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The Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa

Background: The New Consideration of Nature

The Renaissance, as an age of transition, was not conducive to the building of great philosophical systems. It contained, in germinal form, the directive ideas of modern times, but under the guise of the past. Thinkers preferred to write in ancient Latin, and the style of their writing is also archaic. Under this external aspect, which smacks of antiquity, are hidden the signs of the next age.

The greatest representatives of thought, in the order of time, are Nicholas of Cusa, , Bruno, and Campanella; the most important is Bruno. In the thought of all these men there is a new view of nature, in which nature is considered immanently, according to the forces inherent in it, and is accessible to experience and reason. These forces are considered as living ones, vital spirits, demons; everything is animate; the physical world has a soul.

It is necessary to investigate these animate forces, for it is on the basis of their activity that all events can be explained. It is because of this desire to bring into subjection the occult forces of nature that during the Renaissance we find so widely diffused the science of "magic," which professes to know the good and evil spirits of nature, and to make them allies in good and evil enterprises.

Also characteristic are alchemy, with its objective of discovering the philosophical stone which can change everything into gold; and medicine, with its hope of finding the panacea of evil by uncovering the common animating force of the universe. This is a charlatan school, to be sure, but it indicates the tendency of some of the chief exponents of the age to explain nature through the forces imbedded in it.

Hence we see Neo-Platonic tendencies, and the Neo-Platonic thinkers mentioned above. Although Neo-Platonism, logically developed, leads to pantheism, the thinkers of the Renaissance, with the exception of Bruno, are not pantheists. Without any logical foundation they still affirm transcendency, but this more from faith than from conviction.

Now to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa

I. Life and Works

Nicholas Cryfts, called Nicholas of Cusa (picture) from the name of his native city, was born in 1401. German by birth, he was Italian in his spiritual and cultural formation. Before going to Padua for the study of law, mathematics and astronomy, he had come under the influence of the mysticism of Master Eckhart. Ordained a Catholic priest, he took part in all the religious controversies of the time, and worked especially with the Council of Florence, which, it was hoped, would lead to the union of the churches.

He was made Cardinal and Bishop of Bressanone. His favorite authors were St. Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Scotus Erigena, St. Bonaventure, and other Neo-Platonists. A man of severe habits, he died at Todi in 1464. His principal work is De docta ignorantia (On Scientific Ignorance); notable also are his De conjecturis (On Conjectures); and De ludo globi (On the Game of the World).

Nicholas of Cusa was a Neo-Platonist in thought, and this led him to formulate a new type of logic and a new interpretation of nature (metaphysics).

II. Theory of Knowledge

Human knowledge is a collective and unifying activity; there are three stages in acquiring this knowledge: phantasy, reason, intellect.

Phantasy (sense knowledge) has for its scope the unification into a single representation of the multiple data of the senses.

Reason (meaning abstractive and discursive knowledge) is the faculty which abstracts universal concepts; it never arrives at perfect unity. The knowledge of reason, moreover, is deficient because it represents reality in an improper manner, for it is only founded on individual beings. Hence it follows that concepts result from contradictory notes, for instance, unity and multiplicity, being and non-being. The principle of contradiction, the basis of Aristotelian Scholastic logic, is good within the limits of reason, but it gives us an improper knowledge of reality.

We arrive at the knowledge of the reality (God), and hence of unity and the infinite, only by means of a third activity of the spirit, the faculty of intellect, which is supra-rational understanding, mystical intuition. This faculty, overcoming all differences and multiplicity, presents the reality (God) as perfect unity, in which all differences are reconciled in the infinite life, the "coincidence of opposites." The principle of coincidence is for Nicholas of Cusa a new one on which logic must be based in order to arrive at the knowledge of reality.

Hence the title of Nicholas' work De Docta ignorantia, which indicates the limitation of human understanding (reason) as opposed to the knowledge of God that is free of all such limitation (supra-rational). Thus the agnosticism of Nicholas of Cusa is corrected by his fideism, which of course has nothing to do with philosophy.

III. Theodicy

God is infinite. The infinity of God leads Nicholas of Cusa to affirm the coincidence of opposites. Observing how, in a circumference carried to infinity, the straight and the curved line coincide, he affirms that in the infinity of God all oppositions are identified, all distinctions overcome, and all contrariety fades into nothingness, since the correlative is not to be found. God is the "implicatio" of all opposites. But what in God is "implicatio" and "complicatio," becomes "explicatio" in the universe, which results from multiplicity, distinction, and opposition.

This concept does not differ substantially from the Neo-Platonic idea. The "explicatio" is equivalent to Platonic emanations, by virtue of which God, absolute unity, becomes multiple through subsequent emanations. The concept of Nicholas of Cusa becomes more dangerous because of the consequences he derives from "explicatio." The world is an infinite potential, and because of this it participates in an attribute of divinity. This theory was to be reaffirmed by Giordano Bruno. God is as it were contracted in beings; He is the absolute quiddity of all the things in which He is contracted.

Nicholas of Cusa was the first philosopher to separate himself from Scholasticism. He began with a logic based on the coincidence of opposites -- at variance with Aristotelian-Scholastic logic, which is based on the principle of contradiction. In metaphysics he was Platonic, and the notion of the transcendence of God was thus seriously compromised.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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