Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

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| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Vanini, Giulio Cesare

Born: Taurisano (1585)
Died: Toulouse (1619)
  • Francesco Paolo RaimondiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_379-1


With his restless spirit, feeling himself vested with the civil task of a profound political and cultural renewal of human beings and society, Vanini, at the dawn of the modern age, conducts a systematic demolition of Medieval and Renaissance theological learning from the perspective of radical rationalism, almost pre-Enlightenment, and paves the way for a refoundation of learning on the basis of the autonomy of reason and nature, with often subversive outcomes of the ethical and cultural values of the Christian tradition.


Human Knowledge Divine Origin Epistemic Ideal Introductory Page Divine Knowledge 
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Born in Taurisano (Lecce) between January 19 and 20, 1585, of Giovan Battista and Beatrice Lopez de Noguera, in 1603, Giulio Cesare Vanini took vows under the name of Gabriel in the Neapolitan convent of Carmine Maggiore; a few years later, on June 1, 1606, he graduated in civil and canon law at the College of Doctors, then joined to the Studium in Naples. After February 1610, he moved to Padua in order to attend the academic courses in Theology or perhaps in Artibus. But on January 28, 1612, his expectations were rudely interrupted by a severe disciplinary measure from the General of the Carmelite Order, Henry Silvio, which aimed at relegating him in a dark convent of Cilento. In association with his brother Giovanni Maria Ginocchio, Vanini preferred to escape to England, where perhaps he hoped to establish himself as a philosopher – theologian, critic of the principles of the Council of Trent. The escape route was carefully planned by the English Ambassador in Venice, Dudley Carleton, who entrusted him to the care of his friend John Chamberlain and placed him under the protection of the mighty Primate of England, George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, which gave him hospitality at Lambeth Palace after he arrived in London, on June 20, 1612. On July 8 of the same year, Vanini pronounced the abjuration of Catholicism in Mercers Chapel.

The difficult relation with Abbot induced Vanini to come into contact with the Catholic world again by means of the Spanish ambassador in London, Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, and the Nuncio of France, Roberto Ubaldini. In March of 1613, he had sent a memorial to Paul V, unfortunately lost, the contents of which are made known to us by a report from the Congregation of the Holy Office (Archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, S. O., Decrees, 1613, ff. 166 and 168). We thus know that with his brother Ginocchio, he asked the Pope for absolution in foro fori, to be released from the vows of the religion of Carmel and for the opportunity to wear secular clothing or priestly cassock. His proposals were examined by the Holy Office in its sessions on April 11 and August 22, 1613 (Decrees 1613 ff. 413–414), in which the Pope granted them pardon on condition of their spontaneously appearing and of formally renouncing of the Anglican religion.

Having become aware of his attempt to leave England, on February 2, 1614, Abbot placed Vanini under arrest first in Lambeth Palace and later (from February 14) in the Gatehouse. On February 15, 1614, he brought him to trial before the High Commission. From the minutes of the Second examination (Archives of the Archdiocese of Westminster, Series A, XII, no. 23 ff. 49–52), we learn that he was suspected of having had contacts with a few Catholics imprisoned in Newgate, to have charged with antitrinitarism and Arianism Calvinism and British Puritanism, and to be a miscreant because he left in his cell the books by Machiavelli and Pietro Aretino “super institutiones” (with obvious reference to the Prince in the case of the first and to The reasoning of the courts in the latter case).

Having escaped the Gatehouse with the support of the Spanish Ambassador and with the secret consent from King James I of England, Vanini goes to Ubaldini, asking to publish with the permission of the Congregation of the Holy Office the Apologia pro Concilio Tridentino, in 18 books, unfortunately lost. But the Church authorities show some interest, rather than in examining the text, in bringing the ex-apostate to Rome for trial before the court of the Holy Office. This is, in fact, the hint of the Apostolic Nuncio (letter of July 31, 1614, to the Roman Inquisitor, Giovanni Garzia Millini), and this is also the proposal of the Pope (decree of the Holy Office, dated August 28, 1614, Archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, SO, Decrees 1614, ff. 420–421). But Vanini is careful not to get to Rome and stops in Genoa, where he makes friends with Scipione Doria, who entrusts him with the task of teaching philosophy to his son Giacomo. On January 19, 1615, following the arrest of Ginocchio ordered by the Genoese inquisitor, he feels targeted by the Holy Office. He hastens to leave the Republic and goes to Lyon, where he publishes the Amphitheatrum.

