Part IIA: Giordano Bruno’s Cosmology

At the beginning of the 20th century, The Catholic Encyclopedia described Bruno’s beliefs as follows: “Bruno’s system of thought is an incoherent materialistic pantheism. God and the world are one; matter and spirit, body and soul, are two phases of the same substance; the universe is infinite; beyond the visible world there is an infinity of other worlds, each of which is inhabited; this terrestrial globe has a soul; in fact, each and every part of it, mineral as well as plant and animal, is animated; all matter is made up of the same elements (no distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter); all souls are akin (transmigration is, therefore, not impossible). This unitary point of view is Bruno’s justification of ‘natural magic’.” 

Other than the last sentence as well as the negative spin, the summary is a pretty accurate summary of Bruno’s cosmology. Further, although there is some overlap, it was because of his cosmological convictions and not his hermetic mysticism that he was executed. As was the pattern in Germany during the Holocaust, the Inquisition kept meticulous records. During the trial, the Notary not only noted the questions Bruno was asked and his often very long answers, but every scream he let out when he was tortured. In 1593, when he was transferred from Venice, where he was captured, to the prison of the Holy Office in Rome, the Office of the Inquisition prepared a detailed and very extensive analysis of his writings that was put before the court, a record which we know only indirectly because the original records were lost.

Based on that evidence and analysis, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine boiled the heretical doctrines that he allegedly held down to the following:

  1. His rejection of “two real and eternal principles of existence” that were separate entities, soul and matter.
  2. His doctrine of both an infinite universe and infinite worlds in conflict with the narrative of Creation, for Bruno’s doctrine, in characterizing the world and the number of worlds as both infinite, denied the infinite power of God.
  3. Perhaps the most heretical of all, Bruno held that every reality, including all bodies, resides in the eternal and infinite soul of the world; there are no bodies without a spirit and some kind of intelligence.
  4. Bruno’s belief that substance is eternal and, though it transforms what exists, it creates nothing.
  5. The astrological assumption that terrestrial movement was influenced by the changes in the arrangements of the stars (astrology); though widely held by the populace, astrology was antithetical to Catholic science.
  6.  Bruno’s designation of stars as “messengers and interpreters of the ways of God.”
  7. Bruno’s embodiment thesis that both the “sensory and intellectual” soul are earthly.
  8. Bruno’s critique of the Thomist belief that, in humans, the soul, an independent spiritual reality, was held captive in the body.

Unlike Plato, for Aristotle the soul, though different from that of body, was embodied and not separable from the body. Humans get their individuality by the way the soul interacts with a body in a particular person. The highest function of the soul can be found in humans, that is the intellect that sits atop the appetite (the nutrient aspect) and the sensitive, both of the latter common to all animals. Bruno, however, argued that not only was the soul embodied, but that there were many more aspects to the soul than animation, sensitivity and intellect. Bruno found the tripartite division of the soul false to nature and, further, that animals possessed their own intellects and, in some ways, were wiser than men because of how their bodies had specialized.

Bruno cited the spider as an example. The critical difference in humans is that they have hands, or, in modern evolutionary theory, appositional thumbs. Differences in intellect depend on different configurations of bodies. There is thus no singular hierarchy such as the great order of being. As Montaigne would also claim, natives or indigenous peoples (that explorers had so recently discovered) were in many senses intellectually superior to their European counterparts. The religious beliefs of our First Nations were closer to and derived from observing nature closely. In Bruno, they were more akin to animals, not in any negative sense; their intellects so dominated their animal bodies that there was no internal struggle but they could move and act intuitively.

Bruno’s cosmology began with his amendments to the heliocentric Copernican theories. His vision of the created world stood in stark contrast to that of Aristotle who taught that the heavenly bodies were eternal and moved to try to return to their “natural” place in the universe and, of course, to the Ptolemaic vision of the universe. Aristotle taught that the universe was finite wherein there was a superlunary region made up of aether that was incorruptible. Bruno inverted both theses. The world came into being and was not eternal. Further, that world was infinite consisting of many solar systems.

In the Torah, as God is beginning to establish order out of chaos, He already has water and wind (air) with which to give form to the world. In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth and darkness over the face of the deep with wind sweeping over the water, God creates light and divides the light by a process of separation from the dark.

