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Giordano Bruno

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Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno (1548 - February 17 1600), a.k.a. Bruno Nolano or Bruno the Nolan was an Italian philosopher, executed as a heretic.

He was born named Filippo in Nola, in Campania, the son of Giovanni Bruno, a soldier. In 1565 he took the name Giordano on becoming a Dominican friar at the Monastery of Saint Domenico near Naples. In 1572 he was ordained a priest.

He was interested in philosophy and was, like Ramon Llull an expert on the art of memory; he wrote books on mnemonic technique, which Francis Yates contends may have been disguised Hermetic tracts. The writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were, in Bruno's time, recently rediscovered and were thought, at the time, to date uniformly to the earliest days of ancient Egypt. They are now believed to date mostly from about 300 A.D. and to be associated with Neoplatonism.

Bruno was also heavily influenced by the ideas of Copernicus and by the newly rediscovered ideas of Plato. Other influences included Thomas Aquinas, Averroes, Duns Scotus, Marsilio Ficino, and Nicholas of Cusa.

In 1576 he left Naples to avoid the attention of the Inquisition. He left Rome for the same reason and abandoned the Dominican order. He travelled to Geneva and briefly joined the Calvinists, before he was excommunicated for his adherence to Copernicanism and forced to leave for France.

In 1579 he arrived in Toulouse, where he briefly had a teaching position. At this time, he began to gain fame for his prodigious memory. Bruno's feats of memory were apparently based, at least in part, on an elaborate system of mnemonics, but many of his contemporaries found it easier to attribute them to magical powers.

For seven years, he enjoyed the protection of powerful French patrons, including Henry III of France. During this period, he published twenty books, including several on memory training, Cena de le Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1584), and De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, 1584). In Cena de le Ceneri he defended the theories of Copernicus, albeit rather poorly. In De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi, he argued that the stars we see at night were just like our Sun, that the universe was infinite, with a "Plurality of Worlds", and that all were inhabited by intelligent beings (see the Drake equation). These two works are jointly known as his "Italian dialogues."

In 1583, he went to England with letters of recommendation from Henry III. He sought a teaching position at Oxford, but appears to have given offense and was denied a position there (and elsewhere in England).

There is some reason to believe that during this period he acted from 1583 to 1585 as a secret agent in the household of the French ambassador to England (M Castelnau). John Bossy's Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (Yale UP, 2002), makes a case that Bruno is the previously unidentified 'Henry Fagot' whose reports to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spy master, have been found in surviving records of Walsingham's organization. Bruno's effectiveness and value as a spy is not clear now and may not have been then; Henry Fagot's spy career seems to have begun and ended in three years.

In 1585 he returned to Paris. However, his 120 theses against Aristotelian natural science and his libelous pamphlet against the Roman Catholic mathematician Fabrizio Mordente soon put him in ill favor. In 1586, following a violent quarrel about "a scientific instrument", he left France for Germany.

In Germany he failed to obtain a teaching position at Marburg, before obtaining permission to teach at Wittenberg, where he taught Aristotle for two years. However, with a change of intellectual climate there, he was no longer welcome, and went in 1588 to Prague, where he obtained 300 talern from Rudolf II, but no teaching position. He went on to server briefly as a professor in Helmstadt, but had to flee again when he was excommunicated by the Lutheransans, continuing the pattern of Bruno's gaining favor from lay authorities before falling foul of the ecclesiastics of whatever sect.

1591 found him in Frankfurt. Apparently, during the Frankfurt Book Fair, he received an invitation to Venice from one Zuane Mocenigno, who wished to be instructed in the art of memory, and also heard of a vacant chair in mathematics at Padua. With the death of the conservative Pope Sixtus V, Bruno apparently believed that the Inquisition might have lost some of its strength, and he concluded, erroneously, that it might now be safe to return to Italy.

He went first to Padua, where he taught briefly, but the chair went instead to Galileo Galilei, so he continued on to Venice. He briefly functioned as a tutor to Mocenigno, who may have been disappointed that Bruno was merely teaching him a complex system of menmonics rather than some form of magic. When Bruno attempted to leave Venice, Mocenigno denounced him to the Inquisition. He was arrested May 22, 1592, and tried before being extradited for trial in Rome in 1593.

In Rome he was imprisoned in the Castel Sant' Angelo for six years before he was tried. He tried in vain to obtain an audience with Pope Clement VIII, hoping to make peace with the Church through a partial recantation. His trial, when it finally occurred was overseen by the inquisitor, Cardinal Saint Robert Bellarmine, who demanded a full recantation, which Bruno refused. Consequently, he was declared a heretic and handed over to secular authorities on January 8 1600 and burned at the stake on February 17 1600 in Campo de' Fiori, a popular Roman square. As a demonstration of mercy, the clerical authorities placed a bag of gunpowder around his neck before they set the fire, to spare Bruno, bringing his suffering to an end quickly. The authorities also nailed his tongue to his jaw to stop him from speaking. Since 1889, their has been a monument to Bruno on the site of his execution.

