A Dishonest “Cosmos”

When my friend Tony Rossi posted about the cartoon about the life of Giordano Bruno that was inexplicably shoehorned into the reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series,  he received a number of negative comments. Tony had asked a few of us with a background in Church history what we thought before he wrote his post, and I told him that Bruno was emphatically not a martyr for science for the very simple reason that he was not a scientist, and that his ideas of heliocentrism and the infinite universe had little to do with his execution for heresy.

This morning, I watched the cartoon in question and took some notes. Let’s walk through what it gets right and what it gets wrong.

I’m actually not going to draw from any exotic sources for this post. I’m going to try confine what I include here only to things that can be found on the first page of a Google search for Giordano Bruno. This will illustrate more clearly the rank intellectual dishonesty involved in this segment. The truth of the story was never more than five minutes away from host Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his writers, producers, and animators. They opted to tell half-truths and outright lies instead.

Before we begin, just who was Bruno?

He was a Dominican friar who lived from 1548 to 1600. He was not a scientist, conducted no experiments, looked through no telescopes, and wrote no scientific works. He was a mystic, a radical heretic, and an occultist. He abandoned Christianity in favor of Hermeticism (believed to be derived from ancient Egyptian wisdom) and magic.

Giordano Bruno, who enjoyed the patronage of King Henry III after abandoning his monastery, is shown as a poor and wretched drifter.

His place in a documentary ostensibly about science is inexplicable. Actual scientists worked on similar ideas, but only Bruno is called out in a ten-minute long segment.

The question is: why?

The narration begins by telling us that in “1599 everyone knew the sun, planets and stars were just lights in sky revolving around the earth.” It was “a universe made for us.” And “there was only one man who envisioned an infinitely grand cosmos.”

We’re barely seconds into this farrago and we have our first lie.

“Everyone” knew the earth was the center of the universe?

Wow, who’s going to tell Copernicus? Kepler? Stigliola? Diggs? Maestlin? Rothmann? Brahe? All of them believed in models of the cosmos that were not considered orthodox, and lived at the time of Bruno. All of them escaped the fire, and indeed weren’t even pursued by the Inquisition. Right here we have the major lie at the heart of modern anti-religious scientific propaganda: the war between faith and science.

We’re supposed to just assume this ignorant backwards world of the past hates smart people. Tyson himself says it matter-of-factly: “How was [Bruno] spending New Year’s Eve [in 1599]? In prison, of course.”

Of course! Because that’s what the Church does to smart people! Bad church! Bad!

Next: “This was a time when there was no freedom of thought in Italy.”

God, I really hate it when historical illiterates try to read church history through a modernist lens. Let’s time travel back to the great universities of the 16th century and ask those people if there is “freedom of thought”? Naturally, they’d have no idea what you mean. Of course they’re free to think, and debate, and write. That they shared a set of fundamental truths is seen as no barrier to that debate, but the ground upon which it takes place.

If someone denies that shared ground–a foundation built on Aristotle and the truths of the Christian faith–they will be challenged because they’re striking at Truth with a capital T. They won’t be thrown in jail for it. They will be urged to either prove their opinions or change them. If they refuse, then they may be called before the Roman Inquisition, which also will–in a full court of law with legal protections and evidence–urge them to change their views.

In the beginning, the Roman Inquisition eschewed torture and execution. As the times grew more tense and heresies were setting Europe afire, from Cathars to Lutherans, their methods became more harsh. They tended to be less brutal than the secular methods of the time (England in particular took torture and execution to astonishing heights of cruelty under Elizabeth I), but they were unworthy of the Church of Christ and never should have happened.

Any documentary on the Inquisition has to include closeups of torture instruments. It’s kind of a rule

The Roman Inquisition, however, was no mindlessly brutal force with a lust for setting heretics afire. They saw their work as medicinal, as they tried to persuade people to recant heresies and rejoin the Church. This wasn’t “Recant and we’ll kill you more gently.” It was “Recant and walk out the door.”

From our perspective it seems absurd, but–as Tyson correctly notes later in his narration–separation of Church and state didn’t really exist. This was God’s world, and kings and rulers led by the grace and with the blessing of God. The Church represented that divine realm, and thus they worked hand in glove to maintain the secular order, both by forming a check on the rampant power of leaders over the people, and by preventing heresy from creating new forms of civil disorder.

The Albigensian Crusade had awoken the church to the bloody cost of unchecked heresy. It was better, in their reasoning, to stop a heresy before it claimed thousands of lives. It was better that one heretic die at the stake than that thousands of misled innocents die by sword and starvation. (By the way, even the method of execution–burning–was chosen with an eye towards justice as it was perceived at the time, since it was believed the heretic would be consigned to hell, and thus the stake was a foretaste of the flames that awaited him.) We can certainly argue that this was not a civilized approach, but we cannot argue this unless we understand how they thought. If we start and end with “they were ignorant savages,” we’re working from a false premise.

