Nicholas of Cusa

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Nicholas of Cusa, from a painting by Master of the Life of the Virgin, located in the St. Nikolaus-Hospital at Kues (c. 1480)

Nicholas of Cusa (* 1401 in Kues, today Bernkastel-Kues; † 11 August 1464 in Todi, Umbria), also Nicholas of Kues, Latinised Nicolaus Cusanus, was a universally educated German philosopher, theologian and mathematician who was already famous during his lifetime. He was one of the first German humanists in the era of transition between the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period. Whether the conventional designation "mystic" seems to make sense for him depends on the definition of the term mysticism and is judged differently in research.

In church politics, Nicholas played a significant role, especially in the disputes over church reform. At the Council of Basel, he was initially on the side of the majority of the council participants, who demanded a limitation of the Pope's powers. Later, however, he switched to the papal camp, which ultimately gained the upper hand. He campaigned vigorously for papal interests, showed diplomatic skill and made a brilliant career as a cardinal (from 1448), papal legate, prince-bishop of Brixen and vicar-general in the Papal States. In Brixen, however, he encountered massive resistance from the nobility and the sovereign, against whom he was unable to prevail.

As a philosopher, Nicholas stood in the tradition of Neoplatonism, whose ideas he absorbed from both ancient and medieval writings. His thinking revolved around the concept of the collapse of opposites into a unity (coincidentia oppositorum), in which the contradictions between seemingly incompatible things dissolve. Metaphysically and theologically, he saw God as the place of this unity. Cusanus wrote about this in detail in one of his first writings, De docta ignorantia ("On Learned Ignorance", 1440). He also professed an ideal of unity in state theory and politics. The goal of achieving the greatest possible unity was of the highest value to him; in contrast, he considered factual differences of opinion to be of secondary importance. In the spirit of this way of thinking, he developed a concept of religious tolerance that was unusual for his time. He conceded a certain truthfulness and right to exist to Islam, which he dealt with intensively.

Rudolf Steiner on Nicholas of Cusa

„One looks deeply into the characteristics of this time when one considers Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus. (Read about him in my book "Mysticism in the Rise of Modern Spiritual Life"). His personality is like a column of markers of the time. He wants to bring to general validity views which do not fight the grievances of the physical world in swarm-spiritual tendencies, but which, through a healthy human sense, lead back into this world what has gone off the rails. Look at his work at the Basel Council and elsewhere within his ecclesiastical community, and you will notice this.

If the Cusan is thus fully inclined towards the turn of development with the unfolding of the soul of consciousness, one sees him on the other hand reveal views which show Michael's powers in a luminous way. He introduces into his time the good old ideas which led the human soul-sense to the development of abilities for the perception of the essential intelligences in the cosmos, when Michael still administered the world-intellectuality. The "learned ignorance" of which he speaks is a comprehension that lies above the perception directed towards the world of the senses, which leads thinking beyond intellectuality - ordinary knowledge - into a region where - in ignorance - but instead in experiential seeing the spiritual is grasped. Thus the Cusanian is the personality who, feeling the disturbance of the cosmic equilibrium by Michael in his own soul life, intuitively wants to contribute as much as possible to orienting this disturbance towards the salvation of humanity.“ (Lit.:GA 26, p. 143f)

„I would like to remind you of a leading spirit of the 15th century who was actually a theosophist even then, a theosophist in our sense of the word. He was a Catholic cardinal. I would like to remind you of the subtle theosophist Nicolaus Cusanus, because he can be a model for us theosophists today. He said that there is a core in all religions, that they are different aspects of one original religion, that they should be reconciled, that they should be deepened. One should seek truth in them, but not presume to be able to grasp the original truth oneself.

Cusanus seeks to clarify the concept of God in a profound way. If you understand this view of Cusanus, you will get an idea of the fact that Christianity also had important, profound spirits within the Middle Ages, spirits of such a kind that today we cannot even conceive of them with our ideas. So Cusanus says - as did many other predecessors before him: "We have our concepts, our thoughts. Where do all our human concepts come from? From what surrounds us, what we have experienced. But what we have experienced is only a small elaboration of the infinite. And if we go to the highest, we take the concept of being itself. Is that not also a human concept? Where do we get the concept of being? We live in the world. It makes an impression on our organs of touch, on our eyes. And of what we see, hear, we say: it is. We attach being to it. Basically, "a thing is" means as much as: I have seen it. - Being has the same root as "seeing". When we say God is, we are attaching to God's being an idea that we have gained only from our experience. We say nothing else than that God has a quality which we have perceived in various things. That is why Cusanus uttered a word that is deeply significant. He says: God does not have being, he has superbeing. - This is not an idea that we can gain with our senses. That is why the sensation of the infinite lives in Cusanus' soul. It is deeply moving how this cardinal says: "I have studied theology all my life, I have also pursued the sciences of the world and - as far as they can be recognised with the intellect - I have also understood them. But then I became aware within myself, and through this I experienced: in the human soul lives a self which is awakened more and more by the human soul. - You can read such things in Cusanus. The meaning of what he says goes far beyond what we think and imagine today.“ (Lit.:GA 52, p. 57f)

Nicholas of Cusa took a different path from the German mystics:

„These mystics want to receive something into the I-consciousness, to fill it with something. They therefore strive for an inner life that is 'completely serene', that surrenders itself in tranquillity, and that awaits the way in which the interior of the soul fills itself with the 'divine I' [...]

Nicolaus Cusanus (Nikolaus Chrypffs, born in Kues on the Mosel in 1401, died in 1464) takes a different path. He strives beyond the intellectually attainable knowledge to a state of soul in which this knowledge ceases and the soul meets its God in "knowing ignorance", docta ignorantia. On the face of it, this bears much resemblance to Plotinus' aspiration. But the state of the soul is different in the two personalities. Plotinus is convinced that there is more to the human soul than the world of thought. When the soul develops the power that belongs to it outside thought, it perceptively reaches where it always is without knowing it in ordinary life; Cusanus feels alone with his "I"; this has no connection in itself with his God. He is outside the "I". The 'I' meets him when it reaches 'knowing ignorance'.“ (Lit.:GA 18, p. 98)

According to Rudolf Steiner, Nicolaus Cusanus was reborn a little later as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 - 1543):

„Such a high personality as Nicolaus Cusanus already acted out of the Arupa sphere in ordinary life. It is true that every human being acts out of the Arupa sphere, but only a few know anything about it. The higher a person has risen into the Arupa sphere in the time between two earth lives, the more the divine breaks through in him. Cusanus wrote a work on non-knowledge out of higher knowledge: "De docta ignorantia". Ignorantia means not-knowing, and not-knowing here is synonymous with higher looking. In his books he pronounced the following: There is a core of truth in all religions, we only need to look deep enough into them. - He has also said that the earth moves around the sun. He said this out of an intuition. Copernicus only had this insight in the 16th century, Cusanus already in the 15th century. Such an incarnation as that of Cusanus must be seen in the context of his later incarnation. Cusanus already points on the one hand to the future theosophy and on the other hand to the future modern natural science. This had an influence on his subsequent incarnation. It was Nicholas Cusanus who reappeared in Copernicus.“ (Lit.:GA 88, p. 183)

In Nicholas of Cusa, the spiritual-scientific and natural-scientific strivings were still closely linked. In his next incarnation as Nicolaus Copernicus, his focus was on natural science. Alongside this, the Rosicrucian current emerged.

„The same entity that was in Nicolaus Cusanus continued to work in Nicolaus Copernicus. But it is evident how just in those times the organisation of humanity had advanced so far towards the physical that the whole depth of Nicolaus Cusanus could only work in Copernicus in such a way that the outer physical world system came into being. What lived in Cusanus was, as it were, filtered, the spiritual thrown off and transformed into outer knowledge. There we see tangibly how in a short time that mighty impulse of 1250, where it had its centre in time, was to have an effect. And that which flowed into our earth at this point continued to have an effect in its own way. It continued to have an effect in these two currents, one of which is materialistic and will become even more materialistic, the other striving for the spiritual and manifesting itself in particular in what we know as the Rosicrucian revelation, which flowed most intensively precisely from this point of departure, even if it had already prepared itself beforehand.“ (Lit.:GA 126, p. 97)



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