Person: Nicholas Of Cusa
Nicholas of Cusa was a German philosopher and bishop. He was interested in geometry and logic as well as in philosophy and astronomy.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Although this appears in ancient biographies of Nicholas, there is little evidence to support it.
- Certainly the Brothers of the Common Life, a Roman Catholic religious community founded by Gerard Groote in the 14th century, would have strongly influenced the young Nicholas with their mixture of mysticism and reason.
- The first certain information about Nicholas's education is in 1416 when he matriculated at the University of Heidelberg.
- In Heidelberg Nicholas studied liberal arts, particularly philosophy, for a year before going to the University of Padua in 1417.
- At Padua he studied canon law under Giuliano Cesarini, who was only three years older than Nicholas, having just completed his own doctorate in canon law at Padua.
- Toscanelli became an important mathematician and astronomer, remaining friends with Nicholas throughout his life.
- It was in Padua that Nicholas learnt about the latest developments in mathematics and astronomy and, twenty years later, Nicholas dedicated two of his mathematical works to Toscanelli.
- Nicholas graduated with a doctorate in canon law from Padua in 1423 and, after spending some time in Rome, he matriculated at the University of Cologne in the spring of 1425 to study divinity.
- Again friends would influence Nicholas strongly and, at Cologne, he became friends with Heimericus de Campo who introduced him to the ideas of Pseudo-Dionysius, Albertus Magnus and Ramon Llull.
- Cologne was part of the diocese of Trier and Otto of Ziegenhain, archbishop of Trier from 1418, supported Nicholas by providing him with an income from benefices at Coblenz, Oberwesel, Münstermaifeld, Dypurgh, St Wendel, and Liège.
- By September 1427 Nicholas was Otto of Ziegenhain's secretary but Otto, a strong advocate for Church reform, died in 1430 and there was a serious dispute over whom should replace him.
- Following Otto's death, Nicholas became secretary to Ulrich of Manderscheid, one of the electors at the assembly in Cologne who was favoured by the electors to replace Otto.
- Cesarini, Nicholas's former teacher, became president of the Council in September but the pope tried to dissolve the three months later.
- Nicholas put the case for Ulrich to the Council, arguing against the pope's right make the appointment of his candidate.
- Despite the Council being in dispute with the pope, Nicholas lost his case but he became an important member of the Council.
- This put Nicholas in a minority on the Council but, with the pope's agreement, he was part of a three-man delegation sent to Constantinople in 1437.
- The aim of the delegation was to set up a process leading to the eastern and western Churches reuniting and Nicholas achieved much during two months in Constantinople.
- In 1428 the University of Louvain had offered Nicholas its chair of canon law; he had declined.
- Nicholas took part in several missions to Germany as papal envoy between 1438 and 1448, in particular representing the pope at the Diets of Mainz (1441), Frankfort (1442), Nuremberg (1444), and Frankfort (1446).
- However, Eugenius IV died before the appointment became official so Nicholas had to wait till December 1448 when pope Nicholas V made him a cardinal.
- Nicholas's first published work was De docta ignorantia Ⓣ(On the doctrine of ignorance) which was published in 1440, a treatise whose ideas came to him on the return voyage from the 1437 mission to Constantinople.
- Like many learned men of his time, Nicholas also wrote on calendar reform but, despite his sensible suggestions about leap years, the Church did not implement his ideas.
- In his philosophical works Nicholas was particularly interested in the 'Theory of Knowledge', writing on this topic in works such as De conjecturis (1440-44) and Compendium (1464).
- Knowledge, Nicholas believed, is derived through the senses but understanding is an abstraction of diverse sensory images.
- Nicholas was imprisoned by Sigmund in 1460 and suffered ill-treatment from which his health never completely recovered.
- However, Nicholas's poor health deteriorated on the journey and he died in Todi in the presence of his friend Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli.
- What aspects of Nicholas of Cusa's thought are still pertinent today?
- His predilection for mathematics: instead of the principle of contradiction, which was the basis of Aristotelian philosophy, Nicholas of Cusa in fact preferred the Platonic articulation of dialectics and mathematics, by which one can imagine the infinity of God as a 'coincidence of opposites', another key notion in his philosophy.
Born 1401, Kues, Trier (now Germany). Died 11 August 1464, Todi, Papal States (now Italy).
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Tags relevant for this person:
Ancient Greek, Astronomy, Geometry, Origin Germany, Puzzles And Problems, Special Numbers And Numerals, Statistics
Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive