Hegel’s Rose of ‘Reason’ on the Rosicrucian Cross

‘To comprehend what is, this is the task of philosophy, because what is, is reason. …To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual, the reconciliation which philosophy affords to those in whom there has once arisen an inner voice bidding them to comprehend…’

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Trans. T.M.Knox, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979, 11-12



Image source

The Pilgrim’s Progress


‘Now, because it has only phenomenal knowledge for its object, this exposition seems not to be Science, free and self-moving in its own peculiar shape; yet from this standpoint it can be regarded as the path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans., A.V.Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 49

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 3.29.29 pm


Images: top/bottom

Hegel and Nicholas of Cusa – part six

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

What Hegel read but never acknowledged and what all the academics missed. Why?


From Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, in six volumes, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, volume 2

p. 67 ‘Neoplatonism…’
p. 73 ‘Plato, Plotinus…’
p. 75 ‘Plato and Plotinus…’
p. 76 ‘Neoplatonic…Plotinian philosophy…’
p. 77 ‘Neoplatonic…Neoplatonic philosophy…’
p. 79 ‘Porphyry’s commentary…’
p. 81 ‘Nicholas of Kues, a village in Trier’
p. 122 ‘Neoplatonism…Kabbalism…’
p. 139 ‘Plotinus…Porphyry, Numenius, Amelius.’
p. 157 ‘Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster…Magic, Astrology, Necromancy…’
p. 170 ‘Plotinus…Neoplatonism…’
p. 172 ‘Plotinus…’
p. 268 ‘Averroes…’
p. 324 ‘Plotinus…’
p. 342 ‘the Cardinal Nicolaus of Cusa…the Philosophy of Nicolaus of Cusa…De docta ignorantia…De coniecturis…De sapientia…’
p. 367 ‘Kabbalistic legends…Neo-Pythagorean, Neoplatonic and Neo-Aristotelian philosophy…’
p. 368 ‘Aus Nichts kann Nichts entfrehn’
p. 379 ‘Zoroastrian philosophy…’
p. 380 ‘Emanationism…’
p. 445 ‘Jakob Böhme…’
pp. 445-446 Buhle discusses Böhme’s philosophy


Nicholas of Cusa, anonymous portrait drawn from Cusa’s tomb in Rome n.d. The portrait was offered to Klibansky by the Cusanus Gesellschaft in 1964, and is now part of the Raymond Klibansky Collection.

Cusanus’ texts referred to in volume 2 of Buhle’s History

De concordantia catholica (On Catholic Concordance, 1434)
De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance, 1440 – Buhle discusses)
De coniecturis (On Surmises, 1441-2 – Buhle discusses)
De Ignota Litteratura (On Unknown Learning, 1442-3 – Johannes Wenck)
De quaerendo Deum (On Seeking God, 1445)
De dato patris luminum (On the Gift of the Father of Lights, 1446)
Apologia doctae ignorantiae discipuli ad discipulum (A Defence of Learned Ignorance from One Disciple to Another, 1449)
(Idiota) de sapientia (The Layman of Wisdom, 1450 – Buhle discusses)
Epistolae contra Bohemos (Epistles Against the Bohemians/Hussites, 1452)
De visione Dei (On the Vision of God, 1453)
De mathematica perfectione (On Mathematical Perfection, 1458)
Cribrationes Alchorani (Cribratio Alkorani, A Scrutiny of the Koran, 1461)
De venatione sapientiae (On the Pursuit of Wisdom, 1463)
De apice theoriae (On the Summit of Contemplation, 1464 – Cusanus’ last work)


Texts by Cusanus in the contents of the critical edition of his works, from Peter J. Casarella, Ed., Cusanus, The Legacy of Learned Ignorance, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 251

I. De docta ignorantia
II. Apologia doctae ignorantiae
III. De coniecturis
IV. Opuscula I: De deo abscondito, De quaerendo deum, De filiatione dei, De dato patris luminum, Coniectura de ultimis diebus, De genesi
V. Idiota de sapientia, Idiota de mente, Idiota de staticis experimentis
VI. De visione dei
VII. De pace fidei
VIII. Cribratio alkorani
IX. Dialogus de ludo globi
X. Opuscula II: De aequalitate, Responsio de intellectu evangelii ioannis, De theologicis complementis, Tu quis es (de principo), Reparatio kalendarii cum historiographiae astrologicae fragmento
XI. De beryllo, Trialogus de possest, Compendium
XII. De venatione sapientiae, De apice theoriae
XIII. Directio speculantis seu de non aliud
XIV. De concordantia catholica
XV. Opuscula III: Ecclesiastica: De maioritate auctoritatis, De auctoritate praesidendi, Dialogus concludens amedistarum errorem, Opuscula bohemica, Epistula ad rodericum sancium, Reformatio generalis
XVI. Sermones I
XVII. Sermones II
XVIII. Sermones III
XIX. Sermones IV
XX. Scripta mathematica
XXI. Indices
XXII. Indices


English translations of the texts of Cusanus by Jasper Hopkins

Hegel and Nicholas of Cusa – part five

Jakob Schlesinger, ‘Bildnis des Philosophen Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’ (1770-1831), Berlin 1831, Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin

What Hegel read but never acknowledged and what all the academics missed. Why?


From Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, in six volumes, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, volume 2

pp. 341-353 continued

De sapientia, a work in three books, is a commentary on De coniecturis. It is in dialogue form, an imitation of the similarly titled dialogue of Petrarch.1 A Layman and an Orator (professor of rhetoric) meet in the Roman Forum; the former scoffs at scholastic learning, the latter defends it. The author makes a third person, describing the external setting of the dialogue. In the third book a fourth person makes his appearance, a renowned philosopher from outside Rome, present there for the Jubilee, whom the Orator meets by chance. Nicholas, speaking in the person of the Layman, presents in a popular form his theory of the numbers as the beginnings of knowledge. He begins with the observation that the people in the Roman Forum are counting money, weighing goods, measuring out commodities. How are they able to do this, he asks the Orator. And he proceeds to expound his philosophical system of numbers in its application to God, the world, and the soul. These dialogues demonstrate once again that the gift of setting out philosophical concepts in a comprehensible, popular manner was one utterly denied to Nicholas. Before long the Layman is speaking in such mathematically mystical terms that the Orator would be fully justified in throwing back at him the rebukes he himself suffered for his scholastic learning at the beginning of the dialogue. How much more appropriate and interesting is the Petrarchian dialogue that Nicholas is seeking to imitate! That Nicholas gives himself the role of the Layman is not so much due to contempt for scholastic learning, which Petrarch indeed shared, but to Nicholas’ desire to present his philosophy as one of non-knowing, as merely the outcome of speculation, as he called it, and thus opposed to the supposititious knowledge of the rhetoricians and philosophers of his time; for the renowned foreign philosopher too is brought by the Orator to the Layman and has to submit to his teaching.

Tomb in S.Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, with the relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St Peter’ by Andrea Bregno

Nicholas deals in particular with the numbers as the most appropriate signs of the nature of objects in a treatise of which the compendium has been transcribed;2 as he further expounds his theology in the treatises De visione Dei (On the vision of God), De Dato Patris luminum (On the gift of the Father of lights), De quaerendo Deum (On seeking God), De venatione sapientiae (On seeking for wisdom), and De apice theoriae (On the Summit of Contemplation).3 These last treatises differ from the aforementioned in being even more thickly interwoven with Alexandrine mysticism; in them Nicholas adopts much of the mystical theological enthusiasm of Dionysius the Areopagite, one of his favourite authors (as he is of most philosophers of the Middle Ages as well as of Nicholas’ own day), whom he follows almost without reserve. Nicholas further shows himself a fiery zealot on behalf of Christian Catholicism against the Muslims and the Bohemian Hussites. In a separate work he undertakes a comparison of Christianity with the religion of Mohammed,4 proves the Koran a forgery, and defends Christianity against the reproaches of the Moorish philosophers, in some cases from passages of the Koran itself. The Bohemians or Hussites are the target of four Epistles. His remaining works are concerned with mathematics, astronomy and physics.5

Part five/to be continued…



1. The opening of the dialogue is just like Petrarch’s, except that the Layman and the Orator, as the author notes, go to a barber shop to continue their philosophical discussion undisturbed (Vol. 1, fol. 75). I would draw attention to the following passage of the dialogue: ORATOR. Quomodo ductus esse potes ad scientiam ignorantiae tuae, cum sis Idiota? IDIOTA. Non ex tuis, sed Dei libris. O. Qui sunt illi? I. Quos suo digito scripsit. O. Ubi reperiuntur? I. Ubique. O. Igitur et in hoc foro. I. Immo etiam dixi, quod sapientia clamat in plateis. O. Optarem audire quomodo? I. Si te absque curiosa inquisitione affectum conspicerem, magna tibi panderem. O. Potesne hoc brevi tempore efficere, ut qui(d) velis degustem? (ORATOR: Since you are a Layman, how are you able to be led to a knowledge of your ignorance? LAYMAN: Not from your books but from God’s books. O.: Which books are they? L.: Those that He wrote with his finger. O.: Where are they found? L.: Everywhere. O.: Therefore, even in this Forum? L.: Yes, indeed! I have already said that wisdom proclaims itself in the streets. O.: I would like to hear how it does so. L.: If I saw that you were not motivated by idle curiosity, I would disclose to you important matters. O. Can you at this moment bring it about that I sense what you mean?) — We see that the Layman speaks as the scholar ought to speak, and the scholar as the Layman ought to. In Petrarch the converse is the case. In the second book or dialogue the Rhetorician goes looking for the Layman, finds him circa templum aeternitatis (near the Temple of Eternity), and the conversation resumes. In the third dialogue the Rhetorician meets the Philosopher, a stranger, on a bridge over the Tiber and takes him to the Layman, who is carving wooden spoons in the basement of a house. The Layman is of the opinion that if the stranger is a true philosopher he will not despise his occupation. The Philosopher replies that Plato too is said to have painted now and then.—Nicholas appends to each dialogue the time it took to complete. The first was written in one day in July 1465, the second in two days in early August, and the third and longest near the end of August.

