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Giordano Bruno

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

So much has been written and so much has been said about Giordano Bruno that one who in these days takes up the subject cannot but feel that he has between his hands nothing but beaten straw. All men know that Bruno was burned at the stake on the 17th day of February, in the year 1600. All men know that on the spot where his tortured body curled and writhed under the flame there now stands a noble monument to his memory.

Bruno and his death have been made the text for endless sermons and the subject of interminable essays. They have been used as a flail by all classes of men, who have felt that their lives would be quite incomplete did they not cast at least one stone at the Church of Rome as it flourished in the Sixteenth Century; by scientific men, who seem to have conceived that in Bruno's death a personal attack was made upon themselves; by ecclesiastical opponents of Roman Catholicism no less than avowed atheists, and by those who rail at all religion wherever and whenever found. Of Bruno's death there are descriptions in which the floridity of the rhetoric is to be compared only with the horror of the things described. If any extraordinary and peculiarly hideous details were lacking in the thing itself, these have been fully supplied by the vivid imaginations that have painted the scene ad nauseam.

Happily this is now becoming an obsolete fashion. Rome could not restore Bruno's life, but Romans have made such amends as were possible. Thoughtful men do not now gloat over what seem to be the cruelties of their ancestors. They strive to study and to understand the causes that made these cruelties not only possible but necessary. All the suffering that men have endured has only served to make greater the total happiness of the present. Liberty springs from slavery. Pain is the mother of pleasure. Out of sorrow comes joy. The fact that Bruno and others like him died in the manner they did makes such deaths impossible now. What Bruno taught was honestly believed by his judges to be more menacing than we now consider the most fiery and revolutionary doctrines of Anarchy. Our laws do not demand the death of the anarchist who publicly utters his opinions. But the jail gapes for him. The speech of sedition is not free. And when the preacher of Anarchy puts theory into practice and compasses murder he is killed.

Heresy in Bruno's time was a capital offense. When the Church and State are one, ecclesiastical and civil law are fused. There was but one law in Bruno's day, and he violated that law in the highest degree. The charge against him, uttered in all seriousness and sincerity, will have another sound if we roll back progress progress in liberty and sympathy as well as in learning and place ourselves in the Sixteenth Century and in Rome. "That man is not only a heretic but a heresiarch. He has writ-ten books in which he lauds the Queen of England and other heretical princes. He has written divers things touching religion that are contrary to the faith." It was then held by Bruno's accusers that heresy was more atrocious than murder. For, t was argued, if you kill a man's body you do him only a temporal and physical wrong; whereas, if you poison and destroy his soul you cause him an irreparable and eternal loss.

Observe that Bruno is not prosecuted or persecuted by his personal enemies or by those who were jealous of the distinction he won with his talents. The Church was smarting under heresies that had been successful; whose propagandists had escaped her hand and authority. That authorty was already beginning to lose its reach and its force. The body of the Church was in the process of breaking up into the Sects. Printing had placed books in the hands of men, and no longer were people required to take their Scriptures at second hand. Science, the young giant, was everywhere disclosing new truths. Men had been shocked by the announcement of Copernicus that the sun did not wheel about the earth. Old, established views of things were dissolving, and in the optical confusion of the change strange and startling images were forming themselves. Men were suggesting doctrines and possibilities that seemed to threaten the very life of Religion itself. In the coil and clamor of all this it would be indeed odd did not the Church take prompt and vigorous action whenever it could. All the laws that were then in force concerning heresy have been long since dead. The heretic now suffers social and religious reprobation. Such is his inevitable punishment a punishment he cannot escape so long as he utters his heresy. Then the punishment was death; and the heretics who escaped were as a thousand to one to the heretics who were killed. The foregoing is, in great part at least, the defense that has been made by numerous eminent apologists for the inquisitorial horrors of some centuries ago. Liberal judges will re-member, too, that the fate of the heretic was much the same in the new Sects as in the old Church; a fact that proves beyond controversy that these horrors are to be attributed to the status of European civilization in general a conclusion that is admitted now by everybody. What we of this age shudder at was a delight to the Romans. Savagery is savagery whatever may be its name.

