Giordano Bruno

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2227

Article abstract: With his daring and speculative theories in astronomy and philosophy, Bruno anticipated many of the achievements of modern science, but his stubborn personality and arcane interests brought him into inevitable conflict with the authorities of his time.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Giordano Bruno Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Early Life

Giordano Bruno was born in 1548 in Nola. He was the son of Juano Bruno, a professional soldier, and his wife, Fraulissa Savolino. As a child, Bruno was named Filippo; he took the name Giordano when he entered the Dominican Order. He was sometimes known as “the Nolan,” after the town of his birth, and he often referred to himself in this fashion in his works.

From contemporary records and his own writings, Bruno seems to have been a particularly intelligent and impressionable child. He left several accounts of odd, almost visionary experiences in his youth, including an extended, quasi-mystical dialogue with the mountain Vesuvius which first revealed to him the deceptiveness of appearances and the relativity of all material things. These were to become two dominant themes in his philosophy.

As a youth, Bruno was sent to Naples, where he attended the Studium Generale, concentrating in the humanities, logic, and dialectic. It is clear that Bruno had a thorough grounding in Aristotle and his philosophy and also was well acquainted with the works of Plato and the writings of the Neoplatonists, who were then creating considerable intellectual activity and controversy, especially in Italy.

In 1565, when Bruno was seventeen, he entered the Dominican Order, moving within the walls of the monastery of San Domenico in Naples. There he took the name Giordano. Bruno’s decision to enter the Dominican Order is puzzling, for in retrospect it clearly stands as the major mistake in his often-turbulent life. Although he was well suited for the intellectual studies of the Dominicans, he was quite unfit for the accompanying intellectual discipline and submission required for the monastic and clerical life. His thoughts were too wide-ranging and innovative to be restrained within traditional confines, a situation which eventually placed him in mortal conflict with the Church.

Bruno spent eleven years in the monastery of San Domenico. He studied Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and other traditional figures, but at the same time was reading in the mystical doctrines of the Neoplatonists, the new works of Desiderius Erasmus, and other reformers and seems to have become suspiciously well acquainted with the works of heretics such as Arius. These unorthodox diversions brought him into conflict with the Dominican authorities, and reports were made that Bruno was defending the Arian heresy. Arius had taught that God the Father and God the Son were not the same in essence. When the Dominicans learned that Bruno was suspected of defending Arianism, charges were prepared against him. Learning of this, he fled the monastery in 1576. He was age twenty-eight, and he would spend the rest of his life in exile or in prison.

Life’s Work

When Bruno fled the monastery, he embarked upon twenty-one years of wandering throughout Europe. Many of his stops lasted merely a matter of months, and the most productive, for only three years. Controversy and conflict dogged him on his travels—much of it a result of not only his daring and speculative thought but also his unrestrained attacks on those who opposed him in any degree and his innate lack of common sense or practical judgment. Employment was difficult, and income was insufficient and insecure. Yet, during this period, Bruno wrote and published an enormous body of work whose content far outpaced even the most advanced thinkers of his time.

Bruno’s first extended sojourn was in Geneva. There, safe from the power of the Church, he soon plunged into local intellectual conflicts. In 1579, he published a scathing attack on Antoine de la Faye, a noted professor of philosophy at the University of Geneva. Bruno’s assault was more than an academic exercise, for he seemed to undermine de la Faye’s theories, which were the basis for the quasi-theological government of Geneva. Bruno, the renegade Dominican on the run, had put himself in disfavor with the Calvinists of Switzerland. He was arrested, then released; he soon left Geneva, moving first to Lyons, then to Toulouse, France. In 1581, Bruno went to Paris, where he found his first real success. He lectured on his own techniques of memory, and the results were so impressive that King Henry III summoned Bruno to court to explain his methods. As a result, the king appointed Bruno to the College de France. Bruno held the post for two years, lecturing on philosophy and natural science and publishing a number of books, many of them on his art of memory.

