Aug 5th 2023

Giordano Bruno, 475 Years Later

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.

In the early morning hours of February 17, 1600, a man was carted to Rome’s Campo d’Fiori where, chained by the neck, he was stripped naked, hung upside down and burned at the stake, the culmination of seven long years of confinement in the Prison of the Roman Inquisition. His ashes were thrown into the Tiber River. If you make your way to the bustling and lively square today you will find at its center a statue honoring that man, Giordano Bruno. Described as the ‘most militant statue in Rome,’ the monument was erected in 1889 and presents the hooded Bruno in the cowl of a friar, facing toward the Vatican, as if silently reprimanding the Roman Catholic Church for his execution.

This year marks the 475th anniversary of Giordano Bruno’s birth in 1548 in the small town of Nola, a short distance from Naples. The intervening years since his death have seen Bruno’s status grow – as a thinker and poet, astronomer, philosopher and master of mnemonics, or the art of memory. It is now acknowledged that in claiming the universe was infinite, with infinite suns like our own, the Nolan was some 400 years ahead of his time. But what finally had him condemned by the Roman Inquisition was that the “apostate monk demanded free inquiry into truth, unprejudiced and unaffected by theologic authority.” According to a more recent biographer, Bruno was delivered to the flames because he ultimately refused to acknowledge the authority of those who sat in judgment over him.

Bruno deserves to be remembered for his devotion to truth, and the freedom of thought to bravely follow wherever the truth may lead. His intrepid constancy was immense, his vision of reality was profound and anticipated the greatest minds of the early modern era, including especially Baruch Spinoza. Bruno can be a very difficult read unless one is well-versed in the controversies of late renaissance thought. He can be daunting but he could also write clearly, pointedly, and with withering irony. He could also be outrageously funny.

In terms of his metaphysics, Bruno was, in a word, a pantheist. This is why it is often said that he was a forerunner to Spinoza, the true ‘father of modern naturalism,’ as Richard Bernstein has recently argued. As Hegel would characterize Bruno’s conception of ultimate reality: ‘The things which appear to be different are only modifications of one single thing which includes in its existence all other existence.’ Schopenhauer once wrote that both Bruno and Spinoza would have been at home on the banks of the Ganges. Schopenhauer was referring to the theoretical or theological kinship between Bruno’s One, Spinoza’s Substance and the monistic conception of Brahman that we find, for example, in Advaita Vedanta, where it is an entirely pantheistic, homogenous (undifferentiated) principle of Reality.

Bruno is, among other things, a great thinker of the One, putting him in a tradition going back to Parmenides. As he writes in the dedication of his comedic play, Candelaio (The Candlemaker): “Time takes away all and grants all, everything changes, nothing is destroyed; only one thing cannot change, one, alone and eternal, and only one can abide eternally, consistent and identical. With this philosophy my spirit grows large, and my intellect is magnified… everything that is, is either here or there, near or far, now or later, sooner or later. Rejoice, then, and if you can, be well, and love the one who loves you.” Bruno represents the indomitable power of thought, its irreducibility, its freedom to rise above the present, to see beyond the horizon, and grasp the infinite.

For Bruno, there is no limitation to which thought is irremediably bound. There is nothing that in principle cannot be known. The fatal problem for every philosophy of finitude is that when it says thought can travel this far and no farther it has already gone beyond the limit. As Theodor Adorno would point out, once you assign limits to reason, “is there not a sense in which you already raise yourself beyond these limits? And if reason claims to tell you how far you may go and how far you may not go, does this not already imply that reason somehow stands beyond the limits which are set by reason itself?” This is also Hegel’s fundamental objection to Kantian idealism: as soon as you say that we cannot have knowledge of the world as a whole you’ve gone beyond the limit, because that requires you to make a judgment about the whole. Indeed, there is nothing that is intrinsically unknown or unknowable.

I have a modest claim to make: we need Bruno today more than ever. This is because he represents an intellectual antidote to the prevailing ideology of today which tells us that we are doomed to finitude, which comes down politically to the assertion that there is no alternative to the reign of global capitalism. Of course, Bruno did not know about capitalism, globalization or neoliberalism. What he did know however is that humanity is infinite. That we are limited only by our own narrowness of vision.

Bruno is a militant for truth: he “raises the human measure of faithfulness and strengthens reverence for what is of highest and best in man.” What would it mean to remain faithful to the truth his life embodies? In a word: resist. It would mean to refuse to accept what is, to accept the given. Bruno was not a revolutionary as such, but his fidelity to the universal compels him to meet his enemies, who have all the power of authority on their side, with steadfastness and fidelity born of the truth. Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system “appeared to him an inspiration of genius. Therefore, he defended it, extended it further than its originator dared extend it, and finally died for it and for all that it meant to him.”

