CUSANUS, NICOLAUS (NICHOLAS OF CUSA). (1401-1464), cardinal, theologian and scholar, was the son of a poor fisherman named Krypffs or Krebs, and derived the name by which he is known from the place of his birth, Kues or Cusa, on the Moselle, in the archbishopric of Trier (Treves). In his youth he was employed in the service of Count Ulrich of Manderscheid, who, seeing in him evidence of exceptional ability, sent him to study at the school of the Brothers of the Common Life at Deventer, and afterwards at the university of Padua, where he took his doctor's degree in law in his twenty-third year. Failing in his first case he abandoned the legal profession, and resolved to take holy orders. After filling several subordinate offices he became archdeacon of Liege. He was a member of the council of Basel, and dedicated to the assembled fathers a work entitled De concordantia Catholica, in which he maintained the superiority of councils over popes, and assailed the genuineness of the False Decretals and the Donation of Constantine. A few years later, however, he had reversed his position, and zealously defended the supremacy of the pope. He was entrusted with various missions in the interests of Catholic unity, the most important being to Constantinople, to endeavour to bring about a union of the Eastern and Western churches. From 1440 to 1447 he was in Germany, acting as papal legate at the diets of 1441, 1442, 1445 and 1446. In 1448, in recognition of his services, Nicholas V. raised him to the cardinalate; and in 1450 he was appointed bishop of Brixen against the wish of Sigismund, archduke of Austria, who opposed the reforms the new bishop sought to introduce into the diocese. In 1451 he was sent to Germany and the Netherlands to check ecclesiastical abuses and bring back the monastic life to the original rule of poverty, chastity and obedience a mission which he discharged with welltempered firmness. Soon afterwards his dispute with the archduke Sigismund in his own diocese was brought to a point by his claiming certain dues of the bishopric, which the temporal prince had appropriated. Upon this the bishop was imprisoned by the archduke, who, in his turn, was excommunicated by the pope.
These extreme measures were not persisted in; but the dispute remained unsettled at the time of the bishop's death, which occurred at Lodi in Umbria on the nth of August 1464. In 1459 he had acted as governor of Rome during the absence of his friend Pope Pius II. at the assembly of princes at Milan; and he wrote his Crebratio Alcorani, a treatise against Mahommedanism, in support of the expedition against the Turks proposed at that assembly. Some time before his death he had founded a hospital in his native place for thirty-three poor persons, the number being that of the years of the earthly life of Christ. To this institution he left his valuable library.
Although one of the great leaders in the reform movement of the 15th century, Nicholas of Cusa's interest for later times lies in his philosophical much more than in his political or ecclesiastical activity. As in religion he is entitled to be called one of the " Reformers before the Reformation," so in philosophy he was one of those who broke with scholasticism while it was still the orthodox system. In his principal work, De docta ignorantia (1440), supplemented by De conjecluris libri duo published in the same year, he maintains that all human knowledge is mere conjecture, and that man's wisdom is to recognize his ignorance. From scepticism he escapes by accepting the doctrine of the mystics that God can be apprehended by intuition (intuilio, speculatio) , an exalted state of the intellect in which all limitations disappear. God is the absolute maximum and also the absolute minimum, who can be neither greater nor less than He is, and who comprehends all that is or that can be (" deum esse omnia, ut non possit esse aliud quam est "). Cusanus thus laid himself open to the charge of pantheism, which did not fail to be brought against him in his own day. His chief philosophical doctrine was taken up and developed more than a hundred years later by Giordano Bruno, who calls him the divine Cusanus. In mathematical and physical science Cusanus was much in advance of his age. In a tract, Reparatio Calendarii, presented to the council of Basel, he proposed the reform of the calendar after a method resembling that adopted by Gregory. In his De Quadrature Circuli he professed to have solved the problem; and in his Conjectura de novissimis diebus he prophesied that the world would come to an end in 1734. Most noteworthy, however, in this connexion is the fact that he anticipated Copernicus by maintaining the theory of the rotation of the earth.
The works of Cusanus were published in a complete form by Henri Petrie (i vol. fol., Basel, 1565). See F. A. Scharpff's Der Kardinal und Bischof Nikolaus von Cusa als Reformator in Kirche, Reich, und Philos. des 75. Jahrhund. (Tubingen, 1871); J. M. Dux, Der deutsche Kard. Nicolaus von Cusa und die Kirche seiner Zeit (Regensburg, 1848); R. Falckenberg, Grundzuge d. Philos. d. Nikolaus Cusanus (Breslau, 1880) and Aufgabe und Wesen d. Erkenntniss bei Nikolaus von Kues (Breslau, 1880); T. Stumpf, Die politischen Ideen des Nikolaus von Cues (Cologne, 1865) ; M. Glossner, Nikolaus von Cusa und Marius "Nizolius als Vorldufer der neueren Philosophie (Miinster, 1891); F. Fiorentino, // Risorgimento filosofico nel quattro cento (Naples, 1885); Axel Herrlin, Studier i Nicolaus af Cues' Filosofi (Lund, 1892); H. Hoffding, Hist, of Mod. Phil. (Eng. trans., 1900), bk. i. chap. x. ; F. J. Clemens, Giordano Bruno und Nikolaus Cusanus (Bonn, 1847); R. Zimmermann, Der Card. Nikolaus Cusanus als Vorlaufer Leibnitzens (Vienna, 1852); J. Cbinger, Philosophie des Nikolaus Cusanus (Wiirzburg, 1881); art. by R. Schmid in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyk. s.v. "Cusanus"; see also MYSTICISM.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)