Style over substance
Among freethinkers, Bruno is considered a hero for his intellectual integrity in the face of persecution. Although this essay is written about a man I admire, I found little to enjoy in it. Pater seems less interested in praising Bruno’s defiance of superstition or illuminating his philosophical accomplishments than he is in simply the self-aggrandizement of Walter Pater and his literary style. The whole piece is an overindulgent exercise in pretentious prose. Pater writes in grammatically challenging paragraph-long sentences consisting of strings of comma-separated phrases, the purpose of which seems to be to impress the reader with flowery language while imparting as little information as possible. Almost no facts are given about Bruno’s life and work, just Pater’s speculation of what Bruno’s intellectual development might have been like or what he was thinking at a given time in his life. There is some discussion of the scope of Bruno’s pantheism, but Pater’s way of writing about it obscures more than it reveals.
If you don’t know anything about Bruno, this work is not for you. In order to understand what Pater is saying here, you have to come to this essay with prior knowledge of who Bruno was and why he was important. If you already know that, however, you’re not going to learn anything new here. With this piece of writing, Pater demonstrates the annoying side of those 19th century Renaissance men of letters who just really loved to hear themselves talk. The essay’s one saving grace is its brevity.
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