Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The Ash Wednesday Supper
Giordano Bruno wrote this dialogue in 1583 while staying in London as the guest of Michel de Castelnau, Lord of Mauvissiere, the French King Henry III's ambassador to the Court of St. James. It is patterned after Plato's Symposium which he probably knew from its Latin translation made in the 15th century by Marsilio Ficino. The scene of action is a dinner party in Whitehall hosted by Sir Fukle Grenville, a close friend of Bruno's patron, Sir Philip Sidney.
Remarkably, Bruno made a stinging condemnation of European colonialism, before contrasting the effects of his own philosophy with the effects of capitalist greed. At the time, England had only begun its colonial explorations; Bruno was writing primarily about Spain and Portugal. He must have read the denunciations of Spanish cruelty in Mexico made by the Dominican Batolome de Las Casa- most probably in Naples, where the Dominicans knew a thing about Spanish oppression themselves.
"Now, in order for you to understand the present business and its importance, I set for you the premise to a conclusion that will easily be proven shortly: namely, that if Tipys is praised for having invented the first ships and crossed the seas with the Argonauts, if Columbus is acclaimed in our own time for being "the Tipys who uncovered new worlds", what is to be done with him who has discovered the way to climb the heavens, traverse the circumference of the stars, and leave the convex surface of the firmament at his back?
The Tipys of this world have found the way to disturb the peace of others, violate the ancestral spirits of the regions, muddle what nature had kept distinct, and for the sake of commerce redoubled the defects, and add further vice to the vices of each party, violently propagating new follies and planting unheard-of madness where it had never been before, concluding at last that the stronger are also the wiser, displaying new sciences, instruments, and arts by which to tyrannize and murder one another, so that the time will come, thanks to those actions, that by the oscillation of all things, those who have thus far endured to their misfortune will learn, and will be able to give back to us, the worst fruits of such pernicious invention."
Bruno vaingloriously ( as was typical of scholars at that time) contrasts this with his own philosophy ( termed 'The Nolan") which was a re-working of St. Augustine's idea that 'The centre of the Universe is everywhere, the circumference nowhere' , based on recent astronomical observations which were, none-the-less, still unsupported by mathematical proofs.*
"The Nolan, to cause entirely contrary effects, has released the human spirit and intellect, which were confined in the narrow prison of the turbulent atmosphere; where they scarcely had the capacity to look, as through certain holes, upon distant stars, and whose wings were clipped, so that they could not fly through the veil of these clouds and see what is really to be found above...Now behold him, who has crossed the air, penetrated the heavens, wandered among the stars, and passed beyond the margins of this world, made to vanish the imaginary walls of the first, eighth, ninth, tenth, and as many other spheres as you would like to add, according to the reports of vain astronomers and the blind visions of the vulgar philosophers; [who] thus, in the presence of all sense and reason, with the key of clever investigation has opened the cloisters of the truth, that can be opened by us, stripped naked the covered and veiled truth, given eyes to moles, enlightened the blind who could not focus their eyes to admire their own image in these many mirrors appearing on all sides, loosened the tongue of the mute who could not and dared not express their innermost feelings, healed the lame who could not make that progress with their spirits that our ignoble and dissolute flesh cannot make, and makes them no less present than if they were dwellers on the Sun, the moon, and the other known stars...These flaming bodies are the ambassadors who proclaim the glory and majesty of God, Thus we are moved to discover the infinite effect of the infinite cause, the true and living footprint of infinite vigor, and we have a teaching that tells us not to seek divinity outside ourselves, but within, more deeply inside us than we are ourselves."
* Like Thomas Hobbes, Bruno believed that "squaring the circle" would unlock the mathematic secret of the motions of the planets.
Ingrid D. Rowland; Giordano Bruno; Heretic & Philosopher; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y.,2008
[Needless-to-say, unlocking the secrets of the universe- a work still in progress- has not thoroughly dampened the enthusiasm nor much of the cruelty of modern colonialists, particularly those' who have thus far endured it to their misfortune'. But it is notable that no one suggested that a man like Albert Einstein be burned at the stake as was Bruno, though he might easily have been caught up in the exterminating regime of the Nazis.]