Giordano Bruno

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Bruno, Giordano (1548 -17 February 1600)

Filippo Bruno, son of a soldier, was born at Nola, near Naples, ten years after the death of Copernicus, and ten years before the birth of Bacon.

At the age of fifteen he became a novice in the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore, and after his year’s novitiate expired he took the monastic vows. Studying deeply, according to George W. Foote, he became heretical, and an act of accusation was drawn up against the boy of sixteen. Eight years later he was threatened with another trial for heresy. A third process was more to be dreaded, and in his twenty-eighth year Bruno fled from his persecutors.

He visited Rome, Noli, Venice, Turin, and Padua. At Milan he made the acquaintance of Sir Philip Sidney. After teaching for some time in the university, he went to Chambery, but the ignorance and bigotry of its monks were too great for his patience. He next visited Geneva, but although John Calvin was dead, his dark spirit still remained, and only flight preserved Bruno from the fate of Servetus. Through Lyons he passed to Toulouse, where he was elected Public Lecturer to the University.

In 1579 he went to Paris. The streets were still foul with the blood of the Bartholomew massacres, but Bruno declined a professorship at the Sorbonne, a condition of which was attending mass. Henry the Third made him Lecturer extraordinary to the University. However, Paris became too hot to hold him, Foote wrote, and Bruno went to London, where he lodged with the French Ambassador. His evenings were mostly spent with Sir Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, Dyer, and Hervey. So great was his fame that he was invited to read at the University of Oxford, where he held a public debate with its orthodox professors on the Copernican astronomy.

Leaving London in 1584, he returned to Paris, and there also he publicly disputed with the Sorbonne. His safety being once more threatened, he went to Marburg, and then to Wittenberg, where he taught for two years.

Bruno became the greatest philosopher of the Italian Renaissance. Regarded as an infidel and a heretic, he wrote many dialogues: On the Cause, Principle, and Unity; On the Infinite, the Universe, and the Worlds; The Ash Wednesday; Supper; The Cabala of the Horse Pegasus; The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast; and The Heroic Frenzies (1584).

After being unfrocked, he tried to convince the church about some of his controversial ideas, but he was then condemned both by the Venetian Holy Inquisition in 1592 and by the Roman Holy Inquisition in 1593. By challenging all dogmatism, including that of the Copernican cosmology, he concluded that absolute truth cannot be postulated nor can there be any limits to the progress of knowledge.

The Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1948) prohibits not just one but all his books, the entry reading . . .

Bruno, Giordano.
Opera omnia. Decr. S. Off. 8 febr 1600.

During the French Revolution, Maréchal considered Bruno one of the major atheists of all time. J. M. Robertson called Bruno “the typical martyr of modern freethought. He may be conceived as a blending of the pantheistic and naturalistic lore of ancient Greece, assimilated through the Florentine Platonists, with the spirit of modern science (itself a revival of the Greek) as it first takes firm form in Copernicus, whose doctrine Bruno early and ardently embraced.” H. James Birx has described Bruno as a pacesetter whose farsighted opinion was that “the center of the eternal and infinite cosmos is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere.”

Bates College Professor Peter Bertocci, however, called Bruno an inconsistent rationalist but one who influenced Spinoza, Leibniz, Descartes, and Schelling.

As a Dominican, Bruno once made a pun on domini canes, or “hounds of the Lord,” so his powerful antagonism to orthodox unreason got off to an early start, growing as he got older.

The Inquisition charged that he believed the following:

  • that there is transmigration of souls; that magic is right and proper; that the Holy Spirit is the same thing as the soul of the world; that the world is eternal; that Moses, like the Egyptians, wrought miracles by magic; that the sacred writings are but a romance (sogno); that the devil will be saved; that only the Hebrews are descended from Adam, other men having descended from progenitors created by God before Adam; that Christ was not God, but was a notorious sorcerer (insigne mago), who, having deceived men, was deservedly hanged, not crucified; that the prophets and the apostles were bad men and sorcerers, and that many of them were hanged as such.

Found guilty of being “the obstinate heretic,” Bruno was kept in a dungeon cell for seven years. On February 10th, 1600, he was led out to the Church of Santa Maria, and sentenced to be burned alive, or, as the Holy Church phrased it, to be punished “as mercifully as possible, and without effusion of blood.” Haughtily raising his bead, he exclaimed: “You are more afraid to pronounce my sentence than I to receive it.” He was allowed a week’s grace for recantation, but without avail.

On the 17th of February, 1600, his tongue was gagged, he was stripped naked, bound to a pole, and killed by having a flaming torch touched to his body. To the last he was brave and defiant. He contemptuously pushed aside the crucifix they presented him to kiss; and, according to one of his enemies, Bruno had the nerve to die without a plaint or a groan. According to M. Bartholomews’ biography, Bruno stood at the stake in solitary and awful grandeur. There was not a friendly face in the vast crowd around him. It was one man against the world. Joseph McCabe called Bruno “a Pantheist, dazed by a world in which he found Protestants as intolerant as Catholics and hampered in his speculations by the poverty of the science of his day."

Bruno was just one of the more visible martyrs and victims of church persecution. Anonymous are the tens of thousands, if not millions, of women put to death as "witches." Known today are such martyrs as Vanini, a monk burned as an atheist in 1619; Servetus, a Spanish physician executed under Calvin's orders in 1553 for rejecting the trinity; Scottish student Thomas Aikenhead, hanged in 1697 for saying Christ was merely human; and those persecuted in the New World. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished for advocating religious tolerance. Quaker Mary Dyer was executed for heresy in Boston in 1659.

In 2008, Ingrid D. Rowland tells Bruno's story in Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. She differs with other biographers like Frances Yates, who described him as the prophet of a new - or rather an ancient - religion, who died at the stake for his belief in the Egyptian revelations of Hermes Trisgegistus. With her classical background, she reveals him as a writer on a level with Montaigne and Shakespeare.

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A statue to Bruno was erected at the site of his execution, Campo dei Fiori near the Vatican, on June 9, 1889, by Freethinkers of the World. On that date, Algernon Swinburne dedicated a poem, "A Sacrifice to Hate and Hell," to Bruno.

(For information on the Web about Bruno, e-mail Guido del Giudice .

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