2. Vol. 1, fol. 169

3. Ibid. fol. 99, fol. 193, fol. 197, fol. 201, fol. 219

4. Cribrationes Alchorani libb. III (A Scrutiny of the Koran) (3 books)], Vol. I, fol. 126ff.

5. Nic. Cus., Epistolae contra Bohemos (Epistles against the Bohemians), Works, Vol. III, fol. 5

English translations of the works of Cusanus by Jasper Hopkins

Hegel and Nicholas of Cusa – part three

Bronze plaque of Hegel (1770-1831) by Karl Donndorf (1870-1941) emplaced in 1931 at Hegel-Haus in Stuttgart.

What Hegel read but never acknowledged and what all the academics missed. Why?


From Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, in six volumes, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, volume 2

pp. 341-353 continued

The world is maximality contracted or made finite, and the diversity of things arises from the differing kinds and degrees of contraction of maximality.1 However, in order to understand the maximum in its relation to the world, we must first, as Nicholas expresses it, have purged our understanding of all concepts of circles and spheres. It will then be found that it is not the most perfect body, like the sphere; nor a plane figure, like the circle or triangle; nor a straight line; but is raised above all of these, as it is above everything that can be comprehended by the senses, the imagination and the reason with material attributes. The maximum is the simplest and most abstract understanding; it contains all things and one; the line is at once triangle, circle and sphere; oneness is trinity and conversely; accident is substance; the body is mind; motion is rest etc. But unless we realise that the oneness of God must necessarily be a trinity as well, we have not yet completely purged our understanding of concepts of mathematical figures. Nicholas demonstrates this by an example borrowed from human understanding. The oneness of human understanding is nothing else than that which understands, that which is understandable, and the act of understanding. If we wish to ascend from that which understands to the maximum (that which understands infinitely), without adding that this is at once also the highest understandable and the highest act of understanding, we will not have a correct concept of the greatest and most perfect oneness.2 Nicholas applies the concept of the trinity of the primal maximum to the world as well, which as an image of that maximum must also express a threeness. This threeness of the universe manifests itself (1) in the mere possibility thereof or the primal material, (2) in the form, and (3) in the world soul or world spirit, which inheres in all things as well as in the whole. The

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

primal maximum also expresses the contracted maximum; creator and creation are one.3 Nicholas believed (missing words in German text – I am drawing attention to the fact that the German sentence is incomplete: its construction does not ‘add up’. The intended meaning is something like ‘N. believed one/he could find in the contracted maximum…the principal kinds of worldly creatures…’ Trans.) in the contracted maximum and its relation to the divine the principal kinds of worldly creatures, which differ in their degree of perfection, as Ficino had assumed. He too placed man on the intermediate level, as a link between the lower, lifeless organic and animal world on the one hand and the world of the angels and the divine on the other. But in these premises he also found—as Ficino had not—the explanation of the mystery of the incarnation of god as man. God wished to raise his work, the essence of creation, to perfection, and this could only be done by himself becoming a creature (created thing). As this creature he chose man, because man occupies the middle position in the order of worldly beings and is therefore the bond of his connection with the whole. God, who exists omnipresent in all things, assumed physical humanity and could do so without coming into contradiction with his own being; for considered absolutely, creator and creation are in any case one.4

Part three/to be continued…



1.  Ibid. Book II, ch. 6. Vol. 1 fol. 16.

2. Ibid. Book I, ch. 10. Oportet philosophiam, ad trinitatis notitiam ascendere volentem, circulos et spheras evomuisse. Ostensum est in prioribus unicum simplicissimum maximum; et quod ipsum tale non fit nec perfectissima figura corporalis, ut est sphera, 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 attinguntur, necessario evomere oportet, ut ad simplicissimam et abstractissimam intelligentiam perveniamus, ubi omnia sunt unum; ubi linea sit triangulus, circulus, et sphera; ubi unitas sit trinitas, et e converso; ubi accidens sit substantia; ubi corpus sit spiritus; motus fit quies et caetera 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 spheram, circulum, et huiusmodi, si non intelligis, ipsum unitatem maximam necessario esse trinam. Maxima enim nequaquam recte intelligi poterit, si non intelligatur trina. Ut exemplis at 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. (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 substances, 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, that 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.)

3. Ibid. Book II, chh. 7–10, Vol. 1, fol. 17–20

4. Ibid. Book III, ch. 2f. Vol. 1. fol. 25

English translations of the works of Cusanus by Jasper Hopkins

Hegel and Nicholas of Cusa – part two

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

What Hegel read but never acknowledged and what all the academics missed. Why?


From Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, in six volumes, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, volume 2

pp. 80-81

Another ardent anti-scholastic was Nicholas from Cusel [Cusa in Latin], a village in the district of Trier (Treves), where he was born in the early fifteenth century. He so distinguished himself by his brilliance, erudition and taste that he was made a doctor of theology, bishop of Brixen, and also a cardinal. In his De docta ignorantia praecisionis veritatis inattingibilis (On learned ignorance of the unattainability of exact truth) he attacked in particular the craze of the scholastics for debating any subject even if it utterly transcended the bounds of human reason. In his own philosophising he was closer to a skeptical attitude. In another work, De coniecturis (On speculation), he declared that any human proposition with real content was no more than a probable assumption. He also dealt with more particular metaphysical questions in other works.

pp. 341-353

The history of the Platonists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as described up to now, contains far more that is worthy of note than that of those of their contemporaries who were true Aristotelians. The latter were for the most part mere Latin translators of and commentators on Aristotle’s writings. What was particular to them, such as George of Trebizond, Gennadius Georgius Scholarius etc. in their dispute with the Platonists, has already been mentioned in the historical discussion of this dispute, where I also touched on the most important circumstances of their lives.

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), detail of relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St. Peter’ on his tomb by Andrea Bregno, church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome

More attention is due to Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, not so much as a true Aristotelian, but as an original writer who had educated himself by the methods of Aristotelian philosophy. He had primarily occupied himself with the study of mathematics and hence applied his mathematical concepts to metaphysical subjects, in particular theology. But his mathematical concepts are just as incomprehensible in themselves as is his metaphysical application of them, and for this reason Nicholas of Cusa’s philosophy, insofar as it is original, might be termed a kind of mathematical mysticism. Apart from writings specifically devoted to mathematics and theology, his most important philosophical works are the following: De docta ignorantia liber I (On learned ignorance [three books]); Apologia doctae ignorantiae liber I (Defence of learned ignorance [one book]); De coniecturis libri duo (On speculation [two books]); De sapientia libri III (On wisdom [three books]).1 The contents of the first of these are quite different from what one would expect from its title. A metaphysic is constructed on the idea of the absolute maximum, which is simultaneously absolute oneness, from which Nicholas ultimately seeks to explain also the positive dogmatics of religion and the mysteries of the Trinity and the Redemption. The docta ignorantia (learned ignorance) consists in the recognition that the absolute maximum or absolute oneness is unknowable per se, because all knowledge must be mediated through a number, yet this maximum is greater than any number. Hence the result of this recognition is a learned ignorance.2 Nicholas does not here undertake to investigate how we attain to the idea of the maximum or absolute oneness; he merely assumes that it is presupposed by all men and is the end of their rational endeavour. Only an imperfect, symbolic knowledge of the maximum is possible; the symbol is drawn from mathematics. The maximum is absolute oneness and thus coincides with the minimum; it is absolutely necessary, eternal, and the eternal foundation of the world.3 It passes first into the Trinity. The maximum as absolute Oneness is God; this oneness repeats itself or begets equality with itself (the divine Son), and the union of oneness with its equality constitutes the third person of the divinity (the Holy Spirit). Ab unitate gignitur unitatis aequalitas; connexio vero ab unitate procedit et ab unitatis aequalitate.4 (Equality of oneness is begotten from oneness, but union proceeds from oneness and from equality of oneness.)

Part two/to be continued…



1. Besides the above-mentioned edition of the works of Nicholaus of Cusa (Basel 1565, 3 folio volumes), two other editions exist. The first was published in Germany, probably at Basel, and is lacking several of Nicholas’ works. See Hamberger’s Nachrichten von den vornehmsten Schriftstellern, vol. IV, P. 768. The second is more complete. As the dedicatory letter shows, it was prepared by Jacob Faber of Estaples. Its description reads: Haec accurata recognitio trium voluminum operum clarissimi P. Nicolai Cusae Card. ex officina Ascensiana recenter emissa est; cuius universalem indicem proxime sequens pagina monstrat. Vaenundantur cum caeteris eius operibus in aedibus Ascensianis; III Voll. fol. (This careful revision of three volumes of the works of the famous Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, was recently issued by the Ascensian Press, of which a complete catalogue appears on the next page. They are available together with the rest of his works from the Ascensian Publishing House; Three folio volumes), with no indication of the year and place of printing. At the end of De mathematica perfectione (On mathematical perfection) in volume 3 there is a note that the entire collection was printed at Paris in 1514. To this work in volume 3 is appended the De concordantia catholica (On Catholic concordance). This edition is the one I have before me.

2. Nicol(aus) Cus(a), De docta ignor(antia), Book 1, ch. 1–3, Vol. 1, fol. 2

3. Ibid. Book I, ch. 4–8

4. Nicholas also expresses this as follows: 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. Ibid. Book II, ch. 6. Vol. I fol. 4. (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. [Trans. The reference is incorrect, which is the reason I was at first unable to identify this quote: the source is De docta ignorantia, Book I, ch. 9])

English translations of the works of Cusanus by Jasper Hopkins

A dance written not only in the stars – congratulations NASA!


