Bruno’s Theory of Matter

Bruno’s Theory of Matter

Terrasse sur le lac Majeur, by Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny

This will be the first of several articles on Bruno’s theory of matter and the cosmic mind. They are more my personal notes than formal essays. 

Giordano Bruno formulated the most impressive theory of matter of any European philosopher, perhaps to this day. Using only his powers of speculation, Bruno formulated 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 new 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 that there was no conflict between secular philosophy and Christian theology.

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 that matter 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. This, Bruno called “soul.” 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 (The Acentric Labyrinth, by Ramon G. Mendoza, Ph.D).

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 animized 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.

I believe the Anima Mundi is returning us to this vision. More than anytime in our history we need a sacralized and animized view of matter. We have neglected Mother Earth long enough. It is time we give Her the respect She deserves.

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