I met a fellow at a wedding the other day and he introduced himself as an engineer who helps build satellites for Boeing. Very cool. As an English PhD student one would not expect I would have the wherewithal for a long, involved, interesting conversation with someone from that walk of life but, as I told him, I wrote my first seminar paper on Galileo. Specifically on his sense of humor. Curiosity piqued, he asked me to explain a bit, which I did; the contents of those anecdotes I may save for a future blog-post. But where things got interesting was: later in the course of the reception, after the dinner plates had been cleared, he asked me if it was true that, as Galileo stood on the scaffold, so to speak, to recant the hypothesis that the sun revolves around the earth, he said under his breath “but it really does” or some such.
What fascinated me about this quotation of an anecdote, I did not realize until later, was the volumes is peaks on what we want our heroes to be. Not content with Galileo being one of the greatest minds of his age; one of the greatest minds of all time; one of the greatest combinations of theoretical and applied scientific inquiry… What did he want Galileo to be but a hero? Or rather: a friend.We want to look at Galileo’s support of the Catholic church over and above his support of philosophical inquiry and say that it was not genuine somehow. There is a kind of loneliness in being forced to cope with the alternative.
But before that, what I first said to this man, this engineer, this interlocutor, was that it would be extremely difficult to determine if such an anecdote were real because it was so obviously polemical in its implications. That the more interesting aspect of that story is why it was told at all.
It is indeed difficult to come to terms with the possibility that your hero does not share certain values with you; does not share certain loyalties with you; would not like you if you met. That is a lonely thought. But perhaps it is lonelier still to require of our heroes that they also be our saints; and to require of our saints that they be like us–or like our best selves. That way lies narcissism.
Too often we ask our stories to confirm us in our beliefs rather than helping us find our way to new beliefs or to newer, better versions of beliefs.