Nicholas of Cusa

Authored by: Jasper Hopkins

Medieval Philosophy of Religion

Print publication date:  July  2013
Online publication date:  October  2014

Print ISBN: 9781844652211
eBook ISBN: 9781315729626
Adobe ISBN: 9781317546481


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The German prelate Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64) belonged to a period of history that was rife with transitional cross-currents. Some scholars, such as C. Warren Hollister, call this period the Late Middle Ages; others, such as Paul O. Kristeller, refer to it simply as the Renaissance. 1 1.

Primarily for heuristic reasons Hollister (1982) uses the following dates: 500–1050, Early Middle Ages; 1050–1300, High Middle Ages; 1300–1500, Late Middle Ages. Kristeller (1972: 110–55, esp. 111, 113) periodizes as follows: 500–1300/1350, Middle Ages; 1300/1350–1600, Renaissance.

Furthermore, some intellectual historians who take soundings in the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries claim to descry ripples of modern scientific enquiry as these issue forth from Theodoric of Freiburg’s experiment of 1304, when, using glass balls, he ascertained that a rainbow results from light’s passing through a medium whereby it is both reflected and refracted. And these same historians point to William Ockham’s philosophical nominalism and to his doubts about the validity of natural theology. By contrast, other intellectual historians choose to emphasize the continuity of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the past, as instanced by the unceasing ecclesiastical disputes and by the ongoing vigorous reactions to the incursions of Islam into the West. Nicholas himself is caught up in these historical cross-currents: in the flow towards modernity and towards new ways of conceptualizing, as well as in the ebb towards the past and towards traditional patterns of thought. While functioning in the Church as papal legate to Germany and as Bishop of Brixen in South Tyrol and as cardinal of St Peter in Chains in Rome, Nicholas nonetheless: (i) incorporated into his academic formation a time of study with the Italian Humanists in Padua (under whom he increased his knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and literature); (ii) journeyed to Constantinople with a Conciliar delegation (where he observed Islam at first-hand); (iii) wrote the dialogue De staticis experimentis (On experiments done with weight-scales); and (iv) espoused certain themes that are proleptic of later, more systematic philosophical frameworks (so that Ernst Cassirer labels him “the First Modern Thinker” [1927: 10]).

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