It is proof of a base and low mind for one to wish to think with the masses or majority, merely because the majority is the majority. Truth does not change because it is, or is not, believed by a majority of the people. ~ Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno

When we look up at the night sky, we see an immense universe, populated by more stars than there are grains of sand on our entire planet, and that's just the observable universe. We know that each star is a Sun and around those Suns are planets, and chances are, there's life on them. But for the majority of human history, this was not the case. The dominant model in Europe, up to at least the 17th century, saw the Earth as the center of the universe. The Sun, the planets, and the stars, were thought to be placed in a series of crystalline concentric spheres that rotated around it, beyond that lay Heaven. To suggest otherwise, was at best a minority view, and at worst, heresy. By the later part of the 16th century, a lone wanderer, ex-friar, and itinerant philosopher, did suggest an alternative model of the universe. One that was so far fetched, that when its full implications were accessed by the church, he ended up being burned at the stake. His cosmology was one of infinite worlds, both large and small. His philosophy, one of love and acceptance, his name, Giordano Bruno.

Giordano Bruno (born 1548, died Feb. 17, 1600) was an Italian philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician whose theories anticipated modern science. He is one of the great figures of early modern Europe, and one of the least understood. Ingrid D. Rowland’s biography establishes him as a peer of Erasmus, Shakespeare, and Galileo—a thinker whose vision of the world prefigures ours.

One of his more noteworthy accomplishments were his theories of the infinite universe and the multiplicity of worlds, in which he rejected the traditional geocentric (or Earth-centered) astronomy and intuitively went beyond the Copernican heliocentric (Sun-centered) theory, which still maintained a finite universe with a sphere of fixed stars.

 

Bruno is chiefly remembered for the tragic death he suffered at the stake because of the tenacity with which he maintained his unorthodox ideas at a time when both the Roman Catholic and the Reformed churches were reaffirming rigid Aristotelian and Scholastic principles in their struggle for the evangelization of Europe.

Bruno was the son of a professional soldier. He was named Filippo at his baptism and was later called “il Nolano,” after the place of his birth. In 1562 Bruno went to Naples to study the humanities, logic, and dialectics (argumentation). He was impressed by the lectures of G.V. de Colle, who was known for his tendencies toward Averroism—i.e., the thought of a number of Western Christian philosophers who drew their inspiration from the interpretation of Aristotle put forward by the Muslim philosopher Averroës—and by his own reading of works on memory devices and the arts of memory (mnemotechnical works).

In 1565 he entered the Dominican convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples and assumed the name Giordano. Because of his unorthodox attitudes, he was soon suspected of heresy. Nevertheless, in 1572 he was ordained as a priest. During the same year he was sent back to the Neapolitan convent to continue his study of theology.

In July 1575 Bruno completed the prescribed course, which generated in him an annoyance at theological subtleties. He had read two forbidden commentaries by Erasmus and freely discussed the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ; as a result, a trial for heresy was prepared against him by the provincial father of the order, and he fled to Rome in February 1576. There he found himself unjustly accused of a murder. A second excommunication process was started, and in April 1576 he fled again. He abandoned the Dominican Order, and, after wandering in northern Italy, he went in 1578 to Geneva, where he earned his living by proofreading. Bruno formally embraced Calvinism; after publishing a broadsheet against a Calvinist professor, however, he discovered that the Reformed Church was no less intolerant than the Catholic. He was arrested, excommunicated, rehabilitated after retraction, and finally allowed to leave the city. He moved to France, first to Toulouse—where he unsuccessfully sought to be absolved by the Catholic Church but was nevertheless appointed to a lectureship in philosophy—and then in 1581 to Paris.

In Paris Bruno at last found a congenial place to work and teach. Despite the strife between the Catholics and the Huguenots (French Protestants), the court of Henry III was then dominated by the tolerant faction of the Politiques (moderate Catholics, sympathizers of the Protestant king of Navarre, Henry of Bourbon, who became the heir apparent to the throne of France in 1584). Bruno’s religious attitude was compatible with this group, and he received the protection of the French king, who appointed him one of his temporary lecteurs royaux. In 1582 Bruno published three mnemotechnical works, in which he explored new means to attain an intimate knowledge of reality. He also published a vernacular comedy, Il candelaio (1582; “The Candlemaker”), which, through a vivid representation of contemporary Neapolitan society, constituted a protest against the moral and social corruption of the time.

In the spring of 1583 Bruno moved to London with an introductory letter from Henry III for his ambassador Michel de Castelnau. He was soon attracted to Oxford, where, during the summer, he started a series of lectures in which he expounded the Copernican theory maintaining the reality of the movement of the Earth.

In August 1591, at the invitation of the Venetian patrician Giovanni Mocenigo, Bruno made the fatal move of returning to Italy. At the time such a move did not seem to be too much of a risk: Venice was by far the most liberal of the Italian states; the European tension had been temporarily eased after the death of the intransigent pope Sixtus V in 1590; the Protestant Henry of Bourbon was now on the throne of France, and a religious pacification seemed to be imminent. Furthermore, Bruno was still looking for an academic platform from which to expound his theories, and he must have known that the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua was then vacant.

At the beginning of the winter, when it appeared that he was not going to receive the chair (it was offered to Galileo in 1592), he returned to Venice, as the guest of Mocenigo, and took part in the discussions of progressive Venetian aristocrats who, like Bruno, favoured philosophical investigation irrespective of its theological implications. Bruno’s liberty came to an end when Mocenigo—disappointed by his private lessons from Bruno on the art of memory and resentful of Bruno’s intention to go back to Frankfurt to have a new work published—denounced him to the Venetian Inquisition in May 1592 for his heretical theories. Bruno was arrested and tried. He defended himself by admitting minor theological errors, emphasizing, however, the philosophical rather than the theological character of his basic tenets.

The Venetian stage of the trial seemed to be proceeding in a way that was favourable to Bruno; then, however, the Roman Inquisition demanded his extradition, and on Jan. 27, 1593, Bruno entered the jail of the Roman palace of the Sant’Uffizio (Holy Office). During the seven-year Roman period of the trial, Bruno at first developed his previous defensive line, disclaiming any particular interest in theological matters and reaffirming the philosophical character of his speculation. This distinction did not satisfy the inquisitors, who demanded an unconditional retraction of his theories. Bruno then made a desperate attempt to demonstrate that his views were not incompatible with the Christian conception of God and creation. The inquisitors rejected his arguments and pressed him for a formal retraction.

Bruno finally declared that he had nothing to retract and that he did not even know what he was expected to retract. At that point, Pope Clement VIII ordered that he be sentenced as an impenitent and pertinacious heretic. On Feb. 8, 1600, when the death sentence was formally read to him, he addressed his judges, saying: “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.” Not long after, he was brought to the Campo de’ Fiori, his tongue in a gag, and burned alive.