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Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), was an Italian philosopher, astronomer/astrologer, spy and occultist executed as a heretic, regarded by some as a martyr to the cause of freedom of thought because his ideas went against the Church doctrine.

Contents

Life

He was born named Filippo in Nola, in Campania, Italy in 1548, the son of Giovanni Bruno, a soldier. In 1565 he took the name Giordano on becoming a Dominican friar at the Monastery of Saint Domenico near Naples. In 1572 he was ordained a priest.

He was interested in philosophy and was an expert on the art of memory; he wrote books on mnemonic technique, which Frances Yates contends may have been disguised Hermetic tracts. The writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were, in Bruno's time, recently rediscovered and at that time were thought to date uniformly to the earliest days of ancient Egypt. They are now believed to date mostly from about 300 A.D. and to be associated with Neoplatonism. Bruno embraced a sort of pantheistic hylozoism, rather than orthodox "Christian" Trinitarian belief.

Woodcut illustration of one of Giordano Bruno's mnemonic devices: in the spandrels are the four classical elements: earth, air fire, water

Woodcut illustration of one of Giordano Bruno's mnemonic devices: in the spandrels are the four classical elements: earth, air fire, water

Bruno was also heavily influenced by the ideas of Copernicus and by the newly rediscovered ideas of Plato. Other influences included Thomas Aquinas, Averroes, Duns Scotus, Marsilio Ficino, and Nicholas of Cusa.

In 1576 he left Naples to avoid the attention of the Inquisition. He left Rome for the same reason and abandoned the Dominican order. He travelled to Geneva and briefly joined the Calvinists, before he was excommunicated, ostensibily for his adherence to Copernicanism and left for France.

In 1579 he arrived in Toulouse, where he briefly had a teaching position. At this time, he began to gain fame for his prodigious memory. Bruno's feats of memory were apparently based, at least in part, on an elaborate system of mnemonics, but many of his contemporaries found it easier to attribute them to magical powers.

For seven years, he enjoyed the protection of powerful French patrons, including Henry III. During this period, he published 20 books, including several on memory training, Cena de le Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1584), and De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, 1584). In Cena de le Ceneri he defended the theories of Copernicus, albeit rather poorly. In De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi, he argued that the stars we see at night were just like our Sun, that the universe was infinite, with a "Plurality of Worlds", and that all were inhabited by intelligent beings (see the Drake equation). These two works are jointly known as his "Italian dialogues." In 1582, Bruno penned a play summarizing some of his cosmological positions, titled Il Candelaio ("The Torchbearer").

In 1583, he went to England with letters of recommendation from Henry III. There he sought a teaching position at Oxford, but appears to have given offense and was denied a position there (and elsewhere in England).

It is now clear that during this period he acted from 1583 to 1585 as a secret agent in the household of the French ambassador to England (M Castelnau). John Bossy's Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (Yale UP, 2002), demonstrates that Bruno is with high probability the previously unidentified mole 'Henry Fagot' whose reports to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, have been found in surviving records of Walsingham's organization. This spying was not so much political activity against French interests as religious in intent. Its purpose in fact was to send Catholics who were part of Castelnau's household or who gravitated about it to their deaths under the persecutory laws. In this he was not above hearing the confessions of Catholics and then reporting the contents to the English spymasters, a fact that seems to have disgusted even Elizabeth. When on trial later in life Bruno testified falsely, claiming that at this time he had not practised as a Catholic priest.

In 1585 he returned to Paris. However, his 120 theses against Aristotelian natural science and his pamphlet against the Catholic mathematician Fabrizio Mordente soon put him in ill favor. In 1586, following a violent quarrel about "a scientific instrument", he left France for Germany.

In Germany he failed to obtain a teaching position at Marburg, but was granted permission to teach at Wittenberg, where he lectured on Aristotle for two years. However, with a change of intellectual climate there, he was no longer welcome, and went in 1588 to Prague, where he obtained 300 taler from Rudolf II, but no teaching position. He went on to serve briefly as a professor in Helmstedt, but had to flee again when he was excommunicated by the Lutherans, continuing the pattern of Bruno's gaining favor from lay authorities before falling foul of the ecclesiastics of whatever hue.

