Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464)

views updated May 17 2018


The theologian, philosopher, and mathematician Nicholas of Cusa, also known as Nicholas Kryfts or Krebs, was born at Kues on the Moselle River between Trier and Koblenz. After attending the school of the Brothers of the Common Life in Deventer, Holland, he studied philosophy at Heidelberg (1416), canon law at Padua (14171423), and theology at Cologne (1425). Nicholas received a doctorate in canon law in 1423. About 1426 he gave legal assistance to Cardinal Orsini, papal legate to Germany. At about the same time began his lifelong interest in collecting classical and medieval manuscripts. Among his notable discoveries were twelve lost comedies of Plautus. He took an active part in the Council of Basel, first as a lawyer of Count von Manderscheid and later as a member of the deputation De Fide. Nicholas's De Concordantia Catholica, a vast program for reform of the church and the empire, supported the conciliar theory of the supremacy of the council over the pope. Later, disillusioned by the council's failure to reform the church, he abandoned the conciliar theory and supported the papal cause.

Nicholas carried out several missions for the pope in an effort to unify and reform the church. He was a member of the commission sent to Constantinople to negotiate with the Eastern church for reunion with Rome, which was temporarily effected at the Council of Florence (1439). In 1450 Nicholas was sent to Germany as a legate to carry out church reforms. He was created a cardinal in 1448 and appointed bishop of Brixen (Bressanone) in 1450. He died in Todi, Umbria.


According to Nicholas, a man is wise only if he is aware of the limits of the mind in knowing the truth. Knowledge is learned ignorance (docta ignorantia ). Endowed with a natural desire for truth, humans seek it through rational inquiry, which is a movement of the reason from something presupposed as certain to a conclusion that is still in doubt. Reasoning involves a relating or comparing of conclusion with premises. The greater the distance between them, the more difficult and uncertain is the conclusion. If the distance is infinite, the mind never reaches its goal, for there is no relation or proportion between the finite and infinite. Hence, the mind cannot know the infinite. The infinite is an absolute, and the absolute cannot be known by means of relations or comparisons.

Accordingly, the mind cannot comprehend the infinite God. By rational investigation we can draw ever nearer to him but cannot reach him. The case is the same with any truth, for every truth is an absolute, not admitting of degrees. Since reason proceeds by steps, relating conclusion to premises, it is relational and hence never arrives at absolute truth. According to Nicholas, "our intellect, which is not the truth, never grasps the truth with such precision that it could not be comprehended with infinitely greater precision" (De Docta Ignorantia I, 3). As a polygon inscribed in a circle increases in number of sides but never becomes a circle, so the mind approximates to truth but never coincides with it.

Thus, knowledge at best is conjecture (coniectura ). This is no mere guess or supposition that may or may not be true; it is an assertion that is true as far as it goes, although it does not completely measure up to its object. Reason is like an eye that looks at a face from different and even from opposite positions. Each view of the face is true, but it is partial and relative. No one view, nor all taken together, coincides with the face. Similarly, human reason knows a simple and indivisible truth piecemeal and through opposing views, with the result that it never adequately measures up to it.

The weakness of human reason was evident to Nicholas because its primary rule is the principle of noncontradiction, which states that contradictories cannot be simultaneously true of the same object. He insisted that there is a "coincidence of opposites" (coincidentia oppositorum ) in reality, especially in the infinite God. He criticized the Aristotelians for insisting on the principle of noncontradiction and stubbornly refusing to admit the compatibility of contradictories in reality. It takes almost a miracle, he complained, to get them to admit this; and yet without this admission the ascent of mystical theology is impossible.

Nicholas preferred the Neoplatonists to the Aristotelian philosophers because they recognized in humans a power of knowing superior to reason which they called intellect (intellectus ). This was a faculty of intuition or intelligence by which we rise above the principle of noncontradiction and see the unity and coincidence of opposites in reality. He found this faculty best described and most fruitfully cultivated by the Christian Neoplatonists, especially St. Augustine, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Anselm, the School of Chartres, St. Bonaventure, and Meister Eckhart. Following their tradition, he constantly strove to see unity and simplicity where the Aristotelians could see only plurality and contradiction. He frequently expressed his views in symbols and analogies, often mathematical in character, because the rational language of demonstration is appropriate to the processes of reason but not to the simple views of the intellect.


Nicholas was most concerned with showing the coincidence of opposites in God. God is the absolute maximum or infinite being, in the sense that he has the fullness of perfection. There is nothing outside him to oppose him or to limit him. He is the all. He is also the maximum, but not in the sense of the supreme degree in a series. As infinite being he does not enter into relation or proportion with finite beings. As the absolute, he excludes all degrees. If we say he is the maximum, we can also say he is the minimum. He is at once all extremes, the absolute maximum as well as the absolute minimum. In short, in God, the infinite being, all opposition is reconciled in perfect unity.

