Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13f

13.5 What the academics refuse to acknowledge in Hegel they incorrectly attribute in Cusanus

Nicholas of Cusa is almost unanimously recognised by academics as a Neoplatonist – a ‘Christian Neoplatonist’ – yet the errors they make when discussing his philosophy reveal both their ignorance of and hostility to Neoplatonism. Beck rejected that Cusanus was a mystic, writing

If he were, one would not expect learned ignorance to be man’s final stance before God; and one would expect something more ecstatic than the somewhat modest language of the devotio moderna.1

Beck’s error is fundamental. Neoplatonism is a complex and subtle philosophy not a prescription for self-abandonment. Rather than advocating a mystical relinquishment of self, Cusanus argued for and developed on a philosophy of self-knowledge and self-realisation as the method for attaining God. This is the method of the Enneads – and of the more philosophically developed system of Hegel.

Man’s creative (introspective) activity is an image of God’s. Neoplatonism enabled its proponents to argue for the contradictoriness, dynamism, complexity and poetry of the world – for them, that of religious consciousness. The academics’ refusal to countenance Hegel as a Neoplatonic mystic is premised on the same grounds Beck used with regard to Cusanus – he was a philosopher, his philosophy is not ecstatic.

Moffitt Watts wrote

Cusanus was one of the earliest thinkers to understand deeply and develop comprehensively the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural implications of the idea that the human mind is its own world…Cusanus’ conception of mind represents an important step on the road to Cartesianism.2

Again, fundamental errors. More than a millennium before Cusanus lived, Plotinus founded the school of philosophy to which he subscribed and which Plotinus ‘developed comprehensively’ in his Enneads. The ‘conception of mind (representing) an important step on the road to Cartesianism’ was the achievement of Plotinus, not Cusanus, who revitalised it.

When it comes to the recognition of the influence of Plato and Aristotle on subsequent philosophers, academics (those who repeatedly emphasise the importance of correct attribution to their students) don’t have a problem, but when the name of Plotinus is put forward, who was at least the equal of Plato and Aristotle and who drew on both, the problems arise and persist in abundance.

Hopkins identified a number of themes in Cusanus that he thinks have a ‘peculiarly Modern ring’3 to them including:

• a part is not known unless the whole is known (De mente)

• when the part is wholly known, then the whole is known and vice versa (De mente)

• man is the measure of all things (De Beryllo)

• Cusanus’ distinction between ratio (reason) and intellectus (understanding) – the principle of non-contradiction applies only at the level of ratio – that which distinguishes/analyses

• ‘Nicholas, under the influence of Leon Batista Alberti, emphasises that human knowledge is perspectival’

• the infinite is manifest through the finite

• since the divine mind is reflected in and through the human mind, all knowledge of God is metaphorical

• human minds are like living mirrors that mirror each other – Leibniz adopted this comparison

• Mind ‘performs all (its operations) in order to know itself’ (De mente 9)

• the earth moves (break with Ptolemaic theory)

• the earth for those on it appears to be at the centre of the universe as would another body for those standing on it

• the universe is as perfect as it can be

Having identified these points, Hopkins then refuses Cusanus recognition as the ‘father’ of modern philosophy, granting that accolade to a non-Neoplatonist who had ‘mentioned’ him4. More importantly, every one of these points are Neoplatonic staples – they are all addressed in the Enneads.

Plotinus set out the mystical relationship between part and whole and the knowledge of both. While he didn’t write that ‘man is the measure of all things’, God, the measure of all that is, is within5. To attain God is to rise from the sensory world to reach our true self. Plotinus distinguished between the ‘two’ reasons – contemplative and discursive. His philosophy is perspectival. For him the infinite is manifest through the finite, the human ‘mind’ is the product of divine ‘mind’ (the second hypostasis Intellectual-Principle) and knowledge of God is metaphorical – the primary metaphor, resonant through Western history, being that of the sculptor chiselling his soul.

