Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Humanists Memorialize Giordano Bruno

Pioneering Astronomer, Philosopher Burned at the Stake 410 Years Ago Today


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS top to bottom: Jim Zimmerman at the San Diego Humanist Fellowship; the statue of Giordano Bruno at the site where he died

February 17, 2010 marks the 410th anniversary of the execution of pioneering astronomer, philosopher and religious scholar Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Holy Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. The San Diego Humanist Fellowship marked the anniversary at their meeting Sunday, February 14 at the San Diego Public Library downtown with a short presentation on Bruno. They had planned to present a guest speaker, but the person cancelled at the last minute, so Humanist Fellowship board member Jim Zimmerman delivered the presentation and discussed not only Bruno but the overall history of the heliocentric theory — the idea that the planets revolve around the sun, not the earth — and how dramatically the church’s attitude towards it changed from the time of Copernicus and Nicholas of Cusa to that of Bruno and Galileo.

Though the German-Polish monk Nicholas Copernicus is generally identified today as the founder of heliocentrism, Zimmerman said, he was preceded by a number of ancient thinkers from Greece (notably Democritus and Lucretius) as well as at least one Renaissance scholar, 15th century philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa. Copernicus published his book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, just before his death in 1543 — and, according to Zimmerman, “he was very apologetic and said, ‘Everybody knows the earth stands still, but if the sun were the center of the universe, everything would be simpler.’ He dedicated the book to the reigning Pope at the time, Paul III, and the Pope accepted it.”

According to Zimmerman, at the time of Copernicus the Catholic hierarchy didn’t regard cosmological issues as that big a deal. That changed, however, with the rise of Martin Luther and his challenge to the church, later called the Reformation. The Roman Catholic church launched a Counter-Reformation which not only hardened the church’s teachings into dogma — with death the penalty for dissent — but also made Aristotle’s view of the universe, with the earth as the center, part of the church’s official “truth.” Bruno, born in 1548 — two years after Luther died — became a Dominican monk at age 17 and soon found himself in a hotbed of controversy, traveling throughout Europe and stirring up both support and opposition with his unusual views.

In addition to defending the Arian heresy — a 4th century minority Christian belief that Jesus was not the literal son of God — Bruno set himself apart from other monks in various ways. “He was stationed in Geneva — the hotbed of John Calvin’s Protestantism — and dressed in ordinary clothes, not monk’s robes,” Zimmerman said. “He published a book called The Signs of the Times and a book on memory called Circe’s Song. He went to England and knew Philip Sidney [described in his Wikipedia entry as ‘a poet and a fiercely militant Protestant’] and John Dee [alchemist, diviner and friend of many influential leaders in Queen Elizabeth’s court]. Bruno went to Oxford to lecture and got into more controversy. He wrote a lot of sarcastic works that weren’t respectful of the orthodox church. He was later accused of becoming a Calvinist, which he denied, but for a Catholic monk to go to Geneva at all at the time was a bit like an American going to Moscow at the height of the McCarthy era.”

After Bruno’s travels to Switzerland and England, “he then went to Germany and got into trouble there,” Zimmerman explained. “He had to leave one university. He was excommunicated by the Lutherans. He published a book on magic, signs, symbols and ideas. He went to Venice as a candidate for the professor’s chair but lost to Galileo, supported himself as a private tutor and was eventually put into the hands of the Inquisition.” According to Zimmerman, most of the charges against Bruno that led to his incarceration in the Vatican for seven years and then to his execution in 1600 were theological in nature — they accused him of denying the Trinity, Jesus’s divinity and Mary’s virginity — but also included in the bill of particulars against him was “postulating plural worlds and an immense universe.” While Nicholas of Cusa had come up with the idea of an infinite universe a century earlier, Zimmerman said, “Bruno became identified with it at a time the church was taking this speculation very seriously.” Bruno not only said there were an immense number of additional planets orbiting other stars but that each one was inhabited and each population had their own Savior.

Unlike Galileo, who publicly recanted his belief in heliocentrism and ended up under house arrest rather than executed — at least partly, Zimmerman said, because he had rich, powerful and influential friends that lobbied to save his life — Bruno was convicted by the Inquisition and burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600. Three years later, the church put all Bruno’s writings on the Index Librium Prohibitorum, its list of forbidden books. Bruno was largely forgotten until the 19th century, when growing interest in him as a scientific pioneer led to his rediscovery. A statue of him was erected on the spot where he had been burned 250 years earlier.

“I don’t think Bruno was what we would call a scientist,” Zimmerman said. “He didn’t do experiments or observations on his own. He simply read the existing literature and analyzed it differently. Bruno had the misfortune to die 10 years before the invention of the telescope, which Galileo pointed at the stars and made some important observations that confirmed the heliocentric theory.” Asked if Bruno and Galileo had ever met, Zimmerman said that — despite that one instance when they were both up for a professorship in Venice and Galileo got the job over Bruno — there was no evidence that they had.