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Brief Lives

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)

Dale DeBakcsy delves into the secret origins of modern philosophy.

Philosophically, sixteenth century Europe was a mess. The rise of Protestantism knocked a millennium’s worth of self-assured theological development for a loop, opening the gates to all manner of new philosophical disciplines and roving intellectual cut-purses. Everything was up for grabs, and in the chaos some found freedom, many reaped profit, and the most daring often ended their lives in tragedy. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was one of the latter, now known more for being burned alive at the hands of the Inquisition than for the actual content of his thought and life. However, for anybody interested in how modern philosophy emerged from the swirling mass of occult mysticism and scholastic nitpicking that preceded it, Bruno’s work, composed while wandering through every major intellectual center of sixteenth century Europe, makes an ideal starting point. In a mere fifty two years of life – nine of which were spent rotting in an Inquisitorial jail cell – Bruno traveled to and lectured in Venice, Rome, Naples, London, Wittenberg, Frankfurt, Paris, Toulouse, Prague, and Zurich. His intellectual deftness allowed him to fit in with Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics, Jews and hermetic magicians with equal felicity. His belief in an infinite universe dominated by the ideals of love and forgiveness let him listen to and learn from each of these vibrant communities, and so his works brilliantly (if somewhat verbosely) encapsulate the contradictions and enthusiasms of his supremely enthusiastic and contradictory century.

Remembering Bruno

When Giordano Bruno was born, the Council of Trent – a gathering of Catholic bishops and cardinals which had started three years before as a grand attempt to honestly address the complaints and concerns of the Protestants – was already sliding into the harshly reactionary attitude that would spark a century of religious war and end the lives of thousands of ‘heretics’, Bruno included. But that was in the future: the young Giordano, or Filippo as he was known at the time (early modern academics had a charming and infuriating habit of changing their name every fifteen damn minutes) started off his theological career most promisingly. Arriving at Naples in 1562, his astounding memory and rich language made an impression on his superiors, and he was shipped off to Rome to perform memory tricks for the Pope.

The importance of memory is increasingly forgotten by a generation that, as a matter of course, carries access to the entire collected wisdom of mankind in its pocket; but in the sixteenth century, lawyers, clerics and kings were all keenly interested in ways to boost their powers of recall as a means of bypassing the laborious process of accessing archives, with their dependence on shifty librarians. A lawyer wasn’t worth hiring unless he could deliver a six hour speech from memory; and for a king or pontiff who had dozens of disparate items brought before him each day for judgment and action, keen recall was indispensable. It should come as little surprise, then, that Bruno, after leaving Rome and being excommunicated for picking theological fights with the wrong friars, earned most of his bread by teaching his memory system to the rulers of whatever country his wanderings landed him in. His usual pattern was to enter a city, find a way to display his gifts of memory and fluency in mathematics for the academic elite, and then parlay that display into a teaching position or a private tutorship that would last the two or three years it took him to inevitably clash with the academic establishment, call them all ‘asses’, write inflamed philosophical dialogues that belittled them in a manner more reminiscent of a rap battle than an academic paper, and flee to greener pastures just a step ahead of the lynch mob.

What started as a means of survival for Bruno, however, proved to be the doorway to a philosophical system that would synthesize a century’s worth of confusion and progress into a hopeful whole, for Bruno’s memory system revolved around the construction of elaborate wheels of association that brought mathematics, language, mythology, and philosophy all together in one interrelated whole (before it was prematurely terminated by the executioner’s flames). As he refined his methods, it became clearer and clearer to him that the universe could not be as Aristotle had described it two millennia before. If everything is connected, then there can’t be unbridgeable differences between objects in the observable world: contrary to Aristotle’s thinking, the sun, and the stars too, must be made of the same things as the Earth, all part of an interconnected atomic system whose reactions push forward the ticking universe. The universe, he also came to realize, is an infinite construct which must be broken down to the level of the infinitesimal to be understood.

Keep in mind that Bruno wrote these observations a full thirty years before Galileo published his observations of the sun and Jupiter, and a century before Newton and Leibniz discovered calculus by playing with those very quantities of the infinitesimal that Bruno guessed must lie at the heart of a proper mathematical analysis of the cosmos. But what is perhaps most truly remarkable is that Bruno’s prescience was not at all remarkable for his time. His infinite universe had already been hypothesized a century before by Nicholas of Cusa; his atomism was there in the ancient works of Democritus; and his mathematical tinkering with the infinitely small can be found not only in a nascent form in the works of Archimedes, but also in the work of Fabrizio Mordente, a geometer whose invention of the adjustable compass so impressed Bruno that he spent a whole five months stealing Mordente’s ideas and then stabbing him in the back in a series of wickedly funny but entirely unfair pamphlets.

It’s interesting to me that all of this borrowing and stitching together produced a conception of the universe that closely mirrors that of Spinoza’s revolutionary Ethics, written nearly a century later, with its focus on the perfection of the infinitely complex universe and man’s highest calling, to contemplate it and find our own natures written therein. Had Bruno been a bit more staid in presentation or less combative in personality, or if he had not lived in an era when Catholicism was desperately thrashing about to find its feet again, perhaps we would be seeing him rather than Spinoza as the link between medieval and modern philosophy.

