Giordano Bruno, atheist 8

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a Dominican monk who  fled from his monastery in Naples at the age of thirty-six, wandered through Italy and France, lived for a few years in England – and having repudiated Christianity, embraced the Epicureanism of classical Greece.

The Epicureans, who taught that life was to be enjoyed, were essentially atheist, but were careful not to deny that gods exist in case some intolerant authority punished them for holding and expressing such an opinion. They dared to assert that yes, there were gods of course, but they lived very far away from the human world, occupied themselves with nothing but their own pleasure, and took no notice whatsoever of what humans did, thought, felt, or believed.

When Giordano Bruno was fifty-two, and foolishly chose to express his opinions where the long arm of the Inquisition could reach him, the intolerant Catholic Church burnt him to death for doing so.

This is from The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt*:

[Giordano Bruno] found it thrilling to realize that the world has no limits in either space or time, that the grandest things are made of the smallest, that atoms, the building blocks of all that exists, link the one and the infinite. “The world is fine as it is,” he wrote, sweeping away as if they were so many cobwebs innumerable sermons on anguish, guilt, and repentance. … And his philosophical  cheerfulness extended to his everyday life. He was, a Florentine contemporary observed, “a delightful companion at the table, much given to the Epicurean life.” …

Bruno found the militant Protestantism he encountered in England and elsewhere as bigoted and narrow-minded as the Counter-Reformation Catholicism from which he had fled. … What he prized was the courage to stand up for the truth against the belligerent idiots who were always prepared to shout down what they could not understand. That courage he found preeminently in the astronomer Copernicus …

Copernicus’s assertion that the earth was not the fixed point at the center of the universe [as all the Christian churches maintained it was] but a planet in orbit round the sun was still, when Bruno championed it, a scandalous idea, anathema both to the Church and to the academic establishment. And Bruno managed to push the scandal of Copernicanism still further: there was no center to the universe at all, he argued, neither earth nor sun. Instead, he wrote, quoting [the Epicurean poet] Lucretius, there were multiple worlds, where the seeds of things, in their infinite numbers, would certainly combine to form other races of men, other creatures. Each of the fixed stars observed in the sky is a sun, scattered through limitless space. Many of these are accompanied by satellites that revolve around them as the earth revolves around the sun. The universe is not all about us, about our behavior and our destiny; we are only a tiny piece of something inconceivably larger. …

These were extremely dangerous views, every one of them. …

Bruno, however, could not remain silent. “By the light of his senses and reason,” he wrote about himself, “he opened those cloisters of truth which it is possible for us to open with the key of most diligent inquiry, he laid bare covered and veiled nature, gave eyes to the moles and light to the blind . . . he loosed the tongues of the dumb  who could not and dared not express their entangled opinions.”  …

[I]n 1591 he made a  fateful decision to return to Italy, to what seemed to him the safety of famously independent Padua and Venice. The safety proved illusory: denounced by his patron to the Inquisition, Bruno was arrested in Venice and then extradited to Rome, where he was imprisoned in a cell of the Holy Office near St. Peter’s Basilica.

Bruno’s interrogation and trial lasted for eight years, much of his time spent endlessly replying to charges of heresy, reiterating his philosophical vision, rebutting wild accusations, and drawing on his prodigious memory to delineate his precise beliefs again and again. Finally threatened with torture, he denied the right of the inquisitors to dictate what was heresy and what was orthodox belief. That challenge was the last straw. The Holy Office acknowledged no limits to its supreme jurisdiction – no limits of territory, and, apart form the pope and the cardinals, no limits of person. It claimed the right to judge, and, if necessary, persecute anyone, anywhere. It was the final arbiter of orthodoxy.

And its orthodoxy was, by its own definition, the truth.

Before an audience of spectators, Bruno was forced to his knees and sentenced as “an impenitent, pernicious and obstinate heretic”. …

On February 17, 1600, the defrocked Dominican, his head shaved, was mounted on a donkey and led out to the stake that had been erected in the Campo dei Fiori. He had steadfastly refused to repent during the innumerable hours in which he had been harangued by teams of friars, and he refused to repent or simply to fall silent now at the end. His words are unrecorded, but they must have unnerved the authorities, since the ordered his tongue be bridled. They meant it literally: according to one account, a pin was driven into his cheek, through his tongue, and out the other side; another pin sealed his lips., forming a cross. When a crucifix was held up to his face, he turned his head away. The fire was lit and did its work. After he was burned alive, his remaining bones were broke into pieces and his ashes – the tiny particles that would, he believed, reenter the great, joyous, eternal circulation of matter – were scattered.

Thus did the religion of love.

As far as the Catholic Church was concerned, the science of the universe was settled.


*The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2011.  Our quotations come from pages 233, 237-241.

Posted under Atheism by Jillian Becker on Thursday, March 9, 2017

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This post has 8 comments.

  • BobC

    “And Bruno managed to push the scandal of Copernicanism still further: there was no center to the universe at all, he argued, neither earth nor sun.”

    Giordano Bruno was way ahead of his time so of course the Catholic Church murdered him. Catholicism has a long history of violence.

    • To say the least!

      The history of Christianity in general is very bloody, very cruel, atrocious, horrifying.

  • Bruce

    I seem to recall hearing or reading somewhere that the justification for burning heretics was something along the lines of “if they burn in this life they won’t in the next.” Any of you know weather that’s true or false so far as being the church’s rationale? If so, it proves only that anything becomes an act of love when put up against the idea of eternal damnation and burning in hell. It literally justifies ANY torturous excess to get people to “change” their mind.

    • I have heard or read that too. But I have also heard or read that it is not so. Almost everything that Christian theologians affirm is contradicted by other Christian theologians. However, one Christian poet – T.S.Eliot, a “high Anglican” – seems sure of it. He writes:

      “The dove descending breaks the air
      With flame of incandescent terror
      Of which the tongues declare
      The one discharge from sin and error.
      The only hope, or else despair
      Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
      To be redeemed from fire by fire.

      Who then devised the torment? Love.
      Love is the unfamiliar Name
      Behind the hands that wove
      The intolerable shirt of flame
      Which human power cannot remove.
      We only live, only suspire
      Consumed by either fire or fire.”

      Which may be good poetry, but it’s a terrible idea!

  • Cogito

    Thank you for posting this Jillian. Epicureanism is perhaps the most maligned philosophy today, but only by those who misunderstand it.

    Bruno’s bravery in the face of the Inquisitorial savagery is inspirational. There is a wonderful statue of Bruno in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome today. He looks directly and fearlessly at the Vatican.

    This wonderful book finishes with a marvelous quote by Thomas Jefferson – “I too am an Epicurean”

    • Thomas Jefferson and I, both. And, I understand, you too, Cogito.

      I read the fascinating book on your recommendation. So I am the one who owes thanks. And thank you I do!

      • Cogito

        Bruno, for much too long, has been an unsung hero for free thought and Epicureanism.
        This book and your posting will, I hope, spread the word!

  • liz

    What Bruno suffered at the hands of religious authoritarians over 400 years ago was steadily defeated by the progress of Reason.
    It could have stayed defeated, and Reason continued to progress, but instead we now have an even more regressive religion (caught in a time warp) threatening the civilized world, burning, beheading, and oppressing everyone in its path.
    All to serve the power schemes of the world’s elite.