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Nature, nurture: Spinoza & Giordano Bruno on things big/small

In 1927, French novelist Romain Rolland wrote a letter to Sigmund Freud in which he described why humans might be prone to short moments of redemption where they can feel “a sensation of eternity.”

Rolland called this phenomenon “oceanic feeling,” a sense of becoming one with the external world he related to the Christian mystics and to Ramakrishna, the nineteenth-century Hindu who popularized Eastern religions in the West.

The French writer, now mostly forgotten but a public figure of his time and Nobel prize of literature confessed he could also experience similar such peak experiences dominated by “a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling of something unbounded, limitless.”

Australian “outback” landscape; in the desertic areas of Australia’s interior, landmarks are associated not only to physical objects, but to “songlines” (ceremonies connecting songs and stories to travel across territories)

We could relate to Rolland’s description of an “oceanic feeling” and oneness with the surrounding reality (and, by extension, with the universe), regardless of age or background. We would call it differently and probably describe it too, trying to grasp nonetheless a very similar conceptualization of the sublime and universal.

Emergent phenomena: feelings, conscience, and grandiosity

When Sigmund Freud analyzed the concept, he related it to the infant’s ego once the trauma of separation from the mother’s breast materializes. Rolland disagreed with Freud’s interpretation, which he defined as pessimistic and reductive. Why see fatalism in such a glorious, ecstatic intuition if it could represent a conceptualization of Nature as a recipient of all things, and therefore an entity indistinguishable from God?

Rolland wasn’t by far the first one stating such ideas. As any other non-Western societies still connected with their pre-industrial cosmogony, Australian First Nations would have sensed Rolland’s musings with fraternal acknowledgment. Their “songlines“, or dreaming tracks, are a sensory and physical journey that connects the metaphysical world with the land through artistic expressions such as songs, stories, dance, or paintings.

The mother songline of them all talked about Creation, and it has been passed on and modified ever since, but the songs that survive and the land they belong to reveal a profound connection between all things conceptual and physical, from language, to people, to animals, to inanimate objects.

But such an “oceanic feeling” didn’t provide aboriginals only what Rolland refers to as “a sensation of eternity.” A group could navigate through a vast landscape often devoid of easily recognizable landmarks by singing the songs in sequence.

Songlines are a navigational cosmogony as if their creators would have conceived and enriched them based on an ancestral, synesthetic compass where thoughts expressed in time blend with space.

Dreaming tracks linking songs to time, places, and travels

Have we lost our cognitive map of our ancestors’ remote world? Are pantheistic experiences, such as Romain Rolland’s oceanic feeling, Australian songlines, shamanic experiences, or artistic celebrations of Nature that transcend their moment and place (such as Lucretius didactic poem De rerum natura) a remnant of the ancient monism we all once shared, in which we sense that everything that has ever existed is interrelated in one way or another?

The Renaissance sparked a renewed interest in the classic and pagan worlds. Poggio’s Bracciolini rediscovery of Lucretius’ influential On the Nature of Things transformed the European perspective and sparked an interest in atomism, as Stephen Greenblatt explains in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wars of religion and the context of the Reformation reinforced Catholic zeal. As Philip II of Spain built the massive palace of El Escorial outside Madrid, he encouraged and expanded the activity of the Inquisition across his empire’s territories in Europe and the Americas.

Excommunicated Spinoza, 1907 painting by Samuel Hirszenberg

It was the dawn of a new era of scientific inquiry and urban growth thanks to the printing press and commerce of goods and ideas. Some intrepid thinkers set to question the very foundations of dogma, such as transubstantiation or the infallibility of the Old Testament.

Spinoza will deny the immortality of the soul, thus contradicting Western tradition since Plato. He also rejected the notion of the transcendent, or providential God at human scale, the Abrahamic God. The Law (Torah’s and Bible’s commandments) was, in his opinion, a mere tribal law that didn’t come literally from God.

