Nicholas of Cusa

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Nicholas of Cusa

(Nicolaus Cusanus), 1401?–1464, German humanist, scientist, statesman, and philosopher, from 1448 cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. The son of a fisherman, Nicholas was educated at Deventer, Heidelberg, Padua, Rome, and Cologne. He became bishop of Brixon (Bressanone) in 1450 and instituted widespread, though temporary, reforms of the monasteries. As papal legate he traveled throughout Europe preaching and negotiating diplomatic affairs for the Holy See. Nicholas' greatest achievements were in science and philosophy. His researches and writings formed major advances in Renaissance mathematics, astronomy, and mysticism. He held, before the time of Copernicus and Newton, that the nearly spherical earth revolves on its axis about the sun and that the stars are other worlds. He described the Gregorian calendar reform in detail, before it occurred. In mathematics Nicholas propounded significant concepts of the infinitesimal and contributed to modern relativity theory. His mystical religious philosophy was set forth in his essays De Docta Ignorantia [of learned ignorance] (1440, tr. 1954), De Conjuncturis Libri Duo, and De Visio Dei [vision of God] (1453, tr. 1928). It anticipated the direction of growth of Renaissance conjecture concerning the nature of man and his relationship to the cosmos.


See studies by M. Watanabe (1963); F. H. Burgevin (1969); and J. Hopkins (1986).

Cusa, Nicholas of:

see Nicholas of CusaNicholas of Cusa
(Nicolaus Cusanus), 1401?–1464, German humanist, scientist, statesman, and philosopher, from 1448 cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. The son of a fisherman, Nicholas was educated at Deventer, Heidelberg, Padua, Rome, and Cologne.
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Nicholas of Cusa


(Nicolaus Cusanus, Nicholas Krebs). Born 1401, in Cusa (Kues) on the Moselle; died Aug. 11, 1464, in Todi, Umbria. Philosopher, theologian, and scholar. Church and political figure.

Nicholas of Cusa was the son of a fisherman and vinedresser. He ran away from home and was taken in by Count Theodorich von Manderscheid, who provided him with a basic education and made it possible for him to continue his studies at the universities of Heidelberg and Padua (1416–23). Nicholas studied jurisprudence, mathematics, and the natural sciences. Later, he studied theology and was granted a doctorate in canon law. He participated in the Council of Basel (1432–37). Guided by the idea of ecumenical unity, which was fundamental in his thinking (On Catholic Concordance, 1433–34; On Peace and Concord of Faith, 1453), he spoke out during the council in favor of the centralization of the church. As Pope Pius II’s closest adviser, he attained the rank of cardinal in 1448. In 1450 he was made bishop of Brixen, and from 1458 he was general vicar in Rome.

Nicholas of Cusa had a significant influence on contemporary European politics. His biographers emphasize his tolerance, his advocacy of freedom of thought, and his attempts to resist the extremes of papal absolutism. He gave the universalism of medieval thought its ultimate expression, but, at the same time, he was the first modern philosopher, anticipating many ideas and methods of the mathematical natural sciences and developing in his work trends that are still relevant.

A dialectical tendency is evident in his desire to view all things and events in the world in their unity and entirety—in an infinite “maximum,” which is not reducible to the concrete and individual but which surpasses them and is, at the same time, mirrored by them. The infinite maximum is simultaneously an infinite “minimum,” since the wholeness of the maximum is not divisible (Of Learned Ignorance, 1440). In general, the absolute maximum is the “coincidence of opposites” (coincidentia oppositorum), to which Nicholas of Cusa gives a number of extremely different interpretations. For example, according to the principle of negation of negation (On the Not Other, 1462), the absolute “not other” is the “other” of “an other,” which in itself defines both itself and the other and surpasses both affirmation and negation, being an “affirmation of affirmation.”

