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Galileo Galilei, Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632)

Read a condensed version of the Stillman translation online

(if you don’t want to tackle the whole)

Galileo Galilei
Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems
translated by Stillman Drake




SALVIATI. Yesterday we resolved to meet today and discuss as clearly and in as much detail as possible the character and the efficacy of those laws of nature which up to the present have been put forth by the partisans of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic position on the one hand, and by the followers of the Copernican system on the other. Since Copernicus places the earth among the movable heavenly bodies, making it a globe like a planet, we may well begin our discussion by examining the Peripatetic steps in arguing the impossibility of that hypothesis; what they are, and how great is their force and effect. For this it is necessary to introduce into nature two substances which differ essentially. These are the celestial and the elemental, the former being invariant and eternalo the latter, temporary and destructible. This argument Aristotle treats in his book De Caelo, introducing it with some discourses dependent upon certain general assumptions, and afterwards confirming it by experiments and specific demonstrations. Following the same method, I shall first propound, and then freely speak my opinion, submitting myself to your criticisms — particularly those of Simplicio, that stout champion and defender of Aristotelian doctrines….

SALV. …I declare that we do have in our age new events and observations such that if Aristotle were now alive, I have no doubt he would change his opinion. This is easily inferred from his own manner of philosophizing, for when he writes of considering the heavens inalterable, etc., because no new thing is seen to be generated there or any old one dissolved, he seems implicitly to let us understand that if he had seen any such event he would have reversed his opinion, and properly preferred the sensible experience to natural reason. Unless he had taken the senses into account, he would not have argued immutability from sensible mutations not being seen.

SIMP. Aristotle first laid the basis of his argument a priori, showing the necessity of the inalterability of heaven by means of natural, evident, and clear principles. He afterward supported the same a posteriori, by the senses and by the traditions of the ancients.

SALV. What you refer to is the method he uses in writing his doctrine, but I do not believe it to be that with which he investigated it. Rather, I think it certain that he first obtained it by means of the senses, experiments, and observations, to assure himself as much as possible of his conclusions. Afterward he sought means to make them demonstrable. That is what is done for the most part in the demonstrative sciences; this comes about because when the conclusion is true, one may by making use of analytical methods hit upon some proposition which is already demonstrated, or arrive at some axiomatic principle; but if the conclusion is false, one can go on forever without ever finding any known truth — if indeed one does not encounter some impossibility or manifest absurdity. And you may be sure that Pythagoras, long before he discovered the proof for which he sacrificed a hecatomb, was sure that the square on the side opposite the right angle in a right triangle was equal to the squares on the other two sides. The certainty of a conclusion assists not a little in the discovery of its proof — meaning always in the demonstrative sciences. But however Aristotle may have proceeded, whether the reason a priori came before the sense perception a posteriori or the other way round, it is enough that Aristotle, as he said many times, preferred sensible experience to any argument. Besides, the strength of the arguments a priori has already been examined.

Now, getting back to the subject, I say that things which are being and have been discovered in the heavens in our own time are such that they can give entire satisfaction to all philosophers, because just such events as we have been calling generations and corruptions have been seen and are being seen in particular bodies and in the whole expanse of heaven. Excellent astronomers have observed many comets generated and dissipated in places above the lunar orbit, besides the two new stars of 1572 and 1604, which were indisputably beyond all the planets. And on the face of the sun itself, with the aid of the telescope, they have seen produced and dissolved dense and dark matter, appearing much like the clouds upon the earth: and many of these are so vast as to exceed not only the Mediterranean Sea, but all of Africa, with Asia thrown in….

SIMP. To tell the truth, I have not made such long and careful observations that I can qualify as an authority on the facts of this matter; but certainly I wish to do so, and then to see whether I can once more succeed in reconciling what experience presents to us with what Aristotle teaches. For obviously two truths cannot contradict one another.

SALV. Whenever you wish to reconcile what your senses show you with the soundest teachings of Aristotle, you will have no trouble at all. Does not Aristotle say that because of the great distance, celestial matters cannot be treated very definitely?

SIMP. He does say so, quite clearly.

SALV. Does he not also declare that what sensible experience shows ought to be preferred over any argument, even one that seems to be extremely well founded? And does he not say this positively and without a bit of hesitation?

SIMP. He does.

SALV. Then of the two propositions, both of them Aristotelian doctrines, the second — which says it is necessary to prefer the senses over arguments — is a more solid and definite doctrine than the other, which holds the heavens to be inalterable. Therefore it is better Aristotelian philosophy to say “Heaven is alterable because my senses tell me so,” than to say, “Heaven is inalterable because Aristotle was so persuaded by reasoning. Add to this that we possess a better basis for reasoning about celestial things than Aristotle did. He admitted such perceptions to be very difficult for him by reason of the distance from his senses, and conceded that one whose senses could better represent them would be able to philosophize about them with more certainty. Now we, thanks to the telescope, have brought the heavens thirty or forty times closer to us than they were to Aristotle, so that we can discern many things in them that he could not see; among other things these sunspots, which were absolutely invisible to him. Therefore we can treat of the heavens and the sun more confidently than Aristotle could.

SAGR. I can put myself in Simplicio’s place and see that he is deeply moved by the overwhelming force of these conclusive arguments. But seeing on the other hand the great authority that Aristotle has gained universally; considering the number of famous interpreters who have toiled to explain his meanings; and observing that the other sciences, so useful and necessary to mankind, base a large pan of their value and reputation upon Aristotle’s credit; Simplicio is confused and perplexed, and I seem to hear him say, “Who would there be to settle our controversies if Aristotle were to be deposed? What other author should we follow in the schools, the academies, the universities? What philosopher has written the whole of natural philosophy, so well arranged, without omitting a single conclusion? Ought we to desert that structure under which so many travelers have recuperated? Should we destroy that haven, that Prytaneum where so many scholars have taken refuge so comfortably; where, without exposing themselves to the inclemencies of the air, they can acquire a complete knowledge of the universe by merely turning over a few pages? Should that fort be leveled where one may abide in safety against all enemy assaults?”

I pity him no less than I should some fine gentleman who, having built a magnificent palace at great trouble and expense, employing hundreds and hundreds of artisans, and then beholding it threatened with ruin because of poor foundations, should attempt, in order to avoid the grief of seeing the walls destroyed, adorned as they are with so many lovely murals; or the columns fall, which sustain the superb galleries, or the gilded beams; or the doors spoiled, or the pediments and the marble cornices, brought in at so much cost — should attempt, I say, to prevent the collapse with chains, props, iron bars, buttresses, and shores.

SALV. Well, Simplicio need not yet fear any such collapse; I undertake to insure him against damage at a much smaller cost. There is no danger that such a multitude of great, subtle, and wise philosophers will allow themselves to be overcome by one or two who bluster a bit. Rather, without even directing their pens against them, by means of silence alone, they place them in universal scorn and derision. It is vanity to imagine that one can introduce a new philosophy by refining this or that author, It is necessary first to teach the reform of the human mind and to render it capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood, which only God can do.

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