Nicholas of Cusa lived from 1401 to 1464 CE. He is the author of approximately 25 philosophical and spiritual works, He wrote extensively on many topics, and is perhaps best known for his philosophical work On Learned Ignorance, in which he maintained that a truly learned person is one who is aware of how much he doesn’t know. He also led a very active life. A cardinal, diplomat and papal legate, Nicholas of Cusa was also a philosopher, scientist, and mathematician.
A pivotal point in his life occurred in 1437 when Pope Eugene IV sent Cusa and two other bishops to Constantinople to help secure Greek approval for a joint East-West council in Italy. His interaction with Eastern Orthodox Christians provided him with a fresh vision of unity and difference coexisting not only within the church but also in the soul’s experience of God and the world. During this trip Cusa also reports having a profound, revelatory experience which he believed to be a divine gift. It was a visionary experience of the “incomprehensible” that opened up new ways for Cusa to speak about the ineffable.
The message of his works points to his recognition that God is unknowable and incomprehensible. However, God as He exists in His creation is simplicity itself, and this invisible God can be seen within creation when viewed by an individual whose intellect has become similarly “simple”. Such a state corresponds with mystics, both East and West, who teach the transcendence of the intellect (often referred to as the practice of “not knowing” – not as a condition of gross ignorance, but one of naked and uncontrived receptivity).
For Cusa, the recognition of the Divine is approached again and again from many different angles, using many different paradigms. For example, in the first book of the anthology, On Learned Ignorance, he employs a geometrical paradigm in his presentation: a circle of infinite size having a circumference which consists of an infinite, straight line. He uses such examples to illustrate that diversity manifests itself due to creation’s finiteness. Rather than considering a thing as it is in itself (finite), he asks us to consider it as it is in God (infinite). In other words, everything converges back into one, just as circles and straight lines do in the above geometrical example.
Excerpts from his writings:
“God, therefore, is the one most simple essence of the entire universe. The essence of all essences is each essence in such a way that it is all essences together and none of them individually. God is not something. God is beyond nothing and beyond something. God cannot be called “this” rather than “that”. God is not the root of contradiction, but God is the simplicity itself prior to every root. God’s simplicity precedes both all that can be named and all that cannot.
Neither God nor God’s name is to be found in the realm of all creatures, and God flees from every concept rather than being asserted as something. That which does not have the condition of a creature is not to be found in the realm of creatures. In the realm of composite things the non-composite is not found, and even though composite things are what they are only through the non-composite, yet because it is not composite, it is unknown in the realm of composite things. The affirmative names we attribute to God apply to God in an infinitely diminished way. Affirmative names apply according to God’s infinite power in relation to creatures. Therefore, may God, who is hidden from the eyes of all the wise of the world, be blessed forever.”
“God enfolds creation, for in God all things are God. Yet God also unfolds creation in its diversity, for God is in various things like truth in an image. Thus, strive to seek God with the most diligent vision, for God who is everywhere is impossible not to find if God is sought in the right way. God is rightly sought to the end that, in keeping with God’s name, praise of God may reach the limits of the power of our earthly nature.
From the infinity of your mercy, I see, O Lord, that you are infinity embracing all things. There is nothing that exists outside you, but all things in you are not other than you. You teach me, Lord, how otherness, which is not in you, does not exist in itself, nor can it exist. Nor does otherness, which does not exist in you, make one creature other than another, although one creature is not another.
But you speak in me, O Lord, and tell me that otherness has no positive principle, and thus it does not exist. Otherness is derived from not-being. That the sky is not the earth is because the sky is not infinity itself, which embraces all being. God’s infinity gives being to all things. Because the sky participates in this infinity, it has being. But because it participates in infinity in a contracted manner, it takes on its own unique characteristics which differentiate it from “others.” It is the lack of absolute infinity that produces creatures of all sorts.”
“God in His Unbounded Potentiality manifests Itself in all things just as the potential of Aristotle’s mind manifests itself in his books, not that they disclose it perfectly, even though one book may do so more perfectly than another, and the books were produced for no other purpose than for his mind to reveal itself. The mind to be sure, is like an intellectual book, which sees in itself the intention of the author [God].
