Who Was Giordano Bruno?

The Renaissance was one of the most groundbreaking periods in history, as it saw the revival of classical thinking, yet it also paved the way for future ideas. The time was ripe with ideas; philosophers, artists, and scientists began to break away from religion and propose new ideas, which were scientific in nature, and did not rely on the Church’s dogma. Unfortunately, countless intellectuals from the period were persecuted by the Church, which denounced them as heretics, burning their books, trying as hard as possible to stunt the growth of scientific thought. Among these thinkers was the legendary Giordano Bruno: philosopher, cosmologist, and occult mage.

unknown-6Born in 1548 to a poor family in Nola, Italy, Bruno at a young age joined the Dominican Order, which was the common thing to do in his time. Eager to learn, Bruno saw the Order as a great means through which to get an education, seeing as he could not afford a formal one. It did not take long for a young Bruno to take a disliking to Catholicism, for early on he stripped his cell of everything but the cross. Later on, he was accused of heresy, and in 1576, he was exiled from the Order, destined to a life of itinerancy, wandering from one place to another for refuge from an institution which, at the time, seemed to be everywhere, inescapable. During his time at the Order, Bruno studied the great thinkers that had come before him: Lull, Plotinus, Aquinas, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Cusa, and Copernicus, the latter of whom would imprint himself on Bruno’s thought most saliently. Bruno’s exile took him all across Europe, from Switzerland to France to England and thence to Germany. To afford his non-stop traveling, Bruno worked as both a public lecturer and private tutor. Geneva, he found, provided no safety for him, so upon receiving a letter from Henry III, King of France, who insisted he come, Bruno absquatulated to France, where he was welcomed to the court. There he taught the King and enjoyed tranquility for some time. He also lectured at a number of eminent colleges, such as the University of Paris, Oxford,[1] and Wittenberg. Bruno came into contact with many Protestants who were also hiding from the Church, although he came to dislike them, for they were, according to him, narrow-minded; likewise, the Protestants did not consider themselves sympathetic to philosophers like Bruno. Throughout his wandering, Bruno never really enjoyed any belonging, nor any peace. Unwanted, homeless, an outcast, Bruno had no place to call home—which is why he was delighted to get a letter from Giovanni Mocenigo on May 23, 1592, who was from his native Italy, whereupon Bruno quickly went to Venice, which was still heavily Catholic. Bruno was aware of the apparent danger posed by his returning to Italy, but he took Mocenigo’s amiable invitation as a sign that he was in good terms, that it was safe to come back. Mocenigo was fascinated by Bruno’s work in mnemonics. Bruno took this opportunity to also get a position at the University of Padua, at which he lectured for his stay. Unbeknownst to the philosopher, Mocenigo was convinced Bruno was actually an Occult mage trained in black magic. When he was unsatisfied with his learning, upset that Bruno was apparently holding out on teaching 310px-Galileo_before_the_Holy_Office.jpghim the dark arts, feeling betrayed, Mocenigo secretly alerted the Venice Inquisition. Locked in Mocenigo’s basement, Bruno was then taken to the Inquisition. He was tortured and forced to recant all his heretic beliefs. Bruno was pardoned, but soon the court at Rome requested his hearing. For eight years Bruno sat rotting in the prisons of Rome. The Inquisition at Rome was not as lenient as the Venetian, and much more austere. Whereas the latter let him off the hook and took pity on him, the former would listen to nothing he said. On February 17, 1600, at the Campo de’ Fiori, Giordano Bruno, after spending his whole life in exile, after spending eight years in prison, was burned alive.

Bruno had an unorthodox education, having read, in addition to the classic philosophers, Egyptian mystical works and Hermetic writings. He read the Hermetic Corpus, a mystical work written by a supposed Hermes Trismegistus, a prophet of Egyptian religion. From Unknown-1.jpeghis readings in Hermeticism he derived the ideas of metempsychosis (from Orphism), or transmigration of the soul, and pantheism, from which he came to the conclusion, “God in all things.”[2] Another important belief he got was that movement was equivalent to energy. Where there was energy, there was movement, and vice versa. Before the 19th-century, scholars and historians, based on superficial reading, considered Bruno to be a deist and magician; both conceptions have still carried on today and hang over his name, but have mostly been rejected through serious reading. He read Aristotle, whom he thought pedantic and dry; Copernicus, whose cosmological theory impacted Bruno; Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, from which he borrowed the doctrine of infinite world; and Nicholas of Cusa, who provided for Bruno theological inspiration.

