Hegel: Neoplatonist, Hermeticist, prose poet, concealed priest – part 2

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), detail of relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St. Peter’ on his tomb by Andrea Bregno, church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), detail of relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St. Peter’ on his tomb by Andrea Bregno, church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome

Hegel’s philosophy was deliberately not propositional (philosophising thus was for him exemplary of the non-speculative rigidity of Verstand). His claim for its conceptual nature requires examination.

His use of concepts, around which he wrote (descriptively, evocatively, suggestively), is part of a mix of mytho-poetic devices including multiple meanings, metaphor, recollection and apophasis and the complexity of the German language itself which Hegel used, not to build an argument but to weave a dense, mystical tapestry.

He wrote that speculative thinking is from one point of view akin to the poetic imagination1 and he used words and concepts to create a rationalised feeling for the Absolute, rather than a literal ‘cognition’ of it. He sets out not its account but its realisation, beyond language. God Neoplatonically intuits himself.2

Nicholas of Cusa is known as a Christian Neoplatonist who lived on the cusp of medieval and modern Europe. Although he is recognised as a figure in the German mystical heritage ‘who had some interesting ideas,’ his philosophy and particularly influence have not been appreciated for their great significance – it is generally held that ‘few knew of him,’ even in his lifetime. It is thought that any impact he may have had on German philosophy of the 1790s would have been indirect, through Giordano Bruno via Jacobi.

Hegel, who was obsessed with triplicity and the triune (as the content summaries alone of his books show) and who scoured world philosophical systems for evidence of them, referred to Eckhart and Böhme in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. In volume III of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy he discussed Böhme – ‘the first German philosopher’ the reading of whose works was ‘wondrous,’ over eleven pages,3 giving five pages in the same volume to Bruno yet he never even mentioned Cusanus – a figure between them in time. It has been accepted that Hegel did not know of him.

Yet the ‘divine’ Cusanus who Bruno named, ‘the inventor of geometry’s most beautiful secrets’ is Bruno’s guide in Cause, Principle and Unity,4 in which Bruno referred to key aspects of Cusanus’ philosophy. Bruno again named and referred to Cusanus as ‘divine’ in The Ash Wednesday Supper, citing his single most important treatise, De Docta Ignorantia.5

Particularly, in the same volume, Hegel wrote simply of Bruno ‘The fullest information about him is to be found in Buhle’s history of philosophy.’6 In that extremely interesting and significant work (amongst other reasons, because in it Buhle discusses the impact of Neoplatonism, Kabbalism and Hermeticism on German philosophy) Buhle discussed Cusanus in detail, over approximately fifteen to twenty pages, naming his nine most significant treatises.7

Why did Hegel never even name Cusanus, in any of his writing – a man who was far more philosophical, and in the ‘Hegelian manner,’ than either Eckhart and particularly Böhme, of whom Hegel also wrote that he ‘grasps the antitheses in the harshest, crudest fashion’?8

My contention in my thesis will be that Hegel never named Cusanus not only because he was so indebted to one who was known to be a Christian mystic/Neoplatonist (I have identified more than thirty points in the philosophy and views of Cusanus which I believe occur in those of Hegel), but because to do so would immediately open to question the nature of Hegel’s concepts (several of which, I will contend, came directly from Cusanus), the apparent intellectual rigour of his philosophy and particularly, his emphasis on ‘reason’ and his claims to it.

In denying through his silence the significance (particularly, to Hegel) of Cusanus and the foresight of his genius, Hegel was emblematic of Western culture as a whole – suppressing key elements of our history, we believe ourselves to be, as the supremacist Hegel did, the bearers of ‘reason.’

We believe it has been our ‘reason’ (understood only as linguistic, conceptual and propositional) that has enabled us to achieve so much and attain global domination. Mysticism, the perception goes, was only comparatively incidental – a stage that was shed long ago.

What if that ‘reason’ were to be recognised as not only linguistic, conceptual and propositional but also in what has been relegated to ‘the feminine’ and utilised for profound cultural benefit in the mystical?

What would happen to our belief in our cultural supremacy then?

And what philosophical possibilities, consistent with science – might be opened up?


Part two/to be continued…


1. G.W.F.Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, Trans. T.M.Knox, Volume II, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2010, 976

2. G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion Volume III, Ed. Peter C.Hodgson, Trans., R.F.Brown, P.C.Hodgson, J.M.Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007, 280-81

3. G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume III Medieval and Modern Philosophy, Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M.Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 95

4. Giordano Bruno, Cause, Principle and Unity (De la causa, principio e uno, 1584), Trans. and Ed., Robert de Lucca and Essays on Magic, Trans. and Ed., Richard J. Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, 96-7

5. Giordano Bruno, The Ash Wednesday Supper (La Cena de le Ceneri, London, 1584), Ed. and Trans., Edward A. Gosselin and Lawrence S. Lerner, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1995, 139, 150

6. G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume III, op. cit., 62

7. Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Widerherstellung der Wissenschaften, vol. 2, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, 81 and 342ff.

8. G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume III, op. cit., 103


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