Giordano Bruno

You remember Nola, the little outlying city from Naples. Few places so small have so much fame. It is renowned for the resistance its fortress offered to Hannibal1 after the terrible slaughter of Cannæ; renowned as the birthplace of Octavius Cæsar, the earliest Augustus — pale shadow of his uncle’s mighty substance; renowned as the native place of Marcus Agrippa, the real winner of Actium, second only to Caius Julius as commander; renowned, ages after, for giving birth to Giordano Bruno, the intrepid philosopher, the gifted heretic, the rarest and strangest character of his time.

Nola was founded by a Greek colony, as the inscription (NwAaiwv) on its ancient coins clearly shows; and in the fifth century its bishop, Paulinus, invented church bells. It has furnished museums and cabinets with innumerable archaic vases and coins, and by them has illustrated the past. These facts symbolize the career of the Dominican friar who, reared amid the ancient traditions, threw them off by force of his reason; sounded his innovations like an alarm bell through all Europe; furnished suggestions and ideas to succeeding philosophers, remembered now when he is almost forgotten. Nola has been despoiled of its marbles and antiquities for modern uses, as Bruno’s neglected works have been for the building up of systems refusing recognition of his own.

Giordano Bruno was full of vagaries and inconsistencies; he was buffoon as well as hero, but always earnest, independent, a seeker after truth. Where she led, he followed, through peril and hardship, through fire and water, resolved to serve her. His whole life was a struggle against authority in favor of reason,—a battle for individuality in opposition to delegated power and tyrannic custom. The spirit in which he wrought, far more than his works, was valuable, since personal freedom and interior inspiration were what the time needed as it needed nothing else. With all his whims and wanderings he unswervingly held to his faith in himself, and was ever devoted to the cause on which he had set his mind and heart and soul.

Born in 1550, ten years after the death of Copernicus, he proved himself, from the first, a genuine Neapolitan. The southern sun burned into his blood; made him intense, vehement, violent; gave him an ardent imagination, a rich humor, and a fantastic disposition. The wine of the soil flushed in his veins; the activity and agitation of Vesuvius were reproduced in his temperament. Like the volcano, he was always on the eve of eruption, and after every eruption inward fires and lava burned and bubbled and muttered as before. His constitution foreordained him a spiritual crusader and a moral iconoclast. He was an extremest in convictions, and yet so tempered by acquired culture and native chivalry as to be preserved from fanaticism. He loved beauty too well, he wooed the graces too ardently, to become hard or unrelenting. He had the will of Peter the Hermit, without his unconquerable bias; the decision of Loyola, omitting his morbid superstition. He was both poet and philosopher, and Nature, in being bountiful to him, had prevented his mistaking for religious duty a consuming and pitiless egotism. He was hopeful, cheerful, vivacious, graceful, handsome, gifted, and withal had that precious element of worldliness needful to insure men against becoming either visionaries or zealots.

By one of those contradictions so common to natures combining enthusiasm and aggressiveness, he entered, in his youth, a monastery; but the law of his being would not allow him to remain there. The teachings of the cloister are to accept without question and to conform without hesitation. Bruno was blessed with an impulse to doubt, and with that noble instinct of disobedience which has given to the world its most valuable reformations. The doctrine of transubstantiation was to him, as it must be to every reasoning mind, a self-evident absurdity, and he said as much. Not only did he reject the dogmas of the Roman Church, he even went so far as to assail its highest authority, and the accepted authority of the age, — the mighty Aristotle. The bitterest hostility was excited against him, not only in the order but among all ecclesiastics. He was both hated and feared; he became an object of abhorrence and the subject of persecution, His sole refuge was in flight. Throwing off the friar’s robe, which covered him as with a palpable falsehood, he escaped from Italy, and at the age of thirty began his wanderings and his war for truth, as he conceived it, throughout the kingdoms of Europe.

