Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13m The fundamental notion in philosophy, conflation and the Proclean triad

For Cusanus and Hegel, the genuine infinite is the fundamental notion in philosophy, the most important principle of philosophical knowledge and the basis of all truth. Where Cusanus positioned the genuine infinite as the Maximum in the ultimate relationship of coincidentia oppositorum – that between the two superlatives Maximum and Minimum (the former enfolding all else) – and explored that relationship

the Maximum is such that in it the Minimum is the Maximum, and thus the Maximum infinitely and in every respect transcends all opposition. From this principle there can be elicited about the Maximum as many negative truths as can be written or read; indeed, all humanly apprehensible theology is elicited from this very great principle. …For whoever understands this [point] understands all things; he transcends all created understanding. For God, who is this Maximum, ‘is not thing and is not any other thing; He is not here and is not there,’ as the same Dionysius says regarding the divine names; for just as He is all things, so He is not any of all the things.1

Hegel developed that same principle to its fullest within Neoplatonism, addressing the transitional unity of the infinite and the finite, each functioning inseparably and dialectically within the other.2 Magee wrote

The concept of the true infinite is extraordinarily important for Hegel’s philosophy. In the Doctrine of Being of the Logic, it sets the stage for a major transition: to the concept of being-for-self, which Hegel describes as ‘the infinite determinacy that contains distinction within itself as sublated’ (EL #96 A). Ultimately, Hegel will characterise the Absolute (the whole of the real) as precisely such an infinite which contains the finite within itself as its internal self-differentiation. The true infinite is also important for understanding Hegel’s treatment of God (the equivalent of the Absolute). Traditional theology, Hegel holds, is fundamentally mistaken in claiming that the infinite God and finite creation must be absolutely distinct for, again, this distinction would actually cancel God’s infinity. Therefore, God must ‘contain’ the world as a moment of his being; the infinite must contain the finite.3

Where for Cusanus God is Absolute Maximum uncontracted, the universe, its image, a oneness-in-plurality, is the contracted maximum (comprised of a multiplicity of finite elements) and Christ is the Absolute and contracted Maximum (both infinite and finite) – each, in turn, the subjects of the three books of De docta ignorantia – Hegel used the same focus on infinite (God), finite (nature) and the finite and infinite (Mind’/Spirit4) to address the same process and stages of development in his Encyclopaedia.

Where Cusanus distinguished between the infinity of God and that of the universe (which he described as privatively infinite because although it is unbounded by any physical reality external to itself it still lacks the negative infinity of God)5, Hegel addressed in his development of this a distinction between ‘two’ infinites in his notion of the ‘genuine’ and ‘spurious’ infinites – the former and its relationship with the finite cognised as for Cusanus on the basis of speculative reason, the latter the one-sided infinite of ‘understanding’6.

In the Doctrine of Being of the Logic, Hegel argues that when we consider a finite something we are automatically led to think of its other, which limits it. (He calls this ‘bad infinity’ -) that which simply goes on and on and on; an unending series of distinct, finite terms which succeed one another without end. This is the infinity of the understanding…This infinity, Hegel argues, is fundamentally false. …if the infinite is limited, it cannot truly be infinite! True or genuine infinity, therefore, cannot stand in opposition to the finite. This means that the only way that is left for the infinite to be genuinely infinite would be for it to contain the finite within itself.…The understanding finds this outrageous, and declares it impossible. But for Hegel there is a simple, speculative solution: the infinite can retain its infinity if, in effect, it absorbs the finite as its internal moments or internal differentiation. The shift here is from seeing the infinite and finite as externally related (which is how the understanding sees things), to conceiving them as internally related. The true infinite is infinite, then, not because it goes on and on, but because it contains finitude within itself and is thus not limited, restricted, or defined by anything outside itself.7

To recapitulate, the second hypostasis Intellectual-Principle (Divine Mind, Divine Intellection) is the beginning of plurality or complexity and connotes the highest knowable. It contains the Intellectual, Intelligible or Spiritual Universe – the totality of divine thoughts (Forms or Ideas).

While infinite in power and without extension because immeasurable, as the image of the One and though a complete whole, it is comprised of an existing number (all that can exist) of definite, finite realities – the Forms.

This ‘Totality of the Supreme Wisdom or “Mentation”’8 is also the totality of all finite ‘minds’ or intelligences which are images of the Universal or Divine Mind (which, I will argue, becomes the cultus of Cusanus and Hegel). Thus Intellectual-Principle is not only a unity-in-diversity of Ideas but a complexity of the finite within the infinite, through which the soul rises in its development. Magee put the Neoplatonic position

Only the whole is true, and discovering the ‘truth’ of any finite object or idea consists in understanding its relation to the whole.9

Cusanus and Hegel developed their philosophies against the background of their conflation of the hypostases10  – no longer on the basis of the hypostatic process of emanation and return from and to the One but, using the Christian Trinity and myth, from and to the one Being or God of Proclus’ inner triad of triads.

Of particular importance to this is their incorporation of the first hypostasis in the first element of Proclus’ triad – Being – in the second hypostasis, because the One is the Absolute infinite.

Cusanus’ words in De docta ignorantia (one of the most important of his treatises on the relationship between infinite and finite)

For the Infinite Form is received only finitely, so that every created thing is, as it were, a finite infinity or a created god, so that it exists in the way in which this can best occur.11

echo the generation from the first into the second hypostasis whereby Formless Form is received only finitely, so that every created thing (Form/Idea/intelligence) is, as it were, a finite infinity or a created god, so that it exists in the way in which this can best occur.12

This is the Intellective and Spiritual Universe, the philosophical not Christian realm about which Cusanus and Hegel philosophised. I strongly disagree with Magee’s assertion that

Hegel’s concept of the ‘true infinite’…would seem to owe something to Spinoza’s theology13

and that Hegel had ‘solved the dilemma’14. The nature of the ‘true infinite’ and the speculative (mystical) relationship between infinite and finite was established in the Enneads and clarified and developed particularly by Proclus and then Cusanus on the basis of the conflation of the hypostases into the second, within which was suspended Proclus’ triad of Being/Life/Intelligence. Cusanus wrote

Your Concept is most simple eternity itself. Now, posterior to most simple eternity no thing can possibly be made. Therefore, infinite duration, which is eternity itself, encompasses all succession. Therefore, everything which appears to us in a succession is not at all posterior to Your Concept, which is eternity. For Your one Concept, which is also Your Word, enfolds each and every thing.15

Prior to Marx’s incorporation of Neoplatonic dialectic in materialist epistemology, Hegel developed that relationship, as well as other aspects of Neoplatonism, to their highest point. Because of his debt to Cusanus, by no means only with regard to the theorising of infinity and finitude on the basis of a conflation of the Neoplatonic hypostases and of Proclus’ triad specifically, Hegel made sure he never even named him, although Cusanus is named and discussed to varying degrees including detailed in seven of the nine histories of philosophy (the other two dealing only with ancient philosophy) Hegel cited as sources for his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (see 13.4.1, 13.4.2).



1. Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), op. cit., I,16,43, 25; ’Cusanus’ theology…requires the convergence of the Absolute-Greatest with the Absolute-Smallest as the firm principle and the necessary vehicle of progressing knowledge.’, Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, op. cit., 14
2. ‘it is this unity (of the finite and the infinite) alone which evokes the infinite in the finite and the finite in the infinite; it is, so to speak, the mainspring of the infinite progress.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 142; ‘everything finite, instead of being stable and ultimate, is rather changeable and transient…the finite…is forced beyond its own immediate or natural being to turn suddenly into its opposite.’, Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 118 (anathema to bourgeois ideologues and a fundamental reason why they refuse to give Plotinus the recognition he deserves are the words that follow ‘All things, we say – that is, the finite world as such – are doomed; and in saying so, we have a vision of Dialectic as the universal and irresistible power before which nothing can stay, however secure and stable it may deem itself.’); ‘Indeed, even in the case of the infinite, it has the infinite on one side and finitude on the other. But the truth of the matter is that neither the finite nor the infinite standing over against it has any truth; rather both are merely transitional. To that extent this is a mystery for sensible representation and for the understanding, and both resist the rationality of the idea. …life itself is a contradiction, and the way the understanding comprehends such distinctions is that the contradiction remains unresolved’, Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 281-282
3. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 119; ‘Traditional theology’ means ‘Christian theology’. Here is another fundamental difference between the Proclean triad and the Christian Trinity which ideologues gloss over.
4. ‘The two first parts of the doctrine of Mind embrace the finite mind.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 22. The ‘two first parts’ in my copy being Mind Subjective and Mind Objective, the third being, of course, Absolute Mind.
5. ‘The notion of Absolute Infinity…(is) central to (Cusanus’s) entire treatise (De Visione Dei)’, Bernard McGinn, ‘Seeing and Not Seeing – Nicholas of Cusa’s De visione Dei in the History of Western Mysticism’ in Casarella, Ed., Cusanus, The Legacy of Learned Ignorance, op. cit., 26-54, 47; ‘(For Cusanus) the infinite is the essence of the finite.’, Elizabeth Brient, ‘How Can the Infinite be the Measure of the Finite?’ Ibid., 210-226, 216
6. ‘Much depends on rightly apprehending the notion of infinity, and not stopping short at the wrong infinity of endless progression. …No doubt philosophy has also sometimes been set the task of finding an answer to the question, how the infinite comes to the resolution of issuing out of itself. This question, founded, as it is, upon the assumption of a rigid opposition between finite and infinite, may be answered by saying that the opposition is false, and that in point of fact the infinite eternally proceeds out of itself, and yet does not proceed out of itself. If we further say that the infinite is the not-finite, we have in point of fact virtually expressed the truth: for as the finite itself is the first negative, the not-finite is the negative of that negation, the negation which is identical with itself and thus at the same time a true affirmation.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 137-138
7. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 118-119
8. In Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., xxxiii
9. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 252
10. I have discussed Cusanus’ and Hegel’s conflation of the three hypostases into the second and exemplified this, particularly with regard to Hegel (see 7.). They used ‘One’ in the sense of both first and second hypostases, wrote that the beginning is devoid of predication and used ‘One’, ‘God’, ‘Being’ and ‘Mind’ interchangeably. Exemplifying his conflation of the hypostases, Cusanus, when discussing ‘the four onenesses’, wrote ‘since intelligence’s oneness is unfolded in the soul, intelligence shines forth in the soul as in its own image. God is intelligence’s light, because He is intelligence’s Oneness; similarly, intelligence is the soul’s light, because intelligence is the soul’s oneness’, Nicholas of Cusa, De coniecturis (‘On Speculations’), op. cit., 7, 27
11. Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), op. cit., II, 2, 104; ‘every existing thing is a combination of the finite and the infinite: from the finite it has its being; from the infinite it has its power.’, De venatione sapientiae (‘On the Pursuit of Wisdom’), 1462-3, in Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations, Six Latin Texts Translated into English, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1998, 1278-1354, 21, 59; Hopkins wrote “when Nicholas refers to every created thing as ‘a finite infinity, as it were,’ he does not mean that Infinity itself is contracted, or delimited. The words ‘as it were’ signal a modus loquendi: every finite creature ‘resembles’ the Infinite God in that it is as perfect as it can be.”, Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa’s Metaphysic of Contraction, op. cit., 102. As I have indicated, quoting Armstrong at 13.5, this is the position of Plotinus. “In the Cusan infinite, each part is also infinite. God is ‘all in all.’”, Weeks, German Mysticism – From Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History, 107
12. ‘Cusanus gives expression to this important difference between finite and Infinite…Just as any creature is not other than itself so it is not other than the divine Not-Other. The divine Not-Other both is and is not every finite other.’, Miller, ‘Cusanus, Nicolaus [Nicolas of Cusa], op. cit.
13. Magee immediately followed these words with the Neoplatonic giveaway ‘For both Hegel and Spinoza, the true is the whole.’ ‘(Both Spinoza and Hegel conceived of God) as infinite, and understand this to mean that there are no beings existing outside God that would limit him. Thus, the finite must be contained within the infinite. This is Hegel’s concept of the ‘true infinite’, and it would seem to owe something to Spinoza’s theology. For both Hegel and Spinoza, the true is the whole.’ Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 225.
14. ‘Speculation allows Hegel to solve many philosophical problems which remain insoluble for the understanding. For example, the understanding insists that the universe must be either finite or infinite, but cannot be both. However, as Kant demonstrated, there seem to be equally good arguments for either position. Hegel solves the dilemma (my italics) by asserting that the standard conception of infinity (as that which goes on forever) is false. Since the (false) infinite excludes the finite, it is actually limited by what it excludes, and thus cannot be infinite (or unlimited). The true infinite, for Hegel, has nothing ‘outside’ itself which could limit it, thus it must ‘contain’ or be composed by all that which is finite. This argument is impossible for the understanding to grasp, because it is incapable of adopting a critical standpoint about its most fundamental presuppositions. It is really for precisely this reason that Hegel regards the understanding as unphilosophical.’, Ibid., 252-253. Cusanus philosophised on the same relationship between infinite and finite with regard to the universe in Book II of De docta ignorantia.
15. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei (‘The Vision of God’), op. cit., 10, 43. ‘Infinity exists and enfolds all things; and no thing can exist outside it. Hence, nothing is other than it or different from it. Therefore, Infinity is all things in such way that it is none of them.’ Ibid., 13, 56; ‘the Infinite is not contractible to equality with the finite, although it is not unequal to anything. For how could inequality befit the Infinite, which more and less do not befit? Therefore, the Infinite is not greater than or lesser than or unequal to any given thing. Yet, it is not on this account equal to the finite, because it is infinitely above everything finite. And because it is infinitely above everything finite—i.e., because it exists per se—the Infinite is altogether absolute and uncontractible.’ Ibid., 13, 57

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