Nicholas of Cusa 1401–1464 Philosopher, Theologian, and Reformer

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Nicholas of Cusa
Philosopher, theologian,
and reformer

Nicholas of Cusa (Nicolaus Cusanus) was a leading philosopher and religious reformer of the early Renaissance. From humble origins, he rose to great heights of power and influence. He wrote many treatises*, sermons, and works on political theory.

Early Efforts. Born in the town of Kues in the Moselle River valley, Nicholas studied at the universities of Heidelberg, Padua, and Cologne. He received degrees in church law, studied theology*, and became acquainted with the new humanist* learning. By 1432 Nicholas had become a priest and a successful lawyer. That year he presented a case before the Council of Basel on a matter of religious law. Although Nicholas lost the case, it inspired him to write a famous treatise on questions related to church structure and reform.

By 1437 Nicholas was working with Pope Eugenius IV to unite Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians. To advance this cause, Nicholas sailed to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire*. Later, Nicholas reported having an experience during the voyage that changed his view of the universe. It inspired him to try to explain how one might reach a truer knowledge of God.

Between 1438 and 1445 Nicholas often worked in Germany, trying to win the support of German princes* for the pope. During this period, he produced his first important philosophical work, On Learned Ignorance. In it, Nicholas wrote that individuals could only hope to understand God by going beyond human abilities. He also argued that the only way to find truth was through faith in the Word of God.

Cardinal and Bishop. In 1450, Nicholas became a cardinal of the church, and the pope sent him to discuss reforms with leaders of the Holy Roman Empire*. However, Nicholas found efforts at reform blocked at almost every turn. Two years later, Nicholas went to the city of Brixen as its new bishop. However, many people there resented having an outsider as bishop, especially one of low birth. They also resisted his efforts to impose religious reform. Nicholas carried on his reform struggle until 1457, when he sought refuge in a nearby castle. He remained there until called to Rome by the pope in 1458. Despite the resistance he encountered in Brixen, Nicholas continued to write. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 inspired him to write On the Peace of Faith, a tale in which various nations and religions achieved religious harmony.

On his return to Rome, Nicholas became involved in efforts by Pope Pius II to organize a crusade against the Ottoman Turks*, who had seized Constantinople. When the pope left Rome to seek support from various princes, Nicholas stayed behind as his representative and tried to reform the diocese* of Rome.

Nicholas returned to Brixen in 1460, but once again he had to flee to Italy. There he resumed his efforts to promote reform. Although his health began to fail, he remained an active writer and reformer. When the pope left Rome in the summer of 1464 in hopes of leading a crusade against the Turks, Nicholas remained behind to resolve some unfinished business. However, while traveling to join the crusaders, he fell ill and died.

(See alsoAstronomy; Christianity; Individualism; Philosophy; Religious Thought. )

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* Byzantine Empire

Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)

* prince

Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* diocese

geographical area under the authority of a bishop

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Nicholas of Cusa 1401–1464 Philosopher, Theologian, and Reformer

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