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Nicholas of Cusa

Nicholas of Cusa

The German prelate and humanist Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) was active in conciliating various schisms in the 15th-century Church and was a strong advocate of Church unity.

The son of a fairly prosperous boat owner and landholder, Nicholas was born in Cusa on the Moselle River. His early education was at Deventer under the Brothers of the Common Life, and he may have known Thomas à Kempis there. His university studies began at Heidelberg and continued at Padua, where he received a doctorate in canon law in 1423. After returning to his native Rhineland, he studied philosophy and theology at Cologne, where he also practiced law. In February 1432 he went to the Council of Basel.

The Council of Basel (1431-1449) had as its main subject the problem of Church unity and as its main task the avoidance of any repetitions of the Great Schism, which had recently split the Church. One suggested solution was the establishment of a supreme general council to oversee the papacy. At the beginning of his attendance at the council, Nicholas supported this plan (known as the conciliar movement). During the period from 1432 to 1434, Nicholas worked on, and submitted to the council, his famous political treatise, De concordantia Catholica, which deals with the problem of the respective roles of councils and popes in the government of the Church. This treatise supported the conciliar viewpoint of supremacy of the councils, but Nicholas eventually became disillusioned by the ineffectual committees working at the council and shifted his view to one of papal supremacy. In 1437 he began his services to Pope Eugene IV and his successors, as papal legate on various missions in Germany, as conciliator in the disputes between the Eastern and the Roman Churches, and as promoter of a crusade against the Turks.

In 1440 Nicholas completed his best-known work, De docta ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance). In it he shows himself as an early skeptic, holding that true wisdom lies in a clear awareness of the limitations of human knowledge. After 10 years in the service of Pope Eugene IV, Nicholas was made a cardinal by the dying pope, an appointment confirmed in 1448 by Pope Nicholas V. In 1450 he was appointed bishop of Brixen (Bressanone) in the Tirol, where he had the difficult task of reforming the churches and monasteries of the diocese, then under the strong secular influence of Archduke Sigismund of Hapsburg. Nicholas left the Tirol in 1458 to serve his friend Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the new Pope Pius II. Pius's proposals for papal reform reflect Cusa's own ideas concerning the role of the papacy.

Nicholas spent the remainder of his life in his reforming work in the churches of Bohemia. He died at Todi in Italy on Aug. 11, 1464.

Further Reading

An introduction to Nicholas's life and thought and English translations of several of his works are in Unity and Reform: Selected Writings of Nicholas of Cusa, edited by John Patrick Dolan (1962). There is no definitive biography in English, but Henry Bett, Nicholas of Cusa (1932), is a standard source. Paul E. Sigmund, Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (1963), is the best modern study in English. □

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Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464)

Nicholas of Cusa (14011464)

Humanist, papal legate, and scholar whose skeptical inquiries into the natural world broke new scientific and philosophical ground at the dawn of the Renaissance. Born Nicholas Krebs in the Moselle River valley, Nicholas of Cusa was schooled in a religious fraternity known as the Brothers of the Common Life. Although he trained in the law as a university student, Nicholas also attained a doctorate in the field of canon law from the University of Padua and finally decided on a career in the church. He attended the Council of Basel in 1432 and argued in favor of a general church council that would hold authority over the pope and the institution of the Papacy. To support his views, he wrote De Concordantia Catholica. The endless bickering and politics of church councils changed his opinion, however, and he later became a proponent of a supreme pontiff. He entered the service of Pope Eugene IV in 1437 and became a wide-ranging papal diplomat, who mediated disputes within the church and attempted to resolve the long-standing schism between the eastern and western branches of the faith. He also attempted to raise an alliance against the Ottoman Turks, who were threatening an invasion of Europe from their base in the Balkans, but found his efforts thwarted by the rivalries among Christian princes of Europe.

In 1440 he completed Of Learned Ignorance, a book that propounds the idea that humans can only have limited knowledge of the true state of the universe, and that their experience of God must come through a sense of the divine that has no relation to ordinary, rational thought and observation of the senses. Nicholas was ahead of his time in the subjects of mathematics, medicine, and astronomy, and held that the earth revolved about the sun well before the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus. His writings were known to Copernicus as well as Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler, and he was regarded as one of the true scientific geniuses of the fifteenth century. He also applied his knowledge in a practical way by inventing convex lenses to correct near-sightedness.

He was appointed a cardinal in 1448. Two years later he became the bishop of Brixen, in the Tyrol region of the Alps. Here his efforts to reform the church and its monasteries brought him into conflict with Sigismund, the Habsburg Duke of Austria, who had Nicholas briefly imprisoned, an act for which the pope excommunicated Sigismund. In 1458, Nicholas returned to Rome, where he joined the court of Pope Pius II.

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Nicholas of Cusa

Nicholas of Cusa (Nicolaus Cusanus), 1401?–1464, German humanist, scientist, statesman, and philosopher, from 1448 cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. The son of a fisherman, Nicholas was educated at Deventer, Heidelberg, Padua, Rome, and Cologne. He became bishop of Brixon (Bressanone) in 1450 and instituted widespread, though temporary, reforms of the monasteries. As papal legate he traveled throughout Europe preaching and negotiating diplomatic affairs for the Holy See. Nicholas' greatest achievements were in science and philosophy. His researches and writings formed major advances in Renaissance mathematics, astronomy, and mysticism. He held, before the time of Copernicus and Newton, that the nearly spherical earth revolves on its axis about the sun and that the stars are other worlds. He described the Gregorian calendar reform in detail, before it occurred. In mathematics Nicholas propounded significant concepts of the infinitesimal and contributed to modern relativity theory. His mystical religious philosophy was set forth in his essays De Docta Ignorantia [of learned ignorance] (1440, tr. 1954), De Conjuncturis Libri Duo, and De Visio Dei [vision of God] (1453, tr. 1928). It anticipated the direction of growth of Renaissance conjecture concerning the nature of man and his relationship to the cosmos.

See studies by M. Watanabe (1963); F. H. Burgevin (1969); and J. Hopkins (1986).

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Nicholas of Cusa

Nicholas of Cusa or Cusanus (c.1400–64). German Christian philosopher. He was made a cardinal and was briefly vicar-general of Rome. As a philosopher he was a late Neoplatonist, indebted to Meister Eckhart. The two fundamental principles of his thought are docta ignorantia (‘learned ignorance’—the furthest the human mind can reach) and the coincidentia oppositorum (‘coincidence of opposites’), which is found in God who is at once transcendent and immanent, the centre and circumference of the universe, the infinite and the infinitesimal, and therefore beyond the grasp of the human intellect. This position was defended in his most famous work, De Docta Ignorantia. He is often regarded as a precursor of the Renaissance.

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Cusa, Nicholas of

Nicholas of Cusa: see Nicholas of Cusa.

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