Tournament of Books 2015

The New Republic Online
Thursday, October 23rd, 2008
Voice your opinion about this review by
posting a comment on the blog


Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic


The Morning or the Night

A review by Peter N. Miller


"To philosophize is to learn to die": seven words, and an epoch in Western thought. According to Plato in the Phaedo, one of the inextinguishable monuments that he erected to his martyred teacher, Socrates believed that philosophy was a way of "practicing dying." Cicero, who set himself the task of making philosophy speak Latin, translated "practice" not with meditatio but commentatio -- meaning "careful preparation," from which we get our own "commentary" or "study." Study, he implies, takes us outside ourselves, beyond our bodily needs, and thus helps us to transcend our physical finitude.

Yet there is also, in Cicero's momentous linguistic decision, the implication that what one studies, as well as that one studies, prepares us while alive to meet our eventual fate. Philosophy can teach endurance, forbearance, and perspective amid both joy and catastrophe. Those who live in fear of death also live in fear of pain, in fear of danger, in fear of the new; but those who accept the reality of death are freed from all these fetters.

This was stoicism as a liberation theology for the single soul, emancipating people to live here and now. And out of freedom came heroism. Told that the Thirty Tyrants ruling Athens had condemned him to death, Socrates shot back: "And nature, them." This was also the defiant attitude of all those virtuous Romans who were the subject of European history painting from the Renaissance through the Pre-Raphaelites -- figures such as Regulus, who preferred slavery in Carthage to urging a shameful peace on his compatriots, or Mucius Scevola, who demonstrated the fearsomeness of the Romans by thrusting his right hand into burning coals. "It is sweet and right," went the old song, "to die for one's homeland." From this, in turn, derived the notion of the "good death": that dying with dignity and restraint, or in a good cause, proved that all the time spent living up until that moment was time well spent.

The cult of the good death outlived the Romans and became part of the classical overtones in Christian civilization. By the time Monteverdi turned the story of Seneca and Nero into opera in 1643, these ideas had become so commonplace that this Stoic philosophy could be made hummable:

Friends, the hour has come
in which I am to practice that virtue
which I have praised so much.
Death is but brief agony;
a wandering sigh leaves the heart,
where for many years
it has, so to speak, lived as a guest,
and, like a wanderer, it flies to Olympus,
the true dwelling of happiness.
Monteverdi had overlapped in Venice only briefly with Galileo; and while the astronomer had not been made to die for his ideas, he had suffered a brutal public humiliation. His fate hung heavy over all European thinkers in the years that followed. And we know that at least one of them, Fabri de Peiresc, likened it to the martyrdom of Socrates. Having written once to the pope's nephew, a friend of his, pleading for Galileo's release, in a second and more frustrated letter Peiresc shook his finger at Cardinal Francesco Barberini, warning that failure to reverse the verdict "would run the great risk of being interpreted and perhaps compared one day to the persecution of the person and wisdom of Socrates in his country, so condemned by other nations and by posterity itself."

Only three and a half decades earlier, on February 17, 1600, Giordano Bruno had been executed for his ideas, burned at the stake in the center of Rome, his tongue spiked to prevent him from speaking or crying out. In her provocative biography, a marvelous feat of scholarship, Ingrid D. Rowland brings before us today the pieces of an extraordinary sixteenth-century life. She begins, in fact, with that death, and with the memorial to it, the famous statue of the murdered thinker, on the Campo dei Fiori.

Most of the time, the brooding figure on his plinth is lost amid the diurnal market stalls and nocturnal revels that make this Roman Covent Garden such a crossroads. But on one day a year, Rowland reminds us, things on the Campo dei Fiori are different. The mayor of Rome comes and lays a wreath in the name of his city, and then various groups of ideologues come and turn the sculpture into a soapbox. The place has been consecrated to freedom of thought and speech for a long time. Already in the nineteenth century, when the sculpture was commissioned by the students of Rome and dedicated to a new patron saint, it was seen as a blow against papal domination of secular, modern, and (it was hoped) enlightened interests. (At first, Bruno's back was turned to the Vatican, but this was too much even for those who despised clericalism. Now his hooded eyes glower in the direction of his persecutors.)