The coincidence of the maximum and minimum in infinity is illustrated by mathematical figures. For example, imagine a circle with a finite diameter. As the size of the circle is increased, the curvature of the circumference decreases. When the diameter is infinite, the circumference is an absolutely straight line. Thus, in infinity the maximum of straightness is identical with the minimum of curvature. Or, to put it another way, an infinite circle is identical with a straight line.

Nicholas offered several a priori proofs for the existence of the absolute maximum, or God. The first argued that the finite is inconceivable without the infinite. What is finite and limited has a beginning and an end, so that there must be a being to which it owes its existence and in which it will have its end. This being is either finite or infinite. If it is finite, then it has its beginning and end in another being. This leads either to an infinite series of actually existing finite beings, which is impossible, or to an infinite being which is the beginning and end of all finite beings. Consequently, it is absolutely necessary that there be an infinite being, or absolute maximum.

The second proof argued that the absolute truth about the absolute maximum can be stated in three propositions: It either is or is not. It is and it is not. It neither is nor is not. These exhaust all the possibilities, so that one of them must be the absolute truth. Hence there is an absolute truth, and this is what is meant by the absolute maximum.

As the absolute maximum, God contains all things; he is their "enfolding" (complicatio ). He is also their "unfolding" (explicatio ) because they come forth from him. Creatures add nothing to the divine reality; they are simply limited and partial appearances of it. As a face reproduces itself more or less perfectly in a number of mirrors, so God reflects himself in various ways in his creatures. In this case, however, there are no mirrors.

God transcends the universe but is also immanent in it, as a face is present in its mirrored images. Each creature is also present in every other, as each image exists in every other. Thus, as Anaxagoras said, everything is in everything else. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz recalled this doctrine of Nicholas's in his Monadology when showing that each monad mirrors every other.

Like all medieval Platonists, Nicholas upheld the reality of universal forms. According to him, the most universal of all created forms is the form of the universe, called the Soul of the World. This form embraces in its unity all lower forms, such as those of genera and species. These lower forms are "contractions" of the form of the universe; they are the universe existing in a limited way. They exist in the universe, and it in turn exists in a limited way in them. Individuals are further contractions of universal formsfor example, Socrates is a contraction of the form of humanity. The universe as a whole is a contraction of the infinite God. Thus, all things exist in a unified manner in the universe, and the universe in turn exists in the unity of God. Oppositions and contradictions that appear on the level of individuals and lower universal forms are reconciled in the unity of the universe and ultimately in the unity of God.


Since the universe mirrors God, it too must be a maximumnot the absolute maximum, to be sure, but the relative maximum, for it contains everything that exists except God. Nicholas denied that the universe is positively infinite; only God, in his view, could be described in these terms. But he asserted that the universe has no circumference and consequently that it is boundless or undetermineda revolutionary notion in cosmology. (See Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore, 1957.) Just as the universe has no circumference, said Nicholas, so it has no fixed center. The earth is not at the center of the universe, nor is it absolutely at rest. Like everything else it moves in space with a motion that is not absolute but is relative to the observer.

Nicholas of Cusa's cosmology in some respects broke with the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian cosmological views of the Middle Ages and anticipated those of modern times. He was above all concerned with denying the absolute oppositions in the world of Ptolemy and Aristotle. In Nicholas's world there was no center opposed to its circumference, no maximum movement of the spheres opposed to the fixity of Earth, no movement of bodies in absolutely opposed directions, such as up and down. Nicholas also denied that the heavenly bodies are composed of a substance different from that of sublunar bodies.

Nicholas extended his principle of the coincidence of opposites to religion. In his irenical work On the Peace of Faith, while maintaining the superiority of Christianity over other religions, he tried to reconcile their differences. Beneath their oppositions and contradictions he believed there is a fundamental unity and harmony, which, when it is recognized by all, will be the basis of universal peace.

In a century of social, political, and religious unrest, Nicholas revitalized Neoplatonism as the most effective answer to the needs of his time. His thought was firmly rooted in the philosophy of Proclus and Christian medieval Neoplatonism and was opposed to the Aristotelianism that had prevailed in western Europe since the thirteenth century. It was also highly original and expressed in a language abounding in symbolism and paradox. Nicholas of Cusa had many of the traits of the Renaissance person: love of classical antiquity, all-encompassing curiosity, optimism, cultivation of literary style, critical spirit, preoccupation with the individual, and love of mathematics and science. His works were widely read for several centuries, and they influenced the philosophy of the Renaissance and of early modern times.

See also Anaxagoras of Clazomenae; Anselm, St.; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Bonaventure, St.; Chartres, School of; Eckhart, Meister; Infinity in Theology and Metaphysics; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Medieval Philosophy; Neoplatonism; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Proclus; Pseudo-Dionysius; Renaissance; Socrates; Universals, A Historical Survey.


Nicholas's religious-political works are De Concordantia Catholica (14331434); De Pace Fidei (1453); and Cribratio Alchorani (1461).