Genesis Chapter 1 בְּרֵאשִׁית

א  בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
ב  וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. 2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר. 3 And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.

Do you translate בְּרֵאשִׁית as “in the beginning,” implying a starting point, or do you translate it, as in the Plaut version, “When God began to create,” or, even more clearly expressing process, “In the beginning of God’s creating”? The latter most clearly emphasizes a process already underway rather than a beginning point. What seems clear and unequivocal, in spite of Jewish and non-Jewish interpretations that God created everything, is that earth, made up of water, the deep, pre-existed. God gave it form. How? By wind, or the primary element of air which came from God and which swept over the waters of the deep.  This was also Bruno’s thesis.

In other words, the world comes into being and is not itself eternal. It comes into being as a result of two substances, water, which exists independent of God, and air or wind which comes from God and is used to give form to the world. If God is eternal, then wind or air is eternal, as is water which acquires its form as a result of God’s breath. Then the world as such is a finite created entity. Of the two basic substances, entities which are characterized by extension, water is not divine while wind or air is. Further, God did not create the world ex nihilo. (See Plaut’s first footnote in Genesis.)

This is the foundation of Bruno’s cosmology. Contrast this with Aristotle and the Christian (and Jewish) theologians under Aristotle’s sway. In Aristotle, there were four, not two, prime elements: earth, air, fire and water. In the cosmology of Aristotle that Bruno rejected, earth and water are at the centre. Revolving around the Earth are concentric circles of two other sublunary elements, air and fire, beyond which can be found the inner sphere of the sun, moon and planets and the outer sphere of the stars. It is a world depicted as four concentric circles.

For Bruno, as stated above, there are only two basic elements, water and wind or air. “Water is that which produces union, density, thickness and gravity.” Water is the Universal Matter which, when combined with the Universal Soul which is air or wind as an expression of God, as an expression of divine action, results in the universe. From a different angle, earth and water were two sides of the same thing, with earth representing contraction or solidity resulting from the wind evaporating the water. It is the non-divine residue of water which is characterized by solidity or minimal extension rather than liquid indefinite extension.

It is as if Bruno had discovered that the material universe was based on two expressions of the same thing, matter as condensed energy that occupies minimal space, corporeal matter without intelligence, and energy that views the same entity as occupying the maximum space available and is both incorporeal and intelligent. In other words, Bruno depicts a version of Einstein’s E= m. Such a view is consistent with envisioning the creator God as dealing with pre-existing water and his own breath. Through distillation and condensation, the earth below is created. The evaporated water combined with air becomes fire, which, like air, and unlike water and earth, is incorporeal. In other words, solid items are the residue that makes up earth. Earth represented spatial contraction. Water was a continuum characterized by the principle of corporeal extension. Bodies consisted of two or more dimensionless atoms bound together by water.

To sum up, air or wind remaining from the divine giving form to the deep also results in fire when combined wit,h rather than considered separate from, water.  Then there was light. Water and air are primary. Earth and fire are secondary. Earth was made up of atoms, not microscopic entities like the atoms of Democritus and Epictetus or modern atoms that can be “split,” but indivisible entities because their circumferences and diameters were equal.

In sum, as in Thales, water was the Universal Matter. Air was the Universal Soul. Combine water and air and the result is the Universal Intellect that provides any body with an animating spirit or gives the soul fire. Distill out the water and the result is earth.

“God said, ‘Let there be light’.” (Genesis 3) We have a three-step movement. Step 1 depicts what we begin with. Water exists outside of God. Wind (ruah) is one expression of God. Wind or air working on water results in the solid earth as a residue, the second step. As the residue settles out, and the water evaporates, the divine element remaining combined with air is fire. Unlike earth which results from God giving form to the world through wind, fire comes into existence as a result of the word. God speaks and there is light. Evaporated water or mist combined with the word rather than hand of God resulted in fire, which, as we shall see in the next section on the kabbalah, represents the soul governing all things.

Finally, because the universe was infinite and not finite for Bruno, all possibilities and manifestations were possible over time. The daily Ptolemaic rotation of the firmament around the Earth was an illusion, a product of the earth being round and rotating on its own axis as it circled the sun. The cosmos, in general, was not finite but consisted of an infinite number of solar systems like ours.

To be continued


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