After a further meeting with Ubaldini in July of 1615, he finally breaks the connection with the Nuncio and seeks protection and success in the milieu of kingly courts and in the libertine circles which proliferated in the French capital. Paris opens to him the doors of the coveted success and offers the protection of leading personalities such as Arthur D’Epinay de Saint-Luc, François de Bassompierre, Nicolas Brûlart, the Earl of Cramail, and lastly the Duke of Montmorency. Within this cultural milieu, Vanini was able to breathe the atmosphere of intellectual freedom which led him to editing the De admirandis reginae deaeque Mortalium arcanis, published by Adrien Perier on September 1, 1616. The book had an immediate succès de scandale, but just one month after publication, the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne intervened with a sentence (Archives Nationales de France, Reg MM 251, 1608–1633, f. 68). Forced to seek a safer refuge, Vanini moved in the strongly Catholic Toulouse under the protection of Cramail.

On February 9, 1619, by which time the normalization policy of Louis XIII could no longer tolerate the extremes of Vanini’s radicalism, Toulouse reserved him the tragic end of the stake. Arrested by the Capitouls Paul Virazel and Jean d’Olivier on August 2, 1618, and submitted to the Cour de Parlement, he was sentenced under the guise of Pomponio Usciglio, perhaps because the Court became convinced that the name Julius Caesar had been adopted by the philosopher in order to rise as a new Caesar, conqueror of Gaul to the word of atheism. On that same day in the Place du Salin, the executioner performed carefully the sentence: cut off the tongue of the condemned with pincers, hung him from the gallows, burned him on the stake, and, finally, scattered his mortal ashes to the wind.

Vanini’s Atheism Between Criticism of Tradition and Civil Engagement

The introductory pages of the Amphitheatrum and De admirandis lead us to suppose that the philosopher developed his own thinking in close correlation with his own historical time. The experience of living in London, in contact with the intransigence and the rigorism of the most extreme wing of English Puritanism, and the Parisian stay, which occurred during the most tragic years of the regency of the Queen Mother, who did not hesitate to unleash a bloody civil conflict, placed the Salentino face to face with the heavy moral, political, and religious crisis which gripped Europe in the early seventeenth century.

He identifies the roots of this European crisis in the cultural tradition of Christian theology of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which, subjected to critical investigation, appears to him interwoven with lies and deceit, fraud and falsehoods, and imposture and superstitions. Unlike other spirits of the time, who stick to the generic, deistic (e.g., the libertines), or irenistic formulas that remained, at any rate, within that tradition, Vanini arrives at a theoretical atheism, understood as a liberating and emancipatory philosophy, able to close a historical process and usher in a new set of values for the modern age. So he presents himself as an innovator, the bearer of a new philosophy marking discontinuity and a sharp break with the past. He is convinced that the battle for the liberation and emancipation of humanity can assume only the anti-historical function of demolition of the ideological-cultural heritage of the Christian West. In this attitude, which could be defined as pre-Enlightenment, we find the deepest motivation for that critical and destructive dimension of his thinking, often mentioned by its interpreters. The legacy of medieval and humanist-Renaissance ages crumbles shattered: he demolishes the myth of anthropocentrism; unhinges the principles of Christianized Platonism; shakes the pillars of concordistic Aristotelianism; dismantles the construction of a compact, finite, harmonized universe, having at its summit God and the choir of angelic Intelligences; crushes any form of teleology; discredits the myth of human supremacy among the living beings; shatters the most established principles of Christian ethics; and unmasks the illusions of magic and of astrology.

