Thursday, 27 November 2014


That the New Spirit would prove ultimately intransigeant, and irreconcilable to Christian theology, was clearly demonstrated by its last and noblest representative in Italy. Bruno's life was cut short at the comparatively early age of forty-four, yet he left behind him voluminous writings, from which an adequate idea may be formed of his philosophy. As a personality, endowed with singular courage and remarkable independence, Bruno towers eminent among the powerful characters of that age so rich in individualities. The two currents of Renaissance curiosity, which had produced criticism and naturalism, met and blended in his intellect. As a thinker, his chief merit was to have perceived the true bearings of the Copernican discovery.
  He saw that the substitution of a heliocentric for the former geocentric theory of our system destroyed at one blow large portions of the Christian mythology. But more than this. Copernicus had failed to draw the logical conclusions of his own hypothesis. For him, as for the elder physicists, there remained a sphere of fixed stars enclosing the world perceived by our senses within walls of crystal. Bruno asserted the existence of numberless worlds in space illimitable. Bolder than his teacher, and nearer to the truth, he passed far beyond the flaming ramparts of the universe, denied that there were any walls, and proclaimed the infinity of space. Space, he thought, is filled with ether, in which an infinite number of solar systems resembling our own, composed of similar materials, and inhabited by countless living creatures, move with freedom. Not a single atom in this stupendous complex can be lost or unaccounted for. There is no such thing as birth or death, as generation or dissolution, but only a continual passage of the infinite and homogeneous substance through successive phases of finite differentiated existence. This general conception of the universe, which coincides with that accepted at the present time by men of science, led Bruno to speculations involving a theory of evolutionary development, and to what would now he called the conservation of energy. Rejecting as untenable the dualism of mind and matter, he argued, from the presence of the intellect in man, and from the universality of form in all phenomena, that the essence of the whole can best be grasped by our imagination under the analogy of life and spirit.
 This brief summary of Bruno's system makes it evident to what a large extent he anticipated not only the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Hegel, but also the most recent conclusions of natural science. In his treatment of theology and ethics, he was no less original and prophetic. He solved the problem of evil by defining it to be a relative condition of imperfect development, not evil in itself, but evil to our partial vision. He denied that any Paradise or Golden Age preceded human history. In his opinion, the fall of man from a primal state of innocence and happiness is an absurdity in itself, contradicting all we know about the laws of growth. In morals he inclined toward determinism.
 Passing to theology in the strict sense of that term, he sketched in outline the comparative study of religions. It is obvious that he regarded no one creed as final, no sacred creed book as exclusively inspired, no single race as chosen, no teacher or founder of a faith as specially divine, no church as privileged with salvation. To this point had the New Spirit advanced when outraged Catholicism, very naturally, logically, and consistently with the instinct of self-preservation, burned Bruno is 1600. The synthesis of criticism and naturalism, which took this form with Bruno, a form usually described as idealism, though Bruno's own aim was to arrive at a probable conception of the universe as it actually exists, assumed a different aspect in another group of Italian thinkers, Pomponuzzo, Telesio, Galileo, with the physicists, anatomists, and physiologists of Padua. Their line led up to Bacon, to inductive and experimental science.
 It was my business in the present essay to analyse the main characteristics of the New Spirit in the Italian Renaissance. The history of Rationalism, or Naturalism, or Positive Philosophy during the last three centuries, and the sustained conflict of the New Spirit with dogmatic theology is a subject too vast to be undertaken here. What the issue of that conflict in the future will be is, I think, already certain. The struggle may continue, perhaps, for centuries, until the New Spirit shall have thoroughly imbued the modern mind, and Christianity be gradually purged of all that is decayed or obsolescent in its creed, retaining only that ethic which we owe to it, and which though capable of being raised to higher stages, will remain the indestructible possession of the race.—

JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS, in the Fortnightly Review.

 Geelong Advertiser 29 April 1893,

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