Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno deserves a proper apology from the Pope.

Giordano Bruno 2
The Campo dei Fiori piazza in Rome holds a tony street-market: funghi porcini, ecological olive oil, and not a Chinese T-shirt or fake Vuitton bag in sight. In the middle of the bustle stands a sombre statue of a hooded monk, put up by anticlericals in 1889. It commemorates Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was burnt alive there on 17 February 1600 for multiple counts of heresy. These included a belief that the stars were suns floating in infinite space, surrounded by their own planets and life. Following the technical recommendations of the 14th-century Catalan inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich, Bruno was fittingly gagged to prevent unseemly outbursts.

The execution was a far worse crime than the trial of Galileo. That ended in a forced and formal abjuration, and fairly open house arrest for the rest of his life. His books were banned, but they had done their work. It’s become a nice symbol: Scientific Truth versus clerical obscurantism. The Truth wins in the end, so it’s a more or less happy ending.

That tidy narrative does not fit Giordano Bruno, a brilliant crank. He wrote about two books a year, moving around Europe, from Geneva to Oxford to Wittenberg to Venice, until his welcome ran out in one city after another. A few of the ideas he fired off turned out right, like the floating stars. But he had no evidence for this speculation, and like all his mediaeval predecessors relied on a priori intuitions. (Corrections from experts welcome as always.) Galileo’s attack on Aristotelian physics and cosmology was modern, specific and based on experiments like the falling weights at Pisa, and his observations of sunspots and Jupiter’s moons though his new telescope. The first evidence against the sphere like a planetarium with the fixed stars stuck to the inside was the discovery of a variable star (Mira Ceti) in 1596, when Bruno had been in the cells of the Inquisition for three years. Sunspots followed in 1611, a little after Jupiter’s moons. By Newton’s time, stars as floating suns had become a common view among cosmologists. It wasn’t until 1838 that any star (61 Cygni ) had its distance measured by parallax, finally disproving the planetarium theory, abandoned long before by scientists. The first exoplanet orbiting Gamma Cephei A was discovered in 1988;  and no life has been detected yet on any.

Giordano wrote fast on everything else as well. His heretical views included metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, magic and divination, as well as unorthodox positions on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. We’ve met people like him on the Internet: characters who have never met a flashy contrarian idea they didn’t immediately fall for. They are not the dangerous radicals authority need worry about, men like Galileo with a big idea they use as a lever to crack open orthodoxy on some previously hidden fault line.

Galileo is far too easy a test case for freedom of speech, because he happened to be demonstrably right on a matter of scientific fact. We should not try to defend Giordano Bruno on the grounds that he was right by chance on one thing, but simply that he was entitled to express opinions that were his own and not those of approved authorities. It it’s for real, freedom of conscience and speech holds for crackpots, blasphemers, racists, xenophobes, revolutionaries, and heretics.

The Inquisition’s investigation and trial of Giordano Bruno involved no less than eight cardinals: Bellarmine, Madruzzi, Borghese (later Pope Paul V), Pinelli, Arrigoni, Sfondrati, Manuel, and Santorio. We can imagine the earnest discussions among these cultivated and worldly princes of the Counter-Reformation Church, a far cry from the provincial fanaticism of a Tomás de Torquemada.

 – He doesn’t seem to have any followers, so you could say that the threat is minimal.

– We don’t know how many impressionable young men have read his books, so the rot may have spread further than we know.

– Our mistake with Luther was not coming down hard on him while we still had the chance.

– Can’t we send him to a quiet monastery in the Alps?

– We need to send a strong message.

With the Torquemadas and Hitlers of this world, you can make a case if you really try for diminished responsibility. Hitler’s biographers disagree on the question whether he can be held morally responsible for his actions. Did he know that what he was doing was wrong? The alternative proposition, that these men were as insane as rabid dogs, should lead to very similar action, so the problem has limited practical interest. You clearly cannot make this argument for Bellarmine and the others. Their atrocity was quite deliberate.

The Vatican defended the execution of Bruno till recently. Wikipedia:

In 1942, Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, who discovered a number of lost documents relating to Bruno’s trial, stated that the Church was perfectly justified in condemning him. On the 400th anniversary of Bruno’s death, in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared Bruno’s death to be a “sad episode” but, despite his regret, he defended Bruno’s prosecutors, maintaining that the Inquisitors “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.”