Bruno stood almost alone in that era of superstition, corruption, and false belief, but he was none the less determined and courageous on that account. He possessed the buoyancy of spirit and inflexibility of purpose that rise with opposition, and count not cost. Into the cause he was to advocate he had put life and soul, believing most firmly that one and God are the veritable majority. He rejoiced and reveled in his freedom. For the first time he felt himself fully emancipated. He had broken his monastic vows to pledge himself anew to reason and to truth, He had quitted his country for the world; had abandoned cloister for conviction; had surrendered apostolic creed for the sacredness and sanctity of individual belief.

Those were revolutionary times in respect to theologic teachings. The church had lost its pristine purity and simplicity, had grown weak through debasement and want of sincerity. In its lower ranks were ignorance, sensuality, and fanaticism; in the upper, polite forms and inward defilement, courtly pretense and underlying infidelity. From a certain though unacknowledged consciousness of insincerity, persecution, represented by the Inquisition, was relentless as the grave. The Reformation had set men thinking, and all existing conditions were thereby disturbed. Campanella and Vanini assailed systems and dogmas, accepted Galileo when denounced as a heretic, and fought with Bruno in the van of the army of advancement. Their beliefs were his beliefs, their aims his aims, their natures kindred to his own. Like him they suffered, were hunted, and were beset by intolerance and the priests. The sixteenth century arrayed itself against assumptions, searched for causes and for motives, and would not be satisfied with postulates and premises. It was the epoch of revolt, the inauguration of rationalism, the beginning of selfassertion, the first development of individuality. It rescued Europe from the vassalage of Rome, divorced philosophy from scholasticism, substituted investigation for obedience.

Bruno attacked Aristotle as fiercely and ceaselessly as he advocated Copernicus, for the Stagirite was considered as much the ally of the church as the Prussian astronomer was its foe. The Neapolitan pantheist was in full accord with Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus, and to them he looked for inspiration and instruction, He found in them the needs of his mind, since they were poetic in theory and fantastic in speculation. Bruno’s thought took the widest range, and where ins thought could not soar his fancy lent it wings. His method was precisely the contrary of severe. He was impulsive to a fault, imaginative, supremely spontaneous, bubbling over with beliefs in all the possibilities. No marvel he proclaimed the rotation of the earth. In his view everything was in rotation, nothing fixed or limited, as in Aristotle’s plan, but all movable, changeable, and progressive.

This recusant Dominican, once out of Italy, bent, his steps to Geneva, the stronghold of Protestantism, only to find Calvinism and the Calvinists narrower and more bigoted than the Roman Church and its prelates. The men who had condemned Servetus to the stake for difference of opinion had the same disposition as Torquemada, and were fit companions of the inquisitors. Bruno had gone from the enraged tiger to the hungry tigress. Again he was a fugitive, and took shelter in Toulouse, where Vanini, amiable, eloquent, and learned, was burned alive about forty years later on the charge of atheism. There his liberal opinions evoked such wrath that he was forced to fly to Paris, the blood of the massacre of St. Bartholomew still fresh on its flag-stones. Audacious man! verily had he thrust his head into the lion’s mouth, and as there was no power in peril to repress the plainness of his speech, he must inevitably have been slain but for his falling into favor with Henry III. That monarch selected him as one of the lecturers of the Sorbonne, and, singularly enough, would have made him a salaried professor if he would have consented to attend mass. “ The mass or death!” had only recently been the monstrous cry resounding through the streets of the capital, and yet, though Bruno peremptorily refused the condition, he continued to lecture and to enjoy the royal regard. The poetic pantheist drew crowds of admirers, no lecturer since Abelard having awakened more enthusiasm. His discourses were marked by an extraordinary variety. He was speculative, fanciful, paradoxical, facetious, majestic, and buffoonish by turns; now soaring among the Stars, now groveling on the earth; elevated, impassioned, witty, disputatious, violent, sarcastic, indecent, at one and the same time. While lofty persuasion breathed from his lips, he wronged them with platitudes and tainted them with obscenity. His engaging and impressive manner, and his handsome and graceful person, added to his youth, set off his striking matter to great advantage. He was strongly magnetic, and had completely mastered the art of pleasing.

