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Essay: Hammering Reality with Brecht’s Life of Galileo: A Marxist Philosophy of Science and Scientists

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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“Art,” writes Bertolt Brecht in his Messingkauf Dialogues “is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Brecht’s standpoint licenses the dramatist to tinker with the historical record so long as it facilitates socio-political action. Such a credo may draw a raspberry from purists, but it can still prove fruitful — as scholar Eric Bentley notes, even a “bad history play” can have an “urgent truth” for society. Brecht’s Life of Galileo, reworked thrice and which exists in two prominent forms, principally embodies this technique. From first to final version, the play thrusts Brecht’s 20th-century philosophy of science into the strange setting of 17th-century Italy during Galileo’s bloom, a dramaturgical choice of “bad history” proportions which alienates and hammers Brecht’s “urgent truth” to 20th-century audiences.

The play is the creation of 18 years, beginning just before World War II and tunneling through one of the most turbulent periods in modern history. Social forces, namely the rise of Nazi Germany and the atomic bombings of Japan, lead Brecht to radically imagine and reimagine his Galileo in the context of a larger ethical ideal. The final scene of Galileo I, written in 1938 while Brecht was in exile from Nazi Germany, ends with Galileo’s appeal to scientists to preserve intellectual objectivity. After the United States had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Brecht rewrote the ending. In this second version, Galileo implores scientists to take a dynamic role: to propagate science’s advents to advance civilization, chiefly people’s quality of life.

Atomic innovation fine-tunes Brecht’s motives. By 1943, Brecht not only delineates the ethics of science but also the ethics of the scientist. Both versions indeed pursue the same purpose: Brecht’s Life of Galileo ultimately presents a Marxist view of science  — its origins, applications, and epistemology — which challenges the tenets of Aryan science being promoted when the play was first written in 1938. The philosophy of science Brecht articulates in Life of Galileo, unapologetically and publicly counters Nazi science propaganda with the Marxist theory of knowledge. This paper will synthesize Brecht’s two versions of Life of Galileo in conversation with Brecht’s political philosophy of Marxism, and defend the premise that Brecht’s conception of science originates in the everyday activities of working people.

To argue Brecht’s Life of Galileo is dependent on Marxist thought, I will first outline the connection between science and the proletariat, illustrating that each informs and shapes the other in complex but unmistakable ways. To add connective tissue to this premise, I will explore the influence of Brecht’s Marxism in Life of Galileo on two fronts: its influence on a philosophy of science and its influence on a philosophy of scientists. The former will rely upon analyses of Cardinal Bellarmine, the Little Monk, and the Peasants; the latter will demonstrate how Galileo’s Achilles heels fail to measure up to Brecht’s Marxist ideal of the scientist. Finally, this essay will crown on a macroscopic elaboration of Brecht’s ideal for the scientist, one last hurrah illustrating Marxism’s inextricable significance in Life of Galileo.

From Brecht’s view, science emerges from the struggle of working people to sustain their existence. Crude science for them is a means for survival, not merely a sensual pursuit. The farmer must know the simple laws of ecology to yield his grain; the baker, the simple laws of chemistry to make his bread. Experience teaches him new lessons and he devises new tools. Science in this context remains intimately coupled to its material conditions — namely, supplies, environment, and economic base — and the human mind synthesizes these synergistic relationships. It is this profoundly humane view of the origins of science that Brecht presented to challenge the mechanical organicism of Nazi science in 1938.

Unlike the Nazis who exploited the study of nature to justify oppression, Brecht, as a Marxist, believed that science should analyze nature to improve people’s lives. His Galileo in scene 9 says, “The sin of science is not to open the door to everlasting wisdom but to set a limit to everlasting error,” further declaring his aim is “not to prove that I have been right but to find out whether or not I have been.” Brecht told his actors that these lines were the most tantamount in the play for Marxists,, for it defined the critical posture of the scientist: skeptical of facile solutions yet assured in his ability to find answers for the betterment of mankind. Given this posture, doubt would generate greater and more certain knowledge. This sharply departures from the role of doubt in Nazi epistemology which emphasized rigid certainty to keep people from capsizing the social order. Brecht’s Marxist views, thus, put the power of science — with its critical component of doubt — squarely in the hands of the people whom the Nazis sorely neglected and tried to quash in Germany as Brecht wrote this play.