This mealy-mouthed half-apology will not do. If Pope Francis wishes to make amends for the many cruelties his Church (like mine, on a much lesser scale: Erastianism has its benefits) has inflicted in the name of orthodox faith, he knows how to do it properly. The Vatican has a busful of cardinals. On 17 February next, he can send eight of them to the Campo de Fiori to celebrate a penitential Mass in the rain for all prisoners and martyrs of conscience, in apology to that hooded and brooding statue.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

14 thoughts on “Giordano Bruno”

  1. Frances Yates, in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, makes a strong case for Bruno’s condemnation being based on his embrace of Hermeticism with its (supposed) origins in very ancient Egyptian teachings. It was on such grounds that Bruno welcomed the heliocentric hypothesis. He knew of Copernicus, but considered his work to consist of "mathematical rather than natural reasoning." Mathematical reasoning was inferior to “natural reasoning,” meaning intuitive reasoning, as you state above.

    Yates quotes from Corpus Hermeticum XII, "Hermes Trismegistus to Tat on the Common Intellect," where Bruno read, "Would it not be ridiculous to suppose that this nurse of all beings should be immobile, she who causes to be born and gives birth to all things? Without movement, indeed, it is impossible for that which gives birth to give birth to anything."

    Prior to the time of Bruno, Cornelius Agrippa had taken similar themes from Hermetic writings: “All that is in the world moves by increasing or diminishing. And since everything which moves is alive, even the earth through the movement of generation and alteration, it too is alive.“

    These passages are from pages 241 to 243 of her 455 page tome. Bruno deserves a full apology for what the Church did to him. but if Yates' account of things is accurate, he could be more a forerunner of today's internet crank than of today's cosmologist.

    1. Perhaps one reason the cardinals took so long to kill Bruno may have been that they couldn't settle on which of a dozen counts he was most guilty. (See, the method is catching.) The Gaia stuff isn't in Wikipedia.

  2. "They are not the dangerous radicals authority need worry about, men like Galileo with a big idea they use as a lever to crack open orthodoxy on some previously hidden fault line.

    Galileo is far too easy a test case for freedom of speech, because he happened to be demonstrably right on a matter of scientific fact."

    The following is a link to the first part of an extremely long, extremely detailed and fairly well sourced series of posts on the history leading up to (and history following) Galileo's trial. The series doesn't absolve the Church of responsibility for having acted badly in this affair, but makes a fairly convincing case that Galileo was punished for insisting on the absolutely certainty of a theory for which the definitive empirical proof was not available at the time and which would not be available for a very long time after his death.

    1. My "demonstrably right" on heliocentrism is indeed with the benefit of hindsight – the imperfection of the heavens was observational fact. Naturally that is how the story looks to us. It was more complex at the time.

    2. Very interesting website; thanks for the link.
      I think that it got truncated, though.
      I hope that this does not get truncated too!

      And this sort of underscores the idea of James’ original post; we should not assess the right of free speech of those who lived in the past according to whether or not history has confirmed the correctness of their opinions; Bruno was wrong but had the right to be wrong.

    3. Gee! I always thought that Galileo the heretic was burned at the stake during the Middle Ages by the Spanish Inquisition for saying that the world was round! I learned this from Sen. Ted Cruz, who is also likely to be burned at the stake by liberals for denying that global warming is happening.

  3. Long, but worth your time:

    What He Thought
    Heather McHugh, 1948

    For Fabbio Doplicher

    We were supposed to do a job in Italy
    and, full of our feeling for
    ourselves (our sense of being
    Poets from America) we went
    from Rome to Fano, met
    the Mayor, mulled a couple
    matters over. The Italian literati seemed
    bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
    what does “flat drink” mean? and the mysterious
    “cheap date” (no explanation lessened
    this one’s mystery). Among Italian writers we

    could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
    the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
    the brazen and the glib. And there was one
    administrator (The Conservative), in suit
    of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
    with measured pace and uninflected tone
    narrated sights and histories
    the hired van hauled us past.
    Of all he was most politic–
    and least poetic– so
    it seemed. Our last
    few days in Rome
    I found a book of poems this
    unprepossessing one had written: it was there
    in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
    where it must have been abandoned by
    the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
    he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn’t
    read Italian either, so I put the book
    back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

    were due to leave
    tomorrow. For our parting evening then
    our host chose something in a family restaurant,
    and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
    sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
    our mark, one of us asked

    “What’s poetry?
    Is it the fruits and vegetables
    and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

    or the statue there?” Because I was
    the glib one, I identified the answer
    instantly, I didn’t have to think– “The truth
    is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that
    was easy. That was easiest
    to say. What followed taught me something
    about difficulty,

    for our underestimated host spoke out
    all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

    The statue represents
    Giordano Bruno, brought
    to be burned in the public square
    because of his offence against authority, which was to say
    the Church. His crime was his belief
    the universe does not revolve around
    the human being: God is no
    fixed point or central government
    but rather is poured in waves, through
    all things: all things
    move. “If God is not the soul itself,
    he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world.” Such was
    his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

    they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
    was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
    placed upon his face
    an iron mask
    in which he could not speak.

