History is a narrative, whose plot is often guided by the mistakes of well meaning scholars repeating errors and misrepresentations that have crept into the academic discourse. This usually happens due to the vast amount of information available, and the necessity to triage resources while pursuing tangential investigations of a specific topic. A good example of this is the legacy of Giordano Bruno, who has been labeled a “proto-scientist,” his legacy and martyrdom becoming a rhetorical device lauded by popular figures, like the physicist Michio Kaku, to highlight a sacrifice for humanistic science and free thought.
This image of Bruno has developed out of the strange and stilted public debate on the supposed conflict between religion and science, and the Catholic church’s ignoble position of having been the ruling worldly power during a long period of transition from ancient culture to our contemporary world. The lessons of the 20th century show us that had secular powers been in control, we still cannot be assured the persecutions, bloodshed and atavistic thinking could have been averted. The truth is beyond category, religious or secular, (those debating should read some of Bruno’s works!,) and this particular debate between those who take it upon themselves to represent the world’s faith traditions and those representing empirical science has done little to aid in humanity’s spiritual or empirical development.
Labeling Bruno a martyr for science (in this instance, science as it is popularly understood, and not the very basic idea of scientific inquiry) has obscured the true essence of his work. If there is any question of this, we need only look to the excessive popular interest in ‘Eastern mysticism’ that has suffused the American culture. All of the effort translating terms, parsing out linguistic nuances and attempting to separate cultural elements from core teachings in Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and other Eastern traditions, could have been made much easier had those seeking a deeper spirituality read more thoroughly the works of innumerable European sources that contain the very same kernel of truth.
This is not to degrade the beautiful lineages that have taken up the responsibility of bringing a more thorough understanding to our culture’s closed mind, but rather to echo the often ignored suggestion that we step back and begin reassessing our own heritage so that we can actively join the conversation rather than merely parrot what others have found.
For instance, in the above linked talk presented by Michio Kaku, he mentions that some of the charges against Bruno stemmed from his statement that there were infinite worlds. Kaku draws this out to show the illegitimacy of the Catholic church’s position by recounting the Church’s question as to what this would entail in terms of Popes, Bishops, Saints, etc. Here this question, as a rhetorical device, becomes nothing more than a simplistic assessment of Catholicism’s shortsightedness, however it is actually a bridge to a wider understanding of what Bruno was talking about:
“The Lord Buddha replied, saying: “Have no such apprehensive thought. Even at the remote period of five centuries subsequent to the Nirvana of the Tathagata, there will be many disciples observing the monastic vows and assiduously devoted to good works. These, hearing this Scripture proclaimed, will believe in its immutability and will conceive within their minds a pure, unmingled faith. Besides, it is important to realise that faith thus conceived, is not exclusively in virtue of the individual thought of any particular Buddha, but because of its affiliation with the universal thought of all the myriad Buddhas throughout the infinite ages. Therefore, among the beings destined to hear this Scripture proclaimed, many, by the Dhyana Paramita, will intuitively conceive a pure and holy faith.”
In light of this broadened perspective on the potentials hidden in plain sight within Bruno’s work, here are some excerpts from Paulo Eugene Memmo, Jr.’s 1964 translation of The Heroic Frenzies (De Gli Eroici Furori). Reading through these, you may find some surprising correspondences to other traditions that puts into question the image of Bruno as “proto-scientist” and brings to light a much more enlightened side to his work.
Except from Dialogue IV:
“If you speak of the world as the vulgar refer to it, when they call it the universe, I reply that this world being infinite and without dimension or measure appears to be immobile, inanimate, and unformed, even though it is the place of an infinite number of movable worlds and has infinite space in which are all those large animals we call stars. If you speak of the world according to the meaning held among the true philosophers for whom the world is every globe, every star, this our earth, the sun’s body, the moon and even others, I reply that the soul of each of these worlds not only ascends and descends but moves in a circle. Because each of these souls is composed of superior and inferior powers, the superior powers lead it toward the divinity, the inferior ones toward the material mass which becomes vivified by that divinity and maintained among the tropics of generation and corruption of the living things of these worlds; and each soul eternally serves its own life; and the action of divine providence always in the same measure and order, by warmth and divine light always maintains it in the same, customary state.”
