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Nicholas of Cusa

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Nicholas of Cusa, German cardinal, philosopher, and administrator, b. at Cues on the Moselle, in the Archdiocese of Trier, 1400 or 1401; d. at To di, in Umbria, August 11, 1464. His father, Johann Cryfts (Krebs), a wealthy boatman (nauta, not a “poor fisherman”), died in 1450 or 1451, and his mother, Catharina Roemers, in 1427. The legend that Nicholas fled from the ill-treatment of his father to Count Ulrich of Manderscheid is doubtfully reported by Hartzheim (Vita N. de Cusa, Trier, 1730), and has never been proved. Of his early education in a school of Deventer nothing is known; but in 1416 he was matriculated in the University of Heidelberg, by Rector Nicholas of Bettenberg, as “Nicolaus Cancer de Coesze, cler[icus] Trever[ensis] dioc[esis]”. A year later, 1417, he left for Padua, where he graduated, in 1423, as doctor in canon law (decretorum doctor) under the celebrated Giuliano Cesarini. It is said that, in later years, he was honored with the doctorate in civil law by the University of Bologna. At Padua he became the friend of Paolo Toscanelli, afterwards a celebrated physician and scientist. He studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and, in later years, Arabic, though, as his friend Johannes Andre, Bishop of Aleria, testifies, and as appears from the style of his writings, he was not a lover of rhetoric and poetry. That the loss of a lawsuit at Mainz should have decided his choice of the clerical state, is not supported by his previous career. Aided by the Archbishop of Trier, he matriculated in the University of Cologne, for divinity, under the rectorship of Petrus von Weiler, in 1425. His identity with the “Nicolaus Trevirensis”, who is mentioned as secretary to Cardinal Orsini, and papal legate for Germany in 1426, is not certain. After 1428, benefices at Coblenz, Oberwesel, Munstermaifeld, Dypurgh, St. Wendel, and Liege fell to his lot, successively or simultaneously.

His public career began in 1431, at the Council of Basle, which opened under the presidency of his former teacher, Giuliano Cesarini. The cause of Count Ulrich of Manderscheid, which he defended, was lost and the transactions with the Bohemians, in which he represented the German nation, proved fruitless. His main efforts at the council were for the reform of the calendar and for the unity, political and religious, of all Christendom. In 1437 the orthodox minority sent him to Eugene IV, whom he strongly supported. The pope entrusted him with a mission to Constantinople, where, in the course of two months, besides discovering Greek manuscripts of St. Basil and St. John Damascene, he gained over for the Council of Florence, the emperor, the patriarch, and twenty-eight archbishops. After reporting the result of his mission 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. Peter ad Vincula.

His new dignity was fraught with labors and crosses. The Diocese of Brixen, the see of which was vacant, needed a reformer. The Cardinal of Cusa was appointed (1450), but, owing to the opposition of the chapter and of Sigmund, Duke of Austria and Count of the Tyrol, 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 endeavor to reunite the Hussites with the Church; 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, but were shielded by Duke Sigmund. The cardinal had to take refuge in the stronghold of Andraz, at Buchenstein, and finally, by special authority received from Pius II, pronounced an interdict upon the Countship of the Tyrol. In 1460 the duke made him prisoner at Burneck and extorted from him a treaty unfavorable to the bishopric. Nicholas fled to Pope Pius II, who 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 anti-papal 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. This took place some days after the cardinal’s death. The account of the twelve years’ struggle given by Jager and, after him, by Prantl, is unfair to the “foreign reformer” (see Pastor, op. cit. infra, II). 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. He died at Todi, 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 in 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 agreementwith 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 theBursa 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, foran infirmary. In the archives of this institution is found the original document of the cardinal’s last will. The writings of Cardinal Nicholas may be classified under four heads: (I) juridical writings: “De concordantia catholica” and “De auctoritate praesidendi in concilio generali” (1432-35), both written on occasion of the Council of Basle. The superiority of the general councils over the pope is maintained; though, when the majority of the assembly drew from these writings startling conclusions unfavorable to Pope Eugene, the author seems to have changed his views, as appears from his action after 1437.The political reforms proposed were skillfully utilized by Gorres in 1814. (2) In his philosophical writings, composed after 1439, he set aside the definitions and methods of “Aristotelean Sect” and replaced them by deep speculations and mystical forms of his own. The best known in his first treatise, “De docta ignorantia” (1439-40), on the finite and the infinite. The Theory of Knowledge is critically examined in the treatise “De conjecturis” (1440-44) and especially in the “Compendium” (1464). In his Cosmol-ogy he calls the Creator the Possest (posse-est, the possible-actual), alluding to the argument: God is possible, therefore actual. His microcosmos in created things has some similarity with the “monads” and the “emanation” of Leibniz. (3) The theologicaltreatises are dogmatic, ascetic, and mystic. “De cribratione alchorani” (1460) was occasioned by his visit to Constantinople, and was written for the conversion of the Mohammedans. For the faithful were written: “De quaerendo Deum” (1445), “De filiatione Dei” (1445), “De visione Dei” (1453), “Excitationum libri X” (1431-64), and others. The favorite subject of his mystical speculations was the Trinity. His concept of God has been much disputed, and has even been called pantheistic. The context of his writings proves, however, that they are all strictly Christian. Scharpff calls his theology a Thomas a Kempis in philosophical language. (4) The scientific writings consist of a dozen treatises, mostly short, of which the “Reparatio Calendarii” (1436), with a correction of the Alphonsine Tables, is the most important. (For an account of its contents and its results, see Aloisius Lilius.) The shorter mathematical treatises are examined in Kastner’s “History of Mathematics”, II. Among them is a claim for the exact quadrature of the circle, which was refuted by Regiomontanus [see Johann Muller (Regiomontanus) ]. The astronomical views of the cardinal are scattered through his philosophical treatises. They evince complete independence of traditional doctrines, though they are based on symbolism of numbers, on combinations of letters, and on abstract speculations rather than observation. The earth is a star like other stars, is not the center of the universe, is not at rest, nor are its poles fixed. The celestial bodies are not strictly spherical, nor are their orbits circular. The difference between theory and appearance is explained by relative motion. Had Copernicus been aware of these assertions he would probably have been encouraged by them to publish his own monumental work. The collected editions of Nicholas of Cusa’s works are: Incunabula (before 1476) in 2 vols., incomplete; Paris (1514) in 3 vols.; Basle (1565), in 3 vols.


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