One of the foremost participants at The Council of Basle was Nicholas of Cusa. He was one of the foremost churchmen of his day.
As a reward Eugene IV nominated him cardinal; but Nicholas declined the dignity.
The year 2001 marked the sixth centenary of the birth of Nicholas of Cusa, German cardinal, philosopher, humanist, scientist, statesmen, mathematician, and “mystic.” On May 27th of that year a letter from Pope John Paul II was read aloud in Cusa’s hometown of Bernkastel-Kues to those in attendance. The letter detailed Cusa’s efforts as cardinal in 1448 to carry out necessary reforms in the churches and monasteries. Cusanus (literally, “the one from the village of Cues”) lived during the transitional period between medieval theology and Renaissance humanism.
During his lifetime, he was acclaimed as a scholar, a lawyer and canonist, a collector of ancient manuscripts, and preacher. His writings range from theology to calendar reform, from mathematics to mystical union, from philosophy to ecclesiastical law. He held, before the time of Copernicus and Newton, that the nearly spherical earth revolves on its axis about the sun and that the stars are other worlds. But as A. Richard Hunter notes, “Cusanus is not doing science primarily to advance our knowledge of the nature, but rather to advance our knowledge of God and to explore the limitations our knowledge and wisdom.”
Early Life and Education
Nicholas Cusanus was born in 1401 at the village of Cues (in Latin, Cusa) on the Moselle river, in the Archdiocese of Trier, the son of Johann Cryfts (Krebs), a prosperous owner of boats (nauta, not a “poor fisherman”) and vineyards, and his mother, Catharina Roemers. As a student, he referred to himself as Nycolaus Cancer de Coesse, later as Nicolaus de Cusa. Italian humanists first knew him as Nicolaus Treverensis, but Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini preferred the name Nicolaus Cusanus.
Little is known of his childhood beyond the legends of his bookish nature and inability to handle a boat that once enraged his father to the point of knocking him overboard with an oar. The place where this event occurred is still called the Schmeissgraben, “river-blow”. The legend that he sought refuge from the ill-treatment of his father in the protection of Count Theodoric van Manderscheid is doubtfully reported by Hartzeim (Vita N. de Cusa, Trier, 1730), and has never been proved.
His early education was at the school of the Brothers of the Common Life at Deventer in Holland, which drew its inspiration from the mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck and from Mesiter Eckhart. The school would come to number amongst its pupils Thomas à Kempis and Erasmus. Of Cusanus’s early education at Deventer little is known, but he would have left the school with knowledge of the classics and an interest in manuscripts that as to rank Cusanus as a pioneering paleographer and one of the outstanding bibliophiles of his time.
In 1416 he was matriculated in the University of Heidelberg, by Rector Nicholas of Bettenberg, as "Nicholaus Cancer de Coesze, cler[icus] Trever[ensis] dioc[esis]". The intellectual atmosphere at Heidelberg was strongly Nominalist, in matter of philosophy, and strongly conciliar, in matters of ecclesiastical politics.
A year later, 1417, he left for Padua, where he received the degrees doctor decretalium in 1423 and doctor in jure canonica in 1425 under the celebrated Giuliano Cesarini. Not much older than Cusanus himself, Cesarini, who lectured at Padua until 1421, was elevated to the cardinalate in 1426 and, after an unsuccessful campaign against the Hussites, assumed the presidency of the Council of Basle.
Cusanus’s contact with such professors and with students from all over Europe intensified his thirst for knowledge and stimulated an interest of medicine, astronomy, geography and mathematics. Cusanus studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and, in later years, Arabic, though, as his friend Johannes Andreae, Bishop of Aleria, testifies, and as appears from the style of his writings, he was not a lover of rhetoric and poetry.
After studying Padua's predominant philosophical viewpoints, those of Averroes and Aristotle, Cusanus rejected them for a richer Platonic perspective. He was familiar with the conflicts between nominalism and realism and sought to fashion a new explanatory model employing a non-syllogistic method. This rejection of Aristotle’s principle of contradiction was eventually important in elaborating his philosophical concept of the “coincidence of opposites” and his view of the “interminate” nature of the universe cannot be rationally comprehended without disposing of the rational impediment which logic contained. One can only know one’s ideas and not the reality that those ideas attempted to apprehend.
After a visit to Rome, he returned to the Rhineland and, aided by the Archbishop of Trier, he matriculated in the University of Cologne, for divinity, under the rectorship of Petrus von Weiler, in 1425. This in a series of benefices was to afford him the financial independence required to research. Hardly had Cusanus begun his new duties when a thorny conflict emerged between a priest and the Elector Palatine, and Cardinal Orsini came to Germany as papal legate to settle the issue. Amongst the sixty legal opinions submitted to him was one written by Cusanus. Recognizing the insight and justice of the opinion, Orsini sought out Cusanus and soon made him his personal secretary.
After 1428, benefices at Coblenz, Oberwesel, Münstermaifeld, Dypurgh, St. Wendel, and Liège fell to his lot, successively or simultaneously. While Cusanus was acting a secretary to Cardinal Orsini, he was discovering the important classical manuscripts, including an eleventh-century manuscript of the comedies of Plautus, containing twenty comedies, twelve of which were unknown in the Middle Ages.
The Council of Basle and Catholic Concordance
When the archbishop of Treves died, a dispute broke out over his successor. Eventually the cathedral chapter united behind Ulric of the von Manderscheid family and the pope appointed another individual archbishop. The conciliarists brought the dispute to the Council of Basle which opened under the presidency of Cusanus’s former teacher, Giuliano Cesarini, and Cusanus journeyed there to plead the case. Though he lost the case, he stayed on for some months effecting satisfactory compensation for the von Manderscheid family.
More important, he presented his first book, De concordantia catholica, to the council.
The problems before the Council included not only church reform in general but, particularly, how to avoid another rift in Christendom now that the Great Schism had been healed. Many believed that the solution lay in the supremacy of the council over the papacy. Cusanus was originally of this opinion.
In De concordantia catholica, Cusanus upholds the doctrine of conciliar supremacy over the pope. “Even in the decision on matters of faith which belongs to him by virtue of his primacy he is under the council of the Catholic Church” (I, 15, no. 61). “The council has power both over abuses and the one who causes the abuses … Its power is immediately from Christ and it is in every respect over both the pope and the Apostolic See” (II, 16, no. 148). It can remove him for heresy and “when he governs incompetently” (II, 18, no. 159). The council’s “judgment is always better than the individual judgment of the Roman pontiff” (II, 18, no. 158). “The canons of the ancients [in the early church councils] are of greater authority than decretals of the popes which contradict them – despite what modern writers say” (II, 18, no. 177). “The universal council … has supreme power in all things over the Roman pontiff” (II, 34, no. 249).
But in the same work, Cusanus also asserts that the papacy as an institution does not depend on the council; it is part of the divinely-established constitution of the church with rights and prerogatives of its own. Christ made Peter and his successor, the pope, the head of the church “to maintain unity” and “to avoid schism” (I, 6, no. 35; II, 34, nos. 259, 262, and 264). The pope is “prince of bishops” and he has “rulership over all men in the church, for he is the captain of that army” (I, 15, no. 61). He is “first over the others” (II, 13, no. 126).
After endorsing the power of the papacy, Cusanus states that both pope and council represent the whole church, although the representation of the council is more direct and more superior to that of the pope.
In their examination of Cusanus’s contribution to the presidency debate in a General Council, Bond, Christianson and Izbicki explain the point of tension between corporate and individual consent in the De concordantia catholica:“Cusa tried to reconcile two apparently conflicting principles: governance of the church through a divinely ordained hierarchy of offices and the consent of the governed.”
Some of the early church councils, as well as the recent Council of Constance, appeared to assert a general theory of conciliar supremacy over the pope. Yet statements of the papacy and in the written records of the church seemed to propound a theory of papal supremacy.
Cusanus, however, began to doubt the value of the councils, whose direction veered away from fundamental church reforms and towards bitter struggles with the pope. Scholars have sought an explanation for Cusanus’s apparent change of course. Allegations have ranged from political expediency and career enhancement to assertions that Cusanus was applying the lofty principles of his De concordantia catholica.
James E. Biechler claims that Cusanus experienced a “humanist’s crisis of identity” at Basle, that his “own psychological need for personal integration was a reflection of the needs of his age. His personal resourcefulness in revising traditional symbols and in appropriating others for a resolution of his conflict provides a key for our understanding both of the demise of the conciliar movement and the religious dynamic of Renaissance Europe.”
Biechler would say that Cusanus’s failure to achieve a fulfilling experience at the council led to a religious conversion whose nature is of a gradual emergence.
A similar though somewhat less psychoanalytical position is stated by Bett who suggests that the Council of Basle which, by 1437, had become so chaotic that little imagination is needed to see why “a philosophical mind would begin to despair of any real reformation emerging from the clamorous democracy of the Council.”
For Sigmund there is less an ideological change in Cusanus than a consistency in his belief in a harmony, unity and reunion of all Christians, and allegiance to authority and hierarchy.
According to Cusa’s reform theology, harmony will only result when each member of the Church’s body is fulfilling the obligations of his vocation within the total complex of the Church’s vast life.
But even after Cusanus abandoned the conciliar movement he continued to cling to such notions as consensus, repraesentatio and universitas catholicorum.
