Nicholas of Cusa

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Nicholas of Cusa contributed to preserving the hierarchical authority and unity of the Roman Catholic Church while advocating humanism and lay participation in both sacred and secular government during the early years of the Renaissance.

Early Life

Nicholas Kryfts (Krebs) was born in the village of Kues, between Trier and Bernkastel, on the Mosel River in the German Rhineland. His moderately prosperous father operated a barge on the busy river, which served as a major commercial waterway in Northern Europe. Young Nicholas was first sent to a school administered by the Brothers of the Common Life at Deventer on the Lower Rhine. Nicholas was inspired by the new learning that the brothers emphasized, and they also encouraged him in a spirit of church reform centered on the idea of the Roman Church as a community of clergy and faithful.

In 1416, at the age of fifteen, Nicholas registered at the University of Heidelberg. Although Nicholas remained at Heidelberg for only one year, there, too, he was exposed to modern learning. Nominalistic philosophy—rejection of universals as myths and a turn toward philosophizing based on individualism—left its mark on young Nicholas. He began to question truths arrived at through pure deduction and based on traditional authority. The Scholasticism of the late Middle Ages was giving way to a humanistic thinking in both theology and philosophy.

Nicholas of Cusa (also known by his Latin name, Nicolaus Cusanus, and German name, Nikolaus von Cusa) next enrolled at the University of Padua in Italy. Padua was a major center for the study of canon law in Europe. In its lecture halls, scholars of science, mathematics, astronomy, and the humanities rigorously challenged established sacred and secular dogma. Yet the revival of Neoplatonism, which envisioned a hierarchy of knowledge extending from a perfect and infinite God to an imperfect and finite world, also played a crucial role in Nicholas’s education. It was at Padua that young Nicholas had an opportunity to observe firsthand the government of Roman city-states, many of which inherited the idea of citizen participation from Greek antiquity. Nicholas studied at Padua for six years, earning a doctorate in canon law in 1423.

Nicholas’s early education shaped his later life’s work within the Roman Catholic Church; it reflected the change in worldview in the transition years from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance years. The medieval notion that God governed the world through unchallenged hierarchical authority was tempered by growing acknowledgment that the Creator provided all his creatures with freedom and responsibility, subject to divine judgment. The dialectic of God’s transcendence and his immanence in the world dominated the thought and life of Nicholas of Cusa; he sought in his philosophy and in his daily life to reconcile these views of God and world.

Life’s Work

Nicholas of Cusa returned to Germany in 1425 to embark on his life’s work as papal diplomat, theologian, and philosopher. At first he enrolled at the University of Cologne to lecture and to continue his research. There he attracted the attention of Cardinal Giordano Orsini, who was impressed by a legal document prepared by Nicholas at his request. Cardinal Orsini was a noted humanist and progressive within the Roman Church; he played an important role in Nicholas’s ordination as a priest in 1426. Orsini’s influence was also instrumental in securing an appointment for Nicholas as a legal adviser to the Council of Basel in 1432.

Nicholas’s career in church politics began in earnest at the Council of Basel. The debate centered on the issue of the pope’s authority. Nicholas sided with those who believed that the Roman Church ought to be governed by a general council representing clergy and congregations. The council was to be superior to the pope, who would remain the Church’s religious and administrative head but who could be discharged by the council. Nicholas’s conviction was that it was through conciliar government that church unity would be best preserved. The congregation ought to be the source of church law, with pope and hierarchy serving the general council.

Nicholas expanded his thinking on church government in a philosophical treatise. This work, De concordantia catholica (on Catholic unity), sets forth what has been called the conciliar theory of government, based on Nicholas’s belief that authority of the ruler must rest on consent granted by the ruled. His main thesis was that this governmental form would bring about unity within the Church.

The controversy over conciliar government continued after the Council of Basel. Subsequently, Nicholas of Cusa modified his antipapal stance. Three reasons have been offered to explain this turnabout. First, Nicholas was displeased with the turmoil between members of the council and the Holy See. Second, Nicholas’s highest priority was church unity. Finally, Nicholas was motivated by the opportunities for his own career within the Church hierarchy.

Nicholas was rewarded with a papal appointment. In 1437, Nicholas was a delegate to a meeting between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Christians in Constantinople. At the meeting, he invited Greek representatives to attend a scheduled council in Italy on reunification of the Greek and Roman churches. Although his efforts failed, Christian unity and reform continued to motivate Nicholas throughout his life, in his dealings with church politics as well as in his philosophical writings.

Nicholas continued to accept diplomatic posts from the Vatican. From 1438 to 1448, he was a papal delegate to Germany, where he worked for both reform and unity within the Church. As a reward, in 1449, Pope Nicholas V made Nicholas of Cusa a cardinal of the titular Church of Saint Peter in Chains in Rome. In 1450, he was named Bishop of Brixen, in Austria. During his tenure as...

(The entire section is 2462 words.)