The dismantling of the cornerstones of Christianity is accompanied by a return to ancient times for at least two reasons. The first is that Vanini feels the need to reconnect modern atheism and the ancient approach (“Veteres philosophi […] ut qui illorum praesidio innituntur moderni athei,” Amph., 1615, p. n.n. 17). It is no coincidence that he mentions in the album atheorum especially thinkers such as Cicero, Protagoras, Diagoras, Diodorus of Sicily, Luciano, Pliny, and among the moderns, Machiavelli and Cardano. The second reason is that the ancient philosophy is the ground on which it is possible to recover the natural reason which Vanini identifies with Aristotelian pre-Christian ratio, not yet bridled by the chains of religious categories. It follows that his thinking takes a rationalistic and radical shape because it does not detract from the critical scrutiny of natural reason any domain or privileged object. Excluding any supernatural or metaphysical dimension, modern atheism coincides, according to Vanini, with the construction of a new learning based on the two pillars of the autonomy of reason and autonomy of nature. In this perspective, he assigns to himself and to the emerging new century a subversive function of civil and intellectual emancipation. The introductory pages of the Amphitheatrum and of De admirandis insist on a drastic reversal of values: the age of ideological conflicts resulting from the proliferation of sectarianisms and heresies, emerging from the crucible of the Reformation, is finally closed. The novelty that advances is a secretior philosophia, which coincides with atheism, represented by the metaphor of a lush vegetation that expands and invades the whole European world. The term secretior should not mislead: it has nothing to do with theosophical, platonizing, or neoplatonizing mysticism. The terminology of Platonic origin has in Vanini’s texts a mere function of coverage. Atheism is for Vanini the antidote to mysticism. It is secretior because, in order to escape the watchful censorship of the inquisitors, it disguises itself in the chiaroscuro of the technique of textual composition in which ambiguity and irony alternate with the mimetic game of simulation and dissimulation. In any case, Vanini’s key for understanding the modern world is quite clear: the age of the ideological predominance of religion, in his view, is superseded by a radical secularization process of political and social values. It is significant that in the nuncupatoria to Bassompierre he presents his talent as a sapling that, having grown up in the barren soil of traditional philosophy, was unlikely to produce significant results, but revived under the action of the turgid and vigorous seed (“protuberante, turgenteque semine”) of atheism; this allowed him to go beyond the goals of ancient philosophers and to overcome the difficulties of modern ones (“Veterum philosophorum metas transiliens et recentiorum obstacula superans,” De adm., 1616, p. nn 4).

But even more insightful are the pages of Dialogue i, where the new philosophy (i.e., atheism) is presented as a sudden light that hurts the eyes of those who have long lived in darkness (“Fit laesio repentina, illata luce ijs, qui diu in tenebris commorati sunt,” De adm., pp. 2–3). Even here the terminology is influenced by Platonic reminiscence, but in Vanini, it has connotations in the opposite direction, because darkness is metaphorically traditional learning, and the theme of sudden enlightenment suggests the idea of a philosophical turn destined to fundamentally alter the sensitivity of modern humanity. The metaphor of the light alludes to a Renovatio which nevertheless no longer has colorings of a religious character but coincides with liberation from the lies and the frauds of the Christian tradition (“fraudes detegere, figmenta patefacere,” De adm., pp. 369, 392, 442, 474). And the historical, moral, and civil task of the philosopher is to transmit at least one drop (“gutta”) of his own renewed learning to the younger generations (De adm., 1616, p. 3).

Vanini’s atheism is thus outlined on the basis of a new conception of humanity and the world. His universe is autonomous in its material composition and its constitutive principles of motion and rest. Vanini has in mind a mechanistic model; the world is understood, according to Lucretius, as a machina that has inside it and in the structure of its gears, not unlike those of a watch produced by German craftsmen, reliable and stable laws referring to an internal principle of movement. Just as materialistic and mechanistic is the model used to explain the functioning of living organisms, including humans. The physical and mental life of humans is in a symbiotic relationship with the natural and human environment. The psychological characteristics depend on the food, habits, social customs, and transmission of the seed. The physical and mental life of humans is entirely internal to nature and to society not only in the sense that it is their product, but also in the most radical sense that nature and society are the only horizon within which human life develops and dissolves with the exclusion of any other extranatural dimension. The reasons for concluding in favor of the mortality of the soul are more consistent and stronger than those in support of immortality. The life of the mind is rooted in the materiality of the body and in the mechanistic motion of vital and natural spirits. The soul itself is nothing but spiritus which coincides with aër because spiritus springs from spirare, which is the material act of breathing (De adm., p. 345).

