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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


NICHOLAS OF CUSA

(1401 — 64)

 

NEOPLATONISM

Nicholas of Cusa (or Cusanus, also known as Krebs or Kryfts) was born at Kues (Cusa) in the German Rhineland, and educated at the famous school of Deventer and then at the Universities of Heidelberg (philosophy, 1416), Padua (canon law, 1417-23), and Cologne (theology, 1425). After ordination he worked for the Church in various capacities. In 1448 he was created Cardinal, and in 1450 was appointed Bishop of Brixen. From 1451-52 he was Papal Legate.

 

KNOWLEDGE

[1] [See On Learned Ignorance I.] For Nicholas the lowest level of knowledge is that of sense-perception. From here we may proceed to a level of reason (ratio) [a], which is limited by the principle of contradiction and excludes opposites; it both affirms and denies. Our knowledge of finite creatures is approximate; 'science' in general is 'conjectural'. The highest level of knowledge is attained by the intellect (intellectus), which passes beyond all oppositions to apprehend God. While this may be affirmed positively, albeit through symbols — particularly that of light — rather than ordinary language (as used by reason), as finite beings we can only know what God is not (the negative way); and this must be asymptotic — never perfect. We therefore remain in a state of 'learned ignorance' (docta ignorantia), in which we recognise both our limitations and the infinity and transcendence of God. Herein lies wisdom [b].

 

METAPHYSICS/ PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[2] [Ibid. I - III.] God is indefinable; or, rather, He defines Himself. He is eternal power and act, totally unlimited and infinite. As the 'coincidence of opposites' (coincidentia oppositorum) (and thus transcending the law of non-contradiction) He is both maximum and minimum [a]: maximum because He is the greatest Being; minimum because He cannot be less than he is. Moreover, He cannot be of a certain size as we understand the attribute. In Him essence and existence coincide [b]. Although immanent in the world, He remains transcendent; and He may be said to be omnia complicans, in that all things are contained or 'folded' in His unity and necessity, and omnia explicans, as the ultimate source of 'unfolding' multiplicity and possibility [c], that is, the world as a visible manifestation of Him as 'light' [c]. It can be shown that He must exist as there cannot be an infinite series of finite beings, and there must be an absolute truth [d] — which Nicholas identifies with God as the 'absolute maximum'. The world is a 'contraction' or 'expressed limitation' of God. It is a collection of universal forms which are identical to and emanate from the Godhead [e] as the 'greatest concrete' (concretum maximum) or 'condensation'. All created things are arranged in a hierarchy of being [f]. Despite this commitment to universal forms, Nicholas emphasizes the individuality of created things — the forms existing in the individuals in the 'contracted' state. Particular individuals may of course belong to a given species by virtue of their possession of the appropriate common specific nature or 'contracted form'. These common features, however, are themselves individual natures: their 'universality cannot be said to exist except as a concept [g]. But the absolute greatness of God (absolutum maximum) is never realized in any finite individual, as each one is unlimited and does not possess all the perfections belonging to its species. Just as the universe is a contraction of God, so finite beings are contractions of the universe: each contracts and is 'mirrored' in every other thing. The universe is therefore a harmony of plurality in unity, a manifestation of God in whom the opposites are reconciled. Man as a microcosm mirrors the macrocosm [h]. There is no 'universal' soul of the world, except in so far as the forms of individuals exist in God. God is thus in a sense the World-Soul [i]. The universe is spatially infinite in that it is not limited by any other universe; and within the universe we perceive all things as in relative motion. It is also only a 'relative maximum', not completely or totally infinite (only God is the 'absolute maximum'), but it is of endless and therefore infinite duration, proceeding from God as absolute eternity [j]. Duration is not the same as time, though both proceed from and are in a sense the 'image' of eternity; for time is a function of measurement of motion and thus depends on mind [k]. All motion might cease, yet duration would remain.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Nicholas is best seen as a transitional figure of the Italian Renaissance. An eclectic thinker, he was influenced by contemporary developments in science while maintaining his metaphysics and religious commitment. In his philosophy we find a revival of Neoplatonism, perhaps as a response to the anti-metaphysical and sceptical trends of the fourteenth century and the separation of reason from faith. The central claims he makes are (1) that there are different degrees of knowledge, culminating in an intellectual intuition of unity; (2) that this unity is of a 'coincidence of opposites' underlying contradictories in reality; (3) that man is a finite microcosm which mirrors the infinite universe — itself a manifestation of the immanent-transcendent God. Through reason we can know only what God is not; and we must remain in a state of 'learned ignorance'.

