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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Cusa Nicholas de,

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or CUSANUS, a cardinal of great learning. His name was properly NICHOLAS KHRYPFFS (KREBS), but he was named Cusanus or De Cusa from Cues on the Mosel, where he was born in 1401. He was the son of a poor fisher, who wished him to learn the same trade. Rather than comply with this request, Nicholas left the paternal home, and found employment with the count of Manderscheid, who, having discovered the eminent talent of his servant, sent him to the school of the Brothers of Common Life at Deventer, and subsequently to the University of Padua. At the age of 23 Nicholas became doctor of law, but when he lost his first lawsuit he left the profession of law for the study of theology. Possessing a thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew languages, and a rare degree of eloquence, he soon attracted attention. After holding several ecclesiastical benefices at St. Wendel and Coblentz, he was present as archdeacon of the cathedral church of Liege at the Council of Basel, where he presented to the assembled bishops the celebrated work De Concordantia Catholica. This is one of the ablest works published, during the Middle Ages in favor of the opinion that the pope is subordinate to an oecumenical council; it attacks the pretended donation of Constantine, and the authority of the false decretals, and insists on the reformation of the Church and the Germanic empire. Cusa was opposed to the dissolution of the council which was attempted by Eugene IV, and showed himself favorable to the reforms which the council decreed. But soon after he left the reformatory party and became an adherent of the pope, who added him to the legation which was sent over to Constantinople to dissuade the Greeks from going to Basel, and to induce them to go to Ferrara. After the rupture between the pope and the council, Cusa accompanied the papal legate, Thomas de Sarzana, on his missions to Germany and France. When the latter became pope, under the name of Nicholas V, Cusa was made a cardinal (1449), and bishop of Brixen, in the Tyrol, in 1459. He was also sent on important missions to Germany, England, and Prussia. Being charged with the re-establishment of ecclesiastical discipline in Holland, he acquitted himself of this task with great firmness. His reform measures in his own diocese involved him in a quarrel with the archduke Sigismond of Austria. Cusa excommunicated the archduke, who, in his turn, imprisoned the cardinal, and compelled him to agree to a compromise. The matter was not fully settled when the cardinal died at Lodi in 1464. The transition of Cusa from the reform party to the adherents of the court of Rome has by some writers been charged to ignoble motives; but, in view of the purity of his life, and the honesty of his purposes exhibited in all his public acts, most of the writers consider it as an honest change of opinion. It is thought that Cusa himself discovered the inconsistency of some of his views on the unity of the Church, the papal prerogatives, and the authority of the councils, as laid down in the work De Concordantia Catholica, and that, finding it necessary to discard the one or the other, he laid greater stress on the monarchical government of the Church than on the representative councils. This agrees with the strong attachment which Cusa shows to the monarchical principle in general. See Brockhaus, Nicolai Cusani de concilii universalis potestate sententia explicatur (Lpzg. 1867).

As a philosopher, Cusa was among the first to abandon the scholastic creed. "He arranged and republished the Pythagorean ideas, to which he was much inclined, in a very original manner, by the aid of his mathematical knowledge. He considered God as the unconditional Maximum, which at the same time, as Absolute Unity, is also the unconditional Minimum, and begets of himself and out of himself equality and the combination of equality with unity (Son and Holy Ghost). According to him, it is impossible to know directly and immediately this absolute unity (the Divinity), because we can make approaches to the knowledge of him only by the means of number or plurality. Consequently he allows us only the possession of very imperfect notions of God, and those by mathematical symbols. It must be admitted that the cardinal did not pursue this thought very consequently, and that his view of the universe, which he connected with it, and which represented the universe as the maximum condensed, and thus become finite, was very obscure. Nor was he more successful in his view of the oneness of the Creator and of creation, or in his attempt to explain the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation by means of this pantheistic theism. Nevertheless, numerous profound though undeveloped observations on the faculty of cognition are found in his writings, interspersed with his prevailing mysticism. For instance, he observes that the principles of knowledge possible to us are contained in our ideas of number (ratio explicatea) and their several relations; that absolute knowledge is unattainable to us (precisio veritatis inattingibilis, which he styled docta ignorantia), and that all which is attainable to us is a probable knowledge (conjectura). With such opinions he expressed a sovereign contempt for the dogmatism of the schools." The works of Cusa were published in 1514 at Paris (3 vols. fol.),' and again in 1565 at Basel (3 vols. fol.). The latter edition is the more complete. See Tennemann, Manual Hist. Phil. 286; Scharpff, Der Cardinal und Bishop Nic. von Cusa (vol. 1, Mainz, 1843; the 2d vol, has not appeared); Dix, Der deutsche Cardinal Nic. von Cusa (Ratisbon, 1847, 2 vols.); Clemens, G. Bruno und N. von Cusn (Bonn, 1847); Zimmermann, Cusa als Vorlidvfer Leibnitzens (Vienna, 1852).


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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Cusa Nicholas de,'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/c/cusa-nicholas-de.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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