During his stay in Paris, the renouncing friar was more cautious in expression than he had ever been. Indirectly and inferentially he combated the authorities and prejudices then in vogue, though he did not openly and violently attack them according to his custom and the law of his temperament. He gained considerable literary reputation while in that city, by composing a comedy, II Candelajo, full of satirical hits, and not without coarseness; and by several treatises on Raimundo Lullio’s theological rhapsody, the Ars Magna.

Bruno’s disposition was ubiquitous, and this, with the restraint he must have felt from the concealment of many of his opinions, carried him to London, where free speech was more in fashion than at any court on the Continent. He was warmly welcomed in the British metropolis, and he became strongly attached to the independence and frankness of the English character, devoid though it was of the polish and politeness to which he had been wonted. Gallant by nativity, he lauded the blonde beauty of the women, and was so much of a courtier that he adopted the prevailing habit of fulsomely flattering the ugly, termagant, and ridiculously conceited queen, Elizabeth. He even forgot truth and pure metaphor so far as to speak of her as the lovely Diana who shone resplendent among the princesses of the earth as Venus shines among the stars of heaven. Sir Philip Sidney and other distinguished men of that most distinguished court became his sincere friends. In London there was everything to charm and hold him: lovely women and heroic men, cultivated society and the intercourse of congenial spirits, appreciation of his genius and honor to his worth. But his was not a nature to relish quiet long. He was not willing to let the world revolve without taking part in its revolutions. He was a comet; but it was needful for him to interfere with, if not to influence, the planetary bodies. An exalted pragmatist, perpetual projection of himself against antagonists was necessary to his very being. A templar, not an epicurean, his vanity and fondness for disputation impelled him equally with his love of truth. He was as far removed from modesty as from prudence, and notwithstanding the countenance and patronage of Elizabeth, he made so many enemies among learned controversialists by his extreme course, and by denouncing them as blockheads, pedants, and idiots, that even the cold climate of England waxed torrid for him. Whether it had or not, he had tarried long enough in one place and was burning for fresh contests. London proclaimed him heretic, as Rome and Toulouse had done, and with augmented pugnacity he went back to Paris.

Soon after his arrival there he was allowed the privilege of discussing in public the philosophy of Aristotle. The able dialectician on this occasion had no reserves. Engaged on his favorite theme, he poured forth a torrent of fiery eloquence and bitter invective upon all the defenders of opinions and positions held to be sacred, and naturally threw the devotional part of Paris into a frightful ferment. No abode upon the Seine was any longer safe for him; and, albeit reckless of danger and careless of his life, he was unwilling to give his foes an opportunity to wreak vengeance on him, while he could alarm them with his boldness and confound them with his logic.

Germany was the next scene of his controversial seditions. By this time he had become a most radical pantheist, and in 1586 he entered the University of Marburg in Hesse-Cassel as a professor of theology. He was anxious to lecture on philosophy, but permission was refused by the president, whereupon Bruno grossly insulted him, and emphasized the insult by tweaking his nose. The whole university was in an uproar; and as the fluent malcontent had done all the mischief he could, he dashed off to Wittenberg. That little city, in which the Reformation had its origin and which contains the graves of Luther and Melancthon, was then the centre of Lutheranism, and gave the eccentric Italian so cordial a reception that he pronounced it the Athens of Germany. The town showed itself superior to prejudice by admitting the now notorious heretic into the university as a teacher, and allowing him the inestimable privilege of assaulting Aristotle, whose merest mention was as the flaunting of a scarlet flag before this Neapolitan bull. He contrived, at the expense, we may well believe, of much inward chafing, to remain in his new position without pommeling the cherished tenets of Lutheranism. His creed was broad as the arching heavens, as is proved by his elaborate and ingenious defense of Satan as a being more wronged than wronging — a view by no means original now, but somewhat startling to the comparative conservatism of the sixteenth century.

The precise quality of Bruno’s theology no one can comprehend after the most intimate acquaintance with his works. The essential portion of his belief seems to have been unconditional hostility to every formulated belief, as Byron’s politics, at a later day, simplified themselves into an utter detestation of all existing governments.