The autonomy of reason and of nature is not real if it is not autonomy from the supernatural. Vanini severs at the root of the relationship between God and nature: he not only denies the creative act but also excludes the assistential, providentialistic, and teleological activity of a supernatural intelligence. God is not the ultimate aim of the universal order. Being autonomous, the cosmos is eternal and has no beginning and no end; it is not perfect, but it is, according to the famous paradox of Empedocles, perfectible precisely because of its imperfection. The Amphitheatrum is the text in which the most radical refutation of the idea of providence is conducted: in it all sorts of teleologism is rejected; there are no extraordinary interventions by divinity in the world, the distribution of good and evil is totally random, and miracles are either attributable to causae naturales or turn out to be frauds of priests and politicians; in the natural order, there is no trace of an intelligence or of an organizing will, as evidenced by the deformity studied by teratology. All is reduced to living and to vivifying matter, without hierarchies and degrees of reality, since the matter of which heavenly bodies and earthly ones are made is only one, down to the humblest such as the scarab. Life is the random effect of spontaneous generation. Human beings are no exception; strictly rooted in the animal kingdom, they are also a random and spontaneous production of matter: their past is on all fours and in their soul there is no trace of the divine imprint.

If God is not the ultimate aim, He is not even the first cause, neither in the sense of a free and contingent causality nor in the sense of a necessary causality. Vanini excludes, on the one side, Scotian voluntarism and contingentism and, on the other, Thomistic necessitarism. If God were a free cause, or an absolute will, or an infinite might that has no limits or obstacles to His power, He would compromise the order of nature, and vice versa if the natural order were preserved in its rigid regularity, God’s free and absolute power would remain, in fact, inactive and without effect. On the other hand, free causality coincides with contingent acting. But if God can act or not act, if He can be determined now in one way or another, this means that He is from time to time, now indeterminated and now determined and that in Him there is, as in us, the shift from indetermination to determination or the shift from one determination to another. But this implies imperfection and it is not compatible with the immutable essence of God. Nor is it possible that God is necessary causality, because otherwise the world would have been created from the time immemorial and would necessarily be co-eternal with God with the further consequence that the necessary causality would rule out human free will.

Vanini’s next step is dismantling the traditional evidence of God’s existence, from the cosmological a posteriori to the ontological a priori. The refutation of the ontological proof is not directed only against Anselmo, but also against Suarezian scholastic which had replaced the old question An sit Deus? with quid sit Deus? Vanini closely links the two questions of the theologian and shows how the response to the latter constitutes implicitly an answer to the former: defining the quid of divine essence means to emphasize its inner contradiction and thus the impossibility of its existence. The same fate obviously concerns cosmological evidence. Evidence ex motu or e pulchritudine universi is null and void. They all clash with the impossibility that the eternal and immutable entity is compatible with motion or with the novelty of Creation.

Of course, the athéisme de théorie does not fail to be accompanied by peaks of an irreverent nature which turn Vanini’s philosophy into a philosophy of unmasking: to expose the frauds and lies is its most subversive feature. Its privileged targets are the religions that, having originated from fear (Primos in orbe deos fecit timor, De adm., p. 366), belong to the world of the fiction. And Vanini’s weapon is derision, to the points of sarcasm, subtle irony, and the intention to demystify and desacralize everything. He does not save even the biblical text, equated to Aesop’s fables; indeed, he points out, not without a mischievous satisfaction, that no one has ever found its original. The Solomonic verses, far from being discoverers of divine wisdom, are lascivious, inelegant, devoid of any rational value just full of popular proverbs. The narration of the creation of the world by Moses is worthy of sponge and of coal; biblical resurrections are stories embellished fuco sanctitatis or are related to apparent death phenomena.

