Martyrs for Science

James Hoskins at Christ and Pop Culture has a pretty good piece on the “first martyr of science,” Giordano Bruno. I think Hoskins is right when he suggests that for both Bruno and Galileo, the science was a side issue. And he’s right that we have enshrined them as scientific saints in a way that distorts the actual causes of their deaths.

I’ll be honest, I’m no longer sure of what to think about Bruno and Galileo. I tend to see both men as people who benefited from the system that ultimately destroyed them. Bruno gained status and position as a Dominican Friar, while Galileo enjoyed the patronage of the Vatican.

But Bruno began to preach a theology that undermined the authority of the church. Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII in the mouth of a character called “the simpleton.” Both men found that the system they benefited from could turn on them.

I deplore the actions taken by the church in both cases. But they were part of the larger system of justice at the time. Insulting a nobleman or questioning the monarchy would have gotten you killed just as quickly.

As an example, take the experiences of another secular saint: Voltaire. Early in his career, Voltaire responded to a insult by a nobleman. The nobleman sent out thugs who beat Voltaire quite badly. Not being a nobleman himself, there was nothing that Voltaire could do legally. His friends refused to get involved, either out of fear or because they saw the nobleman as within his rights. Voltaire tried to challenge the man to a duel. The nobleman’s family responded by having Voltaire imprisoned in the Bastille without trial and eventually exiled from Paris.

This is what justice looked like for a good chunk of human history. Those people above you in the hierarchy could do you harm and frequently kill you with impunity. There was nothing you could do about it.

So I tend to look at both men less as martyrs and more as examples of people who were hammered down by the hierarchy. Correcting the problem has less to do with science and more to do with the advancement of human equality.

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