Unknown-2.jpegThe Art of Memory and On the Shadows of Ideas were published in 1582. These two works were written by Bruno on mnemonics and were considered to be alchemical and occult in nature. With seemingly divine inspiration, Bruno devised secret techniques to memorize things, allowing him, it is said, to visualize and draw out a mental map of the entire cosmos in his head. The art of memory, as he put it, was reserved for mystics and was conceived of as obscure, a practice only for those trained in it, people like Paracelsus. This is the main reason many compared him to a mage-like figure, as the art of mnemonics was comparable to magic. Bruno ascribed to the cosmos a system of relativism, asserting that there was no “center of the Universe.” Despite increasing infinitely, the Universe had no center; center, for Bruno, was relative to where a spectator was standing. At any point in the Universe a person could say he is at the center. Just as there is no fixed center, there is no absolute motion or time. Motion, it is important to remember, requires a reference point. An object is in motion insofar as it is moving in relation to an object, meaning that motion is relative. Similarly, time is not some absolute unit of measurement, but is rather used to measure something in reference to something else, usually motion. Epicurus, interestingly, offered a similar view: “As for unbounded space, we should not predicate ‘above’ or ‘below’ of any parts of it in the sense of a highest or lowest point. We can refer to what is over our heads relative to where we stand.”[3] Further, Aristotle was wrong about absolute weight, Bruno said. There is no intrinsic heaviness or lightness of a Heliocentric.jpgplanet, as Aristotle said; rather, every planet’s weight was to be determined respective to itself. Bruno was a champion of Heliocentrism, the belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. This theory was first propounded by Aristarchus of Samos, but was taken up most memorably by Copernicus, who revolutionized it. The Roman astronomer Ptolemy wrote that the Earth was the body around which the Sun revolved, and it stuck, ultimately being taken up by the Church, which it held to be factual. Thus, Bruno made himself a target to the Church, but he would be proven right centuries later. He claimed, albeit incorrectly, that all planetary bodies had a  circular course. Aristotle posed the question of a Prime Mover, taken by some to be an argument for God, to account for the motion of the Celestial bodies: If causation is based on some prior cause, what was the first cause that started it all? According to Aristotle, some kind of Supreme being must have caused the first thing in the Universe, giving way to the rest of the Universe. Bruno, however, disagreed with this notion, relying instead on his Hermeticism and Hylozoism—the belief that matter is alive, which he borrowed from Aristotle, incidentally—to explain that the planets had their own intrinsic movement. Bruno thought energy and movement were related, so he stated that the planets moved by themselves, as though they had their own impetus. There is no need for a Prime Mover in Bruno’s world because the planets move themselves. Most famously, Bruno supported the idea that there is a plurality of worlds out there in space. His magnum 3-plurality-of-worlds-leonhard-euler-science-source.jpgopuses On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (1591) and On the Immeasurable and Countless Worlds outline his theory in detail. In them Bruno argues that if the Universe is infinite and always growing, there must be infinite planets and habitable Earths like ours. He also said that Copernicus could only make out eight planets in the solar system; but if the senses are limited in their capacities, Bruno argued, that would mean they could not grasp the possibly unlimited planets beyond us. Some mistakenly attribute to Bruno the creation of this theory; however, Epicurus again sets the precedent: “And the number of worlds is infinite, some worlds being similar to this one, while other worlds are very different.”[4] Medieval scholars believed the Heavenly bodies were composed of the fifth element, Æther, which they borrowed from Aristotle. Bruno thought otherwise: He maintained they there composed of the four classical elements; there was no need for the unbounded Æther. This placed him at odds, once more, with the Church, considering this conception completely opposed Genesis. The central idea in Bruno’s philosophy is God. Combining Neoplatonism with Egyptian mysticism, Bruno’s pantheism declared God to be causa immanens, or immanent cause; in other words, God is self-caused, independent of any external causation. God exists in essence of himself. As though anticipating Leibniz, Bruno produced a theory of monadology, basically saying that reality is composed of infinite, self-contained entities called monads. God was, of course, the monas monadum—the highest monad. From this vision of God, Bruno deduced that all substance—that is to say, matter—is One, i.e., all matter is derived from the being of God; matter and God are one and the same. Particulars (circonstanzie) are explained as being specific manifestations of substance. To use an example to clarify: A chair is made of substance, substance being permeated by God, and chairs may come in many shapes and sizes, many particulars, in other words, of the one substance that is chair. Another statement Bruno makes is that God is the Universe, and the Universe God. The Universe has always existed and shall always continue to exist. There was no creation of the Universe; it did not just go poof! and appear, as it did in the Big Bang. Here, one can see the blatant influence of Parmenides. God is eternal, having no beginning, nor end; He simply has been and will be.

