This title is out of print but used copies can still be found.
Reviewed by Jean Hardy (Abridged from the original)
I have been fascinated by Giordano Bruno ever since I first read of him in the Renaissance studies of Frances Yate. This biography however, recommended by Christian de Quincey, is by a distinguished scientist, whose claim is that Bruno was far greater than Yates perceived, and indeed that he foresaw most of modern cosmology, on his own, and in the face of the Inquisition which eventually killed him.
Bruno was born in 1548, and was burnt alive in 1600 in Rome by the Inquisition because he put forward a view of the Universe which is close to that – indeed goes further than that – which is held by early twenty-first century physics. Ramon indeed maintains that Giordano Bruno is the true founder of modern cosmology, and that he goes far beyond modern physics in linking cosmology and spirituality. “Movement….does not come to bodies from outside; they have it in themselves, for every body is animated by its own internal principle of motion, its “soul”, the cosmic soul present in everything without suffering division or fragmentation. Not only is this soul in every single body, but it animates all the elementary particles of matter as well” (p83).
There is a world soul, an anima mundi of which all creatures are a part, and all is interconnected. The whole universe is alive. This he summed up in his last great cosmological treatise De immenso et innumerabilibus – On the Immense and Innumerables – published in 1591. “Bruno advanced the philosophical consideration that there must be an infinite passive power in nature corresponding to the infinite active power of God’ (p.101). The universe is flowing, energetic and constantly evolving. ‘God is everywhere and in everything, not above, not below, but in the heart of everything” (p.149).
He developed what we now call chaos theory and complexity theory from reading the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, Parmenides, Heraclitus and his theory of constant change, Lucretius, and then Plotinus in the early centuries after Christ and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64). He thought that Aristotle and Plato had taken philosophy in quite a wrong direction. But his theory of knowledge was not fundamentally based on ideas alone but on experience. His experience was that the deepest form of knowledge is through a connection which some human beings are capable of – which is of direct connection with the mind of the universe. All creatures in this view are part of this mind and in some sense fully in interconnection: but it is possible for humans at least to consciously tune in, through the power and radical openness of intellect, to the spirit of all things. He was searching around for the true basis of knowledge, which he reckoned was not scientific in the modern western sense, but through the person’s whole openness to the nature of the world.
Though he did not even have access to a telescope, his picture of the universe was much like that of modern cosmology, and he knew of the multiplicity of galaxies: he was also interested in the microscopic world, the relationship of the largest and the smallest. Order emerges from and through chaos. And he believed there must have been a blueprint because of the sheer wonder of the world which had emerged with so much aplomb. He anticipated the theory of emergence, that wholly new beings come into existence independent of what was before, and not constrained by a predetermined goal: a view quite different from Darwin’s theory of evolution. He also thought there are an infinite number of worlds. This incredible man was Italian, grew up in Nola near Naples, being most at home in that countryside as a child. He became a Dominican monk, but could not tolerate the limitations of the Christian teaching, fled from Rome and eventually from Italy. He became what we might call a university lecturer, teaching in Toulouse, Geneva, and eventually spent two years teaching at Oxford University, during which time he had several meetings with Queen Elizabeth who was of course a well educated and intelligent woman. He then went to Germany which is where he found most sympathy with his views.
However in 1591 he was tricked back into Italy, was picked up by the Inquisition and spent seven years in Italian gaols, being tortured and then eventually killed. He refused to recant his views, or to kiss the crucifix at his execution, but he was said to go to his death with serene joy. He felt he knew the nature of the universe through the power and openness of his mind and spirit, and this sustained him through all. I have rarely read about such a remarkable man.