Bernardino Telesio

Bernardino Telesio
Bernardino Telesio

Bernardino Telesio, the Renaissance philosopher, was born at Cosenza, in Calabria, Italy. He studied philosophy, physics, and mathematics at the University of Padua, and received his doctorate in 1535. In Padua he became acquainted with the teaching of Aristotle and the two main Aristotelian schools, the Averroistic and the Alexandrist.

Following the trend of the time, he devoted himself especially to the study of nature; but far from accepting the Aristotelian doctrine, he reacted vigorously against it. Telesio pursued his literary activity mostly at Naples, where he was a guest of the Carafa family, and at Cosenza.

He enjoyed the friendship of several popes, and Gregory XIII invited him to Rome to expound his doctrine. He never engaged in any formal teaching, for he preferred to discuss his ideas in private conversations with friends.

Carafa family
Carafa family

Telesio is the author of the nine-book De Rerum Natura luxta Propria Principia (On the Nature of Things According to Their Principles; 1586) and of several philosophical opuscules.

He proposed to interpret nature by following the testimony of the senses, rather than to attempt an explanation through the “abstract and preconceived ideas” of the Aristotelians. Nature must be studied in itself and in its own principles, which are matter and the two active forces of heat and cold.

Matter is the passive, inert substratum of all physical change and is substantially the same everywhere. Unlike Aristotelian prime matter, which is pure potency, it is concrete and actual, and hence it can be directly perceived by the senses.

Aristotelians - Shell race queens

Heat and cold are the two opposing forces responsible for all natural events; the first is represented by sky and the second by earth. Heat is also the source of life in plants and animals, as well as the cause of biological operations and some of the lower psychological functions in man.

The whole of nature is animated and endowed with sensation in varying degrees (panpsychism). In addition to the vital principle there is present in man and animals “spirit,” a very subtle material substance that emanates from the warm element and is generated with the body.

Spirit is properly located in the brain and has the function of anticipating and receiving sense impressions. It has both an appetitive power and an intellective power of its own that correspond to the sensitive appetite and the cogitative power (vis cogitativa) of the Aristotelians.


Besides body and spirit, man has a mens, or anima superaddita, which is created by God and informs both body and spirit. This is roughly equivalent to the spiritual soul of Platonic-Augustinian tradition, whose operations transcend those of spirit and reach up to the divine.

Apart from the natural drive or instinct of self-preservation, which Telesio attributed to all beings—including inorganic matter—man can also strive after union with God and contemplate the divine.

This inner tendency of the mens, along with the need for proper sanctions in a future life in order to correct injustices, was one of the arguments used by Telesio to prove the immortality of the soul, which is known by revelation but can also be demonstrated by reason.


For Telesio self-preservation was man’s supreme good. Just as in man there is a twofold intellect, one pertaining to the spirit and the other to the soul, so also there is in him a twofold appetitive power.

The sensitive appetite tends toward temporal goods and its own preservation in this life; rational appetite or will tends toward immortal goods and its own preservation in a future, eternal life.

Virtues are powers or faculties that enable man to achieve self-preservation; they are not merely habits, as Aristotle taught. There are virtues of the spirit and virtues of the soul. Among the virtues, sublimity and wisdom occupy a high place. Sublimity is not merely a particular virtue but virtue as a whole.

knowledge of God
knowledge of God

It stands at the summit of all virtues and somehow includes all of them, for it directs all man’s operations toward his supreme good. Wisdom helps man to attain to the knowledge of God as creator of the universe and can reach out to the knowledge of the divine substance itself.

Although Telesio did not specifically treat the problem of God’s existence (it was beyond the scope of his study), he touched incidentally upon Aristotle’s argument from motion and criticized it on the ground that movement is an intrinsic property of heat, the first active principle of material beings.

Accordingly, there is no need for an extrinsic agent to set the bodies in motion. Besides, an immovable mover that sets the heavens in motion, as conceived by Aristotle, is a contradiction. The existence of God is better proved from the wonderful order of the universe, which can only be the work of a divine mind.

De Rerum Natura Telesio - I want all of them
De Rerum Natura Telesio

As evidenced by this summary exposition of Telesio’s thought, it would be wrong to call him a naturalistic philosopher, if the term naturalism is taken to mean a purely materialistic approach to reality. In his De Rerum Natura Telesio claimed to investigate the nature of things according to their intrinsic principles, and only incidentally spoke of their extrinsic causes.

He gave us a philosophy of nature along the general lines of Aristotle’s Physics, although from a different point of view and following a more scientific method; he did not intend to present a philosophy of reality as a whole.

Briefly, he discussed nature or the world as it is in its concrete reality, not as it came about or in reference to the end for which it was made. His approach to man, knowledge, and morality was on the same plane.

Ferdinand Carafa - Siva Aprilia
Ferdinand Carafa

One should not be surprised, then, to find in his De Rerum Natura no special treatment of God, the spiritual soul, man’s ultimate end, and other doctrines commonly held by Christian philosophers. His pertinent statements were nevertheless more than sufficient to show the personal convictions of their author.

Thus, in his dedicatory letter to Ferdinand Carafa, duke of Nocera, he wrote: “Our doctrine, far from contradicting the senses and Holy Scripture … so agrees with them that it seems to stem directly from these two sources.”

Telesio was called “the first of the moderns” by Francis Bacon, who claimed that Telesio was the first to raise the banner against Aristotle. This same phrase has been used in connection with Telesio by some modern historians of philosophy to indicate his revolt against the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. The truth is that Telesio was neither a mere critic of Aristotle nor an antagonist of the church, to which he always professed loyalty.

Galileo Galilei - stewardess
Galileo Galilei

His modernity consists, rather, in the emphasis he placed on sense experience in the study of nature, thus paving the way for the scientific method of Galileo Galilei and his followers and opening a path in philosophy that was soon to be followed by Tommaso Campanella, Bacon himself, and Thomas Hobbes. It must be admitted that Telesio often discussed scientific problems with a philosophical method.

The result was that his De Rerum Natura, a pioneering work of unquestionable value, was neither a scientific study nor a philosophical treatise, but a hybrid combination of science and philosophy not quite in agreement with the rigorous empirical method he professed to follow. This weakness in Telesio’s system was pointed out by his contemporary Francesco Patrizi, the Neoplatonist.

Francesco Patrizi
Francesco Patrizi
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