Astronomy Picture of the Day




星系NGC 5394和NGC 5395的双人慢舞

影像来源及版权:GeminiNSFOIR LabAURA文字:Ryan TannerNASA/USRA

说明:如果你喜欢慢舞,那么你可能会喜欢上这幅图。图中的这支舞,一个转身就需要几亿年。两个星系NGC 5394和NGC 5395在引力的相互作用下围着对方缓慢绕转,一些新的恒星得以形成,像是点缀在其间的火花一般。这张由位于美国夏威夷莫纳克亚山上的双子座北8米望远镜拍摄的图片,是四个波段的照片叠加处理而成。来自氢气的辐射用红色表示,那里是恒星诞生的温床。这些新恒星的诞生将推动着星系的演化。同样可见的还有暗尘带,这里将最终演化成恒星诞生地。如果观察仔细,你将在背景中发现更多的星系,它们中的一些正在上演属于自己的宇宙舞蹈


明日一图预告:open space

‘Let us, then, make a mental picture of our universe: each member shall remain what it is, distinctly apart; yet all is to form, as far as possible, a complete unity so that whatever comes into view, say the outer orb of the heavens, shall bring immediately with it the vision, on the one plane, of the sun and of all the stars with earth and sea and all living things as if exhibited upon a transparent globe.’  Plotinus, The Enneads, V.8.9




Coincidentia oppositorum


NGC 2392: Double-shelled planetary nebula

‘(Coincidentia oppositorum is) a state or condition in which opposites no longer oppose each other but fall together into a harmony, union, or conjunction…a unity of contrarieties overcoming opposition by convergence without destroying or merely blending the constituent elements…it…sets forth the way God works, the order of things in relation to God and to each other, and the manner by which humans may approach and abide in God’

H. Lawrence Bond in Nicholas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings, trans., H. Lawrence Bond, Paulist Press, New York, 1997, 335-336 




Plato, the poet, inspiration and change

Raphael’s imagining of Plato and Aristotle, The School of Athens, fresco, 1509-11, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Plato believed that art is essentially mimetic and used ‘mimesis’ in different ways to express what the product of a craftsman is on a scale of diminishing degrees of reality and knowledge (from knowledge [pure thought and reason] to opinion [belief and illusion]), in relation to the true objects of knowledge – the Forms. Using the example of a bed: the eidos of Bed, made by the god is a unique, eternal and unchanging and therefore fully real essence, embodied in all beds.

A bed made by a carpenter participates in the essence of Bed, but because it is in the world of change, is less real. An artist’s painting of the bed is a mere image or illusion because it is only of the appearance of the bed – the bed painted from one perspective, as though seen in a mirror – so the painting is thrice removed from true reality and knowledge. Similarly, the mimesis produced by the poet (who creates pictures with words) is the re-presentation of life – mere imitation.

While an artist can paint a bit and bridle he does not understand the form that is proper to these objects, he has neither knowledge nor correct belief of what he depicts because he has no experience of them. The smith and leather-worker can make them – but even they don’t have the understanding of them that the horseman has. As with the soul, the tripartite Platonic divisions apply in the arts: here – the art of use, the art of making and the art of representation. The implied equation between ‘art of use’ and (knowledge of) eternal reality is on the basis of ‘complete engagement with’ – developed in Neoplatonism. The poet is the counterpart of the painter – their work too is thrice removed from reality, for the same reasons. The poet knows nothing more than their own craft – how to re-present appearances. They have no knowledge on the basis of experience of what they write about but employ their mere imagination.

Plato held that the only poetry that should be allowed in the commonwealth is that which praises the gods and ‘good’ men. He had particular hostility to ‘imitative’ poetry because it was to this that the Greeks had traditionally looked for moral and intellectual guidance (his prime target was Homer). He wanted to establish philosophy as that sole source, denying not only the parallels between poetry and philosophy – that they were both art forms that could be literary and pedagogical, but also the cognitive potential of poetry and the arts. He believed that ‘wisdom’ could be gained not through the study of the poet’s portraits of heroes but only through rigorous dialectic.

He argued that whereas (his) philosophy had as its summum bonum true knowledge on the basis of reason’s engagement with what was most real through strict training, the poet’s (particularly tragic) aim was to appeal to the ‘non-rational’ part of the soul and the arousal of emotion in their audience, on the basis of the poet’s imitation of appearances. The experience of the emotions aroused would then carry over into the daily lives of the citizens, to their detriment.

What was particularly threatening to Plato (because of his sensitivity to and capacity for inspiration and his determination to deny lived emotions and change with his controlled, rationalist system, and whom Guthrie correctly described as a philosophical theologian) was that the poet is ‘divinely inspired’. Poets work from inspiration not (linguistic) reason, they don’t understand the meaning of their language, they present a semblance of life with no grasp of reality. Such poetry, like all art, is play and not to be taken seriously. Thus Plato argued that the poet should be not allowed into a just commonwealth ‘because he stimulates and strengthens an element which threatens to undermine the reason.’

Driven by his antipathy to change and his incapacity to accept its necessity and by the manifestation of this in his division and opposition between ‘reason’ and ‘emotions’, Plato banished from his republic (from what was in effect his model for the perfection of self) that which, as evidenced by his own writing, he had the deepest appreciation of – poetry – and those whose business it was – including, by implication and most particularly, himself.