His theological-philosophical works are De Docta Ignorantia and De Coniecturis (1440); De Deo Abscondito (1444); De Quaerendo Deum (1445); De Genesi (1447); Apologia Doctae Ignorantiae (1449); Idiotae Libri (containing De Sapientia, De Mente, and De Staticis Experimentis ; 1450); De Visione Dei (1453); De Beryllo (1458); De Possest (1460); Tetralogus de Non Aliud (1462); De Venatione Sapientiae (1463); De Ludo Globi (1463); and De Apice Theoriae (1463).

His mathematical-scientific works are De Staticis Experimentis (1450); De Transmutationibus Geometricis (1450); De Mathematicis Complementis (1453); and De Mathematica Perfectione (1458).

Editions of Nicholas's works are Opera (Basel, 1565); Opera, 3 vols. (Paris, 1514; reprinted Frankfurt am Main, 1962); Nicolaus von Cues, Texte seiner philosophischen Schriften, edited by A. Petzelt, Vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1949); Opera Omnia, 14 vols. (Leipzig and Hamburg, 19321959); and De Pace Fidei, edited by R. Klibansky and H. Bascour (London: Warburg Institute, 1956).

Translations include The Vision of God, translated by E. G. Salter (New York: Dutton, 1928); The Idiot, translated by W. R. Dennes (San Francisco, 1940); Of Learned Ignorance, translated by G. Heron (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1954); and Unity and Reform; Selected Writings of Nicholas de Cusa, edited by J. P. Dolan (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1962).

Literature on Nicholas includes P. Duhem, "Nicholas de Cues et Léonard de Vinci." in Études sur Léonard de Vinci, Vol. II (Paris: Hermann, 1909); E. Vansteenberghe, Le Cardinal Nicolas de Cues (Paris: Champion, 1920); P. Rotta, Il cardinale Nicolò di Cusa, la vita ed il pensiero (Milan: Società editrice, "Vita e pensiero," 1928); and Nicolò Cusano (Milan: Bocca, 1942); A. Posch, Die "Concordantia Catholica" des Nikolaus von Cusa (Paderborn, 1930); H. Bett, Nicholas of Cusa (London: Methuen, 1932); M. de Gandillac, La philosophie de Nicolas de Cues (Paris: Aubier, Éditions Montaigne, 1941); J. Koch, Nikolaus von Cues und seine Umwelt (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1948); P. Mennicken, Nikolaus von Kues (Trier: Cusanus-Verl, 1950); Étienne Gilson, Les métamorphoses de la cité de Dieu (Paris: J. Vrin, 1952); K. H. Volkmann-Schluck, Nicolaus Cusanus (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1957); E. Meuthen, Die letzten Jahre des Nikolaus von Kues (Cologne: Westdeutscher, 1958); G. Santinello, Il pensiero di Nicolò Cusano nella sua prospettiva estetica (Padua: Liviana, 1958); G. Heinz-Mohr, Unitas Christiana (Trier, 1958); E. Zellinger, Cusanus-Konkordanz (Munich: Hueber, 1960); P. E. Sigmund, Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963); and Ernst Cassirer, Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (Leipzig: Teubner, 1927), translated by Mario Domandi as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963).

See also Louis Dupre and Nancy Hudson, "Nicholas of Cusa," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003); Jasper Hopkins, "Nicholas of Cusa (14011464): First Modern Philosopher?" Midwest Studies in Philosophy (26[2002]: 1329; John Longeway, "Nicolas of Cusa and Man's Knowledge of God," Philosophy Research Archives (13[19871988]: 289313.

Armand A. Maurer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

Nicholas of Cusa

views updated May 17 2018


Cardinal and bishop of Brixen (Bressanone, Italy), ecclesiastical politician, philosopher, theologian, and mathematician, also known as Cusanus; b. Kues (Lat. Cusa), part of the town Bernkastel-Kues on the Moselle, Diocese of Treves (Trier), Germany, 1401; d. Todi in Umbria, Italy, Aug. 11, 1464.

Life. After studies at Heidelberg and Padua, Cusanus took the doctorate in Canon Law in 1423. He probably taught for a few years at the University of Cologne after 1425, and in 1428 and 1435 refused calls made upon him by the recently founded University of Louvain. His period of greatness began in 1432, when he went to the Council of basel to defend the claims of Ulrich of Manderscheid to the archdiocesan See of Trier against Bishop Raban of Speyer, who was named to the see by the pope. Although he lost the case, the publication of his work on ecclesiastical law, De concordantia catholica, in which he supported the superiority of the general council over the pope, caused him to become one of the most respected members of the council. In the course of the year, relations between eugene iv and the council became worse. Finally a break came over the question of a site for a proposed council for reunion with the Greeks. One of the presidents, Cardinal Giuliano cesarini, led a minority group, which included Nicholas, in endorsing the pope's choice of a place in Italy; when Eugene moved the council to ferrara, Cusa left Basel. His leaving the conciliar radicals and joining forces with the pope was a decisive point in his life. It was not, as many of his former friends claimed, a change of party based on convenience, but rather a genuine change of attitude stemming from his newly acquired understanding that the unity of the Church could be guaranteed only by the papacy.

