Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13r

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

The philosophy of Cusanus was the last major reworking of Neoplatonism before Hegel completed its development. Cusanus is the link between Proclus and Hegel and both the former were equally important to the latter. Even though Cusanus wrote repeatedly in different ways that God, the ultimate principle, cannot be known, echoing both Plotinus and Proclus on the first hypostasis, he used the Trinity to substantially build on Proclus’ blurring of the gap between the ultimate principle and what could be known. He brought the One into the second hypostasis as the first element of Proclus’ triad Being, Life, Intelligence which he made the basis of his philosophy as Hegel, following him, did with his.

Now, not only could God be seen as can the One by the returning soul in its final stage prior to re-unification with its source, the ultimate principle itself ‘sees’ – it is no longer a principle that simply generates all else. ‘He’ is now an active participant in his own process. He mirrors it, his ‘seeing’ is his being. He is now both hidden and ‘visible’.

Where Cusanus substantially developed Proclus’ position on the limits of knowledge, he still remained, however, ambivalent. Hegel completed this historically protracted development in the Neoplatonic drive for knowledge, arguing that God – the entire process – can be fully cognised.1 To do this, despite his claim to Christianity – he was not consistent, as I have argued, with Christian and Trinitarian doctrine – he philosophised on the basis of Cusanus’ adaptation of Proclus’ triad, using the One as he did with the Trinity – as metaphorical, prose-poetic devices. Now, nothing was beyond Being.

In order to close the circle of Neoplatonic knowledge, Hegel also recognised and employed another profound development by Cusanus – the focus on concepts in their contradictory relations. What was for Cusanus the detailed study of coincidentia oppositorum was for Hegel the study of the flowing development of concepts in their dialectical relations. Hegel’s emphasis on concepts and the complexity of their development is at the heart of his claim to ‘science’.

For Cusanus, the primary way in which the ultimate principle can be known is in the act of ‘seeing’.2 Education in the humility of learned ignorance (openness to the dialectic) and the speculative potential of coincidentia oppositorum can only take us up to the wall of Paradise, wherein the ultimate principle exists.3 But ‘seeing’ takes us within because our vision of the triune God is God’s vision of himself – one ‘eye’ ‘sees’ itself.4 In Neoplatonism, to ‘see’ is to ‘know’ beyond conceptualisation – to understand the infinite ‘incomprehensibly’. It is the unity of lover/loving/loved, of knower/knowing/known.

This unity is that of intellectual intuition which Cusanus described as ‘perfect knowledge’ and which he defined as the coincidence of

being something one in which are all things and being all things in which there is something one5

The difference between knowledge of the ‘sensible’ world and that (intuitive) of the intellectual is like the difference between knowing that something is and why it is.6 This is clearly not ‘the immediate knowledge of the Absolute’ that Hegel was so critical of in his Phenomenology but is consistent with the ‘mindful’, ‘pure intuition or pure thinking’ that he most valued – an intuition that enables one ‘to apprehend the spiritual bond unifying all the details’ (see 9.4).

Cusanus philosophised on how we can have knowledge of God and attain the ‘pure intellectual life’7 of theosis  – which he defined as ‘knowledge of God and His Word and intuitive vision8 – by becoming his ‘sons’9 in the next life10

if we have accepted the Divine Word Himself, then there arises in our rational spirit the power of sonship. …It is as if the intellect were a divine seed – the intellect whose power in the believer can reach such heights that it attains unto theosis. …that is, unto the ultimate perfection of the intellect – in other words unto the apprehension of truth, not as truth is bedarkened in figurativeness and symbolisms and various degrees of otherness…but rather as truth is intellectually visible in itself. …if faith is present, ascent even unto being a son of God is not forbidden.11

Further, Cusanus explored the relationship between Concept and concept, between Word and word

Every corporeal utterance is a sign of a mental word. The cause of every corruptible mental word is an incorruptible word, viz., a concept. Christ is the incarnated Concept of all concepts, for He is the Word made flesh.12

He philosophised on how we should use words to attain the ‘mind’ of the teacher ‘while in this world’. The following paragraphs from De Filiatione Dei show how he ‘surmised’ we can have knowledge of God by this means

Hence, since the mastery which we seek and in which the happiness of our intellectual life consists is the mastery of true and eternal things: if our intellectual spirit is to become a perfect master, so that within itself it will possess eternally the very delightful intellectual life, then its study must not cling to temporal shadows of the sensible world but must use them, en passant, for intellectual study—as schoolboys use material and perceptible writings. For their study is not of the material shapes of the letters but rather of the rational signification of those letters. Likewise, they use in an intellectual way, not in a sensory way, the vocal words by means of which they are taught, so that by means of these vocal signs they attain unto the mind of their teacher.13

Just as the mental word is the source of the vocal word but is not contracted to it though signified by it, so the ineffable Word is the source of the mental word though not contracted to it yet likewise signified by it. The mental, intellectual word is the reception of the ineffable Word

the One is, in a way that cannot be participated in, the Fount of intelligible beings and is all that which they are. (By comparison, the mental word is the fount of the vocal [word] and is all that which [the vocal word] is; and the mental word is signified by the vocal word without there being any intermixing or dividing of the mental word, since the mind cannot be either participated in, or in any way attained unto, by the vocal word.) But the intellectual [i.e., mental] word is itself the intellectual reception of the ineffable Word. Therefore, every intellectual word remains free from all contraction to the sensible. Now, that which the intellectual is it has intellectually from the Ineffable. If the Ineffable is given a name by the intellect, then this [name-giving] is done in an unrestricted manner, since the intellectual mode, in turn, is not restricted to sensibly contracted things.

