- The Concept of Contraction in Giordano Bruno's Philosophy
Leo Catana's study on the noetic and ontological concept of contractio in the writings of Giordano Bruno is a highly erudite, specialized work of scholarship that is well conceived and constructed. He traces the sources for Bruno's understanding of how the mind ascends to knowledge of the Divine, and offers an in-depth analysis of Bruno's theory of the "heroic" mind, revealing its uniqueness, its links to the mnemonic and the mystical, and its central place to Bruno's philosophy as a whole.
Catana begins his book with a glossed list of the fifteen kinds of contraction in Bruno's mnemonic treatise, Sigillus sigillorum. By "contraction," Bruno is referring to the ways that certain religious and philosophical doctrines have claimed the mind can move from the individual to the One, from multiplicity to Unity. Psychological experiences such as faith, fear, desire, happiness, and sadness can be quite useful to the process of noetic ascent when guided by self-awareness and prudence; but, as Catana notes, Bruno seems to poke fun at certain physical, ascetic practices (such as merely sitting in solitude, restricting the use of sense organs, and fasting) and affective states (like a poet-lover's melancholy) that forcefully induce a kind of limited mental contraction. Ultimately, Bruno aims to show that the mind can be autonomous of the body and approach true knowledge on its own, through memory and through the focus of a Plotinian "twofold imagination." When the mind achieves contraction in this manner, it is superior and "heroic."
In considering which thinkers might have inspired Bruno to develop his ideas about the ideal mode of contraction, Catana argues that Bruno drew not merely from Cusa, as many scholars have believed, but rather that both Cusa's and Bruno's notions can be traced to the Liber de causis, and especially to Giles of Rome's commentary on this text. Furthermore, Ficino's commentary on Plotinus's Enneads might not have been as useful to Bruno as previously thought, if, in fact, Bruno gathered certain of his metaphysical notions (such as hypostasis) directly from the Liber. Catana, especially in his chapter "The Scholastic Tradition of Contraction," is bringing to the fore the presence of Aristotelian philosophy in Bruno's thought. He does this not in order to challenge the long-established reading of Bruno as anti-Aristotelian, but rather to show the Neoplatonic elements [End Page 833] with which the Liber de causis and various scholastic commentaries were infused, and which, he believes, Bruno would have found appealing, especially for building his mnemonic theories and linking them to the mind's ascent toward the Divine.
Of particular interest in Catana's study is how, through looking at Bruno's theories of individuation, reception, the World Soul, form, matter, substance, and coincidentia oppositorum, he points to the problematic nature of the relationship Bruno constructs between God and the universe. Catana does not attempt to explain or justify Bruno's conflations and inconsistencies on this topic, but rather uses them to help outline Bruno's ontology of contraction. As such, we come to see Bruno's "pantheistic philosophy" (47), in which a hylozoic matter — both as passive and active potentiality — in its dialectic with form is the principle in which opposites coincide, contraction happens, and the soul's assimilation into the Divine is ideally enacted through intellective, not affective, experience.
While Catana does not enter into the debate as to whether Bruno should be considered a "mystic," he does allow for what is mystical in Bruno's thought to be noted. In his conclusion he grants that Bruno (via the voice of Asclepius in the Spaccio) held that the Divine "cannot be experienced directly by human beings. It is accessible to him only inasmuch as it is contracted in living nature" (158). Catana does an excellent job making sense of the complexity inherent in many aspects of Bruno's metaphysics: for this readers of Bruno...