memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Galileo Galilei (2)

Among the copious foot-notes of one the volumes was a full account of the trial of Galileo in front of the holy inquisition in 1633, which were to be found in the records of the British Library. I quote from the actual accusation:


We, Carpar Borgia, Saint Croix de Jerusalem,

Friar Felix Centino d’Ascoli, of St. Anastatia,

Guido Bentivoglio, of St. Mary del Populo,

Friar Desiderius seaglia di Cremona, of St. Charles,

Friar Anthony Barberini, called Mesroy,

Lewis Zachia, of St. Austin,

Fabritius Verospius, called Prespiter, of St. Lawrence, of in pane perna,

Franciscus Barberini of St. Lawrence in Damaso, and

Martius Ginetus, St. Mary Nuova, deacons, by the mercy of God, Cardinals of the holy  Roman church, and specially deputed, by the holy apostolic see, to be inquisitors against heretical wickedness throughout the whole Christian republic.

Whereas, you Galileus, son of the late Vincentius Galileus, of Florence, aged seventy, were informed against in the year 1615, in this holy office, for maintaining as true, a certain false doctrine held by many, viz. that the sun is in the centre of the world, and immoveable, and the earth moves round it with a daily motion. Likewise, that you have had certain scholars to whom you have taught the same doctrine. Likewise, that you have kept up a correspondence with certain German mathematicians concerning the same. Likewise, that you have published certain letters concerning the solar spots, in which you have explained the same doctrine as true, and that you have answered the objections which in several places were made against you, from the authority of the holy scriptures, by construing or glossing over the said scriptures, according to your own opinions. And finally, whereas the copy of a writing under the form of a letter, reported to been written by you to him who was formerly your scholar, has been shown to us, in which you have followed the hypothesis of Copernicus, which contains certain propositions contrary to the true sense and authority of the holy scriptures.

There follows a point by point refutation, by the inquisitors, of Galileo’s heresy and his attempt to teach it to others, but that he should be absolved:

 Provided that you do first, with sincere heart, and with true faith, abjure, curse, and detest before us the aforesaid errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the catholic and apostolic Roman church, in the form which will be prescribed to you by us.

                But that your grievous and pernicious errors and transgressions may not pass altogether unpunished, that you yourself may be rendered more cautious for the future, and that your example may induce others to abstain from similar crimes, we decree that the book of dialogues by Galileus Galilei, shall be prohibited by a public edict, and we formally condemn you to be imprisoned in this holy office for a time determinable by our pleasure; and we enjoin you, as a salutary penance, that, for the  three years next ensuing, you repeat, once a week, the seven penitential psalms, with the reservation, nevertheless, to ourselves with the power to modify, alter, or remove, either wholly, or in part, the aforesaid penalties and penances.

And so this man, who has been called the Father of modern observational astronomy and the Father of modern physics and even, according to Stephen Hawking, Galileo, perhaps more than any single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science, this man, I repeat, had to eat dirt and to grovel in front of a tribunal of fanatical and reactionary bigots.

The abjuration of Galileus

I, Galileus, son of the late Vincentius Galileus, a Florentine, aged 70, being personally upon my trial, and on my knees before you, the most eminent and reverend the Lords Cardinals, inquisitors-general of the Universal Christian Commonwealth, against heretical wickedness, and having before my eyes the most holy gospels, I touch with my proper hand, do swear that I always have believed, and do now believe, and by the aid of God I will in future believe everything which the holy and apostolic Roman church doth hold, preach and teach. But whereas, notwithstanding, after I had been legally enjoined and commanded by this holy office, to abandon wholly that false opinion, which maintains that the sun is the centre of the universe and immoveable, and I should not hold, defend, or in any way, either by word or writing, teach the aforesaid false doctrine; and whereas also, after it had been notified to me, that the aforesaid doctrine was contrary to the holy scriptures, I wrote and published a book, in which I treated of the doctrine that had been condemned, and produced reasons of great force in favour of it, without giving any answers to them, for which I have been judged by the holy office to have incurred a strong suspicion of heresy, viz. that the sun is the centre of the world, and that the earth is not the centre, but moves…

I, the above-mentioned Galileus Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised, and bound myself as above, and in testimony of these things I have subscribed, with my own proper hand, this instrument of my abjuration, and repeated word by word at Rome, in the convent of Minerva, this 22nd day of July, anno 1633. I, Galileus Galilei, have abjured, as above, with my own proper hand.

