Nicholas of Kues – Biography
Nicholas of Kues (also known as Nicholas of Kues of Cusa) was born sometime in the year 1401 in Bernkastel-Kues, Germany and died August 11, 1464 in Todi, Italy. He was a cardinal, philosopher, mathematician, reformer, and mystic and is often regarded as the most important German scholar of the fifteenth century.
The son of a wealthy merchant, Nicholas of Kues went to Heidelberg around 1416 or 1417 in order to study liberal arts. He then went to Italy and continued his studies at the University in Padua, where, in 1423, he obtained a “doctor decretorum” in canonical law. During this time he also devoted himself to mathematical, philosophical, and astronomical studies.
Two years later, Nicholas of Kues was appointed secretary of Otto of Ziegenhain, the archbishop of Trier, and in 1426 began to both study and lecture at the University of Köln. Here he gained fame for having proven that the Donation of Constantine (in which Constantine I transferred great privileges to the pope) was actually a forgery.
After the death of the archbishop in 1430, Nicholas of Kues took up a job at the Council of Basel. There he wrote De concordantia catholica (Catholic Concordance, 1433). In this work, Nicholas of Kues not only advocated for a greater influence of the councils over the papacy, but also for the first time expressed his ideas of consent and harmony, such as having a union of the churches. In view of a supposed reunification with the Eastern Church, Nicholas of Kues in 1436 was elected praecognitor. Though unconvinced that the work of the council had any actual impact on the cause of the unification of the churches, Nicholas of Kues soon turned sides. In 1437, Nicholas of Kues was part of a delegation to Constantinople, whose task was to further promote a reconciliation of the Greek and the Roman Church.
Two works provide evidence of Nicholas of Kues’ relative openness towards other religious forms: De pace fidei (The Peace of Faith, 1453) and Cribratio Alcorani (Sieving of the Koran, 1460/61). In the former he affirms the equal “truth content” of all religions, envisioning a meeting of delegates of all religions in heaven. In the latter work, which was commissioned by Pope Pius II in order to sustain his plan of crusading the Turks, he tries to reconcile Islam with Christianity. Quite radical for his time, Nicholas of Kues affirms that the Koran, if properly read, is in accordance with (in his view the superior) Christian faith.
During the following years, Nicholas of Kues served as a papal diplomat and was made a cardinal. In 1450 he also became bishop of Brixen in Tyrol. After many years of conflict with the count of Tyrol, he was eventually sent back to Rome in 1458, where he served as an advisor for Pius II.
Not least because of his studies, Nicholas of Kues mastered an enormous variety of skills ranging in fields from mathematics, science, and medicine to philosophy and theology. One of his main interests, however, was the question of how the human mind can attain knowledge of God.
Nicholas of Kues’ most important work is De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance, 1440), in which he explores possible ways of understanding God by means of our limited human understanding. Being finite beings, we are unable to really understand the infinite divine or, if so, only symbolically¾ultimately, we are not capable of knowing God. From this he concludes that the more we know, the more we understand about our ignorance. In order to do so, he argues, we have to enter a state of ignorance, in which we become aware of our limits.
Nicholas of Kues is convinced that truth can only be measured by truth, just as a non-circle cannot measure a circle. This he applies to the intellect, arguing that the latter relates to truth as does a polygon to a circle. The more angles, the more similar it is to the circle; yet it cannot become the same. At the same time, however, the intellect is itself part of God, as God is in everything. Yet despite all these limitations, Nicholas of Kues does believe in the intellect’s ability to approach this infinite divine in an unlimited way. For, as he affirms, everything in the universe possesses some singularity and nothing can be entirely superior.
Clearly tied to Ignorantia, Nicholas of Kues’ second major work, entitled De coniecturis (On Conjectures) deploys various dualities. According to him, all our knowledge takes place in finitude, thus in alteritas, human otherness. He therewith affirms the contrast between alteritas and unitas, divine oneness. This is also true for his distinction between ratio and intellectus¾only through the latter is an understanding (of God) possible, whereas the former represents the limited human mind. Following, he states that man is God—for everything is God. As such, being man, he is confined to be a human God. The same is applied to the world: man, for being man, is a human world. Albeit limited, conjectures, for Nicholas of Kues, are the only way of opening the path towards the truth.
Another notable work is De Visione Dei (On the Vision of God, 1453), written for the monks of the monastery in Tegernsee. In it, Nicholas of Kues argues that God, beyond our understanding, can be seen only from a very limited perspective. God, in turn, sees everything.
In his Idiota de mente (The layman: About mind, 1450) Nicholas of Kues again gives evidence of his belief that God is in everything. Consequently, he asserts that the human mind is an image of God: whereas the “divine mind” produces all that is, the human mind merely attains knowledge of that which is. In his dialogue De non aliud (On the Not-Other, 1461/62) he elaborates on “the Not-Other” as a possible synonym for God. While God cannot be defined, there is nothing that is not (or outside of) God. To think of God as an Other would imply that He would not be complete.
Other important writings include: Idiota de sapientia (1450), Idiota de staticis experimentis (1450), De Pace Fidei (1453), Cribatio Alchorani (1461), De venatione sapientiae (1462), De ludo globi (1463), Compendium (1464) and De apice theoriae (1464).
In 1464, Nicholas of Kues died during a journey in Todi. He was a highly original and brilliant scholar and it is widely believed that Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus, to name the most important, were aware of his writings. Though rather more a mystic than a “scientist,” in the “true” sense of the word, Nicholas of Kues is often thought to have anticipated not only the work of Johannes Kepler, but, in his asserting that the earth is by no means the centre of the universe, also that of Nicolaus Copernicus and Giordano Bruno. Otherwise, it was not until the late nineteenth century that his work was rediscovered by Neo-Kantians. It was first, and foremost, rediscovered by Cassirer, who writes of Nicholas of Kues as being "the first modern thinker".