Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One Analysis

Filippo Bruno


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Giordano Bruno’s Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One is the work of one of the most brilliant and courageous philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. He was a man of faith with an independent and creative mind. His views did not win favor with the Dominicans with whom he had allied himself, and he was forced to leave the Order. He moved from place to place, provoking criticism wherever he settled. In France and England, he produced some of his most famous works, but he finally had to move on. He spent some time in Germany and Switzerland. When he went to Venice in 1591, he became a victim of the Inquisition. He was tried, imprisoned in Rome, and finally burned at the stake because of his refusal to recant.

His philosophy of the universe is in the grand tradition of metaphysics and theology in that it describes an infinite universe that is God, and it attempts to explain how a world that presents a bewildering number of aspects to those viewing it from various perspectives can nevertheless be regarded as a unity. Perpetuating Neoplatonic ideas and showing the influence of Plotinus, Bruno used his philosophic and poetic resources to build an image of a universe made perfect by the light of God that affects the existence and nature of everything. God is the principle, the cause, and the unity of the infinite universe.

Bruno, like seventeenth century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, used the idea of the unity of body and soul, or monad, and a manifestation of divine energy. Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One prepares the way for the idea of the monad by describing God as the world soul pervading all being.

The first dialogue of the work introduces Filoteo, a philosopher who serves as the figure of Bruno. It presents a good-humored defense of philosophy, but not without suggesting the difficulties that come to one who has the courage of his convictions. The conversation is with two friends, Heliotropio and Armesso. Bruno, in the “Introductory Epistle,” describes the first dialogue as “an apology, or something else I know not what, concerning the five dialogues of Le cena de le ceneri,’” The Ash Wednesday Supper, one of his satirical dialogues.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

With the second dialogue, the proper body of the work begins. The interlocutors are Alexander Dixon, described as having proposed the subject matter to Theophilus, who is Filoteo (or Teofilo), or Bruno; Gervasius, not a philosopher, a person who “neither stinks nor smells” and who “makes jokes of the things that Polyhymnius says”; and Polyhymnius, a “sacrilegious pedant . . . one of the most rigid censors of philosophers.”

Theophilus, the lover of God (whose name means literally that), explains to the others that it is only with the greatest difficulty that the first cause and principle is known; the divine substance, because of its infinitude and distance from its effects, can be known only through traces, the remote effects of its action. To call God first principle and first cause is to say the same thing from different points of view; God is first principle “inasmuch as all things are after him . . . either according to their nature, or according to their duration, or according to their worthiness.” God is first cause “inasmuch as all things are distinct from him as the effect from the efficient.” Theophilus explains that the term “principle” is more general than the term “cause”: a point is the principle of a line but not its cause. Principle has to do with the nature of a thing, cause with its production.

God is then described as “universal physical efficient cause” and as “universal intellect.” In response to a question from Dixon, Theophilus explains what he means by “universal intellect.” The intellect is the most real and proper faculty of the world soul; it illumines the universe and is the mover of all things; it is the “world architect”;...

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Form and Matter

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

When the discussion is resumed (in the third dialogue), Theophilus mentions philosophers who have taken matter as primary and as the only reality. Confessing that he himself once held this view, he adds that he has come to the opinion that there are two forms of substance in the world: form and matter, active potency and passive potency, the power to make and the power to be made. Neither matter nor form can be dissolved or annihilated, although changes of form are common. There is, then, the one soul and formal principle that is the cause and principle of all things; there are the forms supplied by that principle; and there is one matter, the “receptacle of forms.”

Matter is regarded as a potency and as a substratum. Potency is either active or passive. Passive potency is common to all matter; it is the capacity to be other than in actuality it is. Only the One is all that it can be, for it contains all being; consequently it contains all that which is passively potent as well as all other being. However, death, corruption, vices, and defects, according to Theophilus, are neither act (actively potent) nor passively potent. God is both absolute act and absolute potency, and he cannot be apprehended by the intellect except in a negative way.

After some jesting between Polyhymnius and Gervasius—the theme being that matter is like woman, stubborn, inconstant, never satisfied with its present form, and so forth—Theophilus resumes (in the fourth dialogue) his discussion of matter, arguing that matter is the substratum of all beings, both corporeal and intelligible. He...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Boulting, William. Giordano Bruno, His Life, Thought, and Martyrdom. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1916. A classic biography that gives a favorable account of Giordano Bruno’s life. Contains an index.

De León-Jones, Karen Silvia. Giordano Bruno and the Kabbalah: Prophets, Magicians, and Rabbis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A study of Bruno’s Kabbalistic system. Includes useful appendices, a bibliography, and index.

De Santillana, Giorgia. The Age of Adventure: The Renaissance Philosophers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957. An introduction to Bruno and his philosophy. Discusses Bruno’s influence on later thinkers.

Gatti, Hilary. Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. Gatti reevaluates Bruno’s contribution to the new science and argues against some current views that hermetic and occult traditions shaped the new science. Gatti portrays Bruno as a significant scientific thinker.

Greenberg, Sidney. The Infinite in Giordano Bruno: With a Translation of His Dialogue; ‘Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One.’ New York: King’s Crown Press, 1950. The first part of this work traces the history of the problem of infinity up to the time of Bruno. Then special attention...

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