According to popular legend, after recanting his theory that the Earth moved round the Sun, Galileo allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase … and yet it moves.

All these words, all those ideas – geocentric doctrine versus heliocentric heresy, are reduced to almost irrelevance by the images brought to us by the HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE in orbit around the earth, peering into each sector of the universe and affording us a glimpse of the wonders of the cosmos in all its glory.

Amazing images of nebulae, thousands of light-years away, fantastic explosions of light and colour, a fabulous chaos of cosmic energy; symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes of galaxies and constellations, bubbling oceans of hydrogen, oxygen and other elements – the cradles of stars.


Towards the end of July 2010 we learnt on the news that astronomers in Britain had discovered the largest star in the universe to date, situated in the system next to ours, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Consider this: our sun is twice the size of the average star – this new star is a staggering 320 times the size of the sun and burns a million times more brightly. This monster star, dubbed VY Canis Majoris (Red Hypergiant) has a diameter of about 2.800.000.000 km and yet it is only a tiny dot among the several hundred billion stars that form our galaxy.

And there are a hundred billion galaxies out there!

Could all of this have been a single deliberate act of creation? (I’m with Stephen Hawking on this one – I somehow doubt it).


Oh, and by the way here is a message for that medieval Inquisitionno, we are not the centre of the universe.


Out there on the perimeter there are no stars … out there we is stoned … immaculate.

Jim Morrison of The Doors

And death shall have no dominion (2)

Living in an old people’s home, as I do and being still relatively young (still in my 60´s), I have strong intimations of mortality.

Regularly, at a rate of about six or seven a year, one of my old colleagues will clock off, sometimes at the hospital and sometimes here at the Home, usually in the small hours of the morning. During their last few days I guess, weakened by pain and discomfort and lulled by various opiates, they hardly speak. That’s one of the first things they abandon – language leaves them, (they’re too busy dying). Do they know that they’re dying? (Everyone else does).

In general they do go gentle into that dark night and the next day the old people will sigh fatalistically: oh well, that’s life they’ll muse philosophically – a uniquely inaccurate observation by the way. I mean it’s not life is it? It is the converse of life. It is death.

What will happen to me? As far as I’m concerned I’m the only being in the universe who can think and speak in the first person – everyone else is second or third person.

Does one spend eternity lolling about in the Elysium Fields, basking in the warmth of God’s goodness and listening to his musings consider the lilies of the field, they do not sew neither do they spin.

Or, rather more attractively in my opinion, does one inhabit a Korana paradise where one is served up delicious meals, (tenderly cooked lamb nestling in a soft bed of lightly-spiced yellow rice), waited on by a succession of beautiful young maidens with lustrous eyes.

I read somewhere about a remote island in the South Seas, cut off from the rest of the world, whose people speak a sub-variant of the Polynesian group of languages with a tiny vocabulary of around two hundred useful words, seven of which signify sweet potato – the sweet potato presumably forming their staple diet. Another of their eccentricities is that they all worship Prince Phillip, the consort of our queen Elisabeth. So one assumes that paradise for them will consist of being subjected to a stream of mild racist-driven gaffes muttered by His Royal Highness.

But, more seriously, I hover in a limbo of unknowing, poised between logic and faith, like a gambler uneasily hedging his bets or like Voltaire on his deathbed who, on being asked by the priest to renounce the Devil and all his works, murmured, this no time to be making new enemies.

To sum it all up, oh God (if there is a god) pray for my Soul (if I have a soul).


The Wisdom of Solomon

Or will it simply be, I wonder, as posited in The Wisdom of Solomon (book 2, verses 2-9). My spirit finds these words incredibly moving and beautiful but my mind remains doubtful in the face such total nihilism.

For we are born of nothing, and after this we shall be as if we had not been; for the breath in our nostrils is smoke: and speech a spark to move our heart.

Which being put out, our body shall be ashes, and our spirit shall be poured abroad as soft air, and our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist, which is driven away by the beams of the sun and overpowered with the heat thereof.

And our name in time shall be forgotten, and no man shall have remembrance of our works.

Come therefore, and let us enjoy the good things that are present, and let us speedily use the creatures as in youth.

Let us fill us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments: and let not the flower of the time pass by us.

Let us crown ourselves with roses, before they be withered: let no meadow escape our riot.

