Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13q


13.6.6 The cognition of absolute truth – God is a Proclean ‘syllogism’ (continued)

For the Neoplatonist, as discussed (4., 10.7, 10.9.1,,, there are two types of knowledge, discursive, that which separates and ‘unified’ or speculative. Plotinus believed that the intellectual object is the activity of thinking itself. Knowing that object, that activity of knowing, equates to (Divine) Mind’s knowing (itself). In the activity of knowing, the object must be diverse. The activity is driven by difference and the knowing is perspectival. Thinking is movement – Divine Mind gives birth to objects as the embodiment of its outgoing creative power and in its contemplative recollection of and desire to unite with the One.

Hegel believed that every content is something that thought has given to itself and Cusanus also believed that we know through our productive intellectual activity, a reflection of God’s activity. Cassirer wrote

Cusanus sets up and defends his basic view of knowledge, when he explains that all knowledge is nothing but the unfolding and explication of the complication that lies within the simple essence of the mind 1

Cusanus described that process

the mind both distinguishes all things and unites all things, [doing so] by means of a marvellous two-way progression in which (1) Divine and Absolute Oneness descends by stages in and through intelligence and reason and (2) the perceptible-contracted oneness ascends through reason unto intelligence.2

For the Neoplatonist, true knowledge is not only the knowledge of God, it must be an intellectual system – what Hegel described as ‘science’. He wrote in his Phenomenology that

knowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as system3

Redding noted the centrality of prose-poetic devices to Hegel’s ‘science’

Hegel employs forms of expression for the presentation of his own philosophical thought that are redolent with the type of imagistic and figurative locutions supposedly at home in religion. Moreover, the actual imagery employed seems to refer to the type of trinitarian version of Christianity that can seem antithetical to those forms of Christian thought that lent themselves to the sort of “demythologization” characteristic of the enlightenment attitude to religious doctrine. Such factors as these make it easy to portray Hegel’s philosophy as a type of irrationalist mysticism, or at least as a disguised theology with a content from revealed religion, and thus aligning him more to the spirit of the Counter-Enlightenment than the Enlightenment.4

Cassirer points to the roots of this in German culture

In the mystical theology of the fifteenth century two fundamental tendencies stand sharply opposed to each other; the one bases itself on the intellect; the other considers the will to be the basic force and organ of union with God. In this dispute, Cusanus sides emphatically with the former. True love of God is amor Dei intellectualis; it includes knowledge as a necessary element and a necessary condition.5

On the extent of possible knowledge, Armstrong wrote

Plotinus insists…that the One or Good is beyond the reach of human thought or language…Language can only point the mind along the way to the Good, not describe, encompass, or present It. As Plotinus himself says (VI.9.3), “strictly speaking, we ought not to apply any terms at all to It; but we should, so to speak, run round the outside of It trying to interpret our own feelings6

Proclus was consistent with Plotinus on this, but, with his henads, he also began to blur what was ‘god’ and where the limits of knowledge lay. Dodds wrote

(Prop. 115 [Every god is above Being, above Life, and above Intelligence]) seems to make it plain that whereas Plotinus puts ‘all the gods’ within nous (V.1.4), the divine henads are to be placed in the first of the three traditional ‘hypostases’ and not (as Vacherot, Simon and others assume) in the second. But it must be admitted that Pr. is himself responsible for a good deal of the confusion which exists on the subject, in that he frequently speaks of such entities as Eternity, Time, the (a word in Greek), and even the sensible world as ‘gods’, and of gods as ‘intelligible’, ‘intellectual’ or ‘intra-mundane’.7

Cusanus wrote that human reason cannot comprehend the infinite but it does proceed in finite steps on the basis of the entities it creates – ‘conjectures’, ‘surmises’ or ‘symbolisms’

as God is the Creator of real beings and of natural forms, so man is the creator of conceptual beings and of artificial forms that are only likenesses of his intellect, even as God’s creatures are likenesses of the Divine Intellect8

The ‘mind’ is the form of a world of conjectures – aids that we use towards a truth beyond reason. Truth is enfolded in infinite ‘Mind’. Our concepts share in that truth as never-ending approximations as they unfold – we can only know truth in its ‘otherness’. Just as we are unable to know the absolute truth of God, so we are unable to know the world with ultimate precision.

It would seem clear-cut, as Hopkins tells us, that for Cusanus we cannot know God, the Absolute – we cannot attain the complete knowledge Hegel claimed his philosophy gives us. But we are dealing with a highly philosophical mysticism in which nothing is simple or, as Hegel would put it, nothing is to be judged by the method of Verstand, by the method of mere analysis and what seems to be so.

Neoplatonism is a dialectically functioning whole of intertwined constructs conceptually centred on the process ‘God’. Recognising these aspects enables one to explore beyond the literal, surface meaning of Cusanus’ words, to how he advised we can know God, and to understand the ways in which Hegel developed on that method to attain knowledge in his own philosophy.



1. Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, op. cit., 57
2. Nicholas of Cusa, De coniecturis (‘On Speculations’), op. cit., 1,4,16, 170
3. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit. 13
4. Paul Redding, ‘Some Metaphysical Implications of Hegel’s Theology’, paper given to the conference Hegel and Religion, University of Sydney, September 14-15, 2010, 1
5. Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, op. cit., 13
6. Armstrong in Plotinus, Enneads, op. cit., vol. I, xv
7. Dodds’ Commentary in Proclus, The Elements of Theology, op, cit., 161
8. Nicholas of Cusa, De beryllo (‘On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses’), op. cit., 7, 794

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