‘A million suns, a thousand earths’
tand prisoner! Your day of reckoning has come!’ The jail-master shoved him out of the cell, slamming the rusted, iron gate behind. They stepped over a mixture of wet straw, dead rats and excrement and marched out of that stinking hold. The aging prisoner was stoic and silent, his eyes fixed in a slightly upward gaze, never once looking at his captors.
Water dripping down the ancient stonewalls glistened in the torchlight. These were surely the caverns to hell. In some way, he knew it was. Yet, he would not admit their victory over him. This was to be his overcoming, though others shook their heads over his tenacity to ideas that could only bring ruin. True, his compulsion was beyond reason. Something in every bone of his body and every fiber of his being told him that his convictions were true .
The long march through the catacombs of Rome continued in silence only accompanied by footfalls like harbingers of doom. A distant drum, sounding from the world above, beat out monotonous measures of time. Drippings from the ceiling echoed the steady rhythm here below, while rats scurried along the wet tunnels, the head guard occasionally swatting at them with his sword, to no avail—this was their world.
A noise like tumbling water emerged. The distant drums grew louder. It was the sound of many murmuring voices. He was weak with sickness but it did not show in his face. His jaw was set with a stony determination. Each step seemed to sullenly harmonize with an ever-growing drumbeat in a droning march up to meet his fate. Now the chains he had worn for so long and carried, as a symbol of pride, grew heavy, cut into his wrists, and the iron collars sliced his ankles. So, this was their interpretation of God’s justice. This was how they administered the gospel of Jesus Christ. Well, he would spit on that. The Church worked harder for the devil each time they sought to stifle the free will of man created to discover the mysteries of His universe. He set his mind firm on the thought: he will determine his own fate. He would not have it snatched by a rabble of self-righteous clerics and a bloodthirsty mob out for a spectacle.
‘Ye’ll be free of thy chains by sunset—in this world at least!’ The head jail-master tilted his head back quaking in malicious laughter.
For the first time, Bruno took a glance at the two other guards who remained silent. They did not join in with the taunt. Maybe they held no resentments against him and they understood that he was a scapegoat for the corrupt abuses of the assize. The jail-master did the courts dirty deeds for favors credited him; he seemed to relish his work with evident cruelty. For anyone to stand up for him, would not only jeopardize a steady paying job, but commit oneself to his seeming folly. Bruno had questioned himself many times in the past years. Why was he so determined to defend his own mad beliefs? He did not understand it, but his spirit rebelled in an unquenchable thirst to fight what he held to be an idiotic society and religious judicial system.
Eight years in chains! Eight years, an eternity in this rank, rat-infested mud-ball of an underworld. His balding head and narrow shoulders drooped. A thought of the sudden meaninglessness of his life clouded his mind. In this moment, even his strong convictions deserted him like fair weather foul in a gale. It was a hollow victory, if it was a victory at all. His dirty tunic, stained and torn, was all he had left in this world. That and his ideas—and yes, his spirit was still aflame. Once an honored professor in 1592 at the University of Padua in Venice, they had done their best to reduce him to a foolish madman. When the noble thinkers of Padua were to offer him the chair of mathematics, word of his radical ideas reached the papacy, and the liberal administrators were under extreme pressure to give in to the demands of a powerful but self-seeking, intolerably ideological Pope.
“Pick up thy chains! Ye will kneel before the Magistrate in a moment or I’ll beat ye to yer knees!” The guard shoved him along like a sack of flour.
Up a flight of eroded steps and after so many months of gloom, they burst out into a blaze of sunlight in the Piazza Campo dei Fiori in Rome. He threw his forearm up to cover his eyes. He thought of the burning suns of space. This flood of light was just a prelude—a child and prophet of burning suns to be destroyed by its flammable power. Which then was the work of sorcery and witches, his ideas or their deeds? A sudden vision of suns and worlds without end raced through his being, filling him with a last inspiration to face his trial.
