THE INFAMOUS HOMICIDE
On February 17, 1600, pursuant to a decree of inquisitional authorities, executioners brought a philosopher-priest from a dungeon where he had languished for seven years, stripped him of his clothing, gagged him and in the center of Rome’s Campo di Fiori square burned him to death. His crime was that he had contumaciously over a period of ten years refused to recant his belief, among others, that the earth was not the center of the universe and not the body around which the sun revolved.
The Church considered this man’s ideas so dangerous that his publications were placed on the Index, a list of publications that were forbidden by the Church for the eyes of the faithful; and his works were destroyed when they came into the hands of authorities, leaving few for posterity. He died anathematized and friendless. But his ideas could not be destroyed; and in spite of the Church’s effort to eradicate them, they took root in the 19th century and flourished. The philosopher-priest was rediscovered and honored 299 years later on the very date he was executed and in the very spot by the erection of a monument to him.
Yearly since on the anniversary of his execution, admirers from many countries have come to the square to honor the secular martyr, the scientific saint, who read Copernicus and not only believed him but incorporated his astronomical findings into a new philosophy and new concept of God. And on the four hundredth anniversary, February 17, 2000, admiring freethinkers came again to praise the man and the radicals came to damn the Church. One sign at the base of his statue read: “ He was killed because he thought freely” and denounced the “infamous homicide.”
A Vatican spokesman called the execution on February 17, 1600, of the Renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno “ a sad episode of modern Christian history.” The Church has declined to go so far in the case of Bruno as it did in 1992 in the case of Galileo, who committed the same sin, by overruling the Inquisition and declaring the conviction of Galileo the result of a “tragic mutual incomprehension.”
Other than believing what no one in any church on the planet would deny today, what did Giordano Bruno believe and write that provoked the Inquisition to order such a final solution in his case? First, Bruno did not believe that God sat on a throne in Heaven above and perpendicular to Jerusalem and that the devil ruled in Hell located beneath the city with angels and devils coming and going to intervene in human affairs, while God kept books on everyone and looked down on a fixed planet that He had created in a week’s work. But he believed that the earth revolved around the sun, that the sun was a star similar to an infinite number of other stars with planets, that natural laws and processes were the same everywhere in the universe, and that God was not apart from earth or the universe but was in fact a part and the whole of everything, including all that was organic or inorganic. God was here and everywhere, not somewhere out there.
He was a pantheist; that is, he believed that God was present throughout nature and was one and the same as nature and that nature including man reflected His characteristics. Pantheism was Bruno’s belief that the Holy Inquisition could not countenance and allow to be spread; for it was antithetical to the Church’s basic theological premise that God was separate from nature; that He had appear among men incarnate, etc., etc.
Further, Bruno departed from the Church in other matters. He taught that man’s chief concern should be the expulsion from his nature the beast and the triumph of truth and other virtues in his character and conduct and that moral progress was an unending struggle in the direction of an infinite goal, advancement toward which was happiness. He apparently did not believe that imitation of Christ was impossible and that man must rely on the grace of God and the intermediation of the Church for salvation.
Giordano knew little of peace or prosperity in his life. He went into a monastery at age 14; and owing to his independent thinking, he was charged with entertaining heretical ideas and fled the sanctuary. He went from country to country over a period of 16 years trying in vain to find a place of refuge where he could live, study, teach and write undisturbed. At times he experienced extreme poverty and at other times he received recognition and taught in some of the great universities. His prosperity whenever it came was short lived; for he could not be tolerated by Christians believing as he did that the earth moves around the sun and his inferences therefrom.
His admirers at the 400th anniversary tribute acted, one observer noted, as if he had been murdered just yesterday instead of four hundreds years ago. It is not difficult to understand why they acted so. The same inquisitional mindset is afoot today and would incite the persecution of heretics save that it is without the devices, at least in the West, of ecclesiastical police and courts and the power of torture and execution. There are those who would burn books that teach evolution; who believe their brand of religion is so true that they feel compel to proselytize people of, to them, inferior faiths; and who believe and teach a theology as primitive as the one current in the days of Giordano. And there are those who look upon the wall separating church and state as a devil’s design to make easier the corruption of youth and would breach it had they the power.
Giordano’s only crime was that he thought differently and freely and rationally, accepting and teaching at his peril what is now accepted universally as truth. Surely, such an injustice caused angels to cry and should have taught humankind not only that appearances are often misleading but that dogmatism arising from appearances is a sandy premise upon which to plan or build anything much less a premise upon which to burn to death a good, learned and courageous free thinker with the courage to speak as he thought.
Jefferson helped make America safe for free thinkers by building the wall. Giordano somewhere may take comfort from and have his hopes resurrected by what Jefferson did and American courts have reaffirmed. So far.