Freedom of Research

Image: USSR stamp with Galileo Galilei, 1964

The following extract from Brecht’s play “The Life of Galileo” (1938-1939) do not lose its relevance and political sharpness in today’s reality of cuts, austerity and educational reforms, happening in the EU. From the perspective of my research about primitive accumulation and its effects on class structures this passage can be seen as an exemplary illustration of the intellectual life in post-Soviet context too, where freedom of research is often means of precarious existence, while prosperity is in many cases means of conformism and agreement with the State politics. In order to understand how far it can go, it is enough to visit a webpage of so-called Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan:

The Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev, who is well known for his neoliberal and authoritarian policy and who bears responsibility for the Zhanaozen massacre and arrests during and after the strike of the oil workers in 2011, initiated this university. One can guess, who works in such institution and how much does it cost to buy someone’s “freedom” and what would remain “research” in this case. Perhaps, Brecht’s play can tell us. It seems that he speaks about the whole complex of the capitalist relations inside of the academy in his Galileo play, including so-called freedom of research:

THE CURATOR: I have called respecting your application for an increase in salary to a thousand scudi. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this to the University. You know that at the present time the mathematical faculty is no attraction at a university. Mathematics is a profitless art, so to speak. Not that the Republic does not esteem it most highly. It is not as necessary as philosophy, nor as useful as theology, but it affords its devotees such endless pleasures.

GALILEO over his papers’. My dear man, I cannot manage on five hundred scudi.

THE CURATOR : But Signor Galilei. You lecture twice a week, two hours at a time. Your exceptional reputation must surely bring you as many pupils as you wish, all of whom can pay for private lessons. Have you no private pupils?

GALILEO: Sir, I have too many! I teach and teach, and when have I time to study? God above, I am not as omniscient as the gentlemen of the philosophic faculty. I am stupid. I understand absolutely nothing. So I am compelled to patch up the holes in my knowledge. And when am I to do that? When am I to research? Sir, my science is still hungry for knowledge. For the answers to our greatest problems; we have so far nothing but hypotheses. And we demand proofs. But how can I progress when, to keep my household going, I am driven to drum into any blockhead who can pay the fact that parallel lines meet at infinity?

THE CURATOR: You should not altogether forget that, while the Republic may not pay as much as certain Princes do, it guarantees freedom of research. We in Padua admit even Protestants to our lectures! And we grant them doctorates. Not only did we not surrender Signer Cremonmi to the Inquisition when it was proved to us - proved, Signer Galilei - that he gives vent to irreligious utterances, but we even voted him a higher salary. As far away as Holland it is known that Venice is the republic where the Inquisition has no say. And that is worth something to you who are an astronomer, that is, devoting yourself to a science which has for a considerable time ceased to show a due respect for the teachings of the Church!

GALILEO: Your people here handed Signor Giordano Bruno over to the authorities in Rome. Because he spread the teachings of Copernicus.

THE CURATOR: Not because he spread the teachings of Copernicus, which are moreover false, but because he was not a Venetian and also had no appointment here. So you can leave out of your argument this man who was burnt at the stake. By the way, for all our freedom you would be well advised not to utter so loudly a name on which the Church has laid its anathema. Not even here, Signor Galilei. Not even here.

GALILEO: Your protection of freedom of thought is quite a profitable business, isn't it? By pointing out that elsewhere the Inquisition rules and burns, you get good teachers cheap. In return for protection from the Inquisition you reimburse yourselves by paying the worst salaries.

THE CURATOR: Unjust! Unjust! What good would it do you to have all the free time in the world for your researches “if every ignorant monk of the Inquisition could simply forbid your thoughts? No rose without a thorn, no princes without monks, Siguor Galilei.

GALILEO: And what use is freedom of research without free time in which to research? What happens to the results? Perhaps you would care to show the gentlemen of the Signoria these investigations into the Laws of Falling Bodies - he points to a bundle of manuscripts - and ask them whether that is not worth a few more scudi?

THE CURATOR: It is worth infinitely more, Signor Galilei.

GALILEO : Not infinitely more, but five hundred scudi more, sir.

THE CURATOR : Scudi are worth what scudi will buy. If you want money, you must produce something else. For the knowledge which you sell, you can only demand as much as it profits whoever buys it from you. For example, the philosophy which Signor Colombe is selling in Florence brings the Prince at least ten thousand scudi a year. Your Laws of Falling Bodies have created a stir, admittedly. Men applaud you in Paris and Prague. But the gentlemen who applaud there do not, unfortunately, pay the University of Padua what you cost it. Your misfortune is your subject, Signor Galilei.

GALILEO: I understand. Free trade, freedom of research. Free trading in research…