The drumbeats grew louder. Now a drum roll and the crowd roared at him with mockery: “Sorcerer! He’s in consort with the Devil! “
“Kneel! Down I say, before the Magistrate!” The Jail-master shouted.
Giordano Bruno stood still, blinking into the bright sun. He held his chains in his hands and tried his best to lift his head above it all, staring expressionless at the Magistrate’s podium. He wasn’t stupid. He saw the platform in the center of the Piazza and the tinder pile beneath it. This was a show of nonsense. They had already made up their minds. The clerics gave him cold stares to remind him of his unredeemable sin. The whiplash of the guard’s sword butt stung this man’s tired flesh on the back of his thighs.
“Kneel I said!” The guard shouted.
‘Never ye mind, leave him be,’ the Magistrate said with a sickening display of mock compassion.
The papal representative raised his hand to silence the crowd. A hushed expectancy, more like the concentrated quiet of a lion ready to pounce on his prey, filled the crowd. A group of clerics, some with folded arms, others gesticulating in the air, all in multi-colored robes and large bowl shaped hats, finally seated themselves at the jury table. The Magistrate rummaged through a big book and remained standing.
Bruno fixed his eyes upon a strange sight. Sitting with its back turned toward the jury was a large thin monkey of some sort perched upon a railing. Oddly wrapped in a red shawl, he would busily pick at something, making motions towards his mouth as though eating. It was an ugly creature, but paid no mind to the proceedings. For Bruno it would symbolize the mockery of these proceedings.
“Here it is,” mumbled the Magistrate. He announced in his public voice: “In the name of Jesus Christ, and His Holy Church and Her Holy Father Pope Pius VI, I call forth this testament of one, Giordano Bruno before all to witness...
He paused and mumbled again: “I left something out...where is that in the Book,” as he rummaged through the Good Book’s pages again. “I cannot find it—tis, if I am correct—any two or three of you that agree together on a thing in His Name shall have it come to pass—by thy faith tis so.“
One in the crowd yelled: ‘Heretic! You know what to do with the likes of him!’ The jury members mumbled accusations among themselves and the Magistrate fixed his cold wide eyes, drunk with power, on Bruno.
“I leave thy Judgment in thine own hands, Giordano Bruno. By thy own words shall ye be judged. Before the assize pronounces thy sentence, I pray, ye hath one last chance to recant and affirm the truth of God’s Holy Church. Doth Giordano Bruno recant of thine herewith known heresy?”
Bruno stood upright and calmly said nothing.
“Speak. Save thyself before the upper house. Have ye no last defense, man?”
Bruno spoke quietly. “My words have spoken for themselves, the truth that is evident.”
“The truth ye say? That is evident? Where is this evidence?” The Magistrate demanded. The judges’ grumbling grew louder.
“Yes where is the evidence for such blasphemous claims? In the sky?” One of the judges of the assize mocked.
Bruno made one last point to elucidate an idea that they could neither understand nor want to believe.
“No, in the sky ye see stars, points of light. However, with Galileo’s telescope, he has revealed more than what appears. The truth is not in the sky, ‘tis in the mind. The mind God hath given us to reason with. Doubt not this wondrous truth, ‘tis not only reasonable but logical and compelling.” He swept his arms across the sky. “Would the great Creator make all this only to populate it with miserable creatures such as we on this mud-ball!”
‘Mud-ball!’ ‘What’s mud-ball? Miserable creatures?’ ‘Why the pompous devil,’ came a grumbling from the jury.
Well, that finished it. Those words made everyone even more hostile. Now they were not only self-righteous, but insulted as well. The crowd booed, hollering out their judgment. The monkey leaped to avoid any trouble, still picking and eating something.
One of the judges stood and thrust a finger at him saying, ‘Ye set thyself up to know God’s thoughts, to question his creation? Have ye no humility before God?’
