Myths about Science and Religion: That Giordano Bruno was the First Martyr of Modern Science

giordano-brunoIn 1600, on the seventeenth of February, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, was ceremoniously burned at the stake in Rome’s Flower Market by the Roman Inquisition. His end is brutal to modern sensibility but not exceptional in the early modern period. But Bruno’s death stands out, mentioned in passing in most popular and even academic surveys of the emergence of modern science. Specifically, Bruno was linked to modern science by his advocacy of a version of Copernicus’ heliocentric planetary hypothesis and the idea that our universe is infinite, with many suns and planets. A few popular and academic texts go so far as to identify him as the first scientific martyr, an incendiary example of the inevitable collision between rigid theological dogma and freedom of speculation within natural philosophy—the precursor to modern science.

But as we saw with the myth of Hypatia, the actual historical account is far more complex. Bruno was a radical utopian thinker. Although heliocentrism was a prominent aspect of his worldview, it was not the reason for his execution.

John Hedley Brooke’s acute summary of Bruno in his Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives provides an excellent starting point. According to Brooke, Bruno was familiar with a collection of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum, then thought to be the writings of an Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus. Where some saw in the Hermetic texts an anticipation of Christianity, Bruno saw an alternative. Indeed, he hoped they would provide the basis of a religion that could unite the warring factions of the Church. His world-picture was colored by a magical philosophy that almost became his religion. He described Moses as a magus who, learning his magic from the Egyptians, had out-conjured the magicians of Pharaoh. The true cross, for Bruno, was the Egyptian cross—full of magic power for tapping astral influence. The Christian cross was a weak derivative.

His infinite universe doctrine, moreover, was more theologically innovative than a careful extrapolation of Copernican astronomy. Indeed, to detach the metaphysical theology in which they were embedded would be a violation of Bruno’s integrity as a thinker. Deeply unorthodox, the unique features of Bruno’s universe arose from an original blend of several philosophical traditions. He was attracted by the atomic theories of antiquity, which had themselves been associated with the possibility of plural worlds as different combinations of atoms passed in and out of being. He was also attracted to the reasoning of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), who had imagined a universe with no center and in which space was homogeneous. The Copernican system, Bruno believed, fitted perfectly in such a universe and provided a model for other planetary systems extending to infinity. Space was unbounded; for, repeating the question of Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius (99 BC-55BC), Bruno asked what would happen if one thrust one’s hand through the supposed boundary. An infinite universe containing infinite world was philosophically the most coherent vision in Bruno’s eyes.

It was also theologically the most coherent. If divine omnipotence had been really displayed, the deity would have had to created those other worlds that Bruno’s scholastic predecessors had acknowledged. He could have (but actually had not) made. God’s infinitude, so Bruno argued, could only be expressed by creating infinite worlds—worlds that were real, not hypothetical. It was not enough that God could have done what Aristotle had deemed impossible. The immensity and perfection of God require that it had been done. A physics of the infinite was the correlate of a theology of the infinite, however heterodox that theology was perceived to be. In effect, Bruno argued that divine attributes could be given physical meaning. Such transformations of metaphysical axioms into prescriptions for the natural world were extremely common in early modern science. Bruno’s complex thoughts derived from many sources, from the Neoplatonists of the third century, to Italian humanist and astrologer Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), to German magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer, and alchemist, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535). The real Bruno is meticulously discussed in detail in Frances A. Yates pioneering work, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (UCP, 1964).

Thus, as Jole Shackelford argues in his entry in Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail, the evidence suggests that his interrogators were more concerned by his theology, by matters of church discipline, and by his contacts with other known heretics, than by his Copernicanism. By sixteenth-century European measures, Bruno was a heretic. He doubted the virgin birth and the identification of God with Christ, whom he regarded as a clever magician. When sent to the Inquisition, he refused to recant these and various other propositions.

So the question remains: How did this defrocked monk and unrepentant heretic who denied the doctrine of the Trinity come to be the world’s first martyr to science? How did his name become inextricably linked to the supposed conflict between science and religion?

The sense of this confrontation and the myth of Bruno as a martyr for his “scientific” beliefs was stated concisely in The Warfare of Science (1876) by Andrew Dickson White, who, along with his contemporary John William Draper, did much to set the modern tone of the historical conflict between science and religion. As White wrote:

He [Bruno] was hunted from land to land, until, at last, he turns on his pursuers with fearful invectives. For this he is imprisoned six years, then burned alive and his ashes scattered to the winds. Still the new truth lived on; it could not be killed. Within ten years after the martyrdom of Bruno, after a world of troubles and persecutions, the truth of the doctrine of Kopernik [sic] was established by the telescope of Galileo.

While White does not explicitly say that Bruno was put to death because of this scientific ideas, the connection is implicit in his statement: Bruno was a Copernican and he was persecuted and martyred, but the Copernican truth could not be killed with him; Galileo proved this truth soon after his martyrdom.

This damning equation of Bruno’s Copernican cosmology and his fiery death persists, as is evident in Michael White’s The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition (2002). The dust jacket promises

the compelling story of one of history’s most intriguing yet little-known natural philosophers—a sixteenth-century Dominican priest whose radical theories influenced some of the greatest thinkers in Western culture—and the world’s first martyr of science…The Inquisition’s attempts to obliterate Bruno failed, as his philosophy influence spread: Galileo, Isaac Newton, Christian Huygens, and Gottfied Leibniz all built upon his ideas…a martyr to free thought.

