The great Italian philosopher Giordano Filippo Bruno (1548-1600) was born in Nola, in the Campania. As a young scholar, he studied philosophy and literature in Naples, and later theology at the Monastery of San Domenico Maggione. He had a tenacious memory and extraordinary intellect. In 1572, Bruno took the vows of priesthood. Yet in 1576, doubting many of the teachings of Christianity and therefore suspected of heresy, this Dominican monk with unorthodox opinions abandoned his religious order and subsequently was forced to flee to the more secular Northern Italy in order to escape both the Neapolitan Inquisition and the Holy Office of Rome. Fearing for his safety and seeking freedom of expression, the restless Bruno wandered as a solitary figure through Switzerland, France, England, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia. These were years of study, reflection, speculation, writing, and lecturing.
With steadfast determination, creative thoughts, and controversial books, Bruno challenged those entrenched beliefs of the Roman Catholic faith, the Peripatetic biases of his contemporary astronomers and physicists, and that unrelenting authority given to the Aristotelian worldview. Unfortunately, Bruno as ingenious freethinker had a personality that aggravated both the general populace and serious scholars to such a degree that he could never claim a permanent home anywhere during his lifetime; nevertheless, he no doubt saw himself as a citizen of the entire universe.
During a 2-year period in London (1583-1585), the autodidactic Bruno lectured at Oxford University and both wrote and published six strikingly brilliant Italian dialogues: On the Cause, Principle, and Unity; On the Infinite, the Universe, and Worlds; The Ash Wednesday Supper; The Cabala of the Horse Pegasus; The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast; and The Heroic Frenzies. These volumes contain the essential elements of his daring cosmology, new epistemology, and bold statements on ethics, religion, and theology. He had rigorously rejected the geostatic, geocentric, anthropocentric, and finite-because-spherical model of the universe found in those Aristotelian writings of antiquity that were still supported by the Roman Catholic Church.
Bruno also wrote Latin poems in which he ridiculed, with caustic sarcasm and bitter satire, both the superstitious beliefs and dogmatic clergymen of this age. In 1591, his last philosophical books and poetic writings were published at Frankfurt, in Germany. These works include On the Monad, On the Immense, and On the Triple Minimum.
After many years of solitary wandering through Europe and with reckless abandon, the courageous Bruno returned to Italy in optimistic hope of convincing the new Pope Clement VIII of at least some of his controversial ideas. As a consequence of entrapment by the young nobleman Giovani Mocenigo, the self-unfrocked monk was tried and condemned twice (first by the Venetian Holy Inquisition in 1592, and then by the Roman Holy Inquisition in 1593). Bruno’s critical writings, which pointed out the hypocrisy and bigotry within the church, along with his tempestuous personality and undisciplined behavior, easily made him a victim of the religious and philosophical intolerance of the 16th century. Bruno was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches for his heretical beliefs. The Catholic hierarchy found him guilty of infidelity and many errors, as well as serious crimes of heresy. However, Bruno stubbornly refused to recant his lofty vision. He was subsequently handed over to the Italian state, which determined his final fate. The philosopher was imprisoned in the dungeons of the Holy Inquisition in Rome for 7 years, denied pen and paper as well as books and visitors, relentlessly interrogated, and probably tortured. After enduring this living tomb, he was eventually sentenced to death under the influence of the Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. Obstinate to the end, Bruno never recanted his heretical position.
At Rome, on February 17, 1600, at the age of 52, the contemptuous and rebellious Giordano Bruno was bound, gagged, and publicly burned alive at the stake in the center of the Campo dei Fiori, not far from the Vatican, while priests chanted their litanies. His windblown ashes mixed with the very earth that had sustained his life and thought. Three years later, the writings of the apostate monk and intrepid thinker were placed on the index of forbidden books. In June 1889, during the reign of Pope Leo XIII, contributions from anticlerical groups around the world enabled an impressive bronze statue of Bruno, by Ettori Ferrari, to be erected by the public on the very spot where he had been executed.
A New Cosmology
With a profound imagination, Bruno had ushered in a new cosmology. Boldly, he held this universe to be eternal in time, infinite in space, and endlessly changing. In the history of Western philosophy, his speculations are a lasting and significant contribution to our modern conceptualization of a dynamic universe. The awesome Brunian worldview is a remarkable interpretation of reality, which, in its vision, far surpasses the closed cosmological frameworks presented by Cusa, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo. Bruno’s creativity was a result of his freedom from the traditional thought system grounded in the Aristotelian view of nature and the dogmatic belief system of the Roman Catholic Church.
In fact, Bruno stood utterly alone in foreshadowing our present understanding of and appreciation for space, time, matter, and life itself (particularly concerning the place of humankind within the cosmic flux of all things). No longer did the heavens and earth represent two separate but different realms in terms of matter and motion.
During the tumultuous period of the Italian Renaissance, it was Bruno who critically reflected upon the heavens and, as a result, seriously considered the far-reaching implications and inevitable consequences that his unique vision held for considering the true position of the human species within this universe. Because he was neither a scientist nor a mathematician, Bruno relied upon rational speculations and the extensive use of analogies, along with magic, intuition, and mysticism (he had developed an intense fascination for Renaissance hermeticism), to support his cosmic model of creative reality. His daring worldview undermined the split, finite, and closed conceptual framework offered by the physicists, astronomers, philosophers, and theologians during his time.
It should be stressed, however, that Bruno was not greatly influenced by the Copernican model of a heliocentric universe. In sharp contrast to Copernicus, Bruno was aware of those limitations that result from a strictly mathematical approach in attempting to comprehend the characteristics of this universe. Instead, he emphasized that the use of symbolic logic and discrete geometry merely supplement (but do not replace) the findings of rational speculations grounded in intuition and imagination. Reminiscent of those natural cosmologists of the pre-Socratic period, Bruno gladly extrapolated his new ideas and vast vision from his own critical observations of nature and a rigorous use of his powerful imagination. His interests in the art, magic, and numerology of ancient Egypt were essentially a reflection of his own fascination with change and memory (increased by the thoughts of the Catalan monk Raymond Lully) as well as his view of the universe as a living and divine cosmos (as he interpreted it).
Breaking new ground in cosmology, Bruno’s philosophy of nature depends upon the metaphysical concepts of plurality, uniformity, and cosmic unity along with the logical principle of sufficient reason. He ruthlessly criticized all geocentric, zoocentric, anthropocentric, and heliocentric views of reality. His new philosophy rigorously repudiated the Peripatetic terrestrial/celestial dichotomy and instead maintained that the same physical laws and natural elements of the earth exist throughout this eternal and infinite universe. In doing so, Bruno was able to correct and surpass the planetary perspective expounded by Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Aquinas. He even advanced beyond the sun-centered astronomy advocated by some of his contemporaries. His own model of the world is free from any fixed point of reference. In retrospect, it may be claimed that his pioneering thought actually fathered modern cosmology.
Bruno’s vision replaced a finite cosmos with an infinite universe. His insights are free from the erroneous assumptions, moribund scholastic prejudices, and restrictive dogmatic beliefs held by the established religion of his time. Without ignoring the value or limitations of reason (mathematics and logic), he took intuitive leaps that synthesized both perceptual experience and the critical intellect into a daring worldview that grasps the basic features of cosmic reality. For him, such rigorous reflection also led to humanistic action. Because Bruno was unable to demonstrate his metaphysical claims scientifically, he relied upon thought experiments to glimpse the ramifications of his sweeping vision. (In the 20th century, Albert Einstein would use the same imaginative method to fathom both the extraordinary implications and startling consequences of his special and general theories of relativity.) Bruno also taught that there are an infinite number of perspectives, with there being no privileged or fixed frame of reference: Human experience can be unified in religious or scientific or philosophical concepts. Nevertheless, he maintained that all religious formulations are inevitably doomed in light of the successful use of the scientific method and ongoing empirical discoveries.
Not restricting himself to the concept of finitude, Bruno was thrilled by the idea of infinity. He was not willing to set limits to those possibilities and probabilities that are inherent in this universe (as he saw it). His imagination thrived on the plausibility of extending the concept of infinity to embrace all aspects of cosmic reality (e.g., this universe is infinite in both potentiality and actuality, and its creative power is both eternal and infinite). As such, no fixed ceiling of a finite number of stars sets a spherical boundary to the physical cosmos, and moreover, no dogmatic system of thoughts and values should imprison that open inquiry that is so necessary for human progress and fulfillment.
Relativity, Unity, and Infinity
For Bruno, there are no real separations (only logical distinctions) within the harmony and unity of dynamic nature. He overcame the myopic earth-centered framework of his time with a challenging but liberating sidereal view of things: In the cosmos, there are an infinite number of stars and planets (as well as comets and moons) more or less analogous to our sun and earth, respectively. He even envisioned an infinite number of solar systems, cosmic galaxies, and island universes strewn throughout this boundless and endless reality.
Clearly, Bruno was in step with progressive science and natural philosophy in his attempt to overcome all those belief systems preoccupied with this planet and our species. He affirmed the essential homogeneity of this cosmos, teaching an atomistic philosophy that maintains all things both inorganic and organic to be composed of monads as the ultimate units of process reality: The physical unit is the atom, the mathematical unit is the point, and the metaphysical unit is the monad. The infinitesimal and irreducible monads mirror this changing and infinite universe in accordance with the dialectical principle of the unity of the microcosm with the macrocosm. In addition, Bruno claimed that this continuous universe had no beginning and will have no end in either space or time and that there is life (including intelligent beings) on countless other worlds. Humankind is merely a fleeting fragment of our earth, which, in turn, is only a temporary speck within cosmic history. This dynamic philosophy emphasizes that our species is a product of, dependent upon, and totally within the flux of nature.
Bruno argued for an infinite number of inhabited worlds. Hence, he conceived of life forms and intelligent beings existing on other planets throughout this universe. As such, his cosmology anticipated the emerging science of exobiology in modern astronomy: For him, neither this planet nor our species is unique in the incomprehensible vastness of cosmic reality.
Not until 1609, 9 years after Bruno’s death, did the astronomer/physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) first use the telescope to discover that the heavenly bodies do in fact resemble our earth; in this same year, Johannes Kepler mathematically demonstrated the elliptical orbits of the planets. The Aristotelian dichotomy between our imperfect terrestrial world and the seemingly perfect celestial realm was finally abolished; thereby, cosmic unity made the idea of life forms and intelligent beings elsewhere in this universe a more plausible hypothesis in modern astronomy and natural philosophy.
Bruno offered a cosmology that anticipated Einstein’s theory of relativity and perhaps even Darwin’s theory of evolution. In an infinite universe, Bruno argued that space, time, size, weight, motion, change, events, relationships, and perspectives are always relative to any particular frame of reference. For him, from the village of Nola, Mount Vesuvius looked like a barren volcano devoid of life. Yet from the slopes of Vesuvius, it was Mount Cala that looked like a lifeless volcano. In fact, both geological formations support life. This experience impressed upon Bruno the relativity of perspectives and the crucial distinction between appearance and reality; Aristotle had been wrong in maintaining that appearance is reality. Consequently, in the reach for knowledge and wisdom, our limited senses need to be supplemented by technology, mathematics, and especially rational speculation.
Furthermore, in a thought experiment, Bruno even imagined himself floating above and beyond the earth. As he drifted closer and closer to the moon, it got larger, while our planet got smaller. From the lunar surface, it was now the earth that seemed to be a satellite, while the moon itself looked as if it were the size of our planet. If Bruno had drifted far beyond the moon, then he would eventually have seen both the earth and its only satellite first become merely specks of light, and then, eventually, they would disappear into the blackness of deep space. Using his powerful imagination, the philosopher once again demonstrated the principle of relativity and emphasized the crucial difference between the appearance of things and their true reality.
Bruno’s model of this universe disclaimed any dogmatic judgments, for it maintains that the center of this universe is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere. In sharp contrast to an Aristotelian framework, the bold Brunian viewpoint gives an open-ended perspective free from any absolutes in science or philosophy or theology.
In the history of Western philosophy, Bruno’s iconoclastic ideas and unorthodox perspectives remain a symbol of creative thought and open inquiry. He advocated religious and moral reforms and heralded the modern cosmology through his emphasis on an infinite universe and an infinite number of inhabited worlds. During the past four centuries, advances in descriptive astronomy and theoretical physics have given empirical and conceptual support to the Brunian philosophy. No longer is there a split between the terrestrial world and the celestial realm. Moreover, the principles of relativity and uniformity pervade the modern interpretation of this cosmos. The more our space age technology probes reality, the larger we discover this universe to be. Scientists and philosophers now take seriously a cosmic perspective that includes billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. Furthermore, it is highly probable that other solar systems fill this universe and also very likely that life forms (including intelligent beings) inhabit and evolve on other planets similar to our earth.
Having rejected any ontological separation of the superlunary and sublunary realms, Bruno would be delighted with the modern scientific quest for a unified field theory to explain everything throughout this physical universe in terms of several equations, especially since such an undertaking is in step with his own cosmic monism. Also, he would be thrilled by the ongoing unmanned missions to the surface of the red planet Mars and other solar bodies in order to detect any signs of life before they are inhabited by human beings in the distant future.
In general, Giordano Bruno paved the way for the cosmology of our time. To his lasting credit, the most recent empirical discoveries in astronomy and rational speculations in cosmology (including the emerging science of exobiology) support many of his brilliant insights and fascinating intuitions. This is an appropriate legacy from a daring and profound thinker, who presented an inspiring vision that still remains relevant to and significant for both our modern scientific and new philosophical frameworks.
- Bruno, G. (1964). Cause, principle, and unity. New York: International Publishers.
- Gatti, H. (1999). Giordano Bruno and renaissance science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Greenberg, S. (1950). The infinite in Giordano Bruno. New York: King’s Crown Press.
- Mendoza, R. G. (1995). The acentric labyrinth: Giordano Bruno’s prelude to contemporary cosmology. Shaftsbury, UK: Element Books.
- Michel, P. H. (1973). The cosmology of Giordano Bruno. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.