Who is Cusanus

Cusanus is the Latinised name given to Nicholas Krebs (or Cryfftz), a German theologian, philosopher, and ecclesiastical statesman of the fifteenth century. Nicholas was born in Kues (Cusa) – now Bernkastel-Kues – in 1401. He was one of four children born to Johann Krebs, a wealthy boatman, and his wife, Katharina Römer. Nothing certain is known about his early education, but in 1416 he matriculated at the University of Heidelberg where he studied for one year before moving on to the University of Padua to study canon law. He received his doctorate in canon law from there in 1423. It was at Padua where he likely met many important humanists, perhaps most notably Vittorino da Feltre (c.1378-1446) and Guarino da Verona (1374-1460), both prominent humanist teachers. Nicholas then returned to his native Germany, where he studied theology and philosophy and taught canon law at the University of Cologne. There, Nicholas was introduced to the works of Pseudo-Dionysius (c. fifth-sixth century) and Ramon Llull (1232-1315) by the Dutch theologian and philosopher, Heimericus de Campo. Despite this extensive theological and ecclesiastical education, Nicholas did not pursue an academic career when he finished at Cologne in 1426. Indeed, he even turned down offers to teach at the recently-founded University of Leuven in 1428 and 1435.

Nicholas was ordained during the 1430s, the decade from which we receive his earliest works. Nicholas presented his first work The Catholic Concordance (De concordantia catholica) at the Council of Basel in November 1433. In this work, he employed Dionysian logic of hierarchical order to defend conciliarism, a reform movement prominent in – but not new to – the late-medieval Catholic Church which privileged the authority of ecumenical councils over that of the Pope, as well as arguing strongly for wide-spread reform of both the head and members of the Church. However, Nicholas changed sides within the decade, moving to support Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). In 1437, Nicholas was one of three delegates sent by the Pope to Constantinople, bringing the Byzantine patriarch to the Council of Florence of 1439 which very briefly reunited the Eastern and Western Churches.

Throughout the 1440s, Nicholas supported the papacy, and journeyed throughout Germany in an attempt to bring the nobility over to the papal cause, which would later see him made cardinal under Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) and earn him his famous designation as ‘Hercules of the Eugenians’. In this same decade, Nicholas composed many of his famous philosophical and theological works, including On Learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia). Nicholas claimed that the work was inspired by a divine illumination he received while at sea on the voyage back from Constantinople: ‘by a celestial gift [superno dono] […] I was led so that I could embrace incomprehensible things incomprehensibly [incomprehensibilia incomprehensibiliter amplecter]’ (De Doctrina Ignorantia, Epistola auctoris, n.263). Books 1 and 2 of On Learned Ignorance highlight that God is the absolute maximum and that the created universe is the contracted maximum, respectively. However, as no proportional analogy between the finite and the infinite is possible, Nicholas explains in Book 3 that the coincidence of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum) involves Christ being the maximum that is simultaneously absolute and contracted, perfectly expressing the infiniteness of the divine within a finite and individual creature. Faith and reason together allow the Christian soul to progress in the pursuit of wisdom and to gain a greater awareness of Christ’s revelation, with Christ being the goal of learned ignorance. Thus, On Learned Ignorance underlines the Christocentricism of Nicholas’s theology. A companion to this text was penned by Nicholas in 1441-2 in the form of On Conjectures (De coniecturis), and later that decade, he wrote The Defence of Learned Ignorance (Apologia doctae ignorantiae) in response to criticism he received from the Heidelberg Thomist John Wenck.

Nicholas’s prolific writing career continued in the 1450s. At the start of this decade, Nicholas composed three hypothetical dialogues collectively called the The Layman (Idiota): The Layman on Wisdom (Idiota de sapientia); The Layman on Mind (Idiota de mente); and The Layman on Experiments with Weights (Idiota de staticis experimentis). The titular layman – the ideal representative of the concept of learned ignorance – engages a trained orator and a philosopher, proving himself to possess the greatest piety and wisdom. The layman first connects wisdom with the activity of measurement, acknowledging that this leads the mind to consider the greatest and highest, which is God. The layman then connects this with the mind, deriving ‘mind’ (mens) from ‘measure’ (mensura), suggesting that the human mind participates in this measuring of the infinite – and hence un-measurable – God, thus conforming itself to God. Finally, the layman considers the place of measuring within the sciences, for which this activity of measuring is key.

