The Brunian Revolution, Part 3: Atomic Theory of Matter

The Brunian Revolution, Part 3: Atomic Theory of Matter

The Burning of Rome, by JMW Turner
The Burning of Rome, by JMW Turner

We hear much about Bruno’s contributions to cosmology, especially in the first episode of the new Cosmos series, starring host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Indeed, his cosmological ideas were revolutionary and amazingly prescient, but his primary contributions to humanity were philosophical and ontological, as we will see. I believe his theory of matter is most important. It influences all his other accomplishments.

Bruno formulated the most impressive theory of matter of any post-medieval European philosopher, perhaps to this day. Using only his powers of speculation and imagination, Bruno devised an amazingly powerful ontological theory that rejected Platonic dualism in favor of a strict monistic view of the universe. Of course, as any good philosopher, Bruno stood on the shoulders of the giants who preceded him. He synthesized ideas from the Presocratics, Stoics, Nicholas of Cusa, and others to create an entirely novel idea concerning the stuff of the universe we call “matter.”

Plato’s dualistic position of two separate worlds, one of the Forms (mental world), and one of physical matter has its roots in Pythagoras’ discovery that our world is connected to numbers. Pythagoras probably did not conceive of these two realities as being separate. Plato, however, made them distinct by recognizing there are no perfect examples of mathematical forms, such as the triangle, anywhere in our material world. Because of this, he believed that all material objects are flawed. This drove a wedge between mind and matter that is still with us to this day. Prior to Plato, the Presocratics had held to a monistic view of things. The Stoics also, afterwards, were monists in their cosmology, as were the Neoplatonists.

Plato’s student, Aristotle, disagreed with his teacher concerning this radical dualism. He retained the idea of the necessity of the forms and matter, but he claimed they were inseparable, thus making him a metaphysical monist. He did, however, believe that the realm of planets and stars was without flaw or imperfection. Aristotle remained a physical dualist, since he distinguished between an imperfect world of matter (sublunar) and a perfect world of stars and planets (supralunar).

By the time of Bruno’s arrest, the Roman Catholic Church had adopted the Aristotelian form of hylomorphism. In this theory, substances are envisioned as composites of form and matter. Matter is seen as entirely passive and dependent on the corresponding form to give it dynamism and quality.

Aristotle’s position would come to dominate the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church for hundreds of years. The synthesis of Aristotelianism and Christian theology was accomplished in the twelfth century by St. Thomas Aquinas, who was of the opinion there was no conflict between secular philosophy and Christian theology. Of course, Thomas incorporated many ideas taught by Islamic scholar, Averroes, not the more mystical Avicenna. Averroes helped to open the door in the West to open materialism.

Giordano Bruno was revolutionary in that he realized that a proper view of atomism (which he adopted from Leucippus and his student Democritus) did not require matter to have an external cause, nor some separate internal principle in order for it to proliferate. Bruno’s philosophy of matter is rigidly monistic: intrinsically, matter possesses within itself the animating power of its own emergence. In this view, all matter is sacred and dynamic.

Bruno rejected the views of Aristotle, as well as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius in regards to matter because they portrayed it as devoid of any qualitative or quantitative value. His idea is that form and matter are factual, but not distinct:

In strict monism, the Aristotelian notion of the indissoluble interconnectedness of matter and form is paramount; matter and form are not two different and separate entities as they were in Platonic dualism, but two aspects or modes of the same physical reality (Mendoza 114).

So, form and matter are two different “modes” of one physical reality. The idea of modes is vastly different than positing two distinct substances. Descartes would, later, take the notion of distinct substances to its extreme in his mechanistic dualism of mind of matter. According to Descartes, matter is dead and lifeless.

Bruno offered a theory of matter that vanquished the dualistic ideas of Plato and Aristotle. He called his idea mater-materia, or “matter-mattering.” Here, matter possesses intelligence; it is the origin of all Forms. This idea could be termed “materialistic,” but it would be accompanied by the qualifiers, “intelligent and animated materialism,” since matter intrinsically possesses intelligence and consciousness. Bruno’s idea, here, bears similarity with Anaximander’s Apeiron. Also, this means that God is intimately connected with His creation. Mind is not separate from matter; mind is within matter. The phrase “mater-materia” connotes the womb of the Mother. Matter exists as an agent of “mattering;” matter is the matrix of all material forms.

 We think of “materialism” as something negative because it is based on the Cartesian worldview where mind and matter are bifurcated. Bruno’s conception of materialism is based on a monistic view, where all of Nature is alive with a resplendence that illuminates our world.

His new model of matter came complete with a somewhat original atomic theory partly based on the ideas of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. This came even before Galileo and Gassendi formulated atomic theories of their own. Bruno imagined atoms to be homogenous, indivisible, three-dimensional particles, which have the innate ability of self-movement. He called this self-animating power “soul.” He believed that, since there were infinite bodies in the universe, there are also an infinite number of atoms, all capable of spontaneous self-motion. In Bruno’s universe, as in Heraclitus’, all is in continual soul-flux.

Perhaps Bruno’s most important contribution to ontology is the radical, monistic flavor of his atomism. Because of its intrinsic nature, matter has the ability to generate complex states of order. Matter and form are not distinct, as in Plato. They are tightly interconnected, being different only in modal description. Bruno’s idea of

…matter has…the intrinsic power to generate all possible forms, and the immanent intelligence to direct and govern all organized complex forms that issue from it” (Mendoza 115).

This point is what I base my own theory of animaterialism upon. The “intrinsic power” and “immanent intelligence” is soul. Every atom in the universe is brimming with dynamic soul. Every atom is divine and has purpose.

 Our world is finally coming to terms with the latent energy in Nature. Atomic energy is just a metaphor for what really is innate to every bit of matter in the universe. This is a mere representation of the power of soul, for it burns brighter than any atomic explosion. If we all saw ourselves as being permeated with this soul-energy, just think what we could do!


Works Cited

Mendoza, Ramon G. The Acentric Labyrinth. Rockport: Element, 1995.

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