My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Michael White used to be a Thompson Twin, apparently.
This has nothing to do with the book, of course, but when I first read that, I hoped he was the lead singer. He wasn't. That's Tom Bailey. But I really enjoyed thinking of that guy sitting down to write a pseudo-intellectual biography of Galileo.
Perhaps "pseudo-intellectual" is too harsh. But what I mean by that is "accessible" and "readable." A popular history.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first several chapters, which set up the world Galileo lived in. White describes the era as a time when, "a small group of well-heeled Europeans seeking novelty, knowledge, and (it must not be ignored) coveting prestige and social kudos, actively sought out the literary and philosophical treasures of the ancients."
These well-heeled seekers had a thirst for knowledge that made them early humanists. They were also Catholic and deeply religious. But they "held the view that an alternative thought system such as humanism could offer new ways to understand the human condition."
Not so, said the Catholic church. Thought and logic and faith were poor bedfellows back then. Still are, frankly.
The Renaissance, and the Reformation, was made possible by Gutenberg's printing press, which allowed ideas to be spread at a more rapid, egalitarian way than was possible previously. The Catholic church was caught sleeping and found themselves fighting a battle that wasn't previously necessary; convincing an ever-growing educated populace to continue to view the declarations of the Catholic church as the only truth.
But the funny thing about that truth is that, scientifically, it relied on Aristotle, a heathen Greek. His ideas were "...placed above all others by future generations and his philosophies were hijacked by theologians for their own ends. Dogma turned to absolutism, and his teachings were passed on virtually unquestioned. This led astray later thinkers and pushed science towards a dead end."
So any attack on Aristotle became an attack on Christianity. And Aristotle was wrong about a lot. Aristotle's Unmoved Mover becomes God. Aristotle's four elements theory of matter became sacrosanct, negating theories like atoms or even the idea that what something tastes like or looks like is very open to human interpretation.
This was a time when you just believed because someone told you to believe. The idea of coming up with a new idea, then testing out that idea with experiments designed to prove, or disprove, the theory was foreign. And, if that idea ran counter to the truth the Catholic church espoused, heretical.
This is where Galileo ran into trouble. Which is well-known.
But White also trots forth the conspiracy theory that the thesis for which Galileo was punished, his book presenting the Copernican model of of the universe, with the sun in the center, was NOT the real reason he was convicted of heresy. The true reason was science he espoused which stood in direct opposition to the Catholic church's dogma about transubstantiation.
Transubstantiation. I didn't lead a completely sheltered childhood, but the first memory I have of realizing the eccentricity of the concept was as a young adult, when I read Maupin's Tales of the City, wherein a murderer confuses transubstantiation with cannibalism.
Galileo didn't go that far, of course. But he had the temerity to question Aristotle's four element substance theory of matter. Which led to questioning transubstantiation.
You see, transubstantiation depended on Aristotelian substance theory, which states that when we strip away the accidents of a particular thing we are left with its substance, which cannot be observed. Thomas Aquinas used this theory to support the idea that the accidents of our senses' perception of the bread and wine don't change, but God changes the substance of those things to be the actual body and blood of Christ. After the elements are blessed by the priest, they cease being bread and wine, transforming into flesh and blood. The substance has been transformed (hence the term transubstantiation) but the accidents of the bread and wine remain as they were. Those accidents include all the ways our senses (touch, taste, etc.) interact with the elements.
In The Assayer, Galileo dipped his toe into what looks like early atomic theory, which would make Aristotle's theories invalid.
According to White, this is the real problem the church had with Galileo. Not Copernicus. But transubstantiation.
He doesn't make his argument very thoroughly. And the book suffers for it. But it sure wet my whistle to read more about this.
And, to me, that's the mark of a good book.
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