Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


"He who fights with priests may make up his mind to have his poor good name torn and befouled by the most infamous lies and the most cutting slanders."—Heine.

The great poet and wit, Heinrich Heine, from whom we select a motto for this article, was not very partial to Englishmen, and still less partial to Scotchmen. He had no objection to their human nature, but a strong objection to their religion, which so resembles that of the chosen people—being, indeed, chiefly modelled on the Old Testament pattern—that he was led to describe them as modern Jews, who only differed from the ancient ones in eating pork. Doubtless a great improvement has taken place since Heine penned that pungent description, but Scotland is still the home of orthodoxy, and most inaccessible to Liberal ideas, unless they wear a political garb. It need not astonish us, therefore, that a bitter attack on a Freethought martyr like Giordano Bruno should emanate from the land of John Knox; or that it should appear in the distinctly national magazine which is called the Scottish Review. The writer does not disclose his name, and this is a characteristic circumstance. He indulges his malevolence, and airs his ignorance, under a veil of anonymity. His stabs are delivered like those of a bravo, who hides his face as he deals his treacherous blow.

Many books and articles have been written on Giordano Bruno, but this writer seems ignorant of them all, except a recent volume by a Romish priest of the Society of Jesus, which he places at the top of his article, and relies upon throughout as an infallible authority. It does not occur to him that an account of Bruno by a Jesuit member of the Church which murdered him, is hardly likely to be impartial; nor does he scent anything suspicious in the fact that the documents reporting Bruno's trial were all written by the Inquisition. He would probably sniff at a report of the trial of Jesus Christ by the Scribes and Pharisees, yet that is precisely the kind of document on which he relies to blast the memory of Bruno.

Some of those Inquisition records he translates, apparently fancying he is making a revelation, though they have long been before the scholarly public, and were extensively cited in the English Life of Bruno, by I. Frith, which saw the light more than twelve months ago. Berti reprinted the documents of Bruno's trial in Venice in 1880, so that the startling revelations of Father Previti are at least seven years behind the fair.

Before dealing, however, with the use he would make of those documents, we think it best to track this Scotch slanderer throughout his slimy course, and expose his astounding mixture of ignorance, impudence and meanness.

Let us take two instances of the last "virtue" first. He actually condescends to attempt a feeble point in regard to Bruno's name. Bruno, he sagely observes—with an air of originality only intelligible on the ground that he is conscious of writing for the veriest ignoramuses—is the same as Brown; and hence, if we take the baptismal name of Filippo Bruno, it simply means Philip Brown. Well, what of that? What's in a name? One great English poet rejoiced in the vulgar name of Jonson; two other English poets bore the no less vulgar name of Thomson; while at least two have descended so low as Smith. We might even remind the orthodox libeller that Joshua, the Jewish form of Jesus, was as common as Jack is among ourselves. Perhaps the reminder will sound blasphemous in his delicate ears, but fact is fact, and if reputations are to depend on names, we may as well be impartial.

Now, for our second instance. Bruno was betrayed to the Venetian Inquisition by Count Mocenigo while he was that nobleman's guest. Mocenigo had invited him to Venice in order that he might learn what this writer calls "his peculiar system for developing and strengthening the memory," although this "peculiar" system was simply the Lullian method. What the nobleman really wanted to learn seems to have been the Black Art. He complained, and Bruno resolved to leave him; whereupon the "nobleman," who had harbored Bruno for months, forcibly detained him, and denounced him to the Inquisition as a heretic and a blasphemer. A more dastardly action is difficult to conceive, but our Scotch libeller is ready to defend it, or at least to give it a coat of whitewash. He allows that Mocenigo does not appear to have been animated "with the motive of religious zeal," and that his "conscience" never "troubled him" before the "personal difference." But he discovers a plea for this Judas in his "sworn statement" to the Inquisition that he did not suspect Bruno of being a monk until the very day of their quarrel. What miserable sophistry! Would not a man who violated the most sacred laws of friendship and hospitality be quite capable of telling a lie? Still more miserable is the remark that Bruno was not ultimately tried on Mocenigo's denunciations, but on his own published writings. Jesus Christ was not tried on the denunciations of Judas Iscariot, but on his own public utterances, yet whoever pleaded that this gave a sweeter savor to the traitor's kiss?

