The Bruno Martyr Myth

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 03/12/2014

Cosmos (a new version of Carl Sagan’s series) has begun, bringing with it discussions across the Internet about Giordano Bruno, who is often wrongly hailed as a martyr of science.* From Jay Richards:

Many viewers may have been baffled that so much time would be spent [in the opening episode of the series] on Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar born in 1548 who was neither a scientist nor credited with any scientific discovery. Why is that? It’s because he’s the only one with even a passing association with a scientific controversy to be burned at the stake during this period of history. As a result, since the 19th century, when the mythological warfare between science and Christianity was invented, Bruno has been a leading character.

But there’s one problem: Bruno’s execution, troubling as it was, had virtually nothing to do with his Copernican views. He was condemned and burned in 1600, but it was not because he speculated that the Earth rotated around the sun along with the other planets. He was condemned because he denied the doctrine of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and transubstantiation, claimed that all would be saved, and taught that there was an infinite swarm of eternal worlds of which ours was only one. The latter idea he got from the ancient (materialist) philosopher Lucretius.... Yet a documentary series about science and our knowledge of the universe fritters away valuable airtime on this Dominican mystic and heretic, while scarcely mentioning Copernicus, the Polish guy who actually wrote the book proposing a sun-centered universe.

Humphrey Clarke at Quodlibeta explains the religious views that got Bruno into trouble:

Bruno was a follower of a movement called Hermetism, which was a cult that based its beliefs on documents which were thought to have originated in Egypt at the time of Moses. These writings were linked with the teaching of the Egyptian God Thoth, the God of learning and had arrived in Italy from Macedonia in the 1460s. To followers of this cult, Thoth was known as Hermes Trismegitus, or Hermes the thrice great. The Egyptians worshiped the sun and it is possible Nicolaus Copernicus himself was influenced by Hermetism to put the sun at the centre of the universe. For instance, he wrote in De revolutionibus that:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing.

Subscribers to Hermeticism included such high profile figures as Phillip II of Spain, and the writings were generally tolerated by the Catholic Church. Bruno’s ‘dangerous idea’ was to take the view that the Egyptian religion was the true faith and that the church should return to these old ways; which they were none too pleased about.

Bruno wasn’t a martyr for science:

As the work of Frances Yates in the 1970s showed, far from being a martyr for science, Bruno was a martyr for magic. The full list of charges were as follows:

Holding opinions contrary to the Catholic Faith and speaking against it and its ministers. Holding erroneous opinions about the Trinity, about Christ’s divinity and Incarnation.Holding erroneous opinions about Christ. Holding erroneous opinions about Transubstantiation and Mass. Claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity. Believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes. Dealing in magics and divination. Denying the Virginity of Mary....

There is no evidence that his support for Copernicanism featured in the trial at all, but Bruno was a keen advocate of the sun centred universe because it fitted so well with the Egyptian view of the world.... The theme of his ‘On the Infinite Universe and Worlds’ is not Copernicanism, of which he had a rather flawed technical understanding, but pantheism, a theme also developed in his ‘On Shadows of Ideas’, and which would come to influence Baruch Spinoza.

And here’s the key point:

It was his personal cosmology which informed his espousal of Copernicus, not the other way around. Bruno and his trial made a big splash at the time and all his ideas were tarred with the same brush. It is possible if it hadn’t been for Bruno, Copernicanism would not have made such a splash with the authorities and Galileo might not have been persecuted.

Bruno’s view of the universe was primarily a result of his religious views, as was his conviction and death at the hands of the Inquisition (as Cosmos acknowledged). As the conclusion of the episode’s segments on Bruno tells us:

Bruno was no scientist. His vision of the cosmos [received in a dream, according to the episode] was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could well have turned out wrong.

The people of Bruno’s time were rejecting his unsubstantiated revelation, not science. Certainly they should not have burned him at the stake, but neither should they have been swayed by his views.

More on Cosmos. More on Bruno (and the alleged “banned books” Cosmos said he “dared to read”), his beliefs, and the origin of the myth. Watch the two segments on Bruno beginning at 16:38 (available until May 4) and read a refutation. And if you’d like to hear how Cosmos’s concern that “expressing an idea that didn’t conform to traditional belief could land you in deep trouble” doesn’t just apply to Bruno’s time, see here.


*Cosmos depicts Bruno as more of a hero of free thought than of science (yes, as odd as it seems, they celebrate his religious vision as free thought gloriously challenging the scholars’ understanding of the cosmos), but since the “science martyr” idea is still widespread, this post is intended to address that misconception.