The pedestal proclaims: "To Bruno, from the generation he foresaw, here, where the pyre burned." But like the statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard, this is a statue of at least three lies. First, the statue is placed in the center of the square, not on the spot where "the pyre burned." Second, the real Bruno lacked the stature of this hulking bronze. Third, in the final decades of his life he did not wear the Dominican habit in which he has been dressed for posterity. And, though burned as an "obstinate" heretic, he tried three times to return to the Catholic confession, only to be rebuffed by the church, and he twice recanted his philosophical views (before recanting his recantation). In all its ironies, the statue is an apt introduction to the enigma of its subject.

In the century since his very public elevation, Bruno has become a central figure in the twentieth-century revision of Jacob Burckhardt's classic work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Burckhardt had emphasized the role of the individual, emerging through the politics and art of the fifteenth century, while downplaying the importance of philosophy and keeping carefully to a model of creativity as rational -- producing a cultural history whose lineaments were very different from those discerned in ancient Greece by his younger friend and colleague Friedrich Nietzsche. A generation later, Aby Warburg, by temperament more open to the power of emotion and by training a perceptive synthesizer (his seminar in Hamburg in 1927 was in fact devoted to Burckhardt and Nietzsche), chose to turn his -- and our -- attention to the psychic dimensions of the Italian Renaissance. Warburg found abundant passion and extreme stress. He understood that this might have more to do with Plato, who was finally made Latin-speaking by Lorenzo the Magnificent's in-house philosopher Marsilio Ficino, than with Aristotle, who had dominated school and university curricula since the thirteenth century. But the recovery of the Platonic Renaissance was the task of a later generation, one anchored in Warburg's own library, which escaped the auto-da-fe on Bebelplatz in Berlin in May 1933 and arrived in London in December of that fateful year. There the brilliant scholars D.P. Walker and Frances Yates proceeded to decode not only the impact of Plato, but also the power of the hermetic forces that Plato's legitimation helped unleash. And Bruno was for them Exhibit A.

Rowland's Bruno is different. She follows the recent tendency to take Bruno seriously as a philosopher, but gives special emphasis to the role of Plato and Neoplatonism. She also has a real ear for his poetry, and for the way early modern learned that poetry could be no less serious or didactic than a treatise. Trained as a classicist, Rowland, like her subject, has moved through a variety of academic communities, in the United States and in Italy, as well as across different disciplines. She is one of the rare academics known to a wide general audience through her essays, in these pages as well as in The New York Review of Books, which have helped to shape our current view of early modern Italian culture. Rowland's long years closeted with Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), a towering and fearfully recondite intellectual of the next generation in Rome, have helped her to refine her uncommon ability to tease out meaning from even the most rebarbative texts.


Filippo Bruno -- Giordano was the name he took in Orders -- was born in 1548 in Nola, a city in the Neapolitan campagna northeast of Vesuvius, to a father who served in the occupying Spanish military and could thus fancy himself a gentleman. The boy must have been talented, because at fourteen he gained a spot as a novice in the grand convent of San Domenico Maggiore, where the children of Naples's greatest families were sent for finishing.

We know that as early as the age of seventeen Bruno was doing things that aroused the suspicion of his clerical superiors (who recorded them, providing some of the evidence on which his future accusation would be based). He cleansed his cell of images. He attacked a colleague for reading an obscure tract on the Virgin Mary. He even began to doubt the divinity of Jesus (though the evidence for this came later). Although Bruno jumped through every academic hoop that was presented to him -- he seems from his youth to have had a stupendous memory in a culture that prized memory above almost everything but wealth -- he also had a talent for picking fights and making enemies. Seeking, perhaps, a change of scenery in Rome, at the Dominican college of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, he had the nerve to use Augustine's words to defend the plausibility of the third-century Alexandrian heretic Arius's position on the humanity of Jesus. Technically, Bruno was correct, and was only demonstrating a logical point. Practically, he was asking for trouble: this was too controversial a topic, in a theological environment poisoned by paranoia over Protestantism, to have been accidentally plucked from midair by so potent a controversialist.

This was the last straw. The authorities searched the convent in Naples and found -- in a latrine, no less -- a marked-up copy of Erasmus, a writer deemed dangerous enough to have made the church's first list of banned books. Recalled to face his superiors, Bruno fled -- first to Genoa, then to Venice, and finally across the Alps. Over the course of eleven years he wandered to Geneva, Lyon, Toulouse, Paris, Oxford, London, Wittenberg, Prague, Helmstedt, Frankfurt, Zurich, Padua, and Venice again. Betrayed to the Inquisition by a disappointed patron in 1592, he was soon shipped back to Rome once and for all.