The influence of Lucretius in modernity

Giordano Bruno, a Neapolitan friar exiled in Protestant land, and Baruch Spinoza, born in a merchant family in the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, were both excommunicated from Catholicism and the Jewish community, respectively, for questioning religious dogma and medieval philosophy through a knowledge method based in reason, but also aware of different types of information (opinion, intuition, scientific truth.)

Their rebellious character would help them stand against dogma, risking their livelihood and social standing. Instead of bowing to the medieval interpretation of Aristotle, both tried to set the foundations of a new philosophy that departed from the artificial separation of body and soul (as in Plato and Christianity) and declared that the eternal, infinite universe was the timeless manifestation of the only absolute principle: Nature, or God.

Photograph of Ramakrishna in 1881. To Romain Rolland, Ramakrishna’s mystic experiences since childhood were an example of the meaning of “oceanic feeling”

Because, to them, God equaled Nature, and everything is a partial manifestation of God. Thus God was not anthropomorphic but everywhere and in all things at once, which allowed the emergence of what we call reality (including all its modes or appearances). Body and spirit were not separate but the same thing, so instead of dualism, Bruno and Spinoza accepted monism. According to them, there was only one Being, an absolute sacrilege to any Abrahamic scholar or their time.

Both Spinoza and Bruno, influenced by their respective read of Lucretius’ atomist poem, set to shake the foundations of recognized knowledge; Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things opened to them the speculation about a deterministic universe that leaves space nonetheless to individuals to follow their “determination” at their own will. It was Bruno’s extension of the Copernican model of heliocentrism (suggesting that the sun wasn’t the only star with planets around but one more in a myriad of them —not only accepting the heresy of the Copernican model but extending it—) that brought him to the stake. He was burned alive by the Inquisition at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori.

Spirituality & rationalism in two heretics of their time

Spinoza and Bruno sensed the sublime rationally, yet their intuition of God as one with a Universe both eternal and infinite reminds us of the proximity of rationality (and scientific inquiry). A metaphysical world that includes a sense of universality capable of talking to any sentient being, an intuition not only compatible with scientific inquiry and modern physics (even when Isaac Newton’s time had yet to arrive) but also complementary of what Australia’s First Nations call “songlines,” something associated to Rolland’s “oceanic feeling,” and maybe to the effect on us of some music, poetry, or landscape. Here are Spinoza’s musings:

“By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.”

The religious trial against Spinoza prompted him to clarify his —then scandalous— position as he argued during the religious trial that God existed “in only a philosophical sense:”

“those who feign a God, like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions. But how far they wander from the true knowledge of God is sufficiently established by what has already been demonstrated.”

Instead of being the substance of all things, God is to Spinoza the immanent force of all that exists. We can call it “God,” we can call it “Nature”: deus sive natura, writes Spinoza in Latin.

“That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists.”

The Nature of the cosmos: an immanent deity

In the philosophical and scientific quest to set the boundaries between nature and nurture (on one side, our natural predispositions; on the other, the environment that influences us) it’s easy to forget we grew up in a culture that establishes a way of looking into the world.

It’s when we are able to rise from the customary routine that we can feel moments of communion and affirmation with everything surrounding us. Or, as Joan Acocella puts it in an article about Giordano Bruno in the New Yorker, based on his reading of Ingrid Rowland’s book Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic:

“Did a sixteenth-century heretic grasp the nature of the cosmos?”


“Finally, Bruno developed an atomic theory, whereby everything that existed was made up of identical particles—”seeds,” in his terminology. Other people, notably Lucretius, had had this idea, but, again, Bruno expanded it. Not only were all parts of the cosmos constituted of the same elements, but God, whom the Church strictly set apart from the material world, resided in these elements. It was his love, informing every “seed,” that unified the world.”

“In all these ideas, there seems to have been a single preoccupation: immensity—things incalculably large and incalculably tiny, and all joined together in a kind of choral exultation. I think that this mental image, more than any quarrel with the Church, underlay Bruno’s philosophy.”

Who we are: language and surroundings

Is our sense of awe going to relate to the way some traditional societies experience their surroundings? Do we sense space and blend with it the same way the Kuuk Thaayorre do in their everyday recall of the world? How does language shape thought, and to which extent its framework determines us?

