My Favorite Heretic
When I was in Rome, I made a point of visiting Campo dei Fiori. It's a charming plaza known for its flower markets and cafes. However, I was interested in seeing the statue that dominates the square. It is of one of my favorite heretics, Giordano Bruno.
Born in Nola, Italy in 1548, Bruno became a priest in the Dominican order, but seems to have been both blessed and cursed with a restless mind. He was interested in ideas for their own sake (rather than serving God or the church) and in how our brains work. He pioneered a mnemonic technique for memorizing large amounts of material. He would create an image for each piece of information, eventually building an imaginary house or village populated by these images. In doing so, he translated verbal information into images, thus forging links between different sections of his brain. This ability was considered "natural magic" and brought Bruno great reknown.
A restless mind often inspires the body to follow. Or perhaps it was the combination of Bruno's inquisitiveness and the Inquisition that lead him to Europe. He traveled to Paris and London, was influenced by new ideas both occult and scientific which he then incorporated into his writings. He seemed to possess a natural talent for pissing people off and getting into arguments. In "...France, in 1585, he got into a violent quarrel about a scientific instrument." (I find the preceding sentence, from this site hilarious). He joined the Calvinists, then was excommunicated. He joined the Lutherans, then was excommunicated. The Catholic Church said they would take him back on the condition that he return to his order. He refused.
What were his ideas? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia :
[Bruno's] system of thought is an incoherent materialistic pantheism. God and the world are one; matter and spirit, body and soul, are two phases of the same substance; the universe is infinite; beyond the visible world there is an infinity of other worlds, each of which is inhabited; this terrestrial globe has a soul; in fact, each and every part of it, mineral as well as plant and animal, is animated; all matter is made up of the same elements (no distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter); all souls are akin (transmigration is, therefore, not impossible).
Eventually the Inquisition did catch up with him. He spent six years in jail before being condemned. It wasn't his scientific views that did him in but his theological errors, including the Holy Ghost is the "soul" of the world, the Devil will be saved, and (my favorite) Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician. To the Church's credit, they gave him two grace periods of 40 days each to consider his dilemma and, if he chose, recant. He never did. He was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in 1600.
Bruno's theories mix the scientific, the speculative and the mystic. The cliche "ahead of his time" is entirely appropriate. The idea that this world has a soul fits in with current Gaia view of the Earth. The belief in the interconnectedness of all things is echoed in Buddhism. The infinite universe fits in with current scientific theories about the big bang.
I read the following in one of my travel books: appearantly in the 19th century the pope demanded the statue of Giordano Bruno be taken down, arguing that it was not proper to have a statue of an unredeemed heretic so close to Vatican City. People protested and demonstrated and the statue remained. Bruno still stands surrounded by food and flowers, cafes, bars and bookstores, tourists and locals and children who play "Volare" on the violin for spare change.