November 11, 1997
|Giordano Bruno was the bold harbinger of a new cosmology during the Italian Renaissance. Illustration by James S. Arthur|
by H. James Birx
Visiting Scholar, Harvard University, 1997-1998
"The universe comprises all being in a totality; for nothing that exists is outside or beyond infinite being, as the latter has no outside or beyond." Giordano Bruno, On the Cause, Principle, and Unity (fifth dialogue).
I was an independent child, ever curious and always asking questions about things in nature. Although born in Canandaigua, my early years were spent living on a large farm in nearby Holcomb, Western New York. I was always surrounded by birth and change and death. My developing mind was fascinated by those distant twinkling stars and pictures of prehistoric life forms (especially dinosaurs). I often went to the movies, being particularly attracted to epic, fantasy and science fiction films, e.g., Quo Vadis (1951), Mighty Joe Young (1949) and Unknown Island (1948), respectively. Consequently, even as a youngster, my emerging worldview was both cosmic and evolutionary in orientation.
When at Bloomfield Central High School, I pursued studies in science (my favorite subject was biology) and enjoyed writing and public speaking. After buying a telescope, my interest in astronomy was greatly intensified. I was amazed and delighted to experience that, through the aid of several lenses, my eyes could see some points of light in the night sky turn into several planets and moons of our solar system. Furthermore, hundreds of remote stars invisible to the naked human eye could now be clearly seen through my telescope. How insignificant the earth and life upon it (including our own species) now seemed to me.
As a student at SUNY College at Geneseo, I was interested in both science and philosophy. Those bold ideas of great thinkers from Aristotle to Einstein, particularly Darwin's theory of organic evolution, excited me. My academic studies at that time focused on biology and anthropology. Actually, these two areas of science are interrelated within the framework of a dynamic planet in evolution. And although I was aware of those contributions that had been made by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo to modern astronomy, the name "Giordano Bruno" was still unfamiliar to me. However, my mind was always open to new concepts and new perspectives.
As a physical anthropology major in graduate school at SUNY at Buffalo, I was more and more concerned about the true place humankind occupies within organic history and this evolving cosmos. Later in philosophy, I was introduced to Bruno's iconoclastic ideas as a result of my readings in the history of both science and philosophy. For me, discovering the Brunian worldview was a liberating experience, indeed. It freed my mind from the blind faith and dogmatic beliefs of an outmoded theology and myopic philosophies.
As a direct consequence of my extensive studies in the special sciences, particularly paleoanthropology, I slowly developed grave doubts about the truth value of traditional beliefs in Christian teaching as well as other religions. Having always been urged to think for myself, my own ideas found an intellectual home in Bruno's remarkable conceptual framework. I was greatly inspired by his bold vision of an eternal and infinite universe free from those narrow confinements of Thomism and Aristotelianism. In addition, I was challenged by Bruno's open-ended cosmology: no longer did this planet, life on earth, or even our own species hold a privileged or central place in this changing universe.
I found it utterly incredible that, during the Italian Renaissance, Bruno as a natural philosopher had developed a cosmology grounded in the concept of infinity. In fact, Bruno's worldview far surpasses those ideas of Cusa, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo: it argues for an infinite number of stars, planets, and galaxies! Likewise, Bruno was an early spokesman for the emerging science of exobiology. He boldly held that life forms, including intelligent beings, exist on a plurality of worlds elsewhere in this infinite universe.
Greatly influenced by Bruno as well as Feuerbach, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Haeckel (among other scientists and philosophers), I became committed to naturalism and humanism. My five years of doctoral studies in philosophy under the late Marvin Farber and Paul Kurtz even strengthened my cosmic perspective and evolutionary framework. Overcoming years of theistic indoctrination, I finally became a pervasive materialist and secular humanist.
