

Brecht said that the hero of his drama was, not Galileo, but the People. Sagredo and Galileo, though they use the word "mankind", are also thinking about the People. Who is this? For it isn't just the totality of human individuals. It is spoken of as a "they" by the two scientists, not as a "we". Apparently it means the mass of people who are not "us"... The intelligentsia. Demagogues and editors speak of the People too; but by speaking in this public way, they show themselves to be no members of this much-addressed body. The People is all those who don't speak publically. And who, consequently, are spoken about as an animal species.


This was the other book I picked out of that "donations only" tray. My first Brecht play, and I suppose it's easy to see why I went for it (though this didn't occur to me at the time)... I just have a thing about history plays.

Regular readers will know that I've spent an awful lot of time delightedly immersed in Shakespeare's histories.


Edward III
1 Henry VI
2 Henry VI
3 Henry VI
Richard III
King John


But in the last couple of years I've also begun to dip cautiously into some more recent plays, for instance Kingsley's The Saint's Tragedy and Strindberg's Master Olof.  And thus, by this not too obvious route, I've finally arrived at 20th-century drama.

[Coincidentally or not, the three plays have quite a lot in common. An authoritarian church is a major player in all three. Two of them feature a cardinal inquisitor (ST, LG). Two of them feature heroes who eventually renege on liberal causes (MO, LG).]

I think a certain part of the appeal of the history play, for me, is that it has a solid impersonal core that tends to restrain the author's fancy -- or ego. To put it another way, you don't have to be a Kingsley fan to enjoy The Saint's Tragedy. (And the Life of Galileo has sometimes been described as the Brecht play for those who don't particularly like Brecht.)

A partial exception that springs to mind is Marlowe... I've never really taken to Edward II : it doesn't persuade as history because there's too much of Marlowe's personality in it. Yet for the young Brecht, adapting Edward II was crucial in developing his idea of an epic theatre that didn't have to run along Shakespearean lines. So maybe I should give it another go.


The Life of Galileo (Leben des Galilei) has three versions. The first, the "Danish" version written in 1938 in the shadow of Nazi irrationalism, was uncomplicatedly supportive of reason and science, The second, the shorter "American" version, Brecht's own English translation (with input from Charles Laughton) in 1944-1947, was affected by the atom bomb (not to mention Nazi scientists) and took a darker view of science's free research; the morality of science becomes a prominent theme. The final "Berlin" version (1953-1956), in German once again, restores much of the "Danish" material and adds yet more to Galileo's contradictions. (This Methuen book contains Desmond I. Vesey's 1960 translation of the "Berlin" version.)



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