The philosophy of Plotinus: on contemplation

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Wilhelm Uhde, 1910. Oil on canvas, private collection. 'No doubt the wisdom of the artist may be the guide of the work; it is sufficient explanation of the wisdom exhibited in the arts; but the artist himself goes back, after all, to that wisdom in Nature which is embodied in himself; and this is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out into detail.’ Enneads V.8.5. The ‘faceting’ of ‘Analytic Cubism’ could be interpreted as depicting the ghostly, fragmentary nature of material existence at the same time as seeking to evoke the second hypostasis, Intellect.

The object dissolved in the unity of consciousness: Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Wilhelm Uhde, 1910. Oil on canvas, private collection. ‘No doubt the wisdom of the artist may be the guide of the work; it is sufficient explanation of the wisdom exhibited in the arts; but the artist himself goes back, after all, to that wisdom in Nature which is embodied in himself; and this is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out into detail.’ Enneads V.8.5.
The ‘faceting’ of ‘Analytic Cubism’ could be interpreted as depicting the ghostly, fragmentary nature of material existence at the same time as seeking to evoke the second hypostasis, Intellect.


But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.

The Enneads I.6.9

Plotinus’ Enneads are built on contemplation. Its practice enables Soul to rise to Intellect. Inseparable from the notion of will, contemplation is the self-directed and self-contained thought of the higher realm. For Plotinus contemplation, thought and life are synonymous. They are most true and perfect in Intellect. The contemplation of Ideas is above the contemplation of images and the contemplation of the Good is above the contemplation of Ideas.

Plotinus differentiated between contemplation and reasoning,1 defining ‘reasoning’ as ‘the research into what a thing has in itself’, into that which exists independently. He asked whether ‘research’ means not yet possessing.2 Again, contemplation is not concerned with the mass, size or shape of matter perceived by the senses. It draws upon a higher vision which nurtures the Soul in its purpose3

Plotinus wrote of ‘creative contemplation’.4 Contemplation is perfect creative activity, and the latter occurs spontaneously when the former is entered into. In its activity, contemplation creates what is contemplated – from the weak and dreamlike contemplation underlying creation by Nature to that by Soul which in its contemplating (since it is more complete and therefore more contemplative than Nature) gives birth in a way and to a product superior to that of Nature.

‘And my act of contemplation makes what it contemplates, as the geometers draw their figures while they contemplate…What happens to me is what happens to my mother and the beings that generated me, for they, too, derive from contemplation, and it is no action of theirs which brings about my birth; they are greater rational principles, and as they contemplate themselves I come to be.’5

Contemplation is the true source of all production6 and activity and it is the goal to which these aspire at every level, from the earth and plants of Nature, upwards to the Soul’s contemplation in Intellect of the One.7 Because it is not perfect, Soul is eager to penetrate and unite with the object of its contemplation which is for it an object of knowledge.8

Plotinus distinguished between creative activity in Intellect and in this world. Though also – like the Soul(s of the strong) – driven by recollection, a longing for inward vision, and the desire to share that vision, those with weak souls create an object in the sensory world as a focus for outward sight – a poor imitation of the object of inward vision and of the contemplative process of and in the other world. We contemplate in that one in order to create all else, by becoming One.9

‘Men, too, when their power of contemplation weakens, make action a shadow of contemplation and reasoning. Because contemplation is not enough for them, since their souls are weak and they are not able to grasp the vision sufficiently, and therefore are not filled with it, but still long to see it, they  are carried into action, so as to see what they cannot see with their intellect. When they make something, then, it is because they want to see their object themselves and also because they want others to be aware of it and contemplate it, when their project is realised in practice as well as possible.’10

In Intellect, contemplation (thinking), substance and being are the same. In it, there are no parts but there is complete unity and identity of the ‘knowing faculty’ (Soul – become the activity of knowing) and the non-physical, known object of its knowledge (Being). Soul enters Idea as Idea infuses Soul.11

Plotinus proposed a method for ‘dematerialising’ by contemplation the visible universe comprised of separate elements in order to ‘see’ that of the spiritual intelligible in which all elements have no perceptible shape, magnitude, temporal or spatial difference – since each is all, and all, though distinct, are an infinite one.

‘Let us then apprehend in our thought this visible universe, with each of its parts remaining what it is without confusion, gathering all of them together into one as far as we can, so that when any one part appears first, for instance the outside heavenly sphere, the imagination of the sun and, with it, the other heavenly bodies follows immediately, and the earth and sea and all the living creatures are seen, as they could in fact all be seen inside a transparent sphere. Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it, either moving or standing still, or some things moving and others standing still. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself, and do not try to apprehend another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, but calling on the god who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, with all the gods within him, he who is one and all, and each god is all the gods coming together into one; they are different in their powers, but by that one manifold power they are all one; or rather, the one god is all; for he does not fail if all become what he is; they are all together and each one again apart in a position without separation, possessing no perceptible shape – for if they did, one would be in one place and one in another, and each would no longer be all in himself…nor is each whole like a power cut up which is as large as the measure of its parts. But this, the [intelligible] All, is universal power, extending to infinity and powerful to infinity; and that god is so great that his parts have become infinite…’12

Everything that exists and happens in the higher universe has its poor copy in this one – objects in this universe are the replicas of Forms in the other, physical reason the replica of contemplative reason, physical sight the replica of the vision of Intellect, physical activity in the creation of an object to be seen with a vision limited to the sensation of that object the replica of contemplative activity in the creation of an object which enables vision.