In January 1971, I visited for the first time that place in Rome where Bruno was burned to death at the stake for his pantheistic stance and cosmic perspective. Today, as a scientist and philosopher in the field of anthropology, my own worldview is essentially Brunian in orientation. This is clearly reflected in my teaching, writing, and lecturing.
Finally, in my professional judgment, the human world has yet to come to grips with Bruno's awesome perspective and its ramifications for science, philosophy, religion and theology. To me, Bruno is the supreme martyr for both free thought and critical inquiry.
The great Italian philosopher Giordano Filippo Bruno (1548-1600) was born in Nola, in the Campania. As a young scholar, he studied philosophy and literature in Naples, and later theology at the Monastery of San Domenico Maggione. He had a tenacious memory and extraordinary intellect. In 1572 Bruno took the vows of priesthood. Yet in 1576, doubting many of the teachings of Christianity and therefore suspected of heresy, this Dominican monk with unorthodox opinions abandoned his religious order and subsequently was forced to flee to the more secular Northern Italy in order to escape both the Neapolitan Inquisition and the Holy Office of Rome. Fearing for his safety and seeking freedom of expression, the restless Bruno wandered as a solitary figure through Switzerland, France, England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. These were years of study, reflection, speculation, writing and lecturing.
With steadfast determination, creative thoughts and controversial books, Bruno challenged those entrenched beliefs of the Roman Catholic faith, the Peripatetic biases of his contemporary astronomers and physicists, and that unrelenting authority given to the Aristotelian worldview. Unfortunately, Bruno as ingenious freethinker had a personality that aggravated both the general populace and serious scholars to such a degree that he could never claim a permanent home anywhere during his lifetime; nevertheless, he no doubt saw himself as a citizen of the entire universe.
During a two-year period in London (1583-1585), the autodidactic Bruno lectured at Oxford University and both wrote and published six strikingly brilliant Italian dialogues: On the Cause, Principle, and Unity; On the Infinite, the Universe, and Worlds; The Ash Wednesday Supper; The Cabala of the Horse Pegasus; The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast; and The Heroic Frenzies. These volumes contain the essential elements of his daring cosmology, new epistemology, and bold statements on ethics, religion and theology. He had rigorously rejected the geostatic, geocentric, anthropocentric, and finite-because-spherical model of the cosmos found in those Aristotelian writings of antiquity that were still supported by the Roman Catholic Church.
Bruno also wrote poems in which he ridiculed, with caustic sarcasm and bitter satire, both the dogmatic clergymen and superstitious beliefs of his age. In 1591, his last books and Latin poems were published at Frankfurt in Germany. They include On the Monad, On the Immense, and On the Triple Minimum.
After many years of solitary wandering through Europe and with reckless abandon, the courageous Bruno returned to Italy in optimistic hope of convincing the new Pope, Clement VIII, of at least some of his controversial ideas. As a consequence of entrapment by the young nobleman Giovani Mocenigo, the self-unfrocked monk was tried and condemned twice (first by the Venetian Holy Inquisition in 1592, and then by the Roman Holy Inquisition in 1593). Bruno's critical writings, which pointed out the hypocrisy and bigotry within the Church, along with his tempestuous personality and undisciplined behavior, easily made him a victim of the religious and philosophical intolerance of the 16th century. Bruno was excommunicated by the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist Churches for his heretical beliefs. The Catholic hierarchy found him guilty of infidelity and many errors, as well as serious crimes of heresy. However, Bruno stubbornly refused to recant his lofty vision. He was subsequently handed over to the Italian state, which determined his final fate. The philosopher was imprisoned in the dungeons of the Holy Inquisition in Rome for seven years, denied pen and paper as well as books and visitors, relentlessly interrogated and probably tortured. After enduring this living tomb, he was eventually sentenced to death under the influence of the Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. Obstinate to the end, Bruno never recanted his heretical position.
