Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Nicholas of Cusa was both a man of action and a man of speculation. He spent his years in the Roman Catholic Church working for the cause of reform and ecclesiastical diplomacy; he was a Cardinal and Bishop of Brixen. As a metaphysical theologian, he synthesized the ideas of such predecessors as Johannes Scotus Erigena, Meister Eckhart, and pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. His work had a considerable influence on Giordano Bruno, particularly on the latter’s De la causa, principio e uno (1584; Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One, 1950).

Of Learned Ignorance, Nicholas’s most important treatise, is particularly interesting as an attempt to reconcile the Neoplatonic ideas prevalent in the Middle Ages with the growing confidence in empirical inquiry and the use of the intellect. The reconciliation is only partly successful from the logical point of view, and it involves an appeal to the revelatory power of mystical intuition. However, for those who sought to understand the possibility of unifying an infinite God and an apparently finite universe and who were disturbed by their learned ignorance, the efforts of Nicholas of Cusa were a godsend.

The work is divided into three books and is unified by a concern with the maximum, the greatest. The first book is a study of the “absolute maximum,” or God, the being who is greatest in the sense that he is one and all—all things are in God, and God is in all things. Nicholas describes this study as one “above reason,” and as one that “cannot be conducted on the lines of human comprehension.” The second book is concerned with the maximum effect of the absolute maximum. The maximum effect is the universe, a plurality that is, nevertheless, a relative unity. The third book is devoted to the maximum that is both relative and absolute, the perfect realization of the finite plurality of the universe; this maximum is Jesus.