    That is how they burned him.
    That is how he died,
    without a word,
    in front of everyone. And poetry–

    (we’d all put down our forks by now, to listen to
    the man in gray; he went on softly)– poetry

    is what he thought, but did not say.

  4. Stephen Grenblatt wrote The Swerve a few years ago, which is all about the rediscovery of the writings of Lucretius in the fifteenth century and of Lucretius' influence on the world the Renaissance made. Bruno warrants some discussion toward the end of the book; he was familiar with Lucretius and his idea that atoms would combine in distant parts of the universe into multiple worlds scattered through limitless space. Greenblatt tells the reader that this meant to Bruno that "the universe is not all about us, about our behavior and our destiny; we are only a tiny piece of something inconceivably larger." (p. 238)

    Yates sees Bruno's relation to Lucretius very differently. On p. 236, she informs us, "But he absolutely transforms the Lucretian notions (themselves derived, of course, from the Epicurean philosophy) by imparting to the innumerable worlds magical animation, totally absent from Lucretius' cold universe, and to the infinite and its contents the function of being an image of the infinite divinity—again a notion totally foreign to the agnosticism of Lucretius. Thus the godless universe of Lucretius, in which that pessimistic man took refuge from the terrors of religion, is transformed by Bruno into a vast extension of Hermetic gnosis, a new revelation of God as magician, informing innumerable worlds with magical animation, a vision to receive which that great miracle, the Magus man, must expand himself to an infinite extent so that he may reflect it within."

    The attitudes of the Renaissance Magus and the modern materialist scientist are, so to speak, universes apart. As Yates concludes her book, she says (p. 454-455), "The basic difference between the attitude of the magician to the world and the attitude of the scientist to the world is that the former wants to draw the world into himself, whilst the scientist does just the opposite, he externalises and impersonalises the world by a movement of will in an entirely opposite direction to that described in the Hermetic writings." The mind of man was no longer integrated into the divine life of the universe once the Hermetic attitude, with its internal quality, was lost.

    Yates wrote her book to document her thesis that Bruno had been placed into a false position by popular representations of him "as the hero who died rather than renounce his scientific conviction of the truth of the Copernican theory, the martyr for modern science, the philosopher who broke with medieval Aristotelianism and ushered in the modern world." Rather, "Bruno was an out-and-out magician, an 'Egyptian' and Hermetist of the deepest dye, for whom the Copernican heliocentricity heralded the return of magical religion, … for whom the Copernican diagram was a hieroglyph of the divine, who defended earth-movement with Hermetic arguments concerning the magical life in all nature, whose aim was to achieve Hermetic gnosis, to reflect the world in the mens by magical means, including the stamping of magic images of the stars on memory, and so to become a great Magus and miracle-working religious leader." (p. 450)

    Neil deGrasse Tyson would feel a strong lack of rapport with Bruno, but the New Age practitioner of astrological homeopathy would feel a kinship. I think that Yates made a most convincing argument to that effect.

    1. It's particularly puzzling that Tyson's Cosmos gave quite a long segment to Bruno, treating him essentially as an unknown hero of science.

  5. Tentative thought. James' defense of Bruno rests on a regression: Bruno was wrong but had the right to speak on this matter because this matter is no longer central to our world-view. Bruno lived on the turn from a deo-centric world to a human-centric world. In the latter, personal opinions on religion are free, but opinions advocating eg slavery or rape are heavily circumscribed (to be clear, I think this is as it should be). Two centuries earlier, even heretics agreed that heretics should be punished. They just disagreed on what constituted heresy.

    1. Are you really comparing the social stigma that would follow advocacy of rape and slavery today, and hate speech laws in Europe, to the burning alive of heretics?

      It is untrue that strongly religious societies always persecute heresy violently. In Christianity, the bitter doctrinal disputes of the early Church (involving Gnostics, Docetists, Pelagians, Arians, Manichees …) did not SFIK lead to widespread judicial murder, even after Christianity became the state religion. Was anybody executed for heresy in the entire history of Anglo-Saxon England and Celtic Ireland? The burnings ran from roughly 1100 to 1700, essentially in Latin Western Europe. In equally religious Islam, executions for heresy have been quite rare.They wouldn't make any sense in Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism, unlike ethnic violence against outsiders.

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