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Galileo analyzes the cancel mob gathering against him

February 7, 2021

Galileo reveals why he thinks cancel mobs form and what characteristics their leaders and followers have.

Galileo was under fire by theologians and academic philosophers who were against the heliocentric view of the universe that he espoused. Galileo worked in the court of Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany at the time. He wrote a letter in 1615 to the Duke’s mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, in hopes of gaining support and protection from the forces gathering against him [1]. It did not entirely work, because shortly thereafter in 1616 he was judged by Rome, in response to the many complaints against him, to be in conflict with Church views and his work had to be renounced and suspended. Galileo ultimately violated this injunction and was condemned by the Inquisition 17 years later in 1633.

Galileo’s letter was mostly an excellent theological defense of scientific freedom. But there were several parts of the letter that were focused on analyzing what today might be called the “cancel culture.” Here are six such passages, all quoted from [1]:

 I. Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors—as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences.

II. Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth, they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments….

III. But some, besides allegiance to their original error, possess I know not what fanciful interest in remaining hostile not so much toward the things in question as toward their discoverer.

IV. Persisting in their original resolve to destroy me and everything mine by any means they can think of, these men are aware of my views in astronomy and philosophy [heliocentric universe].

V. They [leaders of the persecution] know that it is human nature to take up causes whereby a man may oppress his neighbor, no matter how unjustly, rather than those from which a man may receive some just encouragement. Hence they have had no trouble in finding men who would preach the damnability and heresy of the new doctrine from their very pulpits with unwonted confidence….

VI. And the smaller number of understanding men could not dam up the furious torrent of such people, who would gain the majority of followers simply because it is much more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom without effort or study than to consume oneself tirelessly in the most laborious disciplines.

What is fascinating in these extracts and in the letter as a whole is Galileo’s pain of realizing that people are not so much interested in arguing and discussing the pros and cons of the heliocentric view. They most wanted to silence him, Galileo the man, the “discoverer.” They wished to “destroy [him] and everything [his] by any means they can think of.”

Galileo also speculates something about human character in Extracts II and V. In Extract II he complains that many show “greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth” — a problem that has not abated over the centuries. In Extract V he says that it is natural for “such people” to want to gang up on an individual, and leaders that are after him know that very well. Thus, it is easy to have simplistic or wrong opinions and still incite a mob against an individual, because people are prone to want to join in such activities.

In Extract VI, which occurs near the end of the letter, he comes back to the theme of ignorant persecutors and is obviously bitter about the number of simpletons who have a “reputation for wisdom” but never exert themselves tirelessly “in the most laborious disciplines”, which one can presumably take Galileo to mean mathematics and natural sciences. And yet, these simpletons “gain the majority of followers.”

Of course, there is an element of Galileo’s approach to his persecution that contributed to the antipathy people had toward him. For example, Father Grassi, a Jesuit priest who was present at Galileo’s trial said of Galileo:

As for Mr. Galileo’s displeasure, I tell you most sincerely that I, too, am displeased. I have always had more love for him than he has for me. And last year at Rome [during the trial] when I was requested to give my opinion on his book on the motion of the earth, I took the utmost care to allay minds harshly disposed toward him and to render them open to conviction of the strength of his arguments, so much so, indeed, that certain people who supposed me to have been offended by Galileo . . . marveled at my solicitude. But he has ruined himself by being so much in love with his own genius, and by having no respect for others. One should not wonder that everybody conspires to damn him. (as quoted in [2])

If there is something to learn from the Galileo story regarding these issues it is this: heroes do not abandon their convictions because of threatening mobs; true scholars are tentative and teachable and do not “cancel” people but rather engage with the arguments or, at worst, ignore them (because there is only so much time in the day); be nicer to the simpletons than they deserve or their mob will gain strength and be further motivated to condemn you; but even being nice won’t necessarily protect you — you have to be prepared to suffer for your convictions and one day there might be a book about your discoveries and opinions, like Galileo [1].

It would seem difficult for people who are part of “cancel culture” to accomplish anything nearly as grand as Galileo. Their mindsets of rigid boundaries and complex no-go zones are very high maintenance and leave little energy or space for deep, challenging, and creative thought. Furthermore, their efforts to control the expressions of others, if successful, dull the minds of everyone around them in time.

The great English poet John Milton, Galileo’s friend later in life, warned of the same when in a speech before the English Parliament in 1644 he declared that limits on freedom in publishing doom society to produce only fustian drivel. According to Milton, the effect is devastating. He brought up the cancellation of Galileo as evidence:

I could recount what I have seen and heard in other countries, where this kind of inquisition tyrannizes; where I have sat among their learned men, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of Philosophical Freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought; that this was it which had dampened the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican Licencers thought. [3]

Soft-power licencers can be just as damaging. Limits on freedom are not only imposed by governments but also by pseudo-ecclesiastical petition mobs which can be just as devastating as any governmental decree that takes away people’s jobs and livelihoods, not to mention their dignity.

The words of Galileo and Milton speak to us four centuries later to remind us that a flourishing creative society depends on us embracing freedom.


[1] Galileo Galilei. “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”, 1615. English translation published in Drake, Stillman. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. New York: Anchor book, 1957.

[2] Moss, J.D. “Galileo’s Letter to Christina: Some Rhetorical Considerations.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol.36, No.4 (Winter 1983), pp.547-576.

[3] Allen-Olney, Mary. The Private Life of Galileo. Boston: Nichols and Noyes, 1870. The quote is originally from Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). I have modernized the spelling here. Italics are mine.

Milton visiting Galileo when a prisoner of the Inquisition. Solomon Alexander Hart, 1847.
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