Giordano Bruno had his eyes steadfastly fixed on the future of mankind. He desired more than anything that humanity be led out of the despotic morass of the Christian religion, with its chains of hierarchy, intolerance, dogmatism, and downright tyranny. Not only that, but he wanted to provide all peoples of all nations and religions an intellectual and spiritual infrastructure that they could wholeheartedly accept without reservation.
The overthrow of Ptolemaic geocentrism was paramount in order to seriously weaken the dogmatic edifice that had been constructed by the Church over the previous fifteen centuries. Copernicus, to his credit, began the assault, albeit timidly. In 1543, he published his life’s work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Copernicus proposed that the Sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. Strangely, he died the same year. His heliocentric theory was, indeed, a revolutionary proposal, but it was in no way powerful enough to demolish the cosmic order of that era. The security of being at the center of an ordered universe was still, for the most part, intact. Perhaps the earth was not the exact center, but we were still near enough to it that it didn’t make much difference. It would take the new cosmology of Bruno to obliterate the entire structure.
The Nolan philosopher boldly proclaimed the universe had absolutely no center. This was one of the most revolutionary statements in Western history. We are still reeling from the ensuing waves this idea brought about, even after four hundred years. Bruno was the first post-medieval European to assert an acentric universe. With this, the old worldview was shattered. As Ernst Bloch said, “the roof of the heavens was pulled off , the world-onion with the seven skins exploded” (qtd. in Mendoza 73).
For some reason, humans like centers. We feel uncomfortable if we realize there are none. The philosophical and ethical ramifications of an acentric universe are far-reaching. Bruno’s proclamation was really the beginning of humanity’s encounter with nothingness and absurdity, preoccupations of the later Existentialist movement. Suddenly, those who grasped the significance of this insight, which Bruno received entirely through his imagination, realized how insignificant humans appeared to be. By bringing forth this basic truth, however, Bruno freed philosophical and scientific thinking from the old dogmatic viewpoints that had dragged them down for so long. Because of this, Professor Mendoza calls him, “the initiator of Modernity” (Mendoza 74).
It is not only the idea of acentricity that makes Bruno so important. He also asserted with equal fervor that the universe is infinite, homogenous, and isotropic. Furthermore, he believed the universe is filled with innumerable worlds. This is modern cosmology in a nutshell. All boundaries, hierarchies, and harmonies associated with the heavens are now obsolete. The universe is infinite; perhaps it always has been. It has no center. All matter is composed of the same elements throughout the cosmos. Can you imagine how mind-blowing all this must have been in the 1590’s?
One of the reasons why his cosmological ideas are so important to his plan of universal religion is because Bruno extended these ideas into the realm of his ontology, ethics, and, of course, his theology. I will delve into these areas in future installments.
Mendoza, Ramon G. The Acentric Labyrinth. Rockport: Element, 1995.
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