Nicholas of Cusa

The German prelate and humanist Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) was active in conciliating various schisms in the 15th-century Church and was a strong advocate of Church unity.

The son of a fairly prosperous boat owner and landholder, Nicholas was born in Cusa on the Moselle River. His early education was at Deventer under the Brothers of the Common Life, and he may have known Thomas à Kempis there. His university studies began at Heidelberg and continued at Padua, where he received a doctorate in canon law in 1423. After returning to his native Rhineland, he studied philosophy and theology at Cologne, where he also practiced law. In February 1432 he went to the Council of Basel.

The Council of Basel (1431-1449) had as its main subject the problem of Church unity and as its main task the avoidance of any repetitions of the Great Schism, which had recently split the Church. One suggested solution was the establishment of a supreme general council to oversee the papacy. At the beginning of his attendance at the council, Nicholas supported this plan (known as the conciliar movement). During the period from 1432 to 1434, Nicholas worked on, and submitted to the council, his famous political treatise, De concordantia Catholica, which deals with the problem of the respective roles of councils and popes in the government of the Church. This treatise supported the conciliar viewpoint of supremacy of the councils, but Nicholas eventually became disillusioned by the ineffectual committees working at the council and shifted his view to one of papal supremacy. In 1437 he began his services to Pope Eugene IV and his successors, as papal legate on various missions in Germany, as conciliator in the disputes between the Eastern and the Roman Churches, and as promoter of a crusade against the Turks.

In 1440 Nicholas completed his best-known work, De docta ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance). In it he shows himself as an early skeptic, holding that true wisdom lies in a clear awareness of the limitations of human knowledge. After 10 years in the service of Pope Eugene IV, Nicholas was made a cardinal by the dying pope, an appointment confirmed in 1448 by Pope Nicholas V. In 1450 he was appointed bishop of Brixen (Bressanone) in the Tirol, where he had the difficult task of reforming the churches and monasteries of the diocese, then under the strong secular influence of Archduke Sigismund of Hapsburg. Nicholas left the Tirol in 1458 to serve his friend Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the new Pope Pius II. Pius's proposals for papal reform reflect Cusa's own ideas concerning the role of the papacy.

Nicholas spent the remainder of his life in his reforming work in the churches of Bohemia. He died at Todi in Italy on Aug. 11, 1464.

Further Reading on Nicholas of Cusa

An introduction to Nicholas's life and thought and English translations of several of his works are in Unity and Reform: Selected Writings of Nicholas of Cusa, edited by John Patrick Dolan (1962). There is no definitive biography in English, but Henry Bett, Nicholas of Cusa (1932), is a standard source. Paul E. Sigmund, Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (1963), is the best modern study in English.

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