Nicholas of Cusa

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2462

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...

(The entire section contains 2462 words.)

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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 bishop, Nicholas encountered the growing conflict between the Church and secular politics. It was a difficult phase in his life.

His later years were spent in a bitter struggle with the secular ruler of Austria, Archduke Sigismund. Nicholas set out to reform corrupt practices among the priests and monks of his diocese, but his efforts met with apathy and hostility among the clergy. At one point, he sought to reform a convent at Sonneburg, and there Bishop Nicholas ran into bitter opposition from secular authorities because many of the nuns had been recruited from noble families. Archduke Sigismund assumed the role of protector of the nuns.

Added to this controversy was one that concerned ecclesiastical appointments. Sigismund was unhappy over several of Nicholas’s choices for church posts; the bishop had bypassed candidates supported by the duke. Open conflict between the bishop and the duke resulted in negotiations, appeals to the Vatican, and, ultimately, compromise. Nicholas was recalled in 1459 to Rome.

As a reward for his services to the Holy See, Nicholas was appointed to the high post of vicar-general for temporal affairs; he was Governor of Rome and the papal territories. It was Nicholas of Cusa’s last and highest office. Unfortunately, Cardinal Cusa was not freed from conflict with the Austrian duke. Now the controversy turned into a dispute between Sigismund and the Church over certain property rights in Austria. Claims and counterclaims intensified.

On one occasion, the duke’s soldiers surrounded and fired their guns on a castle in Austria in which Nicholas was temporarily residing as the pope’s representative in the dispute. The cardinal surrendered and was put under house arrest. Pope Pius II, humiliated by this treatment of his representative, intervened directly and sought to punish the duke. Nicholas was extricated from the affair. He returned to Italy to live his final days in relative peace and contemplation.

During his many years of church diplomacy, Nicholas of Cusa continued his theological and philosophical research and writing. He wrote about forty-six books and manuscripts. In addition, he was an enthusiastic collector of literary and philosophical works. His two most influential works are Of Learned Ignorance and De coniecturis (on conjecture); together they make up a complete outline of his philosophy.

In Of Learned Ignorance, Nicholas sets forth the doctrine that humanity knows God only through whatever God chooses to reveal and through human experience. Human reason reaches its limitations in its knowledge of God, for humanity is finite and God is infinite. Reason is applicable to this finite world, but it is a stumbling block to knowing God. People will be the more learned the more they grasp their own ignorance of the unknown God. The infinite God is not accessible through reason, but his awareness is present in people’s minds. Through humanity’s recognition of reason’s limits, a realization that is itself reached through reason, the wisdom of learned ignorance is achieved. For Nicholas’s speculative metaphysics, humanity’s highest stage of knowledge is the recognition that one cannot attain a comprehensive knowledge of God.

In De coniecturis, Nicholas expands his philosophy of learned ignorance. Here Nicholas argues that God is prior to the opposition of being and nonbeing. God is unity transcending the coincidence of all opposites; he transcends and confines in himself all distinctions and oppositions. God is thus the unity of opposites, of the finite and the infinite. He transcends humanity’s understanding, and thus people cannot form a full and accurate concept of his nature. God transcends the world, but the world is his mirror. God is the unity of world and cosmos. These statements lead into Nicholas’s theology, which concludes that because God is beyond human intellect, learned ignorance opens the way to Christian faith.

Nicholas of Cusa died in 1464. He is buried in the Church of Saint Peter in Chains in Rome. Inside the church is a statue of Nicholas kneeling before Saint Peter. His best monument, however, is the home and hospital for the poor that he and his family founded in his native Kues. The attached library contains many of Nicholas’s original manuscripts and his collection of books. It remains in operation as a center for scholarly research.