.Nicholas's philosophy clearly has much more in common with early medieval thought than with later Aristotelian scholasticism. At the same time his negative approach to God and the identification of Him with the 'coincidence of opposites' is suggestive of 19th century German Idealism. On both counts he is of course a legitimate target for more empirically minded philosophers — not least because of his (affirmative) assumption that contradictions are reconciled in God.

 

READING

Nicholas: De Docta Ignorantia (1440) (On Learned Ignorance). This is perhaps his best-known work, though he wrote many others. Selections are available in Wippel and Wolter (eds), Medieval Philosophy.

Studies

L. Dupré and N. Hudson, 'Nicholas of Cusa', in J. J. E. Garcia (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.

H. Bett, Nicholas of Cusa.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Nicholas of Cusa

 

Note: Any influence of Aristotle on Cusanus is taken to be through 14th century Aristotelianism; and while some references to Plato have been noted his influence on Nicholas was largely via Neoplatonists

 

[1a] Levels of knowledge: sense-perception → reason → intellect

   Augustine

   Bonaventura

[1b g]

[6a d]

 

[1b 2c] Knowledge of God: affirmative via symbols (especially 'light'); negative (asymptotic): "Learned ignorance" and wisdom

   Socrates

   Carneades

   Proclus

   Ps-Dionysus

   John Scotus

Bruno

   Popper

[intro. a]

[2b]

[1b]

[1b]

[1d]

[1c]

[1b]

 

[2a] God: "coincidence of opposites" — transcends law of non-contradiction

   Aristotle

Bruno

[3b]

[1c f g]

 

[2b] Essence and existence coincide in the transcendent God    Anselm [1e]

 

[2c] God: unity and multiplicity; necessity in possibility; immanent and transcendent

   Plato

   Proclus

   Ps-Dionysus

   John Scotus

Bruno

[1c 2a 3a c]

[1c]

[1d e]

[1h]

[1c]

 

[2d] A priori proofs for God's existence: no infinite series; truth implies an absolute

   Aristotle

   Anselm

   Bonaventura

[12f]

[1b f]

[1b 1c]

 

[2e; cf. 2h] Universe as 'contracted' emanation from God; universal forms in God the Word and 'contracted' in individual things

   Plato

   Proclus

   Ps-Dionysus

   John Scotus

   Bonaventura

Bruno

[1c 4a 5a c]

[1d]

[1c]

[1f-h]

[2b]

[1b g]

 

[2f] Hierarchy of being

   Proclus

   Augustine

   Ps-Dionysus

   Bonaventura

Bruno

[2a]

[4a]

[1e]

[3c]

[1b]

 

[2g] Universals (species): concepts of individual 'common natures' in things

   Aristotle

   Boethius

   Anselm

   Leibniz

[16d e]

[1i]

[1d]

[2b]

 

[2h; cf. 2e] Finite beings as 'contractions' of the universe; each mirrored in others — "all in all"; man as microcosm

   Anaximenes

   Anaxagoras

   Democritus

   Posidonius

   Proclus

   Ps-Dionysius

   John Scotus

Bruno

Leibniz

[1c]

[1e]

[1c]

[1e]

[2c f]

[1d]

[1k]

[1g h]

[2a 6a]

 

[2i] God as the World-Soul

   Pythagoras

   Plato

   Proclus

Bruno

[2a]

[5f]

[2c]

[1d]

 

[2j] Universe spatially and temporally endless — proceeds from eternity: but unlike God only a relative maximum, not totally infinite

   Plato

   Augustine

   Bonaventura

Bruno

   Leibniz

[5a]

[6a]

[2c]

[1g]

[2c]

 

[2k] Time as "image of eternity"; measure of motion: mind-dependent; time and duration

   Plato

   Augustine

[5e]

[6a]