Giordano Bruno was a rare revolutionary, whose intellectual powers only occasionally arise among humans. The ideas he espoused during those days of religious oppression and intellectual suppression demonstrated a tremendous amount of courage. Even during the expanded intellectual and artistic freedom of the European Renaissance, the terrors of The Inquisition hung over his head like the sword of Damocles. But, unlike Damocles, he bore the tortures, suffering, and finally the flames. He left behind a legacy that is with us to this day.
Bruno’s supreme vision was to replace Christianity with a completely new religion, one that would encompass all religions. It would need to be a movement that would appeal to all of humanity. A lofty goal, indeed! This, he believed to be his primary calling in life. Let’s face it, humans are alienated from one another, to a large extent, by religion. This becomes radically so when religions become fundamentalist in nature. In our world of today, this is a monumental problem, but it was in Bruno’s day, as well. Nations have been fighting and killing each other over religion for millennia. Bruno hoped that his teachings could light a flame under the foundations of humanity that would burn brilliantly for eternity.
Bruno was inspired to change humanity’s plight by several of his Renaissance predecessors, especially Marsilio Ficino. Ficino’s patrons, Lorenzo de Medici, who was tutored by Ficino as a boy, and Lorenzo’s father, Cosimo de Medici, gave Marsilio the opportunity to cultivate and bring forth his talents, as they did for many artists and intellectuals of the day. One of his greatest accomplishments was the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, the primary text of Hermetism as taught by Hermes Trismegistus. In fact, just before he began working on the Corpus Hermeticum, he had been translating into Latin the works of Plato for the de Medicis. But after they were presented with Byzantine copies of the Corpus, Lorenzo ordered Ficino to stop work at once on the Plato translations and begin translating the words of Hermes. The de Medicis believed the Corpus contained “the most solid and promising foundation for the much needed universal religion” (Mendoza 46). Their enthusiasm was due to the fact that they believed that Hermes was a contemporary of Moses, and that his teachings contained elements that would appeal to all religious minds. Ficino completed and released a collection of thirteen tractates in 1471. This was a watershed event in Western history that influenced and animated many Renaissance luminaries, particularly Giordano Bruno.
According to Professor Ramon G. Mendoza,
A new religion based on reason and a realistic vision of the world had to be founded if it was to have any hopes of being universally accepted. Bruno’s cosmological model and the new philosophy with which it was intimately interlocked finally provided the foundation indispensable for a universally acceptable new religion (Mendoza 47).
Bruno felt his only chance for his new philosophy to take root would be in Italy. Germany was out. They were too enthralled with Luther and the religious freedom they believed he had brought them. Bruno needed the support of the Italian nobility and the intellectual elite. He had great confidence in his rhetorical powers to convince them of the viability of the new religion, and he could speak to his fellow-countrymen in his native tongue. He would later regret the decision to accept an invitation to teach his ars memoria to a wealthy Venetian noble named Mocenigo. Upon moving into Mocenigo’s palace, he was delivered to the Inquisition by the Venetian five months later, just after Easter, 1592.
Many of Bruno’s ideas are still timely. In the next installments, I will attempt to present those I feel we should take seriously. I will also explain why I think these ideas should be included, if we ever attempt to bring about a universal religion.
Mendoza, Ramon G. The Acentric Labyrinth. Rockport: Element, 1995.
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