“I have humility before God; before men such as you, playing at being God I feel no need for humility,” Bruno was obviously resigning himself to his fate before such men.
‘You mention Galileo’s telescope. Who is this Galileo, a fellow liberal at the university? We have heard reports of these illusions created to sway the faithful from God’s truth.’
‘Galileo holds the distinguished chair of mathematics at Padua and is an inventor, whose patronage has included that of thy own Cardinal del Monte. You can read of his findings in his book “Starry Messenger,” findings which help validate my views,’ said Bruno.
‘More books of the Devil’s words! Only one Book needs reading. We are reviewing his radical ideas you can be sure,’ said the Magistrate not wanting to seem ignorant of such news.
Bruno concentrated on the monkey. It fidgeted about, a restless creature, yet well behaved compared to the angry mob. Diverting his mind to the monkey’s antics gave a measure of comfort, enabling him to detach himself from the bloodthirsty mob.
The Magistrate opened the Bible. ‘The Book of Genesis says, and I quote: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth... And verse three: God said. Let there be light: and there was light... Verse seven: And God made the firmament, and divided the waters, and so on. Verse eight: And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and morning were the second day.”
There was silence. The Magistrate continued to paraphrase Genesis: “The second day,” he said with emphasis. ‘He divided the heavens the second day after the earth was made. And in verse 14:’ “Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; ...for signs, and for seasons, for days and for years...” Finally in verse 16: “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also,” he said accenting each word.
‘Is that not good enough for you, Giordano Bruno? The stars were made to tell time and seasons and the Creator made them for our benefit after He formed the earth.’
He paused, raising the Bible above his head, and said turning to the assize, ‘Distinguished jury and honorable servants of the Lord, this is the word of God as set down in His book.’ He turned to Bruno, ‘Are ye, a lowly man, to order the universe in a better fashion than God? Speak Giordano Bruno and tell us how a better universe is ordered.’
‘That is a good way of telling the story of creation if you are a primitive people who spend their days herding goats and tending sheep,’ Bruno meekly responded.
The crowd booed again. The monkey got nervous as the mob shook their fists and yelled. A few of the judges seemed to groan and rend their robes in exasperation. ‘He mocks God’s holy word. Pronounce the sentence. Waste no more of our time and patience!’
The Magistrate stood before Bruno and one last time demanded. ‘Ye question the Bible, the revelation of God? Is this thy worship of His creation, with a mockery of His words and His works? Then I say one last time: will ye recant the Devil’s blasphemies he has put in thy mouth?’
Giordano Bruno, turning to the jury, and with a last surge of strength cried loudly: “I say what I have always said: God, is in truth Nature and the Mother of all things, is glorified not in one, but in a million suns; not in a single earth, but in a thousand; even in an infinity of worlds!” 1
‘HERETIC! Blasphemer! A million suns! A thousand earths! Burn him!’ The crowd roared in malicious delight. The mob strained forward, shaking angry fists, spitting venomous words, almost knocking off the monkey darting along the rail. The monkey ran over, jumped up on the judges’ desk, and screeched in alarm. A cleric swung at him in an attempt to run him off. The agile monkey easily avoided any confrontation. Bruno concentrated on watching the monkey, amused by it all, forgetting all about the jury and the mob. Then Giordano began to laugh, an absurd, disfigured laugh, becoming all the more hysterical as he watched that monkey dart back and forth; a last desperate attempt to flee the insanity of his time and his hopeless state.
Giordano Bruno, a learned but stubborn man, would not recant. Determined, though his views would bring him ruin, his alternative was imprisonment in a filthy hellhole on earth. If he were wrong, to face the hellfire of God’s wrath would be the greater mercy.
The magistrate turned toward the clerics and asked their judgment, then turning to Bruno pronounced: ‘God have mercy on your forsaken soul for this court has none! It is our Christian duty to stop the propagation of Satan’s words. Death at the stake, to you Giordano Bruno! Ye shall burn, until the sanctity of Truth has returned to thy soul and His Revelation restored immaculate on Earth.”
