Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13e

13.4.2 Some more writing on Cusanus that Hegel read

Of the nine sources for his Lectures on the History of Philosophy that Hegel cited in his Introduction in Volume I1, seven of them name and discuss Cusanus.

The two that didn’t are Thomas Stanley’s, Historia philosophiae vitas opiniones resque gestas et dicta philosophorum sectae cuiusuis complexa… (Leipzig, 1711) (Latin translation from English) of which Hegel wrote

Its dominant viewpoint is that there are only ancient philosophies, and the era of philosophy was cut short by Christianity…this treatise only contains the ancient schools’2

and Dieterich Tiedemann’s Dialogorum Platonis argumenta, expounded and illustrated (Zweibrücken, 1786) which is a study of the Platonic dialogues.

Cusanus is named in the Contents of both Tennemann’s Grundriss3 and Geschichte4. He is discussed by Brucker in his Historia5, by Tiedemann in his Geist6, by Ast in his Grundriss7, by Rixner in his Handbuch8 and, as quoted in the previous section, by Buhle in his Lehrbuch9 and Geschichte10 which contains an extended discussion of Cusanus and is a history which Hegel used but did not name – in the Index of vol. 6 Cusanus was given a comprehensive entry, after that for Newton.

In his Grundriss Tennemann wrote

Among the first of those who bade adieu to the Scholastic creed was the Cardinal Nicolas Cusanus11; a man of rare sagacity and an able mathematician; who arranged and republished the Neoplatonic System, to which he was much inclined, in a very original manner, by the aid of his Mathematical knowledge. He ventured upon some philosophical explanations of the mystery of the Trinity not easy to be understood nor defended, but of which so much may be stated, that he presumed the Almighty to be Unity, and the Father of Equality, and of that which associates and unites Equality to Unity; (by which he dared to signify the Son and the Holy Ghost). According to him, it is impossible to know directly and immediately this Absolute Unity (the Divinity); because we can make approaches to the knowledge of Him only by the means of Number or Plurality. Consequently he allows us only the possession of very imperfect notions of God, and those by the aid of Mathematical symbols. Absurd and worse than absurd as many of these ideas are, and inconsistent as he is both in other particulars, and inasmuch as he appears to have fallen into the grievous error and sin of identifying, in his theory of the Universe, the Creator and the Created; – obscure as he also is in his manner of stating these reveries, they contain nevertheless12, several profound observations imperfectly expressed, respecting the faculties of the understanding for the attainment of knowledge. For instance, he observes, that the principles of knowledge possible to us are contained in our ideas of Number (ratio explicata) and their several relations; that absolute knowledge is unattainable to us (praecisio veritatis inattingibilis, which he styled docta ignorantia), and that all which is attainable to us is a probable knowledge (conjectura). With such opinions he expressed a sovereign contempt for the Dogmatism of the Schools.13

and in his Geschichte he wrote

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa was born in 1401 in the village of Cuss in Trier (Treves), gained renown and worldwide recognition through his exceptional knowledge of languages and his insights into mathematics, and died in 1464 after attaining the dignity of Cardinal. He deserves mention here because he was not merely dissatisfied with scholastic philosophy but actually set up his own system of theology, a blend of the enthusiastic ideas of Dionysius the Areopagite with mathematical concepts. He had come to the realisation that scholastic theology was based on empty imaginings, not so much through a purposeful investigation of the limits of human knowledge as through his own inclination to mysticism, which he had gained from the writings of the Alexandrians. The idea of the Absolute Maximum, which is simultaneously Absolute Oneness and as such the Absolute Minimum, presented itself to his penetrating mind as the most worthy conception of God, which all men recognise and regard as the goal of their rational endeavour. This absolute oneness is not an object of understanding; for number is that through which all understanding is mediated, and the maximum is greater than any number. The recognition of the unattainability and unknowability of these ideas is docta ignorantia. Only an imperfect symbolic understanding of the maximum is possible. Mathematics supplies the symbol for this purpose. Yet this thinker could not hold fast to this thought, inasmuch as he imagined he could provide an understanding of God and of His relation to Himself and the world; for this he needed the mathematical construction, yet, again due to the inadequacy of the idea, called for complete abstraction from all mathematical concepts in order to attain to the understanding of this Being, after which nothing is left but the concept of an empty logical object.14

