The updated/remade version of the classic Carl Sagan series Cosmos has been drawing lots of attention in the past few weeks, both positive and negative, and one of the areas that has come under the most scrutiny is the show’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century philosopher, occultist, mystic, and proto-scientist whose life and death (he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600) have been exalted to legendary status in the Western cultural narrative of the war between religion and science. (This is despite the fact that the man’s name and memory have remained relatively obscure in mainstream popular awareness.)
Bruno held and taught a heliocentric view of the universe whose scope exceeded even Galileo’s attempt to build on the Copernican model, and the story that is commonly told today — including by the new Cosmos — is that he was a martyr for science in an age of benighted and militant ignorance, when religious authorities waged a merciless campaign against freedom of thought.
Many observers have weighed in on the problems with this approach to Bruno in the past few weeks. The chatter has been extensive enough that it has even drawn a response from one of the series’ co-writers.
One entry in the conversation that I find to be especially astute and important comes from the pen/word processor of Daily Beast writer and editor David Sessions, who argues that the Cosmos portrayal underscores our tendency to rewrite the past to conform to currently fashionable biases, ideologies, and cultural narratives — in this case, the very narrative of the “war between religion and science” itself, with religion framed as the villain and science as the hero:
Bruno, according to Cosmos, wandered around Europe, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for his new explanation of the universe, only to be mocked, impoverished, and eventually imprisoned and executed. Catholic authorities are depicted as cartoon ghouls, and introduced with sinister theme music. [Host Neil Degrasse] Tyson explains that the church’s modus operandi was to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs.”
What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild — and occasionally correct — guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”
Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions — monarchies, patriarchies, churches — are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.
The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated — so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened.
. . . [T]hat Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno — especially one skewed in this particular way — is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present. There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are [sic] so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling — even terrifying.
For more on the subtle history of the relationship between religion and science, and also the whitewashed/propagandistic mainstream secular narrative about it, I recommend David Metcalfe’s Teeming Brain column De Umbris Idearum, whose title is in fact drawn from the work of Giordano Bruno. See especially “Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet” and “Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We.”