1591 found him in Frankfurt. Apparently, during the Frankfurt Book Fair, he received an invitation to Venice from one Zuane Mocenigo, who wished to be instructed in the art of memory, and also heard of a vacant chair in mathematics at the University of Padua. Apparently believing that the Inquisition might have lost some of its impetus, he returned to Italy.

He went first to Padua, where he taught briefly, but the chair he sought went instead to Galileo Galilei, so he went to the University of Venice. He briefly functioned as a tutor to Mocenigo, who may have been disappointed that Bruno was merely teaching him a complex system of mnemonics rather than some form of magic. When Bruno attempted to leave Venice, Mocenigo denounced him to the Inquisition. He was arrested May 22, 1592, and given a first trial hearing before being sent for trial in Rome in 1593.

The monument to Bruno in the place he was executed, Campo de' Fiori in Rome.

The monument to Bruno in the place he was executed, Campo de' Fiori in Rome.

In Rome he was imprisoned for six years before he was tried, lastly in the Tower of Nona. He tried in vain to obtain a personal audience with Pope Clement VIII, hoping to make peace with the Church through a partial recantation. His trial, when it finally occurred, was overseen by the inquisitor, Cardinal Saint Robert Bellarmine, who demanded a full recantation, which Bruno refused. Consequently, he was declared a heretic, handed over to secular authorities on January 8, 1600. At his trial, he said: Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it. A month or so later he was brought to the Campo de' Fiori, a central Roman market square, his tongue in a gag, hung upside-down naked on the stake, and burned at the stake, on February 17, 1600. Since 1889, there has been a monument to Bruno on the site of his execution, erected by Italian masonic circles.

Although the actual charge against Bruno was docetism, adherence to the doctrine that Jesus did not actually have a physical body and that his physical presence was an illusion, the world of science has long claimed Bruno as a martyr, even though in effect many of his positions were as scientific as those of Mother Goose. It is said that, like Galileo Galilei, his Copernicanism was a factor in his heresy trial, but, unlike Galileo, some of his theological beliefs were also a factor. Also, unlike Galileo, he refused to renounce his beliefs, hazy as they were on many points.

But even the above "connection" between Bruno and Galileo may be exaggerated. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "(...) in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology."[1]

In fact, the precise charges of heresy on which Bruno was condemned are unknown, as the official record has long been lost. In Galileo's case we have the formal judgment of the Inquisition declaring that "The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical". In Bruno's, the role (if any) of his heliocentric teachings and belief in an infinite universe is not a matter that can be conclusively proved on either side.

All his works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603. Four hundred years after his execution, official expression of "profound sorrow" and acknowledgement of error at Bruno's condemnation to death was made, during the papacy of John Paul II. Attempts were even made by a group of professors in the Catholic Theological Faculty at Naples, lead by the Nolan Domenico Sorrentino, who seems to have felt some personal affinity with Bruno, to obtain a full rehabilitation from the Catholic authorities. However, it seems a long way for expressing regret for the violent death of any man to condoning the activities of a fundamentally unsavoury creature who was, as the London embassy period shows, very far from being in favour of any sort of religious tolerance.

The cosmology of Bruno's time

In the second half of the 16th century, the theories of Copernicus began diffusing through Europe. Although Bruno did not wholly embrace Copernicus's preference for mathematics over speculation, he advocated the Copernican view that the earth was not the center of the universe, and extrapolated some consequences which were radical departures from the cosmology of the time.

According to Bruno, Copernicus's theories contradicted the view of a celestial sphere, immutable, incorruptible, and superior to the terrestrial region. Bruno went beyond the heliocentric model to envision a universe which, like that of Plotinus in the third century A.D., or like Blaise Pascal's nearly a century after Bruno, had its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere.

Few astronomers of Bruno's generation accepted even Copernicus's heliocentric model. Among those who did were the Germans Michael Maestlin (1550-1631), and Cristoph Rothmann and the Englishman Thomas Digges, author of A Perfit Description of the Caelestial Orbes (sic). Galileo (1564-1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) were younger, so they do not figure at this time. Bruno himself was not an astronomer, but one of the first to embrace Copernicanism as a world view, rejecting geocentrism. In works published between 1584 and 1591, Bruno enthusiastically supported Copernicanism.