Any one unfamiliar with his nomadic character might imagine that he would have consented to stay where he had the largest liberty of speech and the most earnest admiration. Even repeated refusals to adopt the Lutheran faith did not injure his popularity; but still, with the fabled restlessness of Ahasuerus, he was driven on, on, on. Having all he had sought, he grew weary of ordinary satisfaction and pined for the new satisfaction of discontent.

Always addicted to extremes, he went from the centre of Lutheranism to the centre of Romanism at Prague, but met with so little encouragement or sympathy in the Bohemian capital that he was unable to lay the smallest basis for a sensation. He hurried to Helmstädt, where circumstances were more propitious, the Duke of Brunswick appointing the philosopher the private tutor of his eldest son. Here, again, he might have gratified his ambition, might have passed his days in ease and comfort. But his place was in the arena, not in the study. His darling opinions must be vented at all hazards, and, by venting them, he caused himself to be excommunicated by the See of Rome. He disputed the sentence so vigorously that it was finally revoked, though the air of Helmstädt had grown too rarefied for the full play of his expanded lungs.

Frankfort received him next, and, as if tired of excitement, this terrible child of tumult actually settled into a state bordering upon quietude. He published there several of his Latin works, as he had previously published most of his Italian works in London.

The judgment of scholars differs widely respecting the value of Bruno’s books. Some think that they have much more historical than intrinsic importance, forcibly illustrating the spirit of the epoch and the extraordinary character of this extraordinary man. That he possessed genius in an exalted degree can scarcely be questioned. His writings are extremely suggestive, and have been liberally drawn upon, in thought or spirit, by succeeding philosophers, among whom may be fairly reckoned, dissimilar as their methods are, Descartes, Spinoza, Bacon, Locke, Leibnitz, Schelling, and others. He was remarkably spontaneous, and threw off thoughts as a flower emits odors. Whatever arose in his fertile mind he gave out, without caring for arrangement or pausing for reflection. He blended his imagination with his reason, his speculation with his investigation, so that many of his theses are poems, and some of his poems mere analyses of self. In this he is not unlike Plato, whose highest philosophy is poetry, and who was more a seer than a logician. The faults of Bruno’s style — flippancy, inconsistency, and vagary — are the faults of his time, as is evident from a perusal of his contemporaries.

All his books are in the form of dialogue, best suited to controversial themes. Dialogue enabled him to introduce opinions and doctrines as coming from others which he would hardly have dared, with all his temerity, to avow as his own. That his dialogue is superlatively lively and generally interesting, everybody must admit. It has none of the ordinary dullness and drowsiness of metaphysics, to the mind of average culture, and the constant digressions and comments in prose and verse, scattered throughout his writings, lend them the attraction of variety and a capacity for surprises. His diction is unpleasantly loose, and in the use of adjectives, frequently almost synonymous, he is apt to be tedious. Ridicule is a potent weapon with him, and he employs it unsparingly. He lashes the priests as mercilessly as Rabelais does, and the philosophers and their assumptions he is ever delighted to jeer at and expose. Upon pedantry he is merciless, as he had reason to be, since pedantry was the literary vice of the age. He empties whole quivers of satirical arrows at pretension, — the cousin-german of pedantry, — and he even inveighs less against Aristotle than against the absurd veneration and affected understanding of that philosopher.

