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Nicholas of Cusa


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]

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