Bruno is not introduced here as an example of a martyr to "Liberty of Thought" for he was but one of a few bold men who preferred death to silence but because he was a philosopher who occupied a peculiar and interesting position between the schoolmen and the beginning of modern philosophy properly so called. He has long had his place among the brave ones who had the courage to insist that philosophy, to be of service, must be divorced from theology. He was most unfortunate in being a monk. Laymen, before and after him, who were as free in publishing their opinions as he was, escaped. The manner of his death did not shock Europe as it shocks us, nor was the Rome of that memorable day in February the Rome of the present. The mat-ter will present itself to us in a clearer light and with bet-ter feeling when we recollect that Christian Europe then, if not so civilized as is Europe now, was immeasurably in advance of the Europe of sixteen centuries before. The contrast pointed itself out in the ruined Coliseum, whose unspeakable atrocity and savagery were no longer more possible than would be a Bruno at the stake today.

The date of Bruno's birth is uncertain, but it is said to have been in the middle year of the Sixteenth Century. His birthplace was Nola, not far from the city of Naples. Little has been recorded of his early life, but he must of necessity have been an earnest and ardent youth, for he entered a convent of the Dominicans while yet in his boyhood. But the robe of the monk could never keep within bounds the passionate, almost fierce ardor of his mind. The Dominicans taught him the philosophy of the schools. He found all avenues of speculation at least of orthodox speculation closed to him. The Scholastics had thought all thoughts except those that were proscribed. He found his philosophy ready made for him like his uniform. When he donned the one he donned the other. He could not be a Dominican and a free thinker, or at least a free speaker, at the same time. In the matter of thought he was presented with the problem of refining pure gold. He was deluged with Aristotelianism. When he asked for the meat and broth of philosophy he was given the black-letter volumes of Aquinas. Now, Bruno, like Plato, was a poet. He mixed himself with the stars. To him Nature was a radiant goddess, the beauty of whose moods made him thrill. Her smiles thrilled him with ineffable joy. Her frown caused him to pause in solemn meditation. He was a child of the sun, filled with the impulses that have given the world the poetry, the romance, and the art of Italy. In Bruno were all the force of the reformer, the afflatus of the poet, and the imagination of the mystic. In his primroses was reflected the infinite power of the universe. His thought, like all poetic thought, was synthetic. He was almost totally lacking in the faculty of analysis that seeks for causes with devouring insatiety. He was reverent to-ward Nature as most men are reverent to their gods. Nature spoke to him in terms of Deity, but he felt that he himself was part of Nature and part of God. God and Nature were the one and the all. And so his philosophy is Pantheism.

That such a mind could content itself with the dry forms of Scholastic Aristotelianism is impossible to think. He began by attacking some of the most sacred doctrines of the Church. He utterly rejected the dogma of transubstantiation. This dogma could not be cast aside without disaster to the dissenter. Bruno well knew the folly of contending against such a cardinal teaching of the Church and of hoping to be tolerated within the fold. In truth, the monastic life was distasteful to him in every one of its aspects. Had he been orthodox he would have made an unexampled preacher, but to preach by texts only, to say what had been said and repeated a thousand times before was not to his liking. The satisfactions he derived from breviary, from mass, from contemplation of the crucified figure, in a word, from any or from all of his functions as priest, were nil. On the contrary, the very learning he was acquiring in the convent fired him with a zeal and a fervor that were everything but holy from the sacerdotal point of view. He read the poetry of the Greeks and contrasted it with the dry formulae repeated day after day by the monks. He bathed in the glorious infinity of Greek speculation and compared it with the empty syllogisms of the Scholastics. What was poison to the brothers of his congregation was sweet, warming wine for him. He recanted his vows, took off his robe, and "quit of the priests and books," he fled from his birthplace and wandered away, full of his new mission to sing his songs of Pantheism and to mingle with men who were part of the living, throbbing world.