Despite the foundational role Brecht’s Marxist philosophy plays in Life of Galileo, scholars continue to view it with passivity, and even hostility. Two of the most notable scholars to provide formalistic approaches to Brecht’s canon — John Willett and Martin Esslin — are guilty, for instance, of providing scant scrutiny to Brecht’s Marxism. Willett, for instance, discloses, “[Marxism] degenerates into […] gross over-simplifications, leading to awkward intellectual shuffles.” Similar to Willett, Esslin too seeks to stifle discourse on Brechtian Marxism, declaring Brecht “put himself and his great talents at [Marxism’s] service” and that “there can be no doubt that he was ready to sink into the mire and to embrace more than one butcher.” Ultimately, Willett and Esslin defend Brecht as an innovative thinker but disregard and trivialize his Marxist worldview. This is taken as a priori assumption in their analyses — in essence, they claim that Brecht’s innovations are important despite his being a Marxist. As if these traits can be associated from his Marxism! In fact, Brecht himself wanted others to recognize that his talent “was absolutely inseparable from [his] socialist ideas.”, Moreover, Esslin and Willett egregiously overlook the nature of Marxist aesthetics: to expose contradiction where the bourgeois mindset sees none. Brecht’s Marxist aesthetic, thus, is to undermine bourgeois values and, adherent to his epic theater, force the audience to rationally see the realities of the world, to see the lives of the working class. Regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain one upholds, one must note well that Life of Galileo does indeed draw substantially from Brecht’s Marxist ideology — but not to participate in a dialectical discourse as Willett and Esslin suggest. Rather, Brecht intends to abstractly negate alternative views, particularly Nazism.   

How, then, does one see Brecht’s Marxist philosophy of science in the play? Such a conception surfaces from his connections between science and social order, which supplements his vision of a materialist, scientific creed. Brecht routinely spotlights the ruling authority’s use of knowledge against people: in scene 7 for instance, Bellarmine says to Galileo, “Consider the cruelty of those peasants whipped half-naked and the stupidity of the wretches who kiss their feet in return. […] We’ve transferred the responsibility for such conditions […] to a higher being, [and] we say that a master plan is being followed.” In these lines, Brecht depicts the ruling classes’ use of their exclusive access to knowledge against the oppressed — the rulers perpetuate inhumane conditions and then create an ideology to justify it. This ideology, as Bellarmine reveals, usually portrays them as co-victims or as passive elements in some hierarchy which is not amenable to human intervention. The rulers acknowledge the barbarity of the situation but they manipulatively mitigate their culpability by pointing to higher powers. Bellarmine’s words are stunningly ironic: he admonishes Galileo to have compassion for the theologians who imposed tenets which now enslave the peasants. The twisted priorities of the cardinal’s humanity are certainly sinful. He further calls the peasants’ vulnerability stupidity and suggests they are responsible for their suffering as their own tormentors, turning a blind eye to the cruelty of the lords. Bellarmine, thus, embodies both pious humanity and hateful magniloquence. His posture epitomizes the essence of contradiction in the context of authority in class society from a Marxist perspective: though authority masquerades as the beneficent protector of all interests, it is a partner and shareholder in the operation which sustains the privileges of the few and suffering of the many.

Brecht introduces this theme again from the point of view of a person tethered to both the ruling authority and the suffering peasants. The Little Monk, one of the physicists in the Collegium Romanum who supported Galileo in the midst of traditional scholarship’s attacks, comes to see the astronomer after being unable to reconcile the decree against Copernicanism with the phenomena he himself has observed. The Little Monk understands well the effect Church dogma has on peasants — he speaks to Galileo of his parents, whose religion gives purpose to their misery. He warns of the devastating effects a change in worldview would have on their lives and ponders if the Church has forbidden Copernicanism on purely humanitarian grounds: “What would my people say if I were to tell them they were living on a small chunk of stone that moves around another star? What would be the good […] of their acquiescence in their misery? I can see how cheated […] they feel.” Brecht explores two concepts in the Little Monk’s statement: the role of people caught between the two conflicting classes, and the oppressed people’s internalization of their oppression. The Little Monk does not have a stake in defending the Church — he is enough a part of it to understand some of its ulterior motives yet not deeply enough involved to see through its more clever diversions. On the other hand, privy to his parents’ suffering, the monk fears changes will only worsen his parents’ condition. He does not openly question Church policy to seek out its shortcomings, so he clasps to the status quo like a boa constrictor. Like the Little Monk, the middle-level bureaucrats in Germany complied with unjust authority: Hitler, in fact, tailored many aspects of his program to them, preying on their lurking doubts that the future may yield worse conditions. Though not anti-semitic, most believed they had no other recourse, and shamefully succumbed to Hitler’s machine.