So much—though more might be said—for the writer's meanness. Now for his other virtues, and especially his ignorance. After dwelling on the battle at Rome over the proposal to erect a public monument to Bruno, this writer tells us that "a small literature is arising on the subject," and that the name of Bruno is "suddenly invested with an importance which it never formerly possessed." Apparently he is unaware that, so far from a small literature arising, a large Bruno literature has long existed. He has only to turn to the end of Frith's book, and he will find an alphabetical list of books, articles, and criticisms on Bruno, filling no less than ten pages of small type. He might also enlighten his ridiculous darkness by reading the fine chapter in Lewes's History of Philosophy, Mr. Swinburne's two noble sonnets, and Professor Tyndall's glowing eulogy of Bruno's scientific prescience in the famous Belfast address. Perhaps Hallam, Schwegler, Hegel, Bunsen and Cousin are too recondite for the Scotch libeller's perusal; but he might, at any rate, look up Lewes, Swinburne and Tyndall, who are probably accessible in his local Free Library.

What on earth, too, does he mean by Bruno's "great obscurity" when he returned to Italy and fell into the jaws of the Inquisition? Every scholar in that age was more or less obscure, for the multitude was illiterate, and sovereigns and soldiers monopolised the public attention. But as notoriety then went, Bruno was a famous figure. Proof of this will be given presently. Meanwhile we may notice the cheap sneer at Bruno as "a social and literary failure." Shelley was a literary failure in his lifetime, but he is hardly so now; and if Bruno was poor and unappreciated, Time has adjusted the balance, for after the lapse of three centuries he is loved and hated by the rival parties of progress and reaction.

Now let us disprove the Scotch libeller's statements as to "the extreme obscurity in which Giordano Bruno lived and died." Bruno was so "obscure" that he fled from Naples, and doffed his priest's raiment, at the age of twenty-eight or twenty-nine, because his superiors were proceeding against him for heresy, through an act of accusation which comprised no less than one hundred and thirty counts. He was so "obscure" that the rest of his life was a prolonged flight from persecution. He was so "obscure" that the Calvinists hunted him out of Geneva, whence he narrowly escaped with his life; the documents relating to the proceedings against him being still preserved in the Genevan archives. He was so "obscure" that he took a professorship at Toulouse, and publicly lectured there to large audiences for more than a year. He was so "obscure" that King Henry III. made him professor extraordinary at Paris, and excused him from attending Mass. He was so "obscure" that the learned doctors of the Sorbonne waxed wroth with him, and made it obvious that his continued stay in Paris would be dangerous to his health. He was so "obscure" that he lived for nearly three years as the guest of the French ambassador in London. He was so "obscure" that he was known at the court of Elizabeth. He was so "obscure" that he was a friend of Sir Philip Sidney, and an intimate associate of Dyer, Fulk Greville, and the chief wits of his age. He was so "obscure" that he was allowed, as a distinguished foreigner, to lecture at Oxford, and to hold a public disputation on the Aristotelian philosophy before the Chancellor and the university. He was so "obscure" that on his return to Paris he held another public disputation under the auspices of the King. He was so "obscure" that his orations were listened to by the senate of the university of Wittenberg. He was so "obscure" that he was publicly excommunicated by the zealot Boethius. He was so "obscure" that the Venetian Inquisition broke through its stern rule, and handed him over as a special favor to the Inquisition of Rome. He was so "obscure" that he was at last "butchered to make a Roman holiday," the cardinals having presided at his trial, and his sentence being several pages at length. Such was "the obscurity in which Giordano Bruno lived and died."