The maximum is absolutely necessary, unitary, and the eternal foundation of the world. It passes first into the Trinity. The maximum as absolute oneness is God. This oneness repeats itself and begets equality with itself (the divine Son); the union of oneness with its equality, which can also be thought of as an outcome of both, makes the third person of the divinity (the Holy Spirit).15 The world is the maximum contracted or made finite. The diversity of things arises from the differing kinds and degrees of the contraction of the maximum. The maximum is the simplest and most abstract (absolute) understanding, wherein all opposites are abolished, all is oneness and oneness is all, to which we attain by the abstraction of all the conceptions of the senses, the imagination and the reason, even of mathematical concepts. (We must, in his coarse expression, evomere [spew out] all these conceptions.) That the oneness of God is a threeness we can see from human understanding: that which understands, that which is understandable, and the act of understanding are likewise one. The threeness of the maximum also comes to expression in the world as contracted maximum through possibility or primal material, the form and the world soul or world spirit, which is present in all things as well as in the whole. The Creator and the creation are one.16 Man occupies an intermediate level in the world, by which the world of the inanimate, the organic and the animal is united with the world of the angels and the divine. He found in this an explanation of the mystery of the incarnation of God as man. God wished to raise his work, the essence of creation, to perfection, which could only be done by Himself becoming a created being. He chose man for this purpose because man occupies the intermediate position in the order of beings and is thus the bond connecting all beings with the whole. So God, who is omnipresent in all things, assumed physical humanity, which he could do without contradicting his own nature, since the Creator and creation, considered absolutely, are one.17 Nicholas of Cusa, or one of his followers, wrote an apologia (defence) of this treatise, which had been attacked by Wenck in a work entitled Ignota literatura [Unknown learning].

Nicholas of Cusa expounded his view of human understanding in another work entitled de conjecturis [on surmises], which also offers a clearer insight into his metaphysical system. However, rather than his system of metaphysics being based on his theory of understanding, as one would naturally expect, his theory of understanding depends on his metaphysical system, and hence the latter is more extensive than the theory warrants.—The human spirit, as the highest image of the divine, participates in the fruitfulness of the creative nature. As the real world arises from the infinite mind of God, so the ideal world springs from the human mind in conceptions which cannot attain to absolute truth (praecisio veritatis inattingibilis) and which hence can only approach it, are merely surmises. The human mind is the form of the ideal (conjecturalis) world, the divine mind that of the real world. As the triune principle is the foundation of all multitude, inequality and division, so that multitude arises from absolute oneness, inequality from absolute equality, and division from absolute union, so the human mind is the triune principle of its rational system and the sole measure of multitude, of magnitude and of composition, so that if it were abolished, none of these would continue to exist. The oneness of mind comprehends within itself all multitude, its equality all magnitude, its union all composition, and it is the principle through which difference, proportion and composition are possible. The natural principle of this system is number, or reason unfolded. Hence the beasts, lacking mind, do not number.18 It will be seen that the philosophy of not-knowing (docta ignorantia or scientia ignorantiae), which elsewhere, particularly in the work de sapientia, he opposed to the prevailing scholastic wisdom, is nothing other than a philosophical numbering system, which leads into mysticism and only appears as the result of knowledge of the absolute. Cusanus did not possess the gift of setting forth this system with clarity, indeed its nature would probably have precluded this. However, amid his mystical conceptions and the play of his hair-splitting wit we find some flashes of insight into the conditions of human understanding; in particular, his view of the principle of number, one-sided as it is, merits attention.19



1. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 99-101
2. Ibid., 99
3. Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie für den akademischen Unterricht, 3rd edn., Ed. Amadeus Wendt (Leipzig, 1820)
4. Tennemann, Geschichte, op. cit.
5. Jacob Brucker, Historia critica philosophiae, 4 vols. (Leipzig, 1742-4). (Hegel owned the 1756 edn.)
6. Dieterich Tiedemann, Geist der spekulativen Philosophie  6 vols. (Marburg, 1791-7). (Hegel owned vols. i-iii)
7. Friedrich Ast, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie (Landshut, 1807)
8. Thaddä Anselm Rixner, Handbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie zum Gebrauche seiner Vorlesungen, 3  vols. (Sulzbach, 1822-3)
9. Buhle, Lehrbuch, op. cit.
10. Buhle, Geschichte, op. cit.
11. Nicolaus Chrypffs of Kuss or Kusel (hence called Cusanus) in the archbishopric of Treves; born 1401, died 1464.
12. NICOLAI CUSANI Opera, Paris. 1514, 3 vols. fol.; Basil, 1565, 3 vols. fol. De Docta Ignorantia, tom. III. Apologia Doctae Ignorantiae lib. I. De Conjecturis libb. II. De Sapientia libb. III.
13. Tennemann, Grundriss, op. cit., 235-236, in Arthur Johnson, Trans., A Manual of the History of Philosophy, Translated from the German of Tennemann, Oxford, D.A.Talboys, 1832, 266-267
14. Nic. Cusanus de docta ignorantia, 1. I. c.1–3.
15. Nic. Cusan. ib. c. 4–8 l. II c. 6. Ab unitate gignitur unitatis aequalitas; connexio vero ab unitate procedit et ab unitatis aequalitate.—Quemadmodum generatio unitatis ab unitate est una unitatis repetitio; ita processio ab utroque est repetitionis illius unitatis, sive mavis dicere, unitatis et aequalitatis unitatis ipsius unitio. [Equality of oneness is begotten from oneness, but union proceeds from oneness and from equality of oneness.—Just as generation of oneness is one repetition of oneness, so the procession from both is oneness of the repetition of this oneness—or (if you prefer the expression) is oneness of oneness and of the equality of this oneness.]
16. Nic. Cusan. ib. l. c. 10. Oportet philosophiam ad trinitatis notitiam ascendere volentem, circulos et sphaeras evomuisse. Ostensum est in prioribus unicum simplicissimum maximum; et quod ipsum tale non sit nec perfectissima figura corporalis, ut est sphaera, aut superficialis, ut est circulus, aut rectilinealis, ut est triangulus, aut simplicis rectitudinis, ut est linea. Sed ipsum super omnia illa est. Itaque illa, quae aut per sensum, aut imaginationem, aut rationem cum naturalibus appendiciis, attingantur, necessario evomere oportet, ut ad simplicissimam et abstractissimam intelligentiam perveniamus, ubi omnia sunt unum; ubi linea sit triangulus, circulus et sphaera; ubi unitas sit trinitas et e converso; ubi accidens sit substantia; ubi corpus sit spiritus, motus sit quies et cetera huiusmodi. Et tunc intelligitur, quando quodlibet in ipso uno intelligitur, unum, et ipsum unum omnia et per consequens quodlibet in ipso omnia. Et non recte evomuisti sphaeram, circulum et huiusmodi, si non intelligis ipsam unitatem maximam necessario esse trinam. Maxima enim nequaquam recte intelligi poterit, si non intelligatur trina. Ut exemplis ad hoc utamur convenientibus: videmus unitatem intellectus non aliud esse, quam intelligens, intelligibile et intelligere. Si igitur ab eo, quod est intelligens, velis te ad maximum transferre et dicere, maximum esse maxime intelligens, et non adiicias, ipsum etiam esse maxime intelligibile et maxime intelligere; non recte de unitate maxima et perfectissima concipis. l. ll. c. 7–10. [Philosophy, desiring to ascend unto a knowledge of this Trinity, must leave behind circles and spheres. In the preceding I have shown the sole and very simple Maximum. And I have shown that the following are not this Maximum: the most perfect corporeal figure (viz., the sphere), the most perfect surface figure (viz., the triangle), the most perfect figure of simple straightness (viz., the line). Rather, the Maximum itself is beyond all these things. Consequently, we must leave behind the things which, together with their material associations, are attained through the senses, through the imagination, or through reason—so that we may arrive at the most simple and most abstract understanding, where all things are one, where a line is a triangle, a circle, and a sphere, where oneness is threeness (and conversely), where accident is substance, where body is mind, where motion is rest, and other such things. Now, there is understanding when (1) anything whatsoever in the One is understood to be the One, and the One [is understood to be] all things, and consequently, (2) anything whatsoever in the One [is understood to be] all things. And you have not rightly left behind the sphere, the circle, and the like, unless you understand that maximal Oneness is necessarily trine—since maximal Oneness cannot at all be rightly understood unless it is understood to be trine. To use examples suitable to the foregoing point: We see that oneness of understanding is not anything other than that which understands, that which is understandable, and the act of understanding. So suppose you want to transfer your reflection from that which understands to the Maximum and to say that the Maximum is, most greatly, that which understands; but suppose you do not add that the Maximum is also, most greatly, what which is understandable, together with being the greatest actual understanding. In that case, you do not rightly conceive of the greatest and most perfect Oneness.]
