13.4 A Neoplatonist must never be acknowledged as the initiator of modern Western philosophy
In regard to a 1652 Dutch study of skepticism in which Cusanus was named, Richard Popkin referred to him as a ‘modern skeptic’ and unintentionally stated the primary reason for why Cusanus must be denied the recognition due to him as the initiator of modern Western philosophy, for introducing to the modern era the philosophy of Neoplatonic subjectivity, of Neoplatonic thought that thinks itself
Prior to the period I shall deal with, there are some indications of a sceptical motif, principally among the antirational theologians, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian. This theological movement, culminating in the West in the work of Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century, employed many of the sceptical arguments in order to undermine confidence in the rational approach to religious knowledge and truth.1
Cusanus’ ‘coincidence of opposites’ and the dialectic of Neoplatonism undermines confidence in the ‘rational approach’ not only of religious and patriarchal philosophical knowledge (a knowledge premised on defined, bounded concepts and therefore primary tools for control)2 but of both capitalist ideology and white, Western supremacism (see Introduction and 1.1). Even in its idealist form, it is a philosophy that exposes and rejects the lies of limit and permanence.
The ideological reality concerning the influence of Neoplatonism is one of systematic, deliberate downplaying and denial, a conspiracy of silence and the most determined ignorance. The sharpest manifestation of this in philosophy concerns the relationship between Cusanus,3 a recognised Neoplatonist and Hegel who, as the author of the Science of Logic, laid claim to being, and is held in capitalist ideology as, the master of the West’s greatest justification for the domination of others – its conceptual reason. As such, his own position could not be more contradictory.
Hopkins summarised Cusanus’ most important ideas
his notion of learned ignorance, his notion of the infinite disproportion between the finite and the infinite, his notion of the coincidence of opposites in God, his notion of the mobility of the earth, and his notion of the earth’s being privatively infinite (i.e., its being finite but unbounded).4
But though he is the first modern philosopher, he is not the Father of modern philosophy, a title rightly reserved for Descartes; for he does not break with the past, as does Descartes. Yet, he is the first to propose ideas whose implications, had they been further developed by his contemporaries or his successors, would have required a conceptual break with the past.5
Hopkins is splitting hairs – ‘the first modern philosopher’ but ‘not the Father of modern philosophy’… To simply put forward the ideas Cusanus did was to break conceptually and decisively with scholasticism and those ideas included significant developments in Neoplatonism such that Hegel, recognising their worth and coherence, used them to develop Neoplatonism to its highest degree – and Cusanus did philosophise about those ideas – at length and repeatedly.
Of Cusanus’ impact in philosophy, Hopkins wrote
Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel never mention him, although Kepler, Descartes, and Leibniz do. His ideas were given a boost by the printing of his collected works (Paris, 1514) by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. They were given a further boost by Giordano Bruno’s appropriating some of them.6
You can see the pattern: ‘never mention…given a boost…given a further boost…appropriating some of them’…
Bruno regarded Cusanus and Copernicus as the greatest German thinkers7 and referred to Cusanus, in both Cause, Principle and Unity (published in 1584-5 in London and in which Cusanus was his guide) and The Ash Wednesday Supper (also published in 1584-5 in London) as ‘divine’.8 In discussing Cusanus’ metaphor of a circle and a line to excellently convey the relation between Maximum and Minimum (a metaphor of Cusanus’ so important to Kepler) Bruno wrote
Let us look at signs first: tell me what is more unlike a straight line than the circle? Is there anything more opposite to a straight line than a curve? And yet, they coincide in the principle and the minimum, since (as the Cusan, the inventor of geometry’s most beautiful secrets, divinely pointed out) what difference could you find between the minimum arc and the minimum chord? Furthermore, in the maximum, what difference could you find between the infinite circle and the straight line?9
In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy Hegel wrote that Bruno
travelled widely in most European countries. …He also spent time in London and in numerous German universities; he taught in Wittenberg and in Prague.10
It is entirely reasonable to think that Bruno proselytised for Cusanus’ ideas everywhere he went.