Plotinus employed the metaphor of mirroring, equivalent with that of ‘seeing’6. For him, ‘mind’ performs its operations in order to know itself (true knowledge progresses from the second to the first hypostasis). For Plotinus, all that is moves, driven by degrees of desire, most weak in the material realm, around the Good which, in its infinite power, is stationary – the divine light of Copernicus was at the centre long before Cusanus7. The appearance of centrality depending on position can be traced, again, to the second hypostasis where there is no centre and all the Forms comprise a totality of unity-in-diversity.

It was Plotinus who, in arguing for the beauty and worth of the earth and everything on it8, set the basis for the Neoplatonists’ interest in the world, which Cusanus exemplified brilliantly in Book II of De docta ignorantia and which, later, Hegel exemplified in the second book of his Encyclopaedia.

On the universe being as perfect as it can be, Armstrong wrote

The material universe for Plotinus is a living, organic whole, the best possible image of the living unity-in-diversity of the World of Forms in Intellect. It is held together in every part by a universal sympathy and harmony, in which external evil and suffering take their place as necessary elements in the great pattern, the great dance of the universe…Matter then is responsible for the evil and imperfection of the material world; but that world is good and necessary, the best possible image of the world of spirit on the material level, where it is necessary that it should express itself for the completion of the whole. It has not the goodness of its archetype, but it has the goodness of the best possible image.9

Cassirer made the same basic errors as Beck, Moffitt Watts and Hopkins

Cusanus arrives at the essential principles of a new cosmology…the earth may no longer be considered something base…the new orientation in astronomy…a totally new intellectual orientation…10

Cusanus explored and brought out through clarification and metaphysical application what was already in Neoplatonic theory. In doing so he made very important contributions to its development and to later science.

These contributions were crucial to Hegel’s furthest development of Neoplatonism but they were, more than anything else, clarifications and metaphysical applications of what Plotinus had set out in his unsystematic presentation of his vast system in his Enneads and had been passed on by his successors.

The profound failure in social and intellectual responsibility by academics in refusing to recognise and to acknowledge the immense impact of Plotinus on Western culture is not accidental. It is driven by the requirements, as I have argued, of ideology and Western supremacism.

13.6 Parallels between Hegel and Cusanus

Below in point form and in no particular order are some of the parallels between Hegel and Cusanus I have identified, some of which I will address in this thesis:

• both were Neoplatonists who philosophised within a Proclean triadic framework

• both their enquiries tie philosophy to Christian faith

• both made the triune Trinity central

• both addressed the two ‘reasons’ (what Hegel referred to as Verstand and Vernunft)

• the philosophies of both are very complex

• God is the beginning and end of all things/God as a creative force

• God is not transcendent but immanent

• God is a logical concept

• how God can be known

• the mysticism of both is intellectual

• the systems of both were an attempt to address a perceived challenge to unity

• both used devices: metaphor, etc.

• subject/object: the unity of knower/knowing/known, seer/seeing/seen

• Christ become man is the link between God and world

• what knowledge is/all knowledge is ‘speculative’

• for both, Being (God) is primary to being and non-being

• both sought to reconstruct the grounds of philosophy and theology and the relationship between them

• both thought their philosophies represented a break from previous philosophy

• for both, philosophy is theology

• both believed we are estranged from God

• self-knowledge is at the core of our experience

• God cannot be predicated

• the world originates in (divine) Mind

• our ‘minds’ are models of ‘the mind’ of God – what his ‘mind’ does is replicated by ours conceptually

• God is the greatest activity in the greatest stillness

• same concepts

– absolute (as a noun)

– being and nothing

– coincidence (coincidentia oppositorum)

– contraction

– contradiction

– emanation and return (from the One to the many and return)

– enfolding/unfolding

– finite/infinite

– modes of apprehending

– magnitude (maximum/minimum)

– rational ground

– posse

• Plotinus’ sculptor

• truth/Absolute truth

• their humanism

• Cusanus was far more philosophical than either Eckhart or Böhme

• ‘science’ for both

• their metaphysical understanding of the world

• the eye that sees its other etc.

