But the new truth could not be concealed; it could neither be
laughed down nor frowned down. Many minds had received it, but within the hearing of the papacy only one tongue appears to have dared to utter it clearly. This new warrior was that strange mortal, Giordano Bruno. He was hunted from land to land, until at last he turned on his pursuers with fearful invectives. For this he was entrapped at Venice, imprisoned during six years in the dungeons of the Inquisition at Rome, then burned alive, and his ashes scattered to the winds. Still, the new truth lived on.
Andrew Dickson White
It is then unnecessary to investigate whether there be beyond the heaven Space, Void or Time. For there is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow. This space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, possibility, sense-perception nor nature assign to it a limit. In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.
A couple of days ago I had the misfortune of watching a channel 4 documentary entitled ‘God and the Scientists’, which was largely a garbled version of the 19th century ‘conflict thesis. The show, which was presented by Colin Blakemore, regurgitated the myth that Giordano Bruno was burned because of his support of the Copernican model. The truth is he really was a heretic in the traditional sense and was burned for his religious beliefs after a long drawn out trial in 1600. It was unfortunate that the Copernican model had been promoted by Bruno as a component of his worldview as it tainted the theory as heretical.
Bruno was a follower of a movement called Hermetism, which was a cult that based its beliefs on documents which were thought to have originated in Egypt at the time of Moses. These writings were linked with the teaching of the Egyptian God Thoth, the God of learning and had arrived in Italy from Macedonia in the 1460s. To followers of this cult, Thoth was known as Hermes Trismegitus, or Hermes the thrice great. The Egyptians worshipped the sun and it is possible Nicolaus Copernicus himself was influenced by Hermetism to put the sun at the centre of the universe. For instance, he wrote in De revolutionibus that:
At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles' Electra, the all-seeing.
The scriptures of Hermetism were later found not to have originated from ancient Egypt at all (it was discovered in 1614 that they were written long after the arrival of the Christian era), but to believers in the fifteenth century, they were thought to predate the birth of Christ. Subscribers to Hermeticism included such high profile figures as Phillip II of Spain, and the writings were generally tolerated by the Catholic Church. Bruno’s ‘dangerous idea’ was to take the view that the Egyptian religion was the true faith and that the church should return to these old ways; which they were none too pleased about.
As it transpired, Bruno had something of a talent for stirring up trouble. He joined the Dominican order in 1565 but was expelled in 1576 for defending the Arian heresy and possessing a heavily annotated copy of Erasmus’s works. Having joined the Calvinists in Geneva, Bruno published an attack on the work of Antoine de la Faye, a distinguished professor. This did not go down well and he was arrested and forced to leave for Paris. In France he enjoyed the patronage of some powerful admirers, winning fame for his theological lectures and his amazing feats of memory, which were based on his elaborate system of mnemonics.
Following this he moved to England and became acquainted with arch enemies of the church such as Philip Sidney and John Dee. Having managed to make so many enemies in England that he was forced to take refuge in the French embassy, he left for Paris and then, finding the situation there had deteriorated, he moved to Germany. Despite a run in with the Lutherans, he was able to produce several Latin works on magic and the composition of signs, images and ideas. At the Frankfurt book fair he ran into Giovanni Mocenigo who had heard of his feats of memory and told him to apply for the professorship of mathematics at Padua. Unfortunately, having applied for this post, he lost out to a certain Galileo Galilei. Mocenigo invited him to Venice to act as an in-house memory tutor, but sadly Bruno’s personality proved too difficult. Mocenigo was not only unhappy with Bruno’s teaching; he also decided to denounce him to the Venetian inquisition. After being handed over to the Roman inquisition and a long imprisonment, Bruno was finally condemned on then specific charges of Arianism and for carrying out occult practices. As the work of Frances Yates in the 1970s showed, far from being a martyr for science, Bruno was a martyr for magic. The full list of charges were as follows:
Holding opinions contrary to the Catholic Faith and speaking against it and its ministers. Holding erroneous opinions about the Trinity, about Christ's divinity and Incarnation. Holding erroneous opinions about Christ. Holding erroneous opinions about Transubstantiation and Mass. Claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity. Believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes. Dealing in magics and divination. Denying the Virginity of Mary.
Bruno's fate was tragic and especially harsh by modern standard. To some extent he brought it upon himself since he was given every opportunity to recant, which was one reason why he was held for nearly a decade before being condemned. During his earlier life, his wanderings appear to have had less to do with his being hounded by the Inquisition as it did with his own extremely difficult personality. While Bruno was successful at finding powerful patrons to shelter him, he invariably did something to alienate and outrage them, usually fairly quickly after entering their service. He had an outstanding talent for repeatedly failing to act in his own best interests and continually managing to wriggle out of favourable circumstances.
There is no evidence that his support for Copernicanism featured in the trial at all, but Bruno was a keen advocate of the sun centred universe because it fitted so well with the Egyptian view of the world. He also enthusiastically espoused Thomas Digges’s idea that the universe is filled with an infinite array of stars; each one like the sun and that there must be life elsewhere in the universe. The theme of his 'On the Infinite Universe and Worlds' is not Copernicanism, of which he had a rather flawed technical understanding, but pantheism, a theme also developed in his 'On Shadows of Ideas', and which would come to influence Baruch Spinoza. It was his personal cosmology which informed his espousal of Copernicus, not the other way around. Bruno and his trial made a big splash at the time and all his ideas were tarred with the same brush. It is possible if it hadn’t been for Bruno, Copernicanism would not have made such a splash with the authorities and Galileo might not have been persecuted.
How to get burned by the Inquisition
(a handy checklist)
1) Live during the Reformation period when hysteria about reformers and heretics is at its height.
2) Read some ancient Egyptian mysticism and try to pass it off as the true religion. Put forward some controversial ideas, for example that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc.
3) Move countries and ingratiate yourself with a range of rich benefactors, including arch enemies of the Catholic Church.
4) Piss them all off and get chased out of a succession of countries by denouncing your opponents in print and getting into trivial arguments.
5) Move back to Italy where the Inquisition can actually get at you
6) Annoy your employer so much he hands you in to the authorities
7) Refuse to recant in full. Keep this up for 7 years.
8) Success!. Prepare to be hailed as a ‘Martyr for Science and Reason’ in an historically sub-literate Channel 4 Documentary series.
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