Human Knowledge and Divine Knowledge: The Antimetaphysical Structure

Vanini’s philosophical horizon is not only anti-theological, but it is also antimetaphysical. This means that he not only excludes the existence of a free and intelligent will but also the complex array of necessary and eternal essences of classical metaphysics. The test bench for the antimetaphysical battle is that of gnosiology or better of the opposition between human and divine knowledge. The instruments of human knowledge are ratio and experimentum, that is to say reason and sense. Reason is, as already mentioned, the ratio naturalis which is autonomous, anti-dogmatic, and critical; it is not of divine origin nor is it absolute and abstract; it is a flexible and malleable tool, able to capture the multiform variety of nature in its own becoming. Fitted entirely within the human and mundane horizon, reason is no longer opposed to sensitivity and to animal appetites. Nothing is more foreign to Vanini’s thinking than a speculative and contemplative, pure and passionless, activity. If the human mind were of divine origin – he writes – it should always think in terms of divine or at least human truths (“Si divina mens nostra est […] divina semper vel humana saltem vera cogitaret,” De adm., p. 491). On the contrary, according to Vanini, human rationality is concrete and follows the same procedures and techniques of argumentation and reasoning which in turn require material tools (“Materialia instrumenta ad ratiocinandum requiruntur.” De adm., p. 382). In order to avoid escaping towards metaphysics, Vanini states that rationality is inherent in the materiality of the body and in continuity with the animal instinct. Overturning the Stoic philosophy, which draws a sharp demarcation line between humans and animals, he brings back reason to instinct. What in us is called “reason” – he writes – coincides in animals with what we call “natural instinct” (“Quod in nobis vocatur ratio, in brutis naturae instinctus a nobis dicitur,” De adm., p. 343). In other words, ratio belongs to the scope of natural and animal reality. Whereas instinct guides animal life, reason guides human life. The only difference is that the former determines in brutes a univocal and repetitive behavior, while the latter gives humans a wider range of choices. But in both cases, these are behaviors which related solely to the environment, purely physical for animals and physical and cultural for humans.

Being natural, human rationality belongs to the time, because it is part of nature’s becoming; the eternal and absolute truths are precluded to it. Vanini rejects the Aristotelian concept of duality of the intellect, active and passive. Human knowledge does not depend on an intellect that intuitively grasps the intelligibles, but it depends on direct contact with the contingent order of nature. The intellectual intuition of the eternal essences is rejected because it does not have any impact on scientific knowledge. Scientific truths are for Vanini hard to conquer, because our theoretical faculties are discoursive and marked by subjective components such as assensus or dissensus, credulitas, fides, and consuetudines. Consequently, the scientia Dei is rejected, which, on the one hand, may not have access to the varietas of the natural world and, on the other, cannot be the cause of things, because in either case, it is incompatible with natural becoming. If the divine mind knew individual, changing, and contingent things, it would, like the human mind, be subject to change and error, and vice versa, if it had no knowledge of them, divine wisdom and divine power would suffer a restriction incompatible with the nature of divinity.

The logical principle, of Aristotelian derivation, from which Vanini moves, is that the nature of science depends on that of known objects. The object of science – he observes on the basis of Aristotelian posterioristics – cannot be of a different nature from that of the cognitive faculty. You cannot have any certain knowledge of what is inherently uncertain. Vanini uses this principle to draw a sort of demarcation line between the divine science and human science. Theology has done nothing other than transferring into the divine mind the intelligible essences of Aristotelian origin. Divine science is certain because it relates to necessary and universal essences but has as its counterpart the impossibility to incorporate as its own objects the individual and particular entities that are subject to becoming and changing. Not surprisingly Aristotle had said that if God were aware of those, He would be degraded. With a hint of radicalism, Vanini infers that God does not have knowledge of all things; rather of the individuals. He does not even have the knowledge of them which brutes have (Amph., p. 243).