Along his road to Calvary, like many a lonely man of faith, Bruno wrote and wrote. There are Bruno's workaday texts -- workaday only in that they were produced either to secure him work or to justify work already gained. These writings were on artificial memory, Bruno's forte. Already in antiquity memory systems were a stock-in-trade of all those with important public functions. Cicero's treatise on oratory, for example, suggests both the encyclopedic range of knowledge needed by public speakers and the specific ways to remember all that stuff. Bruno's memory theaters and memory machines marked a real maturation of this practice, and also linked it directly to the more practical needs of late Renaissance rulers and courts. This was, after all, the first cold war, when Catholic and Protestant rulers faced off across the iron curtain that divided Europe after the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Potentates grasped for small advantages, and the organization of information -- for this is what memory offers -- in an age of rapidly exploding information was no little prize. Both Henri III, King of France, and Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, were willing to take a chance on the strange little Italian with an ambiguous confessional orientation.

But Bruno had other philosophical and even theosophical interests, and they crowded out his utilitarian wares. In the end -- and the end often came after only a few months -- he was too obscure, and his productions too theoretical, to hold the attention of the practically minded. And where this mattered even less, in the classroom, Bruno ran into other obstacles. Obtaining professorships in Toulouse, Paris, and Wittenberg, and lecturing in Oxford and Zurich, Bruno was too convinced of his own cleverness and too quick to demonstrate it. Having won the admiration of a colleague at Toulouse, the philosopher Francesco Sanchez, the latter pressed into his hands a copy of his just-published book, with a dedication to Bruno "in friendship and esteem." Bruno scrawled across the title page: "Remarkable that this ass professes himself a doctor." And on the first page of the text: "Remarkable that he presumes to teach." Not so surprising, then, that this refugee never found a home.

Where previous generations have focused on Bruno and memory, or on Bruno and esoteric magical traditions, Rowland gives us a Bruno who drank deeply from Plato's springs. From them he emerged a poet and a writer, in both Latin and Italian, of sometimes astounding virtuosity. Bruno comes alive for us in Rowland's translations as an Italian with a Shakespearean sense of the ebullience and the fecundity of language. One cannot read her Elizabethan-sounding translation of Bruno's five-act Ash Wednesday Supper, set as it was in London around 1585, and not smile with recognition; or her translation of his Candlemaker, a reflection on the Naples of his youth written twenty years later, without feeling that one has encountered a real literary talent -- his, and hers.

Faced with the difficulty of Bruno's published works and the absence of much else from his pen, Rowland often has to chase her prey through the books and letters of contemporaries and the archives of his protectors and persecutors. So, for instance, seeking some foundation for his later theological views, she has dug deeply in the theological works produced in the Neapolitan intellectual world inherited by the young Bruno. Wondering what the older Bruno might have meant, she tracked down each and every surviving copy of a poem, and found that the hundred surviving copies all differ from one another, and that each has corrections in Bruno's own hand. Bearing this heavy burden of learning with ease, Rowland is a sure-footed guide on a ground with few tracks. This is intellectual biography at its best.

And Rowland's intellectual biography of Bruno brings alive a sixteenth-century culture that electrified Europe. Who cannot feel, across the centuries, the thrill in Bruno's question, in Ash Wednesday Supper, "Do we stand in the shadows, or rather they? Do we, in conclusion, who begin to renew the ancient philosophy, stand in the morning to put an end to the night, or in the evening to put an end to the day?" This is nothing less than the dawning in European consciousness of the sense of the new. (It was exactly the same question posed by Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, wondering whether the half-sun on George Washington's chair back was rising or setting.) Bruno is a modern confronting the ancients with a gesture of recognition across a chasm of fifteen centuries. From the Florence of Brunelleschi to the Frankfurt of Leo Strauss, "ancients and moderns" has been perhaps the most crucial framework developed in Europe for theorizing time's changes. And "time" held the key to Bruno's fate.