The world of science has long claimed Bruno as a martyr. Still, while his Copernicanism was undoubtedly a factor in his excommunication and execution, his theological beliefs were also sufficiently unorthodox to earn him condemnation, and probably played a larger role in the matter than his cosmology. Bruno denied the doctrine of the Trinity and embraced a sort of pantheistic animism. The Catholic church put him on trial for docetism (the doctrine that Jesus Christ did not actually have a physical body and that his physical presence was an illusion).

At his trial, he said: Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it. All his works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603. Four hundred years after his execution, official expression of "profound sorrow" and acknowledgement of error at Bruno's condemnation to death was made, during the incumbency of John Paul II.

The Cosmology of Bruno's time

In the second half of the 16th century, the theories of Copernicus began diffusing through Europe. Although Bruno did not wholly embrace Copernicus's preference for mathematics over speculation, he advocated the Copernican view that the earth was not the center of the universe, and extrapolated some consequences which may seem like common sense in the 21st century, but which were radical departures from the cosmology of the time.

According to Bruno, Copernicus's theories contradicted the view of a celestial sphere, immutable, incorruptible, and superior to the terrestrial region. Bruno went beyond the heliocentric model to envision a universe which, like that of Plotinus in the Third Century A.D, or like Blaise Pascal's nearly a century after Bruno, had its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere.

Few astronomers of Bruno's generation accepted even Copernicus's heliocentric model. Among those who did were the Germans Michael Maestlin (1550-1631), and Cristoph Rothmann and the Englishman Thomas Digges, author of A Perfit Description of the Caelestial Orbes (sic). Galileo (1564-1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) were younger, so they do not figure at this time. Bruno himself was not an astronomer, but one of the first to embrace Copernicanism as a world view, rejecting geocentrism.

In works published between 1584 and 1591, Bruno enthusiastically supported Copernicanism. According to Aristotle and Plato, the universe was a finite sphere. Its ultimate limit was the primum mobile, whose diurnal rotation was conferred upon it by a transcendental God, not part of the universe, a motionless prime mover and first cause.

The fixed stars were part of this celestial sphere, all at the same fixed distance from the immobile earth at the center of the sphere. Ptolemy had numbered these at 1,022, grouped into 48 constellations. The planets were each fixed to a transparent sphere. Copernicus conserved the idea of planets fixed to solid spheres, but considered the apparent motion of the stars to be an actual motion of the earth; he also preserved the notion of an immobile center, but it was the Sun rather than the Earth. He expressed no opinion as to whether the stars were at a uniform distance on a fixed sphere or scattered through an infinite universe.

Bruno's cosmology

Bruno believed, as is now universally accepted, that the Earth revolves and that the apparent diurnal rotation of the heavens is an illusion caused by the rotation of the Earth around its axis. He also saw no reason to believe that the stellar region was finite, or that all stars were equidistant from a single center of the universe. In these respects, his views were similar to those of Thomas Digges in his A Perfit Description of the Caelestial Orbes (1576).

However, Digges considered the infinite region beyond the stars to be the home of God, the angels, and of the holy. He conserved the Ptolemaic notion of the planetary spheres, considered Earth the only possible realm of life and death, and a unique place of impertection and change, compared against the perfect and changeless heavens.

In 1584, Bruno published two important philosophical dialogues, in which he argued against the planetary spheres. (Two years later, Rothmann did the same in 1586, as did Tycho Brahe in 1587.) Bruno's infinite universe was filled with a substance -- a "pure air", aether, or spiritus -- that offered no resistance to the heavenly bodies which, in Bruno's view, rather than being fixed, moved under their own impetus. Most dramatically, he completely abandoned the idea of a heirarchical universe. The Earth was just one more heavenly body, as was the Sun. God had no particular relation to one part of the infinite universe more than any other. God, according to Bruno, was precisely as present on Earth as in the Heavens, an imminent God rather than a remote heavenly deity.

Bruno also affirmed that the universe was homogeneous, made up everywhere of the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air), rather than having the stars be composed of a separate quintessence. Essentially, the same physical laws would operate everywhere, although the use of that term is anachronistic. Space and time were both conceived as infinite. There was no room in his stable and permanent universe for the Christian notions of divine Creation and Last Judgement.

Under this model, the Sun was simply one more star, and the stars all suns, each with its own planets. Bruno saw a solar system of a sun/star with planets as the fundamental unit of the universe. According to Bruno, infinite God necessarily created an infinite universe, formed of an infinite number of solar systems, separated by vast regions full of Aether, because empty space could not exist. (Bruno did not arrive at the concept of a galaxy.) Comets were part of a synodus ex mundis of stars, and not -- as other authors sustained at the time -- ephemeral creations, divine instruments, or heavenly messengers. Each comet was a world, a permanent celestial body, formed of the four elements.

Bruno's cosmology is marked by infinitude, homogeneity, and isotropy, with planetary systems distributed evenly throughout. Matter follows an active animistic principle: it is intelligent and discontinuous in structure, made up of discrete atoms. This animism (and a corresponding disdain for mathematics as a means to understanding) is the most dramatic respect in which Bruno's cosmology differs from what today passes for a common-sense picture of the universe.

References


The 20-km diameter crater Giordano Bruno, named in Bruno's honor, is located on the moon at 103ð east lunar longitude, 36ð north lunar latitude.