On the Shelf Review – Giordano Bruno, Philosopher / Heretic

As I said, one of my Christmas gifts was Ingrid Rowland’s new biography Giordano Bruno, Philosopher / Heretic.  Bruno is another of those seminal figures in the field of Western magic who I’ve yet to read much of  first-hand (A General Account of Bonding and part of On Magic, from the Cambridge edition of Cause, Principle, and Unity).  In general I found this book to be an excellent introduction to Bruno’s life and philosophy.  Still, I remain uncertain as to the author’s approach to Bruno’s writings on magic.

First, let’s be frank about the situation.  Bruno has left no documentation indicating whether he actually practiced magic or not.  This could either mean he did not do so, or that he did so and was wise enough not to leave a record thereof.  Nonetheless, we have a few treatises, including those named above, written by Bruno that indicate his interest in the topic.

Rowland gives short shrift to much of the discussion of Bruno’s magic, as best summed up by this passage.

Magic had always been a part of his “natural and physical discourse,” but that discourse was, pointedly, natural and physical, and it depended absolutely on adjusting to the realities of the infinite universe.  As a result, Bruno’s definition of magic brought him closer to Tycho Brahe’s observatory than to John Dee’s conversations with angels.  When we read another of his magical works, On Bonds in General, it is important to remember that modern chemists use this same term to describe the pull of one atom on another within a molecule.  (p. 211)

What does Bruno’s use of the term “bonds” have to do with how today’s chemists use it?  Rowland seems to be reaching for an analogy here to separate a “rational” individual using natural magic, such as Bruno, from someone using spiritual magic, such as Dee.  The question is how much distance Bruno really had from someone like Dee.

Though Bruno cannot be proven to practice or not practice spiritual magic, he clearly believed in, and had even witnessed what he considered to be, spirits, as he reveals in On Magic:

…terrestrial and aqueous spirits sometimes choose to make themselves visible… I, myself, have seen them at Mount Libero and at Mount Lauro…

He goes on to describe his experiences with a rock-throwing poltergeist near Nola, which he believes to have been an underground spirit.  Both of these accounts can be found in the chapter of On Magic entitled “On the analogy of spirits,” which later broadens to discuss the spirits of people and the world soul that manifests in these manners.  Tellingly, the following chapter is “On the bondings of spirits, and first those arising from the three conditions of agent, matter and application.”  Thus, we might see Bruno’s method as one that was created to aid in the summoning and binding of spirits, including those that traditionally were part of the realm of spiritual magic.

What does Rowland make of this in her conception?  It is uncertain.  She does tell us of Bruno’s encounter with the poltergeist, but she does not directly address this.  In fact, though Rowland does speak from time to time about Bruno’s magic, at no point in the entire book is Bruno’s treatise On Magic mentioned at all.  I can only find the whole matter puzzling.

If anyone who knows more about Bruno would like to add or correct the above in the comments, please do so.

Published in: on December 30, 2008 at 1:35 am  Leave a Comment  

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