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Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Also called Nicolaus Cusanus, this German cardinal takes his distinguishing name from the city of his birth, Kues (or Cusa, in Latin), on the Moselle river between Koblenz and Trier. Nicholas was influenced by Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Ramon Llull, Ricoldo of Montecroce, Master Eckhart, Jean Gerson and Heimericus de Campo, as well as by more distant figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scottus Eriugena. His eclectic system of thought pointed in the direction of a transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In his own day as in ours, Nicholas was most widely known for his early work De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance). In it, he gives expression to his view that the human mind needs to discover its necessary ignorance of what the Divine Being is like, an ignorance that results from the infinite ontological and cognitive disproportion between Infinity itself (that is, God) and the finite human or angelic knower. Correlated with the doctrine of docta ignorantia is that of coincidentia oppositorum in deo, the coincidence of opposites in God. All things coincide in God in the sense that God, as undifferentiated being, is beyond all opposition, beyond all determination as this rather than that.

Nicholas is also known for his rudimentary cosmological speculation, his prefiguring of certain metaphysical and epistemological themes found later in Leibniz, Kant and Hegel, his ecclesiological teachings regarding the controversy over papal versus conciliar authority, his advocacy of a religious ecumenism of sorts, his interest in purely mathematical topics and his influence on the theologian Paul Tillich in the twentieth century. A striking tribute to Nicholas’ memory still stands today: the hospice for elderly, indigent men that he caused to be erected at Kues between 1452 and 1458 and that he both endowed financially and invested with his personal library. This small but splendid library, unravaged by the intervening wars and consisting of some three hundred volumes, includes manuscripts written in Nicholas’ own hand.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Jasper. Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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