With the Monk’s words, Brecht also analyzes the way in which the peasants have internalized the oppressive worldview. Once the peasants capitulate to this view, believe it works in their interest, the landlords no longer have to suppress them to ensure obedience. Their ideology will make them behave. The peasants’ lives are so glum that their only asset is their sense of order. After the monk begs Galileo to see the humanity of a religion which gives people’s lives meaning by making their suffering a part of divine will, Galileo replies, “Virtue is not bound up with misery, my friend. […] Today the virtues of exhausted people derive from exhausted fields, and I reject those virtues.” Brecht echoes his Germany and its peasants as well. He attacks the Nazi peasant program and propaganda which called the peasants the “new nobility” and left them bound to the land as serfs.

In scene 10, Brecht further explores this Marxist connection between ideology and social order, this time from the perspective of the peasants. The form of scene 10 differs in the play’s two versions but the essence is the same: the setting is a carnival. Brecht’s stage directions describe the characters as a “half-starved couple of show people.” They gather a crowd, like street minstrels, and sing of a new doctrine about the heavens which has wreaked havoc on Earth; consequently, none of the downtrodden people will stay in their places. In Galileo II, they sing: “For independent spirit spreads like foul diseases / And […] Obedience will never cure your woe / So each of you wake up and do just as he pleases.” Brecht’s common people have seized the new conception of the universe and used it to give credence to their own struggles: they, too, connect scientific ideology and social order. The common people embrace Galileo’s theory because it challenges the fundamental premises of the order which oppresses them; it threatens to undermine the foundations of their politically- and religiously-sanctioned prison. If Brecht’s Marxism asserts that Galileo’s scientific consciousness can promote the proletariat’s liberation, what treatment does it provide of Galileo and, by extension, scientists themselves? The final scene, after Galileo recants to spare himself pain and reveals his cowardice, offers the sharpest illustration of Brecht’s Marxist conception of the scientist’s commitment to humanity.

 In notes to Galileo II, Brecht wrote that he intended Galileo I to be an unvarnished picture of a new age. His preface to the original version sets the astronomer’s case in the context of the struggle between old and new: “Terrible is the disappointment when men think they discover […] that their age — the new age — has not yet arrived […] they know nothing of new ages.” In this context, Galileo becomes a victim of the struggle between an older order which rejects a truth that subverts its authority and the new order embodying that truth.

Amidst this struggle, however, Galileo in his arrest has come to formulate an understanding of the scientist’s responsibilities to the profession and humanity at large. “Authority and absence of truth go together and so do truth and absence of authority,” he tells Andrea, setting the stage for the scientists’ most important fight: the fight for scientific freedom. According to Brecht, this battle has two fronts: the scientific community and humanity. Galileo’s soliloquy on professional responsibility captures this: “Even a wool merchant, in addition to buying cheap and providing good wool, has to worry about his trade being permitted without restriction.” Scientists, to Brecht, first have a duty to protect their profession from authority’s encroachment, to uphold the integrity of their work and the integrity of their whole discipline. If science cannot preserve itself, individual contributions will crumble. Brecht’s concern for the preservation of honest science reflects the most pressing issue for scientists during the 20th century, an issue that fundamentally conflicts with Brecht’s Marxist philosophy and which compels him to act. As Hitler sought to dismantle organized science, he had propagandists create new Nazi disciplines of their own, perverting truth ruthlessly to promote his own ends. As the racial sciences legitimated the cruel machinations of Hitler’s fascism, Brecht recognized this major contradiction with the scientific community — that the skills of science were being used to afflict and bind people. His outrage compelled him to say: “Science has no use for people who fail to stick up for reason. […] Science could have no future in a world of lies.” Thus, Brecht proposes that when scientists abandon the fight for truth, they outrageously betray the people.

Once Galileo fails to uphold the fight for truth, ceding science to the ruling authority’s encroachment, Brecht places Galileo among these contemptible scientists  —  the scientists who came to support Nazism and gave Hitler scientific legitimacy while he mounted a destructively anti-proletarian, anti-science campaign conscripted into the service of the fascist war machine.

Brecht’s Galileo becomes a traitor. A partial reprieve, however, comes with the timely arrival of his former pupil. Although he enters the scene with measured contempt for the old astronomer, Andrea changes his view once he hears of the Discourses. Galileo betrayed science and humanity yet he has recognized the severity of his act. He has formulated principles of scientific responsibility and now has made a contribution to his profession which will come to strengthen it against the attacks to which he succumbed. He is, here, akin to the German scientists who fled Nazism and continued their work in other countries: if they deplorably abandoned the fight, they might still contribute to strengthening science for and by the people.

Brecht’s final verdict on Galileo’s case is “guilty but with extenuating circumstances.”

