This is a guest post by Kile Jones, a religious studies PhD candidate at Claremont Lincoln University and founder of the Claremont Journal of Religion. He’s also a contributor to the Feminism and Religion blog. It’s a fascinating essay about what Giordano Bruno actually believed. And since the statue pictured in this blog’s banner is of Bruno, erected on the spot where he was killed by the Inquisition, it seems particularly appropriate to publish it here. Thanks to Kile for sending it to me.
The Cosmos, Bruno, and “Thrice-Blessed”
by Kile Jones
With the recent episode of the revamped Cosmos T.V. series, and its discussion about Giordano Bruno, it seems pertinent to discuss what Bruno actually thought and wrote about. In many ways Bruno is a champion to atheists worldwide; however, many do not know his history, the strains of philosophical thought that inspired him, and the ancient wisdom he tried so hard to restore. One such line of thinking is what is commonly referred to as “Hermetic” philosophy, and the Hermetica is one of its central texts.
The pagan intellectual tradition comprised in the Hermetica is one of immense importance for the study of classical philosophy and theology. Not only does the Hermetica give insight into the social environment of the early C.E. centuries of Alexandria, but it specifically sheds light on the various philosophical and religious schools of the day, such as Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Orphism, and Pythagoreanism. The Hermetica, properly understood, is a 2nd and 3rd century C.E. compilation of pseudopigraphal (“false writings”) dialogues between Hermes Trismegistus and his various listeners on theology, cosmology, and the nature of the soul. Trismegistus (thrice-blessed), so the legend goes, was a pre-Mosaic, Egyptian priest who aided in the construction of the pyramids, who, up until the critical textual methods of the late Renaissance thinkers, was considered genuine. Only through the eventual use of modern historiographical methods have scholars of the Hermetic movement agreed that the Hermetica was most likely composed by numerous authors over various times, much like Homer’s Iliad.
The Hermetica was written at a time when Alexander the Great had, through his various conquests, brought Greek learning to Egypt, which ushered in the famous Hellenistic Age. Alexander’s general, Ptolemy, became his successor, and he reformed Egypt, which was once ruled by the Pharaohs, turning the ancient land into a modern day Athens. His Hellenization of Egypt left many Egyptians looking back upon their golden age, when Egypt had prospered and contributed great religious and cultural products we now look back at in wonder. The Demotic Chronicle, for instance, contains anti-Greek sentiments while looking forward to an Egyptian ruler, one fragment notes: “They say a man of Herakleopolis is the one who will rule after the foreigners and the Greeks. Take joy, oh High Priest of Harsaphes!”
The Herods, a few centuries later, developed a Jewish state within the Roman province of southern Israel. Constructing a Jewish vassal-state within the Roman Empire was not an easy task. Often times the Herods were at odds with the Romans and their bureaucratic political structure. They likewise faced troubles from their own countrymen who saw them as Roman tyrants. The Herods along with the Jewish state ended with the Great Revolt and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 73 C.E.
Prior, during and after the destruction of Jerusalem, Christianity emerged as a strong movement with its own view of politics, social ethics, and spirituality. The Hellenized form of Christianity is what was around in the Alexandria of the Hermetica; the Neo-platonic thought of Origen, the philosophical logos of Clement, and the science of Didymus. These strands of thinking permeated the intellectual atmosphere of Alexandria and reveal the climate in which the Hermetica was composed.
Early on in the Hermetica we see what the prize is for the correct worshippers of God: “They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.” This process of theosis (humans becoming god) is not simple in any sense of the term; rather, it involves deep contemplation, spiritual direction from a learned sage, and magical incantations, to name only a few methods. The Renaissance magicians would add natural science to the various steps of achieving theosis. Yet it was this idea that pushed scholars like Bruno to contemplate the implications of speculative philosophy, astrology, and magic. The goal was that if one could properly understand the order of the cosmos and align themselves with the divine essence within the cosmos, one could ascend to some form of godhood.
Even though the material world is thought of as part of God, there is nevertheless a hindering aspect of to it. In good old fashion Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought, the cosmos is bifurcated into two realms: the immaterial realm that consists of mind, reason, intellect, good, spirit, angels, demons, and God and the material realm which consists of ignorance, confusion, brutality, evil, and fleshly passions. In the Hermetica, this point is made quite clear when Hermes tells Asclepius “Only the name of the good exists among mankind-never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good.” Not far after this passage, Hermes describes the physical body as “the garment of ignorance, the foundation of vice, the bonds of corruption, the dark cage, the living death.”
Now let’s see how this relates to our favorite martyr.
Giordano Bruno was born in Nola, Italy in 1548, son to soldier in the Italian army. Early in his life Bruno became fascinated with philosophy, theology, and the art of memory, for which, at the young age of fifteen, he committed himself to the Dominican Order. After ordination as a Catholic priest, Bruno fled Italy with word of the inquisition and eventually abandoned the Dominican Order to become, at least for a short time, a Calvinist. Shortly after this Bruno moved to Paris in order to avoid what he felt was the religious fanaticism of both Catholics and Protestants. In Paris, Bruno lectured on philosophy and theology and became well known for his outstanding memory (to which some attributed it to magical powers). During this time Bruno formulated his various beliefs on the infinity of universes, the magical powers in nature, and the immanent ontology of God. In Venetia, while waiting for a position as professor, Bruno taught in house lectures to the Mocenigo family, who eventually finding distaste for him, turned him over to the inquisition for heresy. Upon being transferred to Rome, Bruno was found guilty of heresy against the Church for which he was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600.
