The signature of Bruno’s ideas in Toland’s Letters to Serena

Toland hadn’t finished upsetting the cosily-stacked Newtonian-Anglican applecart. In 1696 he had unearthed a copy of Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trifontane by the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) [known in English as The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast]. This book—Bruno’s most scathing attack on the Roman Church—had a huge influence on Toland. In it Bruno stated that God is the source of all change in matter which is in constant motion. Bruno also believed that the Sun was one of an infinite number of stars, and that life may exist elsewhere in the Universe. […]
The signature of Bruno’s ideas on motion and matter is evident throughout Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704). In Serena, matter is one, motion is inherent in matter, and no void exists. Toland’s matter is the “source of life itself” Toland’s matter is the source of life itself, whereas Newtonian matter is ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. 

Philip McGuinness “‘The Hue and Cry of Heresy’ John Toland, Isaac Newton & the Social Context of Scientists”, History Ireland, Volume 4 (Winter 1996), Issue 4, (online)

John Toland was, as this quote notes, influenced by Giordano Bruno. Bruno was burned at the stake for his beliefs on 17th February 1600, with Spaccio the only one of his works cited in his sentencing. Toland not only read Spaccio but wrote an account of the ideas, life and death of Bruno, drawing on a contemporary account of Bruno’s death in a letter written by Caspar Schoppe to Conrad Rittershausen, dated 17 February 1600

This account was called De genere, loco et tempore mortis Jordani Bruno Nolani (1709) and was also published after Toland’s death in A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr John Toland (London, 1726), I: 304-315 ( It is partially translated in Bartholomew Begley, “John Toland’s On the manner, place and time of the death of Giordano Bruno of Nola,” Journal of Early Modern Studies 3 (2014), 103-115 (

Toland send this work in manuscript to Leibniz in Hanover; Leibniz’s letter of thanks and criticism of Bruno can be found here. Dilwyn Knox notes in SEP that Leibniz had had an enthusiasm for Bruno in his younger days, which based on this letter had evaporated (though there is also the possibility he did not wish to reveal any interest to Toland). Toland was an early champion of Bruno, but Bruno only truly came to general attention in the latter half of the 18th century through F. H. Jacobi’s On the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn, dealing with the philosophy of Spinoza, another enthusiasm of Toland’s.

More on Bruno’s influence on Toland and Toland’s understanding of Newtonian physics can be read in History Ireland. There is a modern edition of Letters to Serena available, and also a digitised version of the 1704 original on

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.