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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.


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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”; it is what the Magi regarded as the seed sower, what Orpheus called the eye of the world, what Empedocles regarded as the distinguisher, what Plotinus called the father and progenitor, the “proximate dispenser of forms,” and what Theophilus himself calls “the inner artificer.”

Dixon wonders what the formal cause (the idea, the plan) of the universe is, if God, or the universal intellect, is the efficient cause (what brings things to existence); he ventures the answer that the formal cause is the “ideal concept” in the divine intellect. Theophilus agrees, and he supplements Dixon’s remark that the final cause (the purpose) of the universe is the perfection of it by saying that the final cause, as well as the efficient cause, is universal in the universe. A problem disturbs Dixon: He wonders how the same subject can be both the principle and the cause of natural things. Theophilus answers that although the soul informs the entire universe and is an intrinsic and formal part of it—the principle of the universe—nevertheless, considered as governor and efficient cause, it is not a part.

Theophilus then comes forth with an idea that startles Dixon, the claim that the forms of natural objects are souls and that all things are animated. Although Dixon is willing to concede that the universe is animated, he has not considered that Theophilus would regard every part as animated, and he protests, “It is common sense that not all things are alive.” Theophilus is insistent; everything has a vital principle. This claim is too much for Polyhymnius: “Then my shoes, my slippers, my boots, my spurs, my ring and my gloves will be animate?” Gervasius assures him that they are because they have within them “an animal such as you.” Theophilus finally reassures them by saying that tables as tables, glass as glass, and so forth, are not animate, but as composites of matter and form, they are all affected by spiritual substance and in that sense are animated by spirit. However, not everything having soul is called animate. There is an intrinsic, formal, eternal principle in all things; it is the One in all things, the world soul in every part, the soul of all parts. Although distinctions can be made between forms, all forms are finally unified in one substantial ground. However, the world soul is not present corporeally; it does not stretch out to cover the universe; rather, it is present in its entirety in every part as the formal principle of every part.

Form and Matter

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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 quotes Plotinus’s remark that “if this sensible world is the imitation of the intelligible world, the composition of this is the imitation of the composition of that.” Other reasons are offered in support of the thesis that there is only one matter. Matter in itself has no determinate dimensions and is indivisible; it is only in virtue of form that what is capable of receiving dimension actually acquires it. However, matter, even when deprived of form, is not pure potency; matter as deprived of form is not like darkness deprived of light, but like “the pregnant . . . without its progeny, which she sends forth and obtains from herself.” Matter is that which unfolds “out of its own bosom” that which it has enfolded; it contains within itself all the forms that it is capable of taking on; it is not a pure nothing, but a subject. Form could not arise to inform the matter that enfolds it were matter pure potency.

The fifth dialogue begins with the words of Theophilus: “The universe is, then, one, infinite, immobile.” The multiplicity in the universe, the change, the diversity—all this is in appearance and relative to the senses; properly considered, every part of the universe is, in its mode of being, the One. Despite the existence of particular things, everything is one in substance, being, form, and matter; and there is but one cause and principle of all things. Properly speaking, there are no distinctions if one considers the substance of things; for there is but one substance, the infinite, the world soul, the divine intellect. To Polyhymnius, who hears but does not understand and begs for an example, Theophilus explains how a unity can account for apparent multiplicity; he uses an example from arithmetic: A decade is a unity, but is embracing; a hundred is more embracing, although still a unity; a thousand is even more embracing. However, the one is the highest good, the highest beatitude, perfection; it is “the unity which embraces all.”

Theophilus, having faithfully served as the apologist of the philosophy of the Nolan (Bruno of Nola), closes with words of praise: “Praised be the Gods, and extolled by all the living be the infinite, the simplest, the most unified, the highest, and the most absolute cause, principle, and the one.”


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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 is given to Bruno’s own theory of infinity.

Horowitz, Irving Louis. The Renaissance Philosophy of Giordano Bruno. New York: Coleman-Ross, 1952. A general introduction to Bruno’s ontology and a detailed analysis of the interaction of his system and method.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964. The book consists of lectures on the philosophy of the Italian Renaissance. Gives special attention to Bruno, Pico, Petrarch, and others.

Michel, Paul Henri. The Cosmology of Giordano Bruno. Translated by R. E. W. Maddison. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. This work examines Bruno’s cosmology and argues that such an examination is justified by its historical context. Includes a biographical section that attempts to separate Bruno’s history from his legend.

Ordin, Nuccio. Giordano Bruno and the Philosophy of the Ass. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. This work explores Bruno’s use of the image of the donkey in a literary and philosophic sense. Includes an iconographical collection and an index.

Paterson, Antoinette Mann. The Infinite Worlds of Giordano Bruno. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1970. Includes chapters on Bruno’s cosmology, theory of knowledge, and theory of virtue. Also contains a bibliography and appendices on Bruno’s execution and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s letters about Bruno’s philosophy.

Singer, Dorothea. Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950. This biography includes illustrations and very useful appendices on the history of Bruno’s writings and their publication. In addition, there is an annotated translation of Bruno’s work, On the Infinite Universe and Worlds.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. The preeminent Bruno scholar claims that Bruno’s work is best understood as an expression of Neoplatonism, magic, and Egyptian religion.

Yates, Frances. Lull and Bruno. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982. The section “Essays on Giordano Bruno in England” examines Bruno’s lectures on Copernicus at Oxford and his views of religion and the established church.