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What's The World Coming To? (2019) - Part 3: “One World Religion” - January 13, 2019

The Universal Soul was an intelligible reality; and Universal Matter was not corporeal in the Stoic sense. Inherently qualityless, dimensionless, impassive and inactive, Universal Matter was a medium that had the potentiality to become all things. Wood was a substance in act because it was that from which a bed, stool or image could be made, not because it was any one of those things; and the same was true of Universal Matter. It was in act by virtue of the unexplicated forms that the Universal Intellect could incite from within it, not by virtue of the explicated material forms that it produced.

Nicholas of Cusa supplied the language of explication and implication. Universal Matter was present in incorporeal as well as corporeal things. It was the genus of two types of matter, corporeal and intelligible. The former was the substrate of corporeal objects, as described above.


First, the plurality of Ideas in the Intellect presupposed something common to each of them, this commonality being intelligible matter. Second, since the sensible world imitated the intelligible world and the sensible world comprised matter, so too must the intelligible. Plotinus, like other ancient Neoplatonists, considered the two matters ontologically distinct, as Bruno noted. Intelligible matter, as the matter of unchanging intelligible realities, did not change, Plotinus had explained.

By contrast, the matter of sensible things possessed all things only inasmuch as parts of it assumed all possible forms sequentially. Nevertheless, Bruno insisted that corporeal and intelligible matter were, ultimately, two species of the genus Universal Matter. He was not the first to do so.


The eleventh-century Jewish philosopher, Ibn Gabirol or, in Latinized form, Avicebron, as Bruno mentioned, had made the same move. All distinctions, Bruno concluded, presupposed something indefinite: potentiality, matter. Hence the distinction between the two matters presupposed an absolute Universal Matter. Its stability, which contrasted so favorably with the flux of form, had led the heterodox scholastic philosopher David of Dinant d. Divine though it might be, Bruno did not identify Universal Matter with God. This supersubstantial principle was the God of whom the Egyptians Hermes and Moses had spoken.

In his written works, too, he identified them with, respectively, the primordial darkness and light described in the first three verses of Genesis BOL II. This was not as provocative as it might seem. This first principle and cause of all things, given its supersubstantiality, was unknowable. We cannot understand God as we can, say, abstract mathematical or metaphysical truths, let alone experience him directly through our senses. Nevertheless, the universe, mere vestige of him though it is, teaches us a few incontrovertible truths.

We know, first, that he exists. We can deduce that a sculptor exists when we see a statue, even though we know nothing else about him. Similarly, we know from the existence of the universe that there must be a first principle and cause of all things, whom we call God BOI I, — He was the One Being, the unchanging ens unum , of which Xenophanes and his pupil Parmenides had spoken. True philosophers, those, that is, who understood that the universe was infinite, could discover more than this.

The first of these analogies, that of painting, Bruno developed as follows. Plotinus inspired the analogy Enneads , III. For Plotinus, it illustrated how the hierarchical arrangement of all things necessarily entailed a descent from perfect being to the absence of being, from the absolutely good to the not-good. Something abject was like a splodge of paint which, drab though it appeared on the palette, once applied, lent a painting the desired effect BOL I. The Syrian that Bruno had in mind was Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem and bought up in Nazareth, both towns, as St Luke mentioned in his account of the nativity, being located in what the Roman Empire at the time knew as Syria.

Countless theologians and philosophers had proclaimed over the centuries that the perceptible world announced the glory of God. Bruno turned the topos to advantage. In God and the universe all possibilities were actualized.

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They differed in that, whereas in the universe all possibilities were at any given moment actualized somewhere, in the supersubstantial being, in which form and matter, being and existence, act and potentiality were undifferentiated, all possibilities were actualized absolutely without distinctions of time and place. God had two aspects, one wholly aloof from the universe, the other in communion with it.

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The Christian God, or more exactly the Word, remained unaltered even as he became miraculously incarnated as Jesus Christ. Similarly, converting temporal into ontological priority, the One Being, God, contained intrinsically the attributes of the universe in a virtual, unexplicated, mode and, while remaining undifferentiated in this mode, also determined in a second extrinsic, yet still undifferentiated, mode the differentiations of the explicated universe. To explain how God, in his external aspect, articulated these differentiations, Bruno used Platonic concepts and themes.

God was a unity or undifferentiated plenitude of Ideas existing in him virtually. In this sense he was Mind.

Dependent on him as Mind were: a the discrete Ideas unified in the Universal Intellect see Section 4 ; and b the vestiges of the Ideas, that is, forms, which, in combination with sensible matter, produced corporeal things. Further, as Mind, he was also the supersubstantial principle of intelligence, contemplating the undifferentiated plenitude of Ideas within him in one timeless act. Proof of this were animal instincts, as Ficino, too, had noted.

Instincts were the presence of God as Mind working within them rather than, as scholastics typically held, powers that the stars instilled in them extraneously. All cognitive acts, in whatever animal or indeed separate intelligence, were instantiations of a single cognitive power deriving from the Universal Intellect and ultimately, therefore, from God as Mind.

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Two unconventional conclusions followed. First, the form that this single cognitive power took depended on the bodily shape that it inhabited. Second, no particular bodily shape, human, demonic or otherwise, was a privileged outlet for the expression of the single cognitive power. Just as some animals had a better sense of smell or sight than others, so, too, some were more intelligent than others in certain respects.

Ants were more intelligent than human beings in the way in which they organized their communal lives BOL I. By means of their individual cognitive powers all things identified how best to preserve themselves and acted accordingly. Even supposedly inanimate things observed this principle and so showed traces of intelligence. A stone held aloft sought to return downwards to the earth because that was where it was in its optimal condition.

It observed the law of gravity see Section 3. This impulse to adhere to him—Love on a cosmic scale—ensured that the universe, having gone forth from God his exitus , preserved themselves by their impulse to return to him his reditus. Nicholas of Cusa probably inspired the formula. It was, however, only on sufferance that he engaged with Platonism.

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All things were accidents of the One Being, intelligibilia included, and hence all things engaged with matter in some respect. In what sense could they be outside an infinite universe? Not even the separate intelligences were, in fact, separate absolutely. On these grounds, too, Bruno discounted the notion, in both its original medieval formulation see the illustration in Section 3 and the revised version proposed by the mysterious Renaissance thinker known as Marcello Palingenio Stellato c. Matter and form were inseparable BOL I. We arrive, then, at the intriguing conclusion that Nature, in this second sense, was God in his extrinsic aspect.

Given, moreover, that God, despite having an inner and outer aspect, was one being, in some sense he must as a whole be within things.

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Bruno was, as we have seen see Section 4 , wary of applying spatial metaphors to intelligibilia, which were by definition dimensionless. Yet, like many a philosopher or theologian before him, he was happy to use them when it suited. Most concluded, often ruefully, that his God remained theistic and retained, even if only minimally, an element of the transcendental. Regrettably, therefore, he could not be declared unequivocally the founder of modern philosophy, the precursor of Spinoza and Hegel.

During his trial Bruno himself, hoping to reassure his inquisitors, emphasized the theistic features of his philosophy. Divine Providence was twofold. In his works, too, he emphasized that God governed over all things providentially. Whether his philosophy is pantheistic depends, needless to say, on how we define the term. It shares with Stoicism, which is conventionally considered pantheist, the view that there was a providential principle, God, operating within the universe, that was more than just the sum of its parts. The universe was perfect.