Part IV: Bruno – Science, Magic and Memory

In his 1582 volume, Shadows, Bruno openly alludes to the magic statues of Asclepius, seen on medical symbols holding a staff with a serpent wrapped around it. Asclepius was the Greco-Roman god of medicine and son of Apollo, the god who could see through all time – past, present and future. He gave birth to five daughters, each one expressing a different aspect of the healing profession – hygiene and prevention, treatment and recuperation, its process, its signs (e.g. red cheeks) and, last but not least, panacea, the goddess of cure-alls. Asclepius was the god not only of healing but of truth and prophecy as well.

It was those lesser and more hidden features of Asclepius to which Bruno was really referring, for they were about magic while healing was about science. Bruno in his life unequivocally swore absolute obedience to both truth and prophecy. Recall though that Zeus, the chief god, who feared that Asclepius might teach humans immortality, executed him with a thunderbolt. The Catholic Church would use the more mundane means of fire to murder Bruno. Further, unlike the funeral pyre Apollo built for his only true love, Coronis, whom he had murdered in a fit of jealousy, Bruno was burned alive. In contrast, Apollo saved the life of the unborn foetus of his love for Coronis who grew up to be Asclepius. After Asclepius’ medical training under a centaur, he joined Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece before he set up his medical practice. For Bruno, the Golden Fleece would always be both truth and Truth.

And the magic? It was concerned with Truth. Not science but herbs, herbs that could not only heal but could bring the dead back to life. Asclepius learned this magic when he was in a jail cell of King Minos of Cretewhere he was cast because he could not bring the son of the king back to life. The king had murdered his son in a fit of rage. In jail, Asclepius saw the mate of a snake bring her crushed and chopped up partner back to life (hence the two snakes wrapped around the staff of healing that is the symbol of medicine). After first disappointing King Minos, Asclepius learned the art of resurrection. For learning this latter magical art, Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt.

Hence, the reality that medicine is both an art and a science. The art requires intuition and empathy with the other rather than the objectivity and detachment of science. The art requires humility whereas it is the scientific, not the magical side of medicine, employed by itself that can turn doctors into gods. Unfortunately, as we shall see, Bruno’s objectivity made him extremely arrogant while his love of mysticism never seemed to teach him the importance of humility and identification with the problems of the other.

In Shadows, the skill in memory is based on a fundamental division between rules for places or locus, that he calls subjectus, and the image that he calls adjectus. They appear to correspond to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the cognitive and the fictional imagination – except Bruno’s names seem counter-intuitive because the fictional imagination would seem to be subjective while the cognitive imagination is objective. However, Bruno calls the latter adjectus, in Latin, ‘to add to,” not objective. Further, subjectus in Latin means “to place under.” The cognitive imagination is indeed subjectus because it begins, as Adam does, with categorization. In contrast, adjectus refers to the fictional imagination, the characterization of which is breaking rather than imposing boundaries.

It seems clear then that cosmology relies on subjectus while mysticism relies on adjectus, the objective world of science and the subjective world of the magically animated imagination respectively. The former characterized Bruno’s Aristotelian inheritance, except that he combined it with empirical observation. For him, the senses and the understanding were two necessary sides of the same activity. Hence, his respect for Aristotle and for his acolyte, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who, however, had framed his memory rules to exclude magic, to exclude the Ars Notoria.

The Dominicans trained Bruno in his skill of memory. Further, that is also why readers generally ignore the credit that Bruno gives to the objective or cognitive imagination because Bruno concentrated on offering much more material on the innovation of the Renaissance and its focus on the occult. That focus was presented in Shadows by the figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Nevertheless, Bruno never backs away from his praise of Aquinas and Aristotle even though he insisted that he went well beyond them.

Thus, in his dialogues, Hermes Trismegistus is in conflict with rationalists like Logifer the Pedant, Vigilius and Erasmus. The works of the former are seen to be akin to religious revelation. Adjectus is unerring, akin to the insights of the Egyptian priests and captured by the image of the rising sun. Later in the 19th century, Hegel would identify subjectus with the setting of the sun at which time the Owl of Minerva appears. The wise Owl of Minerva looks backward in time. In contrast, the rising of the day focuses on adjectus; it is prophetic and announces the world that will be unfolding before our eyes. It captures the Truth because it avoids the fallacious senses.

