From New Dawn 130 (Jan-Feb 2012)
In our last New Dawn article we listed the great pioneering discoveries of science that – unacknowledged by science historians – were directly inspired by the ancient Egyptian ideas as set out in the Hermetic texts which were ascribed to the demi-god Hermes Trismesgistus. These landmark breakthroughs were either drawn directly from the cosmology of the Hermetica – the most important being Copernicus’ heliocentric theory – or indirectly by applying their principles to different areas (as did Isaac Newton, to crack the code of gravity).
But most of the discoveries on our list involved a figure who, although not an experimental scientist himself, should be remembered as being equally important as Copernicus and Newton, but who until recently was virtually erased from history. This towering genius and truly extraordinary man was Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), the foremost Hermetic philosopher of his age whose influence over the scientific revolution has been scandalously downplayed. There’s even more to him than his intellectual and philosophical genius: he also applied the Hermetic principles to social, political and religious questions. And he presented such a serious challenge to the supremacy of the Church that for a time he even threatened to undermine it. But it also, with a sickening inevitability, lead to a date with a flaming pyre in Rome…
In recent years Bruno has begun to be rediscovered and appreciated, although still the truth is often distorted in order to crowbar him into the accepted history of science. Because of his remarkably advanced ideas he tends to be regarded as a martyr for scientific rationalism, victim of even greater Church persecution than Galileo (on whom he was hugely influential). Bruno has become a hero for freethinkers and, particularly ironically, atheists, who gather annually at the site of his execution in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori – marked by a statue erected in the late nineteenth century – to honour his memory and sacrifice. But this is missing the point in a big way. Far from being an arch materialist-rationalist, in fact everything Bruno did was inspired by his passionate belief in magic and the esoteric.
He is also being introduced to a wider audience through the historical thrillers of S.J. Parris (the pseudonym of British writer Stephanie Merritt), Heresy (2010) and Prophecy (2011). Although mainly concerned with Bruno as a kind of late Renaissance Hercule Poirot, she paints an authentic picture of Bruno as a dedicated and campaigning Hermeticist.
Ironically, Bruno began as a Dominican monk, a member of the same Order that gave rise to his nemesis, the Inquisition. He was born in 1548 in the small town of Nola – hence his nickname of ‘the Nolan’ – in the then huge Kingdom of Naples in Italy, which was under Spanish rule. Although he was christened Filippo, he took the name Giordano – from the River Jordan – on entering the Dominican monastery in Naples at the age of sixteen. In those days becoming a monk was the only way for a bright lad – and Bruno had already exhibited a prodigious intellect – from a humble background to get a good education.
The young monk soon distinguished himself with his extraordinary mastery of memory-training – even being summoned to Rome to demonstrate the ability to the Pope. The classical art of memory, based on the manipulation of mental images, had a magical counterpart which employed talismanic principles to induce, rather than simply recall, information. Clearly this possessed a heady allure to someone so hungry for knowledge as Bruno.
As he grew in ability, exploring the powers of the mind through magic and psychology, Bruno became a powerfully confident man. Although never lacking in self-belief, he always respected those who deserved respect. On the other hand, he was disinclined to suffer fools gladly – indeed, at all. And he always, without fail, believed in his own mission…
A side of this self-belief that was hardly welcome in a monk was his refusal to allow others to dictate what he could read or even think. Not only were monks’ studies tightly circumscribed by their very nature, but at that time the Catholic Church was desperately trying to combat the rise of Protestantism, so departing even marginally from the conventional line attracted great suspicion. Even listening to the arguments of those deemed heretics, or reading their works, was a crime for a monk – even if you disagreed with them.
On the other hand, as the Dominicans were tasked with fighting heresy, they had easy access to banned books – much to the ever-curious Bruno’s delight. When his superiors discovered he had been secretly reading them in the monastery toilet he fled from Naples.
For five years he wandered round the intellectual centres of northern Italy, southern France and Switzerland – Padua, Milan, Geneva and Toulouse among other places, with frequent gaps in his biography. By the time he reappears fully, in Paris in 1581, he had become a hardcore believer in the Renaissance occult philosophy with Hermeticism at its heart. Quite how he developed this interest is unknown, but it fundamentally underpinned everything he did for the rest of his life.
