Giordano Bruno
October 24, 2008 12:45 PM   Subscribe


I'm not usually one to say that an FPP might benefit from a Wikipedia link, but, for those of you unfamiliar with Giordano Bruno, here.

A quick summary: He was an Italian philosopher whow as burned at the stake for blasphemy, and is generally looked at as an early martyr to modern science, as he rejected church teaching in favor of the idea that the universe is infinite and the sun is the center of the Solar System/
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:02 PM on October 24, 2008

Bruno profoundly changed the way i view the world, memory, and art.

When questioned by the inquisition about his views having problems with the teachings of Christ, he allegedly responded, "I've always had problems with the teachings of christ."

As he was led to the stake, allegedly a priest held a cross for him to repent, but he waved it away in disgust, and proceeded to his doom.

He said Bruno was a terrible heretic. I said he was
terribly burned. -Joyce

We all got our own heroes. The Nolan, I drink to thee.
posted by sarcasman at 1:11 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Statue of Giordano Bruno
posted by homunculus at 1:19 PM on October 24, 2008

Dame Frances Yates wrote a masterful study of him through the lens of the Hermetic tradition.
posted by Roach at 1:34 PM on October 24, 2008

There was a good article about Bruno in the New Yorker recently.
posted by Huw at 1:40 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

It’s my understanding a Troll has little to say beyond mere combativeness. Bruno had quite a bit to say and said it quite well. I don’t know that saying “Fuck you” to the church (metaphorically) at that time was unwarrented. Oh, it’s what got him killed surely. But friars ( were pretty worthy targets of outrage.

Not that I wish to debate the whole ‘troll’ thing. I understand the context of fondness in which it was meant. - Just want to point out that he had a whole hell of a lot to say. And of course, he was killed for it. Unlike, say, Copernicus or Galileo who were mearly threatened with criticism (although y’know, eventually torture). Those paths are debatable. I’d tend to side with Bruno, although I see the wisdom of the Galileo “ok, maybe Jupiter doesn’t have moons, just don’t wrench my balls off” sort of approach.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:58 PM on October 24, 2008

it's interesting to compare Galileo and Bruno, because while you could argue that Bruno is the more heroic, braving death for his beliefs, his beliefs derive from a philosophic tradition rather than an objective one. Where Galileo was the first great scientist in the modern style, Bruno was the last great Aristotelian.

I, too, would quibble with the "troll" moniker. Erasmus was kicked out of any number of cities, just like Bruno. Unless you were allied with someone in power, a willingness to defend the unorthodox would not make you popular, even in the growing light of the Renaissance.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:15 PM on October 24, 2008

I appreciate the Troll comparison in that sometimes being contrary to prevailing authoritative opinion is as important as being right. The difference to me is that some trolls create confusion and chaos for its own sake and muddy rational discussion with lies, while others further knowledge by questioning conventional wisdom or playing Devil's Advocate. People assume that realizing which kind you're dealing with is easy, but it really rarely is. Was Derrida a troll, or Dawkins? Time will tell. Surely there were people who got martyred for talking back to the church just 'cuz they couldn't help being assholes.

In Paradise Lost all of human misery and knowledge stemmed from the Devil's midnight dream of disobedience, and disagreement. We have no lights to follow but our own. Maybe the great contrarian of our age is out there right now, posting demeaning craigslist sex-ad responses and calling people faggut in youtube comments...OK maybe not.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:20 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Interesting part from the Wiki article:
Some authors have characterized Bruno as a "martyr of science", making a parallel to the Galileo affair. They assert that, even though Bruno's theological beliefs were an important factor in his heresy trial, his Copernicanism and cosmological beliefs also played a significant role for the outcome. Others oppose such views, and claim this alleged connection to be exaggerated, or outright false.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When […] Bruno [...] was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology."[13]

Similarly, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) asserts that "Bruno was not condemned for his defence of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc."[14]

However, the webpage of the Vatican Secret Archives discussing the document containing a summary of legal proceedings against him in Rome, suggests a different perspective: "In the same rooms where Giordano Bruno was questioned, for the same important reasons of the relationship between science and faith, at the dawning of the new astronomy and at the decline of Aristotle’s philosophy, sixteen years later, Cardinal Bellarmino, who then contested Bruno’s heretical theses, summoned Galileo Galilei, who also faced a famous inquisitorial trial, which, luckily for him, ended with a simple abjuration."[15]
posted by resurrexit at 2:31 PM on October 24, 2008

In the sixteenth century you were burned for taking the intellectual highway from Dominican friar, Catholic priest, semi-Arian, pseudo-Calvinist, to sometime Lutheran and a number of places in between.

