In This Article Nicholas of Cusa

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works and Biographies
  • Reference Resources
  • Translations
  • Series
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Works
  • Sources
  • Influences on Others
  • General Studies
  • Learned Ignorance
  • Coincidence of Opposites
  • Islam and the West
  • Cosmology
  • Ecumenism
  • Ecclesiology
  • Cusanus as Theologian
  • Mystical Theology
  • Use of Mathematics
  • Cusanus’s Modernity

Renaissance and Reformation Nicholas of Cusa
by
Jasper Hopkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0247

Introduction

Nicholas of Cusa (b. 1401–d. 1464) is a transitional figure between the Middle Ages and modernity. Born in the German town of Kues (later Bernkastel-Kues) on the Moselle River, he went on to attend the universities of Heidelberg, Padua, and Cologne. In Padua he associated with the Italian humanists, taking in their intellectual inquisitiveness while he was pursuing (and eventually obtained) the degree of doctor decretorum—a doctorate in canon law. Leaving Padua for Cologne (in 1425), where he both studied and taught, he came under the influence of Heimeric de Campo, who motivated his study of Albertus Magnus, Ramon Llull, and Pseudo-Dionysius. In the 1430s he became involved in the dispute between Pope Eugenius IV and the Council of Basel over the range of the pope’s ecclesiastical authority. Initially siding with the Council of Basel, he later switched to defending strong papal authority, fearing that otherwise the church would fractionalize. At some time between 1436 and 1440 he was ordained a priest. From 1438 to 1448 he served as Eugenius’s papal envoy to Germany, helping to sway the German nation toward backing the pope’s position. Eugenius’s successor, Pope Nicholas V, named him cardinal in 1448 and assigned to him the titular church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome. In 1450 he was named Bishop of Brixen in what is now South Tirol. While undertaking a papal mission in Italy, he died in Todi en route to Ancona. His body was entombed at St. Peter in Chains, and his heart was excised and returned to the hospice that he had founded in Kues for thirty-three indigent men—that number being borrowed from the presumed number of years of Christ’s earthly life. One of Nicholas’s key doctrines is the doctrine of learned ignorance (docta ignorantia). This doctrine trades on Socrates’s claim that he was wiser than other men because he “knew that he did not know.” Applying this theme to God, Nicholas held that because all human conceptualizing occurs at the finite level, our concepts do not at all truly signify the Infinite God. At best, we can (and must) symbolize God by using names that signify perfections. The names of these perfections as they are ascribed to God are all metaphorical. By not only echoing but also thematizing and accentuating Moses Maimonides’s and Pseudo-Dionysius’s agnosticism regarding our knowledge of God’s nature, Nicholas opens the door to modernity. His innovative cosmology and ontology open that door still wider. Ernst Cassirer calls him “the first modern philosopher.” It is debatable whether Nicholas was actually the first modern philosopher, but he is certainly a key threshold figure.

Introductory Works and Biographies

These introductory works and biographies—in English (Bellitto, et al. 2004; Kremer 2002; Miller 2013), French (Vansteenberghe 1963), Italian (Santinello 1987), and German (Brösch 2014, Flasch 1998, Gestrich 1993, Leinkauf 2006, Meuthen 1992)—attest to the international recognition and appreciation of Nicholas’s intellectual and historical importance.

  • Bellitto, Christopher M., Thomas M. Izbicki, and Gerald Christianson, eds. Introducing Nicholas of Cusa: A Guide to a Renaissance Man. New York: Paulist, 2004.

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    The different contributions are grouped so as to provide a schema of Nicholas’s key ideas. Contains a sizable bibliography.

  • Brösch, Marco, et al., eds. Handbuch Nikolaus von Kues: Leben und Werk. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2014.

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    A comprehensive survey of Nicholas’s historical setting, biographical details, individual works, and continuing significance.

  • Flasch, Kurt. Nikolaus von Kues: Geschichte einer Entwicklung; Vorlesungen zur Einführung in seine Philosophie. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1998.

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    A monumental work that analyzes the development of Nicholas’s thought. Aspects of Flasch’s interpretation are criticized by Jasper Hopkins on pp. 78–121 of his Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations (Minneapolis: Banning, 2000).

  • Gestrich, Helmut. Nikolaus von Kues 1401–1464: Leben und Werk im Bild. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Hermann Schmidt, 1993.

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    A decorative book containing especially lovely pictures of Nicholas’s birth house, his hospice, his associates, various manuscripts, the omnivoyant portrait referred to in his De visione Dei, important landscapes, and other items related to his life and thought.

  • Kremer, Klaus. Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). One of the Greatest Germans of the 15th Century. Translated by Frankie Kann and Hans-Joachim Kann. Trier, Germany: Paulinus, 2002.

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    A concise but thorough presentation by the one-time director of the Institut für Cusanus-Forschung. Also available in German (Paulinus, 1999) and in French (Paulinus, 2002).

  • Leinkauf, Thomas. Nicolaus Cusanus: Eine Einführung. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 2006.

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    Brings into focus Nicholas’s views on God, man, and the world.

  • Meuthen, Erich. Nikolaus von Kues (1401–1464): Skizze einer Biographie. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1992.

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    Translated into English and introduced by David Crownen and Gerald Christianson as Nicholas of Cusa: A Sketch for a Biography (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010).

  • Miller, Clyde Lee. “Cusanus, Nicolaus [Nicolas of Cusa].” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2013.

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    An unusually elaborate encyclopedia entry that supplies a rich overview of Cusanus’s life, writings, and teachings.

  • Santinello, Giovanni. Introduzione a Nicolò Cusano. 2d ed. Bari, Italy: Editori Laterza, 1987.

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    An early guide that emphasizes Nicholas’s philosophical system of thought while not neglecting his theological interests and scientific concerns. First published in 1971.

  • Vansteenberghe, Edmond. Le Cardinal Nicolas de Cues (1401–1464): L’action—la pensée. Frankfurt: Minerva Verlag, 1963.

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    One of the most thorough of the early investigations of Nicholas’s life and writings. Contains a sizable bibliography of the older secondary literature. First published in 1920 (Paris: H. Champion).

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