About twelve miles from Naples, on the northeastern slope of Mount Vesuvius, stands the little town of Nola. First settled by a colony of Chaldean Greeks, it became a prosperous and important place during the days of the Roman Empire, and many Roman nobles built their palaces within its walls. There in 1548 — seven years after the death of Paracelsus — Giordano Bruno was born. His birth was heralded by two important events which were through their subsequent effects to determine his tragic fate. In 1541 Ignatius Loyola was elected as the first general of the Society of Jesus. In 1543 Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, which vindicated the Pythagorean system by re-establishing the heliocentric theory, was published.
The Bruno family was a distinguished one, and the child who was to immortalize the name was called Philip, after the lord of the manor. At the age of ten the boy was sent to school in Naples, and in his fifteenth year he entered the Dominican monastery, where he was given the name of Giordano. Almost immediately he began to rebel against those priests who “attempted to draw me from worthier and higher occupations, to lay my spirit in chains, and from a free man in the service of virtue to make me the slave of a miserable and foolish system of deceit.” He showed his independent spirit by removing all the pictures of the saints from his cell and by advising a brother-monk to give up reading the “Seven Joys of Mary” and occupy himself with more serious forms of literature. Shortly after entering the monastery Giordano procured a copy of Copernicus’ book and at once recognized the truth of its statements. He realized that there must be some form of philosophy which would be equally scientific, and found what he was seeking in the works of Pythagoras, Plato and several of the Neoplatonists.
Despite his inner rebellion, Giordano was unable to leave the monastery, and at the age of twenty-four he took holy orders and said his first mass. Shortly afterward he wrote a satirical play, in which he painted a vivid picture of the depravity which surrounded him. This caused a charge of heresy to be brought against him by the Provincial of the Order. Realizing his danger, and hoping to escape the horrors of the Inquisition, Bruno fled from the monastery and began his wandering life, which lasted for fifteen years.
Bruno was then twenty-eight years old. He felt that he had found the truth, and admitted that he was “enchanted with the beauty of her countenance and jealous lest she be misrepresented, slighted, or profaned.” He went first to Genoa, where he supported himself by giving lessons in grammar and astronomy, and then to Geneva, where an Italian nobleman became interested in him and helped him disseminate his ideas. Geneva, however, was still too Calvinistic to listen to the liberated thought of Bruno, and so he left for France, obtaining his degree of Doctor of Theology in Toulouse and reaching Paris in his thirty-third year. His first lecture in Paris brought him the offer of a professorship in the University, which he was obliged to decline because his position as an excommunicated monk prevented him from saying mass. The King, hearing of his dilemma, offered him an “extraordinary” professorship, which gave him the opportunity to reside in Paris and devote some of his time to writing. His first book, Shadows of Ideas, was soon finished and dedicated to the King. This book, based upon Plato’s Republic, was his first attempt to portray the essential unity of the universe.
When Bruno was thirty-five years old he went to England with a letter of introduction from the King of France to his London Ambassador, who immediately invited Bruno to live with him. He was frequently taken to Court and became a warm friend of Queen Elizabeth, who openly expressed her admiration for his unusual accomplishments. Encouraged by his success in London, he then went to Oxford, where he introduced himself to the University by giving lectures on the immortality of the soul and the doctrine of reincarnation as well as on the Copernican theory. This aroused the animosity of the Oxford professors, and when Bruno defended his theories in a public debate he was prohibited from giving any further lectures and asked to leave the city.
On the evening of Ash Wednesday, 1584, Sir Fulke Grevil invited a number of his friends to his London home to meet Giordano Bruno. The discussion which took place on that evening, which Bruno afterwards published under the title La Cena de le Ceneri, took the form of a Theosophical lecture. He began his talk by declaring that Space is filled with a countless number of solar systems, each with its central sun and planets. These suns, he said, are self-luminous, while the planets shine by reflected light. He then spoke of sun-spots, of which he had learned from Nicolas de Cusa, and affirmed that our solar system has a forward motion in space.
Where Copernicus’ system was heliocentric, Giordano Bruno’s was theocentric. God, he said, “is the inner principle of all movement, the one Identity which fills the all and enlightens the universe.” He expressed his conviction that everything is contained in this One Principle, “for the Infinite has nothing which is external to Itself.”