Today, you'd probably get elected an Episcopal bishop.
posted by resurrexit at 2:35 PM on October 24, 2008

Good to know that 'theological errors,' and not science, were what caused Bruno to be murdered by the church. I guess that makes it OK.
posted by mullingitover at 2:43 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

“Maybe the great contrarian of our age is out there right now, posting demeaning craigslist sex-ad responses and calling people faggut in youtube comments...OK maybe not.”

God: Ho! Lightbringer! What say thou?
Lucifer: Lulz Fag-talk.

God: ... What?
Lucifer: r u def? Nice robes, faggut.

God: I damn thee to Hell!
Satan: Thanxkbye


It’s interesting that he called Christ a magician (if true). I can think of many things to say about the miracles, slight of hand isn’t one of them.
I mean, I don’t accept the narrative as read to begin with. Either the miracles are parable in nature or they simply did not happen.
But the guy who preached about loving thy neighbor, turning the other cheek, all that, I doubt would delve into some hokey trickery -

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today my friends - so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

*produces bouquet of flowers from sleeve*
Crowd: Oh!

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."”

*Pulls rabbit out of hat*
Crowd: Oooh!

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

*ZAM! lovely assistant appears in cloud of smoke*
Crowd: Oooh! (mild applause)

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

*saw assistant in half in boxes, spins boxes around, puts them back together, assistant steps out of box*
Crowd: (applause)


I mean Christ was a man after Bruno’s heart really. Kicking moneychanger’s ass in the temple, pissing off Pilote and the local Roman outfit, telling off the pharasees.
On the other hand, given his own interest in ‘magic’ perhaps he was claiming that kinship (given the link the term has with cosmological concepts).
posted by Smedleyman at 3:27 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Loving your posts dear homunculus. Wonderful variety.

From your first link. Ooh.

Study, he implies, takes us outside ourselves, beyond our bodily needs, and thus helps us to transcend our physical finitude.

Yet there is also, in Cicero's momentous linguistic decision, the implication that what one studies, as well as that one studies, prepares us while alive to meet our eventual fate. Philosophy can teach endurance, forbearance, and perspective amid both joy and catastrophe. Those who live in fear of death also live in fear of pain, in fear of danger, in fear of the new; but those who accept the reality of death are freed from all these fetters.

The PositiveAtheism link of your "Philosopher" in the FPP doesn't work though.

The 4th link, "Heretic" is an awesome treasure trove of his writings, free online. Thanks.

Bruno has been one of my culture heroes from teen years. To be close to a place that was significant in his life/death, I stayed briefly in a small hotel, Albergo Paradiso (now maybe called Hotel Arenula?), in Trastevere, Rome, with a window that faced his statue, where he was burned, in Campo de' Fiori on February 17, 1600. A nice close-up of his statue there. It's hard usually to see the face. Another one on Wikipedia.

The inscription on the plaque says in Latin:

"A Bruno il secolo da lui divinato, qui dove il rogo arse"

Dedicated to him by the age he had foretold, here where the fire burned. Or, another translation: To Bruno, by the century he had divined, here where the fired burned.

As the years go by I can't help thinking how awesome and awesomer the internet is. How I wish I could time travel and show it to the scientists/thinkers of the past, like Bruno or Da Vinci. How much I think they would love this amazing accomplishment of humanity, this free floating global library and sharing of knowledge.
posted by nickyskye at 4:05 PM on October 24, 2008

Potomac Avenue, I really appreciated your comment.
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 4:56 PM on October 24, 2008

The "Christ as magician" thing might not have been unique to Bruno. (Maybe a scholar can help us out here.) I think this was a reference that occurred in alchemical circles, and may even show up in the Rosicrucian writings which started showing up in the early 1600s.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:06 PM on October 24, 2008

I strongly recommend John Crowley's Aegypt Cycle for anyone interested in Bruno, I'd never heard of Bruno till I read the books.
posted by dhruva at 6:47 PM on October 24, 2008

Bruno was a fascinating historical figure--with the advantage, for personal fame, of having lived in an even more fascinating time. His fame has not been lessened by his coming to a nasty but dramatic end, nor by the easy connection with Galileo.