1453 was particularly important for Nicholas’s writing, composing On the Peace of Faith (De pace fidei) in response to the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Turks and On the Vision of God (De visione Dei), Nicholas’s most important work of mystical theology. In On the Peace of Faith, he – unlike most of his contemporaries who responded to the Turks’ capture of Constantinople with anger and fear – expresses a desire for a universal religion and a hypothetical heavenly council on world religions. Nicholas envisages each religion as one ‘rite’ which participates in the one true religion, and hence there is no need for inter-religious conflict. Naturally, Nicholas contends that Christianity is the most true, and fullest, religious revelation of such a true religion; thus such a hypothetical council is led by Christ, Peter, and Paul, and representatives of other religions accept the central precepts of Christian theology. On the Vision of God continues Nicholas’s Christocentric teaching; an accompanying portrait of Christ was sent alongside the text to the original audience, the monks of Tegernsee Abbey. The monks, gazing on Christ who stared back at them, were reminded simultaneously of the infinite sight of God and the finite sight of man who is only able to see one perspective of God. Nicholas analogises this in his image of the garden of Eden of which there are three levels: the enclosed garden in which God dwells; the wall of the garden where the coincidence of opposite exists; and the region of exile outside the wall in which this finite human sight maintains a limited perspective. The human mind passes among the three levels and it is as it moves through the wall – that is the coincidence of opposites – that the mind comes to encounter what we cannot see or know: God.

At the start of this same decade, in 1450, Nicholas was made bishop of Brixen. Much of his first two years as bishop were taken up travelling around Germany and the Low Countries on a legation journey, attempting to spread the word of reform. Such a mission was met with resistance, which Nicholas also experienced when he returned to Brixen at Easter 1452. In Brixen, his ideas of reform were particularly opposed by Sigismund Archduke of Austria.In 1457, worrying for his own safety, Nicholas withdrew to the Castle Andraz in Buchenstein, remaining there until 1458.

Nicholas was recalled to Rome in 1458 by his friend, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the new Pope Pius II (1458-1464). Nicholas wrote a text on the general reform of the Church (Reformatio generalis), but this idea was not shared by Pius II or his cardinals. Nicholas was both infuriated and frustrated, telling the Pope that ‘Everything [in the curia] is corrupt; no one does his duty. All are bent on ambition and avarice.’ According to Pius II, Nicholas reportedly withdrew and ‘burst into tears’ (Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope, trans. Gragg, ed. Gabel p.228). Despite this, Nicholas continued to promote reform, helping to organise the Congress of Mantua and the abortive Crusade, albeit rather reluctantly.

At the Congress of Mantua, Sigmund’s legal advisor, Gregor Heimburg (c.1400-1472), defended Sigmund’s case against Nicholas, simultaneously opposing Pius II’s plans for a crusade against the Turks – planned as revenge for the Turkish capture of Constantinople. On January 18th 1460, a mere four days after the Congress had finished, Pius II issued his famous papal bull, Execrabilis, which essentially banned conciliarism by prohibiting the practice of appealing to an ecumenical council over the head of the pope. Regardless of this, Heimburg appealed both to a council and to a future pope. Pius II responded, excommunicating Sigmund and Heimburg in 1460 and 1461. While Sigmund was reconciled with the Church in 1464, Heimburg was not reconciled until March 1472, five months before his death.

Nicholas continued to write texts after the Congress, such as the Conversation on Actualised Possibility (Trialogus de possest) of 1460, On the Not-Other (Directio speculantis seu de non-aliud) of 1462, The Game of Spheres (De ludo globi) and The Hunt for Wisdom (De venatione sapientae), both of 1463, The Summit of Contemplation (De apice theoriae) of 1464, and a short Compendium, possibly also from 1464. Many of these later works are, like his Idiota texts, in the form of a dialogue. Nicholas died on 11th August 1464. While not always evident through direct textual citations, the influence of Cusanus was quite widespread, particularly in the Neo-Platonic reform movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His place as a transitional figure between the medieval and modern ages has since the nineteenth century received a revival of interest in many areas of scholarship. He is particularly well remembered for collecting and rediscovering important manuscripts and for making earlier texts available to his contemporaries. Nicholas is yet to receive official recognition by the Church either through beatification or canonisation. There is still much we do not know about Nicholas of Cusa, and much which is hotly debated among scholars. Bernard McGinn summarises: ‘Was he a conciliarist or a papalist? A careerist or a devoted reformer? A philosopher or a theologian? Should he be seen as standing in fundamental continuity with medieval thought, or does his contribution mark an important stage in the birth of modernity (however defined?)’ (McGinn, Harvest, p.436). These questions, among many others, prompt continuing scholarly attention.


Duclow, Donald. ‘Nicholas of Cusa.’ In Medieval Philosophers. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 115. Edited by Jeremiah Hackett. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1992.

McGinn, Bernard. ‘Nicholas of Cusa on Mystical Theology.’ In The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany (1300-1500). The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. 4. New York: Crossroads, 2005.

Watanabe, Morimichi. Nicholas of Cusa: A Companion to his Life and his Times. Edited by Gerald Christianson and Thomas M. Izbicki. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

Nicolas of Cusa looking upwards, with hands raised in front of him in supplication