Sunrise Magazine Online

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)

By Allan J. Stover

Among the remarkable books appearing at the present time is a translation of Bruno's work, On the Infinite Universe and Worlds,* with a detailed study of his life, and his place in the development of western civilization. The author, Dorothea Waley Singer, shows a sympathy and understanding of her subject which is rare in a book of this nature.

*Giordano Bruno, His Life and Thought, with annotated translation of his work, On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, by Dorothea Waley Singer. Henry Schuman, New York, 1950.

The ideas a people hold regarding the origin and structure of the universe in which they live permeate their entire social structure and to a large extent color their ideology and outlook upon life. If this concept is limited and mechanistic, likewise may be the character of the nation. If they look upon the stars as composing an infinite universe suffused with divine intelligence throughout, their national life, also, will be illumined with flashes of spiritual grandeur.

Too seldom we realize that a nation or race, like the individuals composing it, passes through a cycle of youth, maturity, and old age, and spiritual and intellectual concepts gradually become crystallized and clouded with superstition and dogma until in time they enslave, instead of inspire. At such epochal times in history a new impulse is given and intellectual energies flow into new channels, leaving the old slowly to disintegrate.

In the sixteenth century a series of events — the opening of America, rapid colonial expansion, the surge of an awakening scientific interest — rendered the old molds of thought inadequate. The phase of Greek philosophy expressed by the exoteric-minded Aristotle, as interpreted by Thomas Aquinas, represented the Universe as a series of concentric spheres, each bearing a planet and rotating about the central, immovable Earth. An outermost sphere was believed to bear the numberless hosts of stars. Beyond was utter void. This idea of a single Universe, definite and finite, with the unmoving Earth as its center, dominated the religious and scientific thought of the day as a hard, unalterable dogma. To question was to risk the terrors of fire and stake.

The time was portentous, and those who rose to cut new channels for the human spirit seldom conformed to the conventional mode. Rather, as though intoxicated with an overpowering vision of truth, often they seemed to call forth from within, as well as from an entrenched and bigoted society, difficulties and wayward acts which brought suffering and misunderstandings on every hand.

[image]This was especially so with Bruno, to whom the vision of an infinite universe, in which past and present merged in an eternal duration, struck with ecstatic force. A Neo-Platonist born out of time in a hostile society, it is no wonder Bruno's character showed strange contradictions and unconventional traits which made him both fascinating and suspect wherever he went.

Through the centuries of Greek and Roman civilization and the thousand years of intellectual darkness which followed, there ran, like a golden thread, rumors, hints, and, where the listener could be trusted, the loan of a carefully treasured manuscript. Always, for the sincere student, Truth could be found, even under the jealous eye of bigotry. While the learned doctors were flaunting degrees and decorations, Bruno was learning in a school of which they little knew. Throughout his writings we find frequent reference to his sources of information, which included the Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabian philosophers. Of these — the Wisdom Literature — Pythagoras, Plato, and the Neo-Platonists were often quoted.

While Bruno did not claim his philosophy as his own, what he did with the aid of a marvelous memory was to recognize the truth and significance of the information he found scattered through the older literature, and from them organized a living whole. Thus he saw at once that the cosmic scheme conceived by Copernicus was but part of a glorious vision of an infinite Universe, a living organism pervaded throughout by an immanent divine soul. In this infinite Universe, Bruno recognized time to be a phase of infinite duration, in which years and centuries were non-existent.

To Bruno, the Universe consisted not only of the countless suns and worlds filling boundless space, but also it was the Void. Of this he cautioned: "We do not call aught Void as being mere nullity, but rather accept the view whereby that which is not corporeal . . . is wont, if it hath dimension, to be named Void. . . . " He gives much space to combating Aristotle's conception of the Void as mere emptiness. Nor is there in Bruno's mind any sharp distinction between the three infinities of space, time and matter, since, as he said, they merge into one another.

The thought is repeatedly expressed in his writings that infinite spirit pervades the whole of the boundless universe, that it is a matrix from which worlds are born and to which they return when their cycle is ended. Following Plato, Bruno says: " . . . this infinite immensity is an animal [i.e., an animate being] though it have no determined form nor perception of exterior things; for it is embued with all soul and embraceth all life and it is the whole of life."

He finds it impossible to imagine that the multitude of worlds scattered through space should be without intelligent beings equal with or superior to our own, and warns "that this world which seemeth to us so vast may . . . in the divine regard appear a mere point, even a nullity."

As the stars may be supposed to have planets rotating about them, so it appeared likely to Bruno that there are planets rotating about our sun which we are unable to see because of their small size or perhaps because of their "watery" nature, which reflects no light.

That which Pythagoras called the motive force and mover of the Universe, Bruno explained "is not that which moveth; but itself still and immobile, it giveth the power to generate their own motion to an infinity of worlds, great and small animals placed in the vast space of the universe, each with a pattern of mobility, of motion and of other accidents, conditioned by its own nature." "This earth doth from innate animal instinct circle around her own centre in diverse fashion and around the sun."

In reading this excellent translation we are continually reminded of a spiritual intelligence behind the structure and operations of the universe, and must regret the lack of such understanding in much of the science of today. While we may know more facts of a material nature, in other ways we have much less understanding.

Bruno correctly understood Lucretius in interpreting his atoms as spiritual particles — monads flying hither and yon. These hosts of life-atoms, centers of life, never perish, but enter form after form, as the ever-moving water flows between the banks of a river.

From Nicolaus de Causanus came the idea that particles (monads) "may wander through the ethereal region and may traverse vast space now to this body, now to that, just as we see such particles change their position, their disposition and their form when they are yet close to us." Thus, particles, life centers, which belong to the sun or to the earth, after wandering through space return in time to their home; neither do they travel haphazardly towards infinity, but follow certain pathways, just as we do on earth.

Knowing the cosmology formulated from his extensive study of older writings, it is not surprising to learn that Bruno not only accepted but was fascinated by the doctrine of the rebirth of the soul, or reincarnation, held by many philosophers of classical times. It fitted into the universal scheme of nature, for, as he said, the spirit of every man is a child of the spirit of the Universe, and something of every soul is present in the distant stars.

The life of Bruno was one of continual trouble, and in the fall of 1591, after years of wandering, he accepted the invitation of a Venetian nobleman to teach him "the art of memory and invention," in the hope of again seeing his beloved Italy. In the spring of the following year, however, he was betrayed. Imprisoned by the agents of the Inquisition, he was kept in confinement until February, 1600, when he was burned at the stake in the Square of the Flowers in Rome. That he realized the significance of his message is suggested by his words when the judges pronounced the sentence of death upon him:

"Perhaps you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it."

Back Issues Menu