Since God is not knowable in this world, where reason, opinion, and teaching lead us, by means of symbols, from the better known to the unknown, God is grasped only where persuadings leave off and faith enters in. Through faith we are rapt in simplicity so that, while in a body incorporeally, because in spirit, and in the world not in a worldly manner but celestially, we may incomprehensibly contemplate [God] above all reason and intelligence, in the third heaven of the simplest intellectuality. Therefore, we also see that because of the immensity of his excellence he cannot be comprehended.”
“I have discovered that the place where you are found unveiled is girded about with the coincidence of contradictories. This is the wall of paradise, and it is there in paradise that you reside. The wall’s gate is guarded by the highest spirit of reason, and unless it is overpowered, the way in will not lie open. Thus, it is on the other side of the coincidence of contradictories that you will be able to be seen and nowhere on this side.
Therefore, I must leap across this wall of invisible vision to where you are to be found. But this wall is both everything and nothing. For you, who confront as if you were both all things and nothing at all, dwell inside that high wall which no natural ability can scale by its own power.
For the wall shuts out the power of every intellect, although the eye looks beyond into paradise. Yet that which the eye sees it can neither name nor understand; for what is seen is the eye’s secret love and a hidden treasure, which remains hidden after having been found, because it is discovered inside of the wall of the coincidence of the hidden and the revealed.
The potential of the mind to see, therefore, surpasses the potential to comprehend. This potential of the mind to see beyond all comprehensible faculty and power is the mind’s supreme potential. In it God in His Unbounded Potentiality manifests itself maximally, and the mind’s supreme possibility is not brought to its limit this side of Potential Itself.”
“What would be more absurd than to ask that you give yourself to me, you who are all in all? And how will you give yourself to me if you do not at the same time give me heaven and earth and all that are in them? And, even more, how will you give me yourself if you do not also give me myself? And when I thus rest in the silence of contemplation, you, Lord, answer me within my heart, saying: “Be yours and I too will be yours!”
O Lord, the Sweetness of every delight, you have placed within my freedom that I be my own if I am willing. Hence, unless I am my own, you are not mine, for you would constrain my freedom since you cannot be mine unless I also am mine. And since you have placed this in my freedom, you do not constrain me, but you wait for me to choose to be my own. This depends on me and not on you, O Lord, for you do not limit your maximum goodness but lavish it on all who are able to receive it. But you, O Lord, are your goodness.
But how will I be my own unless you instruct me? You teach me that sense should obey reason and that reason should be lord and master. When, therefore, sense serves reason, I am my own. But reason has no guide except you, O Lord, who are the Word and the Reason of reasons. I see now that if I listen to your Word, which does not cease to speak in me and which continually shines forth in my reason, I will be my own, free and not the slave of sin. And you will be mine and will grant me to see your face, and then I will be saved. May you be blessed, therefore, in your gifts, O God, who alone are able to comfort my soul and to lift it up so that it might hope to attain to you and to enjoy you as its very own gift and as the infinite treasury of all that is desirable.”
“For while the soul is in time, where it does not apprehend without mental pictures, it appears to be like the senses or reason rather than the intellect, and when it is elevated above time it is the intellect, which is free and independent of pictures.
When we impose names we do so out of a certain singleness of conception by which we distinguish one thing from another. But where all things are one, there can be no proper name.”
“It is necessary to reject things that, along with their material accessories, are attained through the senses, the imagination, or reason, in order to reach the most simple and most abstract understanding, where all things are one; where the line is a triangle, a circle, and a sphere; where unity is trinity and trinity is unity; where accident is substance; where body is spirit and motion is rest, and so on. Understanding occurs when each thing in the one is understood as the one and the one as all things and, consequently, each thing in the one is understood as all things.
The finite mind can therefore not attain to the full truth about things through similarity. For the truth is neither more nor less, but rather indivisible. What is itself not true can no more measure the truth than what is not a circle can measure a circle; whose being is indivisible. Hence reason, which is not the truth, can never grasp the truth so exactly that it could not be grasped infinitely more accurately. Reason stands in the same relation to truth as the polygon to the circle; the more vertices a polygon has, the more it resembles a circle, yet even when the number of vertices grows infinite, the polygon never becomes equal to a circle, unless it becomes a circle in its true nature.”
