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The Philosophy of Giordano Bruno

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 Giordano Bruno

I. Life and Works

Bruno was born at Nola 1548 and at the age of fifteen or sixteen entered the Catholic Dominican order in Naples. Falling under suspicion of heresy, he was cast out of the Order, and began a disturbed life of wandering, during which he roamed over half of Europe. He was at Geneva, Paris, Oxford, Frankfurt, everywhere teaching and writing and engaging in heated controversy.

Invited by the Venetian nobleman Giovanni Mocenigo, who wished to study Bruno''s theory of memory-training, he went to Venice. There he was denounced as a heretic to the tribunal of the Inquisition by the very nobleman who had sponsored him.

At Venice, during the course of his trial, Bruno acknowledged that he had fallen into heresy and declared himself disposed to amend. Consigned by the Republic of Venice to the Inquisition in Rome, he was again subjected to trial.

This time he refused to retract and hence was condemned to death as an obstinate heretic. The sentence of death was carried out at Rome on February 17, 1600.

Bruno''s principal works are: Della causa, principio, ed uno (Concerning Cause, Principle, and Unity); Del'' infinito, universo e mondi (On the Infinite, the Universe and the World); Eroici furori (Heroic Furors); De immenso et innumerabilibus (On the Boundless and the Innumerable); De monde, numero, et figura (On the Monad, the Number, and the Figure).

II. Doctrine Concerning the Universe

Elements of the speculation of Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus, and the Stoics, together with the doctrine of Neo-Platonic emanations and Nicholas of Cusa''s theory of the coincidence of opposites, as well as the new heliocentric theory of Copernicus nurtured the thought of Bruno. Under the apparent confusion of his teaching lies the unity and organic wholeness of monistic immanentism, of which Bruno was the principal protagonist during the Renaissance period.

According to Bruno, the universe is infinite, full of a plurality of heliocentric solar systems which are broken up and recomposed according to the theory of Democritus. The fundamental principles of the universe are two: matter, the passive principle; and the soul, the active principle. Both represent two aspects of a single substance, two indistinguishable powers of a single principle, in which they are reconciled and united, and in which their differences are annulled, according to the principle of coincidence of opposites of Nicholas of Cusa.

"All things are one," says Bruno. The soul of the universe is conceived of as intelligent, the ordinator of the world itself, the interior force of everything. Such a force is not transcendent, but immanent; it adheres in things. It is God, conceived of as "Natura naturans," producing all and ordaining all to its end; it is infinite. The world, the work of "Natura naturans," is "Natura naturata," which, as the effect of an infinite cause, is also infinite.

Individual souls (and not only the human soul, but the soul of every individual essence, since for Bruno everything is animate) are the passing shades of the eternal becoming of the world. Bruno calls them monads. Birth is the individuation of the infinite in the finite; death indicates the return of the finite to the infinite.

Thus far the concept of Bruno is decidedly monistic immanentism. Nevertheless, besides the mens imbedded in all things, that is, the soul of the world immanent in the universe, Bruno admits also the mens super omnia, that is, God, who transcends the world. But this God (quite different from the Christian God, because the world does not depend upon Him) is the object of faith and not of science; Bruno admits this in order to overcome the materialistic pantheism of his system.

In such a materialistic concept of the universe, any positive religion, including Christianity, is impossible. Religion for Bruno has practical but not theoretical value; it is an efficacious means of educating the ignorant masses through the symbolism of forms. Consequently, Bruno''s thought necessarily conflicts with the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Bruno''s moral system is opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church, but is consistent with his naturalistic immanentism. The end which man must realize is limited to the present life; it consists in the participation of the individual in the life of the universe. Virtue is not renunciation or asceticism but "heroic furor" -- that is, the joyous consciousness of one''s own excellence and of one''s own participation in the life of the universe.

The system of Bruno is a theoretical expression of Humanism, and his thought was to have a great influence on modern philosophy

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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