Let’s get back to Cosmos. We’re shown Bruno sneaking around and are told that “He dared to read the books banned by the Church.” The book in question was  On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, which he keeps hidden under his floorboards.  (For some bizarre reason, Bruno’s manuscript of Lucretius is shown as an elaborate illuminated affair written in Roman letters. Were monks really that busy slaving over illuminations for banned books?)

Tyson tells us that this (meaning reading Lucretius) “was his undoing.”

That’s very interesting, since papal legate and cardinal Nicholas of Cusa had read and commented on Lucretius in the 15th century, formulating ideas that would later be picked up by Bruno, and was widely read and respected.

As the poor Giordano secretly reads his precious book, THE CHURCH! bursts into his room like characters from the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch.

Thanks for keeping it classy, Neil!

So … yeah. Wow. I’ve seen less cliched and absurd depictions of the Church in Jack Chick comics.

“The Bishop!”

YouTube Preview Image

And with that shot, Cosmos reveals that it’s not really meant to be education, but propaganda. And it gets better still!

Bruno is shown being thrown out of the Church for reading Lucretius.

Nope. Lucretius was on the banned list, but wouldn’t have troubled the authorities overmuch. Ancient texts were often consulted by scholars if only to refute them.

In fact, Bruno wasn’t chucked out: he ran away after 11 years as a monk, breaking his vows. Those were troubled years for Bruno for a very simple reason: he was a heretic. At the time, he defended one of the gravest heresies in Church history–Arianism–and showed contempt for the saints. (He later claimed Jesus was just a clever magician.) He was already on his way out of Christianity and embracing a bizarre mysticism. Some think that he fled the monastery ahead of a bill of indictment, but all such a bill would have meant was that he’d have to answer questions about his unusual behavior and defend his beliefs. It was no death sentence.

Tyson tells us that “It was the last steady job he ever had.” Meh. I guess we could debate the word “steady,” but he found positions in many places, lectured, continued his studies, and wrote under official protection and even royal patronage.

He also pissed off everyone everywhere he went. I give the cartoon kudos for noting that “Catholics, Calvinist, and Lutherans all send him packing…,” but multiple demerits for adding “…for this view of the cosmos.”

Again, false.

It wasn’t his view of the cosmos that led him to being driven away. It was the fact that aside from being a roaring heretic, he was kind of a jerk, and possibly mentally disturbed. He was kicked out of Geneva for publishing an attack on a prominent professor. He did fine as a lecturer in very Catholic Paris, attracting royal support that led him to England, where he became enmeshed in the occult and hermetic movement surrounding John Dee. He never got a position at Oxford, but he did lecture there, where some professors greeted his ideas with derision, including the ideas of heliocentrism and the infinite universe.

The depiction of the episode is comical. We see gentle little Bruno repeating the Copernican theory while scholars clench with rage, as though they’d never heard such a thing! And then these scholars …  throw food at Bruno and chase him off.

No, really: a “science” documentary actually went there.

I’ll give the show bonus points for having a man at Oxford say “Do they not read Aristotle where you come from, or even the Bible?” The emphasis on Aristotle first is exactly correct. This would have been key to the argument.

Tyson later intones that “Bruno became an evangelist, spreading the gospel of infinity throughout Europe” and “He couldn’t keep his soaring vision of the cosmos to himself, despite the fact that the penalty for doing so in his world was the most vicious form of cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Did you bring any tomatoes we can throw at him?”

Again, the emphasis is being shifted to cosmological arguments, which were secondary to the case against Bruno. This message–that Bruno was persecuted for believing something we now have proof is true–is the entire point of the segment. But it’s not an honest point. His view of the cosmos was dwarfed by the magnitude of his major heresies, which the segment will eventually acknowledge, but only after ten minutes of assuring us he was persecuted for his “scientific” views.

Tyson tells us that “His homeland was the most dangerous place in Europe he could possibly go” and that the Roman Catholic Church maintained a system of courts with the “sole purpose” to “investigate and torment anyone who dared voice views that differed from theirs.”

Once again, try to think like people thought then, not like they think now. We’re not smarter than them, so think. Why would rational people persecute others for having different opinions?

The cartoon’s very unsubtle message was, “They were violent religious nuts.”

The answer is: they wouldn’t.

They persecute them for spreading opinions they know to be false. Thought is free. So is incorrect thought. But teaching and publishing incorrect thought that struck at the foundations of civilization and faith was a grave offense.

We live in a pluralistic world that can’t comprehend that, but they didn’t. Truth existed and could be known. The job of the intellectuals was to unfold that world. The role of authority–the ancient philosophers and scientists and the scripture–was central. Many now reject the argument from authority, but in their thought-world, it was vital.