One acts in and engages with this world because one’s capacity for contemplative activity, for vision, is lacking. In Intellect, through contemplation, the subject’s thought and the object of desired knowledge (that is – being, itself the product of contemplation) have identity as self-living sight and real substance, as the partless essence of what is, complete within itself.

‘…as contemplation ascends from nature to soul, and soul to intellect, and the contemplations become always more intimate and united to the contemplators, and in the soul of the good and wise man the objects known tend to become identical with the knowing subject, since they are pressing on towards intellect, it is clear that in intellect both are one, not by becoming akin, as in the best soul, but substantially, and because thinking and being are the same.’13

The wise man is so because he has become vision, directed within himself.14 In contemplating (creating and seeing) eternity within oneself, one moves towards it.15 In bringing one’s contemplation to vision, one perceives substance from within it,16 and comes to unity with oneself. One contemplates…(One)self – as the god ‘silently present’. 17

‘But whoever has become at once contemplator of himself and all the rest and object of his contemplation, and, since he has become substance and intellect and “the complete living being”, no longer looks at it from outside – when he has become this he is near, and that Good is next above him, and already close by, shining upon all the intelligible world. It is there that one lets all study go…’18

Contemplation and living Being unite in Intellect as truth, beauty, eternal life and vision. The life (activity) of ‘Mind’ is far superior, far more vital, creative and real, than life in this world.



1. On this point which is crucial not only to an understanding of this Platonic/Neoplatonic current in philosophy and its influence on the Western visual arts, but, more broadly, to an understanding of how our reasoning functions, Plotinus, like Plato, confusingly used the term ‘reason’ both in reference to an activity of the physical body and the activity of Soul. For Plato and Plotinus, the former activity is concerned with the material world and the latter with contemplation of and in the spiritual. As with everything in the two realms, the first reason is the inferior copy of the latter. Ficino’s contribution to this confusion of reason as a function of matter with (disembodied) spiritual contemplation is exemplary: ‘Reason by itself grasps the incorporeal Reasons of all things…reason investigates heavenly things, and does not have a seat of its own in any part of the body, just as divinity also does not have a particular seat in any part of the world…’ followed immediately by ‘Reason…perceives not only those things which are in the world and the present, as sensation does, but also those which are above the heaven, and those which have been or will be.’ Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, Trans. J. Sears. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1985, Speech V, Chapter 2, pp.84-85.

2. Enneads, III,8,3

3. ‘When therefore he who is embarked on the contemplation of this kind imagines size or shape or bulk about this nature, it is not Intellect which guides his contemplation because Intellect is not of a nature to see things of this kind, but the activity is one of sense-perception and opinion following sense-perception.’ VI,9,3. Thus, an attempt to accurately depict the physical appearance of a person or an object, because it would focus the viewer’s attention on the sensory world, is not only not necessary but might distract the Soul from its purpose. Porphyry wrote of Plotinus ‘He showed, too, an unconquerable reluctance to sit to a painter or a sculptor, and when Amelius persisted in urging him to allow of a portrait being made he asked him, “Is it not enough to carry about this image in which nature has enclosed us? Do you really think I must also consent to leave, as a desirable spectacle to posterity, an image of the image?”’ Porphyry, ‘On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of His Work’  in  The Enneads, Third ed. Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, cii.

4. III,8,5

5. III,8,4. Compare with Plato on birth in Phaedrus. Also compare with Rorty on Aristotle’s notion of activity: ‘An activity can only be identified as such if it has been brought to its natural fulfilment: so, for instance, the activity of reproduction has not occurred unless an offspring has been produced…’ A. Oksenberg Rorty, ‘The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy’. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XVI (1991), pp.70-71.

6. ‘… all things are a by-product of contemplation…the truest life is life by thought…’  III,8,8.

7. ‘… all things aspire to (the activity of) contemplation, and direct their gaze to this end – not only rational but irrational living things, and the power of growth in plants, and the earth which brings them forth…’ III,8,1. ‘…we must strike for those Firsts, rising from things of sense which are the lasts. Cleared of all evil in our intention towards The Good, we must ascend to the Principle within ourselves….It must be our care to bring over nothing whatever from sense, to allow nothing from that source to enter into Intellectual-Principle…’ VI,9,3.

8. ‘The Soul has a greater content than Nature has and therefore it is more tranquil; it is more nearly complete and therefore more contemplative. It is, however, not perfect, and is all the more eager to penetrate the object of contemplation, and it seeks the vision that comes by observation … it possesses its vision by means of that phase of itself from which it had parted.’ III,8,6.

