English 233: Introduction to
Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment
Study Guide to
"The Starry Messenger"
of Jacob Bronowski's
The Ascent of Man
This video essay focuses on the tenacious resistance, in the 17th Century, of the Catholic Church to new directions in scientific thought. The conflict comes to a head in the trial of the greatest scientist of the first half of the century, before the a court of the Inquisition in Rome,  in 1633. The trial concluded with Galileo's being coerced, under threat of torture, into publicly foreswearing, as heresy, the propositions (1) that the sun is the center of the universe, and does not move, and (2) the earth is not the center of the universe, and moves with a double motion. The result was to stifle scientific research in Catholic countries, so that the center of scientific progress moved north, into England and Holland. In the long term, too, the episode proved a seriously embarrassing mistake for the Vatican. It set the stage for new thinking about the logical relationships between science and religion, and was a major factor in stimulating the project of the 18th-Century Enlightenment -- of subjecting political and social institutions and assumptions to the same kind of critique at the bar of natural human reason that had proved so fruitful in astronomy and physics, and so disastrous to inherited ideas about the laws of nature, to the authority of tradition in general , and to traditional religious conceptions in particular.
Your job in viewing and reflecting on Bronowski's essay is to analyze the issues in the conflict over Copernicus' theory in such a way as to bring into focus the competing assumptions motivating Galileo and his censors, led by Galileo's former friend, Pope Urban VII, formerly Cardinal Maffeo Barberini. 
You may want to print out this Study Guide for bringing to the
showing. You can make your notes directly on it in the
Interestingly, Bronowski begins not with the medieval-renaissance background to the theory of Copernicus, but with glimpses at two ancient New World cultures, which he treats as foils to the Old World in respect of the inquiry we call astronomy.
Copán (in what is now Honduras in Central America): the gathering of Mayan astronomers in AD 776.
Bronowski stresses several important achievements of Mayan mathematics and astronomy in comparison with the state of affairs in Western Europe at that time, in order to make more emphatic what he characterizes as its striking limitation in comparison with the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic tradition in astronomy.
WHAT IS IT THAT THE MAYANS DID NOT DO THAT BRINGS INTO RELIEF AN ESSENTIAL FEATURE OF THE OLD WORLD APPROACH TO DOING ASTRONOMY?
Easter Island in the South Pacific (situated 1000 miles east of Pitcairn Island and 1500 miles west of the San Juan Fernandez Islands -- the nearest inhabited islands in any direction).
WHAT DOES HE USE EASTER ISLAND CULTURE TO EMPHASIZE ABOUT THE NATURE AND ROLE OF ASTRONOMY IN (SAY) THE MEDITERRANEAN REGION?
His way of distinguishing what he puts forward as uninteresting and what he puts forward as significant questions is a clue here.
What does he offer as an explanation of the fact that New World astronomy was not concerned to construct an imaginative model of the cosmos?
He makes much of one particular central image. Be sure to note how much it pervades the discussion that follows (not just immediately, but throughout.
Bronowski engineers his transition into a discussion of the background to Copernicus by way of a look at the de Dondi clock, constructed in Padua around 1350 by Giovanni de Dondi. There are three points that he stresses about this impressive contraption. In increasing level of importance for us, they are:
*(1) This clock was able to be made some 140 years before Columbus set sail across the Atlantic.
Of course, this fact isn't important in itself. It is important for something or some things it signifies. What is Bronowski implying or hinting at, given what he has just said about the Easter Islanders?
*(2) This clock makes clear the chief difference between the conception of the task of astronomy in the Old World and the New World.
In what does this difference consist?
Why is it important?
And how does the de Dondi clock drive the point home?
*(3) The clock also illustrates one of the chief limitations of the Ptolemaic system of astronomy.
What is this limitation?
How does it help explain the motives that led Copernicus to undertake his project of reconceiving the structure of the heavens?
Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543) first proposed the general scheme of the heavens that, with important modifications, eventually came to supplant the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic hypothesis.
*(1) What connection does Bronowski draw between Copernicus' approach to the reform of astronomy on the one hand and the development of perspective painting in the Renaissance?
*(2) What is striking about the reasoning that led Copernicus to choose the sun as the body to cast in the role of the center of the cosmos?
*(3) What features of Copernicus' picture represent a continuity with the ancient/medieval conception?
What assumptions underlay the supposition that the cosmos should be figured to be constructed of this particular figure?
(When did European astronomy finally abandon this construction, and what individual is responsible for this advance?)
Bronowski devotes by far the most of his attention in this essay to the figure of Galileo Galilei (1558-1642),  who at the time when Bronowski takes up his story was professor of Mathematics at the University of Padua.  Notice how he uses the story of Galileo's rôle in the development of the telescope to illustrate Galileo's appreciation of
both the commercial opportunities inherent in the exploitation of scientifically grounded inventiveness
and the rôle of instrumentation in scientific research.
Bronowski declares: "Galileo is the creator of the modern scientific method.... [In what he did with the telescope] he really did for the first time what we think of as practical science: build the apparatus, do the experiment, publish the results."
