Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Interview with Bruno and the Baron

Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) Monk who defied the church with his vision of an infinite universe almost a 100 years before Isaac Newton.
Baron d'Holbach (1723 – 1789) "Father" of modern atheism. Author of the first book on outright denial of the existence of God, The System of Nature.

Bruno was bombastic, vain, utterly sure of himself.
The Baron was calm, supremely rational, with soft demeanor but intellectually firm.

INTERVIEWER: Gentlemen thank for agreeing to this joint interview. It is hardly likely that you’ve met since you lived about 200 years apart. Let me introduce you. This is Giordano Bruno, 16th century poet, philosopher and monk of the Dominican order. And this the Baron d’Holbach, a Prussian by birth but a revolutionary Frenchman by intellect. [they shake hands]

BARON: I do not see how you could have supposed a Dominican monk and I would have something in common to talk about. It is well known that I have expressed a deep aversion to religion and all things religious.

BRUNO:I, also, am bewildered. I have become aware of the Baron’s chief work, something he calls The System of Nature. I too, have written of Nature. But more grandly.

INTERVIEWER: What was your book about?

BRUNO: My book’s title was Of the Infinite Universe and the Many Worlds. It is a celebration of the magnificent work of God! It shows how our Earth cannot be the center of the universe. God’s plan is grander than that!

INTERVIEWER: I think there is something of importance linking your thoughts, one to the other. Perhaps I’m wrong. If I am, I will apologize for troubling you – Friar Bruno, let me start with you.

BRUNO:[interrupting] Don’t call me Friar! I renounced that foolish appellation.

INTERVIEWER: How then shall I address you?

BRUNO: I took the title of ‘Doctor of the More Developed Theology’ or ‘Professor of Pure Wisdom.’ Either one will do.

INTERVIEWER: Well then... Doctor – Why did you leave the monastery and renounce your Dominican vows? Why did you wander all over Europe?

BRUNO: May I be frank? I am a Neapolitan. My blood heated my body too much. I had to throw off the suffocating monk’s robe and its vows of celibacy. Not all the snows of the Alps could quench the carnal fire that burned inside me. But it was not only my body, my mind was on fire too. I could not be silent.

INTERVIEWER: What set your mind on fire?

BRUNO:It was Copernicus. I read his book and I saw the light. I saw infinity. The Earth was not the center of creation. Even the Sun was not the center. I tried to tell everyone that the infinite cosmos was the creation of an infinite God. 

INTERVIEWER: I see, you tried to bring the new science of the time into theology. [turning to the Baron] Isn’t that what you were trying to do Baron?

BARON: No, not at all. We, my French colleagues and I, were bringing the new knowledge of the world to the people of the world not to the clergy. The clergy would have none of us and we certainly wanted nothing of them. They were, and will ever be, the supporters of ignorance. We tried to write a compendium of all knowledge, the first encyclopedia, and would have all people benefit from it.

INTERVIEWER: I understand you were the major contributor to the Encyclopedia, both with money and by writing articles. Didn’t you write over four hundred articles mostly in the natural sciences? Voltaire called you the most learned of the all philosophers.

BARON: [modestly] I tried to do my part.

INTERVIEWER: You also wrote many other books. One of them was called Christianity Unveiled in which you vehemently attacked religion.


INTERVIEWER: Did you really say that all children are born atheists?

BARON: Yes, I did write that. Children know nothing of a deity until their parents teach them to fear a supernatural power.

INTERVIEWER: On what did you base your disbelief in the existence of God?

BARON: I based it on rational thinking. If God wishes to be known, why not manifest himself to the whole earth in an unequivocal manner? In place of so-called miracles could not the All-powerful not write his name, his will, in a manner not subject to dispute? No one then would have been able to doubt his existence.

INTERVIEWER: Didn’t you fear retribution? 

BARON: From god? If he is infinitely good, what reason would we have to fear him? If he knows everything, why inform him of our needs and weary him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why build temples to him? If he is inconceivable, why concern ourselves about him?

INTERVIEWER: [Short pause] You were critical of the clergy also. Why were you so hostile toward them?

BARON: For many reasons... but foremost because their control of education barred the way to the increase in scientific knowledge. They looked on the freedom of men to think as a threat to their power. They hang superstition like a blanket over the mind of man and ally themselves with political power to maintain control. The fundamental evil for the common man is the alliance of the priests and the political rulers.

BRUNO:[annoyed because he is overlooked] Excuse me but I too suffered because of the arrogance of those in power.

INTERVIEWER: But didn’t you find a haven within the courts of Europe? Didn’t Henry III appoint you a professor at the College de France? Didn’t you live at the French ambassador’s home in London for two years and didn’t he often take you to the English court? Queen Elizabeth admired you and you had several private conversations with her. You even lectured at Oxford.

BRUNO:Bah! To hell with royalty and the colleges ! They treated my message as a exciting new idea that amused them for a time. They then turned away.


BRUNO:The thought of an infinite God as the spirit of an infinite universe made them uncomfortable. The arrogant clergy would not understand. They revered the writings of Aristotle more than they acknowledged the thoughts that their own minds were capable of.

INTERVIEWER: You doubted the teachings of Aristotle?

BRUNO: Yes, I dared to question Aristotle. I declared there is no Prime Mover. There is motion in every part of the universe. God is not an external intelligence. It is more worthy for him to be the internal principle of motion of the universe.

INTERVIEWER: That is a very strange idea.