Still, he managed to alienate many fellow professors and intellectuals in Paris. Some were outraged by his arrogant and self-proclaimed superiority, while the more conventional were troubled by his unorthodox views and desertion of his monastic vows. In 1583, Bruno left for London, with a letter of recommendation to the French ambassador Michel de Castelnau.

The London period, from 1583 through 1585, was the most productive of Bruno’s career. Perhaps he was stimulated by the intellectual climate of England, for not only did he deliver a series of lectures at Oxford, explaining the Copernican theory, but also he had among his acquaintances men such as Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Sir Fulke Greville, noted figures of the English Renaissance. In 1584, Bruno produced a series of six dialogues expounding his philosophy; three of these dealt with cosmological issues, and three with moral topics.

In La Cena de le Ceneri (1584; The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1975), Bruno laid the foundation for his scientific theories. He began with the view of Nicolaus Copernicus that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the solar system. Bruno recognized that the sun was itself a star, and he concluded that other stars must have their attendant planets circling them. He came to the conclusion that the universe was infinite, and that it therefore contained an infinite number of worlds, each world capable of having intelligent life upon it. Such a theory ran counter to the traditions of both the Catholic church and the newer Protestant faiths.

Bruno continued the development of his theories in De l’infinito universo e mondi (1584; On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, 1950). He systematically criticized the prevailing Aristotelian cosmology, and in its place put forth a precursor of the modern theory of relativity later developed by Albert Einstein. Bruno maintained that sensory knowledge could never be absolute, but only relative, and it is this relativity that misleads humans in their attempts to understand the universe. Human perceptions are incapable of truly and completely comprehending the universe, and that universe itself can be accurately comprehended only as a total unity, rather than in isolated parts. Therefore, neither senses nor imagination can be fully trusted, but only reason, which allows humans to penetrate to the divine essence of creation.

Bruno also developed a theory that the universe was composed of “minima,” extremely small particles much like the atoms proposed by the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius. Like Lucretius, Bruno thought that certain motions and events were inevitable and that the universe develops inexorably out of inherent necessity. In order to resolve the conflict between this deterministic view and free will, Bruno postulated that the universe itself was divine; he projected a universal pantheism in which the Creator manifests Himself through and within creation.

Finally, Bruno resolved the difficulty of the relationship of human beings to God, of the finite to the infinite, or ignorance to knowledge. These were long-standing puzzles to theologians and philosophers, for it seemed impossible that the limited mind of man could comprehend or understand the perfect and infinite attributes of divinity. Bruno believed that there was an identity of opposites at work in which the essential elements of creation and divinity are found in all parts of the universe. Opposition is only relative and illusory; on the most fundamental level, everything is the same, and everything is therefore divine.

In 1585, Castelnau was recalled to Paris, and Bruno, left without a patron, was forced to leave England. For the next six years, he wandered through Europe, accepting and losing posts at a number of universities in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. He continued to write and publish prolifically, including his special area of memory, and, in the fall of 1591, he received an invitation from a Venetian nobleman, Zuane Mocenigo, to come to Venice and teach him the art of memory.

Bruno accepted, believing that he would be safe in Venice, which was at that time a fairly liberal and independent state which carefully guarded its freedom from the Papacy. There was a dispute between Bruno and his patron, however—apparently the nobleman believed that he was being cheated and that Bruno planned to flee to Germany—and on May 23, 1592, Bruno was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. He was questioned through September, but no decision was made.

On February 27, 1593, Bruno was delivered into the hands of the Roman Inquisition, and for the next seven years he was held in prison, repeatedly questioned and examined, and urged to recant his heresies and confess his sins. Bruno tried to play a crafty game, willing to admit minor infractions, but pretending not to comprehend how his cosmological and philosophical writings could run counter to the teachings of the Church. Finally, in February, 1600, the Inquisition found him guilty and delivered him to the secular authorities for punishment. When Bruno heard the decision, he replied, “Perhaps you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.” On Saturday, February 17, 1600, Bruno was burned in the Square of Flowers in Rome.

