On the Matter of Giordano Bruno

So I’m watching “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” with Neil deGrasse Tyson…. and while impressive overall (the simple fact that a major network is devoting thirteen hours out of its schedule for a freakin’ science show is awesome enough!), I did cringe just a bit at the retelling of the myth of Giordano Bruno as a “martyr for science”. While they did give a bit more of his life (the fact that he was run out of towns by Protestants was new to me), they still oversimplified the case against him. He wasn’t executed for his cosmological beliefs. While they were one count in the indictment, there were seven others that were far more serious – like denying the divinity of Christ.

Once you start actually reading about the life of Bruno, you find that he was a harsh critic of the Church – a Protestant in all but name. If he were a lay person, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but he was an ordained Dominican priest. The Church has always looked down on people pissing on it from inside. And if the Church’s case against him was based on nothing more than his scientific views, surely it wouldn’t have taken eight years or so to convict and execute him.

He was far better known in his day for his works on memorization (he had written a number of works on tricks to help a person remember things) than his views on the universe. Unfortunately for Bruno, some people preferred to think of his abilites as being magical in nature. Not a good thing back then. He also dabbled a bit in espionage, working as a special agent for the English Crown against Catholic conspirators (1).

He never stayed in one place for long. For most of his career he was in places like England and Germany – well out of reach of the Church. Had he stayed away, things could have worked out fairly well for him. But thinking (wrongly as it turned out) that the Church had forgotten him, he returned to Venice in 1592. He ticked off the wrong person, and found himself under arrest.

The other myth that the episode perpetuates, though not so obviously, is that of the Catholic Church being Anti-Science. This is not really correct. For about a century, say 1550 through 1650, it was true that they did not immediately embrace the Copernican Revolution. But at the time, they had more important things on their mind – like fighting for control of the Soul of Europe. This era was the era of the Reformation, and the Church was desperately fighting what it truly believed was heresy while at the same time trying to clean up its act. The only reason they went against the new cosmology was that people would often use it as a hammer against the pillars of the faith (“You’re WRONG about astronomy, so what else are you WRONG about?”). This gets into a lot of complex philosophical issues that I don’t have time or space here to discuss (maybe another post…).

In fact, a good deal of the Copernican Revolution owes a great debt to the Catholic Church. They were arguably the biggest patron of astronomical research in Europe. Seems that a lot of their holy days are intimately connected to astronomical events (Easter is the first sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox….), so they were doing a heck of a lot of work on calendar reform starting in the fifteenth century, even going so far as to allow cathederals to be used as solar observatories (2).

Throughout the Middle Ages you’ll find innovative research and philosophy being done by members of the Church. The Church set up and ran universities, and through various offices and benefices gave thinkers independent means of financial support so that they could carry on their work. Even today, the Vatican has its own observatory, which (though small compared to some) still does useful work. When it comes to bashing Science, it only seems to be the evangelical Protestants who are involved. The Catholic Church is still of the opinion that “Science shows you how the heavens go, we show you how to go to heaven”.

1. John Bossy, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair, Yale University Press, 1991.

2. J.L. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church, Harvard University Press, 2001.


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