Blogger’s note: This is the second in a continuing series about influential historical skeptics of religious dogma who were martyred — literally or figuratively — by powerful church authorities in their times who deathly feared criticism of and opposition to their entrenched power. Such ruthless suppression in the name of a supposedly “all-loving God” retarded human progress and caused untold human misery for long centuries. (P.S. I promised this second “Martyrs” post would be shorter than the first … but you were misinformed, sadly. Apologies.)
And you thought the Islamic State was bad.
Well, it is, of course, but there are degrees.
Take, for example, the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, especially at the time of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, when Catholics started fleeing the venerable church in droves for Martin Luther’s far less lush spiritual pastures. The theretofore monolithic Church was deeply frightened by the mass exodus of former followers who were suddenly rejecting its once-absolute, millennia-old doctrines.
That wrenching, defensive fear ultimately turned into a wave of horror and atrocity known as The Inquisition, a heretic-hunting Catholic legal institution that was more Nazi death squad than “Perry Mason.”
Giordano Bruno was a tragic “beneficiary” of that epoch of fearful Christianity. To describe his death as “barbaric” would be to describe the Holocaust as “unfortunate.”
An Italian born in Naples in 1548, Bruno was a descendent and ultimately an energetic proponent of material rationalist ideas that began germinating in the 13th century with medieval Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinus, Duns Scotus (who bequeathed to us the term “dunce”) and William of Occam (who came up with the idea that became known as “Occam’s Razor,” which holds that the simplest explanation is usually the best).
All these elite intellectuals, as virtually all Western Europeans of the day, were fervently devout and fundamentally unquestioning Christians. But long-lost rationalist Greek philosophy (mainly Aristotle and Plato) almost magically began to re-emerge in the medieval West after a thousand dormant years unread on scroll shelves. The ancient ideas proved so compelling that it forced the Church to reassess its doctrines to be seen as compliant with reason. The arbitrary attempt then to meld objective reality with invisible supernatural conjectures resulted in the “apologist” discipline known as Scholasticism.
Splitting the difference
The core aim of Scholasticism was to prove that the down-to-earth realities of natural philosophy did not disprove airy Christian assumptions. The net result is that Church intellectuals split the difference, literally. It was decided that philosophy only involved the real world, while Christianity exclusively involved the surreal one. But the kicker was that ecclesiastic “philosophers” also decided that it was “rational” to split these disciplines and, thus, Christian doctrines fell under the umbrella of “reason.” Voila!
As time went on, the Church’s position hardened to the point that it simply stopped questioning its dogma as it had when the Greek ghosts descended like a plague on the land from a long sleep.
By the time Giordano Bruno happened upon the scene, other seminal historical currents were already flowing, the most powerful being the emergence of science. The great pioneering Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who died five years before Bruno was born, had developed radical ideas about the nature of the cosmos (which ultimately proved largely correct). He released them publicly only on the eve of his death (he had long hesitated publishing his theory because he feared Church blowback, as it refuted scripture). Still, many years passed before Copernican theory gained broad public awareness much less had any significant impact on medieval thinking.
Bruno, perhaps independently and intuitively, came to some similar conclusions. He shared Copernicus’ belief that heavenly bodies revolved around the sun, not the earth (as the Bible implies). But Bruno’s imagination ranged farther. He also sensed that stars were not part of an eternally fixed, static “cap” over the earth (the consensus in his time) but only some among a staggeringly immense multiplicity of worlds in an infinite universe all revolving in a complex symphony of physics. And he had this idea, which was mind-bending at the time: the cosmos has no center whatsoever. Previously, Catholic doctrine assumed our world was the center.
And he correctly believed stars are suns.
A renowned polymath in his day, Bruno was a philosopher, astronomer and mathematician, whose theories anticipated the science we know today. His ideas seem very un-radical now because science ultimately confirmed their veracity, making them a standard aspect of modern cosmic understanding.
A cranky radical
In one of his books, Bruno described himself as “irritated, recalcitrant, and strange, content with nothing, stubborn as an old man of eighty, skittish as a dog that has been whipped a thousand times.”
Yet, despite his fame and genius, Bruno’s intractable personality helped doom him in the end. He insisted on publicly professing his anti-biblical ideas at a time when the Roman Catholic Church and burgeoning Protestant sects were at each other’s dogmatic throats, frequently colliding in outright warfare. Each side in the religious divide was virulently defensive and prone to reactive offensive atrocities.