• the importance of ‘community’ in their philosophies

• their views on language

• on sense experience

• the world is change

• Catholicism as a ground for mysticism



1. Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, op. cit., 58
2. Moffitt Watts, Nicolaus Cusanus, A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man, op, cit., 225
3. Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, op. cit., 14-17. In the entire article, ‘Plotinus’ and ‘Neoplatonism’ occur once each.
4. See 13.4
5. ‘Protagoras, then, rightly stated that man is the measure of things. Because man knows—by reference to the nature of his perceptual [cognition]—that perceptible objects exist for the sake of that cognition, he measures perceptible objects in order to be able to apprehend, perceptually, the glory of the Divine Intellect. Similarly, with regard to things intelligible when we refer them to intellective cognition: at length, from that same consideration, man reflects upon the fact that the intellective nature is immortal—[doing so] in order that the Divine Intellect, in its immortality, can manifest itself to him.’ Nicholas of Cusa, De beryllo (‘On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses’), op. cit., 69, 825. ‘Nicholas’s appropriation of Protagoras’s doctrine of homo mensura differs widely from Protagoras’s own understanding of it; for, ultimately, according to Nicholas, God is the Measure of all things’ Hopkins’ note 18, Ibid., 831
6. See 8.5
7. ‘Time in its ceaseless onward sliding produces parted interval; Eternity stands in identity, pre-eminent, vaster by unending power than Time with all the vastness of its seeming progress; Time is like a radial line running out apparently to infinity but dependent upon that, its centre, which is the pivot of all its movement; as it goes it tells of that centre, but the centre itself is the unmoving principle of all the movement (my italics).’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.5.11
8. See 11.3.7
9. Armstrong in Plotinus, Enneads, op. cit., vol. I, xxiv
10. ‘From these methodological premises Cusanus arrives at the essential principles of a new cosmology. …the earth may no longer be considered something base or detestable within nature. Rather, it is as noble star…we can see clearly why, from Cusanus’ viewpoint, the new orientation in astronomy that led to the supersession of the geocentric vision of the world was only the result and the expression of a totally new intellectual orientation. This intimate connection between the two was already visible in the formulation of his basic cosmological ideas in De docta ignorantia. It is useless to seek a physical central point for the world. Just as it has no sharply delineated geometric form but rather extends spatially into the indeterminate, so it also has no locally determined centre. Thus, if the question of its central point can be asked at all, it can no longer be answered by physics but by metaphysics.’ Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, Trans., Mario Domandi, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1963, 27

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

3 thoughts on “Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13f

  1. Good job! Here’s a couple of questions to contribute.

    “For Plotinus, all that is moves, driven by degrees of desire, most weak in the material realm, around the Good which, in its infinite power, is stationary…”

    What do you mean by ‘driven by degrees of desire’?

    For instance are you referring to the intensity of desires? Ex: My desire for my girlfriend is to such a high degree that I am bound to marry her, opposed to my lack of desire for my girlfriend is soon going to end in a break up.

    How could we know if a Neoplatonist is with a high degree of desire for the Good or not?



    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jason,

      Thank you. The One generates all that is and the further from the One, the weaker its ‘light’ – matter being the furthest removed.

      ‘everything that reaches outwards is the less for it, strength less strong, heat less hot, every power less potent, and so beauty less beautiful.’ V.8.1

      But all that the One has generated desires (intellectually, spiritually) to be reunited with it – including matter which, though ‘the cause of evil’ (I.8.8), is still an Idea (V.8.7).

      Desire, as you know, is motivated by (the) recollection (of knowledge). Desire is movement.

      Just as there is a weakening and diminution outgoing, there is a ‘quickening’ and intensification of desire as our souls rise to their source, as their ‘vision’ becomes clearer, as knower and known (subject and object) come ever closer in the process of knowing, until they become, again, One.

      At the point of unity there is not stasis, but the greatest activity within the greatest stillness (which Cusanus excellently illustrated with a spinning top – the faster it spins, the more it appears stationary).

      At that point, the most intense desire is consummated.

      We would know that a Neoplatonist has a high degree of desire for the Good through evidence of their striving for it – the quality of their ethics and the degree of their self-knowledge.

      ‘to find ourselves is to know our source.’ VI.9.8


      Liked by 1 person

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