Like everyone inspired by the Hermetic books since their rediscovery in Europe just over a century before (see our last article in New Dawn 129), Bruno was fired up with their vision of humans as glorious, miraculous beings of limitless potential – the polar opposite of what all Catholics were taught. To them, humans were little better than worms, only achieving a tiny bit of God’s grace through the intercession of the Church, and even that often depended on how much you were prepared to pay the priesthood to be let off a few years in purgatory.
The more he studied, the more Bruno considered everything – every level of life and understanding of our place within the cosmos – could be illuminated by the principles of Hermeticism.
In Paris he gained the patronage of the French king, Henri III – a Catholic, but who still had a deep interest in the esoteric and was tolerant towards the French Protestants, the Huguenots. After two years Bruno moved to London, accompanying Henri’s new ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I’s court. Clearly he had Henri’s backing for whatever his mission might have been – probably establishing contact with English magi centred around John Dee. During his two-year stay in London he made friends with such luminaries as Sir Philip Sidney, and wrote some of his most important books. As we will see, Bruno left a rich intellectual legacy that influenced some of the great minds of the late-flowering English Renaissance. Many consider that the character of Berowne in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost was based on Bruno.
It was while in London that Bruno produced his major works on cosmology that were to inspire enormous scientific advances.
The Hermetic Key
To Bruno the Hermetic philosophy and cosmology was the great key to unlocking the secrets of nature and the cosmos. Having already seen the Hermetica inspire Copernicus to develop his heliocentric theory, he applied himself to scientific questions using the Hermetic principles. And very fruitful it proved, too…
A passage in Treatise X of the Corpus Hermeticum states that “the spirit, passing through the veins and arteries, moves the living thing.”1 Bruno realised the image suggests that the blood also moves, a concept that also reflected Hermetic ideas of man as a microcosm of the greater cosmos.2 Bruno’s interpretation was picked up by fellow Hermeticist Robert Fludd, who – writing in the late 1610s – inspired Charles I’s physician William Harvey with the idea of testing it. Harvey became the first person to demonstrate the circulation of the blood experimentally, “one of the greatest achievements of the Scientific Revolution.”3
Bruno’s Hermetic influence also extended to Elizabeth I’s physician William Gilbert’s 1600 masterwork, On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies and the Great Magnet of the Earth, in which he proposed that magnets work because the Earth itself generates magnetic force – another landmark discovery. Without Bruno’s work, Gilbert would never have got there.4
In our bullet-point list of Hermetic-inspired discoveries in our last article we included “the basic principles of computer science and information theory.” At first glance this may seem rather unlikely but this, too, can be traced back to Bruno’s application of Hermetic principles. This time the seed he planted flowered in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), the German genius whose life and career paralleled those of Isaac Newton. A great polymath, Leibniz is chiefly known today for inventing infinitesimal calculus, at about the same time as Newton – although Leibniz’s system was the one that caught on – and for the basic principles of information theory, including the binary system.
Yet even Leibniz was no hard-line materialist-rationalist. Like Newton, he was deeply versed in esotericism – almost certainly a Rosicrucian and certainly a scholar of the Cabala and, predictably, the Hermetica. Equally predictably, he owed an enormous debt to the works of Giordano Bruno.
Information theory was really just a by-product of a much more ambitious scheme. Leibniz believed it should be possible to devise a set of symbols – which he called characteristica universalis – to represent all the fundamentals of knowledge, and by manipulating them to make new discoveries (a process he described as ‘innocent magia’). He developed this idea from Bruno’s works, especially those on the magical art of memory and the manipulation of the imagination to produce desired results.
Although Leibniz was never to achieve the full dream of the characteristica universalis, his work developed into the idea of mathematical modelling, at first using pen-and-paper equations (which is where calculus came in) and later computer modelling. His pioneering computer work also saw him designing some of the first calculating machines.
But although Bruno can never be described as a scientist in his own right (he seems never to have undertaken a single experiment) basing his reasoning on the Hermetic principles led him to make some truly remarkable insights. (And given that he practised magical techniques to acquire information directly, we can be forgiven for wondering just how successful they were.)
In London in 1584 Bruno wrote and published On the Infinite Universe and Worlds in which he put forward some extraordinarily advanced – and for the time deeply shocking – propositions.
