Transcript: 375. Paul Richard Blum on Nicholas of Cusa

Learned ignorance, coincidence of opposites and religious peace: Paul Richard Blum discusses the central ideas of Nicholas Cusanus.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Speaking of time, let's talk a little bit about the period in which Nicholas of Cusa lived. He can be seen as a figure who binds together the northern and southern Renaissance because he studied in Italy. He was even in contact with Byzantium. He traveled to Constantinople, but he was German and most of his life was spent in Germany or in German speaking lands. And you're someone who's worked on Renaissance topics across Europe. So I thought actually before we start talking about Cusanus, maybe I could ask you to say something about the relationship between philosophy in Italy and philosophy in the rest of Europe in let's say the 15th century when Cusanus was alive.

Paul Richard Blum: Yeah that's an interesting approach because indeed when we speak about Renaissance philosophy, we usually think about Italy and then a little bit of more Italy and then gradually we might also extend to other parts of Europe. That has to do not too much with reality but with the Italian approach to their national philosophy in the 19th and 20th century which is now overcome. So we should say that at that time in the 15th century, there was philosophy all over Europe but it was not organized in terms of nations or languages or these kind of things, but it was organized by schools and by communities. By schools I mean universities, communities I mean for instance religious orders. Think of the Middle Ages: Thomas Aquinas, born in Italy, worked in Naples, in Rome and in Cologne and in Paris and then back to Rome. And that was because he was going from university to university and he was a Dominican friar. And similar things happened also in Germany and in other parts of Europe. Think of Germany - Nicholas of Cusa studied in Heidelberg because that was the universe to which he would go. And when he came back from Padua, he went to Cologne because again that was the university that was the most... one of the best renowned universities of the time. And so he met his friends and his colleagues there not according to being Germans or being Italians but according to what they had to offer. In France we had, before Cusanos we had Jean Gerson, a theologian with a lot of new innovative approaches to religious and theological and philosophical things. He for instance advocated the rebirth of Dionysus, the Areopagite, and had a very important influence on humanism and Renaissance philosophy in terms of negative theology and critique of human understanding. We had also in France, Le Monde de Ségondes as it's called by Monteni, Le Monde de Ségondes, a Catalan who worked in Tours and he was important because he invented, basically, the concept of natural theology - that is theology done with philosophical means. And in England we had Wycliffe and the Wycliffites, which is not just a religious movement but a movement of critique of traditional approaches to scholarship, but also to the Bible - which then influenced the Czech intellectuals, Jan Hus the most famous who was burnt at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415. And of course we had Byzantium, the flourishing cultural area in Byzantium. So besides Italy there were intellectual centers all over Europe but as I said they were not organized by language, they all, except for the Byzantines, they all spoke Latin when they did their scholarly work, their teaching, but they were kind of an inter-European network that was not paying attention to nations. We should also should remember that it's important that at that time in the 15th century, basically until the 30 Years War, Europe was a horrible patchwork of little principalities and monarchies and rivaling cities that had nothing to do with what we understand in the modern world as a state or as a nation.

Peter Adamson: Yeah and in fact that was, I mean in my question I'm using the words Germany and Italy to refer to geographical areas and obviously not political entities.

Paul Richard Blum: Yeah exactly, yeah you could say something like south of the Alps and north of the Alps, yeah absolutely it was a geographical destination and not so much a political and definitely not an ideological area.

Peter Adamson: And what would you say Cusanus took from the time he spent south of the Alps, or in Italy as we might say, because people often relate what he's doing to earlier German figures and in particular Meister Eckhart who also is a great negative theologian and at first glance reading through Cusanus' works one might feel that there's not much sign of anything distinctively recognizable from the Italian Renaissance.

Paul Richard Blum: Yeah he went after he finished his studies in Heidelberg, he went to Padua because he wanted to perfect his legal studies, his studies in canon law which is something you need as a career church person, which he was and wanted to be. And Padua was one of the law faculties that had the best renown in Europe at that time so he went there but on the side or in addition to that he also studied mathematics and he befriended Paolo Toscanelli, the mathematician and scientist which influenced Nicholas of Cusa a lot, so he went to Italy because the scholarship was there and what he brought back was for instance his speculations in mathematics which played out throughout his life in his various works.

