Part IIB: Bruno’s Cosmology – Aristotle, Christianity and Judaism

Let me be more systematic (more Aristotelian) and more grounded. Initially I will divide different views of cosmology initially into two very contrasting perspectives, the first I call a Christian religious version of Aristotle; the second I dub Jewish. As we shall see, the Christian view is not actually Aristotelian. Further, the Jewish view is not mainstream to Judaism. Jewish theologians in the Middle Ages from Saadia Gaon (882-942) to Abraham ibn Daud (1110-1180) and Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides or the Rambam (1135-1204) were also Aristotelians. Further, I have dubbed the second column “Jewish” even though it is a blending of Torah and Plato. I will elaborate upon that in the section on Kabbalah.

The Christian Perspective The Jewish Perspective
The universe was created out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). The material of water existed but had to be given form by a divine spirit (wind or air).
The universe was created at a specific moment of time. “in the beginning of God’s creating” – Genesis starts with a process already underway.
The world was created by an act of divine will. The world was created, by the hand of God working through wind on water, and through God’s words combined with air that resulted in light and the heavenly sphere.
Prior to creation, there was nothing. There has always been something, even if it was chaotic and unordered.
Time comes into being with creation. Even at the moment of the Big Bang, time existed, for a moment can only exist in time.

By the Middle Ages, the Jewish tradition had largely accepted the premises in interpreting Torah from both Muslim and Christian civilization. I mentioned the tenth century Jewish scholar, Saadia Gaon, the head of the Babylonian Academy of Sura. He wrote The Book of Beliefs and Opinions. It is self-evident in the first paragraph of that book that the Gaon is an Aristotelian rationalist. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel – the True, in the sense of evidently true, who verifies for rational beings the existence of their souls with certain truth, through which they find their sense perception to be sound, and know their knowledge to be accurate. As a result, errors are removed, and doubts are eliminated; arguments are clarified and proofs established. May He be extolled over the highest and most genuine praise.”

In the above, humans are the only rational beings whose souls search for certainty. This is not the case in Bruno. Heavenly bodies belonged to one of three genera of rational beings that populated the universe since they operated in accordance with a final cause. Humans, on the other hand were rational in proceeding from one thought to another and reasoned in order to execute their roles but never arrive at certainty. The other genus of rational beings are demons which were rational beings with rarefied bodies made up either of pure aether or different mixtures of aether and air or earth.

Space was the aether, the continuum existing throughout the universe. Using corporeal water, the aether binds corporeal atoms together. Everything is located in aether as spiritus, the motionless immaterial medium through which the soul as the animating principle works. 

In the Christian view, God is identified with Truth with a capital “T”. God is the ultimate source of verification for any truth. Humans qua rational can discover that truth, a truth which accepts the existence of souls whereas in Bruno, there is no certainty for humans. Against the scepticism of Erasmus and Bruno, in the Christian view, sense perception is verified as sound and as the foundation for developing convictions which are certain. Further, such truths are verified by rational arguments and proofs.

God had decreed laws of nature, but was not bound by them. Further, though the Christian view was Aristotelian, Aristotle was sometimes wrong. The world was not “eternal according to reason” and “finite according to faith.” It was not eternal, full stop. This was rationalism at odds with Aristotelian rationalism which was revived in the 9th century and became predominant by the 12th century. The pure Aristotelian propositions differed from either choice in the above five rows.

  1. The universe is eternal and was never created.
  2. Hence, there was no creation of the universe at a specific point in time.
  3. The world qua eternal was not created as an act of divine will.
  4. To even suggest that before creation there was nothing employs the concept “before,” clearly implying that time existed before creation; the above assertion is self-contradictory.
  5. To assert that something comes to be presumes that there was a time before when it was not and therefore time cannot come to be with God’s creation.

Which of these three positions is the accurate one, Aristotle, the Christian or the Jewish view? Abraham ibn Daud wrote ha-Emunah ha-Ramah, The Exalted Faith, in 1160, decades before Moses Maimonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed. Both were Aristotelians. Both denied the previous precepts about creativity and cosmology in favour of the Aristotelian version. Both accepted the Aristotelian doctrine that the world consists of substance and accident, that is, ontologically substance trumps accident and accident is defined in terms of substance rather than viewing substance and accident as two perspectives on the same item or event. The implication: Being precedes Becoming, in contrast to the right column above that I have dubbed Jewish which focuses on Becoming as basic.

To be continued with a discussion of the four causes


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