In addition to his previous appointments, he found himself elected dean of St. Mary in Oberwesel, Dean of St. Florin at Koblenz and provost at Münstermaifeld. Already he had twice declined the chair of canon law at the University of Louvain.
Papal Legate and Learned Ignorance.
A pivotal point in his life occurred in 1437 when the orthodox minority sent him to Pope Eugene IV, whom he strongly supported. The pope entrusted him and two other bishops with a mission to Constantinople to help secure Greek approval for a joint East-West council in Italy. In the course of two months he gained over for the Council of Florence, John Paleaologus VIII, Emperor of Byzantium, Joseph II, Patriarch of Constantinople, eight metropolitans of the Greek Church, including Bessarion, Archbishop of Nicaea and Mark Eugenicus, Metropolitan of Ephesus, scores of bishops, ecclesiastical dignitaries, theologians, monks and courtiers. His interaction with the Eastern Orthodox Christians provided him with a fresh vision of unity and difference coexisting not only within the church but also in the soul’s experience of God and the world.
Not much is known about Cusanus’s other activities in Greece but it is clear he spent much time hunting manuscripts. The books he brought back included books on Islam and, more in view of the forthcoming reunion council, Greek codices of the earlier councils and patristic writings. He is given credit for the important Adversus Eunomium of Saint Basil, a Greek edition of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and the Theologia Platonis of Proclus.
During this trip Cusanus also reports having a profound, revelatory experience which he believed to be a divine gift. It was a visionary experience of the "incomprehensible" that opened up new ways for Cusanus to speak about the ineffable. Nicholas on several occasions referred to the event as having occupied a pivotal position in his life.“... returning by sea from Greece when by what I believe was a celestial gift from the father of lights, from whom comes every perfect gift, I was led to embrace incomprehensibles incomprehensibly in learned ignorance, by transcending those incorruptible truths that can be humanly known.”
It was two years after this experience that Cusanus finished De docta ignorantia. All three sections of the book deal with ignorance as the greatest learning, as maxima doctrina.
They strive to develop this principle along two lines – the conditions and limits of knowledge and the coincidence of opposites.If maximitas, the quality of being maximum, can be attributed to whatever thing than which nothing can be greater, then it is a quality only of the infinite. If unity is a necessary correlate of infinitude, no quality can be opposed to maximitas; it coincides with the absolutely minimum. This is what is accepted also as God. Deity, being maximitas, cannot be comprehended in any ordinary way, and the universal unity which comes from it is only partially comprehended by reason.
Reason 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.Maximitas, beyond all proportionality, is unknowable by the ordinary modes of understanding. Yet one may approach ever closer to truth, just as proportions may approximate infinitude rather like a hyperbolic curve in a graph of a quadratic equation approaches, without ever reaching, some limit. Absolute knowledge is approached but never attained by the activities of the rational mind.
We arrive at the knowledge of the reality (God), and hence of unity and the infinite, only by means of being awakened by faith. For Cusanus, however, faith is not adherence to some set of dogmas, but is faith in Jesus as the radiance of God. This faith that is represented in Jesus, 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 Cusanus a new one on which logic must be based in order to arrive at the knowledge of reality. Hence the title of Cusanus's 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).
One can say that all the works that Cusanus wrote after 1440 were merely variations on themes in the De docta ignorantia. The immediate reaction to the doctrine of learned ignorance was that it was heretical, irreligious, and would lead to the destruction of systematic theology. But subsequent studies of Cusanus’s other writings have demonstrated that his doctrine is rooted much more deeply in biblical and patristic tradition than has generally been assumed.
Bishop of Brixen
After reporting the result of his missions to the pope at Ferrara, in 1438, he was created papal legate to support the cause of Eugene IV. He did so before the Diets of Mainz (1441), Frankfort (1442), Nuremberg (1444), again of Frankfort (1446), and even at the court of Charles VII of France, with such force that Aeneas Sylvius called him the Hercules of the Eugenians.
As a reward Eugene IV nominated him cardinal; but Nicholas declined the dignity.
It needed a command of the next pope, Nicholas V, to bring him to Rome for the acceptance of this honor. In 1449 he was proclaimed cardinal-priest of the title of St. Pietro ad Vincula and the bishopric of Brixen (now Bressanone).
His countrymen were astounded, since few cardinals had been German, and Nicholas was everywhere enthusiastically received as Cardinalis Teutonicus. His new dignity was fraught with labors and crosses. The Diocese of Brixen needed a reformer, but, owing to the opposition of the chapter and of Sigmund, Duke of Austria and Count of the Tyrol, Cusa could not take possession of the see until two years later.