Peter Adamson: And we have a lot of mathematical examples in works like on Learned Ignorance like the infinite line which is both curved and straight and so on, so things I discussed in the last episode. Speaking of on Learned Ignorance that's one of his most famous philosophical concepts along with the 'coincidence of opposites' and maybe I'll ask you about that first and we'll see if we can ramp up to talking about learned ignorance and find out how much we don't understand it. Beginning then with coincidence of opposites, when he argues for that or when he lays out the idea it can look like he's endorsing some kind of irrationalism because he critiques certain kind of constraints that you find within Aristotelian logic, and in particular he seems to be saying that there's a kind of limitation to philosophy that's still being done within the scope of the principle of non-contradiction. In other words that you're not allowed to contradict yourself. So do you think that that would be a reasonable charge to lay at his door: that he's just kind of rejected reason by trying to transcend it, or do you think that we can understand Cusanus's philosophy while remaining within some kind of rational logically coherent framework?

Paul Richard Blum: The approach you are presenting is precisely a later development that came up with the critique of Aristotle, critique of Aristotle's logic and then the rebuttal to that. So for instance a person like Pomponazzi that is at the end of the 15th century and then early 16th century he emphasized the logic and descriptors of logical operations in Aristotle and came to the conclusion that everything that has to do with God, with faith, is irrational, is a matter of pure faith. We call it fideism. So it came to a skeptic approach to the teachings of religion and of revelation which then said 'okay, so we just have to believe.' He's not the first one but he's the most prominent of these. On the contrary what Cusanus is doing is he's trying to stretch the means of rational approach, and that also ties into his research mathematical paradoxes like a circle and straight line that are incommunicable, and he asks maybe there is a way to communicate them but to make them compatible. His idea of coincidence of opposites is apparently mystical, it's apparently - you could also say skeptical, but what he is trying to do is 'look how far we can get once we follow the line of reasoning and then we come to the coincidence' and the standard example is of course that if you have a curved circle - if you extend that as far as possible and still more and still more then it approaches the straight line so that the straight line which is opposite to the curved line actually coincide, are the same. And the other way around: if you reduce the circle, if you reduce it and reduce it and reduce it, you come to something like a point and the point on a on a circle is exactly the same point as a point on a straight line - so that again the straight line and the curve coincide, or even you could say the extension coincides with the non-extension in a point. The idea is he stretches the capabilities of human rationality, of human reasoning, to where it finds its own limits.

Peter Adamson: Limits of course being a mathematical term in itself appropriately. And obviously he also thinks that there's an extent to which stretching reason to its limits, or to infinity maybe we could say, because that's like where the asymptotic curve as it were meets the line, if you sort of take it and take it to infinity, it seems obvious then - and he says this quite clearly - that we're there transcending the human capacity truly to understand what's going on and that brings us to this notion of learned ignorance. And I think here an obvious question is why is learned ignorance better than normal ignorance? Or to put it another way, if I start out not knowing anything and then it seems to me that I'm learning some things and I'm acquiring knowledge but then I go through this course of study together with Cusanus and wind up pushing reason to infinity and I wind up not knowing anything in the end again then why couldn't I have just started, or stayed where I started, and stayed in this state of mere ignorance as opposed to learned ignorance?

Paul Richard Blum: The learned ignorance maybe we should go back to the Latin word, and the Latin wording is 'doctor ignorantia,' that is that you could say that taught ignorance - the ignorance that has been that has been taught what it can do and where it comes from. So if we come back to the coincidence, the coincidence is not just a joke but it is also searching for the point of departure of the finite measurable extensions we know, quantity we know. The point of coincidence is also the starting point of what is.

Peter Adamson: Like finite lines would be segments of this infinite line where opposites coincide for example?