Summary

Giordano Bruno was a philosopher of great insight and imagination, yet a thinker who could link science to magic and yoke philosophical understanding to mnemonic tricks. He was poised amid the thought and traditions of the Church, the mystical teachings of the Neoplatonists, and the rapid advances of the sciences, especially astronomy. From the combination of these three traditions, he forged a new and highly individual vision of the cosmos and mankind’s place in it.

Bruno’s influence was recognized by both scientists and Humanists in the years following his death. Scientists, even to modern times, admire the startling insights which he drew concerning the infinite number of worlds in an infinite universe. Bruno’s early recognition of the concept of relativity and the place which it must play in humanity’s conception and understanding of the universe is also a prime legacy which Bruno left to science.

Humanists of the period were profoundly influenced by his insistence on the need for tolerance in matters of religion and belief. Perhaps because Bruno himself was so often a victim of the intolerance of the age, he was especially eloquent in his plea for patience and understanding.

Finally, Bruno combined the sense of infinite expansion and relativity of all things with a new approach to human knowledge and culture. He refused to divide the world into the sacred and the profane, the Christian and the heathen, the orthodox and the heretic. Instead, he saw human life and culture as a single strand and the universe as a divine manifestation which carried with it all knowledge and truth. To Giordano Bruno, the cosmos was God’s creation and therefore all good, and man’s role was not to judge but to understand.

Bibliography

Boulting, William. Giordano Bruno, His Life, Thought, and Martyrdom. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1916. As indicated by its title, this biography is a highly favorable account of Bruno’s life and thought. On the whole, it presents his philosophical and scientific views in a fair and unbiased light.

De Santillana, Giorgia. The Age of Adventure: The Renaissance Philosophers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957. An introductory survey of Bruno and his work, with particular attention paid to his influence upon later scientists and writers.

Feingold, Mordechai. “The Occult Tradition in the English Universities of the Renaissance: A Reassessment.” In Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, edited by Brian Vickers. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. An enlightening study of Bruno’s 1584 visit to Oxford and the state of learning at that time, with special emphasis on which areas of knowledge were believed to be beyond the boundary of conventions.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought and Its Sources. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Does not have an extended treatment of Bruno as an individual, but is an excellent source for understanding the intellectual climate of his times and how it developed.

Singer, Dorothea. Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950. A sympathetic but generally unbiased biography of Bruno, with emphasis upon his thought and theory. The volume contains several helpful appendices and an excellent annotated translation of the dialogue On the Infinite Universe and Worlds.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. By one of the most distinguished scholars of Renaissance thought. Yates’s account of Bruno’s place is invaluable. Particularly good in situating him within the confines of a broad philosophical stream.

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

Giordano Bruno

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2420

Article abstract: With his daring and speculative theories in astronomy and philosophy, Bruno anticipated many of the achievements of modern science, but his stubborn personality and arcane interests brought him into inevitable conflict with the authorities of his time.

Early Life

Giordano Bruno was born in 1548 in Nola, in what is now Italy. He was the son of Juano Bruno, a professional soldier, and his wife, Fraulissa Savolino. As a child, Bruno was named Filippo; he took the name Giordano when he entered the Dominican Order. He was sometimes known as “the Nolan,” after the town of his birth, and he often referred to himself in this fashion in his works.

From contemporary records and his own writings, Bruno seems to have been a particularly intelligent and impressionable child. He left several accounts of odd, almost visionary experiences in his youth, including an extended, quasi-mystical dialogue with the mountain Vesuvius that first revealed to him the deceptiveness of appearances and the relativity of all material things. These were to become two dominant themes in his philosophy.

As a youth, Bruno was sent to Naples, where he attended the Studium Generale, concentrating in the humanities, logic, and dialectic. It is clear that Bruno had a thorough grounding in Aristotle and his philosophy and also was well acquainted with the works of Plato and the writings of the Neoplatonists, who were then creating considerable intellectual activity and controversy, especially in Italy.