In the meantime the cardinal was sent by Nicholas V, as papal legate, to Northern Germany and the Netherlands. He was to preach the Jubilee indulgence and to promote the crusade against the Turks; to visit, reform, and correct parishes, monasteries, hospitals; to end the dissensions between the Duke of Cleve and the Archbishop of Cologne; and to treat with the Duke of Burgundy with a view to peace between England and France. He crossed the Brenner in January, 1451, held a provincial synod at Salzburg, visited Vienna, Munich, Ratisbon, and Nuremberg, held a diocesan synod at Bamberg, presided over the provincial chapter of the Benedictines at Würzburg, and reformed the monasteries in the Dioceses of Erfurt, Thuringia, Magdeburg, Hildesheim, and Minden. Through the Netherlands he was accompanied by his friend Denys the Carthusian. In 1452 he concluded his visitations by holding a provincial synod at Cologne.
Everywhere, according to Abbot Trithemius, he had appeared as an angel of light and peace, but it was not to be so in his own diocese. The troubles began with the Poor Clares of Brixen and the Benedictine nuns of Sonnenburg, who needed reformation. When he sought to replace debauched abbess Verena Stuben who did not even know the basic rules of her order, she sought the support of the Austrian archduke Sigismund.
He gladly lent armies in exchange for land and favors, but Nicholas refused to capitulate. The cardinal had to take refuge in the stronghold of Andraz, at Buchenstein. In 1460 the duke made him prisoner at Burneck and extorted from him a treaty unfavorable to the bishopric. Nicholas fled to his long-standing friend and fellow reformer Aeneas Sylvius, who had recently ascended to the papal throne as Pius II. The Pope excommunicated the duke and laid an interdict upon the diocese, to be enforced by the Archbishop of Salzburg. But the duke, himself an immoral man, and, further, instigated by the antipapal humanist Heimburg, defied the pope and appealed to a general council. It needed the strong influence of the emperor, Frederick III, to make him finally (1464) submit to the Church.
Last Days and Death
In Rome, Pius II and Nicholas undertook fundamental reforms, but the times and human temperament were against them. Whilst Pius was out of the city, Nicholas governed Rome as vicarius generalis – the temporal authority of the papacy – with great success.
Nicholas became involved in trying to win the cooperation of northern Italian nobles, in settling Hussite dissensions in Bohemia, and in examining the basis of Islam and preparing for possible Ottoman incursions (especially after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and its total collapse in 1457).
The cardinal, who had accompanied Pius II to the Venetian fleet at Ancona, was sent by the pope to Leghorn to hasten the Genoese crusaders, but on the way succumbed to an illness, the result of his ill-treatment at the hands of Sigmund, from which he had never fully recovered.
After lingering for weeks he died on August 11th, 1464 at Todi, Umbria, in the presence of his friends, the physician Toscanelli and Bishop Johannes Andreae.
The body of Nicholas of Cusa rests in his own titular church, San Pietro in Vincoli at Rome, beneath an effigy of him sculptured in relief, but his heart is deposited before the altar in the hospital of Cues. This hospital was the cardinal's own foundation. By mutual agreement with his sister Clare and his brother John, his entire inheritance was made the basis of the foundation, and by the cardinal's last will his altar service, manuscript library, and scientific instruments were bequeathed to it. The extensive buildings with chapel, cloister, and refectory, which were erected in 1451-56, stand to this day, and serve their original purpose of a home for thirty-three old men, in honor of the thirty-three years of Christ's earthly life.
Another foundation of the cardinal was a residence at Deventer, called the Bursa Cusana, where twenty poor clerical students were to be supported. Among bequests, a sum of 260 ducats was left to S. Maria dell' Anima in Rome, for an infirmary. In the archives of this institution is found the original document of the cardinal's last will.
Cusanus’s greatest achievements were in science and philosophy. His researches and writings formed major advances in Renaissance mathematics and concepts of knowledge. In mathematics Nicholas propounded significant concepts of the infinitesimal and contributed to modern relativity theory. In matters of philosophy and theology Cusanus expressed the infinitude of God and the position of the believer in the creation.
Hugh Lawrence Bond, the author of Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings, has included translations of five different works by Cusanus:
• On Learned Ignorance
• Dialogue on the Hidden God
• On Seeking God
• On the Vision of God
• On the Summit of Contemplation
The message of these works may be summarized as follows:
• God as he exists in Himself is unknowable and incomprehensible.
• Yet God as He exists in His creation is simplicity Itself, and this invisible God can be seen within creation when viewed by an individual whose intellect has become similarly simple.
• Christ as Logos is the simple essence which sustains the universe and the medium through which the believer is united to God.
• Union with Christ does not annihilate individuality, but rather perfects it in Christ since Christ makes up for all the individual's deficiencies.The above points are approached again and again from many different angles, using many different paradigms.