Copernicus had enlarged the world. Who would now enlarge God, and reconceive deity in terms worthy of those numberless and imperturbable galaxies? Bruno tried.
He was born in Nola, sixteen miles east of Naples. Christened Filippo, he changed his name to Giordano when, aged seventeen, he entered the monastery of the Dominicans at Naples. There he found a good library, rich not only in theology but in the Greek and Latin classics, in Plato and Aristotle, even in Arabic and Hebrew authors who had been translated into Latin. His poetic nature took readily to the pagan mythology, which persisted in his thought long after the Christian theology had faded away. He was fascinated by the atomism of Democritus as continued by Epicurus and so majestically expounded by Lucretius. He read the Moslem thinkers Avicenna and Averroës, and the Jewish philosopher Avicebrón (Ibn Gabirol). Something of Hebrew mysticism entered into him and mingled with the ideas of Pseudo-Dionysius and Bernardino Telesio on the union of contraries in Nature and God; something, too, of the vision that Nicholas of Cusa had had of an infinite universe without center or circumference and animated by a single soul. He admired the rebellious medical mysticism of Paracelsus, the mystical symbolism and mnemonic devices of Raymond Lully, and the occult philosophy of Cornelius Agrippa. All these influences molded him, and inflamed him with hostility to Aristotle, to Scholasticism, to Thomas Aquinas. But he was in a Dominican monastery, and Aquinas was the intellectual hero of the Dominicans.
Inevitably the young monk troubled his superiors with objections, questions, and theories. Moreover, sex was simmering in his blood; he confessed later that not all the snows of the Caucasus could quench his fires; and there is some subtle connection between sexual and intellectual awakening. He took full priestly orders in 1572, but doubts continued to agitate him secretly. How could there be three persons in one God? How could a priest, with whatever formula, transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Twice, after his ordination, he was formally censured by his superiors. Suddenly, in 1576, after eleven years as a monk, he fled from the monastery, and for a while he hid himself in Rome. He discarded his monastic gown, resumed his baptismal name, and sought safety and privacy as a teacher of a school for boys in Noli, near Genoa.
So began sixteen years of wandering, in which the restlessness of his body kept pace with the vacillations of his mind. After four months in Noli he moved to Savona, then to Turin, to Venice, to Padua. To secure monastic hospitality he donned again the garb of a Dominican monk. Then on to Brescia, to Bergamo, and over the Alps to Chambéry, where a Dominican monastery received and fed him. Then to Lyon. Then to Geneva. There, in the citadel of Calvinism, he again divested himself of his monastic robe. For two months he lived in uncongenial peace, earning his bread by correcting manuscripts and proofs. Among these was his own review of a lecture given at the University of Geneva by a Calvinist theologian. Bruno pointed out twenty errors in that lecture. The printer of his review was arrested and fined; Bruno himself was called to trial before the Consistory. He apologized and was excused. Disappointed to find that he had escaped one censorship to fall under another, he left Geneva, returned to Lyon, and passed on to Toulouse. There some measure of tolerance transiently appeared through the rivalry of Catholics and Huguenots and the influx of only slightly converted Jews from Spain and Portugal. Probably during Bruno’s stay (1581) François Sanchez published at Toulouse his skeptical treatise Of the Right Noble Knowledge … that Nothing Is Known (Quod nihil scitur). For eighteen months Bruno lectured on Aristotle’s De anima. Then, for reasons unknown—perhaps desiring a more capital fame—he moved up to Paris.
He had acquired a reputation not only as a philosopher but as an expert in mnemonics. Henry III sent for him and solicited the magic secrets of a good memory. The King was pleased with Bruno’s lessons and appointed him to a professorship in the Collège de France. For two years Bruno bore with peace. But in 1582 he published a comedy, Candelaio (The Torchbearer), in which with verve and fury he satirized monks, professors, pedants, and—but let the Prologue speak:
You will see, in mixed confusion, snatches of cutpurses, miles of cheats, enterprises of rogues; also delicious disgusts, bitter sweets, foolish decisions, mistaken faith and crippled hopes, niggard charities, … virile women, effeminate men … and everywhere the love of gold. Hence proceed quartan fevers, spiritual cancers, light thoughts, ruling follies, … advancing knowledge, fruitful action, purposive industry. In fine you will see, throughout, naught secure, … little beauty, and nothing of good.