If a new discovery contradicted received authority, it was the job of the scholars to proceed carefully and examine it thoroughly over many years. Most intellectuals worked this way. A couple–such as Bruno and Galileo–were driven by their vanity and arrogance to short-circuit the process, dismiss authority, and proclaim their own new truth as settled. We think that’s cool now, because moderns value novelty and doubt over authority and settled truth. We love a rebel!

That their “proofs”–Bruno’s mystical visions and Galileo’s tides–were false serves to vindicates the process. You don’t get a shortcut to the correct answer.

Bruno was no friend of science. He was a disturbed mystic. Stanley Jaki, who translated Bruno’s rambling, nonsensical The Ash Wednesday Supper, has suggested that if the Inquisition hadn’t burned him, the Copernicans would have. He did nothing but harm the progress being made by actual scholars and scientists, and arguably laid the ground for the harsh approach to Galileo.

But hey, why bother with the subtleties of history when you can have the mellifluous tones of Neil DeGrasse Tyson say, “It wasn’t long before Bruno fell into the clutches of the thought police.” We’re told that “He stubbornly refused to renounce his views” and that “If Bruno was right, then the sacred books and the authority of the church would be open to question.”

Psst, Neil: theologians and scientists were always questioning. I have literally millions of pages of documents in a piece of software, filled with debates and theories and questions. The entire structure of teaching was based on questions. But there was a foundation of dogma that was Truth. These tended to be simple points, such as the trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the reality of heaven and hell. If you were going to strike against one of them, you’d best be prepared to weather a storm.

Hey look kids! It’s Evil St. Robert Bellarmine in a missing scene from the “Mirror Mirror” episode of Star Trek!

When the cartoon finally gets around to showing us the Inquisition’s pronouncement of Bruno, we hear–for the first time and from the mouth of a figure depicted in typical Disney Villain Mode–a small part of what had the Church so upset: Questioning the trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, denying that “God’s wrath is not eternal” (hell doesn’t exist), asserting universal salvation (all will be saved), and proclaiming the existence of other worlds. Of those points, in the mind of the 16th century inquisition, the “other worlds” thingie was pretty small. It would not, alone, have led him to the pyre, but everything in this little cartoon up to this point has suggested exactly that.

The point is driven home when the poor, beaten Bruno is given a chance to speak and he doesn’t pronounce on the big issues that he has wholly denied–Jesus, salvation, the Trinity, the Virginity of Mary, the Eucharist, and his involvement in occultism–but merely defends his idea of multiple worlds.

I’ll give this little sliver of propaganda one more bit of credit. When the cross is offered to Bruno on the pyre, he turns away. This was something he really did (and more than once): he turned away from the image of the crucified Christ.

How do you think things like that played in 1600?

If it’s 1600 and you really want to be set on fire in the public square, this is the way to do it.

The final question to all this is “Why”?

Why are we replaying the Bruno story in a documentary about space?

What is the purpose? What is the result?

Is it to show how science and religion came into conflict? The Galileo case would be a better example for that, but people already know that one and Galileo didn’t have the benefit of a cinematic death that makes his opponents looks like mindless savages.

In the development of theories about the cosmos, Bruno was almost irrelevant, and perhaps even harmed those debates because he meshed those theories with a staggering level of heresy and New Age-style nonsense. He was a hermeticist and cabalist, and viewed heliocentrism not as some verifiable scientific truth, but as a sign of the return to the true, superior religion of ancient Egypt. He saw his work as a corrective to Copernicus, who failed to understand the religious significance of heliocentrism. He was more influenced by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, an occultist and magician, than by anyone else. His work had little to do with science.

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa would have been a far better figure to illustrate the development of the idea, but he died peacefully in his bed, a cardinal and officer of the papal court, so he’s not as useful as Bruno.

Bruno makes for good propaganda, and continues the Church versus Science lie so dear to the hearts of reactionary atheists. Never mind that it’s not true and that we have only one scientist really punished by the Church at least in part for his science, and that was 400 years ago.

Why do we revisit these things? The Church that funded and advanced scientific progress for centuries becomes a cartoon villain every time the issue comes up. Mike Flynn has thoroughly, conclusively smashed this lie in a long, detailed, heavily annotated series. No respectable historian of science buys it any more. Yet here’s Tyson and his remake of “Comos” doing it all over again.

If you want to depict Bruno as a martyr for pantheistic cabalistic hermetic occultism, be my guest. But he was not a martyr for science.

Related: Your Ancestors Weren’t Idiots.

Also Related: The Gell-Mann Effect

Further Reading: The key text on Bruno is Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates.

Comments Off: Thanks to those who managed to disagree with intelligence and at least a measure of civility: there were damn few of you. I think we’ve ridden this horse as far as it can go, so I’m shutting the comboxes down. Feel free to tweet your insults to me @thomaslmcdonald.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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