At Rome on February 17, 1600, at the age of 52, the contemptuous and rebellious Giordano Bruno was bound, gagged and publicly burned alive at the stake in the center of the Campo dei Fiori, not far from the Vatican, while priests chanted their litanies. His wind-blown ashes mixed with the very earth that had sustained his life and thought. Three years later, the writings of the apostate monk and intrepid thinker were placed on the Index. In June 1889, during the reign of Pope Leo XIII, contributions from anticlerical groups around the world enabled an impressive bronze statue of Bruno, by Ettori Ferrari, to be erected by the public on the very spot where he had been executed (the great German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel, himself a monist and pantheist, wrote a hard- hitting address for this auspicious event).
With a profound imagination, Bruno had ushered in a new cosmology. Boldly, he held this universe to be eternal in time, infinite in space, and endlessly changing. In the history of Western philosophy, his speculations are a lasting and significant contribution to our modern conceptualization of a dynamic universe. The awesome Brunian worldview is a remarkable interpretation of reality which, in its vision, far surpasses the closed cosmological frameworks presented by Cusa, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo. Bruno's creativity was a result of his freedom from the traditional thought-system grounded in the Aristotelian view of nature and the dogmatic belief-system of the Roman Catholic Church.
In fact, Bruno stood utterly alone in foreshadowing our present understanding of and appreciation for space, time, matter, and life itself (particularly the place of humankind within the cosmic flux of all things). No longer did the heavens and earth represent two separate but different realms in terms of matter and motion.
During the tumultuous period of the Italian Renaissance, it was Bruno who critically reflected upon the heavens and, as a result, seriously considered the far-reaching implications and inevitable consequences that his unique vision held for considering the true position of our own species within this universe. Because he was neither a scientist nor a mathematician, Bruno relied upon rational speculations and the extensive use of analogies, along with magic and mysticism (he had developed an intense fascination for Renaissance hermeticism), to support his cosmic model. His daring worldview undermined the split, finite, and closed conceptual framework of the physicists, astronomers, philosophers and theologians during his time.
Bruno was especially indebted to the cosmic visions of Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99-ca. 55 B.C.E.) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): Lucretius is remembered for his remarkable book On the Nature of Things, while Cusa is known primarily for his insightful volume Of Learned Ignorance. Their interpretations of this dynamic universe went far beyond those conceptual limits of all earth-bound and human-centered views of the cosmos. It should be stressed, however, that Bruno was not greatly influenced by the Copernican model of a heliocentric universe. In sharp contrast to Copernicus, Bruno was aware of those limitations that result from a strictly mathematical approach in attempting to comprehend the characteristics of this universe. Instead, he emphasized that the use of symbolic logic and discrete geometry merely supplements the findings of rational speculations grounded in intuition and imagination. Reminiscent of those natural cosmologists of the pre-Socratic period, Bruno gladly extrapolated his new ideas and vast vision from his own critical observations of nature and a rigorous use of his powerful imagination. His interests in the art, magic, and numerology of ancient Egypt were essentially a reflection of his own fascination with change and memory (increased by the thoughts of the Catalan monk, Raymond Lully) as well as his view of the cosmos as a divine and living universe.
Breaking new ground in cosmology, Bruno's philosophy of nature depends upon the metaphysical concepts of plurality, uniformity, and cosmic unity along with the logical principle of sufficient reason. He ruthlessly criticized all geocentric, zoocentric, anthropocentric, and heliocentric views of reality. His new philosophy repudiated the Peripatetic terrestrial/celestial dichotomy and, instead, maintained that the same physical laws and natural elements of the earth exist throughout this eternal and infinite universe. In doing so, Bruno was able to correct and surpass the planetary perspective expounded by Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Aquinas. He even advanced beyond the sun-centered astronomy advocated by some of his contemporaries. His own model of the world is free from any fixed point of reference. In retrospect, it may be claimed that his pioneering thought actually fathered modern cosmology.
