Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic

Giordano Bruno was a philosopher before his time.

Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic By Ingrid D. Rowland Farrar, Straus and Giroux 400 pp. $27

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe underwent an information revolution unprecedented in the history of mankind.

The invention of the compass, the printing press, and the telescope, the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, and the discoveries of the New World, gunpowder, and that the Earth was not the center of the universe – all instigated radical shifts in the thinking that had dominated the mental landscape for centuries.

Occasionally the shifts were seen as good things. More frequently, they were fiercely resisted by church and state authorities. Moreover, the great thinkers, writers, pioneers, and scientists of the age – Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Galileo, Luther, and Tycho Brahe to name a few – were often persisting in their work in the face of unparalleled persecution.

Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic is Ingrid Rowland’s portrait of a lesser known, though no less daring, Italian, whose religious, philosophical, and scientific quests helped to usher in the modern age of science and mathematics.

Shaped by the priesthood
Filippo Bruno was born in Nola, in southern Italy, in 1548. He was the precocious only child of a mercenary soldier. At 17 he was sent to the convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples to train for the priesthood. There, in the rigorous academic atmosphere that was Renaissance Naples, he studied and learned to emulate or argue with the writings of Aristotle and Plato, as well as those of Thomas Aquinas, Marsilio Ficino, and Giles of Viterbo.

He took his vows as a friar of the order in 1566, and assumed the name Giordano. Although he would spend the next 10 years of his life pursuing his studies, including developing his own method of memorization, eventually the reactionary crackdowns of the Inquisition would force him into the life of a peripatetic scholar and teacher.

His travels took him from Switzerland to Paris to England to Germany to Prague and back to Italy. But wherever he went, an irascible nature and fiery intellectual pride drove him into conflict with local academics, whom he bitterly reviled and caricatured.

Profuse thinker, writer
Yet throughout his life, he wrote and published copiously: poetry, plays, books on the art of memory, philosophical tracts, and essays expounding his evolving theories of infinity. His attempts to find an adequate means to measure and calculate both the infinite and the infinitesimal led directly to his formulation of atomic theory.

Unsurprisingly, his theories were far too expansive and threatening to the dogmatic religious authorities of his day. Thus, after nearly a decade in prison, first in Venice and then in Rome, he was condemned as a heretic by the Inquisition in 1600 and suffered a heretic’s fate: burned at the stake.

Still, Ms. Rowland’s “Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic” is less a biography of the man than a largely uncritical examination of his vast literary and philosophical output, with the few facts of his life offered as source material or a mere framework for the discussion of his writings.

The early chapters are a testament to the risks of speaking out or thinking originally in a society ruled by a repressive regime.

Because of the lack of factual information, the author frequently substitutes conjecture and inference such as “[he] must have read” or “must have known” or “must have met” for factual evidence.

Further, Rowland assumes a specialist’s knowledge of Renaissance politics, religion, and philosophy which may leave one wanting for the nonexistent Cliff Notes on philosophers and significant figures of the Counter-Reformation in Rome and Naples.

And as Bruno wrote copiously, so does Rowland quote copiously – page upon 8-point-type page of it, much of it imponderably obscure. Only rarely does she attempt to convey the color, vigor, and clamor of life in a Renaissance city.

Frequently tangled in the web of her own scholarship and Bruno’s sophistry, she seems unable to distinguish between Bruno’s flights of insightful genius, which, as in the works of many Renaissance authors, lie cheek by jowl with ideas we now find arcane or hopelessly naive.

For the sake of knowledge
But “Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic” is not without merit. It is a rare excursion into the cosmos of sumptuous prose and philosophical delight as exemplified by Giles of Viterbo, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Giordano Bruno.

It is a venture into a lost world where man’s pursuit of spiritual understanding and wisdom made for bestseller reading – and where such journeys into the uncharted territory of infinity led these philosophers to examine ideas which although rejected at the time, proved to be modern beyond their and our wildest dreams.

M.M. Bennetts is a freelance writer living in Hampshire, England.

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