Ordained as a Dominican priest in 1572, Bruno’s unorthodox attitudes and ideas soon landed him in hot water with church authorities. Among the intemperate concepts he entertained was the so-called Arian heresy, an ancient controversy that denied the divinity of Christ as an official member of the Holy Trinity (Christ’s divinity was Catholic canon). In 1576, ecclesiastic authorities in his region tentatively prepared a trial against Bruno for heresy, whereupon he fled to Rome. He later fled Rome, too, after forbidden commentaries by the Dutch humanist Erasmus were discovered with seemingly heretical margin notes by Bruno.
Catholic to Calvinist?
The embattled cleric then abandoned his religious order, wandered about Italy for a while and then ended up in Geneva in 1578, where he apparently embraced Protestant Calvinism, a form of Lutheranism. But after disparaging a local Calvinist academic in a biting treatise, he was arrested, excommunicated from Calvinism, rehabilitated when he recanted his criticisms and then allowed to exit Geneva.
Although he failed to obtain a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card from the Catholic Church, which still had a stern eye on him, Bruno nevertheless was allowed to teach philosophy unimpeded in Paris in 1581 after relocating to France. For a time, Paris was a congenial place for Bruno’s avant garde ideas under the mild, tolerant reign of Henry III, despite tension between Catholics and French “Huguenot” Protestants. He moved to London in 1583 and began lecturing at Oxford, teaching, among other subjects, Copernican theory. He was a regular visitor to the court of Elizabeth I and befriended various influential British political figures.
Dissing the Bible
In England, Bruno wrote an astonishing variety of treatises, including Socratic-style dialogues on cosmology, describing his then-startling theory that countless solar systems like our own populated the endless universe. Mirroring future ideas that would be perilously proposed by legendary astronomer Galileo, Bruno believed that the Bible’s material implications about cosmology should not be taken as infallible gospel, only its moral teachings. He criticized everything, from English manners to Aristotelian physics to Islamic views on religion as a means of controlling societies. He opposed the Calvinist concept of salvation by faith alone. He was intellectually relentless and restless.
In 1585, Bruno returned to Paris, where the Catholics had by then gained control over Protestants and the political atmosphere was charged and dangerous. Nonetheless, Bruno decided to publicly ridicule a prominent Catholic mathematician and also disparage venerable Aristotle. His growing unpopularity forced him to leave.
He spent the final 15 years of his life again wandering, mostly in Germany and, finally, Italy (he unsuccessfully sought a mathematics teaching position at the University of Padua that ultimately, ironically, was awarded to Galileo). For a time, he even lived in a Carmelite convent, was once excommunicated by a local Lutheran church, developed an atomic theory of matter and existence, expounded his theory of universal tolerance of all religions, and compulsively wrote a huge trove of scholarly texts. Purportedly, he “was chiefly occupied in writing and in the vain and chimerical imagining of novelties.”
In 1591, a man who Bruno formerly tutored in memory skills but with whom he’d had a falling out, turned him into the Inquisition office in Venice for proposing that philosophy should be taught irrespective of religious implications.
He unsuccessfully argued that his position was compatible with church doctrine and was then extradited to Rome. Even though his trial lasted a staggering seven years, Bruno still was unable to convince authorities of his piety and innocence. He finally refused to retract anything, as demanded by inquisitors.
Pope Clement then ordered him sentenced as “an impenitent and pertinacious heretic.” At the public reading of his sentence on Feb. 8, 1600, Bruno mockingly told the judges, “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.”
He was then taken to the Campo de’ Fiori, stripped naked, his tongue ceremoniously gagged so he couldn’t spout any final heresies, and then burned alive at the stake. It was a final insult. The “customary mercy of strangulation” before burning was denied him.
Another voice for reason and progress snuffed out prematurely.
Centuries after his death, scholars are still arguing about Bruno’s legacy, some saying his blasphemous temperament, not heresy, led to his sad denouement. But compelling text evidence clearly indicates the Church considered his multi-worlds view a heretical “delusion.”
Bruno remains an important figure in the history of Western intellectual progress, a secular prophet of the parameters of modern global civilization to come. However, religious bigotry, as it had for millennia, played the final trump card in his material existence. Not reason.
Still, a crater on the moon was named for him in 1960.