We live in a publicity-craving era of frenetic fame-seekers. So it can be ironic to realize how some of the most celebrated people of the past somehow slipped into obscurity, even after a lifetime spent earning acclaim. Take Aldous Huxley, for example. The author of Brave new World and many other bold novels -- who also helped usher in the psychedelic era -- managed to time his death so the obituary vanished in a back corner of any newspaper that bothered to mention it at all. He did this by passing away on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day that President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Care to top that? Try this. Even as we slowly work off our hangovers and headaches from those Y2K non-events and anticlimactic "millennium celebrations" -- and while we watch the Internet undergo partial self-destruction at the hands of some of its brightest sons -- I notice on my calendar that we nearly let pass without notice the 400th anniversary of the death (on an execution pyre) of Giordano Bruno.
Giordano Bruno... only one of the greatest geniuses of the later Renaissance and one spectacularly interesting fellow.
All right, few people know of him today. Tourists blink in puzzlement at his statue, now standing in the Roman square -- the Campo de Fiori -- where the Inquisition incinerated him. But his name wasn't always obscure. With a colorful personality and a flood of unconventional opinions, Bruno was a sensational figure as the 17th century drew to a close -- a prominent Renaissance thinker who, true to that complex era, mixed philosophy, religion, logic and mysticism while preaching a daring worldview that helped set the stage for what we now know as science.
Born near Naples in 1548, Bruno joined the Dominican order of monks at age 18. But soon his restless spirit and critical mind led him to question church teachings, including the notion that the heavens revolved around the Earth, forcing him to flee to Geneva, then France, England and Germany. Bruno's habit of questioning established doctrines brought him into conflict with powerful leaders of both the Catholic and Reformed churches, few of whom were known to tolerate free-thinkers.
Still, with luck and uncanny survival instincts -- and by appealing to the intellectual excitement of the time -- Bruno kept teaching unconventional views in Oxford, Marburg, Wittenberg, Prague, and Frankfurt. Eventually lured back to Italy on a pretext, Bruno was imprisoned in 1592 by the Inquisition, tried as a heretic and burned alive on Feb. 17, 1600.
It can be easy to get carried away over some of Bruno's most prescient views - for instance championing the heliocentric astronomy of Copernicus before Galileo did, then going much further to suggest that the twinkling stars in our night sky are actually suns shining on distant planets, possibly harboring other forms of life. He also held that humans might someday acquire almost godlike powers by understanding lightning and other heavenly mysteries. In that event, we might still need religion for moral guidance -- he opined -- but no longer to shape our models of the physical or biological world.
In an era transfixed by the primacy of the human image -- when great minds of the establishment insisted that the Creator must have a navel and a beard -- Bruno completely rejected the anthropocentric universe, believing instead that the Earth and individual humans are ultimately accidental products of a single living world-substance. In this, he presaged many notions of Darwinian biology.
To a modern mind, his call for tolerance and open enquiry seems especially poignant and prophetic.
Still, one does Bruno a disservice by emphasizing only the things he got right. Many of his other writings now seem silly, deliberately provocative, or just perplexingly obscure, such as his doctrine of panpsychism (belief that reality is constituted by the mind), which anticipated the teachings of Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza... and may be echoed in today's extropian movement. He used to get into terrific rows with contemporaries over minutiae that would put most of today's philosophy professors into snoring catalepsy. (People cared deeply about such things, once upon a time.) His fascination with magic and the occult would hardly impress scientists in the year 2000, though it might lend him a New Age cult appeal.
So? The essential point -- and the reason I find this long-dead fellow's life worth noting -- is how Bruno looked around a superstitious age with eyes that were essentially modern. Even his flaming egotism and penchant for pushing other peoples' buttons would fit in well, today.
The clergy of his time weren't dummies; they had their own "grand unified theory" of how things worked and how people should behave. If we have made progress since that era, we owe it less to our improved orthodoxies than to the way we've learned to _tap_ the creative energies of those who defy the intellectual status quo, instead of killing them. Slowly, often grudgingly, society discovered that there is something to value in the rancorous, difficult, blasphemous few who gleefully challenge authority. Those who rip away the set pieces of any conservative worldview to reveal disturbing truths that lie beneath and beyond. Such people, though irksome, are also responsible for much progress in the world.
Imagine if Bruno somehow got teleported into our time -- perhaps with other standout intellects like Benjamin Franklin. One could picture him adjusting with relish to an era so enamored of flamboyant eccentrics. In a month, he would be on all the talk shows. In a year, he might have his own.
In fact, why not spin a story about that? Imagine that some future, time-traveling age will share our own fascination with exceptional men and women of the past. Suppose they reach back to grab Bruno out of his pyre at the last moment, if only to repair and then enjoy a colorfully vivid person who surged so far ahead of his time, caroming about the realm of ideas like a joyous crank, shouting at his stupefied contemporaries to _wake up!_
Not all geniuses are saintly or perfect. Some can be simultaneously offensive, delightful, in your face and profound in both their prescient visions and their spectacular errors. They are also terrifically alive.
So very alive that I feel they somehow testify for the rest of us. They help justify us, showing that humanity _must_ have a reason -- beyond mere creation or natural selection -- for being.
david brin,copyright 2/00 1000 words
David Brin is a scientist and bestselling novelist. His 1989 thriller Earth foresaw both global warming and the World Wide Web. A movie with Kevin Costner was loosely based on The Postman and Startide Rising is in pre-production at Paramount Pictures. Brin's non-fiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- deals with threats to openness and liberty in the new wired-age. His latest novel, Foundation's Triumph, brings to a grand finale Isaac Asimov's famed Foundation Universe.