Cusanus on the Just at the Limit

To see the debt of Nikolaus von Kues (Nicolas Cusanus, Nicolaus de Cusa) to Meister Eckhart, it per­haps suf­fices for the casual reader to com­pare yesterday’s post here to the se­lec­tion trans­lated below, this being the primary pur­pose of presenting the two texts to­gether. Nevertheless, we pro­pose to point out one sig­ni­ficant tech­nical dis­tinc­tion between the two thinkers and one more subtle theo­lo­gical difference.

In the theo­lo­gical case, it outght to be known that Eckhart was con­demned for heresy, among other things, for holding the fol­lowing theses:

Third art­icle: Also, in the one and the same time when God was, when he begot his co­eternal Son as God equal to him­self in all things, he also cre­ated the world.
Eleventh Article: Whatever God the Father gave to his Only-​Begotten Son in human nature, he gave all this to me. Ι ex­cept nothing, neither union, nor sanc­tity; but he gave the whole to me, just as he did to him.
Twelfth art­icle: Whatever holy scrip­ture says of Christ, all that is also true of every good and di­vine man.

The in­ter­play of the equi­vo­city of the just with the uni­vo­city of justice is one in­stance of pre­cisely this, dare we say, demo­crat­isa­tion of justice from not only Christ, but in­deed the most cor­rupted of man­kind. Cusanus, for his part, places far greater sig­ni­fic­ance on the dif­fer­ence of Christ’s per­fec­tion and thus seeks to pre­serve the Son’s sin­gu­larity in ac­cord­ance with orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, and this brings in the tech­nical dis­tinc­tion between the thinkers, Cusanus uses the math­em­at­ical in­nov­a­tions de­veloped in both Northern Italy (where he studied) and in and around Merton College, Oxford, where Bradwardine and others had al­most in­ad­vert­ently stumbled upon knew ways of thinking about math­em­atics and con­tinuous mo­tion. Cusanus’ math­em­at­ical in­tu­itions are as­ton­ishing and his thinking of a theory of con­tinuous trans­form­a­tion from sup­posedly dis­crete, op­posed in­stances, in­spired Kepler’s physics of plan­etary mo­tion and finds its echoes in Leibniz’s ana­lysis situs, Cantor’s later work, and in com­bin­at­orial to­po­logy. It is this theory of con­tinuous trans­form­a­tion which al­lows Cusanus to de­clare that ‘this straight line is a curve, and a circle, and a sphere, and a triangle’.

Cusanus passes straight to the limit — a phrase which ap­pears 200 years later in the de­vel­op­ment of the cal­culus. In ap­plying con­tinuous trans­form­a­tions to the line, Cusanus pro­ceeds to maxima and minima to es­tab­lish that in these cases there occur new and in­ter­esting ‘sin­gu­lar­ities’, in­cluding the co­in­cid­ence and equality of max­imum and min­imum. With the curved line, as its de­term­ining focus is drawn fur­ther away, so the curve con­tinu­ously flat­tens out, until, at in­finity, the curve and the straight dis­solve or “hide” in each other. To put it very crudely, Cusanus then ap­plies this logic, de­veloped amongst the per­fect ab­strac­tions of math­em­atics, to the case of the hu­manity of Christ. He de­term­ines on these premisses that by which Christ is a man, so cor­rupt­ible or curved as may be, he is to be con­sidered from this per­spective as a man con­tinu­ously trans­formed to the max­imum that is per­fec­tion, at which point Christ be­comes sin­gu­larity. In this way Cusanus pre­serves or­tho­doxy by marking out Christ is the spe­cial case amongst hu­manity, but pre­serves Eckhart’s pop­ular teaching by re­vealing how the fun­da­mental op­pos­i­tion between the least in­di­vidual and Christ is one that is uni­fied and raised up by con­tinuous trans­form­a­tion, un­der­stood as the pious act of turning to­wards Christ (see below).1

Of ad­di­tional in­terest, how­ever, in par­tic­ular to scholars of Hegel, is the dis­cus­sion of trial by fire which forms the central ex­ample for con­sid­er­a­tion with re­spect to the judging un­der­taken by he who is most just. Cusanus seeks to argue that various metals when es­sayed in flame con­tinu­ously trans­form into that flame ac­cording to their de­gree of per­fec­tion, and this is an image of what oc­curs when our minds our sub­jected to the fire of the di­vine in­tel­lect during the final judge­ment. To our mind, this be­lief that the pla­cing in act of various dis­crete ob­jects trans­forms them qual­it­at­ively into an­other, which other may it­self vary in more subtle de­grees, may be use­fully placed op­posite Hegel’s fas­cin­ating and much ri­diculed theory of ‘Chemism’ in the Logik (Subjektive Logik II.2). Both thinkers ex­press a deep in­tu­ition that dis­crete phys­ical mo­ments may be trans­formed into their sup­posed op­pos­ites simply ac­cording to the de­gree of ac­tu­ality or per­fec­tion they possess.

