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Nicholas of Cusa

(1401 – 1464)

Nicholas of Cusa was a German theologian and philosopher. Nicholas was born in Cusa (Kues), Germany. He became a cardinal in 1448. At the ecclesiastical synod of Bamberg convened by him in his capacity of papal legate in 1451, Cusa had condoned the regulation obliging Jews to wear a distinctive badge. His historical importance derives from his writings, in which he set forth an intensely spiritual interpretation of belief. For this task, he developed philosophical concepts which enabled his work to serve as a link between the Middle Ages and early modern times. The conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 and the atrocities engendered by their fanaticism motivated him to write De pace fidei (1453; ed. by R. Klibansky and H. Bascour, 1956). His aim was to trace the common ground between different creeds and thus eliminate religious conflicts. In the work Nicholas portrays wise men of many nations representing a wide range of creeds and sects gathered in heaven to listen to esoteric teaching. According to it, the doctrinal essence of Christianity is defined as a cosmogonic process determining the relation of God and man, an interpretation that was intended as a basis of belief for all religions, even paganism. Nicholas knew very well that the Jews' explicit refusal to recognize the messianic character of Jesus, whose appearance on earth was the pivot of his metaphysical history, was an obstacle to the achievement of such harmony. But in the debate the Jewish speaker agrees that an understanding of the Trinity as the process of creation avoids ascribing the objectionable attribute of plurality to God (ch. 9). Further, Peter sets forth the argument that the real belief of the Jews transcends their own understanding: "They prefer death to any violation of the Law; but this attitude presupposes a belief in immortality, even though such blessing is not promised in the Torah for the mere fulfilling of the Law" (ch. 15). Nicholas' teaching was influenced by a tradition going back to the German Dominican theologian and mystic Meister *Eckhart (c. 1260–1327), whose writings introduced him to Maimonides. Nicholas' famous book De docta ignorantia (1440; tr. by G. Heron as Of Learned Ignorance, 1954) contains passages from Maimonides' Dux neutrorum (Guide of the Perplexed), presented as the authority for the treatise's statements concerning the right approach to the understanding of the Divine Being (1:16; 26). They are identical with the corresponding quotations summarized in Eckhart's Exodus commentary. But in contrast to Eckhart, Nicholas names a Rabbi Solomon as the author of the texts. Possibly, at the time he did not wish to reveal his link with the daring 14th-century Dominican. About 1450 he made a search for a complete text of the Dux neutrorum and, having found it in a Dutch monastery, ordered a copy for the pope.


E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955), 534–40; H. Wackerzapp, Der Einfluss Meister Eckharts auf die ersten philosophischen Schriften des Nikolaus von Kues, 1440–1450 (1962); P.E. Sigmund, Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (1963); Guttmann, in: MGWJ, 43 (1899), 251ff.; E. Roth, in: Monumenta Judaica (Handbuch, 1963). 75, 126 n. 111; Eckert, in: Kirche und Synagoge, 1 (1968), 273.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.