Remembering Giordano Bruno

High schools students all know about the troubles that Galileo had with the Catholic Church, but few have ever heard of Giordano Bruno, who died at the stake. The New Yorker has a fascinating review of a new book about Bruno:

In 1600, Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, now a nice plaza lined with cafés, was one of the city’s execution grounds, and on Ash Wednesday of that year Giordano Bruno, a philosopher and former priest accused of heresy by the Inquisition, was taken there and burned. The event was carefully timed. AshWednesday is the primary day of Christian penance. As for the year, Pope Clement VIII chose it because 1600 was a jubilee for the Church—a festivity that would be enhanced by the execution of an important heretic. Bruno rode to the Campo on a mule, the traditional means of transport for people going to their death. (It was also a practical means. After years in the Inquisition’s prisons, many of the condemned could not walk.) Once he arrived and mounted the pyre, a crucifix was held up to his face. According to a witness, he turned away angrily. He could not speak; he had been gagged with a leather bridle. (Or, some say, an iron spike had been driven through his tongue.) He was tied to the stake, and the pyre was lit. When it had burned out, his remains were dumped into the Tiber. As Ingrid Rowland writes in “Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $27), the Church thereby made Bruno a martyr. But “a martyr to what?” she asks. That is the question that her book, the first full-scale biography of Bruno in English, tries, with difficulty, to answer.

So why was Bruno burned at the stake? He was an original thinker with often provocatively modern ideas:

In this system, there were three main ideas. One was heliocentrism, the notion that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. This revision of the standard, Ptolemaic cosmos was, of course, not original to him. It had been made by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, five years before Bruno was born. But while Copernicus’s repositioning of the earth and the sun was a radical proposal—indeed, a heresy (the Church needed the Earth, the arena of salvation, to be the center of the universe)—in other respects his cosmos was quite orthodox: a finite structure consisting of fixed spheres that revolved in concentric circles, just as in Ptolemy. Bruno, on the other hand, proposed an infinite cosmos, consisting of innumerable heliocentric worlds. This, his second and most important idea, was also not new. It had been put forth by Nicholas of Cusa, a German cardinal, in the fifteenth century. But here, too, Bruno went further, claiming that the universe was a vast, wheeling, unknowable thing, and that all theories about it, including his own, were not descriptions but merely approaches—“models,” as we would call them today.

Finally, Bruno developed an atomic theory, whereby everything that existed was made up of identical particles—“seeds,” in his terminology. Other people, notably Lucretius, had had this idea, but, again, Bruno expanded it. Not only were all parts of the cosmos constituted of the same elements, but God, whom the Church strictly set apart from the material world, resided in these elements. It was his love, informing every “seed,” that unified the world.

Read it all here.

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