Cassirer, Ernst. The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Trans. Mario Domandi. Phila: U of Penn Press, 1963.

(excerpted by Clifford Stetner)


NICHOLAS CUSANUS                                



Cusanus constantly refers to the sources of this mysticism, especially to the writings of Meister Eckhart and the Pseudo-Dionysius. And so it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to draw a definite line of separation between them.

?such an orientation of ?mystical? theology might seem to conflict with Scholasticism; but in fact, this conflict itself forms one of the characteristic features of the whole intellectual physiognomy of Scholasticism itself. The great leaders of Scholasticism had long since appropriated the doctrines of the Pseudo-Dionysius. John Erigena referred to the writing of the Areopagite; and the treatment of then in commentaries by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas gave then a solid place in the medieval system of life and learning.

?the world of the Areopagite. The very titles of his works suggest this structure, and they also suggest the place these works occupy within the whole medieval conception of God and the world. In these works, for the first time, the problem of hierarchy is presented in all its sharpness and metaphysical breadth, in its assumptions and in its manifold transformations. In addition to the work on divine names, the works on the hierarchy of heaven and the church were especially influential in the succeeding epoch. In these works the two basic intellectual forces and motifs that form the basis of medieval faith and knowledge meet for the first time and become one; we have here the actual fusion of the Christian doctrine of salvation and Hellenistic speculation.


?graduated cosmos. The world separates itself into a lower and a higher, into a sensible and an intelligible world. Not only do these worlds stand opposed to each other; their essences, in fact, consist precisely in their mutual negation, in their polar antithesis. But across this abyss of negation a spiritual bond extends between the two worlds. From one pole to the other, from the super-being and super-one, the domain of absolute form, reaching down to matter as the absolute-formless, there is an unbroken path of mediation. The infinite passes over to the finite on this path and the finite returns on it back to the infinite. The whole process of redemption is included in it: it is the Incarnation of God, just as it is the deification of man. In this conception, there is always a ?between? to be bridged; there is always a separating medium that cannot be jumped over but must be traversed step by step in strictly ordered succession. This stepladder leading form the celestial to the earthly, and from here back up; again, is systematically described and depicted in the works of Dionysius. Between God and man there is the world of pure intelligences and heavenly powers it consists of three parts. In the first circle belong the Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Thrones; in the second, the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers; in the third, the Principalities, the Archangels, and the Angels. Thus all being emanates from God in determined degrees of radiation, only to gather up again in Him and to re-concentrate in him. Just as all radii of a circle come form its centre, so God is the beginning and end of all things. Just as these radii come closer together the closer they get to the centre, so the union of essences prevails over their separation the less distant they are from the common centre, the source of being and of life. And with that we also have the justification, the actual theodicy of ecclesiastical order, which is essentially nothing but the complete reproduction of the spiritual-cosmic order. The ecclesiastical reflects the heavenly hierarchy.


?De docta ignorantia gives birth to a new thought, and point to a completely new total intellectual orientation. Here, too, the starting point is the opposition between the being of the absolute and the being of the empirical-conditioned, i.e., between the being of the infinite and of the finite.?Cusanus the first modern thinker. His first step consists in asking not about God, but about the possibility of knowledge about God.


By its essence and by definition, the absolute object lies beyond every possibility of comparison and measurement and therefore beyond the possibility of knowledge.

?Finiti et infiniti nulla proportio.? The distance between the finite and the infinite remains the same no matter how many intermediate terms we may place between them.

?at the beginning of the De docta ignorantia a decisive turn has been taken. For now, with a single, sharp incision the bond has been severed that had hitherto joined Scholastic theology and Scholastic logic. Logic, in the form it had till now, has ceased to be an organ of speculative theology.

William of Occam?s terminism, and the ?modern? movement in Scholasticism attached to it, had already loosened the connection the, in the classical systems of realism, subsisted between logic and grammar on the one hand and theology and metaphysics of the other.


If the possibility of thinking the absolute and infinite is to exist, this thought cannot and may not lean on the crutches of traditional ?logic?, which can lead us only from one finite and conditioned to another, but never takes us beyond the domain of finiteness and conditionality.


In the mystical theology of the fifteenth century two fundamental tendencies stand sharply opposed to each other; the one bases itself on the intellect; the other considers the will to be the basic force and organ of union with God.

?Cusanus sides emphatically with the former. True love of God is amor Dei intellectualis: it includes knowledge as a necessary element and necessary condition. Now one can love what he has not, in son sense known. Love by itself, without any admixture of knowledge, would be an impossibility. Whatever is loved is, by that very act, considered good?

?docta ignorantia as ?knowing ignorance? re-affirms itself once again.

?considered negatively, emphasized the opposition of the absolute to every form of rational, logical-conceptual knowledge?

Unconditioned divine being, inaccessible to discursive knowledge through the mere concept, requires a new mode and a new form of knowledge.

?visio intellectualis?


?in this vision, we see ourselves taken beyond all empirical differences of being and beyond all merely conceptual distinctions, to the simple origin, i.e., to the point that lies beyond all divisions and antitheses. In this kind of vision, and only in it, the true filiatio Dei is attained which Scholastic theology had sought in vain to reach, even believing itself able, so to speak , to extort it by means of the discursive concept.