Nicholas of Cusa is an outstanding example of a philosopher who was active in practical affairs; he combined a life of contemplation with one of action. Throughout his life, Nicholas attempted to resolve the conflict between old and new views of God and humankind while he remained an obedient member of the church hierarchy. His later writings and practical work reflected his moderation: He sought reform within the context of order and continuation. In philosophy and ecclesiastical politics, Nicholas advocated gradual development and progress, not rebellion and revolution. Nicholas lived his life according to the fundamental principles of his thought and remains an exemplar of the unity of thought and practice in a human being’s life. As such, his life captured the spirit of the Golden Rule. Above all, Nicholas’s life reflected his deep devotion to the ideal of the unity of all being in God, of harmony between reason and faith, theology and philosophy, and church and state.

Scholars do not agree on whether Nicholas of Cusa was the first modern thinker or a transitional figure standing between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is clear that he combined traditional elements of Neoplatonism and the Scholastic tradition with postmedieval nominalism and humanism. Evidence is inconclusive as to whether Nicholas contributed original ideas or dressed the thought of Plato, Saint Augustine, and others in the modes of his era. It is certain, however, that Nicholas of Cusa must be included in any list of the world’s great philosophers. He forged a speculative metaphysics that influenced Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and the existential philosophers. Nicholas’s philosophical legacy remains his enduring contribution to Western civilization.

Additional Reading

Bett, Henry. Nicholas of Cusa. London: Methuen, 1932. Standard biography, presenting a detailed account of Nicholas of Cusa’s life coupled with a discussion of his writings and a critique of his philosophy. Stresses the consistency of Nicholas’s thought throughout his political, philosophical, and theological writings; this thought culminates in the unity of all existence in the hidden God.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Translated with an introduction by Mario Domandi. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963. Argues that Nicholas was a systematic thinker who presented a totally new philosophical orientation and that early modern philosophy cannot be understood without considering Nicholas’s work. Nicholas offered the foundations for a new theory of knowledge and history; his greatness is enhanced because he achieved this major contribution to Renaissance philosophy from within the religious ideas of the Middle Ages. For the advanced reader.

Christianson, Gerald, and Thomas M. Izbicki, eds. Nicholas of Cusa on Christ and the Church: Essays in Memory of Chandler McCuskey Brooks for the American Cusanus Society. New York: Brill, 1996. These volumes include studies on Nicholas of Cusa and his times. A section is devoted to Nicholas’ ideas on mystical experience and Christ.

Copleston, Frederick Charles. “Nicholas of Cusa.” In A History of Philosophy, vol. 3. London: Burnes, Oates and Washbourne, 1946. 3d ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. Chapter 15 is a concise treatment of Nicholas of Cusa’s philosophy from the perspective of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. Copleston’s theme is that Nicholas’s work and writings aimed at reconciliation, harmony, and unity in difference.

Hopkins, Jasper. A Concise Introduction to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa. 3d ed. Minneapolis, Minn.: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1986. Includes Nicholas’s “De possest” (1460; “On Actualized Possibility,” 1978) in Latin and English. Hopkins contends that this short essay contains an excellent summation of Nicholas of Cusa’s philosophy and recommends that students begin here. The long introductory interpretation and extensive bibliography serve as useful reader’s guides.

Jaspers, Karl. “Nicholas of Cusa.” In The Great Philosophers. Vol. 2, edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Ralph Mannheim. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966. After a brief biography, Jaspers conducts a detailed analysis of key concepts in Nicholas’s writings, considered from the perspective of Jaspers’s own existentialist philosophy. He finds Nicholas’s major contribution to have been keeping alive the idea of individual freedom in human relations and in relation to God. Accessible to undergraduates.

Nicholas of Cusa. Unity and Reform: Selected Writings of Nicholas de Cusa. Edited with an introduction by John P. Dolan. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1962. Selected excerpts from Nicholas’s major philosophical and theological writings. Text is supplemented by the editor’s informative introduction, which serves as an excellent reader’s guide.

Sigmund, Paul E. Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Concentrates on Nicholas’s political theory, emphasizing the foundational principles of universal harmony and government by consent. Traces the philosophical and legal antecedents of Nicholas’s political philosophy. Good bibliography of secondary sources in political philosophy.

Bibliography updated by Grant A. Marler

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