1902 Encyclopedia > Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno
Italian philosopher
(1548-1600)




GIORDANO BRUNO, the most genial and interesting of the Italian philosophers of the Renaissance, was born at Nola about the year 1548. Little is known of the life of this knight-errant of philosophy; the very date of his birth rests in obscurity. What we do know is attractive enough to render it matter of regret that the materials should be so scanty. In his fifteenth year he entered the order of the Dominicans at Naples, and is said to have composed a treatise on the ark of Noah. Why he should have submitted to the bonds of a discipline palpably unsuited to his fiery and vehement spirit, we cannot tell. He soon found the restraints intolerable, and became an outcast from his church and a wanderer on the face of the earth. His opinions with regard to some of the Romish mysteries seem to have been too liberal to find toleration with so strict an order as that of St Dominic. He was accused of impiety, and after enduring persecution for some years, he fled from Rome about 1576, and wandered through various cities, reaching Geneva in 1577. The home of Calvinism was no resting-place for him, and he tra-velled on through Lyons, Toulouse, and Montpellier, arriving at Paris in 1579. Everywhere he bent his irrepressible energies to the exposition of the new thoughts which were beginning to effect a revolution in the thinking world. He had drunk deeply of the very spirit of the Renaissance, the determination to open his eyes and see for himself this noble universe, unclouded by the mists of authoritative philosophy and church tradition. The discoveries of Copernicus, which were unhinging men’s minds and teaching them to look upon their little world in a new light, were eagerly accepted by him, and he used them as the lever by which to push aside the antiquated system that had come down from Aristotle, and which was loaded with the weight of that great thinker’s name. For Aristotle, indeed, he had a perfect hatred. Like Bacon and Telesius he infinitely preferred the older Greek philosophers, who had looked at nature for themselves, and whose specula-tions had more of reality in them. He had read widely and deeply, and in his own writings we come across many ex-pressions familiar to us in earlier systems. Yet his philosophy is no eclecticism. He owed something to Lucretius, some-thing to the Stoic nature-pantheism, something to Anaxa-goras, to Heraclitus, to the Pythagoreans, and to the Neoplatonist, who were partially known to him; above all, he has studied deeply and profoundly the great German thinker Nicolas of Cusa, who was indeed a speculative Copernicus. But his own system has a distinct unity and originality; it breast throughout the fiery spirit of Bruno himself.

Bruno had been well received at Toulouse, where he had lectured on astronomy; even better fortune awaited him at Paris. He was offered a chair of philosophy, provided he wuld receive the Mass. He at once refused, but was permitted to deliver lectures. These seem to have been altogether devoted to expositions of a certain logical system which Bruno had taken up with great eagerness, the Ars Magna of Raymond Lully. With the exception of a comedy, Il Candelujo, all the works of this period are devoted to this logic. The most important of them is the treatise De Umbris Idearum. It has seemed to many a curious freak of Bruno’s that he should have so eagerly adopted a view of thought like that of Lully, but in reality it is in strict accordance with the principles of his philosophy. Like the Arabian logicians, and some of the scholastics, who held that ideas existed in a threefold form,—ante res, in rebus, and post res,—he laid down the principle that the archetypal ideas existed metaphysically in the ultimate unity or intelligence, physically in the world of things, and logically in signs, symbols, or notions. These notions were the shadows of the ideas, and the Ars Magna furnished him with a general scheme, according to which their rela-tions and correspondences should be exhibited. It supplied not only a memoria technica, but an organon, or method by which the genesis of all ideas from unity might be represented intelligibly and easily. It provided also a substitute for either the Aristotelian or the Ramist logic, which was an additional element in its favour.





In the train and under the protection of the French ambassador, Michel da Castelnau, Bruno passed over in 1583 to England, where he resided for about two years. He was much disgusted with the brutality of the English manners, which he paints in no flattering colours, and he found in Oxford pedantry and superstition as rampant as at Geneva. But he indulges in extravagant eulogies of Elizabeth, andn he formed the acquaintance at London of Sir Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, and other eminent Englishmen. At Oxford he was allowed to hold a disputation with some learned doctors on the rival merits of the Copernican and so-called Aristotelian systems of the universe, and, according to his own report, had an easy victory. The best of his works were written in the freedom of English social life. The Cena de le Ceneri, or Ash Wednesday conversation, devoted to an exposition of the Copernican theory, was printed in 1584. In the same year appeared his two great metaphy-sical works, De la Causa, Principio, ed Uno, and De l’Infinito, Universo, e Nondi; in the year following the Eroici Furori and Cabala del Cavallo Pegaseo. In 1584 also appeared the strange, dialogue, Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante, or Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, an allegory treating chiefly of moral philosophy, but giving at the same time the very essence and spirit of Bruno’s philosophy. The gods are represented as resolving to banish from the heavens the constellations, which served to remind them of their evil deeds. In their places are put the moral virtues. The first of the three dialogues contains the substance of the allegory, which, under the disguise of an assault on heathen mythology, is a direct attack on all forms of anthropomorphic religion. But in a philosophical point of view the first part of the second dialogue is the most important. Among the moral virtues which take the place of the beasts are Truth, Prudence, Wisdom, Law, and Universal Judgment, and in the explanation of what these mean Bruno unfolds the very inner essence of his system. Truth is the unity and substance which underlies all things; Prudence or providence is the regulating power of truth, and comprehends both liberty and necessity; Wisdom is providence itself in its supersensible aspect—in man it is reason which grasps the truth of things; Law results from wisdom, for no good law is irrational, and its sole end and aim is the good of mankind; Universal Judgment is the principle whereby men are judged according to their deeds, and not according to their belief in this or that catechism. Mingled with his allegorical philosophy are the most vehement attacks upon the established religion. The monks are stigmatized as pedants who would destroy the joy of life on earth, who are avaricious, dissolute, and the breeders of eternal dissensions and squabbles. The mysteries of faith are geoffed at. The Jewish records are put on a level with the Greek myths, and miracles are laughed at as magical tricks. Through all this runs the train of thought resulting naturally from Bruno’s fundamental principles, and familiar in modern philosophy as Spinozism, the denial of particular providence, the doctrine of the uselessness of prayer, the identification in a sense of liberty and necessity, and the peculiar defini-tion of good and evil. Altogether the Spaccio, as it is the most popular, is the most characteristic of Bruno’s works.

