Classic Essays

Julian the Apostate and Giordano Bruno

rgiby Robert Green Ingersoll (pictured)

THEY SAY that the Emperor Julian [AD 331-363] was an “apostate”; that he was once a Christian; that he fell from grace, and that in his last moments, throwing some of his own blood into the air, he cried out to Jesus Christ, “Galilean, thou hast conquered!”

It must be remembered that the Christians had persecuted and imprisoned this very Julian; that they had exiled him; that they had threatened him with death. Many of his relatives were murdered by the Christians. He became emperor, and Christians conspired to take his life. The conspirators were discovered and they were pardoned. He did what he could to prevent the Christians from destroying each other. He held pomp and pride and luxury in contempt, and led his army on foot, sharing the privations of the meanest soldier.

Upon ascending the throne he published an edict proclaiming universal religious toleration. He was then a Pagan. It is claimed by some that he never did entirely forget his Christian education. In this I am inclined to think there is some truth, because he revoked his edict of toleration, and for a time was nearly as unjust as though he had been a saint. He was emperor one year and seven months. In a battle with the Persians he was mortally wounded. “Brought back to his tent, and feeling that he had but a short time to live, he spent his last hours in discoursing with his friends on the immortality of the soul. He reviewed his reign and declared that he was satisfied with his conduct, and had neither penitence nor remorse to express for anything that he had done.” His last words were: “I submit willingly to the eternal decrees of heaven, convinced that he who is captivated with life, when his last hour has arrived is more weak and pusillanimous than he who would rush to voluntary death when it is his duty still to live.”

When we remember that a Christian emperor murdered Julian’s father and most of his kindred, and that he narrowly escaped the same fate, we can hardly blame him for having a little prejudice against a church whose members were fierce, ignorant, and bloody — whose priests were hypocrites, and whose bishops were assassins. If Julian had said he was a Christian — no matter what he actually was, he would have satisfied the church.

The story that the dying emperor acknowledged that he was conquered by the Galilean was originated by some of the so-called Fathers of the Church, probably by Gregory or Theodoret. They are the same wretches who said that Julian sacrificed a woman to the moon, tearing out her entrails with his own hands. We are also informed by these hypocrites that he endeavored to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, and that fire came out of the earth and consumed the laborers employed in the sacrilegious undertaking.

I did not suppose that an intelligent man could be found in the world who believed this childish fable, and yet in the January number for 1880, of the Princeton Review, the Rev. Stuart Robinson (whoever he may be) distinctly certifies to the truth of this story. He says: “Throughout the entire era of the planting of the Christian Church, the gospel preached was assailed not only by the malignant fanaticism of the Jew and the violence of Roman statecraft, but also by the intellectual weapons of philosophers, wits, and poets. Now Celsus denounced the new religion as base imposture. Now Tacitus described it as but another phase of the odium generius humani. Now Julian proposed to bring into contempt the prophetic claims of its founder by the practical test of rebuilding the Temple.” Here then in the year of grace 1880 is a Presbyterian preacher who really believes that Julian tried to rebuild the Temple, and that God caused fire to issue from the earth and consume the innocent workmen.

All these stories rest upon the same foundation, the mendacity of priests.

Julian changed the religion of the Empire, and diverted the revenues of the church. Whoever steps between a priest and his salary, will find that he has committed every crime. No matter how often the slanders may be refuted, they will be repeated until the last priest has lost his body and found his wings. These falsehoods about Julian were invented some fifteen hundred years ago, and they are repeated to-day by just as honest and just as respectable people as these who told them at first. Whenever the church cannot answer the arguments of an opponent, she attacks his character. She resorts to falsehood, and in the domain of calumny she has stood for fifteen hundred years without a rival.

The great Empire was crumbling to its fall. The literature of the world was being destroyed by priests. The gods and goddesses were driven from the earth and sky. The paintings were torn and defaced. The statues were broken. The walls were left desolate, and the niches empty. Art, like Rachel, wept for her children, and would not be comforted. The streams and forests were deserted by the children of the imagination, and the whole earth was barren, poor and mean.

Christian ignorance, bigotry and hatred, in blind unreasoning zeal, had destroyed the treasures of our race. Art was abhorred, Knowledge was despised, Reason was an outcast. The sun was blotted from the intellectual heaven, every star extinguished, and there fell upon the world that shadow — that midnight, known as “The Dark Ages.”

This night lasted for a thousand years …

bruno
Giordano Bruno, 1550?-1600

The first star that enriched the horizon of this universal gloom was Giordano Bruno. He was the herald of the dawn.

He was born in 1550, was educated for a priest, became a Dominican friar. At last his reason revolted against the doctrine of transubstantiation. He could not believe that the entire Trinity was in a wafer, or in a swallow of wine. He could not believe that a man could devour the Creator of the universe by eating a piece of bread. This led him to investigate other dogmas of the Catholic Church, and in every direction he found the same contradictions and impossibilities supported, not by reason, but by faith.

