Part IIC: Giordano Bruno and the Four Causes

In the Aristotelian view and in Bruno, there are four causes: material, efficient, formal and final. In his work, Cause Principle and Unity, Giordano Bruno not only challenged the cosmology of both Aristotle and its Christian and Jewish adaptations, but set out to shatter the whole world view that unfolded from the Aristotelian characterization of these causes.

For Aristotle, God is the first cause. Why? Because God is the final cause, the destination of a world seeking to settle into a natural order. It is a teleological view of the world. Bruno follows Aristotle in defining the final cause as the perfection of the universe. However, there is no natural pre-established order. Just as the world is Becoming rather than Being, God, too, is Becoming rather than Being. God is, “He who I shall be.” God is not complete but is He who reveals Himself over time. Thus, though perfection is the final cause, perfection, in contrast to Aristotle, does not exist.

Aristotle had a conception of potentiality and actuality. Potentiality is the possibility things were said to possess while actuality is the realization of the potential. Just as Being precedes Becoming in Aristotle, actuality is the activity, motion or change that fulfills what is already potential. Guidance counsellors who sit with students and insist they must discover who they really are, what they really have the potential to be, then work to realize that potential, are acting as Aristotelians. In that sense, the students have a possibility, but have to exert effort or will to make that possibility an actuality. On the other hand, since humans are animate beings, their destiny is built into them. Only one actuality can result from fulfilling a potentially. There is a necessary connection between possibility and actuality.

In contrast, in the case of inanimate matter, such as the water that lay over the deep, an external agency was required to give inanimate material a form. Copper piping is a possible outcome to giving form to copper ore, but this is but one of many possibilities. Further, not only does the agency belong to another, but so too does the final destination, though the possibilities are finite dependent on the potentiality of the material.

In Bruno, the marble of the statue and its form were constituents; hence, they were principles, the marble being the material, the form the formal principle. The other causes, by contrast, were extrinsic. A sculptor was the efficient cause of a statue who made it into what it became. He did so with a particular goal, e.g, David, an end, a final cause, in mind. Neither the sculptor nor his purpose were constituents of the finished piece. Analogously, the Universal Soul and Universal Matter were the two principles immanent in all things, whereas the Universal Intellect was the efficient cause of all things and so extrinsic to them. It also operated in accordance with a final and therefore extrinsic cause: the perfection of the universe as a goal rather than a given.

Christians read Genesis as setting out God’s redemptive plan for His creation. Under the influence of Aristotle, Christians read the Biblical text as a story of the effort to re-establish the natural order of the universe. When an external agent gives form to inanimate material, that party must do the best it can to fulfill its potential in giving shape to material. That is how perfection is achieved. However, in Bruno, there is no natural cosmological order; order is not only created but it is creativity that establishes order. The world begins in chaos and only God or the Universal Intelligence gives it form. In the process, as in Aristotle, the destination of this world is perfection. However, in Bruno, that perfection always remains a possibility and never an actuality, otherwise all potentiality would evaporate.

God’s creative activity in the Torah is about putting in place that which is good, not that which is either better or best. The language is about satisfaction, not perfection. Yet, in his own Commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut wrote that, “However one interprets the nature of God – as person or as process, as individual reality or as generalized principle – there are three basic ideas which the contemporary reader can share with biblical man and which are implicit in Genesis.

THAT God, as Father or Creative Force, provides all creation with purpose and that therefore to understand God means to understand one’s own potential;

THAT God, as Lawgiver, validates the principle of justice and righteousness which must govern the affairs of men;

THAT God, as Redeemer, guarantees the ultimate goals of existence and enables man to find meaning in his life.” (pp. 21-2)

God instills purpose right at the point of creation in humans. God provides the rules of justice to enable good governance. God is also the guarantor of fulfillment so that it is only by and through God that a person can realize his potential. This is a religious version of Aristotelianism.

In Bruno, purpose is discovered; it is not a given. The laws of nature that provide the rules are a result of the interaction of unformed matter (water or the deep) and are not a unilateral divine product. Thus, the laws of nature too come into being and are not a given. Finally, there are no guarantees, by God or anyone else. Results depend on what an individual brings to the table, the environment and how the two interact in relation to the divine force.

In Bruno, Plaut’s manifestations of God need not be. Bruno would also question Plaut’s statement about purpose. This is because Bruno gives a different meaning to efficient, formal and even final causes.

In the Bible, there are two sides to God’s agency. On one side, God’s hand gives shape to the world. On the other side, God’s word determines the form or categorization in understanding things. Classes, species, genera – all definitions and rules, including the discovery of the laws of nature, come about via words and language. Thus, since humans have both hands and language, they are partners with God in giving shape to the world. Bruno calls God’s word the Universal. Unlike Aristotelians, where God is transcendent and external to this world, for Bruno, the Intellect is the formative and organizing force which operates from the depth of nature.

By the 19th century, this would become Darwin’s theory of evolution, for Darwin married survival to upward and onward movement and change. Hence, though embedded fully in nature itself as process, the efficient cause is clearly temporal and mediates between the formal structures created and the chaos of matter. The laws of nature are the result. This process can provide humans with ethical and legal norms, but humans can use language as well and can determine among themselves the ethical and legal norms to govern their conduct.

This is radically different than Aristotelian teleology and the conception of potentiality and actuality. Why then did Rabbi Plaut as a Reform rabbi echo Aristotle? Recall, he wrote, “That God, as Father or Creative Force, provides all creation with purpose and that therefore to understand God means to understand one’s own potential.” This clearly harks back to the Aristotelian version of Genesis wherein God provides what is potential and it becomes the human responsibility to make it actual. Nachmanides, claimed that on the first day, God’s creative act produced the first form and matter that constitutes the undifferentiated sky and earth and, thereby, the potentiality out of which actual different objects arise. The issue is whether potentiality refers to establishing possibilities or is the actuality contained wholly within the potential?

However, there is no potential/actual language used in the Torah text. Further, matter as water exists as does wind or air as an expression of God. The sky and the earth are not potential undifferentiated realms, but a division of the whole cosmos into two radically opposite realms. In terms of purpose, the goal is not perfection, but hope. God is hope. God is He who reveals Himself over time and in time, not because of a pre-existing imprint, but because creativity is applied to the imprint we inherit. Bruno went a long way in reading the Hebrew text as it is written rather than as an expression which needed to be wrapped in Aristotelian principles to be understood.

Bruno does capture the essence of Nature characteristic of the Torah as well as modern scientific conceptions. Reality is a unitary process in which matter is expressed as both content and form, but, in the end, it is not a singular perfection, but a packed world with a variety of species and genera. “Be fruitful and multiply;” that is God’s mission to humanity.

Obviously, this can only be an introduction to a very small part of Bruno’s cosmology. What I have tried to demonstrate is how Bruno escaped both the Aristotelian vice grip as well as the Christian redemptive portrait to paint a vision of the cosmos that was closer both to the biblical text and our contemporary understanding of nature wherein matter is the constituent principle of reality. Matter and soul, therefore, are but two sides of the same thing viewed from two opposite perspectives. Further, matter itself is divisible into the sensible, what we now think of as matter expressed in separate and specific entities, and the intelligible expression that captures the unity in things, a unity expressed at different levels. Here again, the separating and uniting, the extensive and intensive, are viewed as two aspects of the same thing. Matter given form always includes corporeality and incorporeality.

How did Bruno make that breakthrough? One thesis is that he did so by understanding the art of the Renaissance in which linear perspective played such an important part. To realistically portray space and depth in the paintings of the sixteenth century, a vanishing point on a two-dimensional surface was identified as the means of giving the painting a unity.

Bruno is a dialectical thinker who conceives the world as a unity of opposites where the divine is expressed everywhere and in everything as contradictions – eternity and instant, point and extension or body, maximum and minimum, matter and energy in our contemporary parlance. Each contradiction is resolved only to posit a new one. The process is never ending.

Michael Greenstein sent me a reference to show how Bruno was not only influenced by art but in turn influenced one of the most important novelists of all time, James Joyce. (Cf. Joseph C. Voeiker (1976) “‘Nature it is’: The influence of Giordano Bruno on James Joyce’s Molly Bloom,” James Joyce Quarterly: 14:1, Fall, 39-48.)

Let me offer you a few extracts. “Joyce’s women live in close contact with their senses…women…are flowing rivers and spinning earthballs, disguises for Nature, whom Joyce deployed in his life-long war with the proponents of Grace.” Joyce borrowed his conception of Nature from Bruno, wherein Nature is at once an eternal unchanging substance and, paradoxically, is expressed as ever changing, both as spirit comprising all possibilities, as multiple existences, and matter, that which is divided and re-divided from an initial, formless, indeterminate and undifferentiated unity, what I have called, and the Torah dubs, the Deep. Women, therefore, for Joyce, as expressions of Nature are formless rivers and formed spinning earthballs.

God is the divine immanent (as distinct from transcendent) intelligence in Nature which gives form to the inchoate and chaotic material fluid but unformed world. God, then is unformed material and formed substance, atoms, that occupy minimal space, and, at the same time, energy that occupies maximal space. “The least, therefore, is paradoxically the greatest; the trivial is the profound.” And that which is least becomes the most so Bruno is multiplied in a myriad of forms in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. As Bill Kuhns wrote, Bruno appears as Saint Bruno as well as Bruno Nowlan and other figures.

As Bruno argued in his Fifth Dialogue in his cosmology volume Cause Principle and Unity, “It is profound magic to know how to draw out the contrary after having found the point of union.” And it will be the creativity of what he referred to as magic that we can grasp and control the process. That takes us to the inverse of cosmology, the Kabbalah.

To be continued.

One of the notes that I received back on Bruno’s cosmology is the following, which I found worth including as an addendum.

There might be a way out from the apparent conflict between Aristotle prime elements and Torah / Physics / Plato attributes of God.

Aristotle’s prime elements: earth, water, air and fire represent, in my opinion, four basic states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

First sentences of Torah describe manifested (revealed) attributes of God, or observable World in Physics:
Bereshit in Torah = Time in Physics. As you mentioned; the starting moment necessarily implies the preceding and following moments – time continuum. 
Heaven in Torah = Space in Physics
Earth and Water in Torah = Matter in Physics
Wind in Torah = Movement or Motion in Physics
Light in Torah = Energy in Physics

Therefore those distinctions should not be confused: one deals with modes of matter and the other with domains of existence. This wider view is also incomplete. According to Spinoza and to some degree Plato and Plotinus, those few manifested attributes of the World that we relate to, are insignificant to comprehend infinite attributes of God.

On Being versus Becoming relationship I would lean towards the view that Becoming is a part of Being but it is like an egg and chicken dilemma. Probably it is better to avoid a hard ruling on this subject not to become a victim of a paradox or an arbitrary overreach.

Bruno’s assertion that “the cosmos, in general, was not finite but consisted of an infinite number of solar systems like ours” got him executed by the Inquisition. We can see clearly in the light of last 10 years discovery (mostly by Kepler space telescope launched in 2009) of thousands exoplanets, that his assertion was correct. In the conservative estimates there are about 30 billion planets orbiting home stars in our galaxy and there are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe.


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