Arguably the most important German thinker of fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa — was also an ecclesiastical reformer, administrator and cardinal. His life-long effort was to reform and unite the universal and Roman Church, whether as canon law expert at the Council of Basel and after, as legate to Constantinople and later to German dioceses and houses of religion, as bishop in his own diocese of Brixen, and as advisor in the papal curia. His active life as a Church administrator and bishop found written expression in several hundred Latin sermons and more theoretical background in his writings on ecclesiology, ecumenism, mathematics, philosophy and theology. Cusanus had an open and curious mind. He was learned and steeped in the Neoplatonic tradition, well aware of both humanist and scholastic learning, yet mostly self-taught in philosophy and theology.
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Arguably the most important German thinker of fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa — was also an ecclesiastical reformer, administrator and cardinal. His life-long effort was to reform and unite the universal and Roman Church, whether as canon law expert at the Council of Basel and after, as legate to Constantinople and later to German dioceses and houses of religion, as bishop in his own diocese of Brixen, and as advisor in the papal curia.
His active life as a Church administrator and bishop found written expression in several hundred Latin sermons and more theoretical background in his writings on ecclesiology, ecumenism, mathematics, philosophy and theology.
Cusanus had an open and curious mind. He was learned and steeped in the Neoplatonic tradition, well aware of both humanist and scholastic learning, yet mostly self-taught in philosophy and theology. Nicholas anticipated many later ideas in mathematics, cosmology, astronomy and experimental science while constructing his own original version of systematic Neoplatonism. A whole range of earlier medieval writers, such as Thierry of Chartre, Ramon Llull and Albert the Great, influenced Nicholas, but his important intellectual roots are in Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite.
In spite of his significance few later thinkers, apart from Giordano Bruno, understood or were influenced by him until the late nineteenth century. He was one of four children in a bourgeois family. His father, Johan Cryfftz, was a prosperous merchant who became one of the landed gentry in Trier. He then moved to the University of Padua where he studied canon law, receiving his Doctor of Canon Law in In he entered the service of the archbishop of Trier and, as his secretary, received income from several benefices.
By he was in Cologne where he may have lectured on canon law, studied philosophy and theology, and began researches into original source material and into the annals of German law. In and Nicholas was offered positions teaching canon law at the University of Louvain, but he turned them down to remain in church administration. Ordained a priest sometime during the s, Nicholas first gained wider notice for his work as a conciliarist at the Council of Basel.
There he wrote De concordantia catholica , arguing for the authority of the council over that of the pope and stressing the notions of consent and representation. After the turmoil at Basel split the council, Nicholas ultimately sided with the papal party and left the conciliarists.
In he was part of an embassy sent to Constantinople to seek reconciliation of the Greek Church with Rome. He reported that, during the voyage home, the insights of De docta ignorantia came to him as a kind of divine revelation. He continued as a papal legate to Germany from — Named cardinal in by Eugenius IV, Cusanus was elevated to that position in by Nicholas V and was sent to Germany in as papal legate to reform the church.
De coniecturis —43 , De dato patris luminum , Apologia doctae ignorantiae , Idiota de sapientia, Idiota de mente, Idiota de staticis experimentis all were among important works of the decade from —, as were many sermons and works on mathematics. The final fourteen years of his life saw the appearance of De visione Dei , De beryllo , De possest , De li non aliud , De ludo globi —63 , De venatione sapientiae , Compendium and De apice theoriae , more works on mathematics and many more sermons.
Of particular note are two works he wrote during these years that reached out to other religions, especially Islam, De Pace Fidei and Cribatio Alchorani In he was named bishop of Brixen in the Tirol. In he began active administration in Brixen, but his attempts at reform led to threats and clashes with Sigismund, the count of Tirol. Many of his over two hundred sermons date from this time in Brixen, though his reform efforts there and earlier in Germany mostly failed.
Nicholas finally retreated from the conflict in Brixen to Rome, where he remained in the papal curia advising Pius II. He died in in Todi on his way from Rome to Ancona. His remains were buried in his titular Church, St Peter in Chains, at Rome; his heart was sent to Kues and buried in the chapel of the hospice for elderly men there that he endowed in his will. The hospice survives and his remarkable library is housed there today. Nicholas of Cusa may arguably be best understood as employing a Christian Neoplatonic framework to construct his own synthesis of inherited ideas.
