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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Giordano Bruno (1548–1600)

PILIPPO BRUNO, known as Giordano Bruno, was born at Nola, near Naples, in 1548. This was eight years after the death of Copernicus, whose system he eagerly espoused, and ten years before the birth of Bacon, with whom he associated in England. Of an ardent, poetic temperament, he entered the Dominican order in Naples at the early age of sixteen, doubtless attracted to conventual life by the opportunities of study it offered to an eager intellect. Bruno had been in the monastery nearly thirteen years when he was accused of heresy in attacking some of the dogmas of the Church. He fled first to Rome and then to Northern Italy, where he wandered about for three seasons from city to city, teaching and writing. In 1579 he arrived at Geneva, then the stronghold of the Calvinists. Coming into conflict with the authorities there on account of his religious opinions, he was thrown into prison. He escaped and went to Toulouse, at that time the literary center of Southern France, where he lectured for a year on Aristotle. His restless spirit, however, drove him on to Paris. Here he was made professor extraordinary at the Sorbonne.

Although his teachings were almost directly opposed to the philosophic tenets of the time, attacking the current dogmas, and Aristotle, the idol of the schoolmen, yet such was the power of Bruno’s eloquence and the charm of his manner that crowds flocked to his lecture-room, and he became one of the most popular foreign teachers the university had known. Under pretense of expounding the writings of Thomas Aquinas, he set forth his own philosophy. He also spoke much on the art of memory, amplifying the writings of Raymond Lully; and these principles, formulated by the monk of the thirteenth century and taken up again by the free-thinkers of the sixteenth, are the basis of all the present-day mnemonics.

But Bruno went even further. He attracted the attention of King Henry III. of France, who in 1583 introduced him to the French ambassador to England, Castelnuovo di Manvissière. Going to London, he spent three years in the family of this nobleman, more as friend than dependent. They were the happiest, or at least the most restful years of his stormy life. England was just then entering on the glorious epoch of her Elizabethan literature. Bruno came into the brilliant court circles, meeting even the Queen, who cordially welcomed all men of culture, especially the Italians. The astute monk reciprocated her good-will by paying her the customary tribute of flattery. He won the friendship of Sir Philip Sidney, to whom he dedicated two of his books, and enjoyed the acquaintance of Spenser, Sir Fulke Greville, Dyer, Harvey, Sir William Temple, Bacon, and other wits and poets of the day.

At that time—somewhere about 1580—Shakespeare was still serving his apprenticeship as playwright, and had perhaps less claim on the notice of the observant foreigner than his elder contemporaries. London was still a small town, where the news of the day spread rapidly, and where, no doubt, strangers were as eagerly discussed as they are now within narrow town limits. Bruno’s daring speculations could not remain the exclusive property of his own coterie. And as Shakespeare had the faculty of absorbing all new ideas afloat in the air, he would hardly have escaped the influence of the teacher who proclaimed in proud self-confidence that he was come to arouse men out of their theological stagnation. His influence on Bacon is more evident, because of their friendly associations. Bruno lectured at Oxford, but the English university found less favor in his eyes than English court life. Pedantry had indeed set its fatal mark on scholarship, not only on the Continent but in England. Aristotle was still the god of the pedants of that age, and dissent from his teaching was heavily punished, for the dry dust of learning blinded the eyes of the scholastics to new truths.

Bruno, the knight-errant of these truths, devoted all his life to scourging pedantry, and dissented in toto from the idol of the schools. No wonder he and Oxford did not agree together. He wittily calls her “the widow of sound learning,” and again, “a constellation of pedantic, obstinate ignorance and presumption, mixed with a clownish incivility that would tax the patience of Job.” He lashed the shortcomings of English learning in ‘La Cena delle Ceneri’ (Ash Wednesday Conversation). But Bruno’s roving spirit, and perhaps also his heterodox tendencies, drove him at last from England, and for the next five years he roamed about Germany, leading the life of the wandering scholars of the time, always involved in conflicts and controversies with the authorities, always antagonistic to public opinion. Flying in the face of the most cherished traditions, he underwent the common experience of all prophets: the minds he was bent on awakening refused to be aroused.

Finally he was invited by Zuone Mocenigo of Venice to teach him the higher and secret learning. The Venetian supposed that Bruno, with more than human erudition, possessed the art of conveying knowledge into the heads of dullards. Disappointed in this expectation, he quarreled with his teacher, and in a spirit of revenge picked out of Bruno’s writings a mass of testimony sufficient to convict him of heresy. This he turned over to the Inquisitor at Venice, Bruno was arrested, convicted, and sent to the Inquisition in Rome. When called upon there to recant, he replied, “I ought not to recant, and I will not recant.” He was accordingly confined in prison for seven years, then sentenced to death. On hearing the warrant he said, “It may be that you fear more to deliver this judgment than I to bear it.” On February 17th, 1600, he was burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori at Rome. He remained steadfast to the end, saying, “I die a martyr, and willingly.” His ashes were cast into the Tiber. In 1889, his statue was unveiled on the very spot where he suffered; and the Italian government brought out the ‘National Edition,’ of his Latin works. The Italian works were edited later by Croce and Gentile.

In their substance Bruno’s writings belong to philosophy rather than to literature, although they are still interesting both historically and biographically as an index of the character of the man and of the temper of the time. Many of the works have either perished or are hidden away in inaccessible archives. For two hundred years they were tabooed, and as late as 1836 forbidden to be shown in the public library of Dresden. He published twenty-five works in Latin and Italian, and left many others incomplete, for in all his wanderings he was continually writing. The eccentric titles show his desire to attract attention: as ‘The Work of the Great Key,’ ‘The Exploration of the Thirty Seals,’ etc. The first extant work is ‘Il Candelajo’ (The Taper), a comedy which in its license of language and manner vividly reflects the time. In the dedication he discloses his philosophy: “Time takes away everything and gives everything.” The ‘Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante’ (Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast), the most celebrated of his works, is an attack on the superstitions of the day, a curious medley of learning, imagination, and buffoonery. ‘Degl’ Eroici Furori’ (The Heroic Enthusiasts) is the most interesting to modern readers, and in its majestic exaltation and poetic imagery is a true product of Italian culture.

Bruno was evidently a man of vast intellect and of immense erudition. His philosophic speculations comprehended not only the ancient thought, and that current at his time, but also reached out toward the future and the results of modern science. He perceived some of the facts which were later formulated in the theory of evolution. “The mind of man differs from that of lower animals and of plants not in quality but only in quantity…. Each individual is the resultant of innumerable individuals. Each species is the starting point for the next…. No individual is the same to-day as yesterday.”

Not only in this divination of coming truths is he modern, but also in his methods of investigation. Reason was to him the guide to truth. In a study of him Lewes says:—“Bruno was a true Neapolitan child—as ardent as its soil … as capricious as its varied climate. There was a restless energy which fitted him to become the preacher of a new crusade—urging him to throw a haughty defiance in the face of every authority in every country,—an energy which closed his wild adventurous career at the stake.” He was distinguished also by a rich fancy, a varied humor, and a chivalrous gallantry, which constantly remind us that the intellectual athlete is an Italian, and an Italian of the sixteenth century.