Bruno's vision replaced a finite cosmos with an infinite universe. His insights are free from the erroneous assumptions, moribund scholastic prejudices, and restrictive beliefs of the established religion of his time. Without ignoring the value or limitations of reason (mathematics and logic), he took intuitive leaps that synthesized both perceptual experience and the critical intellect into a daring worldview that grasps the basic features of cosmic reality. For him, such rigorous reflection also led to humanistic action. Because Bruno was unable to demonstrate his metaphysical claims scientifically, he relied upon thought-experiments to glimpse the ramifications of his sweeping vision. (In this century, Einstein would use the same imaginative method to fathom both the extraordinary implications and startling consequences of his special and general theories of relativity.) Bruno also taught that there are an infinite number of perspectives (recall Nietzsche's perspectivism), with there being no privileged or fixed frame of reference: human experience can be unified in religious, scientific, or philosophical concepts. Nevertheless, he realized that religious formulations are inevitably doomed in the face of the scientific method and ongoing empirical discovery.
Not restricting himself to the concept of finitude, Bruno was thrilled by the idea of infinity. He was not willing to set limits to those possibilities and probabilities that are inherent in this universe (as he saw it). His imagination thrived on the plausibility of extending the concept of infinity to embrace all aspects of cosmic reality: this universe is infinite in both potentiality and actuality, and its creative power is both endless and infinite. As such, no fixed ceiling of a finite number of stars sets a spherical boundary to the physical cosmos and, moreover, no dogmatic system of thoughts and values should imprison that free inquiry that is so necessary for human progress and fulfillment.
For Bruno, there are no real separations (only logical distinctions) within the harmony and unity of dynamic nature. He overcame the myopic earth-centered framework of his time with a challenging but liberating sidereal view of things: in the cosmos, there are an infinite number of stars and planets (as well as comets and moons) more or less analogous to our sun and earth, respectively. He even envisioned an infinite number of solar systems, cosmic galaxies, and island universes strewn throughout this boundless reality.
Clearly, Bruno was in step with progressive science and natural philosophy in his attempt to overcome all those belief-systems preoccupied with this planet and our species. He affirmed the essential homogeneity of this cosmos, teaching an atomistic philosophy that maintains all things both inorganic and organic to be composed of monads as the ultimate units of process reality (an idea later expanded by Leibniz): the physical unit is the atom, the mathematical unit is the point, and the metaphysical unit is the monad. The infinitesimal and irreducible monads mirror this dynamic and infinite universe in accordance with the dialectical principle of the unity of the microcosm with the macrocosm. In addition, Bruno claimed that this continuous universe had no beginning and will have no end in either space or time, and that there is life (including intelligent beings) on countless other worlds.
Bruno's sweeping vision also considered the human animal with its endless potentialities. Our own species is a critically thinking animal. It must not be ashamed of doubts, problems, limitations, and curiosity. Nevertheless, humankind is merely a fleeting fragment of our earth, which in turn is only a temporary speck within cosmic history. This dynamic philosophy emphasizes that, in this best of all possible worlds (a position later defended by Leibniz), the human animal is a product of, dependent upon, and totally within the flux of nature.
Bruno taught that there are no a priori limits to human thoughts, feelings, and actions; through its intellect, the human organism is capable of living in harmony with this universe. He also stressed that both reason and emotion are necessary for the total human being. In fact, in this eternal and infinite universe, Bruno held that the uniqueness of each person is actually heightened within a community of individuals that mirrors the plurality of worlds. Although from the cosmic perspective the human animal appears to be insignificant, it is nevertheless of great importance within a planetary framework.
Bruno argued for an infinite number of inhabited worlds. Hence, he conceived of life forms and intelligent beings existing on other planets throughout this universe. As such, his cosmology anticipated the emerging science of exobiology in modern astronomy: neither this planet nor our species is unique in the incomprehensible vastness of cosmic reality.