In the winter of 143738, he was a member of the papal legation to Constantinople to win the Greek emperor and the hierarchy of the Greek Church over to the papal plan and to bring them to Italy. From the early summer of 1438 on, he worked so indefatigably in Germany for the cause of Pope Eugene at meetings with emperors and princesuntil the concluding of the Vienna Concordat (1448)that A. S. Piccolomini, later pius ii, referred to him as the "Hercules among Eugene's followers." In acknowledgment of his great services, Eugene's successor, nicholas v, created Cusa a cardinal. In March 1450, the pope gave him (in disregard of the recently concluded concordat) the Diocese of Brixen, and himself consecrated Cusa, who had become a priest between 1436 and Oct. 11, 1440.

Toward the end of the Jubilee Year, the pope made him his legate to Germany with a threefold task: to invigorate the religious life of the people by preaching the Jubilee indulgence; to reform the religious and diocesan clergy; and to work for peace. This official journey, lasting from Dec. 30, 1450, to March 1452, was the high point of Cusa's life. The legate visited many cities and cloisters in a circle tour of Vienna, Magdeburg, Haarlem, and Trier, preached often to clergy and laity, held provincial and diocesan synods at which he published his reform decrees, made visitations, and disposed

authoritatively of questions placed before him. Utilizing competent coworkers, he conducted his journey as a gigantic parish mission (cf. J. Koch, Nikolaus von Cues und seine Umwelt, Heidelberg 1948, 116148).

Around Easter, 1452, he took over his diocese, and he held office until his death. During the five years he actually reigned, he not only established the finances and holdings of the diocese on a sound basis, but strove to make it a model diocese through such measures as frequent episcopal sermons, diocesan synods, and visitations of parishes and cloisters. If he met opposition here, he encountered even more when he attempted to regain his land rights as a prince, in accordance with the medieval practice. Since Duke Sigmund of Austria, who as Count of Tyrol was protector of the Church in Brixen, would allow no encroachment on his own property rights, a conflict ensued, and the cardinal was eventually defeated. Fearing that the duke intended to kill him, Cusa fled from the episcopal city in June 1457 and took refuge in the fortress of Buchenstein in the Dolomites. In the fall of 1458 he left his diocese altogether. His attempt to return after the Congress of Mantua (1459) ended, after the duke's short siege of Cusa's castle at Bruneck in the Puster valley, with Cusa's promise to meet all his adversary's demands. Pius II regarded the actions against the cardinal as an insult to the Holy See and began ecclesiastical proceedings against Sigmund. Since the latter would not relent, he was excommunicated and the province of Tyrol placed under interdict. Only after the death of Cusa and that of his papal benefactor was the long and bitter feud terminated and the papal censure finally removed.

The last years of the cardinal, however, were by no means solely occupied by this unfortunate strife, for the pope assigned him many important tasks. Without enumerating these, one may say that Nicholas was an influential adviser of Pius II. Nicholas's body was buried in his titular church of St. Peter in Chains, but his heart reposes in the hospital for the poor that he, his father, and sister built in his native Kues. According to a letter to the archbishop of Trier (Brixen, Dec. 14, 1453), in which he made known his intention to give to the poor whatever God gave him, he used the income from his benefices toward the hospital's construction, completed in 1458 (deed for the foundation: Rome, Dec. 3, 1458). Whereas much that the cardinal wrote and accomplished was short-lived, this institution endures to the present. Since the hospital contains his library, which is still priceless despite the losses it has suffered, it is a center for scholarly research.

Works. It is amazing that with all his extraordinary activity in ecclesiastical affairs Nicholas still found time to write. He had the singular gift of being able to concentrate on the tasks that confronted him and yet to be completely relaxed in his leisure, reading the Fathers, as well as contemplating philosophical, theological, and mathematical problemsoften writing down his solutions with remarkable facility. Only his most important works can be mentioned here. On Feb. 12, 1440, in Kues, he finished his first philosophical work, De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance). This document presupposes the Christian faith and proposes to show that man's knowledge of God is only ignorance. His second work, which was purely philosophical and was written about 1442, examines the extent of possible knowledge for man and is entitled De coniecturis. Since in his view an exact concept of truth is not possible for man, Nicholas calls every positive statement about truth "conjecture." In the summer vacation of 1450, Nicholas wrote four dialogues under the general title of Idiota including De sapientia (2 books), De mente, and De staticis experimentis and two mathematical treatises. The fall of Constantinople (1453) inspired him to write the religious treatise De pace fidei, and in his involuntary retreat in the castle at Buchenstein (145758) he wrote an essay concerning the problems of human knowledge, De beryllo. The works penned in Rome in the last years of his lifeDe non aliud (1462), De venatione sapientiae (1463), De ludo globi (1464), and De apice theoriae (1464)reflect, for the most part, conversations in the household circle of his friends and young associates. In addition to these there are approximately 300 (mostly dated) sermon outlines and notes (143059). (See index by J. Koch, Cusanus Texte I. Predigten 7. Heidelberg 1942, 48194.) Separately handed down are the sermon the cardinal gave on June 5, 1463, at the investiture in the Benedictine convent at Monte Oliveto (Umbria, Italy), and the moving letter he wrote a few days later to the novices (G. von Bredow, "Das Vermächtnis des Nikolaus von Kues," Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Heidelberg 1955, 2 Abh.).