Bruno Vs Catholicism

Bruno’s was not the gift of originality, but that of synthesis. By taking his insights and combining them with his love of Platonic idealism and hermetic uniformity, he created an astounding whole – the song of Early Modernity in its most rapturous and hopeful form. Moreover, in surveying the spectrum of the cosmos through his profoundly ordered memory, Bruno saw it stretching out forever into the past, with always the same messages asserting themselves. Not Catholicism, nor even Christianity, had a monopoly on the truths of existence, but rather everyone from Egyptian priests to skeptical Greeks made their crucial contributions, all plugging into the unity of the universe in their own ways and by their own lights. Bruno found it foolish and short-sighted to discount their ideas because of their lack of belief in Jesus. (Furthermore, he had no patience with the concept of Hell, as being entirely foreign to his love-bound universe, and he rarely spoke of the Paradise of the angels outside of how we experience Paradise on Earth through our contemplation of infinity.) For Bruno, the interconnection of all things meant that the stuff of divinity is within each human, and so any notion of original sin or fearful gods judging our unworthy world is the foundation of political control, not of genuine philosophy.

In principle, Bruno looked forward to a religion that accepted all approaches to self-enlightenment. In fact, he wasn’t above exploiting religious prejudice to get what he needed. In delivering a funeral oration to a collection of influential Lutherans, he spoke of the Pope as a ‘gorgon’ whose “blasphemous tongues, more numerous than the hairs of his head, assist and administer, every one of them, against God, Nature, and humanity, who infect the world for the worst with their poison of ignorance and depravity.” Just two years later, in the clutches of the Inquisition, he was denying the authority of his Dominican jailers to judge him, saying that he only acknowledged such authority in the person of the Pope.

After nearly two decades of wandering and writing, Bruno had put enough heretical notions to paper to convict him in the eyes of the Inquisition a hundred times over. He centered an entire lecture series around 120 Errors of Aristotle at a time when Aristotelian philosophy formed the core of Catholic theology. He quoted obscure Egyptian texts and pre-Socratic Greek philosophers with the same frequency as Catholic intellectuals such as Thomas Aquinas or Peter Lombard. He hypothesized a heliocentric infinite universe made of the same fundamental elements as the Earth, all in constant flux, capable of generating compounds and even life, when the celestial spheres of Ptolemy were still the dogmatically-accepted building blocks of the Catholic universe. He wrote his philosophy as Italian dialogues and sprawling verse poems when Latin was the accepted language of academic discourse. He denied Hell and railed against religious persecution as contrary to the unified, love-permeated cosmos that he felt must be the true essence of existence. Further, since we are all made of the same stuff, and are constantly evolving into other things, then equality must be the nature of man (even if some men are asses). This was against not only every reigning theological notion, but every political ideal as well.

In the end, though, it wasn’t Bruno’s writings that landed him in the clutches of the Inquisition, but his quarrelsome nature. After moving to Venice to take up a potentially lucrative position as a private tutor, he soon felt the itch to return to Frankfurt, then the center of the publishing world, to continue his writing career. His patron insisted that he stay to finish teaching him his memory system as promised. Bruno refused and started packing his bags, only to have a half dozen gondoliers kidnap him in the middle of the night and lock him in an attic. His patron fired off a letter to the local Inquisition detailing all of Bruno’s departures from Orthodoxy listed above and more besides, and thence began Bruno’s nine year legal dance, first with the Venetian Inquisition, then the Roman.

Bruno’s trial is an object lesson for anybody wanting to know how the Inquisition actually worked outside of its Spanish variant. Popularly considered the kangaroo court of early modernity, rather, the Italian branches of the Inquisition had strict procedural protocols – rules of the game that had to be obeyed. Bruno knew these rules well, and was able to nimbly dance around them for the better part of a decade – until he made the fatal mistake of attempting to go over the Grand Inquisitor’s head, straight to the Pope, for acquittal. If Bruno’s life of perpetual fleeing should have taught him anything, it should have been that his political instincts weren’t precisely the most finely honed, and yet he threw away his strengths – theological quibbling and rules-monkeying – for a political gambit that was doomed to fail. The Inquisition could put up with much in the name of protocol, but a challenge to its authority coming from within its own prison was too much. Giordano Bruno was burned to death on February 17th, 1600.

© Dale DeBakcsy 2013

Dale DeBakcsy is a contributor to The New Humanist and The Freethinker and is the co-writer of the twice-weekly history and philosophy webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy.

Further Reading

Bruno’s writings encompass a number of styles, from his mammoth satirical play The Candlemaker to Platonically-inspired dialogues, of which The Heroic Frenzies is the most readily available in English, to his de Rerum Natura clone, the verse epic On the Immense and the Numberless. The style is what you might expect from a sixteenth century Italian – florid and emotional, and he’s never content to use one word when ten synonyms are at hand. Be prepared for long sections praising himself, and longer but much funnier ones decrying the asininity of everybody who disagrees with him. Start with Frenzies and see how you like it – some find the mixture of poetry and dialogue enchanting, others distracting, but it certainly is an experience of its time, and that’s worth treating yourself to now and then. Also, the Cambridge Edition of Cause, Principle and Unity is not only valuable for the main text, but has a nice introduction explaining what made Bruno’s philosophy so revolutionary in its time. For biographies of Bruno, the classic is by Frances B. Yates, though she definitely has an axe to grind. More recently, Ingrid Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (2008) is beautifully written and also pretty fun.

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