BRUNO:They found other ideas of mine even stranger. My studies showed me that the stars appear small because they are distant. I declared that the stars, each one of them, are suns much like our own. And around each one of them are planets like the Earth. And on them are men and women, loving and hating, laughing and crying just as we.

INTERVIEWER: Isn’t it that the idea that got you in trouble with the Inquisition? If there were an infinite number of Earths there would have to be an infinite series of revelations and divine visitations. Clearly church doctrine proclaimed the one and only son of God was of this Earth. Therefore your ideas were heretical.

BRUNO:They could not see my vision. An infinite universe requires an infinite God.

BARON: My dear sir, why should that be true? If there is no evidence for a divine power why postulate that it exists? If one accepts nature as that which simply is – then the notion of supernaturalism falls away. We have no need of that hypothesis. I agree with you that everything in the universe is in motion. The universe consists of only particles of matter and their motions. Nothing more.

INTERVIEWER: That is a very materialistic view of existence. But I notice that you both agree on that point.

BARON: That is true. It is obvious that if all motion were to stop then time itself would stand still.

BRUNO:[grandly] I repeat, it is the spirit of God that moves all – the planets, the stars, the universe itself. I see God in the unchangeable laws of nature, in the light of the sun, in the beauty of all that springs from the bosom of mother earth.

BARON: Particles make up everything that is. They act according to unchangeable laws of nature -- but it is their own laws of being. No God is necessary. The more our knowledge grows, the more overwhelming is the evidence that the universe acts only through natural causes without the spirit of any deity.

INTERVIEWER: Were there others that shared your views Baron?

BARON: It was around our dinner table that these ideas were discussed.

INTERVIEWER: Who were your guests?

BARON: My wife chose our guests. It pleased her to sometimes include men who would be in opposition to my views. On one occasion a guest, I believe it was the philosopher David Hume. He avowed that all men must have some deep sense of the divine and he did not believe that any real atheists could exist. I advised him to look around the table and he would see 18 of them.

INTERVIEWER: I have heard the ideas discussed around your table formed the ideological basis of the French revolution?

BARON: Perhaps. We did discuss how the collusion between the priests and the aristocracy produced the fiction of the divine right of kings. We arrived at the conclusion that a good government derived its powers from the consent of the governed. I believe that idea spread in France and to the British colonies in America.

INTERVIEWER: Your salons held every Thursday and Sunday were famous all over Paris and intellectuals vied for invitations. Wasn’t Benjamin Franklin one of your guests?

BARON: Yes. He was an interesting man. We discussed his experiments with electricity.

BRUNO:(Interrupting) It seems that the Baron had all that is necessary to live a life of happiness. He had money, intellect, a beautiful intelligent wife, friends – not all of us are so lucky.

INTERVIEWER:: You are referring, of course, to the poverty and chaos of your own life.


INTERVIEWER: But didn’t you bring that on yourself? You seem to have enjoyed enraging people with your diatribes. And why, when you knew the Inquisition had burned your book did you return to Italy? To Venice.

BRUNO:For the love of true wisdom and zeal for contemplation, for these I exerted myself. I left Frankfort to go to Venice where I thought there was enough freedom for me to pass unnoticed. And I went out necessity. I had to earn some money. I went as a tutor in one of its illustrious families. I thought them friendly to my thought but they were leading me on. They reported me to the Inquisition.

INTERVIEWER: What were the charges brought against you?

BRUNO: Strangely, no mention was made of my vision of an infinite God in an infinite universe. They accused me of rejecting the idea of the Trinity and denying that the church wine cup held the blood of Christ. They said I had called all priests asses who defiled the Earth with their hypocrisy and avarice. They accused me of maintaining that carnal pleasures was natural to men and women and not a sin.

INTERVIEWER: Did you do all of those things?

BRUNO:Yes – Yes I did! But I didn’t confess it outright. I had hopes I could convince the inquisitors in Venice that I was repentant. I was in their hands from May to September when the authorities in Rome asked that I be sent to them.

INTERVIEWER: What happened in Rome?

BRUNO:Nothing happened. I sat in a dark cell without books or writing materials for a year before they even examined me. For 7 more years there were periodic questionings and long periods of starvation but I grew obdurate. I would not retract.

INTERVIEWER: Why did they keep you so long under those conditions?

BRUNO: I do not know. But in 1600 the Pope declared me guilty. When the verdict was read I said “You who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.” It was the last thing I was able to say. They tied my tongue so that I could not speak. Later, they bound me to a stake and burnt me.

INTERVIEWER: It is said that when the fires were lit and the crucifix was offered to you on a long pole for you to kiss you turned your head away.

BRUNO: [softly] That is true.

BARON: I am truly sorry, sir, for your pain. I admire you for your steadfastness and your vision. The happiness of the human race requires that religious superstition be overcome so that reason can elevate the mind to thoughts far greater than a vengeful God and his cruel clergy.

INTERVIEWER: I understand now where I got the sense that there was a link between you two. There is a line of thought that begins with the Greek philosopher Democritus in 370 B.C. that everything is made up of small particles in motion.
It was Bruno’s thought that there was within the universe a principle of motion and called it God. d’Holbach thought that motion was intrinsic to the particles themselves.
Both agreed that this universe is governed by natural laws.
Both challenged the religious authorities of their time.
I want to thank you both for being here and for doing what you did. Your names will be gratefully remembered. [They shake hands all around.]