Paul Richard Blum: Exactly, and for instance circles are actually points and lines are also actually points, however that works - so having said that, the learned ignorance is that about our knowledge of the divine of the absolute, and the absolute by definition is not extended, is not finite, is not traceable in any human way, but the absolute is also the basis of everything that is not absolute, that is relative, that is finite, that is related. So when he had this in insight on the ship on the way from Constantinople to Padua or Venice, he saw that if we want to understand what God is, and if we presuppose that God is the origin of everything that is, we have to instead of making highest formulas, repeating highest formulas itself, that we have to make clear to ourselves that this is also the origin of our possible thinking and therefore the ignorance 'I don't know who is God' or the ignorance 'God cannot be proven rationally' turns into a learned or informed ignorance - an informed ignorance namely in order to be able to think in finite terms. We have to be able to understand that this has its origin beyond the finite and beyond the human being thinking.

Peter Adamson: That's really nice, so learned ignorance would relate to normal knowledge the way that a point relates to a line, because the point that generates the line but the point isn't a line yet.

Paul Richard Blum: Exactly, yeah, that's what I mean.

Peter Adamson: Okay that's really nice, and so just to spell that out in terms of the terms of my original question: that's not true of normal ignorance - so if you just don't know anything, right, because you haven't studied or you haven't thought about it or what for whatever reason. That kind of ignorance obviously is not the source of knowledge, it's just a privation or lack of knowledge.

Paul Richard Blum: Yeah exactly, and say, 'not knowing Chinese,' which applies to me, is not constitutive for my speaking English or speaking German.

Peter Adamson: Okay. We could probably keep talking for the rest of this interview about these problems because they're so complicated and intriguing, but I did want to ask you about another dimension of his thought because it's something you've written the whole book about. And this is what he thinks about other religions and in particular about the idea of forging peace between Christianity, or the kind of Christianity he accepts, and other religions - notably Islam. But as you just mentioned he traveled to Constantinople, he was in touch with the Byzantines, and he had a really distinctive position on the relationship between faiths. Just to lay a kind of framework and background for that could you say something about what other intellectuals in this period were saying about relationships with Islam and Judaism so that we kind of have something to contrast Cusanus to?

Paul Richard Blum: The most famous of course was Raymond Lull, that is about 100 years before Nicholas of Cusa, but the Cusanus read his works. Raymond Lull was from the island of Mallorca and Catalan, he was a lay person, at least not an ordained priest, and he had the idea to convert the Muslims to Christianity. And he had the idea to do that with rational arguments, with reasoning, and he for that he developed a certain mathematical theory - mathematics again - so his idea was: there is a way the fundamental way of human thinking that makes it possible to think about God, to believe in God, and to worship God, and this human thinking is communicable between the Christians and the Muslims and also the Jews. So he was certainly a paradigm for this approach to negotiate with the other other religions. Cusanus was influenced by Raymond Lull with his natural theology - there is a line that goes into the 15th century, in the 15th century there were quite a number of other intellectuals that were trying to understand and trying to communicate with Islam, but most of them were hostile, whereas Nicholas of Cusa is the most prominent, at least, said it must be possible to find common ground in the religious effort.

Peter Adamson: And on what did he base this optimistic assessment of the prospects of reconciling the differences between these two faiths?

