A little update on my progress through Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Renaissance. A synopsis of what I’ve read so far.
Yates focuses on Bruno’s written works rather than on his life story, and puts his writings squarely within the context of the Renaissance revival of Hermeticism. The first two hundred pages of the book hardly mention Bruno at all. Instead, after giving brief synopses of, and extracts from, the main texts in the Hermetic corpus, the book focuses on two of Bruno’s most illustrious Hermetic predecessors, Marsillio Ficino and Pico Della Mirandola, both of whom gave the Corpus Hermeticum a starring, foundational role in their respective philosophies — although Mirandola also placed great importance on the Jewish Cabala.
For Ficino and Mirandola, and a great number of others during the Italian Renaissance Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary Egyptian mage and supposed author of the Corpus Hermeticum, was the precursor both of Plato and of Moses (in fact he was even said to have been a contemporary of Moses), and a prophet of Christianity to boot. The central difficulty facing both Ficino and Mirandola was how to incorporate the magical techniques of Hermeticism, and to a lesser extent Cabala, into their work without laying themselves open to the charges of witchcraft and necromancy. The idea especially in Ficino’s work was to direct positive astral influences and to deflect negative towards oneself via the construction of talismans and other methods of practical magic, although with Mirandola this also advanced towards the use of angelic intermediaries under the influence of Cabala and Pseudo-Dionysus.
The popularity of the Corpus Hermeticum and the works of Ficino and Mirandola led to the development of a sanitised, Christianed version Hermeticism which became wildly succcessful both in France and Italy during the 16th century, as well as finding such adherents as the great English magus John Dee. Authors like Cornelius Agrippa strayed very close to the boundaries of what was acceptable within public discourse at the time; but Bruno crossed the line, repeatedly. Yates argues that Bruno was essentially calling for a return to the teachings and the religion of the ancient Egyptians, as a replacement for, rather than an augmentation to, the Christianity of the time as was the safer, far more orthodox position of, for example, Marsillio Ficino. The problem is that unbeknownst to Bruno, Ficino, and the other Hermeticists of that period, and as was later demonstrated by Isaac Causabon, the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum date from around the turn of the first millenium AD rather than from the time of Moses or indeed even earlier as was the received wisdom for hundreds of years. The reverence for the Corpus Hermeticum was based on large part on its ancient providence.
Bruno was a Copernican: he was a firm believer in the heliocentric hypothesis. He also thought well in advance of any of his contemporaries that the universe could be infinite. But his reasons for believing these things lay more in their mystical significance than in the fact that he thought they were better supported by the scientific evidence or from the viewpoint of the mathematics, indeed he rather denigrated Copernicus for relying so heavily on mathematical reasoning in formulating his theories, rather than on mystical intuition. For Bruno, the heliocentric hypothesis, by putting the sun at the centre of the universe was helping to revive the ancient Egyptian cult of sun worship and therefore heralded the widespread return of the old universalist Hermetic beliefs.
Bruno always referred to himself as the Nolan, since he originated from the village of Nola near to Naples. He was also an ordained monk of the Domenican order. Funnily enough this makes him the Nolan brother (sorry I couldn’t help it).