To Bruno, God is not some transcendent entity who is distinct and separate from the world. Bruno, in his famed Cause, Principle, and Unity, assumes the role of Teofilo, who through dialogue with his companions, imparts to them the proper way of thinking about God’s relationship to the world; while discussing God, Bruno, through the character of Teofilo, equates God with the universal intellect and world soul: “The universal intellect is the innermost, most real and most proper faculty or potential part of the world soul. It is that one and the same thing that fills everything, illuminates the universe and directs nature to produce her various species suitably.”
Similarly, Bruno describes God as the “intrinsic principle” of the cosmos that causes its movements. Clearly this theology resounds with the teachings of the Hermetica that all things that exist are in god. Bruno believed that the cosmos were infinite, yet united as one, which led to the identity of God and the world. Antonio Calcagno, speaking on Bruno’s metaphysics, has this to say: “Bruno’s logic of cause and effect is interesting in that he makes the relationship between God and the creation one of identity. God and the universe are both infinite. Ultimately, because of this relationship of identity, one can see why Bruno had to admit that God is all things and all things are God.” What Calcagno correctly realizes is that Bruno, due to his cosmology, had to associate God and the world as ontologically identical. How this ties into Bruno’s Renaissance idealism is that if God and the world are identical, and we as humans are part of the world, then logically we are part of God, and thus divine. Yet we do not always recognize our true nature, which is where Bruno’s anthropology comes in.
Even though humanity and divinity are identical there still remains an overall epistemological lack on the part of humanity. Bruno saw this as due, at least in part, to the negative teachings of the medieval scholastics, who put an insurmountable chasm between God (infinity) and humanity (finitude). There was a sort of Dark Age when the wisdom of the Egyptians, the Neo-Platonists, and the Hermetics was lost in time; yet it was with the ushering in of the Age of Science and the radical advances in astronomy that the golden age would be brought back, and Bruno was its spokesman. To Bruno, humans were to become super-humans through their ability to scientifically extract the meaning from the book of nature. Bruno was very fond of Copernicus, even to the point of attributing to his messianic descriptions; for instance, Bruno refers to Copernicus as having a “divinely ordained appearance which was to precede the full sunrise of the ancient and true philosophy after its age long burial in the dark caverns of blind and envious ignorance.” Bruno thought of Copernicus as a John the Baptist character that would usher in the great day of awakening, when humanity became God by utilizing their full scientific and magical power. Blossom Feinstein compares Bruno’s anthropology to Alberti, Goethe, Wordsworth, Nietzsche, G.M. Hopkins, [and] D.H. Lawrence because it emphasizes the connectedness of God and man. This connectedness is where Bruno and other Renaissance magicians parted ways with orthodox Christianity by identifying God with the cosmos and the cosmos with humanity, and thus humanity with God.
As much as Bruno might be considered an oddity to our modernized conception of an academic, nonetheless, his great achievements towards freedom of speech, astronomy, and philosophy of science were of enormous impact and helped shift the history of science as we know it. If we are to commend Bruno for anything, we must commend him for his belief in the freedom of speech. H. James Birx has noted that “Bruno’s iconoclastic ideas and unorthodox perspectives remain a symbol of creative thought and free inquiry,” and even up to the present time Bruno is considered one of the great champions of freedom of speech. Bruno could not tolerate the epistemological chokehold that Catholicism had put people into; he likewise could not stand the Aristotelian and scholastic intellectual aristocracy that was not open to new discovery and which shunned all forms of perceived dissent. This distaste for Catholic fundamentalism became a tradition of its own, with men like Hume and Voltaire as its champions.
One of the great contributions, and the one to which this paper mainly focuses on, is Bruno’s influence on Hermeticism. With the revival of Hermeticism and Occult philosophy, specifically by Henry Agrippa’s voluminous writings and Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of the Hermetica, Bruno was able to synthesize, formulate, and promote what may be considered a highly Hermetic worldview. Bruno’s insistence that humanity must rise to divinity, that God and the cosmos are ontologically connected, and that knowledge of one’s nature and the world produces psychic salvation, leave Bruno categorized as the epitome of a Hermetic Renaissance thinker. Bruno, as this epitome, was able to synthesize ancient Hermetic philosophy, Neo-Platonism, Occult, and Renaissance science into an all- encompassing hybrid worldview that proceeded to influence his intellectual progeny. Bruno continues the long tradition that urges humanity towards progress, both spiritual and scientific, with the hope that someday discovery will take us to the place we ultimately desire. The erection of Bruno’s memorial statue in the same location where he was executed by the inquisition reminds us of more than his place in Renaissance history; it speaks of his continuing influence up to the present.