Monday, April 17, 2017

Giordano Bruno by Walter Pater

Style over substance
Giordano Bruno
When you download these free public domain e-book files from Amazon or Project Gutenberg you never know what you’re going to get. This one turned out to be a ten-page essay. It was originally published in an 1889 edition of the English magazine The Fortnightly Review. Author Walter Pater was a household name among 19th century literati, but he has sense faded into obscurity, at least in the minds of American readers. He was a polymath man of letters who wrote fiction, literary criticism, and essays on a variety of topics. Here he offers a brief sketch of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher and Dominican monk who was burnt at the stake for heresy against the Catholic church. Among the offenses for which Bruno was executed were his pantheistic conception of God and his belief that the Earth was just one of many inhabited worlds in the universe.

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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