He signed the play “Bruno the Nolan, Graduate of the Academy, Called the Nuisance.”16
And so, in March 1583, he tried England. Henry III, “readier to recommend him to others than to retain his services,”17 gave him letters of introduction to the French ambassador in London, Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière. Now began Bruno’s happiest interlude. For two years he lived and ate in the ambassador’s mansion, free from economic necessities, writing some of his most important works, always finding refuge there from the storms precipitated by his character, and comforted in his controversies by a tolerant man of the world who knew better than to take metaphysics seriously. In that home Bruno met Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester, John Florio, Edmund Spenser, Gabriel Harvey, and others of the finest minds in Elizabethan England. These conversations provided the basis of Bruno’s symposium La cena de le Ceneri. He met the great Queen herself, and eulogized her in terms that were later held against him by the Inquisition.
In 1583 he requested of Oxford University the privilege of lecturing in its halls, and expounded his qualifications in terms that forever cleared him of any imputation of modesty.18 Permission given, he spoke on the immortality of the soul and on “the fivefold sphere”—i.e., the planetary system of Copernicus. He was heckled by, among others, the rector of Lincoln College, as he tells us in his own way:
Would you hear how they were able to reply to his [Bruno’s] arguments? How fifteen times, by means of fifteen syllogisms, a poor doctor whom on this solemn occasion they had put forward as the very Corypheus of the Academy was left standing like a chick entangled in tow? Would you learn with what incivility and discourtesy that pig comported himself, and the patience and humanity of him who showed himself to be born a Neapolitan and nurtured under a more benign sky? Are you informed how they closed his public lectures?19
Later he called Oxford the “widow of sound learning” (vedova de le buone lettere), a “constellation of pedantic and most obstinate ignorance and presumption, mixed with rustic incivility that would exhaust the patience of Job.”20
Our philosopher was no Job. He wrote brilliantly about the stars and found earthlings intolerably dull. He felt that his philosophical development of Copernican astronomy was a beneficent advance in understanding, and he was “a biting critic”21 of all who rejected his views, though Florio found him, when appeased, “gentle and urbane.”22 His vanity was a trial to his friends as well as the wind in his sails. He gave himself the most magnificent titles—”doctor of the more developed theology, professor of purer and harmless wisdom.”23 He had the fervid imagination, the excitable eloquence, of a Neapolitan; wherever he went the sun of the south heated his blood. “For love of true wisdom,” he said, “and zeal for true contemplation, I tire, torment, and crucify myself.”24
Toward the end of 1585 he returned to Paris in the suite of the recalled ambassador. He lectured at the Sorbonne, exciting the hostility of the Aristotelians as usual. The war of the League against Henry III persuaded Bruno to sample German universities. In July 1586 he registered at the University of Marburg; refused the right to lecture, he denounced the rector and went on to Wittenberg. For two years he lectured at Luther’s university; departing, he voiced his gratitude in a soaring valedictory, but the theology of the reformers did not attract him. He sought the patronage of Rudolf II at Prague; the Emperor thought him fantastic, but gave him three hundred thalers and permission to teach at the University of Helmstedt in Brunswick. For some months he was happy; then the head of the Lutheran Church there denounced and excommunicated him.25 We do not know the upshot, but Bruno passed on to Frankfurt to Zurich to Frankfurt (1590–91), where he settled down to publish his Latin works.
By this time—one year before his imprisonment by the Inquisition—his philosophy was complete, though it never achieved clarity or coherent form. On looking into Bruno’s chief writings we are struck by the titles, which are here given in abbreviated form.IOften they are poetic and obscure and warn us to expect rather reveries and ecstasies than a systematic or consistent philosophy. Hardly elsewhere, outside of Rabelais, shall we find such a gallimaufry of epithets, rhetoric, allegories, symbols, myths, “humours,” conceits, bombast, trivia, exaltation, burlesque, and wit, piled one upon another in a nebulous confusion of dogmas, insights, and hypotheses. Bruno inherited the skill of the Italian dramatists, the scandalous hilarity of the macaronic poets, the slashing satire of Berni and Aretino. If philosophy means calm perspective, reasoned restraint, ability to see all sides, tolerance of difference, even sympathy for simpletons, Bruno was not a philosopher but a warrior, who put on blinders lest surrounding dangers should divert him from his goal—which was, two centuries before Voltaire, écraser l’infâme to smash the infamy of obscurantism and persecution. There is something bitterer than Voltaire in the savage sarcasm wherewith he satirizes the theological idealization of unthinking faith:
There is not, there is not, I say, a better mirror placed before human eyes than Asininity or the ass, or which demonstrates more clearly the duty of that man who … looks for the reward of the final judgment…. On the other hand, nothing is more effective to engulf us in the abyss of Tartarus [hell] than philosophical and rational speculations which, born of the senses …, ripen in the developed human intellect. Try, try, therefore, to be asses, all ye who are men; and you who are already asses, study … to proceed from good to better, so that you may arrive at that end and dignity which is attained not by knowledge and effort, however great, but by faith, and which is lost not by ignorance and misdoing, however enormous, but by unbelief. If by this conduct you are found written in the book of life, you will obtain grace in the Church Militant and glory in the Church Triumphant, in which God lives and reigns through all ages. Amen.26
Bruno’s vision of the universe is primarily aesthetic, a profound and wondering appreciation of an incandescent infinity; but it is also a philosophical attempt to adjust human thought to a cosmos in which our planet is an infinitesimal part of an unknowable immensity. The earth is not the center of the world, nor is the sun; beyond the world that we see (there were no telescopes when Bruno wrote) there are other worlds (as telescopes were soon to show), and beyond these other worlds are other worlds again (as better telescopes were to show), and so on endlessly; we cannot conceive an end, nor a beginning. And instead of the “fixed” stars being fixed, as Copernicus thought, they change their place constantly; even in the skies panta rei, all things flow. Space, time, and motion are relative; there is no center, no circumference, no up or down; the same motion differs when seen from different places or stars; and as time is the measure of motion, time too is relative. Probably many stars are inhabited by living, intelligent beings; did Christ die for them too? Yet in this endless immensity there is an invariable conservation of matter, an eternal and inviolable constancy of law.