In the light of the ecclesiastical condemnation of Copernicanism and the later trial of Galileo, it is tempting to see time telescoped and Bruno the defrocked Dominican as the astronomer's John the Baptist, heralding the coming of a new age, and killed for it. This was the inspiration for those Roman students of the last century. But as the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg made clear some years ago, in a magisterial book called The Genesis of the Copernican World, Bruno was no martyr for Copernicanism.

So why, then, was he killed? In this case, that is another way of asking, What was his big idea? Rowland's answer is clear and correct: his big idea was infinity. Bruno believed in an infinite universe, full of many Copernican systems, many worlds. Whence he came by this notion is a puzzle. He could have read about the idea of infinity in the work of the indisputably orthodox Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), or in the indisputably heterodox kabbalistic writings of Gilles of Viterbo (1465-1532). Then again, he could have cobbled the concept together out of folk experience and folly, as did his contemporary, the miller Menocchio, so magnificently portrayed by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms (1976). Menocchio, too, would meet his fate at the Inquisition's hand.

We do not know quite when or where, but at some point between his departure from the Neapolitan convent in 1576 and his arrival in Paris in 1582 and his first publication, Bruno passed through Copernicanism on the way to the last stop on his philosophical journey. "Never shall you see the face of immense and starry Olympus/Come to an end," he writes,

rather space fills what it continues
Stars without number, indeed, whole
worlds of these wandering bodies
Nor can you think that of these a
single one is less fertile
Than earth, for all are compacted of
the identical elements.
Of such does measureless space shine
by the splendor of starlight.
The snap judgment that a philosopher of the infinite is a Copernican, and that a Copernican system expanded many times over describes an "infinite universe," seems right. The problem is that it focuses only on the spatial dimension of infinity. There is also the temporal dimension. And it is here that we find the answer to our riddles.

In his Candlemaker (1582), set in the Naples of his youth, Bruno puts a philosophical monologue into the mouth of the courtesan Vittoria. Rowland's emphasis is on its role in articulating "the comedy's overall meaning: 'The world is fine as it is,' il mondo sta bene come sta." In her reading, this jibes with a conversation in the Heroic Frenzies (1585) between two characters from his childhood in Nola. And their discussion of the good life turns on a recognition of its variability, and thus on the importance of being able to withstand the perils of both adversity and success -- the classical sustine et abstine of the Stoics.

As we might expect, however, the Neapolitan hooker was no Stoic. Before she got around to concluding that she lived in the best of all possible worlds, she offered a philosophy of living. "It's important to line things up in time," she declares. "Whoever waits for time is wasting time. If I wait for time, time won't wait for me. We need to take advantage of their situation when they still think they need us. Grab the prey when it's chasing you, don't wait until it runs away." This is none other than Machiavelli's advice to the Prince on how to master Dame Fortune by seizing the occasion -- and her -- by force if necessary.

But time, in the shape of chronology, as Rowland herself points out elsewhere, was on many people's minds in the last decades of the sixteenth century. It was in 1583, right between publication of The Candlemaker and The Heroic Frenzies, that Joseph Scaliger in Leiden ushered in a century of chronological research with On the Correcting of Time. Scaliger's erudite tome was ultimately to incite a frontal assault on the identity of biblical and cultural history. Bruno's challenge was more arcane and even more direct. Believing that the world was infinitely old, as well as infinite in scope, he proposed in The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (1584) that the universe holds cultures and memories that have come and gone and will come and go again. Less a defense of Copernicanism than an extrapolation from Copernicus's revolution to a still more revolutionary cosmos in which our solar system was but one among many, Bruno's promise, according to Rowland, was that this grand shift in perspective "will be good for everyone's mental and spiritual health."

Rowland argues that for Bruno "the infinite stretches of time and space bred, at least ideally, an infinite tolerance for the various ways that people have sought God and wisdom." Bruno's self-proclaimed "Nolan" philosophy "meant accepting the world as it was, which in turn implied accepting a much larger definition of life in which the earth, stars, and planets were also living things, infused with divinity." This was not a mechanical universe precisely because it was filled with God's love. Rowland wants very much for Bruno's "discovery" of infinity to have had for him an explicit ethical dimension, and to have been something like a genuine acceptance of the plurality of life choices and pathways. Unfortunately, there is really no indication that Bruno himself cared to draw out these ethical implications, nor that he himself ever lived such acceptance.