He was a martyr to something, but the more one learns about him the less that something appears to have been science. He was an out-and-out Hermeticist magician (by which I mean he strongly believed in magic and magicians, and equally strongly believed he himself was a great magus.) He was also, by absolutely every account, a memorably provocative and combative person--the sort who just can't help picking fights and a fellow one would be happy to know about, if he were interesting for other reasons, but not to know. (Laura Miller's Salon review with the internet troll comparison, linked in the fpp, is mirrored over here on minus the interstitial ads.)

I can't recommend the Frances Yates study, already mentioned above by Roach, highly enough. It's crack in a sack if that kind of history turns you on. Probably the most elegantly written essay on Bruno is Walter (The Renaissance) Pater's, available from Gutenberg. I have searched for but failed to find a non-pay-walled copy of "Was Giordano Bruno a Scientist?: A Scientist's View" by Lawrence Lerner and Edward A. Gosselin (American Journal of Physics, 41, 1, 24-38, Jan 1973.) The abstract on ERIC says it "Examines the significance of Bruno's arguments from a scientific viewpoint. It is felt that even when correct in their conclusions, Bruno's scientific arguments do not exhibit any understanding of scientific reasoning or purpose." A bit easier to get to is a short essay (on the SETI website; why, I haven't the foggiest) by Prof. Richard W. Pogge of Ohio State University, which starts with this epitaph-for-the-internet from Paul Valéry: The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us. Happily it's too long for a Metafilter: tagline.
posted by jfuller at 8:26 PM on October 24, 2008

The accusation that Christ was a magician goes back at least to the 2nd century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus, who claimed that Jesus learned the "wisdom of the Egyptians" while working in the Delta as a laborer, then came back to bamboozle his countrymen. It turns up a few more times before the whole pagan-Christian debate dies down.
Because "magic" in the ancient and medieval world could be used in both a positive sense and a negative sense - that is, on the one hand the idea of Hermetic and quasi-Hermetic "secret wisdom" versus manipulation of/by evil spirits - an "accusation" by Bruno (who, as jfuller notes, may have been a hermeticist) of Christ's being a magician may have been a compliment. I've not read Bruno, so I can't be sure.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:41 AM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just by concidence, there's a very recent find relating to Christ and magic.
posted by jfuller at 12:36 PM on October 25, 2008

Most of what I know of Bruno comes from reading the amazing Yates book (a warning, she has several passages of un-translated German, French, Italian and Latin- I didn't find my experience reading the book too diminished by not understanding them) and he always struck me as a martyr to stubbornness. To re-enter Italy after being excommunicated and after having written essays effectively denying the divinity of Christ, well, it amazes me more that it took them 8 years to get around to burning him.
posted by Hactar at 7:49 PM on October 25, 2008

A further recommendation for those who enjoyed Yates' books on Bruno: Ioan Couliano's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Couliano's chapter on Bruno's tract De Vinculis in genere (an English translation of which has been published in this volume) is an utterly fascinating piece of erudite speculation.

If that floats your boat, it would also be well worth dipping at least a toe into one of Bruno's dazzling yet mind-numbing dialogues, several of which have been translated into English.

The more I've learned about Bruno, the harder he seems to pin down: each new historian's characterisation of him appears so different from the last: his works are recondite while also richly suggestive, a reflective surface on to which any number of conflicting interpretations could be projected.
posted by misteraitch at 11:18 AM on October 26, 2008

Similarly, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) asserts that "Bruno was not condemned for his defence of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc."[14]

As defences of murdering someone by burning them alive, that's pretty weak. "Hey, we didn't burn him alive because of science, but because he offended our religious views!"
posted by rodgerd at 3:32 PM on October 27, 2008

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