According to Aristotle and Plato, the universe was a finite sphere. Its ultimate limit was the primum mobile, whose diurnal rotation was conferred upon it by a transcendental God, not part of the universe, a motionless prime mover and first cause. The fixed stars were part of this celestial sphere, all at the same fixed distance from the immobile earth at the center of the sphere. Ptolemy had numbered these at 1,022, grouped into 48 constellations. The planets were each fixed to a transparent sphere.

Copernicus conserved the idea of planets fixed to solid spheres, but considered the apparent motion of the stars to be an actual motion of the earth; he also preserved the notion of an immobile center, but it was the Sun rather than the Earth. He expressed no opinion as to whether the stars were at a uniform distance on a fixed sphere or scattered through an infinite universe.

Bruno's cosmology

Bruno believed, as is now universally accepted, that the Earth revolves and that the apparent diurnal rotation of the heavens is an illusion caused by the rotation of the Earth around its axis. He also saw no reason to believe that the stellar region was finite, or that all stars were equidistant from a single center of the universe. In these respects, his views were similar to those of Thomas Digges in his A Perfit Description of the Caelestial Orbes (1576).

However, Digges considered the infinite region beyond the stars to be the home of God, the angels, and of the holy. He conserved the Ptolemaic notion of the planetary spheres, considered Earth the only possible realm of life and death, and a unique place of imperfection and change, compared against the perfect and changeless heavens.

In 1584, Bruno published two important philosophical dialogues, in which he argued against the planetary spheres. (Two years later, Rothmann did the same in 1586, as did Tycho Brahe in 1587.) Bruno's infinite universe was filled with a substance -- a "pure air", aether, or spiritus -- that offered no resistance to the heavenly bodies which, in Bruno's view, rather than being fixed, moved under their own impetus. Most dramatically, he completely abandoned the idea of a hierarchical universe. The Earth was just one more heavenly body, as was the Sun. God had no particular relation to one part of the infinite universe more than any other. God, according to Bruno, was precisely as present on Earth as in the Heavens, an immanent God rather than a remote heavenly deity.

Bruno also affirmed that the universe was homogeneous, made up everywhere of the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air), rather than having the stars be composed of a separate quintessence. Essentially, the same physical laws would operate everywhere, although the use of that term is anachronistic. Space and time were both conceived as infinite. There was no room in his stable and permanent universe for the "Christian" notions of divine Creation and Last Judgement.

Under this model, the Sun was simply one more star, and the stars all suns, each with its own planets. Bruno saw a solar system of a sun/star with planets as the fundamental unit of the universe. According to Bruno, infinite God necessarily created an infinite universe, formed of an infinite number of solar systems, separated by vast regions full of Aether, because empty space could not exist. (Bruno did not arrive at the concept of a galaxy.) Comets were part of a synodus ex mundis of stars, and not -- as other authors sustained at the time -- ephemeral creations, divine instruments, or heavenly messengers. Each comet was a world, a permanent celestial body, formed of the four elements.

Bruno's cosmology is marked by infinitude, homogeneity, and isotropy, with planetary systems distributed evenly throughout. Matter follows an active animistic principle: it is intelligent and discontinuous in structure, made up of discrete atoms. This animism (and a corresponding disdain for mathematics as a means to understanding) is the most dramatic respect in which Bruno's cosmology differs from what today passes for a common-sense picture of the universe.

Notes

  1. Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online, accessed 19 November 2005).

The 20-km diameter crater Giordano Bruno, named in Bruno's honor, is located on the moon at 103 east lunar longitude, 36 north lunar latitude. It is believed to have been created by a meteorite impact in 1178, witnessed by five English monks as relayed in Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

In 1926 the Theosophical Broadcasting Station Pty Ltd, owned by interests associated with the local branch of Theosophical Society Adyar, was granted a radio broadcating licence in Sydney, Australia. The station's call sign, "2GB" was chosen to honour the Italian philosopher who was much admired by Theosophists. Although the ownership of the station subsequently passed to strictly commercial interests the call sign is retained.