giordano_bruno.jpgMoments before his auto-da-fé, Bruno was offered the cross, to which he replied, “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”[5] These fearless words uttered from a man who was about to die carry immense heroism. Here, a man who stood up against the Church, his fate in their hands, as he says these words. What he meant by saying this was that he, Bruno, was dying for a greater cause. He devoted his life to and died in the name of Truth, knowing that while he was but a mortal man, transient in nature, Truth was undying and eternal, an ideal he fought for till the end. The Church, on the other hand, was stubborn and eschewed Truth. They say you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea—Bruno’s judges knew this. By killing Bruno in an attempt to cover up the Truth, they were not making things better, but rather released something greater and beyond their control. While he is not remembered today despite his ingenious thought regarding the cosmos, Bruno remains a martyr for science, belonging up there with Galileo. In the words of John Addington Symonds, “Bruno was a hero in the battle for freedom of the conscience, for the right of man to think and speak in liberty.”[6]


[1] He despised Oxford and its professors, describing them as pedantic; he got into a quarrel over an accusation of plagiarism.
[2] EdwardsThe Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 406
[3] Epicurus, Letters and Sayings of Epicurus, “Letter to Herodotus,” p. 13
[4] Id., p. 6
[5] Hecht, Doubt: A History, p. 295
[6] Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, Vol. 2, p. 799


For further reading: An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World Vol. 2 by Harry Elmer Barnes (1965)
Renaissance in Italy Vol. 2 by John Addington Symonds (1935)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Vol. 1 by Paul Edwards (1967)

Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht (2003)
The Idea of Nature by R.G. Collingwood (1960)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)


Neologism: Ad Tædium

Slouched in your chair, head resting between your arms, thoughts in another place, you have been listening to your professor lecturing ad tædium, to the point that you have to evade the dryness through your imaginative daydreaming, so that now you are not even processing a word he says.

The phrase ad tædium is Latin for “toward or until boredom,” and is derived from the prefix -ad (as in ad hominemad infinitum), meaning to or toward, and the root word tædium, from which we get tedious and tedium, ultimately meaning weary or bored. The adverb functions as a way of describing some act or process which goes on until you find yourself completely uninterested.

Other adverbs of a similar nature, viz., ad nauseam and ad infinitum, can work; however, they have their own connotations. Ad nauseam, for example, is an act carried out until you find yourself “nauseated,” so to speak, i.e., annoyed. And ad infinitum merely goes on forever, without end, an interminable process. Accordingly, ad tædium is a good phrase on its own, for it keeps the negative connotation of ad nauseam and the monotonous nature of ad infinitum.

You might wonder as to why I chose tædium, with the typographic ligature, instead of the English tedium, which would have been easier and more understandable. I chose the former, simply, because I wished to retain the Latin feel of it.

Is Man a Machine?

Of all living organisms in the world, arguably the most complex, enigmatic, and independent, and as a result, interesting—is man. From its physiology to its psychology, the human is one of the most studied yet most misunderstood organism, the most intriguing living thing of which we know. Generally understood to have free will, we can will our own actions, and we are self-conscious, unlike other animals, and we can question ourselves. And as genius inventors, we have even created artificial intelligence, robots, machines, non-living things capable of logical reasoning. It is quite easy, though, to distinguish animals and machines from humans—or is it? During the 17th- and 18th-centuries, it was not uncommon to think of man as a functional, conscious machine, a mere sum of parts.