Shock and Awe
Bruno was a leading champion of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory which, although published five years before he was born, was still regarded as new and unproven, scholarly opinion being split over whether he was right, wrong or somewhere in between. Copernicus had merely proposed that the sun was at the centre of creation; he still stuck with the traditional model that the entire cosmos consists solely of the sun, moon and planets which move within an outer ‘shell’, the sphere of the fixed stars. In other words, the stars are simply fixed points of light of varying intensity, all stuck on the same crystalline sphere and therefore equidistant from Earth.
But, as the title of his book implies, Bruno went further, arguing that the stars are really suns like our own, but immensely far away, and at varying distances. He rejected the concept of the sphere of the fixed stars entirely, proposing that the universe was in fact infinite.
Bruno also took the next logical step: if stars are really suns, then at least some must have their own system of planets. And some of those planets must be like our own.
He wrote in On the Infinite Universe and Worlds:
There is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable and infinite globes like this on which we live and grow. This space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, possibility, sense-perception or nature assign to it a limit. In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own… Beyond the imaginary convex circumference of the universe is Time.5
And making the final logical leap, Bruno concluded it was impossible to imagine that “these innumerable worlds, manifest as like to our own or even more magnificent, should be destitute of similar or even superior inhabitants.”6
Of course, time and telescopes have proven Bruno right about the scale of the universe and the existence of other solar systems – and, even if it has yet to be proven, few scientists also doubt that extraterrestrial life is a reality.
These were deeply shocking conclusions to the Church – and indeed they were high on the list of indictable offences for which Bruno was condemned to death 16 years later. Whereas Copernicus had shifted the physical centre to the sun, the focus of creation was still the Earth and human beings, which fitted the basic biblical model where God made the world as a unique place, and humans ‘in his own image’. Bruno was proposing that there was no centre, and that humans were no more or less important than other beings on other planets – and indeed, that some of the extraterrestrial races are superior to human beings.
This was to mark the beginning of the Vatican’s antipathy towards heliocentricity that was to climax in its persecution of Galileo.
Where did Bruno get this radical notion? His immediate inspiration seems to have been the English mathematician Thomas Digges, a protégé and ward of John Dee, and England’s major champion of Copernican theory. Digges had argued that space is infinite in his defence of heliocentricity published in 1576, seven years before Bruno arrived in London. As they shared both interests and friends it is unlikely that Bruno and Digges never met during the former’s London years. But in any case Digges derived his idea from a section of the Hermetic treatise known as Asclepius.7
Bruno may have reached the same conclusion independently from his own study of Asclepius, but he added the concept of other inhabited worlds, which came from his contemplation of another key Hermetic principle: that the cosmos is imbued with life.
Bruno also showed remarkable insights into other areas of science. He understood that the body is perpetually being renewed, bit by bit, so it effectively becomes totally new over time. The current understanding is that our bodies are completely ‘replaced’, cell by cell, every seven to ten years.
In other writings he put forward basic ideas about relativity, and some academic writers regard some of his notions about the structure of matter as effectively laying the foundations for later atomic theory.8
So in the face of this astonishing catalogue of achievements and insights, it seems nothing short of an outright scandal that Giordano Bruno is so little known today.
No Insignificant Ambition
Bruno’s hugely influential ideas about the workings of the universe were only part of the picture. It was his view of the religious significance of the Hermetic tradition that inspired his most radical message – and led to his downfall.
Another of the major works Bruno produced in London was Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (1584). Modelled on a key Hermetic text, Kore Kosmou (Virgin of the World), and dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, the book describes a gathering of the Egyptian and Greek deities – the goddesses Isis and Sophia taking the lead – in order to organise a great reform in the heavens. On the principle invoked in the celebrated Hermetic adage ‘as above, so below/as below, so above’, this would cause equally great changes on Earth.
Clearly it is the earthly transformation that interested Bruno most pressingly – and for which he called so passionately. How would that manifest? In Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, Bruno reproduces in its entirety a key section from Asclepius – a celebrated passage known as the Lament – in which Hermes Trismegistus mourns the decline of the Egyptian religion, which has been eclipsed by foreign gods, Egypt’s own having abandoned the land. But it also predicts that they will return and the religion will be restored.
Bruno believed this prophecy referred to his own time, and saw the religious turmoil then engulfing Europe as a sign that at least in its present form Christianity had run its course. The return of the magical religion of Egypt was imminent.