Those who loved their enemies threatened his life. He was obliged to flee from his native land, and he became a vagabond in nearly every nation of Europe. He declared that he fought, not what priests believed, but what they pretended to believe. He was driven from his native country because of his astronomical opinions. He had lost confidence in the Bible as a scientific work. He was in danger because he had discovered a truth.

He fled to England. He gave some lectures at Oxford. He found that institution controlled by priests. He found that they were teaching nothing of importance — only the impossible and the hurtful. He called Oxford “the widow of true learning.” There were in England, at that time, two men who knew more than the rest of the world. Shakespeare was then alive.

Bruno was driven from England. He was regarded as a dangerous man — he had opinions, he inquired after reasons, he expressed confidence in facts. He fled to France. He was not allowed to remain in that country. He discussed things — that was enough. The church said, “move on.” He went to Germany. He was not a believer — he was an investigator. The Germans wanted believers; they regarded the whole Christian system as settled; they wanted witnesses; they wanted men who would assert. So he was driven from Germany.

He returned at last to his native land. He found himself without friends, because he had been true, not only to himself, but to the human race. But the world was false to him because he refused to crucify the Christ of his own soul between the two thieves of hypocrisy and bigotry. He was arrested for teaching that there are other worlds than this; that many of the stars are suns, around which other worlds revolve; that Nature did not exhaust all her energies on this grain of sand called the earth. He believed in a plurality of worlds, in the rotation of this, in the heliocentric theory.

bruno_2
Bronze statue of Bruno in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, erected in 1887 on the site where the philosopher died at the stake in 1600, after being condemned to death by the Inquisition. In the 1920s Mussolini refused to remove the statue, despite intense lobbying from the Vatican.

For these crimes, and for these alone, he was imprisoned for six years. He was kept in solitary confinement. He was allowed no books, no friends, no visitors. He was denied pen and paper. In the darkness, in the loneliness, he had time to examine the great questions of origin, of existence, of destiny. He put to the test what is called the goodness of God. He found that he could neither depend upon man nor upon any deity. At last the Inquisition demanded him. He was tried, condemned, excommunicated and sentenced to be burned.

According to Professor Draper, he believed that this world is animated by an intelligent soul — the cause of forms, but not of matter; that it lives in all things, even in such as seem not to live; that everything is ready to become organized; that matter is the mother of forms, and then their grave; that matter and the soul of things, together, constitute God. He was a pantheist — that is to say, an atheist. He was a lover of Nature — a reaction from the asceticism of the church. He was tired of the gloom of the monastery. He loved the fields, the woods, the streams. He said to his brother-priests: Come out of your cells, out of your dungeons; come into the air and light. Throw away your beads and your crosses. Gather flowers; mingle with your fellow-men; have wives and children; scatter the seeds of joy; throw away the thorns and nettles of your creeds; enjoy the perpetual miracle of life.

On the sixteenth day of February, in the year of grace 1600, by “the triumphant beast,” the Church of Rome, this philosopher, this great and splendid man, was burned. He was offered his liberty if he would recant. There was no God to be offended by his recantation, and yet, as an apostle of what he believed to be the truth, he refused this offer. To those who passed the sentence upon him he said: “It is with greater fear that ye pass this sentence upon me than I receive it.” This man, greater than any naturalist of his day; grander than the martyr of any religion, died willingly in defence of what he believed to be the sacred truth. He was great enough to know that real religion will not destroy the joy of life on earth; great enough to know that investigation is not a crime — that the really useful is not hidden in the mysteries of faith. He knew that the Jewish records were below the level of the Greek and Roman myths; that there is no such thing as special providence; that prayer is useless; that liberty and necessity are the same, and that good and evil are but relative.

He was the first real martyr — neither frightened by perdition, nor bribed by heaven. He was the first of all the world who died for truth without expectation of reward. He did not anticipate a crown of glory. His imagination had not peopled the heavens with angels waiting for his soul. He had not been promised an eternity of joy if he stood firm, nor had he been threatened with the fires of hell if he wavered and recanted. He expected as his reward an eternal nothing! Death was to him an everlasting end — nothing beyond but a sleep without a dream, a night without a star, without a dawn — nothing but extinction, blank, utter, and eternal. No crown, no palm, no “well done, good and faithful servant,” no shout of welcome, no song of praise, no smile of God, no kiss of Christ, no mansion in the fair skies — not even a grave within the earth — nothing but ashes, wind-blown and priest-scattered, mixed with earth and trampled beneath the feet of men and beasts.

The murder of this man will never be completely and perfectly avenged until from Rome shall be swept every vestige of priest and pope, until over the shapeless ruin of St. Peter’s, the crumbled Vatican and the fallen cross, shall rise a monument to Bruno — the thinker, philosopher, philanthropist, atheist, martyr.

* * *

Source: Selection from Great Infidels (1881)

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