- Nicholas of Cusa
- (1401-1464)German philosopher, theolo-gian, mathematician, church reformer, and cardinal. Born Niklas Krebs at Kues in western Germany, he received the nickname Cu-sanus from the Latin name of his native town. He was educated at Heidelberg, Padua, and Cologne. Though his academic doctorate was in canon law and he practiced as a successful lawyer in his youth, he also studied theology and from his experience in Italy acquired an interest in humanistic learning. His discovery of a number of lost works of the Roman comedian Plautus gave him a considerable rep-utation among Italian humanists. He became a priest and accumu-lated church benefices, and in 1432 he went to the Council of Basel as legal advocate of a claimant to the archbishopric of Trier.Cusanus became a supporter of the council and of the theories of Conciliarism, writing De concordantia catholica / On Catholic Con-cord (1433), an influential though moderate defense of conciliar au-thority as a means of bringing about necessary reforms in the church. He was attracted by the attempt of Pope Eugenius IV to negotiate reunion of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and eventually broke with the council, which was increasingly dominated by radical followers of Conciliar theory. He visited Constantinople in pursuit of church reunion, travelled widely during the meeting of the Council of Ferrara-Florence to win the support of German princes for the pope, and eventually was made a cardinal and ap-pointed to the important bishopric of Brixen. As bishop, he struggled to introduce reforms against the opposition of members of the clergy and the secular princes of the region. His own inflexibility probably contributed to his failure, culminating in 1457 when his enemies forced him to flee from Brixen. Eventually he settled in Rome, where he found resistance within the curial bureaucracy to any serious re-form just as frustrating as what he had encountered at Brixen.Throughout this busy period, Cusanus produced some of the most original philosophical writings of the 15th century, drawing inspira-tion from the growing familiarity of the humanist world with the works of Plato, though he died before the movement known as Flo-rentine Neoplatonism reached its full development. His most im-portant philosophical work was De docta ignorantia / On Learned Ig-norance (1440), in which he explored the limits of human ability to gain knowledge of God. Although his innovative concept of learned ignorance elicited attacks from conservative scholastic theologians, he continued to produce treatises that raised issues of epistemology long neglected in medieval philosophy. His philosophical work also emphasized the central role of faith in the search for God and made contributions to mathematical theory. His distress over the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 produced the dialogue De pace fidei. It endorsed the unification of all religions (including Christian-ity, Judaism, and Islam, but on a clearly Christian foundation) as a way to achieve universal peace and concord.In 1459 Cusanus presented to Pope Pius II a sweeping plan for the reform of the whole church, including the papal curia, but despite en-couraging words from the pope, nothing of significance came out of his initiative. He also wrote Cribratio Alkorani/A Critique of the Ko-ran (1461), which reflected European understanding of Islam in his time. He died while en route to an Adriatic seaport to assist the pope in preparations for a crusade against the Turks. He was buried in Rome, but his heart was buried in his native Kues, where he founded a hospice that still survives for care of the poor.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.