Why was Giordano Bruno Gagged and Burned at the Stake? - Blog#17 - 24 May 2019
The year was 1600. Both religion and astronomy were in a state of revolution, and in conflict with each other to boot. On October 31, 1517, the Protestant Reformation began. Martin Luther, angry that Pope Leo X was financing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica via another round of pay-for-salvation indulgences, nailed his 95 Theses to the chapel door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. With the aid of the printing press, which Johannes Gutenberg had made commercially successful in the 1450s, Luther’s protest was widely disseminated. 300 years before the Internet revolutionized our communication of information, Gutenberg had a similar impact. Scientific views, literature, the Bible, and yes, heresy, were now readily available. The exchange of ideas multiplied exponentially. Luther was excommunicated a year later by the Catholic Church after refusing to recant, and convicted as a heretic by the Edict of Worms in 1521. The Reformation quickly expanded into new threats, spread by figures such as John Calvin in Geneva, and King Henry VII in England. The Catholic Church responded, as its own reform movement morphed into the Counter-Reformation. In 1540, Ignatius Loyola officially formed the Jesuits, who were intent on propagating and defending the Catholic faith, and reconverting Protestants. The Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563, issued decrees to establish rules of church life and clarify doctrine, to counteract corruption and heresy. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic list of forbidden books, was launched in 1559, banning and prohibiting the reading of over 500 heretical texts. And following the model of the Spanish Inquisition established in 1478, the Roman Inquisition was formed, to investigate and prosecute all forms of heresy and dissent. Relentless interrogation and torture were employed by local Inquisitors to compel confessions.
During these years, science had its own trajectory, and its own clashes with the religious order. Fearful of Catholic retaliation for his radical notion that the sun, not the earth, is the stationary center of the universe, Nicolaus Copernicus delayed his publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium until shortly before his death in 1543. In 1564, Galileo Galelei was born in Pisa, Italy (two months before William Shakespeare’s birth in Stratford-upon-Avon). Between the death of Copernicus and the birth of Galileo, Filippo Bruno was born in 1548 in Nola, Italy. Fifty-two years later, at the turn of the century, he was gagged and burned at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. Why?
For starters, Bruno had repeatedly run afoul of religious authorities. In 1565, he joined the Dominican order in Naples, and took on the name, Giordano, later being ordained as a priest in 1572. He fled to Rome in 1576 to evade a trial for heresy, after openly discussing the Arian heresy questioning the divinity of Christ. He abandoned the Dominican order, moved to Geneva in 1578, and embraced Calvinism. But after publishing 20 errors his Calvinist professor had supposedly made in a single lecture, he was again in hot water, eventually being arrested, excommunicated, “rehabilitated,” and allowed to leave. He later became a royal lecturer under the protection of the French king, published books on mnemonics, and moved to London in 1583, where he lectured on Copernican theory at Oxford, insisting on the reality of the Earth’s movement in space. He began writing his six dialogues (in which his characters argue their philosophical positions), where he reaffirmed the Copernican view that the Earth circles the sun. But he went much further. He argued that the universe is infinite, composed of “innumerable worlds” similar to our own solar system, and that our sun is not the center of the universe. This view was in stark contrast to the Copernican view that the universe is finite, with the sun at its center, while other stars are located on a fixed sphere just beyond our solar system.
After frequent debates and many conflicts during his subsequent years in various European cities, Bruno returned to Italy to educate an aristocrat in mnemonics. But his pupil betrayed him, reporting him to the Roman Inquisition, where he was arrested in 1592, and interrogated for seven years (not months) regarding all aspects of his philosophical and religious views. The verdict of the Inquisition was finally delivered in 1600, when he was sentenced to death, after being branded an “impentinent and pertinacious heretic” by Pope Clement VIII. His books were to be “publicly destroyed and burned in the square of St. Peter,” and placed in the Index of Forbidden Books. Defiant to the end, Bruno reportedly responded to his death sentence by exclaiming, "Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it." Soon after, he was taken naked to the Campo de’ Fiori, where his tongue was bound in a gag, and he was burned alive.
Bruno was subsequently celebrated as a martyr of science, though debates ensued regarding the true reason for his death sentence. He was not condemned for believing in Copernicus, but his claim, that Earth moves, was censored as heresy by Inquisitors in 1597. His belief in many worlds was also heretical. Christian scholars claim that Bruno was convicted for his religious views, not his cosmology, but can the two be unlinked? There is an underlying issue here, involving the anthropocentric underpinnings of religion. I have previously argued that death anxiety and anthropocentrism are the primary motives for religious belief, accompanied by a handful of other motives. Humans want to escape the limits of our mortality, and we want to see ourselves as the central purpose of the universe. Eternal heavenly bliss, provided by a God who places mankind at the center of creation, abundantly meets both needs. We pose with false humility at the foot of a God, who we invented to establish our centrality in the universe, as well as our own immortality. We make Him invisible, and demand faith. But then those pesky intellectuals ask questions, and are eventually supported by scientists who provide facts that undermine faith in the Holy Bible.
Giordano Bruno did not yet have the benefits of Galileo’s or Hubble’s telescopes, and his objections to religious cosmology were more philosophical than scientific (based on evidence). But the problem is that his cosmology, and that of Galileo, Kepler, and their successors, undermines the anthropocentric underbelly of religion. If mankind is at the center of the universe, or just next to the God that we created at the center, it would be convenient if the Earth was the physical center of the universe. When Copernicus put our sun at the center of the universe, it required a small accommodation. But if the universe is infinite, and there is no center, we lose our significance, particularly if those other solar systems are inhabited (as Bruno suggested they may be). The only thing worse would be if we evolved from ancestors and were not even present at the dawn of creation. In positing an evolutionary link between man and “lower” animals, Darwin effectively bridged the chasm of dissimilarity that had previously separated man from other life forms. Man was now a mere animal. Astronomy and evolutionary theory challenge our narcissism as a species, removing us as a centerpiece in the grand scheme of things. This is Bruno’s real sin, his narcissistic blow to mankind, striking a crack in the anthropocentric mirror that religion creates and protects. Aside from inviting greed for immortality, this is religion’s primary sin, pride, creating the God mirror, that fun-house distortion that allows us to bask in the reflection of God’s glory at the center of the universe, as His favorite pet. Bruno’s cosmology invited us to adopt the intolerable virtue of humility. For this he had to be gagged, in death as in life.
For more on anthropocentrism, motives for religious belief, and secular alternatives, check out, Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available in print and eBook from Ed Chandler on Amazon. And if you are in Rome, go to Bruno’s statue, erected in 1889 on the very spot where he had been burned at the stake.