Let none of us go without his share in luxury: let us everywhere leave tokens of joy: for this our portion, and this our lot.



Question of the day

If one man offers you democracy  and another offers a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell (1872 – 1970)


Got to get me Some Philosophy


On this day I’ve got to get me some philosophy, fast.

Time is running out.

Let’s not pussy-foot around with right and wrong, good and evil, let’s go straight to the nub of the question viz: is there or is there not an afterlife?

It’s quite simple really – either there is, which can be good for some of us, depending on which belief-system we either, don’t subscribe to, notionally subscribe to, conventionally subscribe to (for the sake of appearance), fully subscribe to (in the sense that it provides a moral code for our lives), or fanatically subscribe to (which is frankly a bit over the top) –  or there is not, which is bad news for yours truly (and not much cop for the rest of human race since the beginning of its time on this planet).

I have made my decision. I’m going to put my chips on YES, Now let’s roll the dice.


Who the heck was Zeno when he was at home?

Who the heck was Zeno when he was at home?

All I know for sure is that he was the ancient Greek philosopher who was famous for his paradoxes and that his very name is redolent of an esoteric and all-embracing knowledge and wisdom.

Let’s wiki him, shall we? (to wiki, to google, to blog … I never thought the day would arrive when I used those verbs … mind you, in our day we had to hoover, to zerox, to fax and to DHL …) Ah, here we are:
ZENO of Elea (ca. 490 BC?) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher of Southern Italy, a member of The Eleatic School which was founded by Parminedes. Aristotle called him the inventor of the Dialectic. He was best known for his Paradoxes, which Bertrand Russell has described as «immeasurably subtle and profound».

Zeno’s arguments were the first examples of a method of proof called reductio ad absurbum. This form of argument soon became known as the epicheirema. In Book VII of his Topica, Aristotle says that an epicheirema is a dialectical syllogism …

But let’s not go down there because it’s late and I’m going to call it a day.

Oh well, at least I now know who the heck Zeno was when he was at home!

The Umbrella

I am an umbrella: just my luck.

Reincarnation dictates a continuance of consciousness – the eternal «I» threading through time from the creation of the universe – that primal explosion of gas hurtling exponentially outward into the black vacuum of space. I am an atom, a child of Chaos, inhabiting now a wisp of gas, now a chip of matter, travelling for countless billions of years, riding the star-crowded waves of the cosmos. I have witnessed extraordinary things: I have seen the birth of wondrous worlds and their demise, flicked casually aside – the butt-ends of space. Thus I voyaged through the universe until I reached this place.

I worked my way up through the various life-forms. I was a tiny worm wriggling deep in the mud of the restless ocean. I was a clam crouching on the seabed, refusing to give up my secret. I was one of the first marsupials to heave myself out the water onto the newly-formed land and waddle with my fins up the primordial sands. l loped and crouched semi-sapient and half-erect through the dark forests. I was eyeless in Gaza toiling blindly with slaves. I was one of the drunken Frankish knights who entered Jerusalem wading waist-high in blood. I flew point in a V formation of wild geese flying across the Canadian uplands. I was an eagle quartering the dizzy sky scanning the earth with my piercing eyes before diving onto my terrified prey. I was a pearl diver, plunging down with my weight-stone into the murky green depths, forever searching for that glittering prize. l was killed on the Western Front, one of the fifty thousand fallen on that murderous first morning of the Somme Offensive, shot decorously through the forehead as I emerged from my trench.

In my last existence, being a bookish sort of chap, I read a story by Franz Kafka in which the hero wakes up one morning to find that he’s been morphed into a centipede: (mum, I can’t go in to work today, I’ve turned into a bug). I feel a bit like that now: (mum, I can’t go in to work today, I’ve turned into an umbrella). It must be some kind of cosmic glitch – you see, I’d read a Taoist astrological chart indicating that in my next life I was due to be married to a princess.

(To be continued)


Is this all a stitch-up?


Here is picture from the British Library called Christ in Majesty from the Stavelot Bible. Mosan School, AD 1097.

I love this picture. Monks painted this exquisite page patiently in the fervor of their belief in the glory of God. I have always admired and revered sacred, as well as profane, art, be it the early illuminations of monks or the Plain-Chant echoing distantly from the college chapel of my school-days or the time when I was introduced (at the age of eleven) to Chartres Cathedral by my father who remarked that it was astonishing that the architects, engineers and stone-masons who designed and built what was arguably the pinnacle of Western Art were anonymous.