In Bruno we find the supreme reaction of a mind that is crammed perforce with the ideas of others. Aristotelianism had been held up to him as the end of all philosophy. Scholasticism had been taught to him as the sum of all possible knowledge. He hated Aristotle and he hated the Scholastics. When he left the Dominicans he at once addressed himself to the destruction of the peripatetic philosophy and the propaganda of his own strange thoughts. Free now to think and say what he pleased, he went abroad and first proceeded to Geneva. True, the Dominicans were not there to repress him, but in Geneva Calvinism was young and vigorous, and Bruno easily perceived that his peculiar way of thinking was no more to the ways of the disciples of Chauvin than it was to the brothers he had left behind in Italy. Less so, if anything. The men who could find it necessary to burn a Servetus were not of a temper to allow their fires to go out while a Bruno remained within reach. At this time (about the year 1580) Bruno was a young man, fresh from his novitiate studies in the con-vent, and a master of the classics. He could no more restrain his tongue from speech than he could restrain his ears from hearing. It is probable that his career would have been cut short then had he not contrived to escape into France. Wandering by way of Toulouse, he drifted to Paris, the theater of European thought and revolution. In Paris his brilliant attainments at once brought him into notice, and he was offered a professor-ship in the Sorbonne if he would consent to the form of attending mass. Bruno flatly refused to do this, but in spite of the refusal he was given the privilege of a lecturer's liberty, and availed himself of it to the full. His successes in Paris were notable. The Parisians heard him with delight. What mattered if he were condemned by the Church and his utterances were anathema? There were bold souls in the French capital then as later. It was the garden spot of atheism and heresy. It detested the humdrum of the commonplace. It welcomed all lights only so that they were of a new color, or a new shade of color. It reveled in strife, intellectual as well as political. The cardinal and the skeptic were friends.

Bruno seized all his opportunities and for a time held the mob. But he soon longed for new conquests, and he crossed the straits into England. There his reception was all that he could desire. Bruno was a very learned man. He was familiar with much, if not all, of the science of his time. He was informed in all the wisdom of the ancients. He was a master of mathematics and astronomy. One of the first to accept the Copernican theory of the heliocentricity of the solar system, he did much toward spreading the new astronomy wherever he went. To a mind thus richly stored with such knowledge as he could obtain from the books, he added an imagination that knew no limit, and a fancy that was not altogether unlike that of the Aristotelians whom he so hated and whom he endeavored so incessantly and untiringly to destroy. He was intensely conscious of himself, and was quite vain of his acquirements. He was by no means the pure apostle of reform, the devoted man of science, or the profound philosopher. He was fond of praise, and was not averse to sacrificing his dignity to procure it. He was highly sensible to flattery and to notice from the great ones of the earth. He was a philosopher who found the beck of a Prince most gratifying.

