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Beware your heroes and heed the lesson of stargazer Galileo Galilei

by Noriko Hama

Special To The Japan Times

A scene from “The Life of Galilei” seems to encapsulate the dilemma Japan faces as it gropes for new leadership.

“Woe betide a nation without heroes.”

“Not so. Woe betide a nation in need of heroes.”

This exchange from the play by anti-establishment German playwright Bertolt Brecht is a traumatic one in which Galileo Galilei returns from his encounter with the Grand Inquisitor. (The production I saw was in Japanese. The translations are my own.)

The latter has managed to convince the scientist to rescind his views on celestial dynamics and shut up about the earth moving round the sun.

It turns out that even the great Galileo is susceptible to threats when they are accompanied by a display of the latest advances in torture tools. The above lament over the lack of heroes is an utterance of Master Galileo’s foremost student, who did not believe even for a moment that his great tutor would capitulate.

Master Galileo may or may not be just another coward. He may or may not have been putting on a show of compliance to ensure he could continue making his discoveries in secret. We never quite find out.

Either way, his view on heroes is not wrong. It is highly astute.

There seem to me to be two types of nations that feel a need for heroes. Neither variety is a happy one.

First, there are nations whose people are oppressed. When people are being deprived of their basic human rights, arrested without proper reason, detained without trial, put to torture and massacred en masse, they are indeed in need of heroes who can come to their rescue. Unfortunately, there are still far too many nations around the world that fall into this category.

That is why human rights activists have to be active and people have to revolt.

Second, there are nations who have lost their self-confidence. They are confused. Nothing seems to go right for them anymore. They do not know what to believe. They do not know what to do. They keep looking back into the past in quest of an image of themselves they are comfortable with.

They cannot face reality because it does not have a face that they recognize. They want somebody to tell them what to do.

Japan seems to me to fall into this second category of hero-seeking nations. Thus people are apt to bemoan the lack of leadership and the absence of leaders in politics as well as management.¥

This mentality is dangerous. When people are in this frame of mind, they fall prey to charlatans and populists. Master Galileo’s warning against heroes sounded particularly pertinent to our situation as we went to the polls on Sunday.

Toward the end of Brecht’s play, I was struck by another series of utterances by Master Galileo that seemed to reach out to the Japanese condition.

“It is my belief,” says the Master, “that science exists for the single purpose of making the condition of survival less painful for the human race. Should scientists be goaded by greedy leaders into pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, science will become maimed and all the new machinery you make might merely end up creating more pain. . . .”

When one thinks of how painful survival has become for so many in the aftermath of 3/11, it is easy to realize how words like these would resonate severely with a Japanese audience.

The powers that be who are in such a hurry to restart the nation’s nuclear power plants would do well to heed Master Galileo’s words. If a visit to the theater can deliver a dose of common sense to all aspiring heroes in need of enlightenment, they just might be in for a surprise.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor of the Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.

  • Starviking

    Professor Hama seems to forget that the Master Galileo that she builds her piece around is a politicised character constructed by Brecht, and can bear little comparison to the real-life Galileo.

    As for scientists being goaded by greedy leaders into knowledge for knowledge’s sake – this also bears little semblance of reality: leaders push scientists to gain knowledge for economic or political gain. Scientists generally follow natural curiosity that is present in open minds. Thus we have scientists investigating “nuclear spin”, apparently a terrible ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’ – then some years later other scientists, with exactly the same curiosity invent MRI imaging from that – to the benefit of a host of people.

    If we follow Brecht’s propaganda we must stifle natural curiosity, return to the dark ages, and leave science behind. Somehow I do not think that would be working for the public good.