Thought. Nicholas's writings are, in their entire approach, non-scholastic; thus he cannot be located in any theological school of his time. He relies on the Neoplatonic Christian tradition, which originated with proclus and pseudo-dionysius, and came down by way of john scotus erigena and the School of Chartres to Meister eckhart, without identifying himself with any school. Nicholas rejects the scholastic method of questions, arguments pro and con, etc., and develops a new style of philosophical essay. This itself is the expression of Cusa's firm conviction that all human knowledge is inaccurate and that truth can be attained only by "infinitely many steps." The medieval ideal of the Summa, in which each question and answer has its determined place, no longer exists for him. A factor that played a decisive role in Cusa's mathematical as well as his philosophical essays was the ideawhich occurred to him on his voyage from Constantinople to Venice (143738) and seemed to him like a "gift from above"that contradictions will be resolved in infinity (coincidentia oppositorum ). With the aid of this principle he believed that he, though a mathematical dilettante, could solve the twofold problem of the quadrature of the circle and the transformation of a circular arc into its length by simple construction.

Learned Ignorance. The discovery of this principle, above all, led him to his new method of "learned ignorance." Nicholas developed this first in the light of man's knowledge of God. He began with the Neoplatonic concept of God as an absolute unity. He preferred this concept to others, because the notion of the Triune is the fundamental concept of Christian theology. Absolute unity is infinite. Since no relationship between the infinite and the finite permits a comparison, and man's discursive thinking depends upon comparison, God is inaccessible to such thought. Is God so remote from man's knowledge that all statements made by Christian philosophers and theologians about Him are empty of content? According to the teaching of St. thomas aquinas, the analogy of being furnishes concepts that help man overcome the infinite chasm that separates him from God. This method Nicholas did not adopt as his own, because he did not accept its supposition, viz, the philosophy of being.

The method Cusa developed was a method of investigation through symbols (symbolice investigare ). A symbol by its very nature relates to something it symbolizes. It does not represent a concept, but rather an image. Where does one get symbols? Nicholas answers: The human intellect either conceives symbols in itself or it creates them. An object is known to be as it is only when it owes its existence to the human intellect. It is for this reason that Nicholas chooses his first symbols from geometry. From a given straight line, a triangle, a circle, and a sphere are "unfolded." These are already contained potentially within the line itself. Thereupon, Nicholas asks one to make a double transcendence, i.e., a double venture beyond the finite. With the first step he arrives at the infinite straight linethere is only onethat does not contain within itself a potentiality for triangle, circle, and sphere, but rather, simultaneously, is really infinite triangle, infinite circle, and infinite sphere. This infinite geometric formulation is not only unimaginable but also beyond rationality, since the contradictions, straight and curved, are resolved in it (coincidentia oppositorum ). In the second transcendence one must abstract from all quantity and raise himself to the absolute, simple infinity of God. He stays with this in "ignorance," but it is "learned ignorance," because, in symbols, one somehow touches God's infinity. It is as if he sees through a mirror darkly (1 Cor 13.12). The symbol points out that God's infinity in this way is unity, a unity that is simultaneously absolute fullness and that contains within itself implicitly (complicite ) all opposites in absolute simplicity. Yet, in his De coniecturis, Cusa changed this doctrine by holding that God is infinitely above the coincidence of opposites.

The Cosmos. Although Cusa's development of geometric symbols is open to criticism [see M. Feigl, Divus Thomas 22 (1944) 321338], symbolic theology, to which Nicholas devoted much thought to the end, is itself worthy of study. Especially profound and penetrating is the insight contained in De ludo globi. When God created the world He "unfolded" Himself, but in otherness, in such a way that all creatures are somehow images of God, although they have only a "contracted" being. The universe participates in God's infinity insofar as it has no given limits in space and time. It is also a unity, although not an absolute unity like God, but rather a contracted one that contains a potentially infinite variety and differentiation that is all implicitly within it. The "self-unfolding" of the universe can be seen in two ways. First, it develops step by step. This idea of a stepwise, hierarchical cosmos Nicholas could have taken from tradition. What was new was the thought, which G. W. leibniz was later to systematize, that all steps are so connected with each other that the world displays an uninterrupted continuity from the least elements to the highest spirits. The second consideration begins with the idea that everything that really exits is individually determined. If the universe is evidenced in the individual, the latter is similarly representative of the universe.

Nicholas breaks fundamentally, as one can see, with the ancient and medieval concept of the world. If the universe is infinite in space, then it has no immovable center. Earth is a planet among planets and not inferior to the others. It has a special place in that it is the habitat of man, whose nature is more perfect than that of other inhabitants of the visible world.

Man. Human nature is a world in miniature, a micro-cosmosan idea first expressed in Greek natural philosophy. Nicholas, however, went further, speaking of man as a "human god" and a "second god." This is not for him the expression of a proud Renaissance consciousness, but rather the interpretation of the words God used to create man according to His own image (Gn 1.27). Nicholas sees this likeness above all in the creative power of the human intellect. Just as God is the Creator of the real world, so is man not only the creator of his world of concepts (including mathematical concept), but also the inventor of many things for which he does not find a pattern in nature but only in his own intellect. Also, in this regard, he is like the Creator who encompasses all things within Himself. Man is finally like God in that he possesses freedom of will, although unlike God in that this freedom includes the possibility of choosing evil. Man can make of himself an angel or a beast; both are contained potentially in human nature. His moral responsibility is to develop within himself a likeness to the triune God.

Other Contributions. Nicholas was a universal thinker who illuminated and contributed to many areas of scientific endeavor without being a specialist in these fields. His contributions to astronomy and mathematics were significant. Through his "thought experiments" with the balance, he earned himself a place in the history of scientific methodology. The first geographical map of central Europe was inspired by him. So, too, can the first catechetical chart in the German language be traced to him. Above all he was an important legal historian who recognized the illegality of the donation of constantine and the Pseudo-Isidorian decrees; he wished to have the ancient sources of Germanic law compiled in a unified German law, and he was able to support his claims for the restoration of his rights as a prince-landowner through an exact knowledge of the documents in his episcopal archives concerning the development of the territory of the Church in Brixen. His all-embracing spirit set as a lifetime goal the reestablishing of a complete harmony in everything, but this grand scheme was destined to remain an unaccomplished ideal.

See Also: renaissance philosophy.

Bibliography: Works. Opera, ed. j. faber (Paris 1514: reprint Basel 1565), first, almost complete edition; Opera omnia, ed. e. hoffmann and r. klibansky, 14 v. (Leipzig 1932-), new critical edition; Schriften des Nikolaus von Cues in deutscher Überseizung, ed. e. hoffmann (Philosophischen Bibliothek: Leipzig 1936-). The Vision of God, tr. e. gurney-salter (New York 1928). Oeuvres choisies de Nicolas de Cues, tr. m. p. de gandillac (Paris 1942). Literature. f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy 2. É. h. gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. p. rotta, Enciclopedia filosofica 1:1379-84. e. vansteenberghe, Le Cardinal Nicolas de Cues (Paris 1920). h. bett, Nicholas of Cusa (London 1932). e. meuthen, Die letzten Jahre des Nikolaus von Kues (Cologne 1958). p. mennicken, Nikolaus von Kues (Leipzig 1932). m. p. de gandillac, La Philosophie de Nicolas de Cues (Paris 1941), Ger. Nikolaus von Cues: Studien zu senier Philosophie und Philosophischen Weltanschauung (Düsseldorf 1953). p. e. sigmund, Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (Cambridge, MA 1963). v. martin, "The Dialectic Process in the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa," Laval Théologique et Philosophique 5 (1949) 213268. e. meuthen, Das Trierer Schisma von 1430 auf dem Basler Konzil. Zur Lebensgeschichte des Nikolaus von Kues (Buchreihe der Cusanus-Gesellschaft, ed. j. koch and r. haubst, 1; Münster 1964). Mitteilungen und Forschungsberichte der Cusanus-Gesellschaft, v.1 (Münster 1961-), v.1 contains good Cusanus-Bibliographie, suppls. in succeeding vols.

[j. koch]

Nicholas of Cusa

views updated May 14 2018


NICHOLAS OF CUSA (14011464), German canonist, Christian theologian, and philosopher. Nicholas was born at Kues (present-day Bernkastel-Kues) on the Moselle, and studied at Heidelberg, Padua, and Cologne. At the Council of Basel, with his treatise De concordantia catholica (1434), he defended conciliar authority over the pope and proposed extensive reforms consistent with this position. He later converted to the cause of the papacy. As papal legate he traveled to Constantinople to promote Christian reunification (1437), and as cardinal and bishop of Brixen, he worked throughout Germany and Bohemia on behalf of papal authority and ecclesiastical reform. During his last years in Rome, Nicholas lived simply, having used much of his income to establish the Saint Nikolas Hospital in Kues, which still contains his large personal library.

