Giordano Bruno and the Dream of Humanism
by D.R. Khashaba
It is not my intention to give an exposition of Bruno's thought. That is a task that I willingly leave to those who are better equipped to perform it. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a lover of myth, allegory, and symbol, and knew fully well the power of those magical wands to reveal and illumine where discursive thought hid and obscured. In this short note I treat of Bruno himself as an emblem of the mystic paths that lead to the inner reality of our being.
Bruno was the epitome of his age, an age of intellectual and spiritual ferment, an age when science and mysticism walked hand in hand, an age which saw the birth of humanism. He is a true paradigm of the whole human being that our contemporary fractured and fragmented humanity stands badly in need of a fractured and fragmented humanity where religion is indissolubly wedded to dogmatism and superstition and where rationality is blindly bound to soulless physicalism.
Yet Bruno has not yet received the attention that his profundity and originality make his rightful due; the reason being that he is in the unenviable position of his thought being opposed simultaneously to religious dogmatism and scientistic materialism the two dominant trends that polarize modern culture and condemn it to one-sidedness and insularity.
This is compounded by the difficulties of Bruno's style of writing. Giorgio de Santillana, who gives a balanced and sympathetic outline of Bruno's thought in The Age of Adventure (1956), writes, 'He is not one of those minds which shed a pure and equable light to reveal a new landscape of ideas; with the fire of his temperament there went a good deal of smoke' (p.244).
In my view, what might be seen as the lack of clear-cut distinctness in Bruno's thought should be appreciated as a merit rather than denigrated as a defect. The fecund nebulosity of his thought poses a wholesome challenge and offers a corrective to the shallowness and insipidity of our thoughtless religiosity and our insightless scientism at once. Plato found that the profoundest philosophical insights are essentially ineffable and can only be expressed in myth and allegory. Our learned scholars mutilate Plato's best insights when they exert themselves to force his thought into well-defined theories and fixed doctrines. In the myth of Actaeon in Bruno's Heroici Furori (Heroic Exaltations) we have a profounder and more truthful insight into the living substance of Platonism expressed symbolically and allegorically.
Giordano Bruno was a living incarnation of the pristine ideal of humanism which, alas!, through various metamorphoses, has been drained of its true essence by being splintered into the diverse, mutually contradictory present-day 'humanisms' that reflect the fragmentation of modern humanity. Today Secular Humanism murders the soul of humanism while its antithesis, Christian Humanism, drags the mind back into the stranglehold of unquestioning dogmatism and superstition. It is this split that lends credence to the spurious opposition of faith and reason which is nowadays regarded as an irreconcilable Either-Or, while the reconciliation is ready to hand if only we are willing to go back to the wholeness of the perennial philosophy of which Bruno's philosophy as much as Plato's or Plotinus's or Spinoza's is an original, creative expression.
Bruno's humanism is evident equally in his siding with Erasmus in his defence of free will and in his opposition to Martin Luther's 'pecca fortiter'. Bruno would certainly have supported Pelagius against Augustine.
In his exchanges with the Inquisition during his long drawn-out trial, he did not hedge, dissemble, or prevaricate. While hoping to vindicate his position as consistent with faith in the divinity (goodness and intelligence) of ultimate Reality, he was not intimidated by the imminent threat of death into redacting his views to conform to accepted doctrine. He was trying to make the Inquisition appreciate that his position was rational and religiously sound, not to convince them that he conformed to established doctrine. This was as honest as Socrates' attempt to make his judges understand that he believed in God according to his lights. Throughout the proceedings, he sought to vindicate himself without compromising his integrity. But when it came to the brunt, he refused to submit. He chose to die rather than be false to his inner light.
Bruno's insistence that the views he expounded were meant 'strictly on the philosophical plane' implies that the doctrines formulated by the Church were no more than a 'popular' version that did no harm when taken as such but that should not preclude a profounder philosophical understanding.
