The Early Atheist In Perpetual Exile
” Everything, however men may deem it assured and evident,
proves, when it is brought under discussion,
to be no less doubtful than are extravagant and absurd beliefs.”
He coined the phrase “Libertes philosophica.” The right to think, to make philosophy.
Homage To A Mirror-Heart Long In The Past.
But, To Me, It Seems Like Yesterday …
Bruno was born five years after Copernicus died. He bequeathed an intoxicating idea to the generation that was to follow him. We hear a lot in our own day about the expanding universe. We have learned to accept it as something big. The thought of the Infinity of the Universe was one of the great stimulating ideas of the Renaissance. It was no longer a 15th Century God’s backyard. Bruno tried to imagine a god whose majesty should dignify the majesty of the stars. He devised no new metaphysical quibble nor sectarian schism. He was not playing politics. He was fond of feeling deep thrills over high visions and he liked to talk about his experiences. And all of this refinement went through the refiners’ fire — that the world might be made safe from the despotism of the ecclesiastic 16th Century savages. He suffered a cruel death and achieved a unique martyr’s fame. He has become the Church’s most difficult alibi. She can explain away the case of Galileo with suave condescension. But Bruno sticks in her throat.
When he was thirteen years old, he began to go to school at the Monastery of Saint Domenico. It was a famous place. Thomas Aquinas, himself a Dominican, had lived there and taught. Within a few years Bruno had become a Dominican priest. He was frank, outspoken and lacking in reticence. It was not long before he got himself into trouble. It was not Bruno’s behavior but his opinions that got him into trouble. So he went away from school, his home town, his own country, looking for a congenial atmosphere for his intellectual integrity.
It is difficult not to get sentimental about Bruno. He was a man without a country and, finally, without a church. There, near the end of the 16th Century, he was closed in on all sides by the authority of priestly tradition, making a philosophical survey of the world which the science of the time was disclosing. The scientists themselves were too intrigued with telescopes, microscopes and chemical glassware, to bother about philosophy.
In 1581 Bruno went to Paris and delivered lectures on philosophy, infusing people with the fire of his ideas. His reputation reached King Henry III, who became a real patron in making a success of his short career in Paris. He published his work, De Umbras Idearum ( The Shadows of Ideas ), which was shortly followed by Ars Mernoriae ( Art of Memory ). He held that ideas are only the shadows of truth and denied the value of establishing Church dogma with reason. That, Christianity was entirely irrational and contrary to philosophy, and it disagreed with other religions.
In his fourth work he selects the Homeric sorcerer Circi who changed men into beasts and makes Circi discuss with her handmaiden a type of error which each beast represents. The book ‘Cantus Circaeus,’ The Incantation of Circe, shows Bruno working with the principle of the association of ideas, and continually questioning the value of traditional knowledge methods.
In the year 1582, at the age of 34 he wrote a play Il Candelajo, The Chandler. Its protagonist is a candle-maker who works with tallow and grease and then has to go out and vend his wares with shouting and ballyhoo : “Behold in the candle … that which shall clarify certain shadows of ideas … I need not instruct you of my belief. Time gives all and takes all away; everything changes but nothing perishes. One only is immutable, eternal and ever endures, one and the same with itself. With this philosophy my spirit grows, my mind expands. Whereof, however obscure the night may be, I await the daybreak, and they who dwell in day look for night … Rejoice therefore, and keep whole, if you can, and return love for love.”
When the novelty of Bruno’s ideas had worn off on the French, he went to England to begin all over again. With a fresh audience. He did not make contact with Oxford which, like other European universities of the time, paid scholastic reverence to the authority of Aristotle. It was not the methods of Aristotle nor his fine mind that was so much issue, as it was the authority of Aristotle. That, a thing must be believed because Aristotle said so.
In his work The Ash Wednesday Supper, a story of a private dinner with English guests, Bruno spreads the Copernican doctrine as new astronomy offered to the world, upon which people were laughing heartily because it was at variance with the teachings of Aristotle. Bruno pushed a spirited propaganda in in favour of new truths when, between 1582 and 1592, there was hardly a teacher in Europe who was openly and actively spreading news of the “universe” that Copernicus had charted.