The Scotch libeller hints that Bruno was not burnt after all. He forgets, or he is ignorant of the fact, that all doubt on that point is removed by the three papers discovered in the Vatican Library. He merely repeats the insinuation of M. Desduits, which has lost its extremely small measure of plausibility since the discovery of those documents. The martyrdom of Bruno is much better attested than the Crucifixion. There always was contemporary evidence as well as unbroken tradition, and now we have proofs as complete as can be adduced for any event in history.

From the documentary evidence it is clear that Bruno fought hard for his life, and he would have been a fool or a suicide to have acted otherwise. He bent all his dialectical skill, and all his subtle intellect, to the task of proving that religion and philosophy were distinct, and that so long as a scholar conformed in practice he should be allowed the fullest liberty of speculation. The Inquisition, however, pretends that he abjured all his errors, and the Scotch libeller is pleased to say he recanted. But, in that case, why was Bruno burnt alive at the stake? According to the laws of the Inquisition, all who reconciled themselves to the Church after sentence were strangled before they were burnt. And why was Bruno allowed a week's grace before his execution, except to give him the opportunity of recanting? Despite all this Jesuitical special pleading, the fact remains that Bruno was sentenced and burnt as an incorrigible heretic; and the fact also remains that when the crucifix was held up for him to kiss as he stood amidst the flames, he rejected it, as Scioppus wrote, "with a terrible menacing countenance." Not only did he hurl scorn at his judges, telling them that they passed his sentence with more fear than he heard it; but his last words were that "he died a martyr and willingly"—diceva che moriva martire et volontieri.

Bruno is further charged by the Scotch libeller with servility, an accusation about as plausible as that Jesus Christ was a highwayman. A passage is cited from Bruno's high-flown panegyric on Henry III. as "a specimen of the language he was prepared to employ towards the great when there was anything to be got from them." Either this writer is ineffably ignorant, or his impudence is astounding. In the first place, that was an age of high-flown dedications. Look at Bacon's fulsome dedication of his Advancement of Learning to James I. Nay, look at the dedication of our English Bible to the same monarch, who is put very little below God Almighty, and compared to the sun for strength and glory. In the next place, Bruno's praise of Henry III. was far from mercenary. He never at any time had more than bread to eat. He was grateful to the King for protection, and his gratitude never abated. When Henry was in ill repute, Bruno still praised him, and these panegyrics were put into one of the counts against "the heretic" when he was arraigned at Venice.

The last libel is extorted from Bruno's comedy, Il Candelajo. The Scotch puritan actually scents something obscene in the very title; to which we can only reply by parodying Carlyle—"The nose smells what it brings." As for the comedy itself, it must be judged by the standard of its age. Books were then all written for men, and reticence was unknown. Yet, free as Il Candelajo is sometimes in its portrayal of contemporary manners, it does not approach scores of works which are found "in every gentleman's library." It certainly is not freer than Shakespeare; it is less free than the Song of Solomon; it is infinitely less free than Ezekiel. Nor was the comedy the work of Bruno's maturity; it was written in his youth, while he was a priest, before he fell under grave suspicion of heresy, and we may be sure it was relished by his brother priests in the Dominican monastery. To draw from this youthful jeu d'e'sprit, a theory of Bruno's attitude towards women is a grotesque absurdity. We have his fine sonnets written in England, especially the one "Inscribed to the most Virtuous and Delightful Ladies," in which he celebrates the beauty, sweetness, and chastity of our English "spouses and daughters of angelic birth." Still more striking is the eulogy in his "Canticle of the Shining Ones." Bruno, like every poet, was susceptible to love; but he was doomed to wander, and the affection of wife and babes was not for him. So he made Philosophy his mistress, and his devotion led him to the stake. Surely there was a prescience of his fate in the fine apostrophe of his Heroic Rapture—"O worthy love of the beautiful! O desire for the divine! lend me thy wings; bring me to the dayspring, to the clearness of the young morning; and the outrage of the rabble, the storms of Time, the slings and arrows of Fortune, shall fall upon this tender body and shall weld it to steel."

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