His thought witnesses to his own reading in a variety of predecessors, while side-stepping the methods of the medieval scholastic summae and their typical controversies and arguments. Trained as a canon lawyer, Nicholas is mostly self-taught in theology and philosophy; both his ideas and his language may present some difficulties to contemporary readers.
His thought has to be viewed as a whole, for it works more by correspondences and parallels between the domains he is interested in expounding than in a linear fashion or by direct argument. What is noteworthy are the flexible metaphors he uses as he moves across what we designate today as ontology, philosophy of mind and epistemology, and philosophical theology.
His metaphors provide some methodological clue to understanding how Nicholas proposes that we should think God and creatures together. It is not just that God exceeds our conceptual reach and grasp as well as our literal language. The asymmetry between God and creatures also provides a measure or norm for the appropriateness of any metaphor exploring or attempting to explain their relationship. Here Cusanus addresses the four categorical realities traditionally found in Christian thought: God, the natural universe, Christ and human beings.
On Learned Ignorance devotes its first book to God, the second to the universe and a third to the God-man, Jesus Christ.
While its order mirrors the outflow from God and return to him, this book does not distinguish philosophy and theology as contemporary thinkers might, but unites them in a single overview of Neoplatonic Christian reality.
Christ unites the first two as the Maximum at once absolute-and-contracted. As absolute maximum God is both unlimited and transcendent, unreachable by human conceptions that measure the limited or contracted realm of more and less. Once Cusanus conceptualizes human knowing as measuring, he proposes that our knowledge also cannot measure exactly the essence of any limited thing. It is not that creatures coincide with God or God with creatures, but that in God all else coincides as nothing else than God.
The result is a kind of second-order language about the ways in which we are forced to think and talk about divinity.
For instance, we are to imagine a circle and a straight line or tangent that meets the circle. From a certain perspective, as the diameter or circumference of the circle increases, its circumference approaches the straight line and appears less and less curved. All this is mathematically impossible, of course, but it demonstrates some metaphorical steps for moving beyond the finite toward the infinite that might be transferred from geometrical figures to created beings and their Creator.
The natural universe counts as the limited or contracted maximum that is the image of the absolute Maximum. In Neoplatonic terms, one must think the unfolded universe we experience and all that is real in it as at once enfolded in the Creator on whom it depends. God encompasses every thing created in a dialectical outflow and return to God without any creatures ever being identified with the God on whom they depend, that One who remains both present to them yet ever absent and beyond.
The natural universe, then, is the whole or contracted maximum collectively constituted by the many beings in space and time. Just as God is present to each creature that stands as a contracted image of the divine, so the universe as a macrocosm is present to each creature or constitutive part as microcosm. In that way, each natural thing is an image of the collective whole.
But since this collectivity is made up of interrelated parts, each thing is also the totality of its connections with everything else. Nicholas also recognizes in Book Two that the natural universe is characterized by change or motion; it is not static in time and space.
But finite change and motion, ontologically speaking, are also matters of more and less and have no fixed maximum or minimum. Cusanus thus shifts the typical medieval picture of the created universe toward later views, but on ontological grounds. For Nicholas, the exact center and circumference of the created universe are to be found only in God. What we take to be center and outer limits depends on our viewpoint.
If we change perspectives, say to that from another planet which might indeed be inhabited and take it to be center, then earth might be zenith.
In this way we come to realize that what is taken as fixed or central can be altered to be moving and at the zenith, depending on the location of the standpoint we pick in the unbounded universe. In this way learned ignorance recognizes that the natural universe itself, as a contracted image of God, has a physical center that can be anywhere and a circumference that is nowhere.
This means that the universe merely lacks set physical bounds or limits, while God has no ontological limits in being all that can possibly be. Once again, however, Cusanus uses the orthodox teaching of early Christian councils such as Chalcedon more as a background guide than as providing a straightforward Christology or text for exposition.