But a word of warning: already in the C16th Giordano Bruno was mocking the oth­er­wise ‘greatly know­ledgable’ & ‘honest’ Nicolas Cusanus for having ascribed to fire a nature which even the most basic prac­tical know­ledge ruled out, namely that fire is it­self a subtle body into which things trans­form. Rather ‘there is a cor­poreal prin­ciple, solid and con­sistent, of a hot body as much as a cold one’ and that it is wrong to sug­gest that any­thing ‘be­comes fire’ as op­posed to the view that things gain or lose heat, but re­main them­selves cor­poreal. The ex­cepted case is the Sun and like bodies, which are bodies but ‘com­pletely un­like other metals, being in­com­bust­ible in them­selves’. For fur­ther reading, see Bruno’s Infinity, the uni­verse, and the worlds, Third Dialogue.

The below text is trans­lated freely from Book III of Cusanus’ Docta Ignorantia or Learned Ignorance (c.1440). Footnotes are our own. Paragraph num­bers follow the text.

Christ judge of the living and the dead

[233] Which just will be more just than the One who is justice it­self? Christ is the head and the prin­cipal of every ra­tional creature and of max­imal reason it­self, whence pro­ceeds all reason. Yet reason judges by dis­tin­guishing. Hence it fol­lows rightly that the one who judges the living and the dead is the one who, with all the ra­tional creatures, has as­sumed human nature even while re­maining God, re­deemer of all. And He judges all through him­self and in him­self, above all time, for He em­braces all creatures, being the limit case of man in whom are all things be­cause he is God. Insofar as God, he is the in­finite light in which there is no shadow – light which il­lu­mines all – in such a way that all things be­come mani­fest. This in­finite in­tel­lec­tual light in fact com­plic­ates above time, the present like the past, that which is living like that which is dead, in the manner by which cor­poreal light is the hy­po­stasis of all the col­ours. Yet Christ is like a very pure fire, in­sep­ar­able from the light and which does not sub­sist in it­self, but in the light; and it is this spir­itual fire of the life and the in­tel­lect which, con­suming all things in re­ceiving them in it­self, es­says them and judges them like the ma­terial judge­ment of fire which pen­et­rates everything.

[234] Every ra­tional spirit [mind] is judged in Christ, just as everything can be burnt in fire. Each thing, while re­maining the same, is trans­formed in be­coming sim­ilar to the fire. For ex­ample, the best gold and the most per­fect is so much more gold even as it is in­tensely sub­mitted to the fire, where it ap­pears more fire than gold. Other metals, like re­fined silver, brass or iron, do not par­ti­cipate with as much in­tensity in the fire. But all are trans­formed in fire, even if they are so to a dif­ferent de­gree. And this judge­ment bears on the fire alone, not on what is burnt, for whatever be burnt, when we burn it, we per­ceive only the ar­dent flame, and not the dif­fer­ence between the things which burn just as when we ob­serve gold, silver and copper in fu­sion in the max­imal fire; we do not per­ceive the dif­fer­ence between these metals be­cause they are trans­formed into fire. But if this fire was in­tel­lec­tual, it would know the de­gree of per­fec­tion of each of these metals and the level of in­tensity of flame that each could with­stand in their dif­ferent degrees.

[235] There are thus things which can burn con­tinu­ously without cor­rup­tion in the fire; cap­able of light and heat and which by reason of their purity are cap­able of trans­form­a­tion until they be­come sim­ilar to flame, that this dif­fer­en­ti­ated ac­cording to greater or lesser de­grees; and there are others which, by reason of their im­purity, even if they are cap­able of heat, cannot trans­form them­selves into light. Likewise Christ, judge whose judge­ment is unique, very simple and in­variant, for everyone the most just, com­mu­nic­ates the heat of cre­ated reason in an in­stant and without re­serve, ac­cording to the order of nature and not that of time, with the result that the di­vine in­tel­lec­tual light be spread upon all, in order that God be all in all and that every thing be through him, the Mediator, in God and equal to Him to the ex­tent that this is pos­sible ac­cording to the ca­pa­city of each. But that cer­tain things, be­cause they are more united and more pure, are not only cap­able of re­ceiving heat, but also the light, and that others re­ceive less heat and no light, well this is a func­tion of an in­dis­pos­i­tion of the subjects.