Not until 1609, nine years after Bruno's death, did the astronomer/physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) first use the telescope to discover that the heavenly bodies do in fact resemble our earth; in this same year, Kepler mathematically demonstrated the elliptical orbits of the planets. The Aristotelian dichotomy between our imperfect terrestrial world and the seemingly perfect celestial realm was finally abolished, thereby making the idea of life forms and intelligent beings elsewhere in this universe a plausible hypothesis in modern science and natural philosophy.
Also as an outgrowth of his new cosmology, Bruno rejected all fixed value systems; And he advocated the relativity of ethics. No object, relation, or event could be absolutely good or absolutely evil. Likewise, no thought or action could be absolutely right or absolutely wrong. As such, Bruno pioneered a naturalistic ethics far removed from Kant's moral philosophy with its categorical imperative grounded in a cryptic theology. Bruno saw that values, experiences, and cosmic reality are interrelated within a dynamic unity; he also taught the ultimate unity of truth, beauty, and goodness. Perfection resides only in taking this eternal and infinite universe as a dynamic and unfolding whole (thus accounting for Bruno's pantheistic stance).
Bruno offered a cosmology that anticipated Einstein's theory of relativity and perhaps even Darwin's theory of evolution. In an infinite universe, Bruno argued that space, time, size, weight, motion, change, events, relationships, and perspectives are always relative to any particular frame of reference. For him, from the village of Nola, Mount Vesuvius looked like a barren volcano devoid of life. Yet, from the slopes of Vesuvius, it was Mount Cala that now looked like a lifeless volcano. In fact, both geological formations support life. This experience impressed upon Bruno the relativity of perspectives and the crucial distinction between appearance and reality; Aristotle had been wrong in maintaining that appearance is reality. Consequently, in the reach for knowledge and wisdom, our limited senses need to be supplemented by mathematics and especially rational speculations.
Furthermore, in a thought-experiment, Bruno imagined himself floating above and beyond the earth. As he drifted closer and closer to the moon, it got larger while our planet got smaller. From the lunar surface, it was now the earth that seemed to be a satellite while the moon itself looked as if it were the size of our planet. If Bruno had drifted far beyond the moon, then he would eventually see both the earth and its only satellite first become merely specks of light and then, eventually, they would disappear into the blackness of deep space. Using his powerful imagination, the philosopher once again demonstrated the principle of relativity and emphasized the crucial difference between the appearance of things and their true reality.
Bruno's model of this universe disclaimed any dogmatic judgments: the center of this universe is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere. In sharp contrast to an Aristotelian framework, the Brunian viewpoint gives an open-ended perspective free from any absolutes in science or philosophy or theology.
It may be said that Bruno at least glimpsed in a speculative fashion the scientific theory of organic evolution. Although he claimed that decay and generation continuously occur everywhere, he held that this unfolding universe is always striving for novelty and perfection. In maintaining the essential unity of nature as well as suggesting the development of lower or simple life forms into higher or complex living things, Bruno apparently recognized the historical transformation of all organisms on earth. In fact, he perceived this entire universe as an organic entity manifesting a pervasive world-soul. (Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander von Humboldt, and Lewis Thomas have all viewed this planet as being more or less like an organism or cell.) Bruno's dynamic view of all things foreshadowed the process philosophies of Leibniz, Hegel, and Whitehead. His mysticism reminds one of the visions of Ernest Renan, Miguel de Unamuno, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Bruno maintained that the multiplicity of natural things originates out of a single substance, which is both eternal in time and infinite in space. The essential unity of this dynamic cosmos is ultimately grounded in the identity of contraries or the coincidence of opposites (a doctrine first conceived by Cusa and later developed by Hegel). The straight and the curved in mathematics, the center and the circumference of this universe, and the spirited matter or materialized spirit throughout reality are each claimed to be, in the final analysis, identical in Bruno's monistic and mystical interpretation of the creative process of cosmic development.