In England Bruno breathed free air. There was no check to the expression of his opinions, no matter what was their nature. He was received at the court of Elizabeth with an attention that could not but have been most pleasing to his vanity and his sense of self-importance. There he met some of his own countrymen who had attained distinction. It was the glorious Elizabethan age of letters. On the one hand, there were no Dominicans to note wherein his philosophy or his religion was heterodox; on the other, no Presbyterians to hound him to death as a heretic or a blasphemer. He was perfectly free to say what he thought in public or in private. England was then in the beginning of its most celebrated age of literature. Soon she was to triumph with her science. Bacon was already on the horizon; Harvey was working on his masterful discovery of the circulation of the blood; Newton was soon to rise. Bruno met and conversed with men like Sir Philip Sydney, who was his friend and patron. If there was ever opportunity for philosopher to live in safety and serenity and to publish his thought, that opportunity was Bruno's. But the freedom thus offered him was abused by him. Lewes, in his admirable essay on Bruno, is authority for the statement that the Italian, swelling with the pride of his easy conquest in England, proposed that he be given a post in the University of Oxford that he might teach there. In his address asking for the privilege Bruno declares that "a doctor of a more perfect theology, and the professor of a purer wisdom" than was taught in the great school was to be found in him. The university granted him the request. In Oxford he lectured on cosmology and psychology, teaching the doctrines of the Alexandrians. After he had sated himself with the admiration of the English, or, perhaps, after he had worn out his welcome, he returned to Paris and began fiercely to attack the peripatetic philosophy. The freedom of speech he enjoyed in England made him for-get that he was once more on the Continent, and he became so bold in his work that even Paris turned upon and rejected him. In Germany he found a more con-genial home. At Marburg he made a stormy scene with the dean of the university, who had received him well, and then he turned to Wurtemberg, where he was permitted to lecture for a space of two years. His success at Wurtemberg was flattering, although here he was required to put a curb on his tongue and to have care how his teachings would be taken by the Lutherans. Much, however, would be required from an apostate monk to turn against him the reformed, the metaphysical, the scientific Germans. Bruno wearied of Wurtemberg, as he had wearied of London. The working out of cause and effect often seems a warrant for a belief that behind the much abused word Destiny lurks a little of real truth. But Bruno's return to Italy is easily understood without resort to any explanation other than is to be found in his character, his disposition, and his lack of any one settled purpose in life. Then, too, he was an Italian by birth, and a long term of immunity from persecution had made him bold. His masterful ability in oratory, his admirable control of his audiences, the favor of his personal appearance, and the possession of that power of attraction which has been called "magnetic" in public speakers, had stood him in stead so often that he presumed upon his gifts and returned to Italy.

Another explanation of this folly is found in the fact that Bruno was well aware of the liberality of the great Republic of Venice in matters theological. Venetians were busy in the marts. They were trading with foreign nations and were developing their system of finance that made the great island city the mistress of the commercial world. To the famous Bank of Venice, the first of its kind in Europe, there flowed the moneys of all the nations of the earth. The Venetians took all coins presented to them, weighed them, tested them, and discounted them. The commercial community is the community of the freest speech. Rome cared little for heretics. England was never under the thrall of the Church. These things were in the mind of Bruno when he went to Italy and opened a school at Padua. But he was not sufficiently mad to abuse and rend the peripatetics in public. He offered himself as a private tutor.

The inquisition had not remained in ignorance of the famous heretic. It had seen his books. It had carefully considered his fierce attacks upon the orthodox theology. It had not been unaware of Bruno's visit to England or of his eulogia of the great and hated Protestant Queen, the daughter of the monster, Henry VIII, who had robbed the convents of their great accumulations of treasure; taken from the monks their lands and their prestige; defied the Vatican and forever crushed the influence of the Church in his island dominions. Bruno, the apostate monk, the blasphemer, the teacher of heresies, the eulogist of the impious and heretical British Princess, was now in Italy. It had been a miracle did not the inquisition know of these things.

To the government of Venice, therefore, the inquisition went and laid before it a plain, simple statement of the case. Liberal as possibly could have been the Venetians, they could hardly have withstood the force of the charges. After all, Venice was more concerned with her bills of credit and her banknotes and foreign exchanges than she was with questions of orthodoxy or heterodoxy. The heresiarch was delivered over to the inquisitors and taken to Rome. He was confined for several years in various prisons, and if a reasonable and unprejudiced survey be taken of the proceedings that took place between his arrest in 1595 and his death in 1600, much of the asperity that his death has caused will seem unjust.