Studies show that the Pormpuraaw people from Australia, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers, tracing their ancestors to the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, recall the passage of time and space in a very particular way. One experiment by linguists Lera Boroditsky from Stanford and Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby from Berkeley asked participants to order cards chronologically.

Beginnings of modern Pantheism: Bruno and later on Spinoza thought the Universe and God were indistinguishable, embracing monism in their metaphysics

While English speakers arranged the cards without considering the spatial context, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers set the cards chronologically. The series was also organized from East to West, no matter the original position of each individual.

To them, the sun path’s direction across the sky influences any activity or thought, as if their cosmogony, as if they had sensed time and space go together and humans’ circadian rhythm attaches us to our most universal, remotest past. The Pormpuraaw would be able to relate in their own, specific way to Romain Rolland’s musings about a sense of universal unity with all things, so overwhelming and inscrutable as the ocean.

In modern societies, our internal compass has seceded from the old activities and Rhythms of a slow conception of time, one of the eternal return of things. Weather, days, lunar cycles, or seasons, associated with a pre-scientific world dictated by almanacs, metaphysical beliefs of pagan origin, did influence our internal behavior “within the world“. Not anymore.

The fabric of reality depends on the context we experience

Speakers of the aboriginal tongue Guugu Yimithirr, also spoken in Queensland, Australia, don’t have words equivalent to “left” or “right” (and the subjective connotations we have given to them); they consider instead the four cardinal points (north, south, east, West) as denominators of space in any possible social interaction. Somebody won’t tell another person to move a little to the left or right but to move to the East or West, the North or South.

If we need more proof that culture affects the way we experience the world and even conceptualize things such as our innate attributes (our genetic heritage, “nurture”), Hopi Indians don’t refer to time as something quantifiable that can be divided into precise, scientific chunks; to them, time is a continuum intermingled with experience, a smooth cycle we cannot “tame,” “waste” since it’s not quantified.

Other cultures use formal verbs and constructions that show more interest in how the speaker relates to what he is saying than in when did it happen (now, a moment ago, sometime in the past, in a recurrent way, and so on). A Hopi speaker takes into consideration how she got to know the information or whether this information comes from experience (I see a tree with fruit on it), whether it comes from another person or from common tradition, Etc.

If we consider the modern world as a process of standardization due to the rise of the State, bureaucracy, and mass media, the relationship between power and knowledge (studied by French philosopher Michel Foucault, among others) affects the sense we make of the world. Even the context we sense as part of what theoretical physicist David Deutsch calls “the fabric of reality” isn’t at all neutral, primeval, or innocent.

Inheritance of treats, advantages, and perception

Literary tradition, sociology, or linguistics have tried to elucidate to which extent the way we communicate shapes the way we think, relate to each other, and see the world. But the debate of determinism and free will seems to be a never-ending one.

If the way we organize our thought affects the way we see the world, perceive space and time, or see possibility, what’s the dominion of personal free will? How about ethnic and class origins? In post-war Europe, structuralism tried to explain the relationship between the general context and personal fates.

French sociologist Pierre Bordieu developed an entirely new discipline as he displayed the ways class pass different types of advantages (symbolic, cultural, social) to their offspring, to the extent even taste, opinion, and manners seem codified to the advantage of those who have been exposed to their subtleties. Last names, postal codes, accents, and other markers carry information explained by Bordieu in works such as The Inheritors. First published in 1964, some passages of Les héritiers are relevant today.

Bordieu explained how some subtle social hierarchies ended up transmitted anyway, not by way of old sanctions but codified as abilities reinforced with access and insider advantages, perpetuating the “social order” in a similar way than in previous, non “meritocratic” regimes.

Statue of Giordano Bruno; it was unveiled in 1889, occupying the place where Bruno was burn at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600

Access to social markers such as taste and education affect our ability to overcome contingencies or even to appreciate “elevated” needs such as art or intellectual speculation (for example, by reflecting on Romain Rolland’s “oceanic feeling”). Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to state that the limits of thought coincide with the limits of language. It’s not an accident that Bordieu would find solace reading Wittgenstein’s lingüistic riddles.