Excerpt from Dialogue V:
“The degrees of contemplation are like the degrees of light. Light, which is never in darkness but sometimes appears shadowy, is seen better in colors in the order of their progression from one extreme, black, to the opposite extreme, white; is more efficaciously in the refulgence diffused upon refined and transparent bodies as in the reflection of a mirror or the moon; is more vividly in the rays scattered from the sun, and in the highest and most principal degree, is seen in the sun itself. Now the potencies of comprehension and affection are ordered in such a way that a potency always has an affinity for the one immediately above it, and each potency by a conversion toward the one which raises it reinforces itself against the inferior one that draws it down (as the reason, converted to the intellect, is not seduced or conquered by the sensitive powers); consequently, when the rational appetite clashes with the sensual concupiscence and by the act of contemplation confronts the intellectual light, then it retrieves its lost virtue, reinforces its nerves, frightens the enemy and puts him to rout.”
Excerpt from Dialogue VII:
“The following crest presents a full moon with the motto, Talis mihi semper et astro (‘Such is it always to me and to the sun’). It means that to the star, that is, to the sun and to him the moon is always such as it is here, full and free clear in the entire circumference of its circle. So that you may understand this better, I would have you read the poem written upon the tablet:
Inconstant moon, fickle moon, you who emerge from the horizon with your horns now empty, now full, your orb reascends now white, now dark; now you illuminate Boreas and the valleys of the Caucasus,
now you turn along your usual path to give light to the south and the last confines of Lybia. So the moon of my sky for my continual torment is ever steady, and is ever full.
And my sun is the same, which forever ravishes and restores me, which ever burns and is so resplendent, always so cruel and so beautiful. This my noble torch ever martyrs me, and still it delights me.
It seems to me that this lover’s particular intelligence is always thus with regard to the universal intelligence. In other words, the universal intelligence illumines the entire hemisphere, even though that intelligence appears sometimes obscure, sometimes more or less luminous, according to the impressions it makes upon the inferior potencies. Or perhaps it would mean that his speculative intellect (invariably in act) is always turned and drawn toward that human intelligence represented by the moon. For as the moon is called the lowest among all the planets and is found nearest to us, so the intelligence which illuminates all of us (in our present state) is the lowest in the hierarchy of intelligences, as Averroes and other more subtle Peripatetics note. With respect to the intellect in potency, the human intelligence represented by the moon sometimes seems to decline, insofar as it does not display itself in act, and sometimes it seems to rise from the valley, that is, from the bottom of the concealed hemisphere; sometimes it displays itself vacant and sometimes full, accordingly as it gives more or less light; sometimes its orb is obscure, sometimes brilliant, because sometimes it dispenses only a shadow, similitude, and vestige, or sometimes it pours out the light more openly; sometimes it declines toward the south, sometimes to the north; that is, sometimes it retires and alienates itself more and more from us, sometimes it returns and approaches. But the active intellect by incessant labor (for it is foreign to human nature and the human condition which is wearied, beaten, incited, solicited, distracted, and as though torn by the inferior potencies) always sees its object immobile, fixed and constant, and always in plenitude, and in the same splendor of beauty. Therefore the object always ravishes him insofar as he fails to offer himself to it, and always restores him insofar as he succeeds in offering himself to it. It always enflames his passion as much as it is resplendent in his thought; it is always as cruel to him by withdrawing itself as he similarly withdraws himself, and always so beautiful in communicating itself to the degree that he offers himself to it. It always martyrs him separated from him by space; and it always delights him because he is conjoined to it in his affection.”
(Photo Credit: Gabriel D. Roberts)
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.