17. Nic. Cusanus ibid. l. III. c. s.
18. Nic. Cusanus de conjecturis l. I. c. 3.4. Coniecturas a mente nostra, uti realis mundus a divina infinita ratione prodire oportet. Dum enim humana mens, alta Dei similitudo, fecunditatem creatricis naturae, ut potest, participat, ex se ipsa, ut imagine omnipotentis formae, in realium entium similitudinem rationalia exerit. Coniecturalis itaque mundi humana mens forma existit, uti realis divina. — Ut autem mentem coniecturarum principium recipias, advertas oportet, quo modo ut primum omnium rerum atque nostrae mentis principium unitrinum ostensum est, ut multitudinis, inaequalitatis atque divisionis rerum unum sit principium, a cuius unitate absoluta multitudo, ab aequalitate inaequalitas et a connexione divisio effluat; ita mens nostra, quae non nisi intellectualem naturam creatricem concipit, se unitrinum facit principium rationalis suas fabricas: sola enim ratio multitudinis, magnitudinis ac compositionis mensura est, ita ut, ipsa sublata, nihil horum subsistat. – Quapropter unitas mentis omnem in se complicat multitudinem, eiusque aequalitas omnem magnitudinem, sicut et connexio compositionem. Mens igitur unitrinum principium primo ex vi complicativae unitatis multitudinem explicat, multitudo vero inaequalitatis atque magnitudinis generativa est. Quapropter in ipsa primordiali multitudine ut in primo exemplari magnitudines et perfectiones integritatum, et varias et inaequales veratur; deinde ex utrisque ad compositionem progreditur. Est igitur mens nostra distinctivum, proportionativum, atque compositivum principium. — Rationalis fabricae naturale quoddam pullulans principium numerus est. Mente etiam carentes, ut bruta, non numerant. Nec est aliud numerus, quam ratio explicata. [It must be the case that surmises originate from our minds, even as the real world originates from Infinite Divine Reason. For when, as best it can, the human mind (which is a lofty likeness of God) partakes of the fruitfulness of the Creating Nature, it produces from itself, qua image of the Omnipotent Form, rational entities, which are made in the likeness of real entities. Consequently, the human mind is the form of a surmised rational world, just as the Divine Mind is the Form of the real world. … In order that you may recognise that the mind is the beginning of surmises, take note of the following: just as the First Beginning of all things, including our minds, is shown to be triune (so that of the multitude, the inequality, and the division of things there is one Beginning, from whose Absolute Oneness multitude flows forth, from whose Absolute Equality inequality flows forth, and from whose Absolute Union division flows forth), so our mind (which conceives only an intellectual nature to be creative) makes itself to be a triune beginning of its own rational products. For only reason is the measure of multitude, of magnitude, and of composition. Thus, if reason is removed, none of these will remain. …Therefore, the mind’s oneness enfolds within itself all multitude, and its equality enfolds all magnitude, even as its union enfolds all composition. Therefore, mind, which is a triune beginning, first of all unfolds multitude from the power of its enfolding-oneness. But multitude begets inequality and magnitude. Therefore, in and through the primordial multitude, as in and through a first exemplar-multitude, the mind seeks the diverse and unequal magnitudes, or perfections, of each thing as a whole; and thereafter it progresses to a combining of both multitude and magnitude. Therefore, our mind is a distinguishing, a proportioning, and a combining beginning. …Number is a certain natural, originated beginning that is of reason’s making; for those creatures that lack a mind, e.g. brute animals, do not number. Nor is number anything other than reason unfolded.]
19. Tennemann, Geschichte, op. cit., vol. 9 (1814), 133-138

Academic ideologues: ‘There is no evidence that Hegel, the master of conceptual reason, was aware of the Neoplatonist Nicholas of Cusa’

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

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