According to Rowland, it is in The Heroic Frenzies where Bruno goes beyond; and in her discussion of it she does too, proclaiming that "the Nolan and humanity are on the threshold of something new." But the passage she then cites to support this claim is a fine example of what people -- not just the English who laughed him from the podium in Oxford in 1583, but modern readers as well -- might find merely frenzied, heroic or not.

But here contemplate the harmony and consonance of all the spheres, intelligences, muses, and instruments together, where heaven, the movement of the worlds, the works of nature, the discourses of intellect, the mind's contemplation, the decrees of divine Providence, all celebrate with one accord the lofty and magnificent oscillation that equals the lower waters with the higher, exchanges night for day, and day for night, so that divinity is in all things, so that everything is capable of everything, and the infinite goodness communicates itself without end according to the full capacity of all things.

One may contemplate Bruno, admire Bruno, and even delight in Bruno without being able to make complete sense of Bruno.

A "colleague" of Bruno's, who also flew through the many heavens of the night seeking to encompass all power, beauty, and knowledge, was the literary Doctor Faustus: the first Faustbuch was published in 1587 and was set in Wittenberg, where Bruno was then on the faculty. But there is more than resemblance and proximity to go on. For the second version of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, from 1616, includes a scene in which a "Bruno" is led in chains to the pope to be "straight condemned of heresy--/--And on a pile of faggots burnt to death." While the context implies a twelfth-century German anti-pope whom the Lutheran Faustus rescues, his crime could not have been heresy, and audiences would surely have thought first about the famous late philosopher. In any event, there was no anti-pope named Bruno. Might this composite portrait mark instead a clumsy attempt to mask one Bruno's identity -- still a subject of controversy -- with another who possessed no real identity at all? This scene did not appear either in Marlowe's main source, the English Faust Book of 1592, nor in the 1604 printing of a 1601 edition of the play. It must therefore have been added subsequently -- after the news of Giordano Bruno's execution spread.

Rowland tells us that he died a heretic. But what exactly was his heresy? Believing in infinite worlds was not heretical. But the consequences of this belief could be heretical. Bruno asks, in one of the prose explanations that accompanied his poem "On the immense and the numberless" (ca. 1590), "Where is place, space, vacuum, time, body? In the universe. Where is the universe? In every place, space, time, body. Is there anything outside the universe? No. Why? Because there is no place nor space nor motion nor body." We are getting closer to Bruno's offense. In the poem itself, Bruno shifted his emphasis from space to time, with decisive consequences.

Past time or present, whichever you
happen to choose, or the future:
All are a single present, before God
an unending oneness.
Hence contradictory things can never
persist at the same time....
Everything, when it is, because it is,
must exist, then.
If the heresy is hard to hear in Bruno's Italian, it is made clearer in T.S. Eliot's English:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
And there is no escaping this conclusion in the poem "Giordano Bruno in Prison," written by Eliot's mother, Charlotte. In this monologue, the hero proclaims
Source of all life, whose presence
Dwells infinite in space, beneath
Thy feet
Worlds spring like flowers that open
to the light....
In the beginning seest thou the end,
and in the end a mere beginning still.
And then "Bruno" took the step that turned infinity into heresy: rejecting the divinity of Jesus -- the same doubt the historical Bruno first discovered in himself at age eighteen. "This man was God, then, can we truly say, Yet this divinity is man always [emphasis added]."

Erasmus had outraged the orthodox by having a cheeky participant in "The Godly Feast," one of the charming Colloquies first published in 1522, proclaim in response to a brief summary of Socrates's wise words, "Saint Socrates, pray for us." Erasmus had actually imagined a doctrinally more minimal Christianity that bracketed as "things indifferent" many of the debates that had caused Christians such agony. Luther brushed Erasmus aside, like some kind of Kerensky to his real revolution, but the Roman church took his measure. They knew a threat when they read one, and so they censored, pulped, and banned his books wherever the long arm of the Holy Office reached. And it could reach even into the Neapolitan sewer system when necessary.

Yet Erasmus's challenge was superficial compared to Bruno's. For if time itself is "unredeemable," there can be no Creation, no Incarnation, and of course no Redemption. Doubting the Son, one ended up doubting the Father. This is what enabled Bruno's interrogators to draw together his youthful doubts about the divinity of the Son and his later philosophical speculations. Hauled before the Inquisition in Venice in 1592 and interrogated in Rome for seven more years, it was Bruno the Unitarian theorist -- or Bruno and the specter of Unitarianism -- that terrified. With Lutheranism and Calvinism on the march north of the Alps and the Italian Fausto Sozzini winning converts among Catholics in Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland to a unitarianism that his enemies called "Socinianism," Bruno may have seemed less a "lone gunman" to his inquisitors than he does to us.