Bruno fully grasped and embraced the philosophical implications of Copernican theory, including the homogeneity of substance between the earth and the celestial bodies, and the identity of laws governing their motion. There was no need for a first mover external to the material world, as movement was intrinsic to extended bodies. Bruno asserted that the universe was infinite, with infinite solar systems like our own; he even claimed that the universe was teeming with life. These were shocking claims for his era. “To Bruno and to Bruno alone the suggestion of Copernicus entered into the pattern of a completely new cosmological order.” He did not simply anticipate Galileo and Kepler, but went beyond them, envisioning an “entirely new world which had shed all the dross of tradition.”

We need to revive his legacy, because Bruno’s life and thought evince the virtues of which we are in such short supply. What is so important about his cosmological and speculative daring is not simply that it is centuries ahead of his time. Bruno stands in eternal defiance of any effort to give finitude the last word. We are Immortals, not because we continue to live after our bodies die, but because we can participate in immortal truth. Or as Bruno wrote, “The wise feareth not death; rather she sometimes striveth for death, she goeth beyond to meet her. Yet eternity maintaineth her substance throughout time, immensity throughout space, universal form throughout motion.” If it is the denial of eternity that is at the basis of the nihilism that we are witnessing today, then we have need of Bruno. We need Bruno not to propose us an afterlife of the soul, but to remind us that there are eternal truths, that ‘the mind is eternal to the extent that it grasps the things from the perspective of eternity,’ and in the final analysis it is only by keeping faith with what is eternal do we truly become Immortals.

Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 16th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Trump joins tens of thousands of Americans treated for non-fatal gunshot wounds each year. Such experiences can shatter people’s assumptions that they are living in a safe, understandable and controllable world, leaving them feeling unworthy, unsafe and unsure. As a result, survivors of non-fatal gun violence face increased risks of depression, anxiety, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can feel overwhelming." ---- ".... some trauma survivors experience post-traumatic growth. They may develop greater empathy, stronger relationships, deeper spirituality and find new meaning in life. After being shot in 1981, the then president Ronald Reagan’s trauma seemed to deepen his sense of empathy and humility. He felt God had spared him for a reason, spurring him to reduce nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union."
Jul 15th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose are not metabolised by the human body so they are excreted – this is what makes them low-calorie sugar alternatives. And that’s where the environmental problem begins. Current wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove these sugar mimics, meaning they end up in our environment – in our water, rivers and soil." --- "Forever chemicals are increasingly present in our streams, rivers and oceans – most notably per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that don’t degrade. PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in many consumer products, including skincare products, cosmetics and waterproof clothing. PFAS can remain in the human body for many years, and some present significant risks to our health – potentially causing liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, infertility and cancer."
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACTS: "Psychologist, James Hillman had concerns about what I like to call the 'loneliness-as-pathology' "---- "....Hillman went on to argue...: 'If loneliness is an archetypal sense built into us all from the very beginning, then, to be alive is also to be lonely. Loneliness, therefore, will come and go as it chooses in the course of a lifetime, quite apart from our efforts to deny or avoid this reality.' "
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACT: "How can we be at least 15 times richer than our pre-industrial Agrarian Age predecessors, and yet so unhappy? One explanation is that we are not wired for it: nothing in our heritage or evolutionary past prepared us to deal with a society of more than 150 people. To operate our increasingly complex technologies and advance our prosperity, we somehow must coordinate among more than eight billion people."
Jun 25th 2024
EXTRACTS: "What’s interesting about the entire Russia-North Korea showy display of camaraderie is China’s response: silence. China has misgivings about how things are unfolding, which reports suggest prompted Chinese president Xi Jinping’s call to Putin to call off the latter’s visit to Pyongyang. Obviously, Putin didn’t heed Xi’s request." ----- "The Sino-Korean animosity dates back centuries and took shape when Korea was a vassal state of imperial China. Unfortunately, this animosity extended to modern times when Mao Zedong decided to station Chinese troops in North Korea even after the conclusion of the Korean war, and when Beijing did not aid Pyongyang in its nuclear ambitions. It didn’t help either that the founding leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, was suspected of espionage and was nearly executed by the Chinese Communist party in the 1930s."
Jun 19th 2024
EXTRACT: "Ultra-processed foods (such as packaged snacks, sugary drinks, instant noodles and ready-to-eat meals) often contain emulsifiers, microparticles (such as titanium dioxide), thickeners, stabilisers, flavours and colourants. While research on humans is limited, studies on mice have shown that these ingredients alter the gut microbiome (the community of microorganisms living in the intestines) in several ways. These many microbiome changes can in turn affect the way the immune system functions."
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Alzheimer’s disease can be split in two subgroups, familial and sporadic. Only 5% of patients with Alzheimer’s are familial, inherited, and 95% of Alzheimer’s patients are sporadic, due to environmental, lifestyle and genetic risk factors. Consequently, the most effective tactic for tackling Alzheimer’s is preventative and living a healthy lifestyle. This has led researchers to study risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "This study suggests that around 10% of people diagnosed with dementia may instead have underlying silent liver disease with HE causing or contributing to the symptoms – an important diagnosis to make as HE is treatable."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "Health disparity is a powerful weapon in the savage class warfare otherwise known as neoliberalism. (In 2020, the RAND Corporation did a study of the transfer of wealth over the last several decades from the working-class and the middle-class to the top one percent. Their estimate is a staggering $47 trillion – that is how much the “upward redistribution of income” cost American workers between 1975 and 2018.) Neoliberalism is a brutal form of labor suppression, which uses health as a means of maintaining and reproducing a condition in which wealth is constantly being redistributed upwards, and the middle-class is kept in a constant state of fear of sinking into the ranks of the poor. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcies in America – and that’s according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. The ballooning costs of healthcare serve to maintain a system marked by morally unacceptable health inequity and injustice."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT. "But living longer has also come at a price. We’re now seeing higher rates of chronic and degenerative diseases – with heart disease consistently topping the list. So while we’re fascinated by what may help us live longer, maybe we should be more interested in being healthier for longer. Improving our “healthy life expectancy” remains a global challenge. Interestingly, certain locations around the world have been discovered where there are a high proportion of centenarians who display remarkable physical and mental health. The AKEA study of Sardinia, Italy, as example, identified a “blue zone” (named because it was marked with blue pen),....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACT: ""Tresors en Noir et Blanc" presents 180 prints from the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, also known as the Petit Palais.  The basis of the museum's print collection is 20,000 engravings amassed by a 19th-century collector, Eugene Dutuit, " ----- "This wonderful exhibition, the tip of a great iceberg, serves to emphasize how unfortunate it is that the tens of thousands of prints owned by the Petit Palais are almost never seen by more than a handful of scholars who visit them by appointment.  Nor is the Petit Palais the only offender in this regard,....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "And that is the clue to Manet’s work. He paints painting, regardless of his subject: he paints the medium itself, it as if he is constantly reminding us that this is a painting," ..........."This is a new conception of painterly truth at play here, a new fidelity to truth. Manet is the Kant of painting because he initiates a similar kind of “Copernican revolution” – we do not see the world as it is but as we are. " -------- " Among the most remarkable but unfamiliar of Manet’s work on display are those depicting the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.There is no question regarding Manet’s condemnation of the Versailles government’s actions following the defeat of the Commune, when some 25,000 Parisians were gunned down, including women and children."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Think of our brain like a map. When we’re young, we explore all corners of this map, sending out connections in every direction to make sense of our environment. Before long, we figure out basic truths – such as how to secure food, or where we live – and the neurological paths that make up these connections strengthen. Over time, a network emerges that reflects our unique experiences. Regions we re-visit often will develop established paths, whereas under-used connections will fade away. ---- Conditions such as addiction, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterised by processes such as repetitive negative thinking or rumination, where patients focus on negative thoughts in a counterproductive way. Unfortunately, these strengthen brain connections that perpetuate the unfavourable mental state."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "While no one was looking, France has become a melting pot of European peoples. Its neighbors have traditionally been welcomed, and France progressively turned them into French boys and girls in the next generation."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Being rich is essentially about having more stuff in general, including bigger houses." "..... if SUVs had not become widely adopted largely as a status symbol for the global middle classes, emissions from transport would have fallen by 30% over the past ten years. For the largest class of SUVs, six of the ten areas of the UK registering the most sales were affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "By using these “biomarkers”, researchers have discovered that when a person’s biological age surpasses their chronological age, it often signifies accelerated cell ageing and a higher susceptibility to age-related diseases." ----- "Imagine two 60-year-olds enrolled in our study. One had a biological age of 65, the other 60. The one with the more accelerated biological age had a 20% higher risk of dementia and a 40% higher risk of stroke."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "We are working on a completely new approach to 'machine intelligence'. Instead of using ..... software, we have developed .... hardware that operates much more efficiently."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "When people think of foods related to type 2 diabetes, they often think of sugar (even though the evidence for that is still not clear). Now, a new study from the US points the finger at salt." ...... ".... this type of study, called an observational study, cannot prove that one thing causes another, only that one thing is related to another. (There could be other factors at play.) So it is not appropriate to say removing the saltshaker 'can help prevent'." ..... "Normal salt intake in countries like the UK is about 8g or two teaspoons a day. But about three-quarters of this comes from processed foods. Most of the rest is added during cooking with very little added at the table."
Oct 26th 2023


In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."