 Therefore, the Ineffable can in no way either be named or attained unto. Hence, a non-relational name—whether “being” or “deity” or “goodness” or “truth” or even “power” or any other name whatsoever—does not at all name God, who is unnameable. Rather, a non-relational name speaks of the unnameable God by means of various intellectual modes. In this way the Ineffable is effable, the Incapable of being participated in is capable of being participated in, and the Transcender of every mode is modifiable. Consequently, God is the Beginning, which is above the one and above mode; [yet,] in the one and in its modes He exhibits Himself as [therein] able to be participated in. Therefore, I surmise that the pursuit by which we attempt, while in this world, to ascend unto the attainment of sonship, is perhaps possible with the aid of something else, so that my speculation deals with the one and its modes.14

Just as words of the sensory world can signify those of the ‘mental’, these in turn can carry us to participation in the ineffable. Cusanus is not simply philosophising about a problem experienced by mysticism. No written or spoken word can fully convey our ‘mental’ content. In speaking or writing a word we have to thereby limit or bound our mental content in order to express it. It is an unavoidable constraint of the sensory world which mystics and artists with words give great consideration to.

Our knowledge of God is an inward process of self-knowledge and self-realisation – of a world, of a universe, within

the intellect is actually an intellectual universality of all things… (As such, the intellect) does not behold temporal things temporally, in constant succession, but beholds them in an indivisible present. For the present, or the now, that enfolds all time is not of this sensible world, since it cannot be attained by the senses, but is of the intellectual [world]. Likewise, [the intellect] does not at all behold quantities in their extended, divisible materiality but beholds them in an indivisible point in which there is the intellectual enfolding of all continuous quantity. Moreover, [the intellect] does not [then] behold differences-of-things in a variety of numbers but beholds [these things] intellectually in the simple unit, which enfolds every number.15

The words of Cusanus

Now, knowing occurs by means of a likeness. But since the intellect is a living intellectual likeness of God, then when it knows itself it knows, in its one self, all things. Now, it knows itself when it sees itself in God as it is. And this [seeing] occurs when in the intellect God is the intellect.16

are echoed in those of Hegel

I only know an object in so far as I know myself and my own determination through it, for whatever I am is also an object of my consciousness…I know my object, and I know myself; the two are inseparable.17

God, ‘understandable truth’, exists only in that knowing18

Now, we call that which is the object [of the intellect] truth. Therefore, my God, since You are understandable Truth, the created intellect can be united to You.19



1. It is fundamentally on this point – that Hegel argued that the entire system (‘God’) can be conceptually cognised, that he warrants the description ‘the consummate Neoplatonist’. In making this claim, he brought development within Neoplatonism to an end.
2. ‘in the name “Theos” there is enfolded a certain way-of-seeking whereby God is found, so that He can be groped for. “Theos” is derived from “theoro,” which means “I see” and “I hasten.” Therefore, the seeker ought to hasten by means of sight, so that he can attain unto God, who sees all things. Accordingly, vision bears a likeness to the pathway by means of which a seeker ought to advance. Consequently, in the presence of the eye of intellectual vision we must magnify the nature of sensible vision and construct, from that nature, a ladder of ascent.’, Nicholas of Cusa, De quaerendo Deum (‘On Seeking God’), op. cit., I,19, 315
3. ‘every concept reaches its limit at the wall of Paradise. …You are free from all the things that can be captured by any concept.’, Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei (‘The Vision of God’), op. cit., 13,52, 704
4. Hegel quoted Eckhart: ’The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him; my eye and his eye are one and the same. In righteousness I am weighed in God and he in me. If God did not exist nor would I; if I did not exist nor would he.’ In Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 347-348
5. Nicholas of Cusa, De filiatione Dei (‘On Being a Son of God’), 1445, in A Miscellany of Nicholas of Cusa, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1994, 341-358, 3,70, 349
6. ‘Therefore, [in that state] the intellect perceives all things intellectually and beyond every sensible, distracting, and obscuring mode. Indeed, it beholds the entire sensible world not in a sensory manner but in a truer, viz., intellectual, manner. For this perfect knowledge is called intuition because between the knowledge of that world and the knowledge of this sensible [world] there is something like the difference which there is between knowledge received by sight and knowledge received by hearing. Therefore, the more certain and clear is the knowledge produced by sight than is the knowledge (of the same thing) effected by hearing, the much more does intuitive knowledge of the other world excel the knowledge which there is of this [present world]—just as knowing why something is can be called intuitive knowledge, since the knower looks into the reason for the thing, and knowing that something is [can be said to come] from hearing.’, Ibid., 6,89, 358
7. Ibid., 3,71, 350
8. Ibid., 1,52, 341
9. ‘sonship is nothing other than our being conducted from the shadowy traces of mere representations unto union with Infinite Reason…to this [intellectual spirit] God will not be other than it or different or distinct; nor will Divine Reason be other or the Word of God other or the Spirit of God other. For all otherness and all difference are far beneath sonship.’, Ibid., 3,68-69, 348
10. He described this philosophising as ‘a surmise of sorts (although a very remote one) about theosis’ Ibid.
11. Ibid., 1, 52-53, 341-342
12. Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), op. cit., III,11,247
13. Nicholas of Cusa, De filiatione Dei (‘On Being a Son of God’), 2,60, 345
14. Ibid., 4,77-78, 352-353
15. Ibid,. 6,87-88, 357
16. Ibid., 6,86, 356
17. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 47
18. ‘God exists only in knowing, in the element of the inner life.’, Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, vol. I, op. cit., 543
19. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei (‘The Vision of God’), op. cit., 18,82

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