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405th anniversary of Giordano Bruno's death

405th anniversary of Giordano Bruno's death

2/17/2005 2:01:32 PM

February 17th, 1600, Giordano Bruno died in the flames, sentenced to death by the Inquisition. 52 years yearlier, in the year 1548, an Italian boy was born in the little town of Nola, not far from Vesuvius. Although, he spent the greater part of his life in hostile and foreign countries, he was drawn back to his home at the end of his travels, after having written nearly twenty books.

It is an interesting fact that here, at the close of the 16th century, a man, closed in on all sides by the authority of priestly tradition, makes what might be termed a philosophical survey of the world which the science of the time was disclosing. It is particularly interesting because it is only in the 20th Century that the habit of this sort of speculation is again popular. Bruno lived in a period when philosophy became divorced from science. Perhaps it might be better to say that science became divorced from philosophy. Scientists became too intrigued with their new toys to bother about philosophy. They began to busy themselves with telescopes and microscopes and chemical glassware.

It is easy to get an impression of the reputation which Bruno had created by the year 1582 in the minds of the clerical authorities of southern Europe. He had written of an infinite universe which had left no room for that greater infinite conception which is called God. He could not conceive that God and nature could be separate and distinct entities as taught by Genesis, as taught by the Church and as even taught by Aristotle. He preached a philosophy which made the mysteries of the virginity of Mary, of the crucifixion and the mass, meaningless. He was so naive that he could not think of his own mental pictures as being really heresies. He thought of the Bible as a book which only the ignorant could take literally. The Church's methods were, to say the least, unfortunate, and it encouraged ignorance from the instinct of self-preservation.

Bruno was born five years after Copernicus died. He had 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. And it suddenly became too vast to be ruled over by a 15th Century God. 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 Savage. 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. Bruno sticks in her throat.

He is one martyr whose name should lead all the rest. He was not a mere religious sectarian who was caught up in the psychology of some mob hysteria. 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. For this poets vision he was kept in a dark dungeon for eight years and then taken out to a blazing market place and roasted to death by fire.

This article is based on excerpts from  "Giordano Bruno: The Forgotten Philosopher", by John J. Kessler, Ph.D., Ch.E.

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