The Neapolitan was one of the first of his time to abandon contemplation for observation; to seek knowledge from without instead of from within. Having the poetic temperament, he worshiped nature, looking to her for inspiration and wisdom. He preferred the inductive to the deductive method, and was from this fact the herald of Bacon to a certain extent. Essentially and entirely was he a pantheist, holding the universe to be the form of God rather than God himself. He divinized nature to such a degree that he almost apotheosized this particular planet. God, in his thought, constituted everything. God was the infinite intelligence, the eternal wisdom, the exhaustless love. He was the cause of causes, the principle of life, the source of mind, the beginning and end of all. He did not create the universe, but he animated it, bearing the same relation to the universe that cause bears to effect. The Creator was self-existent, absolute, simple, entire; while the creature is merely a part of and distinct from the great whole—God. The Almighty is the monad of monads (Leibnitz borrowed his theory of monads from Bruno), the entity of entities, the essence of essences. The anomalous Italian advocates with all his zeal the infiniteness of the universe, because, being in the pantheist’s View an emanation of God, it must be logically as enduring as himself. The creator is perfect intelligence, and ail other beings are less intelligent, varying in degree, though not in kind. Man is the expounder of the divine law, and in proportion to his gifts, the responsibility of explaining what is above and about him devolves upon him. Enabled to discover and trace the relations existing between the lower and the higher, and the correspondences between the inward and the outward, he finally becomes capable, through observation and development, of discerning the identity of the subjective and the objective of thought and being.

Pages would be required to elucidate fully Bruno’s system; but this brief outline Would seem to show that in many things he anticipated, if he did not directly inform, Swedenborg as well as Hegel, Schelling, and other German metaphysicians.

In La Cena de le Ceneri he warmly opposes the idea of the earth’s fixedness, advocates the boundlessness and perpetuity of the universe, argues against the confusion of reality and appearance in regard to celestial phenomena, insists that this and the other planets are identical in substance, and holds that all created objects have life, comparing the world, as Plato does in the Timæus, to a colossal animal. De la Causa and De l’Infinito, of all his books, have probably the clearest and most consecutive explanation of his theories and convictions.

The best known, or rather the least unknown, of his writings is the Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante, and it is certainly one of his most characteristic. By the “ Triumphant Beast ” the erratic author means superstition represented by the old astronomy, which figured the constellations by various animals. He cleverly illustrates in his Expulsion the folly and absurdity of believing that the stars can in any way influence human destiny — a belief widely cherished at that time by the adherents of astrology. This work is an olio of sense and nonsense, of eloquence and tediousness, of erudition and commonplace, accompanied by flights of fancy of the most chimerical sort. Still it is, on the whole, an excellent refutation of the superstitious opinions then prevalent, and evinces a profound acquaintance with human nature and the customs and peculiarities of existing society.

The least speculative and most readable of his dialogues is the Gli Eroici Furori, intermixed with sonnets, egotistic dissertations, and sentimental rhapsodies. Its special purpose is difficult to perceive, but it introduces the reader to the inner life and mental quality of a man singularly unique. Notwithstanding the diversity of the subject, the Gli Eroici recalls the rhetorical ecstasies of Plotinus and Porphyry.

Bruno’s reputation as a thinker has materially declined during the present generation, owing largely to the fact, as I conceive, that his works have only recently become obtainable. Until Adolph Wagner, in 1830, brought out at Leipzig his edition of the Italian part of the writings of the Neapolitan philosopher, few students or bibliopolists had been able to find his books. They were the black - letter rage for a long while all over Europe, and the very few copies procurable brought extravagant prices. Even the patient, plodding, and persevering Germans ransacked continental libraries in vain. Every new author who attracted attention was accused of plagiarizing from Bruno (this literary fashion still survives), which was entirely safe, as Bruno could not be had for the confounding of the critics. The Italian eccentric, in his grave sleep of more than two centuries and a half, must, feel angry at the German drudge who diminished his fame by revealing him to the world. While Bruno was little more than a name, his renown steadily increased; for when nobody reads or can read an author, his greatness is fixed and his celebrity is secure. Every scribe has taken his turn at Shakespeare, telling over and again where the poet found this idea and whence he obtained that suggestion. I have several times seen it charged that Shakespeare got his character of Hamlet from the author of the Spaccio; that Coleridge’s Christabel was a hint improved from Gli Eroici, and that Byron’s Cain would never have been written but for a passage in the De la Causa. This species of ascription is to be ardently recommended, since it is too general to deny and too vague to disprove.

