Note: The following does not reflect the current opinions of the author. His views, both on Brecht and on the supression of scientific knowledge, have changed drastically since this piece was written. The author still agrees with the bulk of what is written here and so wants to share it the rest of the world.
Bertolt Brecht’s life and his play Galileo compliment each other perfectly. While one is an interesting study of a remarkable life and the concepts of sacrifice, the other raises the very vital question of scientific responsibility. In my eyes, Brecht is an enigma, since he was at the same time a lover of the good life and an ardent Communist, an atheist whose favorite book was the Bible, and so on. Through Galileo, we can know more about Brecht through his dramatization of Galileo's life and also examine questions about sacrifice and the supression of disruptive knowledge.
Brecht’s youth during the Great War is interesting in that it is representative of the philosophical and ideological struggles that so many young adults have to go through after periods of crisis. As is the case with others, Brecht grew wary of the prevailing order of the time and embraced alternative ideologies like Nihilism and Communism. Nihilism must have seemed particularly attractive during those bland and weary times, reminiscent of nihilism’s own dreary and cynical beliefs. Communism, however, seemed to be Brecht’s natural ideology since it reflected his atheist tendencies and his disgust with the established order. But this action is quite queer for a man who hardly demonstrated any ascetic tendencies himself. He was, like his Galileo, a lover of the good life. He enjoyed many women in his life and portrayed Galileo as someone who was equally attracted to comforts and good food. It is curious then that Brecht could embrace an ideology that ran quite contrary to his own lifestyle!
The second major enigma is found in Brecht’s devotion to the martyrdom. Why he would embrace the concept of dying for a cause with such fervor is an enigma. Certainly, the story of Jesus did have a powerful impact upon Brecht, an influence that directly translated into many of his early plays. But his fascination for Jesus’ sacrifice hardly accounts for the regret he felt at not having martyred himself at the hands of the Nazis. It could be said that the major influence upon him was the death of his close friend Tratyakov and that of several Soviet intellectuals. This would certainly have plagued him much since several Russians had ‘confessed’ and willingly died for the good of the party, something that Brecht would have conceivably admired. This sacrifice of the Russians echoes the Communist principles that every individual must carry out actions for the greater good. Perhaps it was this parallelism that resonated in his heart and plagued him for the rest of his life.
It is now that we tread upon the central question- how, then, does Galileo function as a vehicle to convey the responsibilities of the Scientist? The similarities between Galileo and Brecht are startling. Both individuals were from the educated middle class, had a liking for the better things in life and eventually adopted ideas contrary to the belief of the Bourgeois. They did eventually flee martyrdom and regretted it. So it is clear that Brecht intends to deliver a message about his own self through his play, and ultimately about the responsibility of the Scientist.
Galileo represents the quintessential revolutionary, Galileo, in a class struggle. He is not of the peasantry or the bourgeois, but of the educated middle class, much like Marx, Lenin, and even Brecht himself. He has come upon a powerful new tool- modern astronomy, which could enable him to upset the traditional balance of power and thereby rid society of domination by the Church. The Church here represents the establishment. It is the social structure upon which the entire European society is based. It permeates every sphere of being and is as crucial for order within society as it is responsible for oppression and philosophical stagnation. The question asked in the play is whether Galileo should proceed to fight the Church and ‘liberate’ the people or should he stay low for the sake of order and harmony in society. In act nine of Galileo, we witness a possible scenario that might have arisen if the Church-led social order had collapsed. Society could itself have crumbled in the terrible fires of anarchy, fuelled by the absence of moral and spiritual authority of any kind. It is to this dilemma that we can find different answers to in the play.
