Cusanus on the Just at the Limit

by | 14 Aug 2012

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).1The 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.

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 Christ2Refers 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.  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,3Psalms 33.9.  32.9 in the Vulgate, which has quia ipse mandavit et factus est 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

  • 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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