The Opinions of Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno 2

The Campo dei Fiori piazza in Rome holds a tony street-market: funghi porcini, ecological olive oil, and not a Chinese T-shirt or fake Vuitton bag in sight. In the middle of the bustle stands a sombre statue of a hooded monk, put up by anticlericals in 1889. It commemorates Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was burnt alive there on 17 February 1600 for multiple counts of heresy. These included a belief that the stars were suns floating in infinite space, surrounded by their own planets and life. Following the technical recommendations of the 14th-century Catalan inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich, Bruno was fittingly gagged to prevent unseemly outbursts.

The execution was a far worse crime than the trial of Galileo. That ended in a forced and formal abjuration, and fairly open house arrest for the rest of his life. His books were banned, but they had done their work. It’s become a nice symbol: Scientific Truth versus clerical obscurantism. The Truth wins in the end, so it’s a more or less happy ending.

That tidy narrative does not fit Giordano Bruno, a brilliant crank. He wrote about two books a year, moving around Europe, from Geneva to Oxford to Wittenberg to Venice, until his welcome ran out in one city after another. A few of the ideas he fired off turned out right, like the floating stars. But he had no evidence for this speculation, and like all his mediaeval predecessors relied on a priori intuitions. (Corrections from experts welcome as always.) Galileo’s attack on Aristotelian physics and cosmology was modern, specific and based on experiments like the falling weights at Pisa, and his observations of sunspots and Jupiter’s moons though his new telescope. The first evidence against the sphere like a planetarium with the fixed stars stuck to the inside was the discovery of a variable star (Mira Ceti) in 1596, when Bruno had been in the cells of the Inquisition for three years. Sunspots followed in 1611, a little after Jupiter’s moons. By Newton’s time, stars as floating suns had become a common view among cosmologists. It wasn’t until 1838 that any star (61 Cygni ) had its distance measured by parallax, finally disproving the planetarium theory, abandoned long before by scientists. The first exoplanet orbiting Gamma Cephei A was discovered in 1988;  and no life has been detected yet on any.

Giordano wrote fast on everything else as well. His heretical views included metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, magic and divination, as well as unorthodox positions on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. We’ve met people like him on the Internet: characters who have never met a flashy contrarian idea they didn’t immediately fall for. They are not the dangerous radicals authority need worry about, men like Galileo with a big idea they use as a lever to crack open orthodoxy on some previously hidden fault line.

Galileo is far too easy a test case for freedom of speech, because he happened to be demonstrably right on a matter of scientific fact. We should not try to defend Giordano Bruno on the grounds that he was right by chance on one thing, but simply that he was entitled to express opinions that were his own and not those of approved authorities. It it’s for real, freedom of conscience and speech holds for crackpots, blasphemers, racists, xenophobes, revolutionaries, and heretics.

The Inquisition’s investigation and trial of Giordano Bruno involved no less than eight cardinals: Bellarmine, Madruzzi, Borghese (later Pope Paul V), Pinelli, Arrigoni, Sfondrati, Manuel, and Santorio. We can imagine the earnest discussions among these cultivated and worldly princes of the Counter-Reformation Church, a far cry from the provincial fanaticism of a Tomás de Torquemada.

 – He doesn’t seem to have any followers, so you could say that the threat is minimal.

– We don’t know how many impressionable young men have read his books, so the rot may have spread further than we know.

– Our mistake with Luther was not coming down hard on him while we still had the chance.

– Can’t we send him to a quiet monastery in the Alps?

– We need to send a strong message.

With the Torquemadas and Hitlers of this world, you can make a case if you really try for diminished responsibility. Hitler’s biographers disagree on the question whether he can be held morally responsible for his actions. Did he know that what he was doing was wrong? The alternative proposition, that these men were as insane as rabid dogs, should lead to very similar action, so the problem has limited practical interest. You clearly cannot make this argument for Bellarmine and the others. Their atrocity was quite deliberate.

The Vatican defended the execution of Bruno till recently. Wikipedia:

In 1942, Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, who discovered a number of lost documents relating to Bruno’s trial, stated that the Church was perfectly justified in condemning him. On the 400th anniversary of Bruno’s death, in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared Bruno’s death to be a “sad episode” but, despite his regret, he defended Bruno’s prosecutors, maintaining that the Inquisitors “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.”

This mealy-mouthed half-apology will not do. If Pope Francis wishes to make amends for the many cruelties his Church (like mine, on a much lesser scale: Erastianism has its benefits) has inflicted in the name of orthodox faith, he knows how to do it properly. The Vatican has a busful of cardinals. On 17 February next, he can send eight of them to the Campo de Fiori to celebrate a penitential Mass in the rain for all prisoners and martyrs of conscience, in apology to that hooded and brooding statue.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]