Unknown.jpegThe first philosopher to elaborate on the idea of organisms as machines was French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who was famous for stating his immortal, “I think, therefore I am.” When it came to living things, Descartes practiced biological reductionism, which meant that he viewed living things not in terms of wholes, but as sums of parts. To illustrate this, think of a computer: As a whole, it is a computer, but we can break it down to its core components, like its keyboard, trackpad, screen, and we can go further, reducing it to smaller parts, like the microprocessor. Similarly, Descartes took man and reduced him to smaller parts. After all, the human body is really just a system of interchangeable parts. We are humans as a whole, but we are made up of numerous body parts, each of which could theoretically be replaced. If we can build a machine with replaceable parts, thought Descartes, what was to distinguish us humans, then, from machines? Another aspect of machines is the fact that they are passive, which is to say that they do not act but react. It is safe to say, for the sake of this argument, that machines have no free will; they cannot act voluntarily. Descartes saw us the same way, reminding us that man is subject to physical laws, over which we have no control, such as gravity and temperature. We may be able to adapt to them, but they cannot be avoided altogether. As such, Descartes concluded that humans were passive and reactive. There was a fundamental difference between humans and animals, whom Descartes designated pejoratively as “brutes,” he conceded. (Apparently, comparing man to a machine was not as degrading, and for that matter dehumanizing, as comparing him to a lowly animal.) Descartes attributed to all living things a will, a drive from which all actions are derived, from which instincts arise. Within all animals, Unknown-1.jpegthere is some kind of “animal spirit” coursing through their blood in their veins. We say that our thoughts cause our actions; in the same manner, Descartes asserted that these “animal spirits” were the source of action. For this reason, his idea of “will” is different from ours in that it does not cause directly. Accordingly, animals function entirely by involuntary actions, by fulfilling their survival instincts; no room is there in the animal for voluntary contemplation, as its only actions are those which are carried out for the sake of its survival, which themselves are unconscious. Here Descartes provides the distinction between brute and man: the Soul. Being the dualist that he was, Descartes marked a fine line between the physical and mental, body and mind. Man had a soul, unlike animals. The soul was a vital, animating force that made man conscious. The link between mind and body lay in the pineal gland, said Descartes. Endowed with a soul, man was able to take control voluntarily over his animal spirits, thereby allowing him to have free will.

A contemporary of Descartes, the next mechanistic thinker was Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). The political philosopher who authored The Leviathan was influenced by Newtonian physics, and this interest in the natural sciences would play a major rule in his view of human nature. Hobbes was a physicalist, meaning he thought only physical bodies exist, and that reality consisted solely thereof. There was no room for God, nor for some kind of “soul,” as Descartes posited—no form of vitalism. Everything, Hobbes confidently said, could be explained by motion, which he defined as Unknown-2.jpeg“a continual relinquishing of one place and acquiring of another.”[1] Armed with Newtonian mechanics, a physicalist view of reality, and a naturalistic metaphysics based on motion, Hobbes was determined to prove that human nature could be reduced to pure physical motion, and nothing else. The basic drive of organisms was movement, and of that, there were two types: vital and voluntary. Vital movement was unconscious and consisted of necessary living functions—one can see the parallel to Descartes’ animal spirits. Humans need to eat and drink, so they choose vital movement, resulting in the act of eating or drinking, respectively. And remember that the acts of eating and drinking are physical, enacted in terms of motion, namely the picking up of said nourishment and the actual process of ingesting it. Along with vital movement, there is voluntary movement, which is conscious and willed. Voluntary movement is unnecessary to the extent that it is not required for survival. Watching television or playing sports is voluntary because we choose to do it and do not need to do it. This, however, left a large problem for Hobbes, the same one that plagued Descartes, and even neurologists today: Unknown.pngHow do we account for mental thoughts physically? Hobbes explained thought in terms of motion. When we eat, it is because our voluntary movement tells us to, and our voluntary movement tells us to, because we think it, so thought causes movement, which in turn causes whatever process we thought of. Hobbes was an empiricist, fittingly, when it came to explaining thought processes. He proposed that thoughts are derived from experience. All thoughts are of phenomena we have experienced, so our thoughts are based on perception. The process of thinking is merely a process of internalizing; we experience an outside phenomena, creating a mental image, which itself is not mental, but physical, manifest in motion. All perceptions Hobbes called “phantasms.” Phantasms can be either objects perceived or qualities of an object that are perceived; either way, Unknown-3.jpegboth are involved. For example, a green ball, while one perception, consists visually of two phantasms: the ball, the object, and the greenness, the quality of the ball. But if thought is perceptual, it meant Hobbes had to come up with an answer to the fact that we can conjure up thoughts out of thin air. To this Hobbes replied that humans have an ability he called “imagination.” Imagination was the “decay” of perception—in other words, a memory. We are able to think of previous perceptions because we can recall them. Keep in mind, again, that all these processes are to be thought of in terms of physical motion. Memory is chronological, but its chain of events can be interrupted, Hobbes suggested, thus accounting for inaccurate memories. However, it seems Hobbes did not account for synthetic a priori truths. In this way, Hobbes managed to reduce man, a complex organism, to a mere object of physical laws, nowise more animate than a robot. He, like Descartes, said man was different from animals because he possessed the ability to create “signs” and “names” symbolic of objects. We call a door a “door” and assign it that value; animals cannot do that. He also grants us two types of knowledge that we can use to our advantage: factual and consequential. The former is the ability to recall facts, and the latter to create causal connections between A and B. Further, Hobbes says man can use logic, which he defined as the ability to add or subtract abstractions. The idea of Man can be added with another abstract concept (Hobbes said “Man” was abstract), like Love, or subtracted from another, like Nature.