Rejecting both theism and deism, the wise Bruno professed a pantheistic view of reality. He espoused the idea that the supreme single necessary substance is God or nature, which encompasses every particular object, relation, and event that exists potentially or actually in this universe. God is the cause, principle, and unity of all existence. Since God is totally immanent for Bruno, his pantheism both challenged and superseded the medieval belief in a personal God who transcends the world as well as all later beliefs in deism. In fact, Bruno the infidel became the greatest philosopher of the Italian Renaissance; he had left the gloom of the monastery and the dogma of the Church for the joy and lifelong inspiration that lay in contemplating the endless wonders of this infinite universe. Throughout his life, he never wavered from his cosmic perspective, pantheistic orientation and passion for infinity.
Bruno's conception of God as nature had been first proposed by Xenophanes in Greek antiquity. After Bruno's death, pantheism was advocated by Spinoza, Goethe, Ernst Haeckel, Samuel Alexander, and Albert Einstein (among others).
As a mystic, Bruno grasped the essential unity of this infinite universe and severely criticized the religious belief-system for its dualistic metaphysics. He experienced God as the world itself, an idea that transcends the empirical sciences and traditional theology. Therefore, it is not surprising that Brunian mysticism seriously threatened the rigid and closed politico-religious establishment of his time (this same dogmatic outlook by the Church would later force Galileo to recant all his discoveries in descriptive astronomy).
In the history of Western philosophy, Bruno's iconoclastic ideas and unorthodox perspectives remain a symbol of creative thought and free inquiry. He advocated religious and moral reforms, and heralded the modern cosmology through his emphasis on an infinite universe and an infinite number of inhabited worlds. During the past four centuries, advances in descriptive astronomy and theoretical physics have given empirical and conceptual support to the Brunian philosophy. No longer is there a split between the terrestrial world and the celestial realm. Moreover, the principles of relativity and uniformity pervade the modern interpretation of this cosmos. The more our space-age technology probes reality, the larger we discover this universe to be. Scientists and philosophers now take seriously a cosmic perspective that includes billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. Furthermore, it is highly probable that other solar systems fill this universe and also very likely that life forms (including intelligent beings) inhabit and evolve on other planets similar to our earth.
Certainly, Bruno would have scoffed at the anthropic principle while extending the Gaia hypothesis to encompass the entire universe. He would have been pleased to see his cosmic perspective visually presented in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969). Likewise, he would have been thrilled by the glorious photographs of celestial objects taken by the Hubble Space Telescope mission as well as the gigantic radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, that searches for signals from intelligent beings in outer space. And no doubt, Bruno would have enjoyed discussing this universe with Stephen Hawking and the late Carl Sagan. Surely, the cosmic reality of deep space is filled with star clusters and cosmic objects far beyond the myopic comprehension of those dogmatic religionists of the Italian Renaissance who silenced the greatest philosopher of their age. Suffice it to say that Bruno would be excited about quasars, pulsars, superstrings, supernovas and black holes; he would have easily incorporated these objects as well as hyperspace and other universes into his own cosmic perspective of dynamic reality.
Having rejected any ontological separation of the superlunary and sublunary realms, Bruno would be delighted with the modern scientific quest for a unified-field-theory to explain everything throughout this physical universe in terms of several equations; especially since such an undertaking is in step with his own cosmic monism. Also, he would be thrilled by the present Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover examining the surface of the red planet Mars for any signs of life before it is inhabited by human beings.
In general, Giordano Bruno paved the way for the cosmology of our time. To his lasting credit, the most recent empirical discoveries in astronomy and rational speculations in cosmology (including the emerging science of exobiology) support many of his brilliant insights and fascinating intuitions. This is an appropriate legacy from a daring and profound thinker, who presented an inspiring vision which still remains relevant and significant for our modern scientific and philosophical framework.
Dr. H. James Birx, Professor of Anthropology at Canisius College, is the author of Interpreting Evolution (Prometheus Books, 1991), an invited Visiting Research Scholar at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, for 1997-1998 and a Contributing Editor for Free Inquiry.