Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bertolt Brecht's Galileo

There are few plays with which I am more familiar than Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. I’ve studied it as an undergraduate and a graduate student, writing a seminar paper on the differences between the penultimate scene in Brecht’s two versions as well as Charles Laughton’s. I even participated in a dramatic reading when I was in high school. But on rereading it earlier this year, something nagged me that I wasn’t able to quite put my finger on, and life being what it is, other things came up and it was forgotten.

But in the past few days I have been thinking about the role of religion in our society, comparing my own anecdotal experiences and attitudes with those of my grandparents. I’m not really sure if there is a larger point to be made without significant research but this afternoon I started thinking about Brecht again.

On one level, the simplest I suppose, Galileo is about the rise of scientific reason against religious faith. As a young adult in the 21st century, I have pretty much come to the conclusion that scientific reason should probably trump faith when it can be sufficiently proven. For example, I don’t really think Christian and Jewish faith is injured too much by admitting the world is more than 6000 years old. Just like it didn’t hurt to much to admit, as Galileo proves, that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Yet when I get up every morning and walk out my front door, the world appears flat to me, and it appears to be in the same place it was yesterday. By my senses, the sun moves overhead, the ground isn’t rotating. Of course, I believe what science has explained, yet I do not possess the abilities to go out and prove it myself. I don’t have the slightest idea how to prove a rock is a few million years old. I don’t even understand the sunspot experiment that Galileo performs in the play.

I have faith that these things are true. The same faith that those in the 16th century placed in God, I place in science. Brecht even acknowledges this, with the Papal Inquisitor saying ‘Can society stand on doubt and not on faith?’ I suppose by the Inquisitor’s rationale, it can, for we as a society have left behind so many preconceived notions about the world as time has passed. Yet this new situation is possible for society only because it has faith in the science that it can’t hope to understand on its own.

I’m not sure that any of this is news, but somehow this truth is one that I am surprised to be so surprised by. Perhaps articulating things we all know is a way at really pointing them out, casting a light on what we often overlook. Thinking we are men ruled by science is not all that far from thinking we are men ruled by God.

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