Giordano Bruno: The Lucretian Revival and Epicurean Materialism


Slowly but surely gathering pieces of a puzzle together stretching from the early rise of scientific culture and the different threads of an energetic materialism that would inform such later thinkers as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Bataille, Deleuze, Land and others. More and more the Renaissance revival of learning and translation of ancient Greek and Roman texts would form the basis of what we would come to know as Modernity. This is all fairly well scoped out through many histories, science studies, biographies, philosophical studies of the various eras. Yet, it does seem that certain individuals became catalysts within this emergence of science. Giordano Bruno beyond Copernicus and the other usual suspects seems a part of this inner thread of influence.

Stephen Greenblatt in his study of the emergence of Lucretius into scientific culture would attest to Bruno’s importance, saying:

One answer in the sixteenth century was a diminutive Dominican monk, Giordano Bruno. In the mid-1580s, the thirty-six-year-old Bruno, who had fled from his monastery in Naples and had wandered restlessly through Italy and France, found himself in London. Brilliant, reckless, at once charmingly charismatic and insufferably argumentative, he survived by cobbling together support from patrons, teaching the art of memory, and lecturing on various aspects of what he called the Nolan philosophy, named after the small town near Naples where he was born. That philosophy had several roots, tangled together in an exuberant and often baffling mix, but one of them was Epicureanism. Indeed, there are many indications that De rerum natura had unsettled and transformed Bruno’s whole world.1

He go on to report of Bruno in England telling us that during his stay in England, Bruno wrote and published a flood of strange works. The extraordinary daring of these works may be gauged by taking in the implications of a single passage from one of them, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, printed in 1584. (p. 41) This work which would be informed by hermeticism, magic, early science, religious dialogue, parody, etc. would conjure up in hallucinatory detail the hamlet where he was born, and Bruno would stage a philosophical farce, designed to show that divine providence, at least as popularly understood, is rubbish. (p. 44) This strange series of dialogues would show forth Bruno’s indebtedness to the Lucretian view. In Bruno’s view Nature is not an abstract capacity, but a generative mother, bringing forth everything that exists. We have, in other words, entered the Lucretian universe. (p. 45) As Greenblatt would say:

That universe was not for Bruno a place of melancholy disenchantment. On the contrary, he found it thrilling to realize that the world has no limits in either space or time, that the grandest things are made of the smallest, that atoms, the building blocks of all that exists, link the one and the infinite. “The world is fine as it is,” he wrote, sweeping away as if they were so many cobwebs innumerable sermons on anguish, guilt, and repentance. It was pointless to search for divinity in the bruised and battered body of the Son and pointless to dream of finding the Father in some far-off heaven. “We have the knowledge,” he wrote, “not to search for divinity removed from us if we have it near; it is within us more than we ourselves are.” And his philosophical cheerfulness extended to his everyday life. He was, a Florentine contemporary observed, “a delightful companion at the table, much given to the Epicurean life.” (p. 45)

Outspoken and obstinate, Bruno hated the bigoted and superficial culture of the church and would ultimately pay the price for his open and unwavering search for the truth. On February 17, 1600, the defrocked Dominican, his head shaved, was mounted on a donkey and led out to the stake that had been erected in the Campo dei Fiori. He had steadfastly refused to repent during the innumerable hours in which he had been harangued by teams of friars, and he refused to repent or simply to fall silent now at the end. His words are unrecorded, but they must have unnerved the authorities, since they ordered that his tongue be bridled. They meant it literally: according to one account, a pin was driven into his cheek, through his tongue, and out the other side; another pin sealed his lips, forming a cross. When a crucifix was held up to his face, he turned his head away. The fire was lit and did its work. After he was burned alive, his remaining bones were broken into pieces and his ashes— the tiny particles that would, he believed, reenter the great, joyous, eternal circulation of matter— were scattered. (pp. 48-49)

Some of the better works on Bruno available in English:

  1. Greenblatt, Stephen (2012-09-04). The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (p. 41). Norton. Kindle Edition.