Unknown-4.jpegFinally, the last and most infamous of the mechanists was the French thinker Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751). Having studied physiology under the famed physician Herman Boerhaave, La Mettrie would later serve as the physician to Frederick the Great, but between then, his background in medicine would pave the way for his controversial philosophy. La Mettrie was practically a villain in 18th-century France, called everything from an atheist to a determinist to a hedonist to a materialist, the last of which was commonplace and not derogatory. His books were burned publicly and outlawed by the government after they were read, and he was exiled on several occasions. His philosophy was a combination of naturalism, biology, and Cartesian mechanism and resulted in a mechanistic view of man. In his 1745 work Histoire Naturelle de l’Âme, Natural History of the Soul, he dismissed any idea of a soul, rejecting any form of vitalism, stating that there was no animating element in living things. He completely rejected Cartesian dualism, demanding that there was only matter and bodies. His next work was his magnum opus Unknown.jpegand served as a major tour de force. L’Homme Machine (1748), translated as “Man a Machine,” was La Mettrie’s masterpiece, and in it he wrote that there was no free will. Our actions, as we discussed with Hobbes, are considered to be the result of our thoughts. La Mettrie argued that even our thoughts are not technically our own, seeing as our thoughts are determined first by the condition of our body or health. We are not able to do things we would normally be able to do when we are healthy when we are sick, and vice versa. Depending on the state of our health, we are disposed to certain things, and the state of our health, as we know, is seldom within our control, but left, rather, to other determinants. La Mettrie was also an opponent of Leibniz, who wrote about monads, self-contained entities. In response, he wrote, “They [non-materialists] have spiritualized matter rather than materializing the soul. How can we define a being whose nature is utterly unknown to us?”[2] Thinkers like Leibniz he criticized for advocating a form of vitalism by positing a force of some kind. Likewise, Descartes would have been targeted by this comment and blamed for “spiritualizing matter” because he talked of his animal man_science.jpgspirits—a foolish mistake to La Mettrie. Instead, he, Descartes, should have explained these animal spirits physically, as Hobbes did. La Mettrie then wrote Les Animaux plus que Machines (Animals More Than Machines) wherein he created his own way of bypassing vitalism while at the same time advancing a type sentience in animals, humans included. He said that animals were not alive, so to speak, which is to say that they did not possess some kind of living spirit, but they had the ability to feel. La Mettrie in the same book described his own theory of evolution that saw each evolution increase in its desires. Plants had very little needs but were simple organism, and they evolved into animals, which had more needs, and they evolved into humans, who have many needs, whereof many are unnecessary. La Mettrie then wrote that thoughts are physical and cause emotions and bodily sensations within the body, a view similar to Hobbes’. His ethical works consist of Discours sur le Bonheur (1748), Discourse on Happiness, and L’Art de Jouir (1751), The Art of Enjoyment. The first work depicted virtue as a dual development of amour de soi, a love for oneself, and happiness. This is unlike other philosophers, who inverted the equation, equating happiness with virtue, not the other way around. He also wrote that laws were a social necessity. His later work, as can be surmised by the title, was more sensual and detailed a hedonistic ethical theory. La Mettrie identified pleasure as either debauchery (débauche) or enjoyment (volupté). Debauchery, as La Mettrie saw it, was better than enjoyment, for it did no harm, whereas enjoyment does. For this reason, La Mettrie is sometimes said to be a Utilitarian, as he preferred the former to the latter, non-harm to harm.  

Looking back at the history of ideas, we cannot help but think some foolish, others wise beyond their years. Nowadays, were someone to ask if we were machines, we would think them crazy: How could we, such complex, thoughtful beings, possibly be mindless A.I.? It is unfair, though, to judge an idea 400 years old, considering we have made considerable advances, both in biology and neurology, that have disproved this notion. This is not to dismiss the idea completely, however, as it is an interesting topic worthy of discussion even today—food for thought, if you will. In fact, how do we know we aren’t machines ourselves, built by some other complex race of intelligent beings? Who knows.


[1] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, p. 220
[2] Arp, 1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think, p. 405


For further reading: 
The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment by John. W. Yolton (1992)
1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
A History of Modern Philosophy Vol. 1 by Harald Høffding (1955)
A Critical History of Western Philosophy by D.J. O’Connor (1964)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 9 by Will Durant (1965)
Socrates to Sartre by Enoch Samuel Stumpf (1982)