Amid this active life Nicholas wrote numerous speculative works, beginning with De docta ignorantia (Learned Ignorance; 1440). He accords intellect a central role in the religious life, and emphasizes the desire to know God. All inquiry requires a "proportion" between the known and the as yet unknown, but there is no proportion between the infinity of God and the finite human intellect. Knowledge of God therefore becomes "learned ignorance," that is, the knowledge that one cannot know God precisely in the divine nature, but only symbolically through God's self-revelation in the universe and in Christ, who unites finite humanity and divine infinity. Nicholas correlates learned ignorance with "conjecture" (De coniecturis, 14421443). More than mere guesswork, conjecture approximates truth in limited, indirect ways. Nicholas's conjectures include many metaphors, mathematical symbols, and attempts to name God (e.g., as Absolute Maximum; as Possest, or the union of possibility and actual being; and as Not-other). Nicholas uses a distinctive logic, the "coincidence of opposites," which points beyond the contrasts of finite reason toward the infinite unity of God. The ability to formulate this logic indicates that the mind, while finite, nevertheless conceives of divine infinity and approaches it without limit. In Idiota de mente (The Layman: About Mind; 1450) Nicholas claims that the mind is a living image of God that "has the power of corresponding more and more without limit to its unreachable original." Participating in God's creative activity, humanity also creates a cultural world. This human world provides examples for Nicholas's art of conjecture, for example in his De ludo globi (1463), in which a ball game becomes the focus for theological speculation.

Nicholas's tolerance of religious diversity emerges in two works written in response to the Turkish conquest of Constantinople. De pace fidei (The Peace of Faith; 1453) recognizes the conjectural truth of all religions, yet sees their fulfillment in Christianity. Cribratio Alcoran (Sifting the Qurʾān; 1461) is perhaps the most tolerant examination of Islam in the late medieval West.

In controversies over conciliarism, theology, and Islam, Nicholas of Cusa is an original, even idiosyncratic, thinker. The roots of his thought run deep in the medieval world, particularly in the Christian Neoplatonic tradition. His works were widely circulated in four early printed editions. He influenced Giordano Bruno, through whom Leibniz and other German thinkers encountered Nicholas's ideas. Commentators like Ernst Cassirer have viewed Nicholas as the first modern philosopher because of his novel epistemology and cosmology. While claims for Nicholas's modernity should be tempered, his learned ignorance, conjectural theology, and religious tolerance do address persistent problems of religious knowledge and practice.


The critical edition of Nicholas of Cusa's Opera omnia (Leipzig and Hamburg, 1932) is in progress under the direction of the Heidelberg Academy. There is also a more accessible edition of the Latin text, with German translation: Philosophische-Theologische Schriften (Vienna, 19641967; 3d edition, 1989). English translations include Paul E. Sigmund's The Catholic Concordance (Cambridge, 1991), H. Lawrence Bond's Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings (New York, 1997), and Jasper Hopkins's Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Nicholas Cusa, 2 vols. (Minneapolis, Minn., 2001). Perceptive studies are Paline M. Watt's Nicolaus Cusanus: A Fifteenth-century Vision of Man (Leiden, 1982), James E. Biechler's The Religious Language of Nicholas of Cusa (Missoula, Mont., 1975), Clyde Lee Miller's Reading Cusanus (Washington, D. C., 2003), and the essays edited by Gerald Christianson and Thomas M. Izbicki in Nicholas of Cusa on Christ and the Church (Leiden, 1996).

Donald F. Duclow (1987 and 2005)

Nicholas of Cusa

views updated May 29 2018

Nicholas of Cusa


German Philosopher, Mathematician, Astronomer, and Futurist

Nicholas Cryfts (or Krebs), known as Nicholas of Cusa (the German city Cues or Kues, his birthplace), was one of the first great polymathic (learned in many areas) minds of the early Renaissance, and one of the first "Renaissance men" with all the spirit implied in the title. Cleric, statesman, philosopher of seminal humanism, mathematician, astronomer, and futurist, Nicholas's early schooling included the universities of Heidelberg, Padua, and Bologna (1416-1423). Although he studied law for a short time, he turned to the clerical life with a move to theology at the University of Cologne (1425). Then followed diplomatic and administrative duties on behalf of the church, which led to his being honored with the designation cardinal priest (1449) by Pope Nicholas V, although he declined at first.

Nicholas of Cusa had begun formulating a theory of knowledge based on his premise of the incompleteness of humanity's knowledge of the universe. In regard to this, and having both the nominalist's and mystic's distrust of realism, he rejected the entrenched late medieval scholasticism with its dependence on Aristotelian method as a proper baseline. Instead he defined three stages to knowledge: phantasy (fantasy, meaning of the senses), reason (abstraction and discursive knowledge), and intellect (what he called mystical or ultimate knowledge found in the only perfect reality, that is, from God).