Since the universe is infinite, and there cannot be two infinites, the infinite God and the infinite universe must be one (here is Spinoza’s Deus sive substantia sive Natura—”God or substance or Nature”). There is no Prime Mover, as Aristotle supposed, there is motion or energy inherent in every part of the whole. “God is not an external intelligence … It is more worthy for him to be the internal principle of motion, which is his own nature, his own soul.”27 Nature is the outside the Divine Mind; however, this Mind is not in a “heaven above,” but in every particle of reality.
The world is composed of minute monads, indivisible units of force, of life, of inchoate mind (here Bruno is a bridge between Lucretius and Leibniz). Each particle has its own individuality, has a mind of its own; and yet its freedom is not liberation from law but (as in Spinoza) behavior according to its own inherent law and character. There is a principle of progress and evolution in Nature in the sense that every part strives for development (Aristotle’s entelecheia).
There are opposites in Nature, contrary forces, contradictions; but in the operation of the whole cosmos—in the “will of God”—all contraries coincide and disappear; so the diverse motions of the planets make the harmony of the spheres. Behind the bewildering, fascinating variety of Nature is the yet more marvelous unity, wherein all parts appear as organs of one organism. “It is Unity that enchants me. By her power I am free though thrall, happy in sorrow, rich in poverty, alive even in death.”28 (Though I am subject to law, I express my own nature; though I suffer, I find solace in recognizing that the “evil” of the part becomes meaningless in the perspective of the whole; though I die, the death of the part is the rejuvenating life of the whole.) Hence the knowledge of the supreme unity is the goal of science and philosophy, and the healing medicine of the mind (Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God”).
This crude summary of Bruno’s philosophy leaves out all his spark and heroic frenzy, and implies in his thought a continuity and consistency quite alien to it, for it contains as many contradictions as asseverations, and a flux of moods agreeing only in cosmic inebriation. Another selection of his ideas could make him a magian mystic. He talked of the individual virtues of the several planets; he thought that persons born “under the influence” of Venus are disposed to love, rhetoric, and peace, those under Mars to strife and hate. He believed in the occult qualities of objects and numbers, and that diseases may be demons and may in some cases be cured by a king’s touch or the spittle of a seventh son.29
His final delusion was his hope that if he returned to Italy and should be questioned by the Inquisition, he could (as well he might) quote enough orthodox passages from his works to deceive the Church into thinking him her loving son. Perhaps he hoped that Italy had not heard of the book he had published in England, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, in which the beast to be expelled could be interpreted as Catholicism, or Christianity, or theological dogmas in general.30 He must have longed for Italy, for how else shall we explain the eagerness with which he accepted the invitation of Giovanni Mocenigo to come to Venice as his teacher and guest? Mocenigo belonged to one of Venice’s most illustrious families. He was a pious Catholic, but he was interested in occult powers, and had been told that Bruno was well informed on all branches of magic and had the secrets of a tenacious memory. The Inquisition had long since declared Bruno an outlaw to be arrested at the first opportunity, but Venice was famed for protecting such outlaws and defying the Inquisitors. So, in the fall of 1591, Bruno hurriedly left Frankfurt and made his way over the Alps to Italy.