This happened between September of 1609 and March of 1610, culminating in the publication in Venice of the famous Siderius Nuncius or (in English translation) The Starry Messenger. Bronowski features three of the most important of the discoveries that Galileo announced in this astounding book. In each case, you will want to be able to explain how these conclusions led further to the conclusion that something serious was wrong with either the details of or the assumptions behind the Ptolemaic picture of the universe. In other words, you want to focus on the meaning of these new facts. This you cannot do unless you form a conception of what is at stake in the Ptolemaic picture of the cosmos. The discoveries Bronowski stresses are:
*(1) THE DISCOVERY OF MYRIADS OF MORE STARS IN THE HEAVENS THAN HAD EVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE;
Why was this disturbing to the traditional picture?
*(2) THE DISCOVERY OF WHAT GALILEO DUBBED "THE MEDICIEAN PLANETS" -- 4 SATELLITES OF THE PLANET JUPITER;
Why was this disturbing to the traditional picture?
*(3) THE IRREGULARITIES ON THE SURFACE OF THE MOON.
Why was this disturbing to the traditional picture?
Here are some of the questions you will want to obtain answers to as you watch the rest of this video.
How does the intellectual climate of opinion established by the Counter Reformation  in Europe help explain the reaction of the Church hierarchy to these new developments?
When did the Inquisition begin secretly gathering intelligence on Galileo's activities?
Who was Cardinal Bellarmine, and what rôle did he play in the history of the affair?
What expectations were aroused in Galileo when Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope (he chose the name Urban VIII) in 1623?
What did Urban VIII decide in his conversations with Galileo in 1624?
How did Galileo react?
Why was the Pope so personally outraged at the publication of Galileo's Dialogues Concerning the Two Great World Systems?
What were the deeper reasons that the Church felt threatened by the new ideas? This is probably the most important lesson you want to derive from this video, but to dig it out you are going to have to do some careful puzzling, because, as a device of emphasis, Bronowski deliberately leaves it mostly implicit.
What details about the way the proceedings developed enable us to infer the degree to which the Church felt threatened by Galileo's book?
What was the larger effect of the outcome of the trial, beyond the impact upon the person of Galileo himself?
"The Inquisition" is the familiar shorthand term for the Congregation of the Holy Office, which was established in 1642 (at the beginning of the Counter-Reformation) by Pope Paul III. Technically, too, we are referring here to the so-called "Roman Inquisition," which is to be distinguished from the "Spanish Inquisition," active both in Spain itself and in the Spanish dominions of the New World, which proceeded under an autonomous jurisdiction. It is the latter that Candide will meet with in Voltaire's famous philosophical tale. Return.
Urban VIII is the pope who appointed Gian Lorenzo Bernini to the post of Architect of St. Peter's in 1629, and is thus importantly responsible for crucial elements of the overall basilica complex today: the setting of the Chair of St. Peter in the apse, the Baldacchino under Michaelangelo's dome, and great oval Piazza di San Pietro in front, embraced by the monumental colonnades. Return.
If you haven't done so yet, you will eventually want to explore the remarkable Web site of the Galileo Project at Rice University. There is also a defense of the Church's conduct in the Galileo affair. Return.
The university at Padua was one of the very first ever. And Padua, you will recall, was where Giovanni de Dondi was living when he designed and built the clock already discussed, slightly more than 2 centuries before Galileo was born. Padua was under the administration of the Republic of Venice, which (as Bronowski stresses) was for some centuries the real center of power in the Mediterranean. The basis of its power was commerce, and especially sea trade. (Marco Polo was working for the Venetians when he made the long overland journey to China for which he became famous.) Bronowski stresses two points about this climate in connection with the career of Galileo: (1) its openness to commercial enterprise and hence technological innovation, and (2) its ability and determination to resist any attempts on the part of the growing power of the Papacy in Rome to interfere in its affairs. The first is important because it reminds us once again of the important technological motive at work behind the interest in fostering progress in the natural sciences -- the same perspective we have already seen at work with Bacon and Descartes. The second has to do with the fatefulness of Galileo's decision, after his triumphant international success with The Starry Messenger, to move back to his native Florence, where the money became available to enable him to dispense with teaching in order to devote himself exclusively to research, but where he was no longer outside the reach of the Vatican when his researches led to conclusions threatening to its interests. Return.
Some useful dates to keep in mind:
1542: Establishment of the Congregation of the Holy Office (the Inquisition at Rome). See note 1 above.
1618: Outbreak of the Thirty-Years War in Germany. The official causes of this catastrophe were religious -- the struggle over political jurisdiction between Protestants and Catholics. It was a disaster for Germany: two-thirds of the population may have perished. The region remained politically fragmented until the end of the 19th Century (when it was finally unified under Prussian hegemony, with ultimately disastrous consequences for Europe in the 20th Century [World Wars I and II]).
1622: Establishment of the Institution for the Propagation of the Faith (from which, as Bronowski remarks) we derive our word propaganda, "those things that are to be propagated" (specifically, those beliefs which are to be spread and made to take root).
Return to Reading List #3.
Return to the Home Page for English 233 (Introduction to Western Humanities: Baroque & Enlightenment).
Go to the discussion of Bronowski's way of formulating what was at stake in the controversy between the Church and Galileo: the premise that "Faith must dominate" versus the maxim that "Reason must persuade."
Go to the Study Guide for Part 5 of Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. Entitled "The Music of the Spheres," this program treats the idea that the world of nature operates by laws that are expressible in terms of number.
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Contents copyright © 1997, 2001 by Lyman A. Baker.
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This page last updated 16 October 2001.