The inquisition did not put him to death at once. He was asked to express publicly his repentance for the sins he had done against religion; to retract his assertions about the faith; to recant his impious and heretical utterances. He flatly and defiantly refused. Be it observed that he was not left to rot in his dungeons. Time and again he was urged to satisfy the demands of the inquisition and gain his liberty. He still refused. In Bruno the Church had an arch blasphemer to deal with. He stood self-condemned. He might have saved himself much suffering by a few words. He chose another course. Not long afterward, Galileo was summoned before the same tribunal and was requested to recant certain teachings of his concerning the solar system. In a felon's cell or a martyr's stake this man of science saw little value. His telescope was awaiting him elsewhere. The infinite sky was offering itself to his gaze with untold wonders and marvelous truths. Galileo could see no gear to be won by temporizing with the inquisitors. He was ready to admit that the earth was flat, square, oblong, cuneiform, or rhomboid, if he were only allowed to prosecute his studies in peace, with a view, privately entertained, of finding out what the truth really was. And so he "recanted," and forthwith made cryptograms in order to establish his priority of astronomical observations over those of other astronomers who were haply on the same scent. Not so Bruno. Theatrical and noisy to the last, he spat defiance in the face of his captors and bade them bring on their torments. The two Italians are co-famous. But herein lies the difference of performance : Bruno did well in dying to set example to the timid. His death is the assertion of much that is dear to the social man the freedom of speech; Galileo unchained to the mind of man the secrets of unutterable space. Had Bruno recanted his grand lesson had been lost. Had Galileo died Science had suffered a most serious check. While we may admire the heroism of the Neapolitan in nobly sacrificing life to principle, we can appraise the wisdom of the Paduan in setting the proper store upon insignificant things in order to set the proper store on important things. The trial of Bruno means a groan; that of Galileo, a smile.

In his writings and in his life Bruno exhibits a many-sided character. He is the implacable enemy of Aristotelianism as it was used by the Scholastics. He is the uncompromising opponent of the Church, the spurner and scorner of her authority. He is the poet, the philosopher, the man of science. He wrote as he talked, voluminously and upon all kinds of topics. He produced satires, after the fashion of Juvenal, on the immorality of the age. He lampooned contemporaneous philosophy and letters and while, in these books of lighter vein, he satirizes and ridicules the pedantry of his victims, he is not averse to allowing it to be seen that he has not himself neglected the ancients. His works, like those of many philosophers and scientific men of former ages, have become curiously historical. But the philosophy of Bruno is of interest because he was the first to present the modern conception of Pantheism. He is constantly using terms that have their equivalent in the Alexandrian systems and in some of the cosmologico-theological philosophies of the early Greeks. The adumbration of his system is to be found in the ancients, but Bruno did not entirely divest himself of the theology of the Middle Ages, and although he was a Pantheist his speculations on the "Divine Will" smack of Christian theology.

Bruno's philosophy regards the universe as one consistent whole. Matter and spirit are unity, the one informing and animating the other, and both together are God. But in this unity we may distinguish separate parts. The visible universe, it is true, is part of the great animated and animating One, but it is not all that One. It is dependent on the spirit and caused by the spirit. God is the cause of all things, existing of himself, spreading throughout extension, embracing the planet and the blade of grass; in three words, the Being of Beings. Back of the visible is the invisible; behind and above the finite, the Infinite. The creation of matter ex nihilo is denied by Bruno. He approaches the Rosicrucian, or so-called Rosicrucian doctrine, which teaches that universal being is a macrocosm of which Man is the microcosm. Yet, macrocosm and microcosm are one. This is the belief that the universe itself is an organism, a living, throbbing, sentient existence, as man is living and sentient. Matter is not merely dead body that becomes animated by some cause external to itself and passes again into dead body, but it is a necessary condition of life which corresponds to the animating power and is used by that power, naturally and necessarily, for its action. Yet while he teaches this Bruno also holds that God is perfect and intelligent and homogeneous.

The Copernican theory he elaborates, or magnifies, to suit his purpose. Infinite space is filled with infinite mat-ter and spirit, passing through a process of evolution to which there is neither beginning nor end. He rejected with much force the notion of Ptolemy and Aristotle that the earth was fixed, and he was almost fierce in his antagonism to the men around him who clung to that ancient and respectable doctrine. What had been the philosophy of Bruno had he been acquainted with the cosmology of the pre-Buddhists and the Brahmins it is hard to say. But hold as he was with the use of terms that at best can mean little more than a confused mixture of ideas that are negative, and which by a trick of the imagination are made to appear real, his Pantheism is crude and weak compared with the cosmology of the Brahmins, with the noble flux of Manutara and Pralaya, or with the transcendental and unthinkable Niruana of Gautama.