For Dionysius the Areopagite, ?deification? takes place according to the hierarchical principle, i.e., in a completely determined series of steps?movement, illumination, and finally union; for Cusanus it is a single act, one in which man puts himself into an immediate relationship to God.

To explain the meaning and the purpose of then visio intellectualis, Cusanus relies not on the mystical form of passive contemplation, but on mathematics?

Cusanus? theology abandons scholastic logic, the logic of generic concepts, dominated by the principle of contradiction and of the excluded middle; but it demands in its place a new type of mathematical logic, one that does not exclude but, in fact requires the possibility of the coincidence of opposites, and requires the convergence of the absolute-Greatest with the Absolute-Smallest as the firm principle and the necessary vehicle of progressing knowledge.


?Quattrocento?history finds itself before a great decision?the decision between Plato and Aristotle. To be sure, it might seem as though the older humanism had also faced this decision.

For Petrarch, the surest guarantee of Plato?s superiority is his ?divine torrent of eloquence?.

Cusanus, instead, was perhaps the first Western thinker to attain an independent insight into the fundamental and essential sources of Platonic doctrine.

?chief of the embassy that went form the Council of Basle to Greece and returned to Italy?mastered Greek during his early studies at Padua, must have gained an immediate, vital view of the Platonic sources form his association with such men as Georgios Gemistos Plethon, Bessarion, et al.

?in constant touch with these sources?

In Cusanus? library, which has remained intact, we find the Republic, Phaedo, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedrus. In addition, Cusanus appears to be especially indebted to the Parmenides, which he knew in the commentary of Proclus.

?nourished on the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, on the Hermetic Books, and on Proclus?


That murky mixture of Platonic and Neo-Platonic thoughts which permeated the knowledge and thought of the Middle Ages could no longer suffice.

?there could no longer be any mere juxtaposition of Platonic and Neo-Platonic ideas. Everything in him pressed for a clear distinction between them.

The speculations of Cusanus became an arena in which elements of thought that had indiscriminately commingled in medieval philosophy now met, recognized each other, and measured themselves against each other.

..clarification of the original meaning of Platonism?a new intellectual line of demarcation between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and between Plato and No-Platonism on the other.

Plato?s vision of the world is characterized by the sharp division he makes between the sensible and the intelligible world, i.e., between the world of appearances and the world of ideas.

Everything predicated of the one must be denied to the other. All the characteristics of the ?idea? may therefore be deduced antithetically from those of appearance. If continuous flux is characteristic of appearance, abiding permanence is proper to the idea.


Knowledge and opinion are distinguished on this basis: the one aims at that which is constant being, always acting in the same fashion; and the other at the mere succession of perceptions, of representations, of images.

Whoever ignores this dualism destroys the presuppositions of knowledge, the sense and meaning of judgment, and therewith all the force of scientific ?dialogue??

Appearance and Idea, the world of phenomena and noumena, can be related through thought; the one can and must be measured by the other. But never does any kind of ?mixture? take place?

?the pure ?meaning? of the idea cannot be given as a particular ?existent?, and simple existence does not in itself possess an ideal significance, a permanent sense, or a value content.

Aristotle?s criticism of the Platonic doctrine begins with his objection to this separation of the realm of existence and the realm of ideal ?meaning?. Reality is one. How is it possible to grasp it in two different ways of knowing, each the exact opposite of the other?

The barrier between ?appearance? and ?idea? in the Platonic sense disappears. The ?sensible? and the ?intelligible?, the ?lower? and the ?higher?, the ?divine? and the ?earthly? are joined by a single, steady nexus of activity. The world is a self-enclosed sphere, within, which there are only differences of degree. Force flows from the divine unmoved mover of the universe to the remotest celestial circles, there to be distributed, in a steady and regulated sequence, to the whole of becoming; to be communicated, by means of the concentric celestial spheres, to the sublunar world.


Plotinus and Neo-Platonism tried to unite the fundamental ideas of Platonic and Aristotelian thought; but in fact, they succeeded only in producing an eclectic mixture. The Neo-Platonic system is dominated by the Platonic idea of ?transcendence?, i.e., by the absolute opposition between the intelligible and the sensible. The opposition is described completely in Platonic fashion and, indeed, in language even more emphatic than Plato had used. But by adopting the Aristotelian concept of development, the Neo-Platonists resolve d the dialectical tension indispensable to the Platonic system.

?mate to produce the bastard concept of ?emanation?. The absolute remains as the super-finite, the super-one, and the super-being, pure in itself. Nevertheless because of the super-abundance it produces the multiformity of the universe, down to formless matter as the extreme limit of non-being. A look at the Pseudo-Dionysian writings has shown us that the Christian Middle Ages adopted this premise and re-reshaped it to suit its own ends. It gained thereby the fundamental category of graduated mediation, which on the one hand allowed the integral existence of divine transcendence, and on the other hand mastered it, both theoretically and practically, with a hierarchy of concepts and of spiritual forces. Through the miracle of the ecclesiastical order of life and salvation, transcendence was now both recognized and conquered. In this miracle, the invisible had become visible, the inconceivable had become conceivable to man.


?Cusanus?objective may be said to be the establishment of a new relationship between the ?sensible? and the ?super- sensible?, between the ?empirical? and the ?intellectual?. The systematic consideration and conception of this relationship leads us back to the genuine Platonic basic concepts.