The great teacher of the art of memory was Giulio Camillo whom Bruno studied in the Dominican monastery. Camillo was a polished Venetian orator, always well-organized and neoclassical in his presentation even when he insisted that the core of his rational system was esoteric and occult. Bruno, on the other hand, even though he had mastered logic and reason, was unrestrained and wild, passionate and inventive and inverted the Camillo memory system into a mystery cult.  The south of Italy, the world of Naples, was envisioned as superseding the Venetian (later Milanese) north.

Astrology offers a cosmological system, but one which does not separate the heavens from the earth as in the Torah, but insists that there is a correspondence between the order of the upper world and that of the lower. Alchemy was another occult “science” for it claimed to be in pursuit of the secret by which one thing could be transformed radically into another. Another pseudo-science developed during the sixteenth century was physiognomy whereby facial characters are used to reveal character – big noses mean that a person is greedy. These were pseudo-sciences because they relied on an admixture of subjectus and adjectus. Bruno insisted that the two methods of memory belonged to two radically different worlds and he did not buy into the Magia Naturalis of the famous magician of the mid-16th century, Giovanni Battista della Porta.

Della Porta distinguished natural from artificial memory. However, the latter, associated with what Bruno called adjectus, was entirely confined to order and system that merely used rooms of pictures, especially those of Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, or the insides of palaces or geometric figures or even human figures as a means of arranging memories in a systematic order. Magic was excluded.

Bruno was possibly most influenced by Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) who had an epiphany and replaced his subjectus memory with a new emphasis on adjectus. He broke the stranglehold of rationalists like Aquinas; Bruno undoubtedly read Agrippa’s manual on magic. This was the real Hermetic secret of memory. Towards the latter part of the 16th century, the occult tradition became more daring.

Since we are largely descended from the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment Talmudists, this romance with the occult may seem strange. Stranger still, why is it that an occultist like Bruno learned to love Jews through the Kabbalah while rationalists from Erasmus to Voltaire found them so repulsive? Instead, Bruno used incantations and the signs of the zodiac, the magic of the alphabet used by Hebrew mystics and the correlation of letters with numbers, to stretch the mind and create perhaps the most powerful expression of the art of memory in history.

“A wheel within a wheel,” but is it the rational will used in service of the imaginative one or is the imaginative wheel subordinated to the cognitive imagination? Bruno specifically cited De auditu kabbalistico as a source of inspiration. In the Torah, and in many rabbinic commentaries, the number 40 has a magical quality. For Bruno it was the number 30. As he wrote, “the Jewish Cabalists reduce to ten sephiroth” the realm that he expanded by a multiple of three. But why not four? After all, the secret name of God is a tetragram. For the Kabbalists, the world has four cardinal points.

The secret is found in cosmology. For the inanimate world is created in the first three days – correcting for slipshod copiers – and the animate world in the next three days. A week consists of 3+3+1 days. A lunar month, however, consists of 4×7 or 28 days. What is the source of 30? Judas sold out for 30 shekels of silver. The secret may be that the figure of four belongs to the realm of rationality. Thus, rational decisions themselves have to encompass four quadrants as follows:

A Frame for comprehending rational decisions:

  Present Future
Abstract Intentions & categorical imperatives
fundamental principles
Goals and ideals
Concrete Particular circumstances Consequential

In contrast, in the world of magic, in the world of evil, three is the predominant number. In the Garden of Eden there were three characters: Adam, Eve and the Serpent. But the tale began with one and then only two. Further, the creation of the world began with two elements, water and wind (air) and from those two, by distillation, we got earth by evaporation and excluding water. With blowing wind and lots of rain, the earth is lit on fire and rises as lightning criss-crosses the heavens.

All systems in all cultures begin with a fundamental duality, a Yin and Yang by which the basics of the world can be understood. That complementary duality becomes a polarity when one pole can be converted to another as we move along a scale with the two opposites as poles rather than two mutually exhaustive realms (Yin and Yang). The two becomes four when one duality is married to another to produce four quadrants. Magic is found in the three and rationality in the four.

In the magical realm of Bruno it works by creating sets of thirty (3 x 2 x 5 (3+2)) = 30 and 30 x 5 = 150. That is Bruno’s magical wheel. Once one understands the basis of the system, once one learns to file everything in terms of this system, then memory becomes relatively easy.

I should have been born in the Middle Ages then I would not have to look up and check everything. Perhaps I too could have married rational and intuitive thought.


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