He returns to the contrast between absolute God and contracted creatures that he used throughout Books I and II to interpret and contrast the relation between infinite God and finite creatures, even though there is no real proportion between them. Nicholas now entertains a third possibility, an anomalous joining of absolute and contracted in the God-man. He reviews, borrowing from Aristotle, the ordered universe of things belonging to natural types genera and species , then modifies it by extending to individuals his idea of contraction or limitation.
Cusanus thereupon asks a hypothetical question. What would happen were a perfect specimen, an individual fulfillment of its type, to actually exist? In his language of maximality, it would be another maximum contracted to a unique individual of a given kind. But what would make such a maximum individual possible in a universe of more or less?
In terms of enfolding and unfolding, this unique unfolding in a human being is at the same time to reveal the God enfolding Jesus Christ. Jesus is an image of God so utterly transparent as to remain opaque except to the eyes of faith.
The upshot is that the historical Jesus Christ is human in such a way as to be divine and divine in such a way as to be human, the Maximum at once contracted and absolute, the human image who is simultaneously the divine Original.
Learned ignorance may thus press the Cusan metaphors and ideas to the limit in dealing with Jesus Christ, because the hypostatic oneness of the incarnate God will always elude full human understanding. This third book realigns the order of Christian metaphysics so that the God-man stands between God and the rest of creation, for it is through the mediation of the Incarnate Word that creatures are made and creatures return to their source.
This is what learned ignorance establishes for and contributes to human wisdom. The Cusan Christ stands as a more adequate norm and measure for theory and practice. Jesus Christ is the historical human image of the Absolute One beyond our ken and thus the paradigm that reveals our creaturely connection with the infinite God.
Christ is the disclosure in time of what God is. In this way learned ignorance points to Jesus Christ as the medium , the measure and mediator between finite and infinite, and, as well, the concrete norm for what human beings may become.
The three books of On Learned Ignorance thus represent a series of powerful proposals for reinterpreting Christian reality. His proposals are established by seeking out parallels between the infinite divine Original and limited created images and by drawing out the implications of these parallels.
This book is neither medieval Aristotelian scholastic disputation nor later Cartesian rationalism, but its own kind of Christian Neoplatonic speculation that teases the philosophical imagination as much as it may frustrate any contemporary philosophical search for arguments or proofs. It is the coherence of the parallels or correspondences within the overall view of reality that gives Cusan metaphysics and Cusan metaphors their persuasive power.
This becomes the significant way that human minds are images of the divine mind. These moves already separate his ideas about human knowing from those of both his scholastic predecessors and his post-Renaissance successors. He writes:. This extension of the metaphor used in metaphysics to capture how things simultaneously proceed from and return to God spells out where human knowledge stands.
The human mind is a parallel though limited oneness that can enfold or encompass the concepts of all it knows while unfolding them in a conceptual universe. Two points here are essential. First, the conceptual content of our knowledge is tied to the things God created as to their epistemic likenesses. Nicholas thus stands in the tradition of Christian realism. Oneness is characteristic of God, while otherness stands for the contingent plurality and variety of limited created things.
In this work Nicholas also introduces an explicit contrast between the human capacities of ratio and intellectus. Ratio or discursive reason is our capacity for thinking, using concepts and judgments.
Acerca de la Docta Ignorancia : Libro I: Lo Maximo Absoluto
Earlier scholars had discussed the question of "learned ignorance". Augustine of Hippo , for instance, stated " Est ergo in nobis quaedam, ut dicam, docta ignorantia, sed docta spiritu dei, qui adiuvat infirmitatem nostram "  - "There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance, so to speak — an ignorance which we learn from that Spirit of God who helps our infirmities"; here he explains the working of the Holy Spirit among men and women, despite their human insufficiency, as a learned ignorance. For Cusanus, docta ignorantia means that since mankind can not grasp the infinity of a deity through rational knowledge, the limits of science need to be passed by means of speculation. This mode of inquiry blurs the borders between science and ignorantia. In other words, both reason and a supra-rational understanding are needed to understand God. This leads to the coincidentia oppositorum , a union of opposites, a doctrine common in mystic beliefs from the Middle Ages.
Cusanus, Nicolaus [Nicolas of Cusa]
La Docta Ignorancia (Spanish Edition)