Demolished theology, also the epistemic ideal of Aristotelianism that has its foundation in the science of the universal collapses. What is the use – Vanini notes – of knowing that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are “men” if you ignore the specific individuality whereby each one differs from the other? Essentialist metaphysics is inadequate to building scientific knowledge. The parameters of science should be redefined starting from the real conditions in which human knowledge is produced. For Vanini our intellectual faculty is operational and is constantly moving and constantly becoming something else, like all other natural beings. This means that his gnosiology is shaped in the subjectivistic sense: our intellect is not concerned with eternal truths that precede experience; we – writes the philosopher – are circumscribed within the limits of time and space; our knowledge changes with the changing of things; it does not have the stability of divine knowledge but moves from agreement to dissent, from truth to error or vice versa.

Vanini does not push his analysis to on the limits of phenomenalism or even worse of skepticism. Unlike the libertines, he is confident in science. The human intellect is indeed caught within the meshes of time, but it is also a conjectural and operational faculty, which, acting on the material provided by the senses, increases its knowledge indefinitely, just as in the process of indoctrination (Amph., pp. 138, 253), which produces organic accumulations of knowledge. But the basic problem is to determine what are the conditions for the certainty of human knowledge. And in this respect, he has in mind a change in the epistemological model of science, no longer anchored to the needs of universal essences, but to the necessity inherent in the causal relationship. The size of certainty in human knowledge is not precluded because natural order coincides with the causal chain that links events and things. The conjectural faculty is to predict the possible effects from present or past causes. In short, the necessity inherent to causal connection is a guarantee of order and knowability of the things and therefore also of the certainty of human knowledge (Amph., p. 131). In the light of this change in perspective, the continued insistence of the Salentino on the natural causes that take away from things or events the enamel of arcanum and of admirandum is explained. Removed from divine nature, causality, as a necessary and intrinsic connection to things, is lowered into the physical world; it is indeed a kind of its internal law or rule on which the certainty of human knowledge is based. The natural world is no longer subject to the whim or to the will or to the power of an external agent, but it is a self- sufficient order, governed by its own principles.

Unfortunately Vanini takes a step towards the foundation of modern science only in view of a purely theoretical frame, from which mathematics is absent which, however, constitutes its main tool. He is even less equipped at the level of experimental research, because his concept of experience is mostly equivalent to mere empirical observation. It follows that he conducts the identification of proximate causes with a good dose of approximation. This means that his scientific research remains in many ways conjectural; most of his results are fleeting and often, in the absence of an accurate identification of proximate causes, he is lost in a farraginous jumble of assumptions sometimes inadequate, sometimes even elementary and simplistic, sometimes perhaps excessively influenced by irreverent or subversive purposes. The exceptions are some brilliant insights in the field of biology which some scholars considered forerunners of Darwinism and which perhaps would fit more appropriately within the frame of a naive or primeval biological transformationism.

Politics and the Unmasking of Power. Secularized Ethics

The common thread of Vanini’s political thought is given by a Machiavellism widely contaminated by the theory of imposture derived from Lucian and by a strong challenge of the power of the courts of Aretinian origin. Therefore, in the hands of the Salentino, Machiavellianism is translated into a kind of useful tool to unmask the connection between religious power and political power. The task of the philosopher is to denounce the absolute arbitrariness of both; indeed, it is, more precisely, to reveal the intimate intertwining whereby the former appears to be the ideological support of the latter, both of which are based on a system of lies that affect civil and intellectual liberties which are vital for the free expression of art and science.

This explains the subversive nature of Vanini’s thought, who is obviously not interested in safeguarding or preserving the political-social order, but rather in its demolition through the demolition of the Leges. If the libertins érutits are aligned up on the ideological positions of the conservative bourgeoisie and if the libertinism of the poets that move in the entourage of Théophile de Viau feeds on the rebellion of the aristocratic classes and trespasses into forms of wickedness and unbelief mostly gratuitous and without theoretical consistency, Vanini theorizes a law of nature, which has a double meaning, ethical and political, and is alternative to religion and to historical-positive law.