Since the rediscovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in the 1460s it had been universally accepted – by Hermeticism’s enthusiasts and opponents alike – that the texts contained the wisdom of the high point of ancient Egyptian, then considered the oldest civilisation. (As we showed previously, in fact there is good evidence to support the Hermetica’s ancient Egyptian origins.) Many – Bruno among them – believed therefore that they preserved the original religious revelation to mankind.
But characteristically Bruno went further. He believed that the magical religion of ancient Egypt had been corrupted, first by the Jews and then by the Christians. (Bruno thought that Jesus had been sent to restore the Jewish religion to its true, Egyptian roots. From our own research into the origins of Christianity, detailed in our 2008 book The Masks of Christ, we would broadly agree. Without the benefit of recent historical discoveries, how did Bruno know this?)
Bruno wanted nothing less than a root-and-branch reform of the whole of society based on the Hermetic principles, or rather, as he saw it, the religion of ancient Egypt. His ultimate aim was the creation of a spiritually unified Europe in which the religious tension between and within nations – which if unchecked would inevitably lead to a Europe-wide cataclysmic war – would be swept away.
Bruno manifestly saw the authoritarian and dogmatically inflexible Catholic Church, rather than the Protestants, as the big stumbling block to his great reform. Indeed, although he explained the ‘triumphant beast’ of his title as a metaphor for human vices, many (including the Inquisition) took it as a not-very-thinly-veiled allusion to the Pope. This was not a good turn of events.
The Predictable Unhappy Ending
The worry for the Inquisition was that Giordano Bruno was not just an easily-dismissed eccentric, but an energetic and charismatic campaigner with a sharp mind who, as we have seen, enjoyed considerable influence over the likes of Henri III of France, Elizabeth I and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Put simply, he was an Inquisition magnet and his death by fire was only a matter of time.
Towards the end of 1585 Bruno returned to France, but found it descending into civil war as staunchly Catholic nobles challenged Henri III (who was soon to be assassinated). He then left France and for the next five years travelled the university towns of Protestant Germany preaching an increasingly hard-line message of the danger posed by the Catholic Church.
In 1591 he made a somewhat unwise return to Italian soil, accepting an invitation from a wealthy admirer to visit the Republic of Venice. There, in May 1592, he was denounced to the Inquisition, arrested and sent to Rome. After languishing in prison for eight years he was sent to the stake on 17 February 1600 – with his tongue tied so he couldn’t address the crowds.
Regarded as a diabolically-inspired magician who sought the destruction of God’s own Holy Church, it isn’t surprising that Bruno’s memory faded in the Catholic lands. What is less forgivable is that his great intellectual legacy was also allowed to fall by the wayside by the science historians. They seek to downplay – if not completely erase – the influence of the Hermetic tradition on science’s origins, and, whereas with the likes of Newton it was possible to pretend that their ‘occult’ interests were of no great consequence, it was utterly impossible to ignore the role of Hermeticism in Bruno’s work. Far easier just to forget him.
Bruno’s story was by no means over. During his last travels, fearing a Catholic onslaught that would bring Europe back under its domination, he had made plans for the underground continuation of his Hermetic reform movement. He formed a secret society, or more accurately a network of secret societies, based in the universities of Germany and in the Republic of Venice, which would outlive him. Known as the Giordanisti, after his death this clandestine group would have its own key part to play in the development of the Western esotericism…
1. Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 33.
2. Walter Pagel, ‘Giordano Bruno: The Philosophy of Circles and the Circular Movement of the Blood’, Journal of the History of Medicine, vol. VI, 1951.
3. Allen G. Debus, ‘Robert Fludd and the Circulation of the Blood’, Journal of the History of Medicine, vol. XVI, no. 4, 374.
4. Hilary Gatti, Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science (Cornell University Press, 1999), 80-5.
5. Translated by Dorothea Waley Singer in Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought (Henry Shuman, 1950), 363.
6. Singer, 323.
7. Robert S. Westman and J.E. McGuire, Hermeticism and the Scientific Revolution (William Andrews Clark Library, 1977),24.
8. See Ksenija Atanasijevic’s introduction to her The Metaphysical and Geometrical Doctrine of Bruno (Warren H. Green, 1972).
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