De Santillana writes, 'One cannot but respect the scrupulousness of the Inquisition, which took eight years to make up its mind that the doctrine, however acceptable its religious content, could not be reconciled with dogma' (op. cit., p.250). But then, that is just the point. Bruno had no desire to disturb the belief of simple folk in dogma which gave them comfort. But he would not allow such dogma to block philosophical probing for a profounder understanding. The Inquisition could not accept such a live-and-let-live policy. Can we? Unless at least the more intelligent members of society understand and acknowledge unequivocally that such dogma is no more than myth and must in no way be taken as literal truth and that intelligent persons are not only allowed to, but are required to, criticize and disclose the error of such dogma and introduce new formulations making for a better understanding unless the intelligent sector of society openly and firmly adopt that attitude, then such dogma will be an instrument of bondage and a means of exploitation and extortion. We hardly need any explication or illustration of the truth of this. Our world is boiling and seething with the collision of opposed creeds and dogmata.
Yet, we cannot simply shove aside all myth and live in a world governed by cold calculations of expediency and utility, a world void of ultimate principles and absolute values. We need the symbolism, the inspirational whisperings of myth and allegory, of poetry and fiction, to keep us alive to the reality of the inner fount of our true being and true worth, and we need the free untrammelled speculative activity of intelligence without which those life-giving myths turn into fossilized and fossilizing superstitions. That is why we need the spirit and the message of Giordano Bruno to help us retrieve our lost human integrity.
In the dialogue de l'Infinito Universo e Mondi (of the Infinity of the Universe and of the Worlds) we read of 'the earth, our divine mother who has borne us and nourished us and at last will take us back into her bosom.' Would we not be less likely to pollute and damage our environment if we could think in those terms?
The ignorance, prejudice, and hatred that Bruno had to confront in his lifetime are still hounding his memory. It seems that there are many quarters where it is felt that Bruno's call for humans to look for truth and reality within their own souls still threatens empires of dogmatic creeds and fossilized doctrines. As evidence of this, I will here review briefly an article, 'The Folly of Giordano Bruno', by Professor W. Pogge of Ohio State University, (http://www.setileague.org/editor/brunoalt.htm), which sadly shows little interest in and no understanding of Bruno's seminal ideas and enlightening approach, but concentrates instead on denigrating the man and absolving the Church of blame! That Pogge is an Astronomer may perhaps explain the curious slant of his article but it cannot excuse the vituperative ire with which he handles his subject as if Professor Pogge were convinced that Bruno deserved to be burned for failing to make much of a contribution to Astronomy!
Professor Pogge chooses as motto for his article the following words of Paul Valery: 'The folly of mistaking paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us.' This is revealing. Those who seek understanding outside their own minds, whether in the evidence of the senses or in the dictates of extraneous authority do not have eyes for the inner realities of the soul. It is no wonder that Professor Pogge finds Bruno's writings are 'of only academic interest to us today'. Eternal realities and perennial insights that can only spring from the founts of the creative mind and can only be conveyed in myth and symbol cannot be beheld by those who do not have eyes for the invisible.
Professor Pogge is keen on 'correcting' the 'popular accounts' which say that Bruno was condemned for his Copernicanism and portray him 'as a martyr to free thought'. He affirms that 'we do not actually know the exact grounds of his conviction on charges of heresy.' Further on he suggests that 'the Church's complaint with Bruno was theological not astronomical.' In other words, he was condemned because he held views different from those held by the Church and considered it his duty to stand by what he saw as the truth. If that doesn't make one 'a martyr to free thought', what does?
Pogge goes to great lengths to argue that Bruno's work 'had little to do with astronomy'; that he was not condemned for his Copernicanism; that the Church did not express an official opinion on Copernicanism until after Bruno's death. Which is all beside the point!
Pogge's principal objection to Bruno is directed to his Pantheism, which Pogge construes as opposing 'the Church's emphasis on spiritualism with an unapologetic and all-encompassing materialism.' Pogge thus equates Pantheism with Materialism! I only wish it were so: we could then perhaps hope that materialists would see the spiritual reality underlying and upholding all matter.
The bulk of the rest of Pogge's article is devoted to maintaining that Bruno's 'peregrinations around Europe... had less to do with his being hounded by the Inquisition as it did with his rather difficult personality.' He exerts himself to blacken Bruno's character and concludes: 'In many ways, Bruno thrust himself into the flames that rose into the winter skies of the Campo di Fiori on the 17th day of February in 1600.' I cannot help sensing in the tone of this sentence a touch of malicious glee.
(This article first appeared in the Giordano Bruno site http://www.giordanobruno.info in February 2005)
© D.R. Khashaba 2005