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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Happy Planet

Somewhere in the vastness of space there is a planet. On this planet (which is far from our own) there is no strife, no war, no civil unrest, no family feuds. The inhabitants go peaceably about their business, and all is blissful contentment. This state of being creates no apathetic boredom (as we on our own strife-torn world might imagine it would), because no other state is known to them. In our own earthly terms, the inhabitants of this happy planet are living in paradise and dining on milk and honey, and their times are a perpetual golden age.

This blissful existence has continued for generations, with nothing to disturb it. Then one day: catastrophe. Voices raised in anger are heard as two neighbours squabble over some petty difference of opinion. Shocking enough among such tranquillity. But worse is to follow. The next day a horrified couple discover a body in long grass beside a river bank, bloody and beaten: clearly the victim of a murder. In the days and weeks to come the traumatised inhabitants are drawn deeper into a scenario of escalating violence. What had begun as local disputes about whose property ended exactly where extends to whole territories, as communities vie for control of what up till then had been regarded as worthless tracts of unwanted land. Differences of belief (especially those which sanctify life) become reasons for massacre. Wars flare, creating misery and reasons for resentment for generations yet unborn. What has happened to this once-happy planet?

Back here on planet Earth, it's a politically popular wish expressed by Miss South Carolina (and almost every other aspiring beauty pageant queen). What is wished for? World peace. A final end to all the suffering and strife which so plagues our earthly existence. A simple desire that for once we would all just get along with each other, respect each others' beliefs, territory, property, whatever. And then, amazingly, it actually happens. Differences are resolved, theft becomes meaningless and redundant, war becomes obsolete. Peace prevails at last, and Miss South Carolina's expressed desire for a new and peaceful world becomes an astonishing and precious reality.

The universe keeps its own checks and balances. A star explodes in incandescent death, another star bursts into life. A planet of turmoil becomes a planet of peace, and another planet, far distant, whose existence up till then had known no strife is plunged into turmoil. Perhaps our strife-torn world has a greater cosmic value - even a function - beyond our own understandable longing for tranquillity. Be careful what you wish for, Miss South Carolina...

Top image: Robert Duncanson: Land of the Lotos Eaters (detail), 19th century
Second image: Pieter Bruegel: The Triumph of Death (detail), 16th century
Third image: John Martin: The Plains of Heaven (detail), 19th century

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Giordano Bruno's Infinite Space

Of the various charges of heresy which the Inquisition brought against Giordano Bruno, which included his claims that the consecrated host did not physically change into the body of Christ, and that the sun did not orbit around the earth, the heretical belief which his accusers seemed to find particularly shocking was his claim that space is infinite. It has been tempting in our own time to perceive Bruno as a vanguard hero courageously taking a stand against the repressive mindset of his age. But how true is this?

Excommunicated from his Dominican brotherhood, Bruno travelled through much of 16th-century Europe. Poet, writer, philosopher, lecturer, he was also an artist who produced what appear to our contemporary eyes to be timeless mystic mandalas for meditation - figures which Bruno considered to portray the spirit, the creative intellect, divine love, and other qualities (below). So it seems true enough to think of Bruno as being radically progressive for his time – because he was!

Today we can look at the wonders revealed to us by the Hubble orbiting telescope and see the realities which Bruno’s profound vision could only imagine. Instead of the nest of crystaline spheres orbiting the central earth which was then the prevailing view, Bruno gazed up at the stars and imagined worlds such as our own without number, each on its own journey through space, orbiting around its own parent star as our own earth journeys around the sun. More than this: according to Bruno many of these worlds harboured life, and new worlds were even now being born in the vast infinities of space. This is our own vision of things -  and this also was Bruno’s vision, unique for his time. No European mind before Bruno’s had thought of space as being infinite, or had thought of life existing anywhere other than on the earth – or of life being an ongoing process of creation. To 16th-century Europe, the act of creation – all creation – was something which had taken place ‘in the beginning’.

We now see our universe as being so strewn with other planets that even a conservative odds-against estimate gives us a figure of life in some form existing on some possible ten billion other worlds. Hubble even shows us so-called ‘star nurseries’ (above) – regions of space in which new stars can be seen forming, just as Bruno imagined them to be. Our contemporary science has endorsed all which Bruno claimed about our universe: that our earth is anything but the centre of all worlds, that space is teeming with other suns and planets, many of which must be home to life in some form – and that it is indeed incalculably vast. These are truths now commonly accepted and agreed upon, and our telescopes provide us with the hard evidence. But has all this been enough to redeem Bruno? 

Apparently not. 

As recently as 2000, Pope John Paul II was presented with an edict nullifying the charges against the philosopher Giordano Bruno. He refused to sign it, apparently considering Bruno’s heresy to be too extreme for the church to forgive. The charges brought by the church against Bruno stand to this day.

In February of the year 1600, after eight years of imprisonment by the Inquisition, Giordano Bruno was found guilty of heresy (the *bronze plaque above) and formally divested of his religious vows: a complex ritual of several hours of sustained humiliation, which included shaving his head to remove any traces of his friar’s tonsure – which would in any case by then have long vanished. He was then handed over to a civic bailiff, and following a further eight days of incarceration was set upon a donkey and taken to the place of execution in central Rome. Accounts mention his 'imprisoned tongue'. Clearly Bruno was gagged in some way, either by a leather strap or by a *metal spike being driven through his jaw. He was then stripped and bound to the stake. The pyre was then set to the torch. A crucifix was presented in front of him, but defiant at the last he averted his head. Shaved, naked, unable to cry out, Giordano Bruno burned. Following the burning his ashes were swept up and dumped in the Tiber.

Almost four centuries after his execution, the new Italian secular government, wishing to assert its independence from the papacy, commissioned the sculptor Ettore Ferrari to produce a statue of Giordano Bruno. It was planned to face the statue towards the morning sun, close to the site of Bruno’s execution. But as this in turn meant that the friar would have his back to the Vatican, the papacy objected that such a placement would be disrespectful. The acquiescent government duly turned the statue around, which is why the face of the hooded friar is now always in shadow. But with its brooding gaze now directed towards Saint Peter’s, it ironically also means that, centuries after his death, the statue continues to confront Bruno’s accusers.

Upon hearing his sentence, the Dominican philosopher is reported to have told his inquisitors that the sentence would be more fearful for them to pronounce against him than it would be for him to accept it. Five centuries on, his enduring words ring true.

‘Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic’, by Ingrid D. Rowland
‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition’, by Frances Yates
'The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition', by Michael White.

*This plaque is on the base of the Bruno statue.

*Rowland's scholarly account leaves the uncertain choice open to question. White's book opts for the spike with bloody and sensational description - too sensational for me to be convinced of the author's veracity.