In 1565, when Bruno was seventeen, he entered the Dominican Order, moving within the walls of the monastery of San Domenico in Naples. There he took the name Giordano. Bruno’s decision to enter the Dominican Order is puzzling, for in retrospect, it clearly stands as the major mistake in his often-turbulent life. Although he was well suited for the intellectual studies of the Dominicans, he was quite unfit for the accompanying intellectual discipline and submission required for the monastic and clerical life. His thoughts were too wide-ranging and innovative to be restrained within traditional confines, a situation that eventually placed him in mortal conflict with the Church.

Bruno spent eleven years in the monastery of San Domenico. He studied Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and other traditional figures but at the same time was reading in the mystical doctrines of the Neoplatonists, the new works of Desiderius Erasmus, and the works of other reformers and seems to have become suspiciously well acquainted with the works of heretics such as Arius. These unorthodox diversions brought him into conflict with the Dominican authorities, and reports were made that Bruno was defending the Arian heresy. Arius had taught that God the Father and God the Son were not the same in essence. When the Dominicans learned that Bruno was suspected of defending Arianism, charges were prepared against him. Learning of this, he fled the monastery in 1576. He was age twenty-eight, and he would spend the rest of his life in exile or in prison.

Life’s Work

When Bruno fled the monastery, he embarked on twenty-one years of wandering throughout Europe. Many of his stops lasted merely a matter of months, and the most productive, for only three years. Controversy and conflict dogged him on his travels—much of it a result of not only his daring and speculative thought but also his unrestrained attacks on those who opposed him in any degree and his innate lack of common sense or practical judgment. Employment was difficult, and income was insufficient and insecure. Yet, during this period, Bruno wrote and published an enormous body of work whose content far outpaced even the most advanced thinkers of his time.

Bruno’s first extended sojourn was in Geneva. There, safe from the power of the Church, he soon plunged into local intellectual conflicts. In 1579, he published a scathing attack on Antoine de la Faye, a noted professor of philosophy at the University of Geneva. Bruno’s assault was more than an academic exercise, for he seemed to undermine de la Faye’s theories, which were the basis for the quasi-theological government of Geneva. Bruno, the renegade Dominican on the run, had put himself in disfavor with the Calvinists of Switzerland. He was arrested, then released; he soon left Geneva, moving first to Lyons, then to Toulouse, France. In 1581, Bruno went to Paris, where he found his first real success. He lectured on his own techniques of memory, and the results were so impressive that King Henry III summoned Bruno to court to explain his methods. As a result, the king appointed Bruno to the Collège de France. Bruno held the post for two years, lecturing on philosophy and natural science and publishing a number of books, many of them on his art of memory.

Still, he managed to alienate many fellow professors and intellectuals in Paris. Some were outraged by his arrogant and self-proclaimed superiority, while the more conventional were troubled by his unorthodox views and desertion of his monastic vows. In 1583, Bruno left for London, with a letter of recommendation to the French ambassador Michel de Castelnau.

The London period, from 1583 through 1585, was the most productive of Bruno’s career. Perhaps he was stimulated by the intellectual climate of England, for not only did he deliver a series of lectures at Oxford, explaining the Copernican theory, but also he had among his acquaintances noted figures of the English Renaissance such as Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Fulke Greville. In 1584, Bruno produced a series of six dialogues expounding his philosophy; three of these dealt with cosmological issues and three with moral topics.

In The Ash Wednesday Supper, Bruno laid the foundation for his scientific theories. He began with the view of Nicolaus Copernicus that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the solar system. Bruno recognized that the sun was itself a star, and he concluded that other stars must have their attendant planets circling them. He came to the conclusion that the universe was infinite, and that it therefore contained an infinite number of worlds, each world capable of having intelligent life on it. Such a theory ran counter to the traditions of both the Catholic Church and the newer Protestant faiths.