Neither the great masters of the Italian Renaissance nor the popes who commissioned their works were particularly devout – the formers’ genius was too broad to encompass such narrow doctrine and the venality, greed and lust-for-power of the latter too great. But The Last Supper and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are marvellous creations, are they not?

But might it not be that instead of being the product of Divine intervention they are the result of human creativity reaching upwards to the sublime. In other words instead of God creating us in his own image we are creating God in our image.

I read or heard somewhere that catholic children learn in the catechism (which is a simplistic paring down of an already rather narrow doctrine) that if a baby dies before being baptized then he/she is technically denied access to the Kingdom of Heaven; his/her soul is technically transferred to a sort of limbo-créche; one is immediately transferred to a vision of a vast grey vault containing countless little grey cradles silently waiting until … until what, until when? In Zeno-like terms (reductio ad absurdum) the proposition breaks down completely. How could the Divine Architect get it so wrong? How could he/she/it make such a hash of it? Or is he/she/it is just winding us up? Is this all a cosmic stitch-up?

Mathematicians (and who are we to argue with such purity) posit that in the limitless universe the presence of a planet identical to our world is a certainty.

Hic Natus Est Nicholas Saunderson

Easily the most remarkable and distinguished man to be born in our village Thurlstone was the blind mathematician Dr Nicholas Saunderson L.L.D., F.R.S.

Born in 1683, he was our great-great-great-grandmother’s great-uncle. Although totally blind from infancy, his intelligence was such that he absorbed the best education that the district could provide, and won such recognition at the University of Cambridge that he was elected, while still under thirty, to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, (Isaac Newton was the second, Saunderson the fourth, and the present incumbent of the Chair is Prof. Stephen Hawking).

He was a fellow of the Royal Society, and enjoyed the respect and friendship of such men as Newton and Halley. There is surely something prodigious in the fact that a young man from a remote region, who had never read a book in his life (it is said that, as a boy, he learnt to write by tracing the letters on the grave-stones in the church-yard) could betake himself to university, not to study but to teach, and could there attain a professorship; and that the schooling he could get in the local district, with his own natural genius, could make him not only a master of mathematical theory and Newtonian philosophy, but an accomplished musician and a classical scholar, capable of studying Euclid in the original Greek and delivering an oration in finely tuned Latin.

Incredible as it may seem, he was fond of hunting, on horseback – a mounted servant rode before him and his own horse followed!

He didn’t publish much and his chief monument is the two-volume edition of his Algebra.  The Elements of Algebra, 1740,this was ready for publication when he died 1739 and his wife issued it after his death.

My brother James, himself a mathematician, has the family copy.

Like Pope’s Iliad and Johnson’s Dictionary, the book was published by subscription, so these sturdy calf-bound volumes found their way into many a muniments room and many a country rectory. In the list of subscribers, amongst the worthy but rather dull English forgotten scholars, squires and noblemen, one name leaps off the page: Mons. De Voltaire. Banished to England after a spell in the Bastille, Voltaire greatly admired the liberalism of thought here and mixed in the best society and met the leading writers and thinkers of the time. He met and admired Newton, whose astronomical physics he studied with some seriousness.

When he heard about the subscription to Saunderson’s book from his friend Nicholas Thiériot, he wrote back: That famous Mr. Saunderson is, I think, the blind man who understands so well the theory of colours. T’is one of the prodigies which England bears every day .Pray subscribe to me for his book, for the  royal paper,  and let my name be counted amongst the happy readers of his productions.

Got to get me Some Philosophy

I’ve got to get me some philosophy, fast. Time is running out. Let’s not pussy-foot around with right and wrong, good and evil, let’s go straight to the nub of the question viz: is there or is there not an afterlife. It’s quite simple really – either there is, which can be good for some of us, depending on which belief-system we either, don’t subscribe to, notionally subscribe to, conventionally subscribe to (for the sake of appearance), fully subscribe to (in the sense that it provides a moral code for our lives), or fanatically subscribe to (which is frankly a bit over the top) –  or there is not, which is bad news for yours truly (and not much cop for the rest of human race since the beginning of its time on this planet).

I have made my decision. I’m going to put my chips on YES, Now let’s roll the dice.


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