Heretic! Prophet of Satan! Give him the stake!
At this pronouncement, drums rolled, and three drummer boys accompanied the grotesque march up to the funeral pyre. Flames soon leaped like the darting tongues of the ‘Christian’ mob, aimed like daggers at a thin, aging man but a ‘dangerous’ philosopher chained to a stake. Under orders of His Holy Church, on this the Lord’s day of February 17th, 1600, the mob delighted in doing His will—as they saw it. Giordano Bruno, a starry messenger, burned in final agony in defense of a truth he held to be so logical as to be inescapable. Along with Bruno, the truth again went up in the flames of superstition, suspicion, and hate.
nd so my pretty countess, that ugly but true story is one of many told of men who would lead us out of our narrow bondage to ignorance. But who can tell such dark stories here in this garden under a twilight sky, in the company of such a pretty woman as yourself!’
“‘The earth swarms with countless creatures. Why should nature, so bountiful here, be any less fruitful on the rest of the planets?’
‘But Monsieur Fontenelle, you have made the heavens so large, that I know not where I am, or what will become of me; it is positively dreadful.’ ” 2
“‘Dreadful, my lovely? I think it pleasant. When the heavens were a little blue arch, struck with stars, I thought the universe too confined; I was stifled. Now it is enlarged in height and breadth. I breathe with freedom, and think the universe incomparably more magnificent than before.’ ” 3
‘I protest, to be an insignificant speck, a small ball among billions of equal or greater balls in a sea of suns, seems a forlorn fate. And the possibility that each is inhabited by beings, precious to the Creator as we, leaves me feeling lost.’
‘Forgo that feeling countess. See that star in the zenith called Arcturus? In a telescope, it is a glowing ball of orange not yellow like our sun. It must be much greater than our star. Imagine, around that ball a hundred balls as you call them, some of stone, some with water, mud and vegetation like ours. Would God change the composition of water and earth throughout His universe? He made them good, and so they would be elsewhere as well. Then long ago, in distant seas life swam and crawled the land. A myriad of creatures and finally a being also made in the Creator’s image like us; not made to make us less but to glorify God more. All this vast space between so that none can see or know of each other. God must want each of our civilizations to grow in isolation. Each, in their own way to know His Creation and accept or reject Him by free choice. What can be so dreadful in that?’
We grasped each other’s hands in contentment, strolling the lovely twilight garden, watching stars blinking in and the fading glow of the sun. I pointed to the southern horizon and at an angle comprising thirty degrees above.
‘Do you see that group of stars? It is the constellation Sagittarius. I have a feeling about these southern stars. They seem warm; a good place for worlds to flourish. Now look to the southeast—Here take my scope. There is a glow and a cluster of faint twinkling stars, all of them the same size.’
‘They are like shining specks of ice crystals!’ The countess exclaimed, surprised to see something where the naked eye had perceived only darkness.
‘I believe they are very far away, near the origin of things. They seem to radiate out as if from a central axis. There I believe you would surely find life, it may be like ours, or it may be vastly different. Who knows, they could be watching us right now, do you think?’
‘Monsieur Fontenelle, you are a dreamer! It may be a beautiful dream and it could just as well be true as not,’ the countess said, handing me back my scope. ‘You have left many new thoughts in my mind and my doubts are as numerous as these stars we view tonight.’
1 Timothy Ferris, “Coming of Age in the Milky Way,” Doubleday, 1988, (Bruno, Giordano, ca. 1600, quoted in Ferris, pp 369-370.)
2Fontenelle, Bernard de. “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds,” orig. 1686, Nonesuch Press, 1929, pp. 114-115, quoted in Ferris, p 370).
3 Ibid., (See Fontenelle, ca. 1686, in Ferris, p 370.)