Bruno continued the development of his theories in On the Infinite Universe and Worlds. He systematically criticized the prevailing Aristotelian cosmology and, in its place, put forth a precursor of the modern theory of relativity later developed by Albert Einstein. Bruno maintained that sensory knowledge could never be absolute, only relative, and it is this relativity that misleads humans in their attempts to understand the universe. Human perceptions are incapable of truly and completely comprehending the universe, and that universe itself can be accurately comprehended only as a total unity, rather than in isolated parts. Therefore, neither senses nor imagination can be fully trusted, but only reason, which allows humans to penetrate to the divine essence of creation.

Bruno also developed a theory that the universe was composed of “minima,” extremely small particles much like the atoms proposed by the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius. Like Lucretius, Bruno thought that certain motions and events were inevitable and that the universe develops inexorably out of inherent necessity. In order to resolve the conflict between this deterministic view and free will, Bruno postulated that the universe itself was divine; he projected a universal pantheism in which the Creator manifests himself through and within creation.

Finally, Bruno resolved the difficulty of the relationship of human beings to God, of the finite to the infinite, or ignorance to knowledge. These were long-standing puzzles to theologians and philosophers, for it seemed impossible that humans’ limited minds could comprehend or understand the perfect and infinite attributes of divinity. Bruno believed that there was an identity of opposites at work in which the essential elements of creation and divinity are found in all parts of the universe. Opposition is only relative and illusory; on the most fundamental level, everything is the same, and everything is therefore divine.

In 1585, Castelnau was recalled to Paris, and Bruno, left without a patron, was forced to leave England. For the next six years, he wandered through Europe, accepting and losing posts at a number of universities in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. He continued to write and publish prolifically, including his special area of study, memory, and, in the fall of 1591, he received an invitation from a Venetian nobleman, Zuane Mocenigo, to come to Venice and teach him the art of memory.

Bruno accepted, believing that he would be safe in Venice, which was at that time a fairly liberal and independent state that carefully guarded its freedom from the papacy. There was a dispute between Bruno and his patron, however—apparently the nobleman believed that he was being cheated and that Bruno planned to flee to Germany—and on May 23, 1592, Bruno was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. He was questioned through September, but no decision was made.

On February 27, 1593, Bruno was delivered into the hands of the Roman Inquisition, and for the next seven years, he was held in prison, repeatedly questioned and examined and urged to recant his heresies and confess his sins. Bruno tried to play a crafty game, willing to admit minor infractions but pretending not to comprehend how his cosmological and philosophical writings could run counter to the teachings of the Church. Finally, in February, 1600, the Inquisition found him guilty and delivered him to the secular authorities for punishment. When Bruno heard the decision, he replied, “Perhaps you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.” On Saturday, February 17, 1600, Bruno was burned in the Square of Flowers in Rome.

Influence

Bruno was a philosopher of great insight and imagination, yet a thinker who could link science to magic and yoke philosophical understanding to mnemonic tricks. He was poised amid the thought and traditions of the Church, the mystical teachings of the Neoplatonists, and the rapid advances of the sciences, especially astronomy. From the combination of these three traditions, he forged a new and highly individual vision of the cosmos and humankind’s place in it.

Bruno’s influence was recognized by both scientists and humanists in the years following his death. Scientists, even to modern times, admire the startling insights that he drew concerning the infinite number of worlds in an infinite universe. Bruno’s early recognition of the concept of relativity and the place that it must play in humanity’s conception and understanding of the universe is also a prime legacy that Bruno left to science. Humanists of the period were profoundly influenced by his insistence on the need for tolerance in matters of religion and belief. Perhaps because Bruno himself was so often a victim of the intolerance of the age, he was especially eloquent in his plea for patience and understanding.

Finally, Bruno combined the sense of infinite expansion and relativity of all things with a new approach to human knowledge and culture. He refused to divide the world into the sacred and the profane, the Christian and the heathen, the orthodox and the heretic. Instead, he saw human life and culture as a single strand and the universe as a divine manifestation that carried with it all knowledge and truth. To Bruno, the cosmos was God’s creation and therefore all good, and humanity’s role was not to judge but to understand.

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.

Bibliography updated by Tammy Nyden-Bullock

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Analysis