Mocenigo gave him rooms and took lessons from him in mnemonics. The pupil’s progress was slow, and he wondered whether his teacher was withholding from him some esoteric magical lore; meanwhile he trembled at the heresies which the loquacious and incautious philosopher expressed. Mocenigo asked his confessor if he should report Bruno to the Inquisition; the priest advised him to wait until he had drawn out his instructor more definitely. Mocenigo obeyed; but when Bruno announced his intention of returning to Frankfurt, Mocenigo notified the Inquisitors, and on May 23, 1592, Bruno found himself in the prison of the Holy Office in Venice. Mocenigo explained that he had acted “by the constraint of his conscience and by order of his confessor.”31 He informed the Inquisitors that Bruno was averse to all religions, though he liked Catholicism best; that he denied the Trinity, the Incarnation, and transubstantiation; that he charged Christ and the Apostles with having deceived the people through alleged miracles; Bruno had said that all friars were asses, defiling the earth by their hypocrisy, avarice, and evil life, that religion should be replaced by philosophy, that indulgence in “carnal pleasures” is not sinful, and that he, Bruno, had satisfied his passions to the extent of his opportunities;32Bruno had told him that “ladies pleased him well, though he had not yet reached Solomon’s number.”33
The Inquisition examined the prisoner at its leisure, from May to September 1592. Bruno pleaded that he had written as a philosopher and had availed himself of Pomponazzi’s distinction between the “two truths”—that one might question, as a philosopher, doctrines that he accepted as a Catholic. He admitted his doubts as to the Trinity. He confessed that he had been guilty of many errors; he professed repentance and besought the tribunal, “knowing my infirmity, to embrace me to the breast of Mother Church, providing me with remedies suitable for my welfare, and using me with mercy.”34 The Inquisitors gave him no comfort, but returned him to his cell. On July 30 they examined him again, heard his confession and his plea for mercy, and again remanded him to his cell for another two months. In September the head of the Roman Inquisition instructed the Venetian Inquisitors to send their prisoner to Rome. The Venetian government objected, but the Inquisitors pointed out that Bruno was a citizen of Naples, not of Venice, and the Senate consented to his extradition. On February 27, 1593, Bruno was deported to Rome.
It was part of Inquisition procedure to let a prisoner brood in jail for long periods before, between, and after examinations. Almost a year passed before Bruno was brought before the Roman tribunal in December 1593. He was examined again—or tortured by questioning—in April, May, September, and December 1594. In January 1595 the Inquisitors met twice to study the record; in March 1595 and April 1596 Bruno, says the trial record, “was brought before the Lord Cardinals and was visited” in his cell “and was interrogated by them and heard concerning his necessities.”35 In December 1596 his complaints were heard “concerning food.” In March 1597 he was brought before the examiners, who again “heard him concerning his necessities”; we are not told what these were, but the repeated pleas suggest nameless hardships, not including the long suspense aimed presumably to break down an ardent spirit into an edifying humility. Another year passed. In December 1597, another questioning; then another year in the cell. In December 1598 he was allowed paper and pen. On January 14, 1599, he was again summoned. Eight heretical propositions taken from his books were read to him, and he was asked to recant them. He defended his views, but agreed to accept the decision of the Pope as to the quoted passages. On February 4 Clement VIII and the Congregation of the Holy Office decided that the excerpts were plainly heretical. No mention of Bruno’s Copernican views occurs in the record of the trial; the heresies related to the Incarnation and the Trinity. He was allowed forty days more to acknowledge his errors.
He was heard again on February 18 and in April, September, and November. On December 21 he declared that he would not retract. On January 20, 1600, he addressed a memorial to the Pope, claiming that the condemned propositions had been wrongly taken from their context, offering to defend them against any theologians, and again expressing willingness to accept the decision of the Pope. Thereupon, reads the record, “the most holy lord, Pope Clement VIII, decreed and commanded that the cause be carried to final measures, … sentence be pronounced, and the said Brother Jordanus be committed to the secular court.” On February 8 the Inquisitors summoned Bruno, repeated the accusations, and told him that he had been allowed eight years in which to repent; that he had agreed to accept the decision of the Pope as to whether his propositions were heretical; that the Pope had so decided, and that the prisoner still persisted in his heresies, continuing “impenitent, obstinate, and pertinacious”; wherefore sentence was now passed upon him that he should be “delivered to the secular court, … to the Governor of Rome here present, that thou mayest be punished with the punishment deserved, though we earnestly pray that he will mitigate the rigor of the laws concerning the pains of thy person, that thou mayest not be in danger of death or of mutilation of thy members.” The sentence was signed by nine cardinals, including Bellarmine. According to Caspar Scioppius, a German scholar recently converted to Catholicism and then residing in Rome, when the verdict was read to Bruno he said to his judges, “Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.”36
He was at once transferred to a secular prison. On February 19, still impenitent, his body nude, his tongue tied, he was bound to an iron stake on a pyre in the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori and was burned alive, in the presence of an edified multitude. He was fifty-two years old. On that same spot in 1889, a statue was erected to him by subscription from all quarters of the world.