Justice and the Trial of Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei is still considered to be one of the most significant predecessors of modern science. Galileo succeeded in producing telescopes that had a much greater magnifying power than those that were known before and he used them to make extremely important astronomical observations. However, the scientist’s name has remained in history for very different reason as well: he is one of the most important scientists to have been persecuted for his ideas.

Through scientific observation, Galileo became convinced that there were natural and astronomical phenomena that were impossible to explain with the aid of the then accepted Aristotelian model. He also began to support an inconvenient truth: the fact that the Earth is not a fixed planet at the center of the universe, as the scholastic opinion would have it. For a long period of time, Galileo kept his theories secret, knowing that he would risk having the same fate as Copernicus, the scientist whose views he supported. When his works reached public awareness however, he was accused of heresy by the Inquisition.

His trial and subsequent punishment make an important statement about the concept of justice: Galileo’s case is an instance of the way in which, to serve a certain interest, justice can be swapped for injustice. The Inquisition appeared to act in the name of justice, in the attempt to eradicate heretical beliefs and defend religion. In reality, the Roman Church aimed to protect its own, absolutist power over the masses. A theory that would displace the Earth from its place at the core of the universe was likely to undermine the absolute control of the church over the population’s mindset.

Therefore, in this case, trial and punishment are used not to establish justice but to protect the interest of an institution. Moreover, Galileo’s case also reveals the power of prejudice to blind the human mind and to prevent mankind from attaining either moral or scientific progress. Therefore, while the concept of justice is obviously invaluable from an ethical perspective, it must be remarked that its actualization is seldom unalloyed with other principles and interests.

Galileo’s trial is all the more significant since it was opened to serve a religious purpose. As it later became apparent however, the church was only seeking self-validation through the persecution of heresy. Despite the fact that Galileo manufactured telescopes as instruments for rational observation of the natural environment, the people around him refused to see out of fear and cowardice. Instead of acknowledging the truth and revealing it to the world, the church concealed it and forced Galileo to abjure his ideas, in order to escape a graver punishment.

Here, the Inquisition used the same means that were normally instituted to apply justice to persecute a man for his ideas. The case shows therefore the prevalence of intolerance and abuse in an absolutist world. What is significant is that Galileo’s trial is an example of oppression and abuse of power. The centrality of the Earth in the universe ensured the preeminence of the Roman Church in the society of the day. The society and its institutions were meant here to control public opinion and maintain the order. As such, in this society, the concept of justice is subject to corruption.

The institution which is meant to maintain or achieve a state of order and justice is not to be trusted here on performing equitably. The fact that society can fail in supporting justice is a common idea among the most famous philosophers of the world. Thus Plato, in his philosophical dialogue The Republic, discusses the concept of justice at large. Although he is contradicted by Socrates eventually, Trasymachus rightfully captures a social reality, defining justice as that which is “advantageous for the stronger” while injustice is “profitable and advantageous for oneself” (Morgan 86).

Socrates will argue his point to prove the real uses of justice both to the individual and the functioning of the society at large. Trasymachus pinpoints a significant idea related to the concept of justice: this notion is inextricably connected with politics. If justice is to be applied, it has to exist first in the form of law or an official consensus within a particular society. In the society inhabited by Galileo, the church had established that heresy was to be condemned without exception. To be a heretic was to simply to hold an opinion which was not approved by the Roman Church.

Galileo’s persecution for having the courage to assert an inconvenient truth is an obvious example of the way in which a political or institutional power is able to use justice to serve its own needs. The individual is deprived here of his liberty of speech and though and accused of transgression against an invisible power. Therefore, if justice can be useful in a social environment which functions to perfection, it cannot exist as such in the real conditions established by the social network. Hume, in the work Treatise of Human Nature, also made significant commentaries on the idea of justice.

He observed therefore another important fact related to the actualization of justice within society: “…Justice established itself by a kind of convention or agreement, that is, by a sense of interest, supposed to be common to all” (Morgan 773). Like Plato, the philosopher points to the fact that the concept of justice is empty without the specification of the exact social conventions regarding what is just or unjust. Moreover, Hume furthers his argument by adding that, “self interest is the original motive to the establishment of justice” (Morgan 774).

In the author’s view therefore, justice originates in interest or a specific individual use. Originally, it is logical that justice should protect the interest of the individual against any possible threats. In the case of Galileo’s trial however, the Roman Church established what is right in order to defend its own political interest rather than its own right. As it can be seen, the concept of justice can easily be corrupted to serve different interests and attain power. A revolutionary philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, changed the consensual view on morality.

He saw the establishment of absolute justice as an undesired, abusive power. According to the German philosopher, it is obvious that the application of justice cannot be considered a benign power. Justice is in fact an emblem of the abuse exercised by stronger on the weaker divisions of society: “Everywhere justice is practiced and upheld one sees a stronger power seeking means to put an end to the senseless raging of resentment among weaker parties…”(Morgan 1169). In Nietzsche’s view, justice can almost exclusively be understood as a means to tyrannize. Obviously, in this case, the name of “justice” itself becomes improper.

Nietzsche argues that, at a social level, justice is the means that the governing powers use in order to silence rebellion and prevent the individual from undermining their absolutist power. Essentially, the application of justice is a game of power, which defies the original ethical concerns of the idea. The philosopher regards the law as the expression of the use that society usually makes of justice: “After it [society] has established the law, it treats infringements and arbitrary actions of individuals as wanton acts against the law, as rebellion against the highest power itself” (Morgan 1169).

As Nietzsche puts forth, the individual’s freedom is utterly limited by the manipulative governing powers, which establish laws not in the name of equity and justice but to protect its own interests and to be able to dominate. Justice is not used to protect individual interests, but the interests of the ruling powers which establish laws in order to control the masses. In this context, the ideas that were emphasized before in relation to Galileo’s trial appear in a new light.

Galileo is the victim of institutional power. The Roman Church of the Italian Renaissance had established a law against heresy of any kind in order to protect its ownpower and give it unlimited scope. Despite voicing the truth and contributing to the advancement of mankind, Galileo was persecuted to fulfill the immediate interest of a governing power. Galileo Galilei’s trial is thus an example of the corruptibleness of the idea of justice, once it comes in contact or becomes a part of the actual mechanisms of society.

Although a brilliant and innovative scientist, Galileo was not recognized by most of his contemporaries because his theories contradicted the accepted ideas about the universe and man’s place in it. As it was shown, throughout the history of philosophy, there have been many voices that commented on the impossibility of applying the concept of justice in the actual, human society. The case of Galileo offers a proof of this idea. Galileo was persecuted by the Roman Church for holding different beliefs than those that were already acknowledged as right.

In a similar way, it can be said that some of the laws established by the governing institutions work against individual freedom. The individual is disempowered because he or she must obey a set of limiting rules and must conform to the accepted modes of thinking and action. While modern society has made progress in including statements meant to emphasize individual rights, it can still be argued that the laws are established primarily as a means of control and that the control belongs to the higher powers of the state.

The trial of Galileo will be therefore remembered as an instance of injustice and abuse of power, performed in the name of justice. Throughout history, there have been and presumably will be countless cases where injustice is imparted paradoxically to serve a just purpose, in the sense that it is understood by a given society at a given time. Works Cited: Morgan, Michael L. Classics of Moral and Political Theory. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001.