The fullest expression of Nicolaus of Cusa’s mathematical thoughts on the infinite and the infinitesimal, however, are found in the work of Johannes Kepler, who was strongly influenced by the cardinal’s ideas…and who was likewise deeply imbued with Platonic and Pythagorean mysticism. It was probably the imaginative use by Cusa of the concept of infinity which led Kepler to his principle of continuity.13
Of Leibniz, Redding said
Leibniz was influenced by a type of philosophy that goes back to Plato and Neoplatonism, who and which influenced the early Christians. The idea of every part of the world being connected to everything else is Neoplatonist.14
Another, related, aspect of Neoplatonism – perspectivism – is obvious in the following from Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics
Now, first of all, it is very evident that created substances depend upon God, who preserves them and who even produces them continually by a kind of emanation, just as we produce our thoughts. For God, so to speak, turns on all sides and in all ways the general system of phenomena which he finds it good to produce in order to manifest his glory, and he views all the faces of the world in all ways possible, since there is no relation that escapes his omniscience. The result of each view of the universe, as seen from a certain position, is a substance which expresses the universe in conformity with this view, should God see fit to render his thought actual and to produce this substance.15
Cusanus’ words in De visione Dei with which he discussed an ‘Icon of God’ he was sending to the Benedictines at the monastery at Tegernsee for them to hang, stand around and observe as a philosophical and religious lesson, are almost exactly the same
In the first place, I think we must presuppose the following: whatever is apparent with regard to the icon-of-God’s sight is truer with regard to God’s true sight. For, indeed, God, who is the summit of all perfection and who is greater than can be thought, is called ‘theos’ by virtue of the fact that He observes all things. Therefore, if in the image the depicted gaze can appear to be beholding each and every thing at once, then since this [capability] belongs to sight’s perfection, it cannot truly befit the Truth less than it apparently befits the icon, or appearance.16
The ‘problem’ with giving Cusanus the recognition that is his due, the reason he will never get it under class domination is not that he didn’t beat Kepler or Leibniz to their discoveries, it is that he was a Neoplatonist, and his philosophy is a threat to that domination.
Like the Neoplatonists, Kant argued that the attainment of knowledge is dependent on the ‘mind’s’ activity. His transcendental unity of apperception, a ‘pure original unchangeable consciousness’,17 models the German idealists concern for Neoplatonic unity. His view of the world was, again, perspectival – a person can only grasp appearances according to a view, they can’t know the world in itself.
developed Kant’s hints about a type of Neoplatonic unity of the world of things-in-themselves by identifying this world with the totality of things in their interconnection. He identifies the world of appearances with this totality, as it were, grasped from within18
and wrote ‘the universe is, like the absolute, utterly One, indivisible, since it is the absolute itself…’ and ‘This is the means by which the universe is populated; according to this law life flows out into the world from the absolute as from that which is without qualification one’19…
That the profound and pervasive influence of Neoplatonism was and is downplayed, denied and passed over by academics is excellently exemplified with their treatment of Schelling. I quoted Beck and Magee above to illustrate how they both downplayed the influence of Cusanus (13.3) yet both – astonishingly – wrote, Magee quoting Beck (and this on the same page he distanced Cusanus from Hegel by quoting Walsh!), that Schelling, ‘we know’, read and was influenced by him!