Not long after his execution, though in another time, another place, and another language, another philosopher was condemned for envisioning the universe as an infinite extension of identical atoms, with God present in each of them. This was Spinoza. Long before the Roman students petitioned for Bruno's monument, another group of no longer young men made their own. They came to Bruno through Spinoza. When Friedrich Jacobi revealed that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had declared that "there is no other philosophy than the philosophy of Spinoza," he unleashed a firestorm in Germany. But when, in the second edition of his Spinoza Letters in 1789, he traced Spinoza back to Bruno, and printed translated excerpts from On the Cause, the Principle, and the One, he gave his generation their genealogy. Soon afterward, in 1802, Schelling published Bruno, Or on the Natural and Divine Principle of Things. Goethe dissented: "Jordanus Brunus. I see more clearly his complete unserviceability, indeed harmfulness, for our times." Yet even he, when trying to make sense of infinity, called it "A Study Based on Spinoza." Like Spinoza, Bruno has become one of those thinkers who is either central to one's narrative of the history of thought or completely absent from it.


Seneca's students were not yet philosophers, and so they did not understand that they ought to learn to die. They urged their teacher to live:

Do not die, Seneca, no.
For my part I would not wish to die.
This life is after all so sweet,
this sky so very clear,
all bitterness, all poison,
is in the end only a little evil.
We started with Montaigne and the title of his essay, "To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die." But the Essays, especially the later ones, launched also the long campaign of reconquest that transformed stern classical virtue into softer modern morals. "If we have not known how to live," Montaigne writes, "it is not right to teach us how to die.... If we have known how to live steadfastly and calmly we shall know how to die the same way." And living well meant just that: "Even in virtue our ultimate aim -- no matter what they say -- is pleasure." When Montaigne turned from the world outside to the self within, he found, remarkably, the same extraordinary range, complexity, and diversity -- almost, we might say, the infinite: "I who make no other profession but getting to know myself find in me such boundless depths and variety that my apprenticeship bears no other fruit than to make me know how much there remains to learn."

This discovery of his inner infinitude was therapy for Montaigne. Sharing it with his readers was intended as therapy for them. Interestingly, one of the inspirations that he drew upon for the skepticism that freed him from convention and therefore also from anxiety was none other than Francesco Sanchez, whose That Nothing Is Known he may have read in manuscript. This is the same text that had elicited Bruno's pitiless mockery. Could there be a sharper division between philosophy as learning to live and philosophy as learning to die? Between the infinite as a form of skepticism leading to self-knowledge and the infinite as a form of certainty leading to mean-spiritedness?

Nor in the vast heaven of Bruno's literary corpus do we find -- or at least Rowland does not give it to us -- the kind of clear commitment to the infinitude of the human spirit that those Roman students imagined must have led to Bruno's martyrdom. We do not find it Bruno, but we do find it a generation later in another friar of San Domenico Maggiore, and another victim of the Inquisition, Tomaso Campanella. After feigning madness through forty hours of torture, he was locked away as a madman for twenty-four more years. Eventually forced into a French exile, he reflected there on his condition.

Man lives in a double world: according to the mind he is contained by no physical space and by no walls, but at the same time he is in heaven and on earth, in Italy, in France, in America, wherever the mind's thrust penetrates and extends by understanding, seeking, mastering. But indeed according to the body he exists not, except in only so much space as is least required, held fast in prison and in chains to the extent that he is not able to be in or to go to the place attained by his intellect and will, nor to occupy more space than defined by the shape of his body; while with the mind he occupies a thousand worlds.

Campanella recognized that to philosophize is to learn to live, not die. There is something about our long fascination with Bruno that seems to signify a lingering attachment to that older notion of death as the validation of life. Would that we could instead have a Bruno to live by! A Bruno whose language and imagination spoke to us, with no spiked tongue and no fiery-faced defiance. We need this now more than ever.

Peter N. Miller is a frequent contributor to the New Republic.

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at