Franz's Reviews > Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic

Giordano Bruno by Ingrid D. Rowland
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Oct 09, 2011

really liked it
Read in October, 2011

Giordorno Bruno suffered, at least in some respects, the misfortune of being ahead of his time. Born in near Naples in 1548 and burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, Bruno managed to pack in a lot of traveling and writing in his 52 years. This nicely written biography not only describes Bruno’s life, travels, and trial for heresy, but it also serves as a nice introduction to his philosophy.

Some other readers were not impressed with this book, regarding it as dry, dull, and unfocused, among other criticisms. Many didn’t seem to like Bruno, calling him an asshole and worse. Others couldn’t read the book without trembling at the injustice of this innocuous little man being executed by the Big Bad Catholic Church for believing and publicizing heresies. One can agree that the Bruno’s inquisitors behaved badly and unjustly, however, without painting the entire Church as complicit. Rowland certainly doesn’t do that. In fact, according to her it wasn’t Bruno’s alleged heresy that got him burned. It was his argument that the Inquisition had no authority to determine what was heretical and what was not.

What follows is a long summary of the book, especially dealing with Bruno’s philosophy. If you are bored by this you will be bored by the book, and I just saved you a few bucks.

Educated at the Dominican college in Naples, one of the most populous cities of Europe, he became a Dominican friar. His primary influences at the college were Aristotle and Aquinas, whose dry scholastic logic he employed frequently, especially against the Inquisition. But his emotional temper was more attracted to the Ideal philosophy of Plato, whose writings aroused renewed interest beginning in the 15th century and interest in Plato continued to grow in the 16th. Bruno studied Plato at the Augustinian college in Naples. He was also familiar with the mystic doctrines of the Kabbalah. He saw Plato and the Kabbalah as complements to Christian theology. The religion of the ancient Egyptians also exerted a strong influence, especially the writings of the alleged ancient Egyptian, Hermes Trismegistus. He also learned the ancient art of memory, which he modified with some powerful additions and which he thought was a key to understanding the universe. And as a child the stoical outlook of his father also had an important influence on him. He studied the Stoic philosophy more formally later in his life.

His feats of memory were prodigious and well known, and one way he supported himself once he was defrocked and excommunicated was to offer to teach this art of memory to kings and nobles as he traveled throughout Europe (Lyon, Toulouse, Paris, London, Geneva, Venice, among others) seeking a permanent haven. He sometimes held back some of the most effective memory techniques, however. This occasionally got him in trouble with his clients. His last client, an unstable nobleman who appears to have been motivated by pique rather than honesty and piety, denounced Bruno as a heretic to the Inquisition in Venice in 1592. The Inquisition dug up an equally unstable but necessary witness against Bruno (canon law required at least two witnesses against an accused), and he was imprisoned for 8 years. During this time he was taken to Rome where the Inquisition was less lenient than in Venice, and he vexed the Inquisition by both denouncing most of what he had been accused of and demanding that the Pope order him to revoke his views on the universe and Christianity. It appears had the Pope done so Bruno would have recanted and been set free. A summary of the trial, written at the time of the depositions Bruno gave the inquisitors, remains to give us some insight into his defense, life, and thought.

But most of our insights to Bruno’s philosophy emerge from his plays, dialogues, and poetry. Rowland translates a large hunk of Bruno’s poetry in the style, rhymes, and meters of the original. The poetry translations are especially evocative. He wrote in both Latin and his native neopolitan Italian. The more scholastic writings he wrote in the structured Latin prose favored by the educated. But the philosophically adventurous ideas he poeticized in his native vernacular.
He seems to have been a kind of neoplatonist. Though many of his ideas seemed to fly in the face of Catholic dogma, he was able to show that his views were not so unusual. Although much of what he taught seemed new, he saw himself as renewing ancient philosophy, updating some of the ideas of Plato and reintroducing some of the truths of the Egyptians.

