Galileo's life shows there's always room for doubt

Simon Caulkin

Bertolt Brecht's playLife of Galileois sharply topical. Today the play, a parable of human responsibility in the battleground of ideas, works equally persuasively as a critique of the ideologies and power structures of 21st century capitalism.

BY A street, the business text of the year is Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo. In the declining years of communism, Brecht was less fashionable in the West than a second-hand Trabant. But, as demonstrated in this year's thrilling National Theatre, London, production, his complex reconstruction of the 17th-century Italian astronomer's validation, then recantation, of the Copernican model of the solar system is sharply topical.

If a chameleon-like ability to reflect and illuminate the times is part of what separates great art from the rest, then Galileo has it in spades. When Brecht wrote the first version in the 1930s, the backdrop was the rise of fascism; in the 1940s, the second version absorbed fresh resonance from the dropping of the atom bomb and the depredations of Stalinism. Today the play, a parable of human responsibility in the battleground of ideas, works equally persuasively as a critique of the ideologies and power structures of 21st century capitalism.

The most powerful jolt to the system the play provides is the revelation that ideas, beliefs and what you do (or don't do) about them matter. Life is now so compartmentalised and polarised working/private life, reason/emotion, routine/leisure, personal/political and business imperatives so completely internalised, that we have forgotten that in the end life is indivisible. As Brecht shows, it is precisely this compartmentalisation, a kind of divide and rule, that makes people manipulable.

Yet business and science are no more divisible from politics than humanity is from the life of the senses. In the play's first version, Galileo was a hero and martyr (if a fallible one) to science: he recants, but redeems the betrayal by copying in secret his long-awaited Discourses, which are smuggled out to provide a ray of truth in a darkening world. In the second version, in a typically ambiguous Brechtian twist, the events are the same but Galileo has failed his greatest test, which wasn't the science but recognising what it stood for.

In a world where intellectually "everything is in motion," he acknowledges there was a critical moment when ordinary people were ready to rally to reason and turn the telescope, the instrument of his cosmological discoveries, on to the activities of "their tormentors, the princes, landlords, and priests." Having taken science out of Latin and into the marketplace, he was for that instant as strong as the authorities. He could have called their bluff they knew that Galileo was right but instead succumbed to their threats, even though he now knows they were hollow. "Had I stood firm," he says, "the scientists could have developed something like the doctors' Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind's benefit. As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs, who can be hired for any purpose."

Fearful trap

Science for science's sake is a fearful trap its point is not "to open the door to infinite knowledge but to put a limit to infinite error." One day, he predicts, the gap between science and mankind will yawn so wide that "your cry of triumph at some new discovery will be echoed by a universal cry of horror."

But just as Brecht's play is only nominally about the Catholic church, neither is it just, or even mainly, science in the firing line. Today those keeping people in "a pearly haze of superstition" about their place in the world are the popes and cardinals of business, chief executives, investment bankers, consultants and PR, and press cheerleaders, all with a vested interest in preserving the discredited belief that the shareholder is the fixed centre of the commercial solar system round which everything else employees, customers, suppliers, society itself revolves in orbit.

With his ambivalent attitude to authority and lack of illusion about human frailty, Brecht is particularly good about the sophistries and blandishments that keep power in place. He knows how little it takes to subvert even those of goodwill, and how bold the powerful are in support of their privilege. At one stage, the new pope, a mathematician, notes irritably that it's impossible to sanction the use of Galileo's star charts, as sailors are demanding, while condemning the theory they are based on. "Why not?" replies the Inquisitor. "It's the only way."

Brecht also has no hesitation about the antidote: doubt. "Disbelief can move mountains," he says somewhere else, and the pleasure and necessity of doubt occur throughout the play. The role of knowledge is to turn us all into doubters. It's a suitably downbeat message for what has been called an "optimistic tragedy," and even more so for a later age caught between fundamentalisms and not just religious ones. Just remember it when you read another pompous book about customer delight, the inevitability of soaring executive pay, or the need for great leaders. "Unhappy the land that has no heroes!" says a follower bitterly when Galileo recants. "No," says Galileo. "Unhappy the land that needs heroes."

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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