Paul Richard Blum: I'm not quite sure whether he's really optimistic. Maybe he is more desperate and then it takes the means that are available to him. His famous treatise on a piece of religion, the Pace Fidei, which he wrote on the occasion of the fall of Constantinople, the end of the Ottoman Empire. In vivid terms it shows the stress, and his shock about, this event and the brutality of the war. And from there he comes and says 'there must be a peaceful way' and then he looks for where that peaceful way could begin, and it would begin with the observation that, in modern terms, religious feeling is common to all humanity and that religious argument has to go back to the understanding, often in all powerful God that willed the plurality of religions to be there in the same way as humans are different among individuals and among groups and among peoples and among tribes - the same way, God also willed that they have their peculiar individual ways of worshiping. So instead of saying 'they all got it wrong' as we do in many religious wars, he says 'no, they all got it right, now we only have to find out why they got it right, what is it what they actually got right?' And that would be for instance the existence of the common principle. The religious wars were also close to him, not only with Constantinople, then Greece, but also for instance the Hussites - I mentioned the Hussites in the early 15th century when Jan Huss was executed. Cusanus dealt with the religion of the Bohemians - but it's now Czech Republic - in the council of Basel, he was engaged in that dialogue with the Hussites, and the problem was that they got it kind of right, but were hostile to the Catholics, what we now call Catholics. So he was trying also to reach out to them, and say 'look, what is it that we have in common?' And if I remember correctly, for instance, the bone of contention, the communion in two forms in bread and wine, for Cusanus was not an issue. That is, he said 'well, we can negotiate about that - that doesn't make it.' So his approach was: if there is a difference, if there is a contrast , then there must be a common ground that is also then communicable

Peter Adamson: A lot of people think that this somehow reflects his idea of the reconciling of opposites. So just as you have apparently contradictory properties, like say straight and curved, coming together in God, so the differences between religious groups would vanish once you like ascend to a sufficiently high level of perception about the divine. I mean is there anything to that or is that just a kind of loose analogy?

Paul Richard Blum: No, that's actually to the point. Cusanus wrote also a treatise in which he investigated in detail the Quran, on the basis of translation that were available to him, and he found in the Quran the formula that is the basis of his "Peace of Religion." Namely there's one faith in a variety of rights, "una religio in varietate rituum," and he found that in this Quran and he used it. So he picked from the enemy the reconciling formula and that is something like making the contrary of the opposites meet.

Peter Adamson: One last question. I can't resist asking you about this because this is something I only know about from reading your work: Cusanus is one of the earliest non-English philosophers to have been translated into English, I guess. There's already a 17th century translation of his works by someone named Giles Randall. Can you explain how this came about and also, say, did it have a big impact on English intellectual culture? Is it more like a kind of curiosity?

Paul Richard Blum: For one thing, I haven't understood yet the details and the mysteries of religion in England in the 17th century. That is very difficult and it's obviously, is so difficult that it led to the founding of the United States. So from what I understand - also Giordano Bruno was in the late 16th century in London, and he was there because there was so much religious tension that the troublemaker like Giordano Bruno was welcome, but was able to flourish there, and he was not the only one. So in the early 17th century, the climate in England was very diverse, from what I understand, and there was a strong movement or strong climate of mystics and popularizers who were interested in the non-official practice of religion. So they translated, for instance, the Theologia Deutsch, 'the German theology' which was in a spurious book, and which also was by the way made public by Martin Luther in Germany, and a few other mystical treatises. And so George Randele and others were interested, were excited by the mystical aspect of Nicholas of Cusa, because you can read all his treatises from the [unintelligble] and the Conjectures and so on, can also always read them also in mystical treatises. We tend to read them in rationalist keys, but a mystical interpretation is well possible. There are mystical elements, and he was, as we mentioned, influenced by Maestro Eckhart and Heinrich Acampo who were in part mystics, so they picked on that and brought and used, for instance, the Treatise on the Vision of God to advocate their mystical approach, and for that reason Cusanos was welcomed, together with a few other writings of his: the Idiota de Menta, the private person of the mind, as the title of his book was also translated. And so there were circles that were intrigued by Nicholas of Cusa's mystical aspects, which also was of course supported by the fact that there was no real official Cusanos school in the 16th 17th century, as opposed to, for instance, the Neoplatonic school of Marsilio Ficino, the Machiavellism of Machiavelli, and other authors of the Italian Renaissance who basically created a school. That was not so with Nicholas of Cusa, he was kind of forgotten. The one book on the reception of Nicholas of Cusa is indeed Maya Oza was indeed titled The Presence of the Forgotten One. He traced the presence of Cusanos in the writings even when he wasn't quoted, and that's why it was sent to the English religious mystic religious welcome resource that was not abused by the official schools. 


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