In 1586 he teturned to Paris with Castelnau, but was soon driven from his refuge, and we next find him at Marburg, and Wittenberg, the headquarters of Luther-anism. There is a tradition that here or in England he embraced the Protestant faith; nothing in his writings would lead one to suppose so. Several works, chiefly logical, appeared during his stay at Wittenberg. In 1588 he went to Prague, then to Helmstadt. In 1591 he was at Frankfort, and published three important metaphysical works, De Triplici Minimo et Mensura; De Monade, Numero, et Figura; De Immenso et Innumerabili-bus. He did not stay long at Prague, and we find him next at Zurich, whence he accepted an invitation to Venice. It was a rash step. The emissaries of the Inquisition were on his track; he was thrown into prison, and in 1593 was brought to Rome. Seven years were spent in confinement. On the 9th February 1600 he was excommunicated, and on the 17th was burned at the stake.

As has been said, for an estimation of Bruno’s philosophy, the most important works are the two Italian dialogues and the three last-mentioned Latin treatises. It is not an easy matter to put his opinions into small compass, for the general form of exposition adopted by him, the dialogue, imposes a certain looseness on his own mode of thinking.

To Bruno as to all other great thinkers, the end of philosophy is the search for unity. Amid all the varying and contradictory phenomena of the universe there is something which gives coherence and intelligibility to them. Nor can this unity be something apart from the things; it must contain in itself the universe, which develops from it; it must be at once all and one. This unity is God, the universal substanc,—the one and only principle, or causa immanens,—that which is in things and yet is distinct from them as the universal is distinct from the particular. He is the efficient and final cause of all, the beginning, middle, and end, eternal and infinite. By his action the world is produced, and his action is the law of his nature, his necessity is true freedom. He is living, active intelligence, the principle of motion and creation, realizing himself in the infinitely various forms of activity that constitute individual things. To the infinitely actual there is necessary the possible; that which determines involves somewhat in which its determinations can have existence. This other of God, which is in truth one with him, is matter. The universe, then, is a living cosmos, an infinitely animated system, whose end is the per-feet realization of the variously graduated forms.

The unity which sunderg itself into the multiplicity of things may be called the monas monadum, each thing being a monas or self-existent, living being, a universe in itself. Of these monads the number is infinite. The soul of man is a thinking monad, and stands mid-way between the divine intelligence and the world of external things. As a portion of the divine life, the soul is immortal. its highest function is the contemplation of the divine unity discoverable under the manifold of objects.

Such is a brief summary of the principal portions of Bruno’s philosophy. It seems quite clear that in the earlier works, particularly the two Italian dialogues, he approached more nearly to the pantheistic view of things than in his later Latin treatises. The unity expounded at first is simply an anima mundi, a living universe, but not intelligent. There is a distinct development traceable towards the later and final form of his doctrine, in which the universe appears as the realization of the divine mind.

The Italian works of Bruno, formerly exceedingly rare, have been collected and published in two volumes, by A. Wagner, 1830. An edition of the Latin works was begun by Gfrörer in 1834, but has not been completed. The most complete monograph on him is that by C. Bartholmess, 2 vols. 1846-47; the most recent life is that by Domenico Berti, 1868. The best systematic account of his philosophy is that by Carriere, Philosophische Weltanschauung der Reformationszeit, 1847, pp. 411-494. The relations between his philosophy and that of Cusanus are treated in Clemens, G. Bruno und Nicolaus von Citsa, 1847. An English translation by Morehead (not, as is generally supposed, by Toland) of the Spaccio is dated 1713. It was probably printed before that time, and it is now excessively rare. Toland translated the preface to De l’Infinito; it is found in his Posthumous Works. There is a French translation of part of the Spaccio, Le Ciel Reforomé, 1750. Lasson has translated.De la Causa into German, 1872, with introduction and notes.

The earlier literature with regard to Bruno is copious; it will be found in Bayle, Buble, and Tennemann.








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