Nicholas Cusanus Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Nicholas Cusanus 1401-1464

(Also known as Nicolaus of Cusa and Niclas Krebs) German philosopher and theologian.

Nicholas Cusanus is most famous for his anticipation of the Copernican theory of the motion of the earth. Over a century before Copernicus, he argued that the earth moved, and that it was not the center of the universe. Scholars maintain that his theory derived not from astronomical observation but from metaphysical speculation; the German philosopher's contribution to the history of ideas lies not in his cosmology, but in his creative theology, independence of thought, and ability to assimilate several kinds of knowledge. Though never very influential, his ideas about conjecture and the mind prefigure those of Leibniz and Kant, leading many critics to consider him among the first modern thinkers. Moreover, his blend of intense intellectualism and contemplative mysticism have provoked the interest of both Catholic philosophers and existentialists into the twenty-first century.

Biographical Information

The birth of Nicholas Cusanus coincides quite closely with the birth of the European Renaissance. He was born in the town of Kues to Johann Cryfftz (or Krebs), a prosperous boat owner and ferryman, and Katharina Römer. In 1416 he went to study at the University of Heidelberg, and the next year attended the University of Padua, where he earned a doctorate in canon law in 1423. He then went to the University of Cologne where he lectured on law and furthered his philosophical and theological studies. At Cologne Cusanus befriended Heimericus de Campo, who introduced him to the Neoplatonic thinkers Pseudo-Dionysius and Raymond Lull, both major influences on his later thought. In 1426 Cusanus began his career in church politics and administration. He came to prominence in 1432 during the Council of Basel. His involvement with the Council led to his first major work, De Concordantia Catholica (1433; On Universal Concord) a defense of the conciliar movement, which sought to assert the authority of the Council over the pope to assure ecclesiastical unity. In 1437 the Council sent Cusanus to Constantinople to help reconcile the Greek Church with the Roman Church. The mission was a success, at least temporarily, but the division it produced within the Council led Cusanus to doubt the conciliar movement as the basis for unity within the church, and he soon changed his position to support the papacy—a move that generated much controversy. This shift to the papal cause coincided with a shift in focus in his literary work; he stopped writing about politics and religion and began to write about philosophy and theology. His most important work, De Docta Ignorantia (1440; Of Learned Ignorance), marks this shift. Influenced by both the rise of Renaissance humanism and an earlier mysticism, the work provided a foundation for Cusanus's later writings in speculative philosophy. Many of these works, like De Docta Ignorantia, were written during Cusanus's travels in Germany, where he was a papal legate. In 1449 Pope Nicholas V made Cusanus a cardinal. His first work after this promotion was a defense of De Docta Ignorantia, a response to the criticisms of the theologian John Wenck, whose apparent misunderstanding of Cusanus's philosophy led him to call Cusanus a heretic. Cusanus's response, Apologia Doctae Ignorantiae (1449; A Defense of Learned Ignorance), takes the form of a letter, composed by a fictional student of Cusanus's, and a dialogue, allowing Cusanus a broader field for attacking Wenck. He would continue using the dialogue form in three works on learned ignorance written during his 1450 summer in Rome: Idiota de Sapientia (The Layman on Wisdom), Idiota de Mente (The Layman on Mind), and Idiota de Staticis Experimentis (The Layman on Experiments with Weights). The character of the “Idiota,” or unlettered layman, proves himself wise in comparison with the learned men who question him. Also in 1450, Cusanus was named Bishop of Brixen, although he did not actually move to Brixen until 1452. In the meantime he traveled through Germany again as a papal legate, urging reform and helping to celebrate the jubilee of 1450. In terms of church and local politics, his time in Brixen was tumultuous: he was a forceful administrator determined to bring about reforms and wrest control of the diocese away from secular leaders, and his strong-arm tactics did not sit well with either the local nobility or the local religious. Cusanus was nonetheless characteristically prolific during this period. Many of his sermons still exist, as well as several mathematical treatises; however, the most significant works written from Brixen are his De Pace Fidei (1453; The Peace of Faith) and De Visione Dei (1453; The Vision of God). The latter work was written for the Benedictine monks at Tegernsee, at the request of their abbot, as was a later work, De Beryllo (1458; The Beryl). Cusanus's relationship with the abbey at Tegernsee was strong enough that he requested a cell where he could retire as a contemplative, but this was not to be. He continued to be active in church administration under Pope Pius II; Cusanus became the vicar general of the papal states and returned to Italy, where he continued his reform efforts, largely without success or support. At the request of the pope, he wrote Cribratio Alcorani (1461; A Scrutiny of the Koran), emphasizing the commonalities of the Muslim and Christian religions. His other late works, however, tend toward the summation of his earlier texts: among these are Trialogus de Possest (1460; On Actualized-Possibility), Directio Speculantis seu de Non Aliud (1462; On Not-Other), De Ludo Globi (1463; The Game of Spheres), and De Venatione Sapientiae (1463; The Hunt for Wisdom). The latter work is somewhat autobiographical, placing his work in a larger historical context and providing an overview of the major themes of his work. His last work, completed shortly before his death in 1464, concludes a series of works discussing the problem of naming God: De Apice Theoriae (1464; The Summit of Contemplative Vision) brings together the ideas of De Possest and De Non Aliud to offer Cusanus's final statement on the nature of God and humanity's imperfect capacity to perceive it. Cusanus died traveling in the service of Pope Pius II; despite the tolerance of his philosophical writings, he was assisting with the preparations for a crusade against the Turks. He was buried in Rome at St. Peter-in-Chains, and at his request his heart was buried beneath the hospital he had established in Kues, which continues to operate.

Major Works

Cusanus wrote on a wide range of themes, and his work can be characterized by his tendency to blend those themes together in original ways. His philosophical works span his writing career, beginning with De Docta Ignorantia and De Coniecturis, in which he explicates the concepts that would be central to many of his other works. Chief among these is the idea of learned ignorance, which stresses that knowledge of God—and therefore knowledge of the universe—is inescapably restricted: although we can approach knowledge through analogy and symbol, we are wise only when we recognize the limits of this method. Similarly, Cusanus's notion of the conjectural nature of knowledge stresses our dependence on mental images and sensory experience. These concepts, as they are elaborated in his works, reflect Cusanus's deep interest in mathematics and empirical science. He produced several mathematical treatises throughout his career, often focusing on geometrical questions. More often, however, his scientific thought infused his other works, from the blend of cosmology and metaphysics in De Dato Patris Luminum (1446; The Gift of the Father of Lights) to De Ludo Globi, which addresses those topics as well as mystical theology and the geometry of spheres and circles. The Idiota dialogues follow a similar pattern, bringing together Aristotle, Plato, Boethius, and Pythagoras in a discussion founded on Cusanus's epistemological standards of learned ignorance and conjecture. Cusanus's religious writings fall into two groups: those addressing ecclesiastical concerns and those of a more spiritual nature. De Concordantia Catholica and De Pace Fidei are his primary works on church issues, and though in the time between those works Cusanus changed his position on the conciliar movement and papal authority, both evidence his commitment to unity both within the Catholic church and among other world religions. His other purely religious work, De Visione Dei, is more devotional in nature, offering what Cusanus called “an easy way unto mystical theology,” and written in a personal style similar to Augustine's Confessions. In it, the speculative philosophy developed through De Docta Ignorantia and the Idiota dialogues extends beyond epistemology to the experience of God and Christ's role as the ultimate Image of God. Cusanus's philosophy after De Visione Dei continues this synthesis, merging the quest for accuracy of the Renaissance empiricist with the mysticism of a Medieval contemplative in the search for the name of God. Through De Possest, De Non Aliud, and De Apice Theoriae, Cusanus undertakes an ongoing process of naming God in order to reflect God's immanence and transcendence at once. These works, along with De Venatione Sapentiae, reflect both a culmination and a summation of Cusanus's broad-based “hunt for wisdom.”

Critical Reception

Though modern scholars generally consider Cusanus important in the history of philosophy and ideas, his influence was comparatively small and the staying power of his reputation fairly weak. Four editions of his collected works were published in the century following his death, but the end of the Renaissance marked a temporary end to Cusanus's status as a leading Platonic thinker of his era. His modern reputation was significantly revived by the German scholar Ernst Cassirer in his 1927 study Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (1927; translated in 1963 as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy). Cassirer maintained that “any study that seeks to view the philosophy of the Renaissance as a systematic unity must take as its point of departure the doctrines of Nicholas Cusanus.” Later scholars have alternately categorized him as a Medieval mystic, a humanist, and a transitional figure between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Other scholars have criticized Cusanus as a philosopher, arguing that the ambiguity and vagueness of his statements lead to specious reasoning, and that within his writings Cusanus lacks consistency. In an overview of Cusanus's philosophy, Jasper Hopkins charges that Cusanus “does not reason rigorously,” adding that his cryptic style makes it easy to misunderstand him. Cusanus's use of his sources and the various philosophical traditions from which he drew are central themes in modern research. Scholars often emphasize his originality, as he begins within a particular school of thought but then moves beyond it. As M. L. Führer has argued, an important background for Cusanus's thought was the school of Albertus Magnus, who was also a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas. More generally, Cusanus was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism, although, as Donald F. Duclow suggests, he also demonstrates his debt to the mystical theology of Pseudo-Dionysis and Meister Eckhart. His skill at bringing together different philosophical traditions as well as apparently opposing ideas is also a focus of contemporary scholars. Clyde Lee Miller describes Cusanus's method as a dialectical approach, enabling him to bring together the concepts of oneness and otherness. Similarly, Louis Dupré characterizes Cusanus's work as an effort to unite both transcendence and immanence—an effort that, Dupré notes, ran counter to the nominalist tendencies of modern thought.