Everything that moves away from the law of nature is arbitrary and is a violence perpetrated on men. The unmasking of power passes through a close confrontation between the divine government and the human government that are mirror images of each other, and both arbitrary. The emphasis is often on the theme of revenge. Both divine justice and human justice appear more like revenge than as fairness. The God of the Sacred Code (note the substitution of religious with legal terminology) is the avenger of crimes; the earthly judges are his ministers. Since he derives its power from a divine origin, the sovereign legitimates his own power to administer justice. The punitive actions of the earthly prince have immediate effect, those of divine justice postpone rewards and punishments to a fictional future life so that political-religious deception is not easily exposed (“ne fraus detegi possit,” De adm., p. 366) and helps perpetuate the status of slavery and psychological subjection of the people (Amph., pp. 82–83, 85–86; De adm., p. 366).

Removing from the power of the prince the material and spiritual foundation means for Vanini revealing its arbitrary nature. All power, whether divine or earthly, is arbitrary, not bound by any law, because the law is nothing more than the will of God or of the earthly prince itself. This means that any power, divine or human, everything is permissible: if God makes us all sinners, he does not act in violation of any rule, simply because he acts in accordance with his will (Amph., p. 103). The same applies to the earthly prince. But if power is arbitrary, it means that it is no longer of divine origin and is therefore questionable. What prevents people from rebelling is not the fear of divine punishment, but that of a violent and persecutory reaction from the prince. The philosophers themselves had to bow their head and take refuge in silence, spurred by the fear of public power. The example of Socrates was a warning to all. Aristotle left Athens to prevent a new crime against philosophy from being committed. The free expression of ideas is always opposed by the religious power; the books by Protagoras were burned in the public square, in a climate of intolerance not unlike that of the age of the Counter-Reformation (De adm, 1616, p. 367; Amph., p. 90).

Political power as much as religious power is based on cunning, on fiction, and on deception. Not even Christianity is free from them. The figure of Christ is drawn by Vanini according to the parameters of the fox-like cunning of Machiavellian mould: pretending to preserve or to complete the Jewish religion, Christ subverts its foundations and establishes in its place the Christian religion. Then, to protect it from the risk of inevitable corruption, he starts circulating the prophecy of the Antichrist. The new prophet, namely, behaves in the same way as a new prince: to consolidate his power, which in the initial phase is weaker, he uses cunning or weapons. Christ chose to found the Christian law, exposing and sacrificing himself to an ignominious death, so that his example was not attractive to other self-proclaimed Messiahs; Moses always carried weapons and sowed carnages and blood in his path. The religions, Mosaic and Christian, had a long life because of their link with the dominant power; Apollonius of Tyana founded a short-lived religion because he preached poverty and came into conflict with vested interests (De adm., pp. 357–359, 454).

But it is not enough to denounce that religions are based from the outset on deception and lies. The objective of Vanini is to emphasize that they also exert psychological tyranny. Deception – he notes – in order to be lasting must affect basic human needs and must relate to hopes and fears: only these exert a psychological, intellectual, and social tyranny over believers. This explains, therefore, how the action of the prince or of the prophet on the people is one of seduction and plagiarism (De adm, 1616, p. 453). The stratagem which they commonly use is to make people believe they have a direct and privileged relationship with divinity, so that the opposition to their power is immediately perceived as a violation of divine will. All acts of the prophet are intended to reinforce this belief. Political domination and priestly power, to perpetuate themselves over time, are formed so as not to be susceptible to challenge. To perpetuate the religion which he founded, the new prophet seeks to exert a cultural domination that extends beyond his death. The stratagem of resurrection or ascending to heaven is functional to this. Moses threw himself into an abyss so that the people believed him resurrected. So did Empedocles and the prophet Elijah. And the implication, not even so veiled, is that Christ did the same to consolidate the newly born “Christian slavery” (De adm, 1616, pp. 390, 361).