9. Nietzsche believed that the artist of genius, inspired by the Dionysiac impulse, goes beyond physical phenomena and, through an inward vision, finds unity with the eternal One: ‘Only insofar as the genius in the act of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he know anything of the eternal essence of art; for in this state he is, in a marvellous manner, like the weird image of the fairy tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator.’ The Birth of Tragedy, (1872) Section 5, in F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York, Vintage, 1967, p.52 and ‘…the tragic artist…creates his figures like a fecund divinity of individuation…and as his vast Dionysian impulse then devours his entire world of phenomena, in order to let us sense beyond it, and through its destruction, the highest artistic primal joy, in the bosom of the primordially One. The Birth of Tragedy, Section 22, in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, op. cit., p.132. The same religious belief in creativity was held by another extremely influential vitalist and Neoplatonic contemporary of Nietzsche’s – Bergson, whose best known work is titled Creative Evolution (1907).

10. III,8,4. See note 1. Superior to representational art with its referent in this world is the art of which it is desired to evoke, in the viewer’s ‘mind’ through contemplative ‘reason’, its referent in Intellect – the art of physical creation (resulting in the viewer’s critical appreciation of the work of another) contra the art of contemplative creation (in which the viewer is stimulated to complete the process, internally). On the determination of aesthetic value: ‘“Do you think that it will be a poor life that a man leads who has his gaze fixed in that direction, who contemplates absolute beauty with the appropriate faculty and is in constant union with it? Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever a man can, immortal himself.”’ Symposium, 211a-212c.

11. ‘In proportion to the truth with which the knowing faculty knows, it comes to identification with the object of its knowledge. As long as duality persists, the two lie apart, parallel as it were to each other; there is a pair in which the two elements remain strange to one another, as when Ideal-Principles laid up in the mind or Soul remain idle. Hence the Idea must not be left to lie outside but must be made one identical thing with the Soul of the novice so that he finds it really his own. The Soul, once domiciled within that Idea and brought to likeness with it, becomes productive, active; what it always held by its primary nature it now grasps with knowledge and applies in deed, so becoming, as it were, a new thing and, informed as it now is by the purely intellectual, it sees (in its outgoing act) as a stranger looking upon a strange world. It was, no doubt, essentially a Reason-Principle, even an Intellectual Principle; but its function is to see a (lower) realm which these do not see.’ III,8,5. Compare with. Met., and De Anima 430a: ‘…(intellect) is itself thinkable just as the thought-objects are, for in the case of things without matter that which thinks is the same as that which is thought. For contemplative knowledge is the same as what is so known. …Each of the objects of thought is potentially present in the things that have matter, so that while they will not have intellect, which is a capacity for being such things without matter, the intellect will have within it the object of thought.’

12. V,8,9. Compare with Phaedo on Plato’s differentiation between the visible world and the true world ‘not in nature’, attainable by those who have purified themselves through philosophy (108a-114c), Ficino: ‘Therefore go ahead; subtract its matter if you can (and you can subtract it mentally), but leave the design. Nothing of body, nothing of matter will remain to you. On the contrary, the design which came from the artist and the design which remains in the artist will be completely identical.’ Ficino op. cit., pp.92-93, and Bergson’s method for bringing duration into consciousness: ‘Matter (separate from consciousness) thus resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other and travelling in every direction like shivers through an immense body. In short, try first to connect together the discontinuous objects of daily experience; then resolve the motionless continuity of their qualities into vibrations on the spot; finally fix your attention on these movements, by abstracting from the divisible space which underlies them and considering only their mobility (that undivided act which our consciousness becomes aware of in our own movements): You will thus obtain a vision of matter, fatiguing perhaps for your imagination, but pure, and freed from all that the exigencies of life compel you to add to it in external perception. Now bring back consciousness…At long, very long, intervals, and by as many leaps over enormous periods of the inner history of things, quasi-instantaneous views will be taken, views which this time are bound to be pictorial, and of which the more vivid colours will condense an infinity of elementary repetitions and changes. In just the same way the multitudinous successive positions of a runner are contracted into a single symbolic attitude, which our eyes perceive, which art reproduces and which becomes for us all the image of a man running…The change is everywhere, but inward; we localise it here and there, but outwardly.’ Matter and Memory. (1896). Trans. N. Paul, W. Palmer. New York,1988, p.208.

13. III,8,8

14. ‘The Sage, then, has gone through a process of reasoning when he expounds his act to others; but in relation to himself he is Vision: such a man is already set, not merely in regard to exterior things but also within himself, towards what is one and at rest: all his faculty and life are inward-bent.’ III,8,7.

15. ‘What then, if one does not depart at all from one’s contemplation of it (eternity) but stays in its company, wondering at its nature, and able to do so by a natural power which never fails? Surely one would be (would one not?), oneself on the move towards eternity and never falling away from it at all, that one might be like it and eternal, contemplating eternity and the eternal by the eternal in oneself…eternity is a majestic thing, and thought declares it identical with the god…’ III,7,5.

16. Bergson believed that intuition probes the flow of duration, placing one within the object, giving an absolute.

17. V,8,11

18. VI,7,36