Giordano Bruno


Giordano Bruno

             Among the intellectual icons of the Late Renaissance we have Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600): Dominican friar, philosopher, post-Copernican cosmologist, mnemonist, poet, skeptic, abrasive satirist, syncretic stylist, free thinker.fn1  Something of the flavor of his thought can be gleaned from modern translations, such as these introductory passages to his final published work, the so-called Frankfurt trilogy (1591).fn2

He who desires to philosophize must first of all doubt all things. He must not assume a position in a debate before he has listened to the various opinions, and considered and compared the reasons for and against. He must never judge or take up a position on the evidence of what he has heard, on the opinion of the majority, the age, merits, or prestige of the speaker concerned, but he must proceed according to the persuasion of an organic doctrine which adheres to real things, and to a truth that can be understood by the light of reason.  De triplici minimo, Op. lat. I, iii, pp 137-138, translation by Gatti 1999, p. 4; also see Gatti 1989, pp. 2-3.

Bruno begins this treatise of “insight into the first principles” (Blum 2012: 95) with God, nature and reason:

The spirit above everything is God, the spirit in all things is nature, and the spirit which permeates everything is reason. God prescribes and arranges orderly, nature executes and creates, and reason observes and thinks through. God is the monad as the source of all numbers, the simplicity of every quantity, and the substance of every composition—that which exceeds every moment, everything that is innumerable and beyond measure. Nature is the countable number, the measurable quantity, and the attainable moment. Reason is the counting number, the measuring quantity, and the perceiving moment. De triplici minimo, OL I, 3, p.136, translation in Blum 2012, p. 99.


               Bruno’s talent for dialectical satire can be seen in his 1585 fable-like dialogues Cabala del Cavallo Pegaseo con l’Aggiunta dell’Asino Cillenico (The Cabela of Pegasus with the Addition of Mercury’s Ass). The Pegasean horse referred to in the original title is really an ass. In the last dialogue of The Cabala the Ass seeks and is denied membership in the Pythagorean Academy.

The physically well-endowed Ass requests admission to the Academy. 

O gowned, sealed, capped instructors, archinstructors, the heroes and demigods of wisdom: do you wish, does it please you, do you have in your heart to accept into your consortium, society, fraternity, under the banner and ensign of your communion, this ass you see and hear?  Because of you, some who are laughing marvel, others who are marveling laugh, and astonished others (who are the majority) are biting their lips; and no one responds? (Bruno 2002: 83-84.)

After the Fool, i.e. the president of the Academy, outlines admittance criteria the dialogue continues.

Ass: O honored school, eminent study, beautiful sect, venerated college, most illustrious gymnasium, unconquerable recreation and academy most principal among the principals!  The wandering ass, like a thirsty deer, [presents himself] unto you, as to most limpid and fresh waters; the humble and supplicant ass presents himself to you, most benign receivers of pilgrims, eager to be registered in your consortium.

Fool: In our consortium, eh?

Ass: Yes, yes, yes, sir -- in your consortium.

Fool: Go through that other door, mister, because asses are banned from this one.

Ass: Tell me, brother, by which door did you enter?

Fool: Heaven can make asses speak, but not enroll them in the Pythagorean School.

Ass: Don’t be so proud, O Fool, and recall that your Pythagoras teaches not to disdain anything found in the bosom of nature. Although I am an ass in form at present, I may have been and may yet be in form a great man; and although you are a man, you may have and may yet be a great ass, according to what will seem expedient to the distributor of clothes and abodes, and the dispatcher of transmigrant souls. (Ibid: 85-86.

Facing continued resistance the Ass summarizes the situation.   

“It is not acceptable that asses enter into the academy together with us men.” Whether or not a student of any other sect can say it, this cannot reasonably be said by you Pythagoreans, who with this -- who deny me entrance – destroy the principles, foundations, and body of your philosophy. Now what difference do you discover between us asses and you men, not judging things by their surface, countenance and appearance? Moreover, inept judges, tell how many of you used to be in the academy of the asses.  How many acquire knowledge in the academy of the asses?  How many profit in the academy of asses? How many are made doctors, rot, and die in the academy of asses? How many are chosen, exalted, magnified, canonized, glorified, and deified in the academy of the asses? (Ibid: 88-89.)

Finally, in the end, Mercury arrives on the scene and intervenes to deliver the gods’ will that the Ass be admitted.



            Blum (2012) provides a chronology of Bruno’s life, and some of the details that are known of his death. Suspected of heresy in 1576 with regard to the Incarnation and Arianism, Bruno left the Dominican Order and after fugitive travels in Italy sought shelter in a small colony of Italian emigrants (Catholic dissidents) in Calvin’s theocratic Geneva in 1579. After publishing his disagreements with the professor of philosophy at the academy of Geneva, he was put on trial before the Consistory, the highest ranking secular and ecclesiastical Calvinist committee. It ended with Bruno leaving Geneva for sectarian war torn France (the French Wars of Religion during the second half of the sixteenth century included the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots along with thousands of Calvinist sympathizers). Further travels took Bruno to England (1583), and Germany (1586-1591) where a Lutheran pastor apparently excommunicated him in a public sermon. Neither the Calvinist doctrine of predestination nor Luther’s salvation by faith alone were acceptable to Bruno, who deemed ‘good works’ indispensable to the social meaning of religion. For Bruno these Protestant doctrines were corruptions (Garin 1965:201). The wandering job-seeking philosopher returned to Venice in 1591, was informed on and arrested by the Inquisition in 1592. The defendant was extradited by the Holy Office to Rome in 1593. Compiling the file against him took the better part of five years. Finally the Pope ordered the trial to be ended. Bruno was sentenced as a heretic and handed over to civil authorities for execution. He is burned alive at the stake 17 February 1600.