He was interested in the astronomy of his day and mathematics, especially geometry. He accepted the Copernican picture of the solar system. He believed that the stars were suns with planets revolving around them, and that many of the planets harbored life. He was one of the few of his day who understood that mathematics was the secret to all knowledge. Since his mind lent itself more to visual imagery, his mathematical understanding leaned more toward geometry than to calculation. Although a single divinity underpinned the universe, he viewed the universe as infinite (thus having no center) and there existed particles (atoms) that were infinitesimally small. Time is also infinite. He strove to produce a mathematics, an unsuccessful project until Newton and Leibniz invented the calculus a hundred years later, that reflected the infinities and the motions of the heavenly bodies he had surmised

Bruno wrote much about magic, but not the kind of magic that relies only on the supernatural or on conjurer’s tricks. He wrote of magic that was derived from the knowledge of how the world works. It involved an understanding of how magnetism and gunpowder worked, for example, and the art of memory was a crucial component to this magic. Bruno arranged ideas in his mind rather than manipulating external objects, and he believed that he could control the universe by storing and manipulating the knowledge in his mind. This internal mental architecture could be manipulated by the tool of imagination to turn sublime ideas into physical form. The understanding of the order--sense perception, imagination, and understanding--of how memory works reflects the harmony of the universe. Magic was divine when it involved supernatural principles, and natural when contemplating nature and her secrets. Sometimes what Bruno called ‘magic’ we would call common sense. Bruno saw parallels between his art of memory and the Kabbalah, another means of living the heavenly life.

For Bruno the universe is good and demands moral behavior. Yes, there is evil, but this evil results from the changeability of the structure of the cosmos. Evil is as self-inflicted as the agonies of lovers, he believed. The way to avoid evil is to follow the lessons expressed in the biblical Song of Songs and Plato’s Symposium. What they reveal is older than the universe: They, and Bruno, bring us closer to an understanding of philosophical love. “Love of God is the only love worth pursuing.” Divinity, Bruno believes, is in all things. So love all things. In a sense Bruno was a pantheist, though with a heavily Catholic strain.

His philosophy was so unusual that Bruno had trouble communicating it. He tried through drawings and diagrams as well through poetry. But these means were limited. He thought of himself as a Catholic, though his excommunication prevented him from taking the Communion and practicing the other rituals of his faith. He did not adhere to all the doctrines of the Church and believed that some of the dogmas were unimportant. These doubts were not unusual in his day and were not cause for punishment. Transubstantiation of the host during Mass was one of those dogmas disbelieved. He denied that God is only incarnate in Christ. God is incarnate everywhere, and substance changes everywhere in nature, not just in the Mass.

Sometimes he tried on for size the religious beliefs of where ever he happened to be, such as Calvinism when he lived in Geneva. But he always returned to his Catholic roots.
What sealed his fate in Rome was not any heresy he might have uttered. The Inquisition could not punish Bruno for his publicized beliefs. After all, even the illustrious Dominican Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, was inclined to agree more with Bruno than with dogma of transubstantiation. The other accusations against Bruno stood equally in question. Ultimately the inquisitors punished Bruno for his denial of their authority to determine what was and what was not heretical. They responded by showing their power. On February 17, 1600 he was burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiora, the Field of Flowers. Today a statue of him stands near where his pyre burned.

I don’t know if Spinoza had read Bruno, though he must have known of him and his death. Some of Spinoza’s ideas had points of contact with Bruno’s philosophy, and Spinoza, though he lived in a more tolerant society in the Netherlands, wisely arranged for the publication of his Ethics following his death. Leibniz did read Bruno, Rowland tells us, though he and Bruno did not have much in common except for a shared interest the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, for which Leibniz succeeded where Bruno failed to develop the mathematics to unlock their secrets.

Rowland does a lovely job of telling Bruno’s story and explaining his philosophy. She writes about the influence of Bruno’s teachers and earlier thinkers such as Cusanus and Ficino on his thinking. There is much detail of his travels and the people he associated with, and she describes his often irascible nature. Anyone interested in Renaissance or early modern philosophy who would like to learn more about Bruno, an unjustly neglected philosopher, will learn much from this book.
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