“Because the infinite light is eternity itself and truth itself, a rational creature who desires to be illumined by that light must turn toward true and eternal things, above these worldly and corruptible things. When an intellectual spirit, whose operation is above time and, as if on eternity’s horizon, turns toward eternal things, it cannot convert them into itself, because they are eternal and incorruptible. But because it itself is incorruptible, it is not converted into them so that it ceases to be an intellectual substance; rather, it is converted into them in such a way that it is absorbed into a likeness of eternal things. However, this occurs in degrees, so that the more fervently an intellectual spirit is turned toward eternal things the more thoroughly it is perfected by them and the more profoundly its being is hidden in the eternal being itself.”
“You love, O loving God, all things in such a way that you love each single thing. You stretch forth your love to all. Yet many do not love you but prefer another to you. But you are so magnanimous, my God, that you will for rational souls to be free to love you or not to love you. You, therefore, my God, are united to all by a bond of love, for you stretch forth your love upon all your creatures. When by the steps of love the spirit hastens to love itself, it is engulfed in love itself not temporally but above all time and all worldly movement. Therefore, everyone who hopes to taste the food of life within the paradise of delights must put off the old human of presumption and put on the new human of humility, who is in accord with you.”
“It is now obvious to us that we are drawn to the unknown God by the movement of the light of the grace of one who can be known only by self-disclosure. And God wills to be sought and wills to give to seekers the light without which they are unable to seek God.
From the intellect lift yourself up to God, who is the light of the intellect. In God’s light is all our knowledge, so that it is not we ourselves who know, but rather it is God who knows in us. When we ascend to the knowledge of God, although God is unknown to us, yet we are moved only in God’s light, which transmits itself into our spirit, so that we proceed toward God in God’s light.
Our intellectual nature can attain to the happiness of its rest only in the light of its intellectual principle. And just as sight does not discern, but rather a discriminating spirit discerns in it, so it is with our intellect, which is illuminated by the divine light of its principle in accord with its aptitude for the light to be able to enter. We will not understand or live the intellectual life in and of ourselves, but rather God, who is infinite life, will live in us. This is that eternal happiness where the eternal intellectual life, surpassing in inexpressible joy every concept of living creatures, thus lives in us in strictest unity.”
“Next, the believers, continuously ascending in more ardent desire, are taken up into simple intellectuality, and leaping beyond all sensible things, they pass as if from sleep to wakefulness, from hearing to sight. And, there, those things that are seen cannot be revealed because they are beyond all hearing and beyond all instruction by voice. For there, incomprehensibly heard, as the end of all speech, is God, blessed forever, the end of all understanding, because he is truth, and the end of all sense, because he is life, and the end, finally, of all being, because he is being itself, and the perfection of every creature.”
“The fact is that man has no longing for any other nature but desires only to be perfect in his own.”
“For even he who is most greedy for knowledge can achieve no greater perfection than to be thoroughly aware of his own ignorance in his particular field. The more be known, the more aware he will be of his ignorance.”
“I am a living shadow and Thou the Truth… Therefore, my God, Thou art alike shadow and Truth; Thou art alike the image and the Exemplar of myself and all men.”
“Just as any knowledge of the taste of something we have never actually tasted is quite empty until we do taste it, so the taste of this wisdom cannot be acquired by hearsay but by one’s actually touching it with his internal sense, and then he will bear witness not of what he has heard but what he has experientially tasted in himself. To know of the many descriptions of love which the saints have left us without knowing the taste of love is nothing other than a certain emptiness. Thus it is that it is not enough for him who seeks after eternal wisdom to merely read about these things, but it is absolutely necessary that once he discovers where it is by his understanding he make it his very own.”
“The real nature of what exists, which constitutes its truth, is therefore never entirely attainable. It has been sought by all the philosophers, but never really found. The further we penetrate into informed ignorance, the closer we come to the truth itself. The unattainable is attained by non-attainment.”
“Nothing could be more beneficial for even the most zealous searcher for knowledge than his being in fact most learned in that very ignorance which is peculiarly his own; and the better a man will have known his own ignorance, the greater his learning will be.”
“With the senses man measures perceptible things, with the intellect he measures intelligible things, and he attains unto supra-intelligible things transcendently.”
“Within itself the soul sees all things more truly than as they exist in different things outside itself. And the more it goes out unto other things in order to know them, the more it enters into itself in order to know itself.”