How the uninitiated odd fellow from Nola concerted to keep out of turmoil for ten years, as he did after going to Frankfort, is an inexplicable paradox. At the end of that time, contrary to the earnest advice of every one of his friends, he returned to Italy, going to Padua of all places in the world; Padua, where Aristotle was consecrated; Padua cringing under the baleful influence of the espionage of Venice and the Inquisition. By his long abstinence the undaunted disputant must have gained the keenest appetite for peril. It would seem that he had at last grown weary of his eventful life, and anxious to lay it down. But it is probable that he still retained his unflinching faith in himself and in his destiny. Surely it was only natural that he should despise the dangers from which he had so repeatedly escaped. There was suffocation for Bruno in the purest air of Padua. To stay there and to perish was, in the logic of bigotry, as causation and consequence. He had scarcely begun to teach when the lesson of self-preservation was enforced on him. He fled to Venice, and Venice received him in the dark and mysterious arms of her dreadful dungeons. Six years he passed there—the same six years that Galileo taught mathematics in the University of Padua — and yet he did not die. Fancy what an exquisite torture it must have been to a man of his intense activity and insatiable thirst for knowledge, to he there all that while in agonizing solitude, without books, without a suggestion of sympathy, without the slenderest ray of hope.

The grand inquisitor at Rome was apprised of the philosopher’s apprehension and demanded that the detested heretic should be surrendered to his gentle care. For some reason, never made clear. Venice refused to give up this reckless seeker and defender of the truth. The refusal might have been prompted by a sense of justice, but its effect was crueler than death. After all those pining and tormenting years his prison-doors swung open, and once more this intrepid soldier of conviction beheld the light of the beautiful, free day. He beheld it, but to him it brought not freedom. He was carried to Rome for trial, and ordered to recant, when every craven and questioning priest knew in his inmost soul that Bruno and recantation were incapable of coexistence. Ecclesiastical logic was then tried, but the prisoner was more skilled than his accusers in the weapons of controversy, and, moreover, rested his cause upon reason and truth. He stoutly denied their premises, and they would not accept his; so that any conclusion was impossible. Incensed that they could not move him either by persuasion or by menace, they dragged him to the palace of San Severino, and compelled him on his knees, and in the presence of the highest and haughtiest prelates of the church, to receive the sentence of excommunication. He was then delivered into the tender hands of the Inquisition, when he remarked that he knew this would be the result, and that he might have been saved six years of torture by an immediate transfer from Venice to Rome.

During the whole trial he bore himself so nobly that he wrung from his cruel persecutors admiration for his unfaltering courage. All the flippancies and pranks of his past career were then laid aside. A lofty majesty entered into his port, and a calm dignity, far exceeding the dignity of kings, shone in his handsome face. No false accusations, no mean innuendo, no cowardly insult ruffled him, and when he heard his doom he smiled serenely and said, “ I receive this sentence with more courage than you pronounce it! To die for conviction is a rare and happy privilege !”

Bruno’s sacerdotal murderers could not comprehend the heroic stuff of which he was composed. They affronted his high resolve by yielding him a respite of a few days after his condemnation, in the vain hope that the awful vision of death might appal him. He was as immovable as his native Apennines. The stake was his doom, and he went to it as a lover goes to his love. When the flames flashed about him he was not seen to wince. His eye was luminous, and his face was radiant as the morning. His last moments were disturbed by a meddling monk, who thrust through the consuming blaze the crucifix, from which the martyr turned his head in aversion and disgust.

And so he perished for opinion’s sake, true to himself and to his convictions to the last. Had he died with a tithe of such calmness and courage in the cause of Rome, no pæan would have been sweet enough to sing his saintship. As it was, his ashes were scattered, and the hero and martyr was pronounced by the church a heretic, a scoffer, and an infidel.

The judgment of one age is annulled by the judgment of another. The unbiased and liberal world of to-day sees in Giordano Bruno a valiant soldier of the right, a fearless defender of his belief, a magnanimous advocate of truth. His death, more than his life, has made him remembered, — if he can be said to die who surrenders breath for principle and conviction. Bruno’s grand example still lives, still yields its influence through time in forms as viewless but enduring as the minds of heaven.

Junius Henri Browne .

  1. “ Pœno non pervia Nola,” says Lilius Italicus in his Virgilized Punica.