Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 11 August 1464), also referred to as Nicholas of Kues and Nicolaus Cusanus (//), was a German philosopher, theologian, jurist, mathematician and astronomer. One of the first German proponents of Renaissance humanism, he made spiritual and political contributions in European history. A notable example of this is his mystical or spiritual writings on "learned ignorance," as well as his participation in power struggles between Rome and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire.
As papal legate to Germany from 1446, he was appointed cardinal for his merits by Pope Nicholas V in 1448 and Prince–Bishop of Brixen two years later. In 1459 he became vicar general in the Papal States.
Nicholas has remained an influential figure. In 2001, the sixth centennial of his birth was celebrated on four continents and commemorated by publications on his life and work.
Like Nicole Oresme, Nicholas also wrote about the possibility of the plurality of worlds.
Norman Moore tells us in The Fitz-Patrick Lectures of 1905:
In medicine he introduced an improvement which in an altered form has continued in use to this day. This improvement was the counting of the pulse which up to his time had been felt and discussed in many ways but never counted. ...Nicholas of Cusa proposed to compare the rate of pulses by weighing the quantity of water run out of a water clock while the pulse beat one hundred times. ...The manufacture of watches with second-hands has since given us a simpler method of counting, but the merit of introducing this useful kind of observation into clinical medicine belongs to Nicholas of Cusa.
In 1433, Nicholas proposed reform of the Holy Roman Empire and a method to elect Holy Roman Emperors. Although it was not adopted by the Church, his method was essentially the same one known today as the Borda count, which is used in many academic institutions, competitions, and even some political jurisdictions, in original form and a number of variations. His proposal preceded Borda's work by over three centuries.
Nicholas's opinions on the Empire, which he hoped to reform and strengthen, were cited against papal claims of temporal power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Protestant writers were happy to cite a cardinal against Rome's pretensions. Protestants, however, found his writings against the Hussites wrong. Nicholas seemed to Protestants to give the church too much power to interpret Scripture, instead of treating it as self-interpreting and self-sufficient for salvation, the principle of sola scriptura.
Nicholas's own thought on the church changed with his departure from Basel. He tried arguing that the Basel assembly lacked the consent of the church throughout the world, especially the princes. Then he tried arguing that the church was unfolded from Peter (explicatio Petri). This allowed him to support the pope without abandoning ideas of reform. Thus, he was able to propose to Pius II reform of the church, beginning with the pope himself. Then it was to spread through the Roman curia and outward throughout Christendom.
Nicholas noted that government was founded on the consent of the governed:
Shortly after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Nicholas wrote De pace fidei, On the Peace of Faith. This visionary work imagined a summit meeting in Heaven of representatives of all nations and religions. Islam and the Hussite movement in Bohemia are represented. The conference agrees that there can be una religio in varietate rituum, a single faith manifested in different rites, as manifested in the eastern and western rites of the Catholic Church. The dialog presupposes the greater accuracy of Christianity but gives respect to other religions. Nicholas's position was for not for Europeans to retake Constantinople but simply to trade with the Ottomans and allow them their conquests. Less irenic but not virulent, is his Cribratio Alchorani, Sifting the Koran, a detailed review of the Koran in Latin translation. While the arguments for the superiority of Christianity are still shown in this book, it also credits Judaism and Islam with sharing in the truth at least partially.
Nicholas's attitude toward the Jews was not always mild; on 21 September 1451 he ordered that Jews of Arnhem were to wear badges identifying them as such. The De pace fidei mentions the possibility that the Jews might not embrace the larger union of una religio in varietate rituum, but it dismisses them as politically insignificant. This matches the decrees from his legation restricting Jewish activities, restrictions later canceled by Pope Nicholas V.
Nicholas was widely read, and his works were published in the sixteenth century in both Paris and Basel. Sixteenth-century French scholars, including Nicholas's attitude toward the Jews was not always mild; on 21 September 1451 he ordered that Jews of Arnhem were to wear badges identifying them as such. The De pace fidei mentions the possibility that the Jews might not embrace the larger union of una religio in varietate rituum, but it dismisses them as politically insignificant. This matches the decrees from his legation restricting Jewish activities, restrictions later canceled by Pope Nicholas V.
Nicholas was widely read, and his works were published in the sixteenth century in both Paris and Basel. Sixteenth-century French scholars, including Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples and Charles de Bovelles, cited him. Lefèvre even edited the Paris 1514 Opera. Nonetheless, there was no Cusan school, and his works were largely unknown until the nineteenth century, though Giordano Bruno quoted him, while some thinkers, like Gottfried Leibniz, were thought to have been influenced by him. Neo-Kantian scholars began studying Nicholas in the nineteenth century, and new editions were begun by the Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften in the 1930s and published by Felix Meiner Verlag. In the early twentieth century, he was hailed as the "first modern thinker," and much debate since then has centered around the question whether he should be seen as essentially a medieval or Renaissance figure. Societies and centers dedicated to Nicholas can be found in Argentina, Japan, Germany, Italy and the United States. His well-known quote about the infinity of the universe is found paraphrased in the Central Holy Book of the Thelemites, The Book of the Law, which was "received" from the Angel Aiwass by Aleister Crowley in Cairo in April 1904: "In the sphere I am everywhere the centre, as she, the circumference, is nowhere found."
Nicholas wrote a large number of works, which include: