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The Philosophy of Bernardino Telesio

Background: The New Consideration of Nature

The Renaissance, as an age of transition, was not conducive to the building of great philosophical systems. It contained, in germinal form, the directive ideas of modern times, but under the guise of the past. Thinkers preferred to write in ancient Latin, and the style of their writing is also archaic. Under this external aspect, which smacks of antiquity, are hidden the signs of the next age.

The greatest representatives of thought, in the order of time, are Nicholas of Cusa, Telesio, Bruno, and Campanella; the most important is Bruno. In the thought of all these men there is a new view of nature, in which nature is considered immanently, according to the forces inherent in it, and is accessible to experience and reason. These forces are considered as living ones, vital spirits, demons; everything is animate; the physical world has a soul.

It is necessary to investigate these animate forces, for it is on the basis of their activity that all events can be explained. It is because of this desire to bring into subjection the occult forces of nature that during the Renaissance we find so widely diffused the science of "magic," which professes to know the good and evil spirits of nature, and to make them allies in good and evil enterprises.

Also characteristic are alchemy, with its objective of discovering the philosophical stone which can change everything into gold; and medicine, with its hope of finding the panacea of evil by uncovering the common animating force of the universe. This is a charlatan school, to be sure, but it indicates the tendency of some of the chief exponents of the age to explain nature through the forces imbedded in it.

Hence we see Neo-Platonic tendencies, and the Neo-Platonic thinkers mentioned above. Although Neo-Platonism, logically developed, leads to pantheism, the thinkers of the Renaissance, with the exception of Bruno, are not pantheists. Without any logical foundation they still affirm transcendency, but this more from faith than from conviction.

Now to the Philosophy of Bernardino Telesio

I. Life and Works

Telesio was born at Cosenza, near Naples, in 1509, and made his studies at Milan, Rome, and Padua. Having settled at Naples, he founded an Academy there for the development of philosophical and scientific studies. First called the Academia Cosentina, it soon assumed the name of its founder as the Academia Telesiana.

During this time Telesio wrote his principal work, De rerum natura juxta propria principia (On the Nature of Things according to Their Proper Principles), in nine books, which he finished publishing in 1586. Two years later he died in Cosenza.

The value of the speculative thought of Bernardino Telesio is slight. His work, however, remains most representative of the times, in so far as there is manifest in it the immanentism of the Renaissance; its very title, De rerum natura, signifies that the physical material world is the object of experience. According to Telesio, the explanation of the physical world is not to be sought outside the forces immanent in or proper to nature itself. Thus philosophy is reduced to physics.

II. Physics

According to Telesio, there are two principles of the physical world: matter and force. Matter is homogeneous and fills space. Inert in itself, it is continually moved and transformed by the second element, force, which is active. This force has two aspects: heat and cold, opposed but inseparable. Everything depends upon the action of these two. Heat dilates matter and gives life; thus heat is the soul of matter. Cold, on the other hand, concentrates and restricts.

Since life depends on heat, and heat is more or less found in the entire universe, the universe is animate (Panpsychism). Animal life is superior to the vegetative by reason of its degree of heat; likewise the life of intellectual cognition is higher than animal life by virtue of a difference in heat.

For Telesio, human knowledge is merely sensation. But what is sensation? It is a modification of animal heat produced by the heat of an object acting upon our senses. Even the will is reduced to matter and the motives for its activity are pleasure and pain.

Telesio, in his attempt to explain nature according to immanent principles, advances beyond common magic and alchemy, and lays the basis for modern physics. But his philosophical concept is materialistic.

He logically should conclude with the denial of knowledge of God -- for if our knowledge is restricted to sensations, God cannot be known, since He is not the object of sensation. Another logical deduction from Telesio's theory would be that the human soul, differing from the vegetative and animal soul merely by degree, must be mortal.

III. Theodicy

Yet Telesio denies neither God nor the immortality of the soul. For him, beyond the physical world is God, who transcends the world. In man there is an immortal soul created and infused by God. By virtue of this immortal soul, man can think and will the eternal and the suprasensible, and with his free will he can dominate the tendencies of the passions. It is the usual retreat of fideism, which, of course, has nothing to do with philosophy.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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