            The exact charges brought against Bruno are unknown. The original Roman trial documents were lost, probably during deportation of the Vatican Secret Archives to Paris ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Blum 2012: 102). Bruno was skeptical of many Church dogmas and he had postulated an infinite universe of celestial worlds. His caustic satire alone was enough to brand him a heretic (e.g., Bruno 2002, Hufnagel 2013). His self-assured and caustic persona was evident even at the end of his imprisonment and trial. An eye witness account of the Inquisition’s final judgment reports his response: “You pronounce the verdict against me probably with greater fear than I accept it!” (Blum 2012: 109).fn3  On the day of his execution his tongue was encased in a wooden vice so that he could not speak (Bruno 2002: xxxix). In 1601 the Roman Inquisition added all of Bruno’s writings, omnia scripta, to its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, its list of prohibited books (Rowland 2013: 221).




Postscript to the Renaissance -- Bruno an Early Modern? fn4

            Most humans now live in a syncretic world of ancient and modern beliefs (e.g. dominator sky God, +/- visitations by creatures from outer space and/or a belief in the limitless future of scientific knowledge); this combined with daily life mediated by civilian and military machines, the former adapted from the latter, including a great variety of 'convenience gadgets'. In the West a small minority of humankind are also modern in the critical sense of having world views separated from, or without, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God(s), sectarian dogmatism, and the promises of afterlife. If this mixture is the human nature of Modernity, then Bruno is not a Modern. However, there is another closely related possibility. One that acknowledges more clearly that we Moderns have not broken absolutely free of the Mediaevo-Renaissance world of which Bruno was very much a part (cf. Calcagno 1998:69). We moderns in fact maintain much of the mediaeval logics of other-worldliness, while at the same time we are renaissance folk in the world view that humankind is now the very center of most all of our attention. Bruno is, in this light, an Early Modern, prior to the development of racial-slavery capitalism and its progeny the subsequent Scientific-Machine Age (an age of technology prefigured in the renaissance-imagination of da Vinci).

            To put it another way, Bruno follows the neoPlatonists (translated into Latin by Ficino) in believing that mysticism is not the antithesis of rationality, while he often interprets phenomena usually explained by supernatural means (divina asinitade, Cabala) in a naturalistic manner (Catana 2005), and his post-Copernican cosmology included an infinite universe with an infinity of worlds (Singer 1950). This combination is distinctly modern.



BLUM, R.R., 2012. Giordano Bruno: An Introduction. Translated from the German by Peter Henneveld. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

BRUNO, G., 2002. The Cabala of Pegasus. Translated and Annotated by S.L. Sondergard and M.U. Sowell. New Haven: Yale University Press.

CALCAGNO, A., 1998. Giordano Bruno and the Logic of Coincidence: Unity and Multiplicity in the Philosophical Thought of Giordano Bruno. New York: Peter Lang.

CATANA, L., 2005. The Concept of Contraction in Giordano Bruno's Philosophy. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

EDSON, Evelyn, and Emilie SAVAGE-SMITH. 2004. Medieval views of the cosmos. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

GARIN, E., 1965. Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Translated from the Italian revised edition by Peter Munz. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

GARIN, E., 1969. Science and Civic Life in the Italian Renaissance. Translated from the Italian by Peter Munz. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books Doubleday & Company.

GATTI, H., 1989. The Renaissance Drama of Knowledge: Giordano Bruno in England. London: Routledge

GATTI, H., 2002. Giordano Bruno: Philosopher of the Renaissance.  Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.

HUFNAGEL, H., 2013. Bruno's Cabala: Satire of Knowledge and the Uses of the Dialogue Form. In H. Hufnagel and A. Eusterschulte, eds, Turning Traditions Upside Down: Rethinking Giordano Bruno’s Enlightenment. Budapest: Central European University Press, pp. 179-196.

KRISTELLER, P.O., 1972. Renaissance Concepts of Man and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row.

LEWIS, C.S., 1964. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ROWLAND, I., 2013. A Catholic Reader of Giordano Bruno in Counter-Reformation Rome: Athanasius Kircher, SJ and Panspermia Rerum. In H. Hufnagel and A. Eusterschulte, eds, Turning Traditions Upside Down: Rethinking Giordano Bruno’s Enlightenment. Budapest: Central European University Press, pp. 221-236.

SINGER, D. W., 1950. Giordano Bruno – His Life and Thought: With Annotated Translation of His Work 'On the Infinite Universe and Worlds'. New York: Henry Schuman.


  • 1. My view of Bruno is dominantly post-Yatesian, i.e. post-1985 (see Gatti 2002:7-8, and Calcagno 1998:41-69, for related critical notes).
  • 2. The body of Bruno's trilogy was written in hexamer verse, imitating archaic Latin, with accompanying comments in prose (Blum 2012:96).
  • 3. Calcagno (1998:5) translates this passage as "…he responded with nothing other than by threatening: 'Perhaps it is with greater fear that you bring judgement on me than I who will receive it'."
  • 4. This postscript is inspired by Calcagno's (1998:69) discussion of Bruno as a man of his age --- an age of ferment supposedly in between that of the mediaeval and modern worlds.

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