Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems

Philosophical Reflections XL

In 1632, Galileo published his “Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems”, a thinly disguised polemic for the heretical Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It stars three men: Salviati, scientist and proponent of the heliocentric system; Simplicio, unreconstructed Aristotelian1defending the geocentric system; and Sagredo, intelligent “neutral” party – not surprisingly, swayed most by Salviati’s arguments.

By a remarkable coincidence, the many-times-great grandsons of these eminent men now meet monthly at the secluded but charming Piazza dell’Helensvale in Florence, in the shade of the gnarled and ancient olive tree that graces it. There, over steaming espressos and flagons of Falerno, they have reinstated their ancestral tradition to argue matters of philosophy and science. The heliocentric theory – so heretical in its time that it was 1992 before the Catholic Church could forgive Galileo for promoting it – has been “settled science” for centuries now. So on a hot summer day, we find the cicadas in song in the branches and our three thinkers in equally intense dialogue below, on two chief world systems of a different sort entirely.

SIMPLICIO: We have agreed in our previous discussions that people can reach the truth through reason applied to the facts of reality. And as the rules of reason are fixed, and the facts of reality are there for everyone to see if they choose to look, then it follows that men of intelligence and good will can agree on those truths. Such truths are abundant in science. But are there any in politics?

SALVIATI: As to your first two points, agreed. Were it otherwise, there would be little point in us having these discussions, other than as an ultimately futile form of pretentious high-brow entertainment. We all have better things to do than that – and that there are better things, and that we can judge them so, is proof that there are truths out there and we can know them.

SAGREDO: Unless we are simply deluded in believing so.

SIMPLICIO: In that case, we might as well stop thinking and start drinking, and just get roaring drunk on this Falerno.

SAGREDO: But that itself assumes we know something about reality and can agree to act on that knowledge.

SALVIATI: Veramente. So let us not join those hypocrites who deny their knowledge of reality as an excuse to retreat into activities themselves dependent upon such knowledge. Let us proceed to seek the truth, knowing it is there to be found.

ALL (raising shots of grappa): SALUTE!

SALVIATI: Now as to your third point, Simplicio, how do you define politics?

SIMPLICIO: I mean it in the philosophical sense: the theory of how people should live together, how what they do to each other should be controlled, who should do the controlling and by what means.

SAGREDO: Do you have a proposition to put forward?

SIMPLICIO: I would argue thus. I think we can agree that men differ in their intelligence and the degree to which they have trained their minds in reasoning. They also differ in their interests, and therefore in the time and energy they can or will devote to learning about a given field and applying their minds to that learning. If we apply that to politics, it follows that men’s interests are best served by delegating public decisions to an elite who are most qualified to make those decisions and who are empowered to enforce them for the good of all.

SALVIATI: I think I should adopt the Socratic method, and tease the matter out by questions rather than presenting my own arguments. Is the rule you propose by one man – a “Philosopher King” (if we may call him that for simplicity) – or by several?

SIMPLICIO: I would propose several, firstly as many minds may see things from more sides than one, and secondly as it would provide a barrier to tyranny.

SALVIATI: But here at this table are three men, all possessing (I dare say) as much of the qualities you have named for your Philosopher Kings as any others we know, yet seldom agreeing on any one point of philosophy. How then do you expect your oligarchs to agree?

SIMPLICIO: Perhaps men trained to the task will be more uniform in their thinking.

SAGREDO: As both an observer and participant of these discussions, I must say that your disagreements are not due to anything so obvious as ignorance of facts or simple fallacies of logic. You are both men of great knowledge and intelligence and your differences have more subtle causes, I suppose in assumptions with roots yet to be unearthed.

SIMPLICIO: It is true, there are many things that seem clear to me yet Salviati is quite opposed to them, and nothing I say can sway him. Yet he is not a fool. And I dare say he sees me in much the same light. I can adduce no evidence that a trained elite will be more uniform in their opinions than we three. Indeed, considering the history of thought – in both philosophy and science – one is inclined to think the opposite. We can wish it were otherwise, but we have established that wishful thinking is not a substitute for the evidence of our eyes. So I must concede this point: there would be many disagreements among my oligarchs.

SALVIATI: How then will they rule, when they so often will not agree on policy?

SIMPLICIO: I have formed no firm opinion. But three mechanisms occur to me. First, the wisest among them could listen to the arguments of all with the final decision his. Second, matters could be decided by a vote of the oligarchs. Third, the citizens could decide by voting on proposals put forward by the oligarchs.

SALVIATI: So your three solutions are first, what is really a single Philosopher King with a panel of advisers; second, a kind of democracy of oligarchs; and third, a democracy voting on policies delimited by the opinions of a ruling elite, who rule in the reduced sense of setting the choices the people can vote on?

SAGREDO: The third is much the same as a parliamentary democracy, is it not? That is, if the oligarchs were also chosen by the citizens?

SIMPLICIO: Your summaries seem reasonable. Though on your point, Sagredo, I must confess I am hard pressed to name any actual parliaments whose incumbents would do justice to the appellation “philosopher kings.”

SAGREDO: More “court jesters”, perhaps. I chanced to catch a broadcast of the Australian parliament recently. I am glad they do not rule over me. Not that our own worthies are notably superior.

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© 2008 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.