- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st Edition edition (August 19, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0809095246
- ISBN-13: 978-0809095247
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 27 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #841,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic Hardcover – August 19, 2008
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You sometimes hear the name Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) invoked as a prequel to the life of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). These two natural philosophers, countrymen of the Italian peninsula, stood ready to shove the Earth from its ancient resting place and set it in orbit around the Sun. Though a rotating, revolving Earth challenged common sense and flew in the face of received wisdom, still they both embraced the idea—at their peril. The difference is that Bruno died for his beliefs (tied to a stake and set on fire in a public square in Rome), while Galileo recanted before the Inquisition and lived to advanced old age under house arrest. Legend connects their destinies, reducing Bruno's awful immolation to a cautionary tale that warns Galileo against too vigorous a defense of the dangerous new astronomy. But, as Ingrid Rowland makes clear in her probing, thoughtful biography, Bruno's support for the Sun-centered cosmos paled next to the rest of his crimes. He was a true heretic by the Catholic Church's definition, for he doubted the divinity of Jesus, the virginity of Mary and the transubstantiation of the Communion wafer into the body of Christ. Protestants—among whom Bruno lived for a time in Switzerland, France, Germany and England—also branded him a heretic, since he was, after all, a professed priest of the Dominican order. Bruno managed, in the span of his 52 years, to be excommunicated twice—from the Calvinist Church as well as the Catholic. Rowland identifies Bruno in her subtitle as philosopher and heretic. Her full text rounds out the list of his many other deserved epithets, including poet, playwright, private tutor, professor of sacred theology, linguist, master of the art of memory, even copy editor. As a philosopher, Bruno went far beyond the Sun-centered cosmology of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). Apparently the first man to envision infinity, Bruno posited an endlessly renewed and recreated universe. Its limitless expanses of space knew no particular center, but contained innumerable suns, circled by a plurality of earths—and every one of them inhabited. Rowland's own translations of Bruno's many works, including On the Immense and the Numberless, add immeasurably to her portrait of him. In 1581 he described himself as having the look of a lost soul... for the most part you'll see him irritated, recalcitrant, and strange, content with nothing, stubborn as an old man of eighty, skittish as a dog that has been whipped a thousand times, a weepy onion eater. He came into the world to light a fire, Rowland acknowledges of her subject. That he did, and in the end it consumed him. 8 pages of b&W illus. (Aug.)Dava Sobel, the author of Longitude, Galileo's Daughter and The Planets, is at work on a play about Copernicus.
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On a purely informational level, there is a lot here. Rowland shared a number of anecdotes about Bruno's life which have stuck in my mind: his getting caught with a forbidden book in the latrine, the mockery of his high-flown rhetorical style by the English, his own fondness for mockery and cursing even in the prisons of the Inquisition.
But more telling than the individual anecdotes are the larger ideas that span Bruno's life story. I was particularly fascinated by his expertise in memorization techniques. In a time when books and writing ability were rare, the ability to memorize vast amounts of information was an important skill. Bruno, apparently, was highly prized as a teacher of his own memorization technique which allowed him to make a living during his years as a wanderer across Europe.
And, of course, there was the development of his philosophical ideas. He is probably best known for developing the idea of an infinite universe where the stars could be individual solar systems with their own planets. This alone had implication with his ultimate conflict with the Church. But he also asserted theological ideas that were clearly heretical in the eyes of Christianity, such as that Christ committed a mortal sin in the Garden of Gethsemane. Granted, the Inquisition was a horrible thing, but it becomes clear from reading this that Bruno did himself no favors when facing the Cardinals. It is perhaps during this last section that the dichotomy of Bruno's character most comes to the fore: philosophical egoism vs. true son of the Church. It is the tragedy of Bruno's experience that he could not find a way out of a situation that should have been manageable for him.
It is clear in this book that Bruno had a lot more impact on his better-known peers than he is given credit for. Kepler and Galileo both credit him as an influence. (In fact, shortly before his arrest, Bruno applied for the mathematics professorship at Pisa that went to Galileo.) Professor Rowland should be commended for bringing this important person back before us. If she goes a bit overboard with unenlightening epigraphs and quotations, that is a small price to pay for the wealth of knowledge gained.