Having no secure place in either Protestant or Roman Catholic religious communities, Bruno carried on with his long fight against terrible odds. He had lived in Switzerland and France and was now in England, which he soon left for Germany. He translated books, read proofs, and got together groups and lectured for whatever he could get for it. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to picture him as a man who mended his own clothes and was often cold, hungry and shabby. There are only a few things that we know about Bruno with great certainty and these facts are the ideas which he left behind in his practically forgotten books, the bootleg literature of their day.
But Bruno continued to write books. In his book De la Causa, principio et uno … On Cause, Principle, and Unity … we find his most prophetic phrases pre-empting Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg :
“This entire globe, this star, not being subject to death, and dissolution and annihilation being impossible anywhere in Nature, from time to time renews itself by changing and altering all its parts. There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.”
Amongst other works, he wrote : The Infinity, The Universe And Its Worlds and The Transport Of Intrepid Souls. One of his works discusses the pretensions of superstition. This “ass,” says Bruno, is to be found everywhere, not only in the church but in courts of law and even in colleges. Elsewhere, he flays the pedantry he finds in Catholic and Protestant cultures. In yet another book, we find him leaving a clue for the French philosopher, Descartes, to take up in the next century. The book was written five years before Descartes was born. It says : “Who so itcheth to Philosophy must set to work by putting all things to doubt.”
By the year 1582, Bruno had issued very science-centered thoughts, considered heretical by the clerical authorities of southern Europe. He had written of an infinite universe that had no room for a yet greater entity called God. That blasphemed against schema outlined by Aristotle and tenets in Genesis taught by the Church and universally believed by low and high everywhere. Bruno’s philosophy negated the mysteries of Virgin Mary, Crucifixion and Mass. He seemed to have been so absorbed in truths he hurriedly exposed that he did think of them as heresies. He considered the Bible as a book which only the ignorant could take literally and the Church’s methods were, to say the least, unfortunate.
After 14 years of wandering about Europe Bruno turned his steps toward home. Perhaps he was homesick. After twenty years in exile, we may imagine him craving the sound of his own native tongue and the companionship of his own countrymen. Some writers have it that he was framed. For Bruno to go back to Italy is as strange a paradox as the rest of his life seems in that bigoted era.
For six years from 1593, he lay in a Papal prison. Was he forgotten, tortured ? The Papal authorities have till date not summoned enough the courage to overcome their shame and publish the historical records. Bruno was interrogated several times by the Holy Office and convicted by its chief theologians. He was given forty days to consider his position and, by and by, he promised to recant but did not desist from his “follies.” He got another forty days for deliberation but did nothing but baffle the Pope and the Inquisition. At last, in the custody of the Inquisitor, on 9th February, Bruno was taken to the palace of the Grand Inquisitor to hear his sentence, on his knees.
Bruno answered the sentence, of death by fire, with damnation : “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it with.” He was given eight more clays to see whether he would repent. But that was futile.
Bruno was led to the stake on the 17th of February, 1600. He was offered a crucifix, which he pushed away with scorn.
Six months later, Bruno’s works were placed on the Index Expurgatorius; his books became rare. They never gained popularity and were soon forgotten. As was the martyr himself… the pioneer who roused Europe from its long intellectual blindness.
Galileo never met Bruno in person and makes no mention of him in his works, though he must have read some of them. He may not be blamed for being diplomatic enough to withhold mention of a recognised heretic. Sixteen years after Bruno met his fate, Galileo faced the Inquisition in the same hall that had sentenced the predecessor !
Bruno is the numero uno among all martyrs who were persecuted for their beliefs. He was not a religious sectarian, caught up in the psychology of a hysterical mob. He was a sensitive, imaginative poet, fired with the enthusiasm of a larger vision of a larger universe … and he fell into the ‘ error ‘ of heretical belief. He was kept in a dark dungeon for years, for his quest of an order that admits intellectual integrity. And, at the end, he was taken out to a blazing market place and roasted alive.
It is an incredible story. The “Church” will never outlive him. Amen.