By 1439, Nicholas completed the first of his twelve philosophical/scientific treatises in which he underlined the limits of human understanding of science (defined generally as knowledge) and also the means to surpass those limits. This was the famous De docta ignorantia (On learned ignorance) wherein the knowledge of intellect can reconcile the differences in the states of finite and infinite, called "the coincidence of opposites." He used the squaring of the circle as an example: a square circumscribed or bounded by a circle will, if the number of sides are increased toward infinity, approach the shape of the circle. In other words, a line and a segment of a circle almost become the same (coincidence of opposites)—but not quite. The latter provided a philosophical and metaphysical aspect to the example as well. Through intellect, humanity can approach perfect wisdom but can never achieve it. The obvious mathematical parallel to the example provides seminal concepts in the study of infinity and infinitesimal theory.

This treatise also contained his early ideas on the cosmos, particularly his intuitive idea that logic was better served with the earth revolving around the sun and not being the center of the universe. This idea was probably based on Paris School physical theorist Nicole Oresme (c. 1320-1382). He also decided that the stars were other suns (although, he also defined the earth as a star) and that other habitable worlds like earth orbited them. He anticipated the question of the infinity of the universe, calling it unbounded but perhaps not spatially infinite. Another of his treatises (1436) foretold the need for calendar reform that came to pass with the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582. About 1444 he began more serious instrumental astronomical study. He improved on the earlier medieval Alphonsine Tables with a more practical method of finding positions of the sun, moon, and planets. A small scientific treatise Idiota de staticis experimentis (Static experiments) is important in physical statics and meteorology with regard to Nicholas's observations and experiments dealing with objects absorbing moisture and gaining weight and using that as a measure of atmospheric humidity.

Nicholas's intellectual pursuits were tempered by his duties as a papal legate. In 1460 he ran afoul of the unscrupulous Duke Sigmund of Austria and the Tyrol with regard to church authority. He was imprisoned by the Duke and illtreated to the point that he never fully recovered. On his way to Pope Pius II in 1464, he died at Todi in Italy, but he left behind the gifts of a hospital (at Cues), his extensive library, and his scholarly achievements, all of which are still in use to this day.


Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464)

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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.

Nicholas of Cusa

views updated Jun 08 2018

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. □

Nicholas of Cusa

views updated May 29 2018

Nicholas of Cusa


German Mathematician and Philosopher

Nicholas of Cusa is a figure difficult to assess within the context of mathematics. Certainly he wrote extensively about the subject, in particular on the properties of circles, but it is primarily as a philosopher and mystic that he is remembered. On the one hand, he held firmly to mindsets associated with the medieval world, in particular with his belief that all knowledge has its roots in theology. On the other hand, he displayed an openness to new ideas more characteristic of the Renaissance and the modern age that lay beyond it.

Born Nicholas Krebs in the German town of Kues in 1401, Cusa studied law and mathematics at the University of Padua in Italy. He later received his doctorate in canon law before moving to Cologne in the 1420s. There he took an interest in the philosophical writings of the ancients, particularly Plato (427-347 b.c.), and began forming the foundations of his own mystical philosophical system.

In 1431, a year after he entered the priesthood, Nicholas took part in the Council of Basel, convened in an attempt to shore up the church against the rising tides of dissent that would culminate in the Reformation. Six years later, he took part in a failed mission of reconciliation between the Western and Eastern churches, travelling to Constantinople—which, unbeknownst to anyone at that time, would fall permanently into Muslim hands in less than two decades' time.

Despite the mission's lack of success, Nicholas won recognition for his diplomatic work, and was ultimately granted the position of cardinal. He gained even greater favor with the papacy when an old friend, Italian humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini, assumed St. Peter's throne as Pius II in 1458. Two years later, Nicholas settled permanently in Rome.

By then he was just six years away from the end of his life, and had long since formed his rather idiosyncratic philosophical system. Though he had an interest in mathematics far beyond that of a typical medieval, mathematical knowledge in Nicholas's mind served to increase the mystery in the world rather than to unravel it. Certainly he was not the first to see the discipline in those terms: Pythagoras (c. 580-c. 500 b.c.), who he greatly admired, was perhaps the most notable of all mathematical mystics.

Among Cusa's mathematical interests were the ideas of infinity and of squaring the circle—that is, mapping the area of a circle onto an equally large square, using only a ruler. In his mind, these concepts were linked, because an infinitely large circle would be the same as a square—and, as he noted, would have neither a center, a radius, nor a diameter.

In the realm of astronomy, Nicholas anticipated Copernicus (1473-1543) by many years in saying that the center of the universe was the Sun rather than the Earth. He also suggested that many stars in the universe had their own worlds revolving around them; however, even these scientific statements were heavily laced with Nicholas's mysticism, and his belief that the center of the universe is God. He died on August 11, 1464, in the town of Todi—then part of the Papal States—near Rome.


Nicholas of Cusa

views updated Jun 08 2018

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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