Again we see the implicit reasoning: Bruno was an innovative natural philosopher; he was executed by the church for his ideas, which eventually formed a basis for modern science; ergo the church killed him to limit the free development of scientific ideas. Thus despite more sophisticated accounts, as found in Yates and others, the myth of Bruno as “the world’s first martyr to science” thrives.

Shackelford believes part of reason for this lies in the aims of nineteenth-century historiography. “For various reasons,” he writes, “post-Enlightenment historical essayists sought to exalt Bruno as an exemplary figure in the struggle for free thought against the confining authority of aristocratic government supported by religious orthodoxy.” This view was already gaining ground among eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers.

Shackelford also points out a more political impulse. In the last quarter of the century this propaganda fed the secular and modernist ambitions of Italian unification. As a rebel against state tyranny, Bruno did well during the struggle with totalitarianism that marked much of the twentieth century as well. Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari (1848-1929) erected The Statue of Giordano Bruno at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, Italy, in 1889. Ferrari, Grand Master of the Grande Oriente d’Italia, the Masonic jurisdiction of Italy, was a strong supporter of the unification of Italy over the Papal rule of Rome. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Humanum Genus. As a response, the Freemasons decided to create a statue of the Bruno. The statue was unveiled in 1889, at the site where Bruno was allegedly burnt at the stake for heresy. Today, the square is the center of an annual commemoration by atheists and “freethinkers.”

Finally, Shackelford argues that the disproportionate role of Galileo and the triumph of heliocentric cosmology secured Bruno’s position as a martyred, visionary forerunner to Galileo’s own struggle to free philosophy from the constraints of dogmatic theology in Catholic Italy. This is reminiscent of Russell’s thesis in Inventing the Flat Earth, that modern myths about the relationship between science and religion are often myths within larger, overarching other myths. That is, the myth of the Galileo affair (which we will cover in a later post), where it is believed that Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for his advocacy of Copernicanism, unwittingly gave Bruno salience in the historical record.

But in the end all of it was a lie. As Shackelford writes, “the Catholic church did not impose thought control on astronomers, and even Galileo was free to believe what he wanted about the position and mobility of the earth, so long as he did not teach the Copernican hypothesis as a truth on which Holy Scripture had no bearing.” Thus Shackelford advises current historians to “look beyond the construction of the myth of Bruno as a moralistic topos in the triumphant struggle between the freedom of scientific inquiry and the shackles of conformity it the dead letter of religious revelation.  Instead we must examine the actor’s own contexts for clues to meaning and categories that can explain his history. In Bruno’s day, theology and philosophy were of one piece, inseparable.” There is much to consider in order to place Giordano Bruno in the right context.

3 Comments on “Myths about Science and Religion: That Giordano Bruno was the First Martyr of Modern Science”

  1. I hadn’t heard of Bruno until I saw the piece on him in Neil DeGrass Tyson’s Cosmos. I had immediate suspicions about the idea that he was a martyr to science. DeGrass Tyson hedged some on the idea, but the implication was clear.
    I thought, “He was a mystic in the early modern period. Short of being a witch/wizard, there was no vocation more likely to end at the stake.” If Copernicus and Galileo died in their beds, there was no reason why a visionary would be executed simply for being heliocentric. On the other hand, mystics were always getting in trouble.

  2. Myth of Hypatia? And Bruno? Let me enlighten you.

    Bruno was burnt at the stake because he refused to bow down to Christ-hitlers. The reason why Galileo and Copernicus got to die in their beds is because they did bow down. I find myself constantly making sly remarks on magic and religion because I know so many believe it and it makes me laugh when some thinks I’m a witch. Also, Galileo was sentenced to permanent house arrest and only had one more strike or he would have ended up like Bruno.
    Hypatia was a scientist revered by the counsel of Alexandria and when she refused to convert and worship their supreme dictator, they litteraly ripped her into pieces and spread her body parts all over Alexandria.

    So, was Bruno a martyr for science. Yes
    But……. Hypatia was the first.

    Also, I screen shot this whole page with my comment.


    • Hello Robert,

      Thank you for the comment. Unfortunately you did not shed much light on the topic. In fact, much of what you say here is quite wrong. Regarding Hypatia, for example, the majority of historians of science have concluded that the story is mostly myth. She was more of a philosopher than mathematician. At any rate, to call her a “scientist” is an anachronism. There was no such thing in the fifth century. It is more accurate to call her a “natural philosopher.” Regarding her death, Maria Dzielska, who has produced perhaps the most comprehensive study on the subject, argues that the evidence clearly shows that Hypatia was murdered for political reasons. In other words, Hypatia was killed not because of her mathematics nor her philosophy nor part of a Christian onslaught against paganism. It was a political murder, full of intrigue. Dzielska persuasively argued that Hypatia was killed because she allied herself with a political faction that was seen as a threat. You can find Dzielska’s careful study here:

      It is also worth noting that fifth-century Church historian Socrates of Constantinople also records the story in his Historia Ecclesiastica (c. 439), which appeared a few decades after Hypatia’s murder. He reports the event thus:

      There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political
      jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.

      At any rate, I “dare” you to pick up Dzielska’s book. It will be most enlightening.

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