Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo (1947)

Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo (1947) is about the clashes that the scientist Galileo had with the Papal authorities due to his discoveries in astronomy that validated the Copernican Sun-centred model of the universe, thereby undermining the validity of the traditional church-sanctioned Earth-centred cosmology.  This traditional cosmology was perceived as fundamental to the Catholic world view that was deemed by those in authority to support the hierarchical system that had the Catholic religious elites at its apex.  In this context, the play is meant to be appreciated as a philosophical and political discourse rather than as a conventional drama in order to appreciate the author’s Marxist revolutionary perspective and messages. 

Brecht believed he lived in an unequal and unjust world and that the spreading of truth would contribute to the liberation of ordinary people from exploitation, oppression and war (including nuclear war).  From this perspective, Brecht looked back at Galileo as a scientist who was at the vanguard of human progress but who let humanity down by succumbing to his own human weaknesses. 

The characters portraying church leaders represent the authority of the ruling establishment.  They are bad not necessarily because of the way they behave, but more because of the roles they perform in an unequal and unjust social order.  They do not behave as typical villains, but rather they behave as normal ‘senators or bankers’. 

As a committed Marxist, Brecht equates Marxism with scientific truth. An appreciation of the play also depends on acknowledging the author’s adoption of a progressive view of history, which conceptualises history as an upward linear development towards a better world where some events produce steps forward while other events produce steps back. 

The Life of Galileo is a Marxist play about the relationship between truth and freedom, and, in particular, how truth can liberate people who are oppressed by an unjust social order supported by a ‘false ideology’ (untruths). Brecht believed that the harbingers of truth have a duty to propagate it to help liberate and better mankind.   In Brecht’s eyes, the character Galileo failed in his duty by allowing the establishment to muzzle him. 

In Brecht’s eyes, Galileo committed the ‘original sin’ of modern science, allowing truth to be compromised or exploited for profit and war.  With this in mind, the play advances a slippery slope argument with the ultimate consequence being the destructive brutality that nuclear weapons granted to the elites of the dominant social order in Brecht’s time, weapons that posed a threat to the very existence of mankind. 

The character Galileo is treated by Brecht with ambivalence and he imbues the character with a degree of ambiguity in regards to exhibiting a mixture of virtues and human failings.  Galileo is celebrated in the play as a great scientist but not as a great man.  He is a great scientist with moral weaknesses, his inclination towards pleasure (for example, his indulgence in food or his indulgence in the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake) and his aversion to pain (for example, his pronounced fear of the threat of torture).  As a consequence of his moral weaknesses he does not act in the interests of the betterment of mankind. And because he failed to do so, Brecht denied him the status of being a great man. 

Galileo’s official recantation of his science when pressured by the church authorities served, in Brecht’s eyes, to stifle free inquiry and see his science used for profit and war, thereby aiding the oppressors. 

The hero of the play is Andrea, a character who represents ‘the people’. He is the source of hope upon which the play concludes.    Initially inspired by Galileo, unlike him he does not betray the truth.  He stands up for it even at personal risk. He commits himself to the good of society. He represents hope for humanity. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Life of Galileo meaning,  Life of Galileo themes, Life of Galileo analysis, Life of Galileo notes