After outlining his concept of God, Bruno then proceeded to define Nature. “Nature,” he said, “is a living unity of living units, in each of which the power of the whole is present.” Nature may appear to us in numberless forms, but it must always be considered as united in its fundamental principle. Nature, therefore, must never be conceived as a creation, but merely as a development of this First Principle. Where, then, should we look for God? “In the unchangeable laws of nature, in the light of the sun, in the beauty of all that springs from the bosom of mother earth, in the sight of unnumbered stars which shine in the skirts of space, and which live and feel and think and magnify the powers of this Universal Principle.”
This is a clear statement of the first fundamental proposition of Theosophy. As for the second, Bruno declared that everything in the manifested universe is in the process of becoming, “and this process proceeds under the fundamental Law of the Universe — the Law of Cause and Effect.” This Law of Periodicity also expresses itself as the Law of Reincarnation, so that “we ourselves, and the things we call our own, come and vanish and return again.”
Giordano Bruno, the Theosophist, naturally posited the identity of all souls with the Universal Over-soul. Although he was willing to concede that there were an endless number of individuals, “in the end all are in their nature one, and the knowledge of this unity is the goal of all philosophy.”
He then proceeded to explain how this knowledge could be acquired. “Within every man,” he said, “there is a soul-flame, kindled at the sun of thought, which lends us wings whereby we may approach the sun of knowledge.” The soul of man, he affirmed, is the only God there is. “This principle in man moves and governs the body, is superior to the body, and cannot be constrained by it.” It is Spirit, the Real Self, “in which, from which and through which are formed the different bodies, which have to pass through different kinds of existences, names and destinies.”
Giordano Bruno taught that the Law of Reincarnation is indissolubly connected with its twin doctrine of Karma, or “High Justice.”
Every act performed brings its appropriate reward or punishment in another life. In proportion as the soul has conducted itself in a body, it determines for itself its transition into another body.
And then, to show that the doctrine was not original with him, he carefully explained that it had been taught by Pythagoras, Plato and the Neoplatonists, and that he was merely passing on what he had learned from his predecessors.
In his Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante, which was published in 1584, Bruno described the condition of a soul who had misused its opportunities on earth, saying that such a soul would be “relegated back to another body, and should not expect to be entrusted with the government and administration of a better dwelling if it had conducted itself badly in the conduct of a previous one.” But, he said, there are certain individuals whose “soul-flame” has burned more brightly with each succeeding incarnation, leading them by gradual stages to perfection. “These speak and act not as mere instruments of the divine, but rather as self-creative artists and heroes. The former have the divine spirit; the latter are divine spirits.”
When the French Ambassador who had befriended him in London was recalled to Paris, Bruno accompanied him. Instead of resuming his former relations with the University of Paris, Bruno presented 120 theses to the Rector in which he showed how his own philosophy differed from that of Aristotle. He warned the French against the dangers of blind belief and begged them to bend their heads only before the majesty of truth. Having delivered this message Bruno departed for Germany, where he hoped to visit some of the more important university towns. He met with hostility in Marburg, but Wittenberg welcomed him with open arms, only the Calvinistic party in the University remaining unfriendly. When the Calvinists came into power Bruno was again obliged to seek another home. He went to Helmstadt, but here a Lutheran pastor put an end to his hopes by denouncing him publicly before an assembled congregation. He then sought refuge in Frankfort-am-Main, where he was described by a Carmelite prior as “a man of universal intelligence and well versed in all sciences, but without a trace of religion.”
One day Bruno visited the Frankfort fair, where he made the acquaintance of two Italian book-sellers. They became interested in Bruno’s writings and took some of his books back to Venice. These came under the attention of a young Venetian nobleman, Giovanni Mocenigo, who at once inquired where the talented Bruno could be found. Mocenigo, a tool of the Jesuits, was serving as one of the agents of the Inquisition. Recognizing an easy victim, Mocenigo wrote to Bruno, inviting him to come to Venice and promising him assistance in his work. Bruno accepted the invitation, little realizing the snare which was being so cunningly laid. As soon as he was installed in Mocenigo’s house the young nobleman demanded that Bruno instruct him in the “magic arts.” When Bruno insisted that he was a philosopher and scientist and knew nothing of the “magic arts,” Mocenigo threatened him with the Inquisition. Bruno replied that he had done nothing unlawful, and offered to leave the house at once. That night Mocenigo, accompanied by several of his servants, burst into Bruno’s room, forced him out of bed, and locked him in an upper room. The following day Mocenigo sent a written accusation against Bruno to the Inquisition, and during the night Bruno was removed from Mocenigo’s house and taken to the prison of the Inquisition. This happened on May 22, 1592.