An obvious opinion is that it is better to live to quietly further the movement than to die for momentary accolades. Not only does this make sense, but it also raises the point of the very futility of martyrdom. What does martyrdom really achieve? My answer to that would be symbolism of the highest value. It represents a member of the weaker side putting up a brave resistance till the end so that his comrades are inspired to work harder for the movement. But the applicability of this to Galileo and Brecht can only be assessed by studying the consequences of their possible martyrdom. If Brecht had not fled Nazi Germany and surrendered himself to a grueling term, or even death, in the blazing infernos of a hellish Treblinka, he would have achieved little except for the sense of accomplishment brought about by the realization of his dearly held ideal of martyrdom. Similarly, Galileo’s death would have provoked an uprising from some radical elements of society, which could have indeed lead to several changes in favor of the establishment of a new system in which the Bourgeois walked hand-in-hand with the peasantry to create a fairer system, not mired with negative elements like the intellectual corruption of the Church. But his further works on astronomy did much to further science and it could be argued that the truth proceeds to escape, no matter how closely guarded it is, through the course of time. It is maybe this that tore Brecht apart- the moral dilemma of adhering to one’s principles or doing what is practically justified. Perhaps, one of the very purposes of the play was to let us, the readers, be the judges and ascertain whether Brecht's and Galileo’s actions were justified. Going back to scientific responsibility, it is quite problematic to decide whether Galileo should have recanted or not. It is, like the issue about martyrdom, a sticky dilemma and really enigmatic. In retrospect, it seems proper that Galileo didn’t seek revolution and set the course for a gradual evolution into an era of enlightenment.
The play attempts to define the boundaries of scientific responsibility on a broader scale. It asks us when a scientist should draw the line between uncovering the truth and seriously damaging society and the human race. While discoveries such as the compass have brought us much knowledge, other inventions such as the atomic bomb have brought about untold misery. It should be kept in mind that there is no way of knowing what a discovery might translate into through the course of time, so there is little point in questioning the morality of the act of discovery itself. It is the application of science that has to be brought under scrutiny.
It is very difficult to decide whether it is Galileo’s duty as a scientist to bring out the truth whatever be the consequences or whether to act in the best interest of society and repress the information so no major upheavals are caused. Galileo is in the beginning a communist hero. He discovers new knowledge that threatens to break down the exploitative social order and to ignite a revolution. But here too we find the contradictions rife in the play since Galileo performs several acts, including the incident involving the telescope, for money. Even here it could be argued that he did what was practical and that he did not bother about lofty principles. In any case, he did fulfill the communist ideal in many ways. Later on, he refused to die for the cause and thereby killed the chances of a revolution. He now went against communist principles. But what about scientific principles? Did he violate them too by not bringing out the truth to the masses? The answer to that is extremely prickly. We know for a fact that the knowledge was eventually dispersed to the people, but then this very slow change could have set off progress by decades. Also, what would happen if every scientific discovery were allowed to be stifled in the same manner? There would be utter stagnation and intellectual penury. The only answer to this vexing dilemma is that there is a very thin line between that which is responsible and that which is rash. Actions that add to the wealth of human information without overbearing sinister consequences are responsible while others are rash. Thus, there do exist cases where scientific truth must be suppressed, or even quashed, for the good of mankind. Scientific philosophy is very similar to Communism in that it believes in the inherent goodness and selflessness of every man. The truth cannot be any more to the contrary. While science itself is not nefarious, it is we human beings that make it evil on so many occasions. This naïve view was the downfall of communism and also threatens to be the downfall of much else.
We have seen here that Galileo, and thus Brecht, were extremely complex individuals. Theirs’ is a parallel story because what is applicable for communism, sacrifice and Brecht is also valid for Galileo and the quest for truth. In a sense, the play is a damning condemnation of communism for it shows how its very naïve belief in the nobility of the average man can have disastrous consequences. Galileo must have realized this inherent imperfection in human nature and would have surely contemplated how his Bible-defying discoveries would only help chaos descend on an orderly society. He thus recanted for the greater good of his people. The play itself reveals much about the motivations and opinions of Brecht himself. It can be seen as an examintion by Brecht of guilt and torment he feels. He sees himself in the same light as Galileo and even though he earlier believed that they were both guilty of capitulations, he seems to conclude that ultimately it was the right thing to do.