(Cusanus’) theory of the polarity but unity of man, God, and nature is elaborated by Schelling (who, we know, was actually influenced by reading Nicholas).20
Schelling…we know, was actually influenced by reading Nicholas.21
Their writing this is astonishing not only because it is the first (though bare) assertion by any academics of a direct connection between Cusanus and any of the German idealists, but all the more so given Schelling’s significance – he had been best friends with Hegel, on whom he had had such a strong influence in their youth that Hegel was widely regarded as his follower, he had lived twice with Hegel – when they were students in the Tübingen seminary and again, at Schelling’s invitation, in Jena which was at the centre of philosophical life in Germany, where Schelling had a chair in philosophy and where they had worked together. Yet, having made such a significant statement, Beck and Magee provided not the slightest development on it. Simply, ‘we know’…
Also, Redding wrote
In Hegel’s case, Spinozistic and Cusan elements, reflected through the speculative thought of Schelling, would play a crucial role in his development from around 1800 up until the publication of his first major work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, in 1807.22
When Schelling began reading Cusanus and which of his texts he read obviously is of the greatest importance, not only with regard to the philosophies of Schelling and Hegel, but, given Schelling’s status and relationships, to German idealism and beyond.
1. Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, xix ↩
2. ‘I experience the necessity for me to enter into obscuring mist and to admit the coincidence of opposites, beyond all capacity of reason, and to seek truth where impossibility appears.’ Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei (‘The Vision of God’), op. cit., 9, 38, 697 ↩
3. In 1514 an edition of Cusanus’ Opera was published in Paris, edited by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. Buhle wrote that Cusanus’ writing was published in Basel in 1565 in three folio volumes. Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, in 6 vols., Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, vol. 2, 342-343. Camille La Bossière wrote that Montaigne owned a copy of the 1576 edition of De docta ignorantia, Cusanus’ single most important treatise. Camille R. La Bossière, ‘The World Revolves Upon an I: Montaigne’s Unknown God and Melville’s Confidence-Man’ (https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/63291/dalrev_vol77_iss3_pp339_354.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y). There was a German translation of his most important writing by F.A. Scharpff in Freiburg in 1862, Alfred Weber, History of Philosophy, Trans., Frank Thilly, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1907, 264 ↩
4. Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, op. cit., 29 ↩
5. Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa’s Metaphysic of Contraction, op. cit., 109 ↩
6. Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, op. cit., 28 ↩
7. ‘in 1565 in Wittenberg (Bruno) chided the Germans for neglecting (Cusa and Copernicus), who were, he said, their greatest thinkers.’ Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, op. cit., 170. Of Copernicus, who began his study of astronomy in Italy in about 1490, Beck wrote ‘There he came under the influence of two modes of thought that had not previously played any great role in recent astronomical theory. One was Pythagoreanism, the other was Neoplatonism’, Ibid., 166 ↩
8. From the Third Dialogue in The Ash Wednesday Supper: ‘Teofilo: But in truth it signified little for the Nolan (i.e. Bruno, who was born in Nola, part of the Kingdom of Naples) that the aforesaid [motion] (of the earth) had been stated, taught, and confirmed before him by Copernicus, Niceta Syracusus the Pythagorean, Philolaus, Heraclitus of Pontus, Hecphantus the Pythagorean, Plato in his Timaeus (where the author states this theory timidly and inconstantly, since he held it more by faith than by knowledge), and the divine Cusanus in the second book of his On Learned Ignorance, and others in all sorts of first-rate discourses. Smith: I remember having seen that Cusanus, of whose judgement I know you do not disapprove, would have it that the sun has dissimilar parts just as do the moon and the earth. …Teofilo.: By him divinely said and understood…’ Giordano Bruno, The Ash Wednesday Supper (La Cena de le Ceneri), Ed. and Trans., Edward A. Gosselin and Lawrence S. Lerner, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1995, 139-151 ↩
9. Giordano Bruno, Cause, Principle and Unity (De la causa, principio e uno), Trans. and Ed., Robert de Lucca and Essays on Magic, Trans. and Ed., Richard J. Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, 96-97 ↩
10. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. III, 61-62 ↩
11. ‘Kepler was imbued with the spirit of Platonism and in a marginal note to a passage from Proclus quoted in his Harmonices mundi, he described the Timaeus as a commentary on the book of Genesis, transforming it into Pythagorean philosophy. The general idea of the world as the visible image of God, which we find at the end of the Timaeus, was one that Kepler made his own. Having raised the question why God had first created bodies, he found the key to the solution in the comparison of God with the ‘curved’ and created nature with the ‘straight,’ a comparison that had been made by Nikolaus von Kues (Cusanus) and others. Kepler saw the harmony between the things at rest, in the order sun, sphere of fixed stars, and intervening space, as a symbol of the Three Persons of the Trinity. It was God’s intention, Kepler believed, that we should discover the plan of creation by sharing in His thoughts. It seemed to Kepler that the distinction between the curved and the straight was such a useful idea, that it could not have arisen by accident but must have been contrived in the beginning by God. Then in order that the world should be the best and most beautiful and reveal His image, Kepler supposed that God had created magnitudes and designed quantities whose nature was locked in the distinction between the curved and the straight, and to bring these quantities into being, He created bodies before all other things. …For Kepler, as for Plato, God was a geometer.’ Johannes Kepler, The Harmony of the World, (1619) trans. and Introduction by E.J.Aiton, A.M.Duncan, J.V.Field, xi-xxxix, xiii-xiv; Of the influence on Kepler of the Neoplatonic metaphysics of light. ‘In his Trinitarian allegories he called the sun God the Father. …the sun was not merely the geometrical centre of the solar system, as for Copernicus; it was also the dynamical centre, the primum mobile of the great wheels of the planets.’, Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, op. cit., 170 ↩
12. ‘…divinus mihi Cusanus…’ Johannes Kepler Gesammelte Werke Band 1, Mysterium Cosmographicum de Stella Nova, C.H.Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung München MCMXXXVIII, Caput II, 23 ↩
13. C. Boyer, The History of the Calculus and its Conceptual Development, Dover Publications, New York 1949, 93 quoted in Kundan Misra, ‘Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the humanist agenda and the scientific method’, MA thesis, University of NSW, 2012. Misra added ‘It was Cusa, says Boyer…who led Kepler to include normal and limiting forms of curves under a single definition of continuity encompassing conic sections as a single family of curves.’ The note for this is ‘Boyer quotes from Kepler’s Opera omnia II 595, translated from the quoted Latin by this author, “we find that a straight line is an hyperbola obtuse in the extreme. And from Cusanus we learn that a circle is an infinite linear thing. They are several things simultaneously, not discrete alternatives, whose different faces are turned to light by the use of analogy.” ’86; ‘Especially where Kepler deals with the geometrical structure of the cosmos, he always returns to his Platonic and Neoplatonic framework of thought.’ Daniel A. Di Liscia, ‘Johannes Kepler’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ↩
14. Lecture, University of Sydney, 02.08.10 ↩
15. G.W.Leibniz, ‘Discourse on Metaphysics’ in Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays On the Ultimate Origination of Things, Eds. and Trans., Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1991, 1-41, 15 ↩
16. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei (‘The Vision of God’), op. cit., I, 6, 682 ↩
17. Immanuel Kant, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, trans., Norman Kemp Smith, Macmillan, London, 1987, A 107, 136 ↩
18. Redding, lecture, University of Sydney, 04.10.10 ↩
19. F.W.J.Schelling, The Philosophy of Art, Ed. and Trans., D.W.Stott, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, 33, 37; Magee noted that Schelling’s use of ‘Absolute’ was ‘remarkably similar to Cusanus’, Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 18. It’s even more similar to Plotinus who, as previously stated, was the first to use it as a noun. ↩
20. Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, op. cit., 71 ↩
21. Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op.cit., 28. He continued ‘Beck also makes the claim that the Naturphilosophie of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as theosophy and Protestant mysticism, have their roots in Cusa.’ ↩
22. Redding, Hegel’s Hermeneutics, op. cit., 31-32 ↩