No positive religion, no historic civilization has an infinite lifespan: Vanini has a strong sense of the historicity of civil and religious institutions – cities, kingdoms, and religions are subject to the iron law of natural becoming. He tends to place strong emphasis on the natural law of generation and corruption of all things: “Omnia orta occidunt” – all that is born is bound to perish. Nothing lasts forever – values, customs, traditions, ways of thinking, beliefs, ethical rules, and civic and religious organizations – everything is swept away by the law of becoming. What was holier and more noble than the name of Jupiter according to the faith of the Gentiles? And what is the meaner and more execrable than this in the Christian faith? Kingdoms and religions are historical products: they are born, they grow, they reach the peak of their vitality, but then they begin their inexorable process of senescence and exhaustion. In the birth phase of the new religion, miracles abound, because the prophet wants to appear as the son of God or as an envoy, and then decrease steadily until they disappear altogether. Finally a religion replaces another. And since the world is eternal, rituals periodically return: the ones currently in force have been activated thousands of times and will come into force again, not according to the individual, but according to the species, i.e., not in the form of their individuality, but in that of their specific essence (De adm., pp. 386–389).

Radical and de-theologized is also Vanini’s ethics, which has a strong naturalistic inclination almost flattened in a medical-scientific or physiological investigation of human passions and affections, traced mostly to a mechanistic motion of the vital spirits. The most relevant data is that it is ethics autonomous from the metaphysical considerations, either from theological assumptions or religious evaluations. As in political thinking, the parameter of an ideal State is absent, in ethical thinking are the dimensions of the absolute absent. Moral behavior is seen only from a relativistic viewpoint in relation to the composite structure of the subject agent. Of course it is unprejudiced ethics in the dual sense that it is free from conditioning prejudices and unrelated to morals, and it is also an effort, a propensity, and a fight against any free prejudices that mortify natural human life. It is therefore primarily ethics liberated and emancipated from the connotation of sin, full of epicurean traits, strongly aimed at the evaluation of the pleasure.

In Vanini’s ethical reflection, sexual pleasure plays a central role, not least because it is what presides and ensures the perpetuation of the species. Life on earth would run the risk of becoming extinct if nature had not endowed us of the coupling instinct. Therefore, sexuality is freed from any negative connotation: sexual organs do not deserve the name pudenda, because they are authors and masters of reproduction: “procreationis magistrae […] et opifices” (De adm., p. 311). The Dialogue xlviii is a full and radical reevaluation of sexual pleasure, proposed as a sixth sense and a very sweet thing (“res dulcissima”) because it is a function of reproduction. Vanini’s ethical hedonism is far from taking spiritualistic veins: pleasure is not viewed as an affection of the soul, but of the compound, i.e., of the synolon, understood in line with Aristotelianism as a union of soul and body. Pleasure, therefore, cannot but have a bodily and material component.

This means that felicitas consists neither in the Averroistic copulation nor in a vision-contemplation of transcendent deity, it is rather an all-earthly felicitas which Vanini with caution projects in the rarefied celestial sphere of a Respublica in a sort of social-political, reversed utopia, where the negative values of the existing social model are overturned: “A Republic in which participation is without envy… all men want others to partake in what is there… because he who wants wants others to want the same things and makes sure that we also want what he wants” (Amph., p. 196).

And it is precisely on the subject of happiness or bliss, understood as the enjoyment of the highest good, that the claims of an ethics of religious origin collapse. Vanini, in fact, insists on the impossibility of a unification of finite and infinite. Only the infinite God can identify with himself as the infinite being. So only God can be blessed. Even more radical is the observation that the act can have an aim provided that the aim does not exceed the power of the operator. In other words, the purpose generally cannot exceed the material conditions of the actor. As the coach, which is the final term of the operation, does not exceed the potentialities of the carpenter, the aim of the will cannot transcend its potentialities. The human will does not immediately want the highest good, because it is taken with the desire of being. So if good is the being, our will desires the being, not because is devoid of it, but because it possesses it. We do not desire the being which we already are, but we want its preservation. Having embarked on this path, there is no supernatural finality. In fact, we do not desire God’s being, because those who desire, desire their own perfection. If we wanted God’s being, we would want our corruption and our destruction (Amph., pp. 189–196).


Primary Literature

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Classical LyceumLecceItaly