The “absolute unified maximum” is interpreted as the highest achievement of reason and as something that surpasses reason itself. In his later works, Nicholas of Cusa viewed the absolute maximum not as “being” in the traditional sense but as “possibility,” which simultaneously includes the origin of both form and matter. The mathematical tendency in Nicholas’ thought was manifested, in its ontological aspect, in the idea that the infinite extension of the sides or diameter of a triangle, circle, sphere, and, in general, any geometric figure makes the figure coincide with an infinite straight line, and vice versa. The infinite figure obtained by such coincidence is the “form” and “model” for any specific geometric figure.

Nicholas of Cusa wrote seven treatises on mathematics. A forerunner of 17th-century mathematical analysis, he used the method of infinite approximation in determining the square of the circle, in trigonometric calculations, and in calculating the number π. Anticipating the cosmology of N. Copernicus, he taught that neither the earth nor any other celestial body can be the center of the universe. He also proved the infiniteness and perpetuity of the universe. Nicholas of Cusa did experimental studies on problems in the natural sciences (for example, an experiment to determine the weight of a growing plant), proposed a calendar reform, and drew a map of Central and Eastern Europe. He developed a constructive empirical approach in connection with his belief that the unfathomable absolute exists concretely in things, in which it is mirrored. Thus, knowledge of these things, which is an infinite approximation to the truth that lies in the absolute, is attained by means of “conjectures,” or “hypotheses”—a priori acts of human reason (On Conjecture, 1440).

A symbolic mythological tendency was manifested in Nicholas of Cusa’s concept of the living hierarchy of the cosmos and, above all, in the symbolic complexity of his style of thinking. The philosophical substantiation of church dogmas undertaken by him contains a distinctive dialectic of myth in the spirit of Neoplatonism.

The long-standing scholarly dispute as to whether Nicholas of Cusa was a theist or a pantheist is fruitless. If the absolute, suprauniversal maximum is emphasized, the entire system devised by Nicholas is given a monotheistic interpretation. (In the spirit of the negative theology of the Areopagite’s works, the “maximum,” “not other,” and “being-potential” turn out to be, in Nicholas of Cusa’s works, different designations or “names” for a transcendent god.) When the logical accent shifts to the minor, “specified” maximum, a pantheistic conception arises of a universe consisting exclusively of sensorially perceivable things that man must fathom to infinite depths. The pantheistic possibilities in Nicholas of Cusa’s work were consistently developed by G. Bruno.


Opera omnia. Basel, 1565.
Opera omnia. Leipzig-Hamburg, 1932–1970—.
Philosophisch-theologische Schriften, vols. 1–3. Vienna, 1964–67.
Werke, vols. 1–2. Berlin, 1967.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. filos, soch. Translated by S. A. Lopashov and A. F. Losev. Moscow, 1937.


Tazhurizina, Z. A. Filosofiia Nikolaia Kuzanskogo. Moscow, 1972.
Gandillac, M. de. La Philosophie de Nicolas de Cues. Paris, 1942.
Santinello, G. Il pensiero di Nicolo Cusano nella sua prospettiva estetica. Padua, 1958.
Tokarski, M. F. Filozofia bytu u Mikolaja z Kuzy. Lublin, 1958.
Zellinger, E. Cusanus-Konkordanz. Munich, 1960.
Kleinen, H., and R. Danzer. “Cusanus-Bibliographie (1920–1961).” In Mitteilungen und Forschungsbeiträge der Cusanus-Gesellschaft. Mainz, 1961. Pages 95–126.
Vansteenberghe, E. Le Cardinal Nicolas de Cues. Paris, 1963.
Jaspers, K. Nikolaus Cusanus. Munich, 1964.
Jacobi, K. Die Methode der Cusanischen Philosophie. Freiburg-Munich, 1969.
Cusanus-Gedächtnisschrift. Innsbruck-Munich, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nicholas of Cusa

1401--64, German cardinal, philosopher, and mathematician: anticipated Copernicus in asserting that the earth revolves around the sun
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005