The Italian's psychology he tries to conform to his metaphysics and his principal ontological speculation. As, with him, all things are One, there is, in realty, an internal identity between things perceived and the perceiving intelligence. Herein is foreshadowed the doctrine of the Germans. There is the same deep-seated identity or, at least, affinity, between God and the mind of man. But the mind of man is not perfect as God is perfect. We can never attain to that complete knowledge which is God's alone. Ideas are the dim reflex of the infinitely intelligent divine mind. They are to the ideas of the divine mind what shadows are to light. The shad-ow of a man, no doubt, may be said to resemble a man, and in the same way our ideas are the shadows of the true, real ideas above us. There is first the great central source of light and life and being which shines through all things, vivifying and illuminating them. But as this radiation spreads farther and farther from its fountain and cause, it becomes weaker. Man partakes of this radiance, but darkly. Hence Bruno calls ideas not ideas but shadows of ideas umbrae idearum. This is pure mysticism. It is Rosicrucianism so 'far as the tenets of the Rosa Crux societies have been thus far published to the world. The late Mr. Hargrave Jennings has been at some trouble to expound the teachings of this sect in his widely read book, The Rosicrucians, and they may be said to not remotely partake of the character of Bruno's ontology and psychology.

In his moral philosophy Bruno was confronted with a problem which no refuge in words could satisfactorily solve. As God is a perfect Form, a rational Cause, and an infinitely good Will, how corne evil, pain, sin, and death into the world? The question is not new now, nor was it new to Bruno or to the theologians and the philosophers whose answers to it he thrust aside as worthless. Here was placed before him the great assumed major premise, postulated by himself as well as by others. It was, and is, at best a difficulty of supreme importance. But the Scholastics had an infinite advantage over their opponent; they did not teach Pantheism. Neither did they deny the world's creation out of nothing. They did not sweep away the Biblical account of cosmogenesis, the doctrine of our first parents, the fall of man, original sin, and the vicarious redemption. They precisely taught all of these things. God made man and endowed him with a perfectly free will, with a clear memory, and with a rational understanding. Man had chosen evil instead of good, and with that choice came all his afflictions of flesh and spirit. But Bruno, while he believed that man's soul was free and conscious, rejected the Scholastic explanation of death and so-called sin. He could not contend that man, being so, could deliberately introduce into life the horror and pain that were everywhere seen among men and beasts. How, therefore, pass through this occlusion? Bruno disposed of the matter after the fashion of all mystics. Do death, deformity, pain, and wrong conflict with his system? If so, eliminate them. They do not exist. They are illusions. These matters (which are, in truth, the most vividly acute of all sensations) are not ideas at all, founded, like ideas of pleasure and aspiration, on the rock of consciousness, but mere nothings that have no substantial reality whatever ! The Aristotelians, with all their fallacies, were guilty of no such outright evasion as this.

Bruno was no more unfortunate in his philosophy than have been most men who originate or compound a system of ontology, cosmology, or morality. Such have been seldom disturbed by the appearance of plain facts that obtrude themselves uninvited upon the attention. The desire to systematize has been coeval with speculation, and the failure of all systems save that suggested by the accumulation of scientific knowledge has been due to the neglect of their founders to proceed with great caution from step to step, sure of their footing upon every advance and stopping short when that footing was not to be found. Inasmuch as Science has only in the present day afforded the materials to build so firm a causeway as this, it was impossible for any philosopher, even an Aristotle, to leave behind him a scheme of thought, if only in outline, which could hope to survive the progress of observation, experience, and education. Bruno attempted to fly with the wings of Icarus. That he fell was as certain as the failure of all who attempt to compass the impossible.

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