In 1591, a restless philosopher named Giordano Bruno traveled to Venice at the invitation of a Venetian nobleman named Giovanni Mocenigo. When Bruno refused to share "magic" secrets with him, Mocenigo denounced him to the Inquisition.
The Inquisition was only too happy to arrest Bruno. A former Dominican monk, Bruno had written satirical words against Christian systems in his book The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast. For years he had moved from city to city in Europe, falling out with his hosts wherever he went because he found fault and quarreled with every one and every system, especially Aristotalianism. He published heretical books and obscene plays.
Bruno was enthusiastic about the Copernican theory that the planets circle the sun and he believed there are many other planets around other stars, some of them with life. (The chances of another earth-like planet existing without supernatural intervention are one in ten to the 173rd power.) Rejecting the authority of Scripture Bruno fell into other serious scientific errors in the remainder of his cosmology. For example, he held that the universe was infinite (a claim also disproved by modern astronomy). He adopted pantheistic theories. God is the universal world-soul, he taught, and all particular material things are manifestations of that one infinite principle. (Recent scientific and mathematical advances have refuted this notion also, showing that space and time came into being from outside).
In theology, Bruno denied both the Trinity and the Virgin Birth. Questioned by the Inquisition, he may have wavered, but on the whole, he stuck to his heresies, although tortured for weeks on the rack. Venetian authorities forwarded the records of his hearing to Rome.
The Roman Inquisition extradited him from Venice. For six years it kept him in prison without a trial. Then it ordered him to recant his false beliefs. Although he knew what fate awaited him, Bruno refused.
Giordano Bruno took his last walk early on this day, February 17, 1600. A stake awaited him in the Campo di Fiora. Dressed as a heretic, his tongue clamped so that he could say nothing against the church or in defense of his unacceptable views, authorities burned him to death.
His case was significant for several reasons. For one, he was the last victim burned by the Roman Inquisition. For another, fear of a similar fate caused Galileo to recant his belief in the heliocentric theory a few years later. And lastly, Bruno's ideas influenced the pantheism of the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the monadism of German thinker Gottfried von Leibniz.
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- Chamberlain, Houston Stewart. Immanuel Kant. London: John Lane, 1914. Source of the image.
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- Paterson, Antoinette Mann. The Infinite Worlds of Giordano Bruno. Springfield, Illinois: Thomas, 1970.
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Last updated May, 2007.