Seven days later Bruno’s trial began. Mocenigo accused him, “by constraint of his conscience, and by order of his confessor,” of teaching the existence of a boundless universe filled with a countless number of solar systems. He pointed out that Bruno had said that the earth was not the center of the universe, but a mere planet revolving around the sun. He accused Bruno of teaching the doctrine of reincarnation; of denying the actual transubstantiation of bread into the flesh of Christ; of refusing to accept the three persons of the Trinity, and of rejecting the virgin birth of Christ.
After these accusations had been read to the Court of the Inquisition, Bruno arose and unfolded his philosophical and scientific doctrines in detail, neither concealing nor omitting any essential feature, but speaking as simply as if he were sitting in his professor’s chair talking to his pupils. He admitted his belief in an infinite universe which is the direct effect of infinite, divine power. He defined this power as Spirit, by virtue of which everything lives, moves and has its being.
Thus I understand Being in all and over all, as there is nothing without participation in Being, and there is no being without Essence. Thus nothing can be free of the Divine Presence.
This Divine Presence, he continued, is Spirit, the All-Life, and from It life and soul flow into every thing and every being. Hence Spirit is imperishable, just as matter is indestructible. As for death, it is merely a division and re-vivification, a statement of which is found in Ecclesiastes where it is said that “There is nothing new under the sun; that which is, is that which was.”
Bruno then frankly admitted his inability to comprehend the doctrines of three persons in the Godhead, saying that he considered the Holy Ghost from the Pythagorean standpoint, as the Soul of the Universe. He also acknowledged his disbelief in the virgin birth of Jesus, but expressed his belief in the “miracles” of that great Teacher, since they all came under natural law.
At the end of the sitting, the Inquisitor turned to Bruno and again charged him point by point with the whole accusation, warning him of the serious consequences which awaited him if he did not retract his statements. Bruno looked the Inquisitor full in the face and remained silent.
On the following day the trial was continued. This time Bruno was accused of friendship with the heretical Queen Elizabeth. He was then returned to the dungeon in the prison of the Inquisition, and for the next eight weeks was daily subjected to the rack and other instruments of torture. The records of his trial were sent to Rome, and he was summoned to the Holy City, where he arrived on February 27, 1593. There he was incarcerated in another dark and gloomy dungeon in the Roman prison of the Inquisition, where he was kept for seven years. On December 21, 1599, he was again called before the Inquisition, and asked to retract his statements. In spite of his seven years of imprisonment and torture, Bruno again replied that “he neither dared, nor would retract his statements. That he had nothing to retract, and knew not what he should retract.” With these words he sealed his doom.
On January 20, 1600, the Pope ordered Bruno to be delivered over to the Inquisition. He was called into the audience chamber, forced to kneel as he listened to his sentence, and then given over to his executioners with the usual request that he be punished without the shedding of blood, which meant that he was to be burned at the stake. After listening unmoved to his sentence, Bruno rose to his full height, looked his executioners in the eye, and spoke his last sentence on earth. “It is with far greater fear that you pronounce, than I receive, this sentence.”
In the early morning hours of Friday, February 17, 1600, one of those processions which were all too familiar to Rome was seen wending its way to the Campo di Fiora, the place where the Holy Mother Church burned her heretical sons. Giordano Bruno was led to the pile, clad as a “heretic,” his tongue bound lest he should utter one last word against the Holy Mother Church who claimed to be the living representative of that great Teacher who had said 1600 years before, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” He was bound to the stake and the hungry flames began to lick at his flesh. But not one sigh of agony escaped from that noble breast. When, at the last moment of his torment, a crucifix was held before him, he turned his eyes away.
In the Campo di Fiora, on the spot where Giordano Bruno met his fate, there now stands a monument to his memory. But more imperishable than any visible tribute is the invisible monument to Truth erected by Bruno himself — that brave, loyal and devoted friend of the “great orphan Humanity,” that willing martyr to the Cause of Those whose agent and representative he was.