Determinism of the macro and determination of the micro

In the debate between Nature and nurture, Spinoza conciliated a determined universe —like that of Stoics and Epicureans in antiquity, such as the one described by the poet Lucretius in De rerum natura— with the free will of the individual: there was a universal determination, and even a social one (the one that Pierre Bordieu would describe in his meticulous study of the twentieth century’s French society), but the individual’s agency, his “determination”, could set his existence’s direction.

Determinism at a big scale, emergent “determination” of free will at the scale of a person’s existence. The individual could, for example, liberate himself from superficial daily needs; Spinoza’s moral philosophy aimed at the rational control of passions, much in the fashion of Stoicism. Spinoza recognizes it’s hard to control impulses, but he insists on how beneficial it is for any individual trying hard enough to be in command of himself:

“If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result (i.e., power over the emotions by which the wise man surpasses the ignorant man) seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare” (Ethica, 270-1).

Determinism at a cosmic scale doesn’t prevent any individual from the trap of depending too much on the pursuit of passions, goods, or futile (but gregarious) superstitions.

After his expulsion from Amsterdam’s Sephardic community, Spinoza earned a modest living in several other cities, and he acquired local recognition for his expertise in grinding optical lenses. He studied and worked as a private scholar and died in 1677 from silicosis (presumably due to his work grinding glass). He was 44.

After fleeing the Inquisition for fifteen to write and give speeches across Northern Europe, Bruno Giordano Bruno returned to Italy. Within a year, the Inquisition started the seven-trial that would bring him to the stake on February 17, 1600, Ash Wednesday —a journey of Christian penance— of that year. His death at the stake at the Campo de’ Fiori became a big spectacle carefully set by Pope Clement VIII on a jubilee year for the Church.

Looking at the stars once in a while

The read of Lucretius had imprinted in both Bruno and Spinoza not only the beauty of all things and their interrelation but a relentless, dangerous quest of rational inquiry. The Holy Office destroyed all copies of Giordano Bruno’s books it could find, including his writings in the infamous Index of Forbidden Books.

Not long after, German astronomer Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei would recognize the influence of Bruno in astronomy and the new field they were not conscious of helping to lay out: modern physics. Works from Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were also added to the list.

As vaccines have ramped up and Covid receded in Rome, Italy, and the rest of Western Europe, the cafés aligned at the sides of the eclectic Campo de’ Fiori regain their affable activity, though still overwhelmingly visited by Romans as international tourism is still well below normal. As the sun of mid-October illuminates the patina of the old, rectangular square south of Piazza Navona, some unintelligible voices blend with the punctilious rhythm of a passer-by on high heels.

Spinoza’s “cherem”: Religious ban of Baruch Spinoza by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam (1656); Spinoza rejected the humanized, Abrahamic God worshiped by the prophetic religions; to him the soul wasn’t immortal either

At the center of the square, a statue erected in 1889 depicts Bruno on his Dominican cowl. He holds a book with both hands, determined to defend his ideas. The cosmological grandiose he had theorized, one of the other suns with their respective planets, is a portal to modernity and our relationship with things big and small. We may make time to sit by his side if only for a moment, celebrating our own grasp of “oceanic feeling” before returning to our parochial realities.

Pantheism, oceanic feeling and tranquility of mind

Are such experiences of an intuition of being in relation with all things in synchronicity with spritual states such as impermanence in the Presocratic Heraclitus, in the Stoics’ “ataraxia“, on in Dharmic concepts such as “Nirvana”?

The hint of impermanence and of a relation of all things gives us, thought Spinoza, a measure of “freedom,” or the ability to observe events, their effects and emotions as something transient and subjective. Attention should not be directed to reality’s micromanaging, but to obedience to one own’s virtue:

”From this third kind of knowledge [of attributes and essence of God] arises the highest possible mental acquiescence [peace of mind].” Ethica, V. Prop. XXVII.