On Giordano Bruno

The earliest surviving depiction of Giordano Bruno, believed to be based on a contemporary portrait.

The earliest surviving depiction of Giordano Bruno, believed to be based on a contemporary portrait.

The new Cosmos TV series has drawn criticism for its depiction of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican Monk and philosopher who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600. A lot has been said about this, including criticism of the segment coming from science-oriented sources, but I wanted to give my general impressions about the tone they set.

In Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson presents Giordano Bruno as a philosopher with a radical view of the universe: not only was Copernicus’ idea of Earth orbiting the Sun correct, but all the other stars in the sky were other suns with other planets, perhaps hosting other forms of life. The universe was infinite and eternal. This startlingly modern idea went against the teachings of the Church, and he was therefore persecuted and eventually executed.

The martyr for science (or free thought, since Bruno, as Tyson admits, was no scientist) is a nice, Romantic notion, especially given his defiant pronouncement, “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.” However, the truth is more complicated.

First of all, the relationship between Bruno’s vision of the universe and his trial for heresy is a complicated one. His vision of an infinite and eternal universe was against the teachings of the Catholic Church at the time, but this was not for its own sake, but because it admitted no Creation and no Final Judgment. Even worse (for Bruno), he denied the divinity of Christ, which is a big no-no for pretty much every branch of Christianity. We can rightly condemn the practice of burning people at the stake in general, but it wasn’t his views on science that did him in.

I won’t go into the historical details, as it seems like there are indeed some errors there, but, looking at the broad strokes, it’s hard to come down on a particular side. On the one hand, this is a science show, and the science-related part of the story took center stage. Moreover, Dr. Tyson did cover all the largest caveats. The story can hardly be called anti-Catholic when he points out how Bruno was rejected by Lutheran Germany, Calvinist Switzerland, and Anglican England. He correctly points out that Bruno was not a scientist and made a lucky guess. And the theological heresies that led to his condemnation are mentioned in the scene of his sentencing, as well as more subtly with his challenge to “question everything”.

My chief complaint is that this felt rather tacked on. It was there, but it wasn’t said up front. Yes, the story will have to be oversimplified to be told in ten minutes, but I would have been much happier if they could have spared just a couple of lines at the begin to say that Bruno’s theology was just as radical as his cosmology. Even with the segment’s other problems, I think this would have gone a long way toward making it more balanced.

And I wouldn’t even say this was intentional. Just like talking about our “cosmic address” without defining it, this seemed like just another manifestation of the slightly rushed format of the show. That said, I will be interested to see how these historical interludes will play out over the rest of the series.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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1 Response to On Giordano Bruno

  1. Lee says:

    Fascinating. So was Bruno executed for his theology or hi cosmology? Or both?

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