The astronomer even evokes compassion as he sits in his blindness, unable to see Andrea’s extended hand — he has been scarred by the struggle to change. His tactics in avoiding the Inquisition were ultimately shrewd, though not deliberate. He bought time for his science to develop, though to develop it he had to sacrifice the one need which forced him to recant: the need for personal comfort. Nevertheless, he reaffirms his commitment to scientific integrity. Though Galileo is no less a coward, he is not a villain.

The message here cannot be divorced from its twentieth-century German context. Revolutions in Russia, and in Munich and Berlin roused people’s hopes for change, only to be crushed in Germany by the advent of fascism. To many people who felt as if they were on the edge of a new order, this represented the most brutal and ruthless reassertion of the old. Galileo’s final line to Andrea is a warning, an unmistakable allusion to the suppression of truth in Nazi Germany: “Look out for yourself when you travel through Germany with the truth under your coat.” Yet in this passage, Galileo also talks about other places which are the scene of “immense discoveries which […] contribute immeasurably to humanity’s happiness,” in a world where many countries have darkness upon them. Brecht the Marxist makes allusions to the emergence of Soviet Russia in the midst of a fascist threat to Europe which many explain some of Brecht’s optimism, his insistence on talking about a new age throughout the play.

The advent of a new age, in scene 14 of Galileo II, becomes a sub-theme to the theme of abuse of science. The new preface sets a context for a more comprehensive analysis of Galileo’s behavior as a scientist and of the weight of his crime in the penultimate scene. It comes after the world has experienced a concretely terrifying example of the destructive power of science, the atom bomb. Galileo’s words have an entirely new urgency: his guilt is not as easily mitigated, even given the new contributions he has made. Now Galileo is like the German physicists who fled from Nazi repression and joined the fight against Hitler only to develop an atomic bomb which killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese.

Brecht hereby argues that scientists cannot be evaluated apart from their politics, similar to the way Brecht does not wish to be evaluated apart from his Marxism. Separation between the two is a myth which summons the ruling classes to imbue science with their own political and economic interests and their own ideology, a myth which encourages people to see knowledge for its own sake as the scientist’s ultimate goal while excusing the scientists from the ethical ramifications. Brecht explores this plight from the perspectives of the Nazi scientist who acquires the resources necessary to do research and the German exile who escapes the abuse of science in his own country only to find that his research will be used for destruction: “Just when he has wholly cut himself off from the people as the complete specialist, he is appalled to see himself once again as one of the people […] his protests refer not only to the attacks on his science, which is to be hampered, sterilized, and perverted, but also to the threat which his knowledge represents to the world and to himself.” Brecht’s analysis here has taken a sharp turn from his earlier views. He no longer sees science as knowledge for its own sake; science will always serve the interest of a particular group. Scientists, thus, can no longer content themselves with fighting for freedom from authority if they do not dedicate themselves to humanity; scientists must fight to control the uses to which their science is put. Brecht purports the people’s authority over science to insure that it functions for their greatest good, a factor which explains his scorching portrayal of Galileo.

Throughout the play, Brecht has drawn links between the struggles of the common people and the ideological conflict — he repeatedly demonstrates how the people embrace Galileo’s revolutionary principles in their fight for a more just social order, how science can uphold the laws of cause and the common people’s faith in reason. The astronomer’s science has challenged the Church’s authority which tried to make the peasant’s suffering divine. When science fails to defy corruption, and instead corrupts society itself with its own weapons, Brecht is compelled to skewer Galileo and, more generally, scientists. The creation of the atomic bomb is one notable example of the scientist’s shortcoming:“The atom bomb is, both as technical and as social phenomenon, the classical end product of his contribution to science and his failure to contribute to society.” With these words, Brecht does not assign the historical Galileo actual guilt for the horrors of nuclear war; he condemns the astronomer for sowing the seeds of science’s abandonment of humanity, a final nail hammering his Marxist conception of the scientist.

Ultimately, Brecht makes a complex web of comparisons linking the seventeenth and twentieth centuries for the purposes of criticism by veiled analogy. He traces the origins of the tradition which has produced and condoned the decimation of humanity of science to critique his Galileo. But more than a condemnation of Galileo, Life of Galileo is a warning to the contemporary scientists to embrace a two-pronged responsibility: first to the scientific work itself, and then to the society to which this work is committed and which it seeks to aid. In turning to history to tell his Marxist-infused narrative, Brecht is considered with the fundamental human problem of his own age, which he is correct in calling a scientific one. Galileo, then, does not interest him as a character — but as a moral case.

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