[236] Thereupon, since this in­finite light is eternity it­self and truth, it is ne­ces­sary that the ra­tional creature which de­sires to be en­lightened by it turns it­self to­wards the true and eternal real­ities beyond earthly and cor­rupt­ible things. Corporeal and spir­itual real­ities are re­lated to each other as con­traries. In fact, the or­ganic [ve­get­ative or living] force is bodily, it con­verts nour­ish­ment re­ceived from without in the one which re­ceives it: it is not the an­imal which changes into bread, but the in­verse. As for the in­tel­lec­tual spirit, the op­er­a­tion of which is beyond time and, so to say, on the ho­rizon of eternity, when this turns to­wards eternal real­ities, it cannot con­vert them into it­self be­cause they are eternal and in­cor­rupt­ible, nor can it, being as it is in­cor­rupt­ible, trans­form it­self into them by ceasing to be an in­tel­lec­tual sub­stance. But it can trans­form it­self into them by being as­sim­il­ated into the image of the eternal real­ities, al­beit by de­grees, for the more it turns with fer­vour to­wards them, the more deeply its being is hidden in the eternal Being Himself. Yet, as Christ is im­mortal and he is the life and truth, the one that turns to­wards Him turns to­wards the life and truth, [and] the greater one’s ar­dour in so doing, the higher one rises from the ter­restrial and cor­rupt things to­wards eternity, in such a way that his life is now hidden in Christ2 For the vir­tues are eternal, justice per­sists forever, and like­wise truth.

[237] …To love Christ ar­dently is to ad­vance to­wards Him by a spir­itual move­ment, for he is not only lov­able, He is charity it­self. When, in fact, the spirit [mind] ad­vances to­wards charity by de­grees of love, it pen­et­rates most deeply into charity, not in a tem­poral manner, but through and beyond time and every mundane event.

The judge’s sentence

[239] It is evident that no mortal can un­der­stand the judge­ment and the sen­tence his judge. For, being above time and all mo­tion, this latter is free from com­par­ative or pre­sumptive dis­cus­sion and like­wise the ne­ces­sity of ex­pressing him­self in words and by signs such that they en­tail pauses and delays. But as everything has been cre­ated in the Verb, for he spoke, and it came to be,3 it is in the same Verb, called also reason, that everything is judged. …

[240] The in­tel­lec­tual nature, which is above time and is not sub­ject to tem­poral cor­rup­tion, em­braces to it­self, in ac­cord­ance with its nature, the in­cor­rupt­ible forms, such as the math­em­at­ical forms that it ab­stracts in its fashion and also the nat­ural forms hidden in the in­tel­lec­tual nature and easily trans­formed – which is for us the clear sign of their in­cor­rupt­ib­ility. For it [this in­tel­lec­tual nature] is the in­cor­rupt­ible place of the in­cor­rupt­ible forms, it is moved with a nat­ural mo­tion to­wards the most ab­stract truth, like it is to­wards the end of its de­sires and the ul­ti­mate most de­lect­able ob­ject. And be­cause this ob­ject is all, being God, the in­sa­ti­able in­tel­lect, in­sofar as it has not at­tained this latter, can only be im­mortal and in­cor­rupt­ible, be­cause it knows only to sat­isfy it­self in an eternal object.

Tomorrow’s se­lec­tion: De Gandillac’s Cusanus: order of justice and nexus of love

Show 3 foot­notes

  1. The idea of the sin­gular man goes back to Aristotle, and can be found in Hobbes and is treated by Spinoza, for ex­ample. For a dis­cus­sion of this lin­eage, see Connelly, S. (2011) Intuition beyond the law of the state, 7(2) Utrecht Law Review 29, here.
  2. Refers to Col.3.3, which ac­tu­ally reads ‘hidden with Christ in God’. Cusanus con­tinues Eckhart’s Christology here by reading the Bible strongly in fa­vour of Christ’s power.
  3. Psalms 33.9. 32.9 in the Vulgate, which has quia ipse man­davit et factus est

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